The charm of overlanding

Travelling across the mountainous terrains of Nagaland allows Santosh Ojha to conquer his fears. Here’s a glimpse into his unique ‘overlanding’ journey...

Overlanding in Nagaland. PHOTOS COURTESY: Milind Kale

It must have been in a moment of madness that I accepted an invite from a friend, Ravi, to join him on an extreme overlanding group expedition through Nagaland. A trip which the organisers had clearly labelled as level 3 or ‘extreme’ level. My motivations: I had enough spare time on my hands, and the idea of travelling in Nagaland sounded interesting. Like all people from the Indian plains, I had some hazy romantic notions of the Northeast. The experience was romantic indeed, but not quite the way I had envisaged it. It turned out to be long hours of drives on non-existent roads spanning over 10 days, nights at places where one felt blessed to get flowing water in the taps (if at all). And forging ahead on a Mahindra Thar — a very sturdy but not-so-comfortable vehicle, considering I have driven sedans all my driving life.

In good company

The trip organisers had some impressive credentials. Nidhi, a 30-something, tough-as-nails woman, was the first Indian to drive solo to the Pole of Cold — the coldest inhabited place on earth - and other such tough terrains. An enthusiast of extreme overlanding, as such seemingly maniacal trips are universally known as. Her business partner Satty, Col (retd) Satender Malik, had served over two decades in the Army with exhaustive experience in the Northeast.

We, a rag-tag group, ages ranging from 14 to 74, were handed over the Thar keys when we landed at the Dimapur Airport. We were led to the nearby Army mess for a quick lunch, a briefing, and distribution of the ‘kit’. The kit consisted of snacks, a multipurpose tool, a note pad with pen, a few empty boxes (to pack on-the-go lunches), and 20-litre can of Bisleri, pre-loaded into each Thar. And then we were off to Kohima, a journey of 80 km along NH 29.

What was to be a drive of two hours took more than twice the time, thanks to narrow stretches in most sections and the road widening work along various stretches. Just a gentle precursor of things to come.

A night’s rest at a boutique hotel in Kohima, and we were ready for a half-day training the following day on emergency medical rescue, and the understanding of the Thars better. Topics like air pressure, oil and water checks were discussed.

The drive from Kohima to Lake Shilloi, our first stop, was the longest I have ever done. The distance was just 280 km. But it took us over 16 hours. To add to the excitement, one of the Thars in our convoy lost its way in the darkness and it took some quick action by Nidhi who back-tracked and raced in the opposite direction to rescue the errant driver.

We were warned in advance that the accommodation in Lake Shilloi would be basic — Indian-style toilets, no water in taps — but what made it even more interesting was that the transformer in the area had blown a few days earlier and hence there was no electricity, too. Our host, local village chairman Asilo, was apologetic about it. But none of this prevented us from partying around a campfire under a starlit sky.

Driving through rivers
Driving through rivers

Where’s the road?

Lake Shilloi to Kiphire was to have been a short drive, but like many other segments expected to be short, this also turned out to be an over 10-hour drive for a distance of 50-60 km. Reason: non-existent roads, as well as an unplanned detour, thanks to the collapse of a bridge en route. Mid-morning, we had our first sighting of the Myanmar border just 10 km away. A late pre-packed lunch midway led to an evening stop at Moya village where our request to a villager for hot water and mugs to prepare tea with the tea bags and sugar we were carrying was cheerfully met. The lady who gave us water and cups even refused to accept any money for the same. Our tired group showed up well past sunset at Kiphire’s Tsatongse Memorial Guest House, by far the best place we would stay at during the trip.

Suitably rested, we headed to Tuensang, our next stop. We could take everything in our stride, or so we thought. And what followed was the most challenging day of the trip. Here’s how it started: soon after we left Kiphire, we discovered that along the way there were landslides, and hence we wouldn’t be able to take the pre-planned route. The alternate route chosen had its own challenges. We were warned by passers-by that there were rivers which we cannot cross. Nidhi decided to forge ahead since we had to reach Tuensang that night. And soon enough, we saw the first two of the several real challenges. In our path lay two waterways dug by the villagers.

The first one was U-shaped and not too wide. The decision was to build a two-track on this, width corresponding the Thar wheelbase, with locally available logs and planks. Lest these slide, these logs were ‘locked-in’ with stones. One of the team members was responsible for precision-guiding each Thar, and despite butterflies in our stomachs, each of us passed through this. I gingerly ventured forth to the next challenge, just a few metres away. This was a V-shaped trench where Nidhi decided against putting up tracks. We had to descend into the trench at a deep incline, rev up the engines, and climb up the trench to get on the other side. The near-vertical descent into the trench was a real stomach-churner.

We thought we had seen it all when the toughest obstacle presented itself. We were confronted by a mound right next to a river on its left with very little gap between the mound and the river. The plan was to ascend the mound slowly and the moment the front wheels reached the top of the mound, we were to take a steep left turn towards the river and align the Thar parallel to the river. A steeper left turn would get you right into the river. Which, sure enough, happened to the person following my Thar.

What followed was a display of leadership, technical expertise, and teamwork, all at once. The Thar was towed out and the team technician went to work on it immediately. Eventually, the broken Thar was up and running, and we were on our way again. Then we had to cross a couple of fast-flowing rivers, which did not cause a sweat as we had got accustomed to obstacles by now. Thanks to this ‘steeplechase’ run through the day, we could check into a hotel in Tuensang only very late in the night. The drive from Tuensang to Mon was relatively easy and the one highlight of the journey was the way our team members took over the road-side eatery ‘Rice Hotel’, Changkhong, and cooked a meal for the group!

Overlanding
Overlanding

Tryst with the tribe

The following day, we drove to the Konyak region. Konyaks are the largest and fiercest tribes of Nagaland. Till a few decades ago, they were head-hunters, each head hunted would be marked by a tattoo on their faces. Konyaks are spread over Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and even Myanmar. The Angh is their chief and we were at the Longwa village to meet Angh Tonyei Phawang. He welcomed us and posed for photos.

The Angh’s house is bang on the India-Myanmar border. The gate of his house straddles the border and the gate posts say Nagaland/India and Sagaing/Myanmar. The verandah of his house was full of ladies selling their wares while village children milled around enjoying the hustle and bustle of tourists.

After bidding goodbye to Longwa village, we were on our way back to Mon, when we were stopped by Army men wanting to see our ‘inner line permits’. They were respectful, and even gave us a feel of the SLRs and AK47s they were armed with.

The following morning was departure to Dibrugarh where our journey was to end. The transition from Nagaland to Assam was stark with tea gardens stretching for miles on end in Assam. Our Thar ride ended at the airport. We had travelled a total of 966 km!

Was this trip easy? Certainly not! Will I do similar trips again? Most definitely!

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