Maruti Suzuki has been hosting the Desert Storm in the Thar for 16 years now. Growing up, I used to read about it and other events like the Raid de Himalaya and Dakshin Dare, and had always wanted to be where the action was. And this is why I was quite excited with the opportunity to cover the 16th edition of this action-packed desert rally.
The media briefing at the Mosaic Hotel in Noida was, well, brief but informative enough. After which we walked nearby to one of India’s largest malls, The Great Indian Place (GIP), where the flag-off was scheduled. This monstrosity spreads out over 9,47,000 sq ft!
The horde of modded and well-prepped vehicles on display would have delighted any rally fan. Maruti’s Gypsy was definitely in strong attendance, made as it is for the rough stuff. Also present were some Grand Vitaras and a few Isuzu D-Maxes; but the detailing of a rare rally-prepped Evoque and a Wrangler is what caught my eye, with the Evoque sporting red alloys, a roof-mounted air intake and the Wrangler looking racy in a unique shade of red. A murdered-out i20 also made the hot-hatch-fanboy in me jump with joy, though it wasn’t taking part in the event.
The air filled up with the melody of engines as each vehicle was flagged off, after which we headed to our assigned cabs and were off to Bikaner on a rather long nine-hour journey. Fortunately, the hotel we were set up in was good and we had a bit of a lie-in, as the first stage was scheduled to begin in the late afternoon, somewhere in the heart of the Thar Desert.
Speaking to one of my cab-mates on the way to the first stage, he mentioned that the first few legs of the rally are always more difficult so as to thin out the number of competitors; and the first stages certainly looked daunting enough to me.
My own youthful (and nearly disastrous) experiences driving through sand made me realise just how much of a challenge each stage would be, not to mention the dreaded night stages. It took a bit of meandering through the desert to find a vantage point near the track to get the best view.
And what a view it was! The near deafening silence of the Thar, the spectacular hues of orange, pink and red thrown out by the setting sun, it’s not something you experience every day. Though a wordsmith, I fell at a loss for words. The temperature dropped pretty quickly though (this had serious repercussions later), and not a single car had passed by yet.
As dusk settled, I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see any of the cars coming past (remember, it’s pitch dark in the desert). However, identifying each one by the sound was enjoyable, especially when someone called a Gypsy a Thar (the SUV, not the desert) by mistake. Watching the unpolluted night sky, with more stars than I had seen in a very long time, was a pleasant pass time while waiting for the next car to come by.
The next few days of following the rally route around Bikaner and Jaisalmer highlighted one major fact – the roads around Rajasthan are downright brilliant by Indian standards, and can even be considered good by international ones. Most of the roads in the area are maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) for the defence of the nation, which explains their excellent condition even through extreme heat and cold.
Speaking of which, the rapid change in temperature from day to night really did a number on my throat. My already troubled tonsils finally gave up the ghost and, just like favourites CS Santosh and Suresh Rana, I couldn’t attend Leg 4 of the rally. I spent the day sequestered in my room, battling a fever. That night at dinner, while I grudgingly sipped hot soup, I had to quietly look on as my peers went on their own ‘Dessert Storm’.
My fellow media folks nicknamed me Sachin on the last day of the rally for the high-pitched squeal that came out of my throat, rather than my normal voice. The presentation ceremony at the end felt longer than it should have (due to my condition), and I couldn’t enjoy Rajasthan’s speciality, the famous Laal Maas (a spicy mutton curry), properly before crashing in the hotel room.
Our return flight to Mumbai took off from Jodhpur, a five-hour drive from Jaisalmer, during which I had the time to reflect on the past week. Putting aside the thrill of covering the 2018 Desert Storm, I have to say the desert left me spellbound. Though I may not want to settle there, the experience has prompted me to take a vow – I shall return to drive those desert roads.