Call of the open road

Trip tales: Of the innumerable ways to explore and understand the world, taking the tarmac across continents sure has its uniqueness.

Call of the open road

Had they not listened to their hearts and doggedly followed their dreams, a part of them would have always remained unfulfilled. Had they not packed their bags, and driven away, to explore the unknown, down the road less travelled, they would never have known their limits and would’ve never discovered some of the ultimate road trips around the world.

Any other way of feeding their sense of wanderlust would have perhaps paled in comparison. Sunday Herald spoke to expedition specialists and long-distance travellers who give us the lowdown on what it takes to go on trans-continental road journeys.

Roadies at heart

There are those who dream of travelling the world, and then there are some who go ahead and make it happen. Tushar Agarwal and Sanjay Madan were the first Indians to undertake a world trip in their Toyota Fortuner, covering 90,000 km across six continents and 50 countries. And this, they insisted on doing the old fashioned way. By reading road maps and signages, and of course, rolling down the window and asking for directions. “We didn’t use a GPS simply because we wanted to interact with more people and open ourselves to more local experiences along the way,” explains Madan, who gave up a successful business in medicine to partner with Agarwal, a software engineer from London.  
A chance meeting is what brought them together after they both featured in the Limca Book of Records — Madan for driving in a Tata Nano to Khardung La Pass, one of the highest motorable roads in the world, and Agarwal for having driven from London to Delhi. They realised that they got along like a house on fire, and together decided to go on ‘The Great Indian World Trip’ in 2013.  

A trip that saw them travel through continents and cultures — discovering people, places, languages, food and fun. Right from climbing on top of a pagoda to enjoy the view in Myanmar to trying out kangaroo meat in Australia, from catching the wildebeest migration in Africa to dancing the tango on the streets of Argentina, from witnessing the spectacular northern lights in Alaska, to wearing a kilt in Scotland. Madan and Agarwal have documented all of this and more, in the form of a book and a TV series, with the help of Prasad Deshpande, a filmmaker and dear friend, who travelled with them on the 15-month long journey. The duo also created a Guinness World Record for the longest journey in a foreign country, where they drove 17,107 km in Australia alone.

Similarly, Nidhi Tiwari, who always wanted to be an ‘adventurer’ for as long as she can remember, made it to the Limca Book of Records for being the first Indian woman to drive from Delhi to London in 2015. A year later, she took things a step further when she embarked on a solo trip to Siberia. A feat no other Indian has attempted, though, for Tiwari, who is an outdoor educator, and someone specialising in off-the-road jeeping as well as long-distance and high-altitude driving, this was just another way of pushing boundaries and continuously testing herself.

She drove 5,080 km in 14 days from Yakutsk, the world’s coldest major city, to Magadan and back, on one of the most dangerous roads in the world, the Kolyma highway, also called the Road of Bones. Taking classroom education to a different level, she even kept in touch with 15 Indian schools that had signed up for an educational expedition, where she sent them photos and videos, apart from holding Skype conversations with the students about her experiences on the road.

While some choose to go solo and the others with friends, there are also those who travel with family. Like Punita and Anand Baid, who decided to travel from Bengaluru to Paris with Yash and Dhriti, their two kids. Team L.I.F.E. or the Little Indian Family of Explorers, as they have named themselves, covered 11 countries in 111 days, clocking 22,800 km in their Fiat Linea.

They drove past the Himalayas in Tibet, climbed sand dunes as high as mountains in Western China, visited the world’s largest burning crater in Turkmenistan, and swam in the Caspian Sea, amongst other exciting experiences.

Though, as team L.I.F.E. and all the other explorers would agree, journeys of such magnitude often entail a host of challenges, and are fraught with many difficulties. Route planning, visas, insurance, overland permits, logistics — in short, there’s mounds of paperwork involved. Once you’re on the road, other challenges turn up — like car breakdowns, language barriers, and very importantly, finding vegetarian food, to name a few. However, scoring sponsors and funding for the trip always seem to top the list.

Challenges aplenty

“The world trip was almost an impossible one to pull off. We never had enough funds and finding sponsors was difficult,” says Agarwal. “There was a time in Australia when we had just about enough money to either put fuel in the car or buy food. So for one week we lived on bread, butter and jam,” he recalls.

Tiwari too found out the hard way that sponsors were not easy to come by, “mainly because of the stereotypes associated with women and driving, and also because I wanted to drive solo,” she reveals. Funding aside, she faced her real challenge when it came to driving through the Siberian wilderness in her Toyota Land Cruiser on long, empty stretches of roads that are built on permafrost with temperatures falling to -50C or lower. It certainly wasn’t a drive for the faint-hearted. She passed through towns where people barely spoke English, surviving mostly on meat — mainly horse, caribou, fish and beef, both raw and frozen. Calling it the toughest expedition of her life, Tiwari says, “Siberia was extreme from the word go and I had to continuously work on myself to keep moving on. It was only post the expedition that I got a chance to process and think about what was nice about the trip.”

For the Baids, however, the scariest was when they got stuck at the Nepal-China border during the Nepal earthquake. “We had to sleep in our car for five nights due to broken roads and constant aftershocks which led to rocks and boulders falling from above,” recalls Punita.

But the one person who probably had it the hardest is Bharulata Kamble, a British national of Indian origin and a lawyer by profession, who undertook a solo expedition in her BMW X3 from UK to India last year via the Arctic Circle to fulfill a long-standing dream — of driving to India, spreading awareness on educating the girl child.

Her journey is especially inspiring because she undertook it after recovering from a serious car accident and a long bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. For someone who loved driving, Kamble was even terrified of stepping into a car. It took her four-and-a-half years to recover, and a few more to get behind the wheel again. Recalling her experience, she says, “My recovery was a slow and painful journey, but I wanted to fight the anxiety and be the hero of my own life.”

She drove with a back support and popped painkillers whenever required, covering 35,383 km across 32 countries in 57 days. Her grit and determination has seen her become the first woman in the world to complete the Arctic Circle expedition.

Kamble’s trip was entirely self-funded, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all do road trips, and get paid for it? Wouldn’t it be your dream job?

Turning  passion into a profession Rishad Saam Mehta, a Mumbai-based travel writer, author and photographer, is living that dream. A seasoned traveller, Mehta is a fine example for anyone wanting to make a career out of travelling, mostly road trips and writing. He attributes his love for travel to all the trips taken with his family as a child, and his penchant for ‘storytelling’ that has seen him contribute to major publications and dailies in the country.

Speaking about his stint with a leading automotive magazine, Autocar India, he says, “For eight years, I worked as their travel correspondent and that made me really proficient in road travel in India and across the world.” Since then, Mehta has been invited by tourism departments of various countries to explore self-drive routes and holidays. As for his longest road trip, from Munich to Mumbai, it came as an assignment to test-drive the Audi Q7 and write about the experience. An assignment most of us would willingly give an arm and a leg for!

The trip saw him cover over 20,206 km across nine countries in 58 days without any breakdowns — not even a single flat tire. His most memorable moments “were to take a photograph of me with my Maharashtra-registered car in front of world landmarks like the astronomical clock in Prague, St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Great Wall in China, India Gate in Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra and VT Station in Mumbai.” Mehta is also an avid biker, has written two books on his travels across the country, and is associated with a company called MotoRover in Pune, which takes people on self-ride motorcycling trips to unusual destinations like Kyrgyzstan.

Similarly, Madan and Agarwal have set up Adventures Overland, a cross-country expedition company, in Gurgaon. Even as you are reading this, they are gearing up for a self-drive road trip with a convoy of 14 cars, where they are taking a group of people from Delhi to London, including a 72 year-old man and his nine-year-old granddaughter.

As for Tiwari, setting up Women Beyond Boundaries (WBB) came as a natural extension of her thoughts, for she believes that “mobility is critical for a woman to feel empowered.” WBB conducts training courses in extreme overland driving for both men and women. Currently they have planned an expedition to Spiti in April to practice extreme driving skills in the rugged Himalayan terrain. Based in Bengaluru, the Baids too have set up Overland Stories to share their personal experiences from their trip to Paris. They also offer private consultations for those interested in undertaking similar expeditions. Anand, especially advises parents “to travel with their children often and for as long as possible. It will undoubtedly remain your best parenting decision,” he says.

Life lessons learnt

No journey is complete without us having learnt some valuable life lessons on the way. As for our road-trippers, everyone unanimously agrees that the world is not such a bad place after all. Kamble’s good experiences with the locals in Russia and China made her realise that most issues stem out of political differences between countries. The Baids wholeheartedly agree with her, recalling the incident when the Chinese army provided them with food and other essentials during the Nepal earthquake.

Agarwal adds, “People went out of their way to arrange food, fuel and accommodation for us. If we had enough funds from the beginning, our world trip wouldn’t have been so special.” As for Madan, he urges everyone to always try the regional cuisine, for he believes that, “Food is the easiest way to connect with people and it helps you forge friendships for life.”

Travel not only helps us appreciate and learn from another culture, but it also teaches us to stop rushing through life, learn to live in the moment, and be one with nature. As Anand puts it, “The world is beyond beautiful, and no amount of HD and high-tech imagery can replace the oneness of being with nature, and in it.” Mehta adds, “In a world where everything comes to us electronically, or is home-delivered, it is all the more important to include adventure in our lives. It makes for a life better lived.”

So, for those of you who’ve been longing for that road trip, do so now. It doesn’t matter how far you go, for when you look back, all that will seem to matter is — that you did.

Bon Voyage!

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