Tarmac, the word we all love when it comes to driving on an open road. The thrill of speed on the long flat straights, the tensed grip on the steering wheel as you take that sharp corner and the slight smile on your face when you successfully correct your drifting car to the right direction, are just a few exhilarating feelings when experiencing an exceptionally well paved road.
Now imagine no road. Rolling hills, free flowing rivers, soggy red mud, green fields, rocks, mounds and ditches. Could this be a playground worthy enough to put a smile on your face?
Situated about two hours from Mumbai is a 28-acre facility that belongs to Mahindra Adventure’s – Mahindra Off-Road Training Academy. Amidst the table land of Igatpuri is a natural playground for die hard “off-roading” and “mudding” fans. Right after the monsoons, this dry land gets transformed into a lush green, slippery terrain. This adds to the thrill of the off-road experience.
Since most of you are motoring enthusiasts, you know what off-roading is, but for those who don’t, it’s not just getting off the tarmac and driving on a dirt road or through a field, maybe crossing a small hill and going through the occasional puddle. No, it is none of that. It is about conquering the terrain, taking a route from point A to point B and making it through every obstacle in the way, be it slush, water, a rocky crag or mogul mounds. To top it all of, two important factors are having a vehicle and a driver, both capable of taking a beating and getting you to the end in one piece.
One such vehicle is Mahindra’s Thar. Named after India’s most formidable desert, the Thar is based on the old school jeep styling and is an extremely capable compact SUV when it comes to making your own road.
The vehicles provided by the Mahindra Off-Road Training Academy are mechanically identical Thar CRDe variants with a selectable 4X4 high and low ratio transfer case. Accessorized with winches, jacks and Maxxis BigHorn tires these Thars look ominous, ready to get the job done.
Turn on the ignition and the Thar returns the favour with a rumble that is distinct. With the Devil’s fuel flowing through its veins the Thar is ready to take on anything that stands in its way. Press in the clutch and move the lever into the 4L position on the transfer case. Gear ratios change making the Thar a torque machine capable of crawling up any terrain.
Mahindra has used the natural contouring of the land and slightly modified the 28-acre property into a challenging circuit. The first challenge called, “The Blind Zone” is a timed obstacle course that puts the car and the driver through a series of tests. Ideally we all know the car can make it through all the tests, it al boggles down to the driver’s skill and precision when it comes to off-road driving.
As you start wading through the water, the first obstacle on the course, you can feel the waves and ripples bashing against the floor of the Thar as it slowly makes it’s way through the river towards the next obstacle, a steep muddy and rocky incline. The ease at which this SUV moves over the terrain is inconceivable. You have to see it with your own eyes.
Everything is so analog and manual. The grinding of the gears, the sound the clutch makes on being engaged, the grunt of the engine and the heaving of the air intake as you stress the car through the rugged natural out crop. The driver’s input is equally necessary and taxing. Working the gears, holding the throttle constant and maneuvering the car correctly, all play an important role in getting the vehicle across the course.
You feel the heat from the engine, your crash helmet sits snug on your head and your seatbelt across your chest, preventing you from falling out of the vehicle, as sweat runs down your brow and neck, you are giving your 100% concentration to getting the vehicle across the obstacle course and over the finish line without causing any damage.
Following the “BlindZone” is a team effort challenge of freeing a vehicle stuck in a muddy slush pit called the “Rescue Mission.” Now this was no ordinary slush pit, but a sticky, sinking type of mud slush pit, where the mud sticks to the tire treads preventing it from grabbing any traction.
Due to the fresh rain, the challenge went from a scale of difficult to Herculean, as the slush got worse. The task involved 2 vehicles, one stuck in the pit and another Thar equipped with a Winch. The aim was to free the vehicle and get it to the marked line. Winching is a dangerous exercise, hence the precautionary measures of leather gloves and helmets were used. The winch is one of the most important pieces of equipment when going off-roading getting stuck a high possibility and getting unstuck is a necessity. A winch provides an extra limb to help get you out of sticky situations.
The winch engine purrs in sync with the heavy breathing engine of the Thar as it reels in its comrade from the pit of wet soil. Wheels are spinning; mud is flying in the air and the tension is building up, as the SUV is pulled free. As it crosses the marked line the adrenaline settles, hands go up in the air and a loud cheer is let out by everyone as this was one of the toughest challenges the Off-Road Training Academy has to offer.
The powers of the winch coupled with the resistance and never say die attitude of the Thar made sure that the slush pit was just another manageable obstacle for the vehicle. However taxing the hurdle, the sigh of relief from the driver once the challenge is accomplished is a priceless moment.
The “Boneyard” is Mahindra’s favourite course in the facility. Till date, the obstacle course has bits and pieces of scarred Thars found scattered on the track or wedged in the walls of the banks. What may seem, as a gently flowing stream is actually a curtain covering a series of bone-rattling mogul bumps that tests the vehicle’s axle articulation. Now as the Thar does not have differential locks to make for a live axle, momentum and precision driving seemed to be the key in getting through this part of the course. The initial crossing of the stream gets your tires wet, leading to a steep incline coupled with mounds that gradually increase in depth. Correct wheel placement and use of momentum is necessary to finish this course. Once stuck at a mound it becomes very hard to break free and get the required traction to clear the hump. The bumps and bounces in on this course really test the endurance of the driver and the car.
In the end, what matters the most is the driver’s capability and experience in handling a vehicle on a tricky terrain, away from the road and the tarmac. Vehicles like the Thar are built with the sole purpose of being enjoyed on rugged terrain. The analog locks and transfer case with the manual gear shifts keeps the driver involved and aware at all times. The throttle input and breaking is all driver controlled making the over-all off road experience a holistic one.
We all know that the vehicles made for off-road adventures nowadays are highly capable and controlled by the ECU and with a push of a button, settings can be changed and modes can be adjusted but none of that makes sense if the driver is not experienced enough to use the vehicle’s potential to the maximum.
That is exactly what Mahindra Adventure is looking to do with their training facility at Igatpuri. Give people an experience of a lifetime and at the same time train them in the skill of using an Indian made SUV in its ideal territory. Give people an opportunity to learn how to maneuver, rescue and navigate through areas where the tarmac is a forgotten entity. Considering the Mahindra Off-Road Training Academy has been running from the beginning of this year, they have already trained more than 150 entrants of which 70 have been ladies. Who says off-roading is a man’s sport.
This facility with the capable cars provided is a real treat to visit, and an opportunity to really experience what real off-road driving is all about. After all how many times do you get an opportunity to really revel in the freedom of the Mahindra Thar?
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