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Raid de Himalaya: Lunar escape
It was clear from the outset. This wasn't a race for the chicken-hearted. The 'polished' ones used to their luxury sedans on silky smooth city roads with no competition in the dead of night would be better off staying away - it was curtly conveyed in the drivers' briefing before the flag-off.
The Raid de Himalaya, masochistically known as 'Raid', is among the toughest rallies across the world. It is the ultimate test of skill and endurance of the man and his machine. Sub-zero temperatures, myriad terrains, roads that exist only in name, slush, fresh snow, black ice, hairpin bends, gushing streams and boulders - all greet you in a race that makes bravado disappear in a split second, leaving fear and misery and chilling numbness in the fainthearted. All that for a prize of just Rs 1 lakh.
"Dare-devilry will be in demand all through the rally, but showmanship won't last you long. . . " With these words, the 13th Raid de Himalaya rally was flagged off from Shimla on October 11. So, off to Manali were the motorheads with a din that woke up the peace-loving Shimla folks. Before they could rub off the sleep from their eyes, the motor fiends had long hurtled down to the banks of the Satluj near Tattapani in a jiffy. Then came the steep gradient on their way to Chhatri, from where the rally took another twist as it moved towards Jhanjheli village downhill for some off-road action in the Shivaliks. That done, everyone made the first halt at Manali safe and sound. No casualties yet.
Day Two saw the Raid moving from Manali to Leh, one of the most picturesque, and the trickiest stretches that tested drivers for 479 km (NH-21 ) in a full throttle in two special stages.
Three in the morning was no time. . . but engines revved up for the ride. First came Keylong, followed by Patseo. By the time the sun raised its head, Baralacha La (4, 883 m) made its first appearance. For some, it was the first brush with altitude sickness but it was the backaches and the chill running down spines that got on eveybody's nerves.
If one thinks of the bikers who treaded this arduous terrain in bone-chilling cold weather, the entire exercise seems outrageous. Austrian Helmut Frauwallner, riding a Husqvarna TE 449, described it as "a gasping experience".
The caravan crossed Sarchu and took their advanced hairpin test at Gata Loops, 21 spiralling bends that take you up from 4, 190 m to 4, 630 m. If slush, black ice and landslides on the way up failed to daunt anyone, a look downhill with a small rivulet winding its way through the rocky terrain would've certainly brought back the fear.
In between Lachlung La and Taglang La came in More plains. The straight path stretched for miles as cold, dry mountains stared from both sides with their characteristic disdain. The Raid and all its brave soldiers suddenly seemed like tiny specks in front of this vast panorama. Up above was the turquoise sky, and below, a fascinating rugged terrain. In the middle was the perpetual existential dilemma - how small a human is when compared to nature's majesty. With sunset, Pang was crossed and the caravan sneaked into Leh in the dead of the night.
Day Three revealed the scars of a preceding day. The vehicle toll was 15;but then, it was expected. The organisers had their 'We-told-you-so' faces on, but not even a squirm escaped the contestants' mouth. The drivers rushed from Leh to Rangdum via Kargil on Day Four. The transition from the Himalayan range into the Zanskar range was complete as the rally wound through the picturesque Suru valley. And then came the real test that raided everybody's senses.
Gone were the velvety meadows and verdant Wordsworthian ideas with cascades flowing down leisurely. Up ahead were barren rocky-mountains covered in red algae, making the landscape all the more surreal. The gravel and boulder track turned 'killer' with temperatures plunging to sub-zero levels in the final stages. The night at Rangdum was hardly any solace as service teams, along with harried drivers, tried out virtually everything in their toolboxes to keep the vehicles going.
As Day Five rose, a 'taxing' round was organised from Rangdum to Padung, and back to the camp at Rangdum. The night stay at Rangdum does give a bit of time for bonfire and an impromptu Rolling Stones and Bryan Adams gig, but that's the luxury competitors are in no mood to avail. Navigators' calculations kept changing from hour to hour and so did the penalty points of erring dos. There was no escaping the numbing cold.
Day Six gave a little time to cover up as the competitive stage was a smaller one of just 39 km on the way back to mesmerising Srinagar, where the rally concluded at the Royal Springs Golf Course on the banks of the Dal Lake.
Six-time winner Suresh Rana, a mechanic who runs an automobile workshop near Manali, says, "This rally is not about speed alone. It's equally important to survive six days and keep your vehicle alive and kicking. There are stretches where you need to guard your vehicle from the hazards and then there are others where you can go flat out. The key is to strike a balance. " Those who did not follow the brief found themselves stranded with broken machines and shattered dreams much before the halfway stage. Of the 42 four-wheelers and 32 bikes that were flagged off from Shimla, only 26 cars and 16 bikes made it in one piece - limping, wheezing after a six-day torture.
Taglang La 5, 325 m Lachulung La 5, 059m Baralacha La 4, 883 m Penzi La 4, 400 m Rohtang La 3, 978 m Zozila 3, 528 m
RAID DE HIMALAYA (OCT 9-17, 2011)
X-treme : 46 teams (4-wheelers ); (2-wheelers ): 35 Adventure Trial category: 76 teams
X-treme category: 1, Suresh Rana-Ashwin Naik, 2 Harpreet Bawa-Virender Kashyap, 3 Shakti Bajaj-Prakash. Adventure Category: Umesh Raheja-Yogesh Raheja Bikers Category: Helmut Frauwallner (Austria)
STRETCH: 2, 000 km (approx) over six legs in as many days.
Oct 11: Shimla to Manali - 294. 79 km Oct 12: Manali to Leh - 479 km Oct 13: Leh and surrounding areas Oct 14: Leh to Rangdum - 325. 85 km Oct 15: Rangdum and surroundings - 213. 83 km Oct 16: Rangdum to Srinagar - 325. 80 km
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