We call this one ‘balls-in-mouth’,” quips Manish, our instructor for this course in off-roading. But it’s hard to find the humour in it while rubbernecking down a near-vertical drop from the back seat of a packed Thar. This despite the fact that I know the Thar is literally in safe hands, thanks to Manish’s opening line for the theory session, “Off-roading is about getting from point A to B in not the fastest, but the safest way possible.”
I am at Mahindra Adventure’s new Trail Survivor training programme, held over a day and a half at their bespoke 28-acre off-roading course in Igatpuri. It’s designed to teach you everything that is essential in the art of driving through rugged terrain. Also included in the package is your stay at the Mystic Valley Resort and Spa and, of course, use of the cars.
Above: The spotter's job is to guide your front wheels.
Here, our motley batch of 10 begins with a classroom session at the resort itself. It includes lectures on the dos and don’ts of off-roading, followed by technical explanations on differentials and hubs, which I honestly think is much better explained than what my engineering professors managed. After familiarising ourselves with words such as ‘crawling’ and ‘crow-hopping’, we set off for the practicals. It’s early evening and a cavalcade of seven raw-looking Thars commandeered by animated folk make for quite a sight in an otherwise unassuming stretch of road. Thorough security checks at the entrance of Mahindra’s facility and we’re there – end of tarmac.
From the first obstacle itself – a few well-placed, large potholes – it’s evident that real off-roading isn’t as dramatic as you may have imagined. A quick tip here: forget the YouTube stuff. The key is to go as slowly as possible and tap on the throttle only when required. Slotting the 4WD selector in 4L (low ratio) gives the Thar enough torque to pull you up decently steep inclines in idling revs – this is ‘crawling’ in off-road speak. The ratios go so low that the ratio in first gear is approximately equivalent to that in the third gear in 4L!
Above: Off-roading 101- theory before the practicals.
Next up is an ascending and descending u-turn, where we start applying our newly acquired skills. Engage first, release clutch and start ascending while dodging any large undulations you may encounter, no throttle required. Carefully turn around a sharply banked turn and descend. Simple enough, we think. But the next day is when our pluck is thoroughly tested.
Day two, 8.30am. Armed with more confidence and familiarity with the Thar’s idiosyncrasies, we’re ready for the next six hours of dirty driving. Soon after, we’re staring up the start of the obstacle Mahindra calls ‘Sarpanch’. It’s a steep upward climb with a good mix of loose mud and smoothly polished rocks (bad for traction) that ends with a sharp left at the apex. Not very daunted, I engage first, let go of the clutch and start crawling upwards. Nearing the end, I begin to gloat over how easy that was. And then the Thar stops moving forward.
Above: "Look ma, no driver!" Crawling needs no gas.
Why do I have no traction? I haven’t hit the gas pedal to spin the wheels, so what could be wrong? I hear Manish instruct, “You need more momentum! Reverse a bit and climb up faster.” I follow his advice, and the Thar, although scrambling for traction, easily lunges its way through the same gradient. The trick is to go as slowly as possible but as quickly as required. This new ‘lesson’ helps me immensely over the next few obstacle courses, especially the ‘Blind Zone’. This aptly named course is where you see just the sky as you ascend up a steep pass made of loosely packed mud. The cleverly designed tracks leave you with no choice but to follow an intelligent line that provides for an adequate amount of traction for at least two of the wheels. Manish instructs, “The key is to place the front wheels correctly. The rear will follow.”
Above: The 'axle-twister' teaches you to dirive on a thine ridge.
The ‘Slush Pit’ is unanimously the most fun section in the whole arena and it’s exactly what you’re imagining it to be. We all go gung-ho in two-wheel-drive mode with lots of dramatic wheel-spinning and mud-flinging action churning up the slush pit, with the Thar happily playing the part of a diesel-powered blender. Sadly though, many action-packed pictures later, time runs out.
Above: The key is to mantain the momentum to avoid getting stuck.
Post the exciting weekend, I have a newfound reverence for off-roaders and the sport as a whole. It is as much an exact science as any other form of motorsport out there. Igatpuri is known for its meditation centres, but I’d say go there and try this. The feel of a 4WD car crawling over rocks or wrecking muddy havoc in the slush can be very spiritually satisfying.