"RAID-de-HIMALAYA" is a motorsport event that is conducted on the rugged & rowdy roads of the Himalayas, stretching through Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir region, at high altitudes of upto 6000 meters from sea level. This is the toughest car rally in the country & also the only Indian event to be featured on the calendars of the Federation of Internationale De'LAutomobile.
The rally passes through some of world's highest and toughest motorable roads and mountain passes in the Himalayas, such as Kunzum La, Baralacha La, Nakee La, Rohtang Pass, and Jalori Pass. It doesn't only tests the durability of your vehicle, but it is also an extreme test of the participant's mental & physical endurance. Men and machines compete for one whole week (which seems like never ending once you are there), but the other teams are not the only competitors. You have to contend with the hostile terrain and inclement weather which is always ready to surprise you.
Let me tell you beforehand that this event is strictly for adrenaline junkies. I consider myself really lucky to even get a chance to be a part of this iconic event. I participated in Raid-de-Himalaya in Oct'2014, in its 16th chapter. Each participant team has 2 members, a driver and a navigator. My partner was, one of my seniors & a very close friend, Saurabh Sir.
The rally has multiple stages (called as 'Legs'). We started the rally from Shimla going towards Manali via the Jalori Pass. This pass is not as high as the other ones en-route, but definitely one of the worst terrains to drive on. The climb to Jalori pass is very steep & the bad condition of the road, loose gravels, mud, makes it really difficult for the vehicle to climb even in the first gear. Also, not to forget the dangerous & blind curves. But even after you've reached the top, the road ahead doesn't make it any easier. Now the road goes down, again with similar slope & poor conditions of the road. While travelling down, you need to keep checking your brakes, since its a long stretch and the brakes might stop working because they get overheated. We were glad that we reached Manali safely. The first leg of the rally itself makes you feel the gravity, of what awaits ahead.
Day 2 (or Leg 2) of the rally started from Manali, on the Manali-Leh highway. As soon as we started, we got stuck in a traffic jam just outside Manali which delayed us quite a bit. We were headed towards Tabo via Kaza. We had heard that the Leg-2 of the rally was considered to be the toughest. There were pretty high chances of vehicle breakdown & us getting kicked out of the rally. What we heard wasn't wrong. We crossed through Rohtang Pass before taking a right turn from Chhattru towards the road to Kaza. The roads afterward were non-existent. In fact, a long stretch of our route was on the riverbeds of Chandra river, since the actual roads have collapsed in the region. There are a lot of water streams on this road, the most infamous one is known as 'Pagal Naalah'. But somehow, we got lucky since it didn't have the usual water flow, which would have been a really tough to cross. Moving ahead, those grinding roads led us to Kunzum La, which is situated at 14,000 ft. Roads at the pass are completely broken which adds up to the steep inclination. But, the views all around were as breathtaking as the altitude itself. After stopping there for a bit, we raced our way to Kaza since we were already pretty late.
Leg 3 was the Tabo circuit. The day's competitive run was only 150 KMS, mainly over the dirt trails, but through some of the untouched civilizations & most amazing scenery of the Spiti Valley. It was a relatively easier day, but still, somehow we managed to get us an adrenaline shot. While driving on the dirt trails on a hill we were moving a bit faster than we should have been, when suddenly there was a U-bend. In hurry, the vehicle got over steered and the tyres slipped off the road. The trunk of our SX4 was in the air over the edge.
Leg 4 started from Tabo towards Keylong. Till Chattru, we had to trace to same path that we followed to Tabo, i.e. we had to cross through Kunzum La & the Pagal Naalah once again, which made us a bit nervous. If that wasn't enough, there was a heavy snowfall at Kunzum La. A couple of days back, there wasn't even a flake of snow but now all the mountains, roads were covered in snow. We somehow reached top of the pass, only to know that the day's competitive run has been cancelled by the officials, due to the zero visibility & poor road grip over black ice on the roads. So, we took our sweet time to enjoy the fresh snow at the Kunzum temple since we had no hurry to reach our destination now. While on our way to Keylong, there was a road blockage due to which most of the vehicles were stuck. When the block was cleared out, it was already dark. And all the rally vehicles drove one after another with the lights on, as fast as possible. It was superb & felt like a chase sequence straight out of a 'Bond' movie :P
Leg 5 was the Keylong circuit. We started from Manali & rallied further ahead on Leh-Manali highway till Sarchu, the longest stretch of the event. This leg had a relatively longer stretch of tarmac road, and it was long drawn out in a straight line. The road & the mountains seemed to be passing by in time lapse, simply stunning. Afterwards, we crossed through Baralacha La, yet another high mountain pass at 16,000 ft. Once we passed through, we were just beginning to think that the adventure was over for the day, when we reached the 'Gata Loops'. This is series of 21 hair pin bends on Leh-Manali highway, which leads to Nakee La, another mountain pass at close to 16,000 ft. Believe me, these bends are mind boggling and you need to keep extreme caution while driving here. After the last check point, we turned back to head towards Keylong.
Leg 6, last day of the rally from Keylong back to Manali. By now, one would think that after the struggle for last 5 days, the last day would be smooth. But, the rally is not designed that way. From Keylong, we went on the road to Kaza, over Chandra's riverbeds, yet again crossing the Pagal Naalah before turning back to hit the Leh-Manali highway. It's like, it was a way of wishing good bye on the last day :) We got back to Manali with our ride in one whole piece.
I never really went into the rally thinking that I'd win. Me & my partner only had one goal, to stay till the end & finish the rally, which itself is a big achievement for someone who has never participated before. And, we did. We didn't even have so much as a flat tire throughout the journey.
Every other day we were driving on a different road, we had new obstacles in front of us. At the same time, the Himalayas greeted us with its exquisite landscape. It was an experience of a lifetime. We tested ourselves, our driving skills, our patience and I was glad that we passed. It still thrills me to look back at those moments, and that's why I am gonna do it again!!!