UP HERE IN PURE 4X4 TERRAIN, IT GETS EVEN MORE SPECTACULAR
NEXT MORNING WE’RE UP AND OUT AT FIVE. The cars are washed clean with the overnight rain and so are the roads. The skies have opened up. And just before we reach Manebhanjang we see the most beautiful twin rainbow, ever. Using international roaming on Nepal’s NCell I feed the social media monster, the forest check post waves the entry fee since yesterday was rained out (the hill people are really, really nice), we’re reminded yet again not to use the drone (the track goes in and out of Nepal, it’s all on the border) and we begin our climb. At Chitrey the skies are clear, the air fresh, the vistas unbelievably spectacular. Every phone, every camera, everybody starts firing away. I breathe a sigh of relief. Finally we’re getting some content in the bag.
At Meghma we wipe up the cars and fire away the Great Wall pictures. At Tumling we get the clouds below the cars climbing up the hairpins. At Gairibas we swig some black tea with salt and then man up for the climb.
This is where it gets crazy. There’s no tarmac, it’s all rocks of varying shapes and sizes. We keep the Polo light, just me behind the wheel and whoever fancies jumping in and out, spotting obstacles on the way. We’re crawling along at walking pace, very careful not to hole the sump or rip out the front end on the nasty rocks. And it’s a race against the clouds that are fast moving in. Making life even more difficult the overnight rain has left the rocks wet and slippery so finding purchase is becoming harder and harder. I’m now slipping the clutch, giving it a kick in the middle of the hairpin to get the revs to jump into the meat of its power band. This isn’t easy, not by a long shot. But this is where the Polo gets our respect. The suspension, if you remember, was once too soft at the front and would scrunch the nose on sharp bumps. It doesn’t do that anymore. The ground clearance does not look like much, and on the highway it does not feel unstable like all high-riding cars, but we discover it is actually pretty good and nothing touches. The GT now runs on 16-inch tyres and that delivers both better clearance as well as great grip, no matter what the surface. Once or twice we scrape the mudguards on the very sharp storm-water drains and very often rocks have to be cleared out of the path, but the Polo isn’t saying enough. Up here in pure 4x4 terrain, this is where it gets even more spectacular; the red flowers are in bloom, the views of the valley are astonishing, the peace, quiet and isolation extraordinary. Rohit pull out his 500mm lens in the elusive hope of spotting the Red Panda. What he gets are vultures. We also spot snowcapped Himalayan peaks, though without somebody with any experience to say what is what we can’t say for
sure that we sighted the Kanchenjunga. Inch by inch the Polo climbs, the photographers fire away, and the crew run out of breath at this altitude. At a small hamlet a local comes up and asks if the Polo is a ‘four wheel gaari’ the local lingo for four-wheel drive. When I say no he’s shocked. Tashi, our Landie driver says he can recall only one other car that has gotten all the way up here, an Omni that the taxi association of Darjeeling guys pushed and brought up here in response to a challenge from Sandakphu’s Land Rover drivers’ association. Come to think of it, the Polo is possibly the only FWD car to get up here.
And then the rain comes down. Hard. Hari and Aatish are soaked to the bone, guiding me up the track that gets more treacherous the higher up it climbs. I can’t see a thing. The Land Rover is in 4-Low and sliding around in slush. With momentum the Polo is making it through the slush but I’m scared now, if the Polo slides it will slide off the mountain. And I am not wearing a parachute. Momentum is the only way to make it through the slush, for the rest I’m driving as slowly as possible, just like you should when driving off-road, to ensure you can return to base on your own steam. And the Polo is responding. It is going. Two days of
pounding it on ridiculously difficult terrain and it is not squeaking or rattling; the body hasn’t twisted itself into a knot. The tyres are slipping even more now, the rain is coming down harder, the visibility is back to what it was yesterday, but every time we think this is it, the Polo takes a step forward. Also the fact that turning around means physically lifting the Polo and turning it around, is adding an extra layer of motivation.
With 5km to go, we meet with our forward crew who went up to Sandakphu a few hours earlier, to sort out lunch and bank some pictures of snow-clad peaks. It’s snowing, heavily. There’s no visibility, there’s too much slush, and there’s no way even a 4x4 will go up. This time I don’t argue. Sliding till the edge of a 10,000 foot drop has a way of calming over exuberance. However we do need a destination to close the story so we motor for another kilometre till Kalipokhri, a place that takes its name from the black lake. Apparently this lake never freezes over, it always looks black, and there’s an eerie haunted quality to it. Or so we’re told, we can barely make out the outline of
Above: A spectacular double rainbow, just before we hit Manebhanjang. Facing page: Three-wheeling up the steep and narrow hairpins. Facing page below: The Tiguan made for the perfect support car
Left: Team evo India taking a break from washing cars. Facing page: The chorten at Kalipokhri where we had to turn around because of the rain; snow up in Sandakphu