Nepal’s extreme terrain is a major drawback for transportation and connectivity, but the same rugged and tough topography attracts hordes of trekkers. And recently it has been enticing a whole different kind of adventurer–seekers. Mahindra Adventure, experiential marketing unit of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd and Women Beyond Boundaries (WBB), an organization which offers extreme overland journeys to achieve empowerment through mobility made an extreme off-road expedition to Upper Mustang.
Mahindra Adventure supported WBB on their expedition from Delhi to Upper Mustang and back by providing a convoy of seven Scorpios, one Getaway and a Thar. The expedition lasted thirteen gruelling days, and around twenty people participated in this extreme journey that covered a distance of approximately 3000 km and reached a maximum altitude of 4000m above sea level.
Nidhi Tiwari, Founder of WBB and Vinod Nookala, Senior Brand Manager at Mahindra Adventures reveal the purpose of the extreme expedition to Living. Excerpts from the interview:
Nidhi Tiwari, Founder, WBB
Why did you choose Upper Mustang?
I am an extreme terrain driver, and I am the first Indian to drive to the Pole of Cold in Siberia and the first woman to drive from Delhi to London. I am always looking for routes that help me push my boundaries. I've been driving in Ladakh, the Indian Himalayas and other tough Indian terrain for the last twelve years. I wanted a new route that is tougher and more challenging. I had heard about Lo Manthang and how remote it is and how hard it is to get there. And for this journey, the only vehicle I could think of was the Mahindra. I'm not saying this because they are vehicle partners. I have grown up driving a Mahindra as that was my first vehicle and I'm most comfortable in it. When you undertake an expedition of this nature, you want a vehicle that is not only capable but also a vehicle that you know inside out, and how it responds.
What is WBB and what does it stand for?
WBB was initially Women Beyond Boundaries, but we also call it World Beyond Boundaries as it is not only intended for women now. We are a not-for-profit organization, and we specialize in undertaking extreme terrain drives, with the intent of processing the journey not only outside but also on the inside. I believe that the outdoors and driving as a medium has a huge potential to free you up, it tells you your limits and takes you beyond your perceived physical and mental boundaries. In addition, it also gives you an insight into the remote corners of the world, exposes you to exotic cultures and lifestyle and widens your worldview. The major driving force behind WBB is Empowerment via Mobility. The first big expedition WBB undertook was from Delhi to London. It was India’s first all-women driving expedition from Delhi to London, I took the lead in the journey which was 23,800 km long. After that, I undertook India’s first overland solo drive to the Pole of Cold in north eastern Siberia. With this new expedition in Nepal, we have become the first crew of women drivers to reach Lo Manthang. We also have become the first Indian convoy, which is manufacturer led, to reach Chosar. Apart from organizing these kinds of expeditions, WBB also builds capacities of people to undertake such expeditions; we train and help people prepare for extreme terrain driving.
Is women empowerment behind all these journeys?
You can say that, but that’s not all. What I believe is if you are not mobile, you cannot integrate with the socio-economic fabric of any place, whether rural or urban. And it is the same for men and women. A woman who is based in a rural area and is not mobile, has very little chances of seeking even the basic development services like healthcare or education. Likewise, an urban woman who lives in one corner of a city and has an employment opportunity in the other corner, she would miss the job if she doesn’t know how to get there. This is why mobility is very important, and I believe in Empowerment via Mobility, and this is the cause WBB supports, propagates and advocates. A part of WBB’s work is to conduct formative studies in different remote Himalayan regions of India, to understand how women connect mobility and empowerment. The other part of our work is organizing and undertaking first-of-its-kind expeditions. And the central part of our work is to build capacities of women to be able to undertake such expeditions.
Did you get what you expected from this journey?
We were a crew of nearly twenty people: four women drivers and a few men drivers as welll, and a service team of three. We had nine vehicles in the convoy: seven Mahindra Scorpios, one Mahindra Getaway and one Mahindra Thar. It was a mixed crew, people with varied driving capacities. There were some experienced drivers and some new ones as well.
We started from Delhi and reached Pokhara in two days. We rested for a day in Pokhara to prepare. Then the next day we drove to Kalopani from Pokhara. From there, we drove to Muktinath after plenty of acclimatization. Then we drove off on the Lo Manthang route. The scenery was so gorgeous, but the road pushed it even further. It was four-wheel driving in its best form and we loved it. We crossed Kaligandaki and it was adventurous and fun. We stayed in local homes and tea houses; the accommodation and food wasn’t fancy at all and some of the places didn’t even have a restroom, but somehow we all adapted to it.
Next day we drove to Lo Manthang and it was the most amazing part of the drive. There were many difficult sections, narrow roads and cut stones and rock. At some sections, you couldn’t even see the road, so you had to guess where you should place the wheels. There’s no question of driving in these roads without four wheel drive, it’s just impossible. There were very steep ascents at places, and from a driver’s point of view, it is very interesting because you don’t see such intensity in terrain anywhere. I have driven across the Indian Himalayas, but this was much tougher and more treacherous than that. Then we reached Lo Manthang and rested for a day, but had to evacuate two crew members because of altitude sickness. We returned considerably fast, we outdid ourselves on the journey back.
What was the biggest challenge during this journey?
The most challenging was the fact that I had a crew of drivers with different levels of driving experience. And this was the first time I did this type of journey with a crew. I usually do solo drives.
You have travelled to many remote regions in this part of the world. What do you think are the impediments for women to be mobile, and thus empowered?
When I started WBB three years ago people hinted that driving was a man’s domain, which is totally untrue. It’s a gender neutral skill as opposed to what most people believe. With enough practice, you can become a good driver regardless of your gender. I started on the premise that women don’t find the opportunities to hone their skills. I wanted to create a platform for women to go on these kinds of journeys and improve their driving skills. In these three years, I have realized that in driving and being mobile, there is something deeper to this. And in our part of the world, women are not the decision makers in this regard. There are a few impediments for this. One is less financial empowerment of women and the other is the family itself; most of the families are stereotypical patriarchal types. They arbitrarily define the role of women. These are the fundamental impediments.
What would you like to say to off-road enthusiasts and female drivers?
Journeys are about stretching human potential. There is always a ‘within’ and ‘outside’ component to it. When you undertake any journey, it is very important that you also undertake the same within yourself and see what you get from it.
Tell us about your collaboration with Mahindra.
Mahindra is the only vehicle I know inside and out, and Mahindra also happens to be the first vehicle that I drove. When you undertake extreme overland expeditions, you need to know your vehicle. There is no question of heading out there on pure bullish confidence, you need to be able to work with the vehicle, and it should be something you are very comfortable with. Among Indian vehicles, Mahindra are the only capable vehicles for these types of expeditions. It has been very evident through this journey, because almost all the vehicles we saw on the way were Mahindra, be it Scorpio or Bolero. This expedition even heightened my respect for Mahindra vehicles.
Vinod Nookala, Senior Brand Manager, Mahindra Adventures.
What is Mahindra Adventures? What are its core values?
Mahindra Adventures is an experiential marketing activity of Mahindra marketing which was started in 2011. The objective was to give our customers the experience of driving Mahindra vehicles in different terrain. We wanted them to realize the true potential of our vehicles. We want people to know that the original DNA of Mahindra, the toughness and ruggedness is in each and every vehicle that we make. We essentially want people to drive Mahindra and have some life changing experiences. The core values of Mahindra Adventure are the essence of adventure itself, and the sense of freedom. ‘Live young, Live Free’ is our core philosophy. We also want our current non-customers to experience Mahindra in its truest form, by undertaking journeys which are not really suitable for any other vehicle. We want Mahindra to be the medium for people to achieve their goals, be it wildlife photography or women empowerment. Anything that makes people take to tough terrain, we want them to look forward to Mahindra, that’s our goal.
Why did you make this association with WBB? How does it promote the brand values of Mahindra?
The proposal of WBB was very interesting for us. Women drivers driving in extreme terrain, that’s where our vehicles fit in. We also have been conducting extreme drives to high altitude places and deserts and other extreme terrain. When WBB approached us, we thought that this is going to be a very adventurous journey. Our core values are adventure, and tough and rugged DNA, and we also believe in empowering people, especially women. So we agreed to their proposal. Moreover, Mahindra is guided by other philosophies too, like accepting no limits and driving positive change. We have achieved these two core values with this drive. We accepted no limits, and I am happy that WBB chose our vehicles to be the medium for their goal.
How was the experience for you?
I have been driving off-road for fifiteen years, and for the last eight years I have been driving with Mahindra Adventures. This is one of the most challenging journeys that I have undertaken, and this required all of the experience and skill I have acquired as an off-road driver over the years. Because of the narrow roads and hard terrain and high altitude, this was a different drive altogether. High altitude affects human performances and the performance of the vehicles as well as they can’t breathe that well in high altitude. We were driving on four-wheel drive for four days straight; we did some incredible water crossings. And I can happily share that throughout the expedition, we didn’t have a single break down or a single flat tire. We didn’t even have to use the spares that we carried for emergencies. I give full credit to the drivers, and the vehicles and the engineering capability that we have in terms of building these kinds of vehicles. I can say this is one of the toughest drives I have undertaken.
I would also like to say that one should trust Mahindra for your mobility needs, and on such hard terrains, nothing else will do. Most women drivers, even here in Nepal, if you ask a woman if she wants to drive an SUV, they think it’s too big and tough to drive. Many women have aspirations to drive an SUV, but they think it would be too tough. Through this journey and the women drivers’ experience, they found the Mahindra Scorpio to be as easy as driving a sedan; and on the other hand, it gives you more confidence while driving.
Do extreme terrain like Upper Mustang exploit the true potential of Mahindra vehicles?
Yes definitely. I was a part of this journey and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many Mahindra vehicles on such tough terrain. There were actually no other vehicles on the road other than Mahindra. Those steep gradients, water crossings and muddy roads were no match for Mahindra vehicles. So this expedition to Upper Mustang is a true testimony of our core DNA.