It is not a good morning. Three out of seven crew members are down with some form of sickness thanks to the miserable weather at Sarchu, and having tossed and turned in their tents all night, the rest aren’t too pleased to be awake at 6am either. Today, we’re driving to Leh on the penultimate leg of this drive, and it is likely to be the most challenging one of them all.
And barely 10km after we’ve set off, we’re faced with quite a task. It’s a rock crawl with flowing water down a steep slope near the Kashmir border, which we have to take at single digit speeds, our wheels placed carefully around the standing rocks. Sat high up in the cabins of the Audi SUVs, we see a couple of motorcycles stumble and fall over in an attempt to make it across, which really makes you wonder – how do people manage to do this drive in small hatchbacks and family cars without really expensive repair bills?
Today, I’m at the wheel of the Q7 4.2 TDI, and while that’s great news if you want to take seven people across rough terrain in supreme comfort (thank you, air suspension), it’s probably not the ideal car for tackling a series of hairpins going up a mountain face, right? Not quite. See, what it loses thanks to its massive size, it makes up for with that 4.2-litre nuke under its bonnet. With 335bhp and 77.5kgm going to all four wheels via Quattro, this is pretty much a V8 muscle car. Bring on the Gata Loops – a coiled-up stretch of road with 21 hairpin bends that take you up over 400m in elevation. Q7 suspension into Dynamic mode, eight-speed autobox into Sport and off we go on a torrent of torque. The Q5 ahead of me is setting a good pace, and it’s fun knocking up and down the gears with the steering paddles as we carve up the corners. It’s over all too soon.
Hours and hours on the road, but the numbers on the milestones we drive past hardly seem to change; it’s as if the distances were measured as the crow flies, rather than by the actual road length. That’s because the changing terrain and the mountain climbs constantly slow our pace, and we’re not really covering much ground in a hurry. Then we get to the More (pronounced ‘Moray’) plains, and all that changes. It’s a more or less straight road for 40km, and while it may have been a rutted mess some years ago, a lot of it is beautifully paved now.
There’s more great driving roads around the Pang pass too, albeit not all of them are fully finished yet, and because the weather is so good, we really get to revel in them. And of course, there is wild scenery like you can’t imagine. In fact, it’s only as we’re pulling into Leh that a sense of civilisation starts to re-appear. Our mobile phones come back to life, there are proper stores around, and the marketplace is overflowing with people. Now all we have left is to make the final climb to Khardung La tomorrow.