Off-roading, detours, hairpin turns, frogs in the name of delicacies and a fully restored 1975 Land Rover Series III made the trip to the North-East one hell of a journey.
By Bharat Seth
Driving in unknown territory gives you an adrenaline rush that is hard to come by on well-planned trips. My love for cars and landscapes has seen me traverse Sri Lanka, Rajasthan and most of northern India. But nothing prepared me for what was to come during my self-driven expedition to the North-East.
The sister states have always had a mysterious charm about them. Before I was born, my parents were posted there and some of the most fun and adventurous stories I had heard were of their expeditions around the North-East. Finally, in March this year, four of us decided to take out two weeks from our hectic schedules and explore the region.
We narrowed down our list to three states—Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. The next step was to figure out a route and a mode of transport. Apart from being adventure buffs, two of us are also complete petrol heads—we love anything that has an engine, can produce horsepower, and take us to the back of beyond.
My fellow traveller, Shahwar Hussain, who was born and brought up in Assam, rides all kinds of motorcycles and, to top it off, he is a keen restorer of vintage vehicles. He arranged for an originally restored 1975 Series III Land Rover, which was brought to India by the English to work on the tea estates in Assam. Exploring the North-East in a classic Land Rover is every petrol head’s dream come true. And I was excited even before I landed in Guwahati.
Once in Guwahati, I caught up with Oyvind and Liva, who were visiting India from Denmark and would accompany us on this expedition. The four of us finally set out on our adventure the following day. We had planned to leave in the early morning but due to unavoidable and silly reasons (our tents and sleeping bags were still not with us) we had to wait for a few hours before we could start. Yes, boys will be boys, after all. We finally took off at noon with the destination for the day being Mawlynnong, famous for being Asia’s cleanest village.
The route from Guwahati to Shillong is one of the best pieces of highway in the country. The newly laid four-lane highway snakes through the hills and our Land Rover just loved the road. Although it was an old vehicle and had no power steering, Shahwar still drove it effortlessly through the hairpins. I was worried on a few turns but then I remembered that Shahwar had done much of the restoration himself and knew exactly how to drive it and how much to push it.
From the outskirts of Shillong, we took a detour that leads to Cherrapunjee. About 35 km from Cherrapunjee, we took another detour that took us through deep gorges. As we stopped and watched the setting sun, mist came rolling in from the gorge and completely enveloped everything. The last 18 km after the concrete bridge at Pynursla were quite exciting. The narrow road snakes through tall grasses and our headlights cut a lonely furrow in the night. By the time we reached Mawlynnong, it was dark. To our delight, our guesthouse had a tree-house where we took several selfies. Plus, roasted chicken, chilled beer and guitaring made for a worthwhile first night. The beauty of this region is unbelievable. The next morning, we decided to take a stroll around the village. It turned out to be a relatively short one as the village is small, the size of a posh colony in a big city a.k.a. Greater Kailash in New Delhi.
While walking around we discovered another tree-house, which was a viewing point. From here you could actually see Bangladesh. We then decided to explore the very popular root bridge, located in the nearby village of Riwai. A five-minute drive and a short 10-minute walk later, we were on the bridge. After taking our pictures and exploring the forest around, we were on the road once again to Dawki. Our Land Rover was a smooth drive but anything can happen on Indian roads. On our way to Dawki, a quaint little town on the India-Bangladesh border, we escaped a head-on collision with a Tata Sumo. The driver was on the wrong side and due to a blind curve we did not spot him and narrowly missed each other. Looking back, I think the Tata Sumo driver was lucky. Our Land Rover would have annihilated the Sumo. The brakes of the Land Rover were converted to power brakes, keeping in mind modern-day traffic, and they served us well. Even though we went off-road trying to save the Sumo, a quick downshift kept us in the powerband and opening the throttle wide took us out of the gravel and incline without even a wheel spin. Since the gearbox is not synchromesh, we had to double-declutch to change the gears without a sound. Once in Dawki, we stopped for a snack and then made our way to Shnongpdeng.
This village is on the bank of the Umngot river, located in the Jaintia region of Meghalaya. With our backpacks, tents and sleeping bags on our backs, we met our guide whose English name was Shining. Following his instructions, we made our way down to the riverbed. The light was slowly fading and we decided to pitch our tents immediately. With our campsite finally set and bonfire lit, we left behind our hectic city lives with each puff of our cigarettes over a lively chat. We had dinner under a million stars and the gentle lapping of the water hitting the rocks and boats lulled us to sleep.
When you sleep in a tent, you are bound to wake up extremely early. Apart from the sound of birds, village animals and life around, it becomes very hot in the tent as it creates a greenhouse effect, especially in warm places. Shahwar opened the fly of the tent to an amazing view of the river...and before we knew it we had jumped in. The water of the Umngot is crystal clear, making the riverbed completely visible. Also, the water is absolutely calm, making it an ideal river for swimming. We woreonly our life jackets and floated around. Shining, our guide, had mentioned thatthe river would get crowded as a couple of local colleges had planned day trips. We decided to hop onto a boat and go down the river before the rush, to enjoy nature and the tranquility of the region.
The boats here are locally built. The wooden planks had been stuck together using tar and that ensured a continuous seeping in of water. We helped Shining bale out water with a bucket, pretty much throughout our rowing time. A friendly village dog had also joined us on the boat, and mid-way decided to jump off. We know dogs are natural swimmers, hence the term doggy paddle, but this guy was a champ! He kept pace with the boat for almost a kilometre. After rowing down the river for a bit, the first halt was a cliff, and Shining pointed out that we were supposed to jump off it. I’ve cliff jumped a few times, but every time you’re on top of the rock, you think for a moment, before you let go. For the next hour all we did was jump into the water, get on the cliff, dry up and then jump back in when we felt hot. By the time we were back at our tents, the rush had begun and the mercury was soaring! As we drew closer to evening and it became slightly cool, we decided to make our way down to Dawki and onwards to Tamabil, on the border between India and Bangladesh.
After visiting the border, and taking the customary “Welcome to India” snaps we made our way back to our campsite. Since we had had a rather easy day, we weren’t tired and sat by the fire a whole lot longer. A couple of guys joined us with their guitar and time just went by. The night got cooler and the bonfire got bigger!
Our next stop was Kaziranga, a considerable distance from Dawki. To get to Kaziranga, we had decided to make a night halt on the outskirts of Guwahati at a vintage car, bike and artefact museum, right in the heart of the elephant corridor. Once again, we spent the night sleeping in a tree-house. The following morning, we made our way towards Kaziranga. As you get out of Guwahati, you hit the AH1, a four-lane highway connecting India to Myanmar and Thailand. After driving for about 150 km, beyond Nagaon, you can view the endless tea gardens, which carry on all the way till Upper Assam. We reached our resort in the Agoratoli range. Dead tired, we decided to turn in early, as we wanted to be up for the morning jeep safari. After visiting the national park, we headed to Jorhat—known to be a tea town. Also, the fact that our Land Rover had been brought to India to work in the tea gardens, meant we had to explore the tea estates. This Series III is a rather heavy vehicle and it lumbered through all the dirt tracks in a lower gear.
Shahwar reminded me that this was an old car and we should handle her with care. We didn’t try anything fancy but the SUV took us over all the rough roads easily. The high ground clearance meant that we did not have to worry about any rock hitting the chamber. In Nagaland, we decided to drive towards Mokokchung via Tuli and Chuchuyimlang. After our permits were checked at Amguri, a few kilometres later, we started our climb. After about an hour and a half, the visibility was reduced to less than 10 metres because of the mist. I had no option but to pop my head out to navigate Shahwar on the winding mountain roads. Mokokchung, for travellers, is usually a night halt, with not much to do.From Mokokchung we made our way to Kohima via Wokha. After driving for a few kilometres, we took a detour at Longkhum village, where the road completely disappeared. Longkhum to Doyang was an off-road section. This was the only time we could put the Land Rover to an actual test.
The distance to the Doyang lake was about 50 km and we did not meet any other vehicle along the way. There was dense overgrowth, which formed a canopy of sorts over the road. Parts of the road were rocky and slippery with sudden climbs. When we went into deep ruts, the raw power of the engine just pulled us out, never needing engagement of the fourwheel drive. We finally reached Doyang, a huge reservoir, which attracts migratory Amur falcons in October. In Kohima, our host and guide, Amen, took us to the local market, where frogs, eels, larvae, snails and so on are considered delicacies. About 25 km off Kohima is the village of Khonoma. Here, there are hundreds of memorials to honour those who laid down their lives for the Naga cause and those who worked for the welfare of the village. Khonoma is a historical village and its people had fought against the invading British Army and later against the Japanese Army during the Second World War. From Khonoma we headed towards Kisama Heritage Village, which is home to the famous Hornbill Festival. We spent our last evening reminiscing about the awesome journey we had had. Our drive the next day was a long one, all the way from Kohima to Guwahati.