A few days after completing an expedition the itch begins all over again – that of planning the next expedition. The idea of wanting to drive solo on the second longest highway in the world, the AH1 in Australia, has been on the drawing board since 2014. The ‘Australian Coastal Expedition’ or ACE, as I have named it, promises to be a fascinating tour of the periphery of the country linking almost all the major cities of Australia. I have copious inputs from my cousin in Sydney and a few friends in the rest of that country. A major concern for most is the kind of car that I intend hiring in Australia – it is not feasible to take a car from India for the driving experience in Australia – and the communication equipment as some stretches are so desolate that for miles on end there would be no human habitation or assistance. As planning for that trip progressed over two years I completed the expeditions to Singapore, Trans-Himalayan and Trans-Siberian. Even after a year after completing the Trans-Siberian expedition the Aussie adventure was still on the drawing board. But, with one difference. An extensive tour of New Zealand was added to it, making the double adventure a two month event. Funding turned out to be the overarching stumbling block and time was slipping by. It became apparent that the April/May 2017 schedule for the Aussie/Kiwi adventure was not so certain.
Therefore, by March 2017 I decided to do a local expedition. I had been in communication with the Limca Book of Records (LBR) since early 2016 regarding the Four Corners of India (FCoI) expedition, which seemed to be the only one left in India for me to challenge. I was informed that the current record had been set in 2015 of 647 hours and 15 minutes. However, the LBR management changed hands in early 2017 and I was yet to strike a rapport with the new team. Therefore, communication was slow and the response was quite poor from the new team, which was handled by Hatchette Publications India. I needed approvals and information about any changes in the procedure. Every step took oodles of time and certainly tested my patience. Since I was based in Chennai I wanted confirmation from LBR that I could start from Chennai and end at the same point, after covering the four corners of Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh), Leh (J&K), Koteshwar (Gujarat) and Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu). Many phone calls and emails laterI was told that I could follow any route provided I covered the four corners and ended the expedition where I started it from. This clearance came just a week before I was scheduled to start the expedition on 27 May 2017.
Logistics planning for an expedition is the most crucial aspect of the attempt – this may seem trivial to many – and is critically dependent on the chosen route. Even the route planning had to undergo many revisions. Considering the onset of monsoon in the North East and the route opening time for the Manali-Leh sector I planned to do the Tezu corner first. However, friends in the North East warned me that the monsoon would hit me by the time I reached Assam. I had to take the risk of facing landslides and road closures. Then came information from Rajiv Shah of Network Tours and Travels that a special permit is now required from the SDM office for travel from Manali to Leh, whereas it was not required if one travelled from Leh to Manali. This made me mull the option of doing the Koteshwar and Leh corners first. When Rajiv assured me that the permit would be obtained I reverted to the original plan. Moreover, Sudhir Pratap Singh, who heads NSG, put me on to a contact in Kullu. The next imponderable was the prevalent situation in J&K. If the situation was not conducive, I contented, one could return to Manali from Leh and avoid the Srinagar route. I knew that the northern segment would remain dynamic till the day it was to be attempted. My hunch proved right.
Just a week before the scheduled departure on 27 May I had a call from a friend who is a Manager with Axis Bank. He had planned a trip to Leh with his family, which he postponed as the Manali-Leh route was still not open and was expected to be operational only by mid-June. That put a spanner in my plans, so to say. I was left with no option but to brave the Srinagar-Leh route back and forth. I anticipated delays since the situation in the Kashmir Valley could see hartals, bandhs and road closures for days together.
As part of its new requirement to document records the new LBR team insisted that the entire expedition should be recorded and submitted along with the claim. I was not sure how to comply with this requirement when I met Biju Jose in Cochin for a photoshoot of the newly ‘decorated’ car. He said that he would put me on to the head honcho of MapMyIndia, Shivalik Prasad. MapMyIndia was so prompt with the support that a few days before the expedition the V12 GPS tracker was couriered from Delhi and fitted in the car, free of cost! The tracker would enable the drive to be ‘watched’ real time by family and friends. That was comfort for many who felt the need for information and confirmation of my wellbeing. The trial runs to check out the efficacy of the contraption proved that the support of MapMyIndia would be vital in this expedition.
Hetal and Rajiv Shah, Network Tours and Travels, became close friends over the past two years. Both of them are travel buffs and Rajiv assisted a team from Surat to London and later headed a team to Singapore that earned them recognition from LBR. I sought the assistance of Rajiv for backend support, such as getting the Manali permit, monitoring the tracking device and finding me decent places to stay, which is very important on an expedition that would be mentally and physically exhausting. Seju Kuruvila, IPS – presently posted in Daman – got me the Inner Line Permit for Arunachal Pradesh. UPM Advertising, as has become a habit with them, did a thoroughly competent job of redesigning the decals on the car. Knowing that I would not be taking the Champion out of the country for another drive, I suggested that she be decked out in all the certificates received from LBR. And they came up with a brilliant design and got the stickering done in Cochin.
Thus, I was ready for the new adventure, another Record Drive, to the Four Corners of India. Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh), Leh (Ladakh), Kotesvar (Gujarat) and Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu) constitute the four corners of India for the four wheeler expedition, according to LBR. My 10th car expedition was scheduled to begin from Chennai on 27th May 2017, once again solo. The distance expected to be covered was nearly 13,000 kms in about 21 days to set a new record. The finalized route was Chennai-Visakhapatnam-Kolkata-Guwahati-Tezu-New Jalpaiguri-Gorakhpur-Noida-Manali-Leh-Srinagar-Jammu-Ludhiana-Ajmer-Koteshwar-Ahmedabad-Pune-Bangalore-Kanyakumari-Chennai through 17 states of the Indian Union.