Conquering Himalayan Heights on Vintage Land Rovers
Halfway up the long, tiring slog to the highest point in West Bengal (India), Sandakphu, I'm beginning to wish I was more Land Rover and less human. I'm trekking in the Singalila National Park on a ridge line straddling West Bengal and Nepal and am in the shadow of the Kanchenjunga range of the Himalayas. Famous for rhododendron blooms carpeting the mountainsides, this trek is also a great way to catch the panorama of Himalayan ranges from Everest in the west to Kanchenjunga towards the east.
Sandakphu at 3636m (11929ft) is a three day climb up the ridge. Or six bouncy, butt-numbing hours by Land Rover. That too a 1950s-vintage Land Rover, no less. The Land Rovers make it look so easy, climbing all the way in low gear, while I, mere human, resemble nothing so much as an antiquated relic on two legs, huffing and puffing my way up the ridge.
My guide and I had started the trek from a place called Maneybhanjang, 30 km from Darjeeling, which is also the home of the Singalila Land Rovers Association. The Association consists of a pool of 40 vehicles which take turns to haul passengers and rations to the trekking huts up in the mountains. Vintage car enthusiasts will be particularly excited seeing these Land Rovers which are largely of Series 1 (manufactured between 1948 and 1957) and Series 2 vintage (manufactured between 1958 and 1961). What makes these Land Rovers so unique is that these are the last few vehicles of this vintage being used on such a large commercial scale anywhere in the world.
Stepping out of a modern day Land Rover into one of these vintage vehicles is like a time machine trip. The bakelite steering wheel, the hard bench seats, the prayer flags stretching across the windscreen with a dashboard statue of the Buddha standing guard watchfully, and outside, as a reminder of the long British history in these mountains, a sticker saying “Great Britain”. Since the 1960s, these Land Rovers have been performing humble duty lugging mountain light seekers to Sandakphu or bringing up the cooking gas, fowl, potatoes and all the other rations that fuel tea houses and trekkers huts all the way to Phalut, at the confluence of West Bengal, Nepal and Sikkim. Often 12 people are crammed into these vehicles, with the unfortunate ones in the rear bench seats bouncing up and down on hard bench seats.
Land Rovers started as agricultural utility vehicles, a usage that was also foreseen for their role in the Himalayas. While there were restrictions on importing foreign vehicles, Land Rovers being commercial vehicles were allowed to be imported and most ended up in the tea estates of Darjeeling and Assam, while others hauled potatoes in Nepal.
The story of how the Land Rover has managed to survive all these years is a story of the marriage of British engineering and Indian resourcefulness (or as the locals would say, jugaad, a catch all term for cobbled together innovation). The original petrol engine would have long ago been replaced with a Mahindra diesel engine and other essential parts either soldier on, failing which replacements are cobbled together from a motley crew of vehicles such as the Hindustan Ambassador, Mahindra Jeeps and even Enfield motorcycles. And when there's nothing to be cannibalized, it's often the ingenuity of the backyard mechanic and a never say die spirit that keeps these old haulers chugging on. Throw in the ability of the drivers to fix the vehicle on their own and the Land Rover is good for another half century of mountain summitting.
The personalities that drive these vehicles are often as indestructible as the vehicles themselves. Hardy mountain men, they're used to some of the worst road conditions in the world, along with harsh weather and some dangerous ascents. While most passengers are glad to be out of the vehicle after a few jarring hours, for the drivers it's just another day at work. They all have the kind of bonnet patting affection one would expect from owners of muscle cars. Most of them learnt their driving on the Land Rover and would not dream of trading it in for any of the newer crop of SUVs. Kalu Tamang, the chief of the association and owner of a few vintage Land Rovers himself tells me about learning to drive the Land Rover when he was barely of legal age and how he felt an instant bond with the vehicle.
On a particularly steep section of the trail, we stop for a breather. A Series 1 Land Rover comes bouncing up the road and stops. I recognize the driver, Pemba. We'd swapped stories over a cup of tea the previous evening and I'd taken a picture of him and his wife in front of his Land Rover (or as his wife told me, a picture of the loves of his life). He's carrying a massive Buddha idol for a new monastery that's being built a little way up the trail. While we're catching up, a convoy of Land Rovers roars past, loaded to the tailgate with cooking vessels and passengers hanging on for dear life. My guide Rajen Mokta tells me that there's a marriage happening near Kalapokhari, which is another day's hike for us. One of his friends, a guide like him, fell in love with a girl up the mountain on one of his frequent trips.
As I resume my trudge up the hill, I wonder if the Land Rover will take the couple away on their honeymoon; after all what could be more romantic than having a 1950s Land Rover drive you up to Himalayan heights?
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