Twenty-three thousand eight hundred kilometres across 17 countries in 95 days. A travel itinerary founded on such statistics can only be the stuff of legends. Imagine if you were to achieve that in some madly ambitious cross-continental trail. It’s clearly a feat worth boasting about. But Nidhi Tiwari, who drove down in a basic four-by-four all the way from Delhi to London, clocking the exact miles mentioned above, isn’t given to boasting.
“The idea was to cover distances and experience landscapes, so we did not stop too much,” Tiwari says, recalling the expedition she made last year accompanied by two other women, Soumya Goyal and Rashmi Koppar. The party of three, with Nidhi being the sole driver, was flagged off from the Major Dhyanchand Stadium near India Gate in Delhi on 23 July 2015. This marked the beginning of what would be an epic journey from East to West, culminating at last on 27 October 2015 somewhere in central London. This was the first all-women team to travel from Delhi to London by road, and Nidhi became the first woman driver to have done so.
In the lingo of adventure sports, this is called an “extreme overland journey” or XOL. Nidhi heads an organisation, Women Beyond Boundaries, which uses XOL as a symbol of women empowerment. “You will wonder why extreme over-landing is used as a symbol,” Nidhi says. “It is because we feel that if women can do this, then women can aspire to be mobile in daily life. This is the least one can do. It holds a certain symbolic and metaphorical value. That is why we do XOL. Covering large distances, like we did when we went across 2 continents and 17 countries, has an endurance value that comes from extreme situations.”
Travel has always been seen as a metaphor for empowerment. But seldom has this vision been implemented so literally and so effectively. Numerous difficulties present themselves when we take a journey. And the kind of journey Nidhi undertook and plans to undertake in the future — she is heading for a driving expedition to the Himalayas this week, and plans to drive all the way to the Arctic in January 2017 — are riddled with difficulties and unforeseen challenges.
The challenges begin before even the journey does. Getting through the tedious paperwork, including visas, road permits and so on for this wide a geographic range can be a daunting task. The 17 countries in Nidhi’s Delhi-London expedition included India, Myanmar, China, Kyrgyztan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom. Careful deliberations led to the finalising of the route. Nidhi tells us that it took upwards of nine months to lay out the blueprint for this road trip.
“The primary preparation begins first of all with your vehicle, then with your mental state — you have to be emotionally ready to meet challenges — and then with knowing and planning your route,” Nidhi says. “Understanding your vehicle is what helps you to anticipate driving-related issues. And I think this is critical. You must understand your vehicle’s capabilities, limitations and service requirements. It helps you out in planning for additional inputs and fares required. Equally important is to understand your route. You must ensure where all the service points are along the way, as well as the location of the gas stations.” Her Delhi-London trip was sponsored by Mahindra First Choice Wheels, and the vehicle she drove was a Scorpio.
Besides the intensive research, communicating with the locals along the route is also of paramount importance. “You understand the route better and get crucial information from local people along the route. Also, speaking to people who have done certain sections of similar routes and connecting with the larger overlanding communities is beneficial,” she says.
Yet research, communication, planning, all this is secondary to that one thing which lies at the centre of this enterprise: the spirit of adventure. Why else would you want to travel to London by road? “I think,” Nidhi says, “there cannot be a substitute for travelling by road. It’s a matter of perspective and that’s why the journey is important and not so much the destination. That is why at WBB we say the journey is within. When one take a trans-continental drive, one is obviously experiencing, seeing, observing and interacting with so many people and cultures, with so many landscapes. So there is lot of internal change that happens when the boundaries break within us. And similarly, one goes through breaking psychological boundaries which women are typically thought to have.”
Breaking down psychological barriers is important to Nidhi, who decided to take on the Delhi-London challenge after being faced with a crisis in 2014. “I have been a driver for many years,” she says. “In 2014, on a driving trip to Ladakh, I was stuck on a high mountain pass (Baralacha la) on Leh-Manali, and I ended up spending the night in the car. That is when I decided that I was ready to take on something bigger and more challenging. Driving trans-continental is something I had only dreamt of. So the whole thing was about more than merely exhibiting the fact that women are capable of undertaking such extreme journeys. For me personally, Delhi-London was a dream very close to my heart. It was about challenges, and fighting stereotypes, and encouraging and inspiring many more women — to tell them that this is possible.”
Nidhi and her team faced minor and major crises throughout their drive. But the greatest hitch, she recalls, arrived during the Myanmar leg of the journey. “I think the trickiest bit was getting through Myanmar. We had arrived after a very bad cyclone and bridges had been washed off. The roads were flooded. On our route, we needed to cross some 30-40 World War I-era bridges, that had been inundated. We needed to pass them very carefully. And we had to wait 29 days at the Indo-Myanmar border. But it was a great learning experience.”
The 17 countries covered in Nidhi’s Delhi-London expedition included India, Myanmar, China, Kyrgyztan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom.
The team didn’t stop much through the week. Every seven or eight days, one day was reserved for resting and vehicle maintenance. All the rest of the time was spent on the road. And what made the ordeal worthwhile, according to Nidhi, was beautiful scenery unfolding before them: the shifting landscapes, the sunset in Finland.
“Every journey changes you,” Nidhi says. “There is some new insight, understanding developed about yourself and about the kind of person you are when you travel. You learn so much and that is the real beauty of a journey. It has a lifelong impact on you.”
Her next expedition would already have begun by the time this article is published.She set out on 18 June to explore some of the remotest areas on the Himalayan terrain, looking to face up to newer challenges. “This trip, called the Himalayan WBB-Porsche Expedition, is all about the extreme conditions you face due to terrain and altitude. I have Neha V. Sadananda accompanying me. It’s a 4,000km drive. We will also be doing a couple of overland journeys in India this year. And we’ll head for another XOL to the Arctic in January 2017.”
The Himalayan expedition is being done promote issues surrounding women’s health and cancer awareness, and is being sponsored by Porsche India. Pavan Shetty, director, Porsche India, says “We are absolutely delighted to partner with WBB on this unique initiative and see their activities as an essential contribution in the overall progress of women empowerment. Through this expedition, we want to support this cause as well as showcase the endurance of the Cayenne on some of the highest and the most remote places in the world. Women Beyond Boundaries stands for empowerment through mobility. WBB showcases mobility solutions adopted by women in the remote areas through which they traverse. In keeping with this objective the WBB team will also train local women in Ladakh on the topic of extreme overland driving to motivate their movement between remote communities. We are pleased to partner on initiatives that showcase important issues across India. We look forward to partnering on such projects which spread awareness and support social causes.”