Strange tourists: A life in rally

Gaurav Gill in action during the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship in Chikkamagaluru. Picture credit: Vivek Phadnis/ DH Photo

"There were no animals or vegetation. It was high altitude. So just pure earth for miles and miles across 360 degrees," recalls Gaurav Gill, his voice betraying a multitude of emotions felt at that surreal sight.

India's premier rally driver was speaking of the time in 2016 when he got a puncture while driving through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, one of his many excursions rallying around the world.

"Later on, the cars came behind us, we had been the first one out. But for that few minutes, I don't know... I just felt alive.

Gaurav Gill. Picture credit: Srikanta Sharma R/ DH Photo

It's a feeling that often dawns on those who pick up rallying. A sport where high speeds and adrenaline meets the uncompromising, unpredictable and, sometimes, menacing side of nature.

They are often privy to a side of the world that often remains hidden, just beyond the realms of convenience. Forests, salt lakes, sand dunes, trenches, deserts, rocky mountains - every one a varying combination of vast and treacherous - are all just part and parcel of it all.

A beauty that is 'sometimes inevitable' as K P Aravind puts it.

"Nature is something that brings out certain feelings in you, like nostalgia. The Gobi Desert, it was a staggering view. Absolutely incredible, like a no man's land," Gill, the first Indian to win Asia-Pacific Rally Championship, remembers. He is a three-time APRC champion.

"It's strange because these places are so serene and beautiful that it’s hard to explain to others. Until you go there yourself and experience it, you won't know what it is."

He is well qualified to speak. After all he has driven amidst the Kangaroos at 200 Kmph in Australia, through the depths of uninhabited forests in Japan and even the 'roads that climb go for 80-100 feet down and then straight up' in Finland among others. As far as experiences go, and varied ones at that, these are as rare as they come.

Aravind, who rides for Sherco TVS Rally Factory and has participated in the Dakar Rally - the mother of all rallies - multiple times, is another.

"I am a lot more fortunate than most people in the world," says Aravind. "If not for the races I wouldn't get to see such places, how much ever support and money one has.

"Some of the landscapes are big dunes leading to the sea. In Morocco, its mountains with broken rocks and sand covered ones as well. It just looks like wallpaper on a computer."

"Most people, when they go to a country, they do touristy stuff," says C S Santosh, yet another big name in the two-wheeler rallies. "But as a rally driver, you see the contours of the real country. We get the pulse of the place, driving across the length of it. We see a lot but not see anything at all. We can't have conversations with other people about these places because what they see are not what we see."

C S Santosh. Picture credit: DH Photo

Strange tourist is the way the 35-year-old likes to call himself.

Having rallied throughout the globe, this multiple time national supercross champion moves on to the curse of it all. Yes, the scenery and ambiance is mind-boggling, but taking in the magnitude of what's in front of them is almost never an option.

"Let's take Argentina. It's beautiful with varying landscapes, hostile deserts and forests. You look and say 'wow'. I wish I could sit and drink tea there. But you have to keep moving so all you can do is try and take in the essence of it. It's difficult to enjoy it when your life is at stake," he says with a hint of a smile in his voice.

Gill, albeit in a four-wheeler, is on the same boat.

"I don't think I have ever admired any of the landscape I drove in. I am going there to do my job, which is to drive the car and win the event. It's a blessing and a curse but I think I would live with the blessing and worry about the curse part of it later," he says.

The solitude does add to the experience as well, especially in the case of Santosh and Aravind who ride hours on end through uncomfortable terrains for hundreds of kilometers - standing on the bike for most of it - with no one around. Gill admits there are few opportunities to chit-chat but having a navigator next to you can only be helpful, most certainly in the human side of things.

“It's about being self-aware," Santosh opens up about what goes through a rider's head. "You are by yourself for the whole day, riding. It’s humanly impossible to remain focused the whole time so you have to keep bringing yourself back because your mind wanders after a while."

There is also the thought of danger, lurking all around.

"There is always that wariness of danger that you carry along and that is the nature of the sport," Gill weighs in. "Sometimes it’s bright and sunny this side of the hill and once you go over it can be snowing. So, you have to have your skill set ready all the time. It starts and ends with you, in a sense, you are competing against yourself first, you have no one else to blame."

But it's all part of the thrill.

"When I was new to these kinds of terrains I was scared, there are many things that can go against you," says Aravind. "But we've been training to put ourselves in such situations and now there is a conscious level of reaction happening. It's no longer scary, you know what to do."

The Karnataka rider, who admits of an instance when he felt he would have been better off elsewhere than on the rally route, trains in France and Morocco among other places to make sure he is ready for the battle between man and wild.

But it's a fight they willingly accept, even embrace.

"It's definitely a blessing. I enjoy racing more than anything else and being in such places just is a bonus," believes Aravind.

All three are eager to share the same with their loved ones, just not while they are at breakneck speeds.

Aravind wants to take them to Morocco and Peru for 'a lifetime experience'. Gill, who harbours a dream of throwing away his phone and getting a house in the 'plain, pure, peaceful and calm' forests of Japan, wants to take his wife and family to 'all the places and sectors' he drove in.

Only this time, in a rental car. 

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