If you are a driving enthusiast and have a nice set of four wheels, how does a few days of pure driving pleasure sound? There can be only one answer – HEAVENLY!
Last week I got a nice opportunity for such a drive across the Great Indian Thar Desert in a convoy. Driving cross country in a convoy gives you a safety net in case you get struck and also offers further enjoyment as you observe other getting struck or struggle with difficult terrain. I was lucky to be part of the Petronas Expedition 2007 while it cut across a wide swath of Rajasthan desert from Jaipur to Khimser to Jaisalmer to Bikaner and finally ending in New Delhi. For most part the drive was on excellent road network that joins various town of Rajasthan and being tourist oriented state the roads are kept in superbly good condition.
However icing on the cake were the few off-road sections that were set as challenge to the expedition. First of these was the Sambhar Lake bed situated about 120 kilometres from Jaipur. Normally a flat salt pan that remains dry most of the time and even when water flows in it is absorbed very fast. However the “lake” turn to quagmire with little bit of rain and here we were attempting a crossing in middle of Indian monsoon season.
The first section was of eight kilometres length and straight as an arrows flight. With all the horsepower on command in an cross country four wheel drive vehicle, and on specially fitted off-road tyres, the drivers were still left jittery. Justifiably so since as soon as the vehicles hit the lake bed they were slithering and sliding any which way. Covering no more than two kilometres seven of the twenty four cars got struck in mud and the whole convoy stood back till strategy to extricate these was worked out.
The first eight kilometres took three hours to get through. Once the vehicles were free of the mud it was pure thrill driving over a flat pan with speedo needle going beyond 120kmph! It looks all too easy till you hit a bump or series of undulation which give you a scare considering the velocity. Midway through the lake bed there is a ancient temple dedicated to “Shakhambari Mata” and is a pilgrimage point for local people. This provided and ideal rest point and allowed for a quick check on the vehicles. The picture shows a driver looking disgustedly at all the mud that covered his vehicle, even the roof.
The second portion of lake bed was equally interesting and gave quite a few of thrills. After the lake bed the track climbed a rocky hill with a steep incline and through a narrow defile, dubbed the “Dead Camel pass” in honour of a dead camel carcass rotting away here giving a horrible stench forcing every one to hold their breaths till turning blue in the face! Getting to a sandy river bed beyond the pass the power of four wheel drive shone through as all the vehicles made short work of this to hit the highway on the other side. All drivers heaved a sigh of satisfied relief on reaching the tarmac ribbon that was to take us to Khimser Fort, a heritage hotel, for a night five star luxury. Swapping stories of the day while reviewing pictures and raising cheers of drinks made all forget the body aches.
Starting after breakfast next day for a nice drive on NHAI built toll road lead us to Deechu from where we had planned a long cross country section of more than 120 kilometres leading to fabled city of Jaisalmer. Off road drive through sand dunes and barren rock surfaces meant a slow drive. There were two smaller salt pans to be crossed and these were also slushy. While no one got struck it was still a thrilling experience with wheels sinking in more than one third in to the soft surface.
Lunch was had on the run in middle of nowhere and comprised of tinned food and bread with company of a herd of sheep as is seen in the picture above. A big thrill of the day was to see a large herd of “Chinkara” gracefully running across the endless sand.Sam, about 50 kilometres beyond Jaisalmer, was the location of night halt. Here we were to camp out in open under the sky. The location of camp was next to the sand dunes and as soon as the sun went down the horizon the cool breeze sprung up which continued through the night. In fact it became positively chilly towards the morning.
Starry sky was a sight to behold and it left me wondering why we do not see such beautiful sight in Delhi. A fireside dinner was followed by a interesting vistor – a desert viper! After the excitement had died down every one fell asleep and one could hear melody of snores. Morning “functions” were all done in the open while keeping a sharp lookout for the cousins of the visitor from previous night!An obligatory visit to the Jaisalmer fort in the morning followed by a lovely drive on the national highway to Bikaner did not stress any one. Arriving well in time at Gajner Hunting Lodge every one spent time boating across the lake till lovely sun set. That night’s catch up of
shared experiences of last three days over dinner and drinks had a sense of urgency as this was the last night out and we were headed towards Delhi in the morning. Outdoor dinner by lakeside was accompanied by dance and music by local performers which drew loud appreciation from everyone.