In India, we’re obsessed with Bollywood, cricket, chai and samosa. And of late, we’ve been obsessed by these gigantic cars they call SUVs that take up almost as much space as a 1RK in Mumbai’s suburbs. That said, what do you do with a bunch of top notch SUVs that have the ability to go places most wouldn’t dare but with very few drivers who know how to really drive them?
Say hello to Mahindra’s Offroad Academy, where you enter mortal but leave an off-roading god. Well, almost, as this place has quite the reputation for helping enthusiasts learn the off-road ropes in a controlled environment.
The maximum off-roading I had ever done was a wet mud patch in my friend’s Fortuner. So when I get a chance to do the Getting Dirty beginner’s course, I quickly grab my windcheater and GoPro and make my way to the Mahindra facility on a very rainy Saturday morning.
Nestled away in Igatpuri, lies Mahindra’s large engine manufacturing facility. My photographer, John and I make our introductions with the other participants at 9:30 am and meet Manish Sarser, the instructor who has the uphill task of teaching us how to get around the obstacle courses without us breaking the cars.
Or our necks. Manish quickly tells us to pick a vehicle each from the parked fleet of Thars and we follow him into the wilderness. The gates open and within seconds we leave the commercial manufacturing facility for the hills in the backyard. It’s almost like a scene out of Jurassic Park!
While following Manish to the first meetup point, a few things are apparent. The Thar is not a luxurious car. It’s bare, with black interiors and exposed body parts. Everything looks like it’s water repellent and was made to withstand a storm.
There’s even a roll cage to save you in case you manage to do the not so difficult task of toppling over. My car has a little more beige since it’s got the interior update but make no mistake, this car is purpose built. And that purpose is to get you anywhere.
Before every obstacle, Manish gathers us around and briefs us about the course. We reach the first obstacle — Home run. A five feet vertical drop that requires no gas and only precision control on the breaks. I get in the saddle and line the car up for the decline while Manish sharply barks out orders.
The Mahindra guys have gone a step further and installed walkie-talkies in every car, so that there’s communication even with the windows down on a noisy rainy day like today. Ease it into second gear, let the car drop and watch the suspension work its magic. Not THAT difficult, right?
On towards the next obstacle — Pond Rush. A sharp four foot incline followed by a worn down decline at the end, which means that you’re going to be two wheels in the air at some point. Manish first takes us for a walk around the obstacle, then demonstrates it himself. My turn next! Strap myself, wear my helmet and here we go.
Saying that the Thar is a heavy car isn’t an understatement. It weighs approximately 1750 kg — that’s more than the weight of two Wagon Rs combined. However, the massive engine makes a ridiculous amount of torque.
Put it in two low (An off-road four wheel drive mode that helps it grip the earth all the more violently), rev the engine and let the clutch loose. Despite all the weight, it climbs the hillock like a mountain goat, making a very average driver like me look like Gaurav Gill in the process.
Quick stop for chai and pictures, and we make our way to the next obstacle. And here’s where things get serious. Unlike the others which look more like artificially created obstacles, this one looks like it could be a trail in any forest on the planet. Say hello to Shortcut. The uphill incline isn’t as intimidating as the previous one, but the surface comprises only of slush and ruts. Manish gives us a fresh set of instructions for this one.
However, get into the car and all the tutelage goes out of the window. In our day to day commutes, we end up learning a lot of wrong driving methods which get exposed prominently while off-roading. So all the clutch holding I’m doing to extract maximum torque really isn’t helping. And then it happens, I get stuck. No time to fret though.
Listen to the fresh instructions on the radio, give the steering wheel a few violent turns, steady the throttle and let the differential provide grip to the tyres in contact. Reverse, move ahead, get stuck. Keep at this for a couple of times till the Thar finally powers itself out and climbs the hill.
This obstacle turned out to be the most challenging, most physically enduring and lastly, the most fun!
We stop for lunch and to charge the cameras. My course has five of us in a batch, and you can just see the adrenaline beaming out of everyone. That’s also when I see the sheer diversity of our group. We have Vivek - the 45-year-old father of two who travelled from Mumbai by train, Richa and Abhijeet - the enthusiastic colleagues from Nashik and Pune, John and I — the 24-year-olds at the other end of the spectrum. None of us has ever taken a vehicle this far into the wilderness and there is this sense of accomplishment. But wait, we’re not done yet!
Last but not the least, the obstacle course named SUV. Why the odd name? Manish tells me that he designed it using a Scorpio (Mahindra’s evergreen SUV) keeping in mind that it should fit only one SUV, edge to edge. Get closer to the course and you see the twist.
It looks like a river! With the rain gods having showered us all day and the night before, the dug up field is more than half submerged in water! That’s not going to stop us though, and we get in our cars to conquer this one too. This course teaches you a new skill, throttle control. Too slow, and the car will stall. Too quick and you’ll end up hitting something and the car will stall. A stalled car in water means the exhaust gets flooded - something you never want happening with any vehicle.
Our cars come fitted with off-road tyres and snorkels, the only two modifications separating it from a stock Thar. The latter customisation ensures that we could wade in this waist deep water and complete the course with trial and error without the fear of water getting in.
The awesome part about the Mahindra Offroad Academy is that it lets you go wild and learn without the fear of something breaking and you having to sell a kidney to pay for it. It doesn’t matter what SUV you drive back home either. I personally drive a low Ciaz that I never intend on taking off the tarmac. But I now know that if I’m in the middle of Mumbai’s flash floods, I’ll be a little more confident.
Mahindra offer three more levels at the academy that are held at different locations across the country. Level two off-roading in the middle of the night? Never say never!