Photography: Vir Nakai
It was my daughter who came up with the idea for a road trip. A good plan indeed, as the wife and I have been waiting for years for her to grow up enough to show her the country by road. No better way to learn about a place and its people than a road trip. While I was left to tend to the logistics behind the trip, it was easy because I had been waiting for this day for a long time. The plan was formed to drive to Spiti and spend a few lazy days in Kaza with no real agenda. As the plan was being finalised my parents and their friend – intrepid road trippers themselves – joined the fray. It was perfect as I had been waiting a long time to head on a road trip with Dad like we did in my school days. Now that we had a plan, we needed to address the small issue of transportation.
My parents have the last generation Mahindra Scorpio they drive all over India. The mountains are mostly their playground but two years back they became a viral sensation when they, along with my aunt, drove across the country in the Scorpio. Once we knew the parents were in a few strings were pulled, favours asked and the new Scorpio N was arranged to accompany the Scorpio on our road trip. It was fantastic, as it would be like two father-son duos heading out on a road trip – Robin and Vir Nakai and the Mahindra Scorpio and Scorpio N!
In today’s world of fast-paced social media people seem to have forgotten what it is like to plan for a long road trip other than where will you stop, eat and what sights you will take in. For a road trip, getting your vehicle ready is very important. Of course, I did not have to worry about the brand-new Scorpio N other than arranging to have it picked up, whereas my dad’s almost decade-old Scorpio needed some work. New tyres were required as the last set was changed by me when I drove it back from Chennai to Chandigarh. After 1.5 lakh kilometres, the seats needed new upholstery and re-padding too, while the brakes needed overhauling in the form of new brake pads.
As I rolled into the parents’ home in Chandigarh and parked the new Scorpio N next to the older-generation Scorpio, the visual differences were apparent instantly. The N looks massive. The design is an evolution but there are a lot of apparent visual similarities between the old and new too. Parked side by side you can see the family resemblance. I can’t help but compare them to my father and me. More than two decades separate us but we both have a similar wild side. It’s genetics, I guess. Of course, friendly comparisons between the two were inevitable with Dad backing up his trusted steed while I was on the side of team N. Loading up the Scorpios for the trip it was evident that the father’s Scorpio can take in a hell of a lot of luggage and gear while my N, owing to its funny-shaped interior cladding for the boot and forward-facing third-row seat was not so accommodating. Between the two the score was already 2-0 in favour of the Scorpio. The N’s white paintjob was disapproved by the family the moment I pulled up home, though I think it looks striking even in this shade. If it was a serious competition the Scorpio N would claw back two points in the entertainment/music system department. After all, what’s a road trip without music and the N with its Sony 3D sound system is a banger! Its 12 speakers deliver crystal clear sound and with the daughter’s playlists we felt like we were attending a live concert together. So now the score is 2-2.
The first day’s stretch was to be till Kothgarh ahead of Shimla but news had reached us that a bridge was being built so there was a bit of a snag in traffic just around Fagu. So we decided to take a detour just after Shimla. One that would take us to Sainj. From there, we could climb up the mountain back towards Kothgarh. I have done this route on my motorcycle. It’s longer but quite a scenic drive. To enhance our adventure we stopped in a rain shelter to open our picnic lunch just as it began to rain. Not heavily, like most of Himachal has seen this season, but enough to soak you in minutes. As the roads got narrower and merged into a single lane we soon found out that my brilliant plan to bypass the snarl on the other road was on the minds of many of the locals and truckers. This gave us an opportunity to try out our reversing skills. After years of driving, Dad knows every inch of his Scorpio so reversing many meters and then squeezing his Scorpio to the side of the road so the trucks can inch past is easy for him. With the N it took me a while to get used to, despite the front and rear camera assisting me. At first, I stubbornly decided to not listen to the the N telling and showing me what’s happening in reverse and rely on my instinct. That’s when I realised how large the N is in comparison to the older generation. After the 15th odd time, I got the hang of it. All this reversing and finding spots to park two Scorpios so opposite traffic could pass took all day. Later in the evening, as we sat on the balcony taking in the blooming apple orchards of Kothgarh, I marvelled at how even after a whole day behind the wheel I was not tired. My old man seemed fresh too but maybe that’s because he is a lot fitter than I am!
90 percent of the road to Kaza is now wide and smooth two-lane tarmac. Where it is not tarmac it’s all well-trodden hard-packed mud. It’s been like that for years and as good as a road can be in these regions. The next few days, as we made our way up to Spiti, the drive was comfortable as both the Scorpios were in their element. Even though my Scorpio N was two-wheel-drive, I didn’t feel the lack of it anywhere. This could be due to us sticking to the roads and not attempting anything dramatic and stupid for Instagram because as adventurers we know better than to destroy the spots we visit. The older-generation Scorpio was our mobile cafe, since its boot easily accommodated the thermos full of hot water and all the essentials needed to brew a pot of fresh coffee. We would find a place to pull over and admire the vistas, get the Scorpio’s boot open and brew a pot.
What’s an adventure without a flat tyre? I was driving along the river just 10-odd kilometres from Tabo and the Scorpio N informed me of the misfortune through a warning light on the dashboard. I parked on the side of the road and checked out the huge gash in the rear tyre caused by a huge nail. It was a first for me, changing a huge tyre at this kind of altitude. Thankfully between Dad and me, we made short work of the tyre change. 15 minutes later, we were on the road back heading to Kaza.
The idea was to do nothing in Kaza. We’d planned to spend four days there and were staying at a friend’s hotel so the agenda was to sit, eat, watch the world go by and acclimatise before even trying any of the touristy things. Since our crew’s ages ranged from 12 to 74, we needed to be sure everyone was fine with the altitude. It took a day or two for everyone to start feeling like themselves. The little headaches and the breathlessness from walking soon started to fade. That’s when we started driving around to see some of the sights. At higher altitudes the crew, despite being acclimatised, started showing symptoms of AMS so we turned back down to spend the rest of the days in Kaza doing what I had planned all along. Nothing but eat, laugh, hang out and watch the world go by. The Scorpios, on the other hand, never missed a beat despite the thin air and transported all of us up and down the mountains without a hitch.
On the return journey, the father ripped his rear tyre as well on the climb up to Nako. By the time I reached them, the older generation family members had got the spare tyre out, the SUV jacked up and most of the lug nuts off except one. During the previous tyre swap, the mechanics seemed to have rounded off one lug and had not replaced it. A truck stopped to help us with his kit but any attempt to get the nut off just made it worse. So I backtracked a few kilometres to the nearest village where I found the only mechanic. Raju, the one-armed mechanic hopped into his Santro with his tool kit and followed me up the mountain. We reached the spot where the family and the Scorpio lay parked on a turn under the hot sun. Raju hopped out of his car, examined the wheel, took out his tool kit and got to work. A minute later the tyre was off and the spare wheel was on. With a broad smile on his face, he cursed the mechanics who used power tools to replace the tyres, lamenting that if you have to do it well you need to use your own strength. He bid us adieu, hopped back into his car and was soon a speck in the vast nothingness.
I have been to every inch of the Himalayas in the past 15 years – so much so that I consider it my third home. I have been leading tours or simply looking for adventure on my motorcycles to the deeper Himalayas. This was the first time I was heading here on four wheels and I am glad about my choice of wheels. The Scorpios were the perfect companion but if the truth be told and if this was a competition, I feel the older generation Scorpio feels more adventurous than the N. It’s more compact with a larger field of vision with its larger windows. It feels more at home out in the outdoors and you feel like you are on top of everything you are traversing. The Scorpio N seems to cocoon you and feels very apt for urban adventures where you need to travel from one state to the next. It feels well-planted on the highways and super safe. Of course, it gets all the bells and whistles and creature comforts one needs. Don’t get me wrong, Given the Scorpio N’s performance in Spiti, I am sure the 4WD variant is capable of taking you to the ends of the earth but I feel it is happier in an urban environment where I spend most of my life. It is so comfortable that I am considering the Scorpio N as an upgrade for the family vehicle in Mumbai, that is as soon as I can find a place to park it