As I was returning from the test drive of the Tata Nexon AMT, a phone call from our Editor asking me whether I’m interested in an off-road adventure was unexpected. He asked me a whole lot of questions like – “Have I ever been to any off-road adventure? Any knowledge of using the 4WD modes in tricky situations?” etc. I think my response was, “Not really…!” And the very next second, my Editor said, “Okay then, I’m enrolling you for the two-day Trail Survivor Course at Mahindra Off-Road Academy.” Again, even before my brain registered and processed what the Editor said, he hung up saying “Will send you the details by evening so standby.”
Even though I travel a whole lot on my motorcycle and car alike, I have never really had an off-roading experience. The only time when I came close to experiencing off-roading was in 2016, and that too, was ruined by a leech attack. I am going to spare the details on that one. However, for more details about The Mahindra Thunder Run 2016, click here (use hyperlink). In the evening, I had all details pertaining to the Mahindra Off-Road training in my mailbox. Mahindra’s off-road Training Academy is located in Igatpuri, which is about 120 kilometers from Mumbai; it is India’s first off-road training academy, which allows enthusiasts to get first-hand experience of off-road driving, without risking their own vehicles. The Training Academy has its own fleet of Mahindra Thar 4×4 Di (first gen) CRDe (second gen with diff-lock) which are used to train those enrolled in the program. Other than Thar, the academy also has a few other Mahindra 4WD vehicles like the Scorpio and older jeeps.
The Academy is a well-organized institution. Mahindra’s Adventure division has wisely set up the academy way back in 2012 in Igatpuri, sprawling over 28 acres of hillocks forming the perfect terrain for off-road lovers. The course was facilitated by Mr. Manish Sarser – Head, Off-Road Training and his band of enthusiastic & highly skilled instructors. Manish is a motor enthusiast and also a former motoring journalist, with immense all-round and in-depth knowledge and experience. I was there to sample the overnight Trail Survivor Course, which is the intermediate level. The course is designed to accustom you to the technical knowledge about vehicle dynamics and driving techniques, though there is no pre-requisite for this particular course. We were a batch of three – Yogesh from Pune, Mathew who came all the way from Kerala, and yours truly from Mumbai. I, being a total novice to off-road driving, cautioned Manish that I would require a lot of hand-holding, to which he replied, “As long as you can change gears, you’ll be fine.”
It all began with an introduction round, followed by a session on the contrasting mechanics of an everyday car and an off-roader, which was exciting and comprehensible. The lesson ended with a summary of a few basic instructions an off-road driver needs to keep in mind – Set the transmission case at 4L, which lowers the speeds at the first and the second gear by four times, in order to add torque; check the hub locks to ensure they are engaged (if it’s a manual hub lock); ensure the approach and the departure angles do not exceed the slope of the hill in order to avoid seesawing, and of course, do not engage the clutch while driving unless absolutely necessary. Manish who heads the team briefed us about what it takes to go off-road safely. Besides covering rudimentary off-road terms like the 4×4 system and off-road tyres, we got good insights on the hub locks, high gear vs. low gear, differentials, and the sorts. By the end of the theory session, we developed a fairly good understanding of how these parts were connected.
After the open-air briefing session by Manish, we were taken to the first obstacle – The Home Run. This obstacle involved driving down a steep incline into a pit, followed by a right-hander with an upslope. The key to this obstacle was slotting the Thar in 4L, driving down the slope & then driving out of the pit. But first, we were taken for the mandatory track walk to understand the nature of the obstacle and the terrain. Later the demo was given by Selvin (instructor), after driving into the pit the vehicle was turned around and Selvin tried to climb up the same slope to demonstrate the difference between real off-road driving & insanity (driving without damaging the vehicle in the spur of the moment).
Then it was time for me to hit the first obstacle, I got hold of the Thar Di (first gen). Being a rookie, I was scared to bits at first, but I put all my faith in the Thar, it was already in 4L, slotted the car in the first gear and released the clutch. I remembered Manish emphasizing on not using the clutch and modulating the speed only with brakes. I tried to enter the almost vertical ditch, as slow as I could possibly go, without stalling the vehicle. Still, the rear bumper hit against the soft soil underneath. Once I was on the flat ground, I had to slowly accelerate my way out of the ditch towards the rightward incline, make a u-turn and come back to the starting point. I would love to boast that I succeeded, not because I am a skilled driver, but the Thar is much more capable than I thought it is, 247 Nm of torque doesn’t sound much in today’s day and age. But what it does when used in off-road situations is pure magic.
It was time for the next obstacle, namely the Blind Zone, what made it even worse was the complete darkness; we had to tackle a ditch, go uphill and turn left over a tilted rocky step and crawl down over loose wet muddy gravel. Then we had to manoeuvre a blind hairpin bend towards the left and come back to the starting point, take a right enter the slush pit, get out of it without getting stuck and wait at the second meeting point. This time around Yogesh went in first. I was witnessing all that he did, where he got stuck etc., and then it was my turn. Watching Yogesh gave me an advantage, it helped me approach the ditch better, coming out of it got easier, as I knew where exactly to point the steering, when to brake, when not to brake and when to accelerate.
Tackling the wet muddy gravel and the rocky path, though not a breeze, the struggle was less compared to my counterparts’. I was constantly reminding myself to keep my left foot off the clutch, as I am used to driving in the never-ending traffic of Mumbai. One thing I observed and understood was, you have to be calculative with the inputs, as the wet muddy slippery surface doesn’t allow the car to go exactly where you want it to go. You need to be very careful with the steering; acceleration & brakes, as one wrong move could make the vehicle go haywire. It was almost 9 pm as we completed the second challenge. Manish called it a day and boy-oh-boy what a day it had been, full of off-road adventure!
Day Two began with the ‘Zig Zag Hill’ obstacle. It’s a short climb on the hillock with deeply etched ruts before turning back down, essentially hill ascent and descent which underlines the crawling ability of the Thar in 1st cog with 4L deployed. Common sense tells you that using heavy throttle while going up a slippery hill is not the best thing to do and it became very clear on the first demonstration as Manish guided the Scorpio slotted in 4L by walking alongside it, which was truly a sight to reckon. Having reached the crawling speed in 4WD low, he simply steered the big heavy SUV around the hill in a controlled manner. The trick here was to be extremely careful and precise with the vehicle’s track and put your faith in the engine braking even while coming down the slippery hill. Mathew was the first one to attempt the challenge. I decided to accompany him and get an idea of the challenge put forth before us. Mathew made it look pretty easy and he was done with the challenge in no time. Then it was Yogesh’s turn. Looking at him trying to progress his way up the slippery incline, slightly spinning the wheels in the process, I realized what I was really up against. I went for it, nevertheless. The Thar just eased its way up to the halfway point before starting to lose traction and digging into the wet soil. Eventually, it took me a couple of attempts and inputs from Manish to pass through the obstacle.
Moving to the next obstacle… namely Pond Rush. This basically involved driving through an artificial pond, coming out of it, taking a U-Turn around some bushes, while driving through some specially made trenches. I decided to tackle the slush pit by carrying a steady momentum and not getting carried away by simply flooring it. We had few new participants on day two who thought otherwise. They ended up lodging their vehicles deep within the bowels of the pit. Even the good old-fashioned rocking technique was of no use, as the tiniest amount of throttle had the wheels digging in further into the slush pit. Mathew, Yogesh and I decided to repeat the Pond Rush obstacle twice, before moving on to the next one.
Slush Pit was next in line. This particular obstacle involved understanding the role of a spotter while you are out for an off-road adventure, along with the explanation of hand signals and emphasizing the importance of being a good spotter. Manish first showed us the basic hand signals that are used by a spotter. Manish’s team mate Pradeep first drove through the obstacle, with Manish as a spotter. This course had a huge trench which ensured one of the wheels went up in the air, but the key to tackling it was having faith in your spotter & understanding the hand signals in the best possible way and be abreast about any sudden surprises in the terrain. This obstacle seemed quite scary, looking down from the top of the hill, but by then my confidence had grown to an extent that I volunteered to go first. However, I must confess that sitting in the Thar at the top of the slope, I was quite nervous. But Manish’s confidence was infectious, followed by his precise instructions as a spotter, was sufficient to overcome this obstacle without any drama.
Just before lunch, the Trail Survivor course also gave us a glimpse of winching a vehicle for recovery in the safest and most effective way. The electric winch equipped Thar Di was put into service for towing a Thar CRDe up on a small mound. Ideally, a winch rating should be twice or thrice (if your wallet allows) the capacity of the weight of your vehicle. Think about it, you will have to recover yourself in a situation, where your vehicle is stranded at the bottom of a mound or in slush etc; which could double the effort called from the winch – as rightly pointed out by Manish. Loads, angles, math aside, I would just feel confident winching out with a winch rated at 4 tonnes as opposed to a 2-tonne, simple as that. So much is the potential energy in the cable that a wrong move or snap could leave one grievously injured. Regular inspection of the winch and add a damping weight/ carpeting roll near the hook/ eye end of the cable, is a standard safety practice which could immensely reduce the backlash from an unruly snapped cable. Ever experienced the snap of rubber band breaking between fingers? Okay just imagine, 4 tonnes of tension and replace the rubber band with a steel cable. One should just stay clear of the winching area. The winching session lasted for about an hour. I was ravenous at the end of the session and the heat was just unbearable, as it had stopped raining on day two.
Post lunch was the last obstacle of the day, which was a small stretch of alternating mounds and ditches. This course had a lot of strategically placed dugouts. The nature of the course was such that 2 diagonally opposite wheels are suspended in the air with no traction whatsoever. This obstacle was in a true sense an articulation test for the vehicles. The obstacle was simply awesome where all the tips and tricks learned during the course could be put to practice. The trick lied in feeding the throttle keeping in mind the loading on the axles and the grip levels. Following the norm, first Manish gave us the demo in a Thar. While we had to follow the path and come out on the other side of the track, Manish made a U-Turn and came back the same way. If going ahead was difficulty Level 1, coming back the same way was undeniably Level 10. The amount of beating these vehicles had taken or rather would be taking on a regular basis is commendable. You need to experience this first hand to know and feel all what I am talking about, as I’m falling short of words to describe how awesome this obstacle was.
The day ended sooner than anyone of us expected, as we were just beginning to have fun. Besides negotiating the various obstacles, we received tips on safety and recovery. Going off-road is a dangerous sport and no attempt was made to downplay this aspect. So, there was a repeated warning to wear a helmet and fasten our seatbelts. And most importantly, not to succumb to any sort of pressure to attempt obstacles you are not comfortable with. As Manish told us right at the beginning of the program, “Off-road is not about spectacular stunts and wheel spins, but getting from point A to point B, without damaging your vehicle. A good driver will make every obstacle look extremely easy & will tackle it without any drama”. The entire weekend was most stimulating and I can’t remember having enjoyed myself so much in a long time. Driving through slush, ponds and rocky terrain was exhilarating, to say the least. What made the weekend even more memorable was the attention to detail with regards to the facilities provided. We called it a day after the Certificate distribution by Manish, a hard and well-earned end to the day. A visit to the Mahindra Adventure Training Academy is likely to change your perception and multiply your love for off-roading for good.
Words – Amit Shelar