Photos by Clint ThomasAs the stroke of midnight rolled across time zones, sounds of fireworks, music and shouts from revelers dominated the otherwise unruffled ambience of Gajner Palace. Often referred to as a jewel in the Thar, Gajner Palace is indeed an oasis in the barren desert, enchanting in its green contrast to the sprawling sand dunes. Built on the edge of Gajner lake, this heritage property is also surrounded by a wildlife sanctuary, making it a traveler’s utopia.At one of the lakeside terraces of the palace, jubilant yells of folks who decided to spend their winter holidays with a good dose of adventure ushered in the New Year 2015. Standing by the lake in the teeth-chattering midnight cold was an adventure in itself, but the adventure I’m talking about had started a week earlier in Delhi, when Mahindra flagged off the Royal Escape 2014. I had all my New Year plans in place when Mahindra invited me to join the Royal Escape media team, but having partaken in many Mahindra Expeditions before and witnessed how impeccably organized they are, I didn’t have to think twice of junking my plans. While the rest of the world was sleeping off the Christmas Day hangover, I joined a group of 23 families and friends in Delhi to embark on the six-day Royal Escape to Rajasthan. A brigade of 27 Mahindra SUVs – Scorpios, XUV 5OOs and Ssangyong Rextons along with two Thars - were ready for flag off and I was handed the key to one of the two Thars. Although Thar was not the ideal car for the 2000 odd kilometres drive along highways that merge into the horizon, I knew that I would have the most fun on the sand dunes. So, with a wicked grin on my face, I joined the tail of the convoy. In fact, driving isn’t the best part of the expedition because it is mostly about disciplined convoy driving, adhering to the instructions from the lead car. Yes, the participants certainly get their share of off-roading thrills, but the Royal Escape is all about royal boarding and lodging at genuine palace hotels and lunch halts at centuries old havelis characterized by their grandiose carvings and frescoes, for an unparalleled regal experience. A Royal Affair
Alsisar is a small town that lies in the heart of Rajasthan's Shekhawati region, renowned for its painted havelis and charming rural landscape. A narrow road meandering through the town led to Alsisar Mahal, an epitome of Rajasthani royalty.
Grand banquet hall for the royal dining experienceTemperatures dropped to near-freezing levels at night and we retired to the luxury of the royal suites Glamping Under the Stars
The second day of the Royal Escape saw the convoy drive past the lush mustard fields before hitting the signature terrain of Jaisalmer – the bushy sand dunes seamlessly disappearing into infinity. A good 550 odd kilometres were to be covered on the second day, but the muscular SUVs from Mahindra made light work of the longest drive of the expedition. Rextons, XUV 5OOs and Scorpios drove like a dream on the smooth highways of Rajasthan. Being part of the Mahindra off-roading fleet, my Thar had an added ride height and I had to take it easy around even the slightest of corners. Yet, the Thar kept good pace with the convoy, sometimes cruising even at 140kmph comfortably. I had already fallen in love with the raw and rugged nature of the Thar – the loud engine, tough gear shifting and steering offering plenty of feedback.
XUV 5OO passing by a mustard field (Photo by Mahindra)We reached Bikaner by noon and in keeping with the royal nature of the expedition, lunch was arranged at the Lalgarh Palace. built by Maharaja Ganga Singh between 1902 and 1926, this oriental fantasy made of red sand stone flaunts a mix of Rajput, Muslim and European architecture. With a long distance yet to go, we couldn’t spend much time admiring the majesty of the Palace. Every vehicle was fitted with a wireless unit for the organizers to communicate with convoy members and vice versa. For most participants, it doubled up as a means to fight the afternoon slump. The ‘radio chats’ ranged from fun to informative; from cricket score updates to knowledge sharing by experts in the group– automobile engineers, doctors, pilots and whatnot.
Sleeping under the starsTwo nights of seclusion and solitude awaited us in Jaisalmer. Somewhere in the midst of the desert, a dozen tents have sprouted up like a cluster of huge mushrooms. The tents, too, are in line with the theme of Royal Escape, complete with all luxurious amenities. Above the tents there are the desert stars - tremendous, bright, blinking, inestimable. Once in a while, one detaches itself and shoots across the sky… I simply gawked at them till my neck hurt. Cocktails and dinner by fire was a great way to unwind after a tiringly long drive. The circle of acquaintances has grown broader and conversations friendlier, and the party continued a little longer that night before sleeping under a heaven full of stars.
Conquering Thar with Thar
The day driving enthusiasts have been looking forward to has finally come. At the Sam sand dunes base camp, a stone’s throw away from Jaisalmer, Mahindra’s off-roading guru Vinod Nookala explained the basics of sand dune driving to the participants. Meanwhile, the service team reduced the tyre pressure to 20psi to ensure maximum traction on the sand. They had even removed the front bumpers of the Scorpios for a tension-free off-roading experience. Only the SUVs equipped with the 4L mode(4×4 lowrange) made it to the dunes while the AWDs (XUVs and Rextons) stayed back. There were two Boleros equipped with winches to rescue stranded vehicles.
Mahindra Thar tastefully modified by XSOThe key here is to keep the momentum going as smoothly as possible. Aggressive throttle inputs and braking cause the tyres dig deep into the sand, making recovery very difficult. Another thumb rule is to traverse the dunes straight up or down, because the downhill wheels dig in deep even on a slight angle, leading to a potential rollover. When talk came up of Rexton’s off-roading abilities, most of us were apprehensive about this two-tonne AWD SUV making it up the dunes. However, Vinod looked pretty confident about it. He turned off the ESP, slotted the auto box into manual and stormed up a dune causing sand to arc up in spectacular fashion. That was pretty impressive for a heavy all wheel drive SUV without 4L mode. With its 184bhp and 402Nm of torque on tap, the Rexton proved all non-believers wrong. However, the real show stealers were the Thars - one in stunning Red colour and the other tastefully modified by XSO team. Both of them looked absolutely stunning in the backdrop of pristine golden sand dunes. Mahindra Thar’s relatively light kerb weight worked in my favour and it never got bogged down in sand. I cut across the mounds of sand, kicking up a gritty orange trail. Although some Scorpios got stuck while attacking the dunes, the rescue vehicles pulled them out with ease. All participants had a riotous time on the dunes and most of them have now become experts in sand driving. There was too much fun to be had that we drove and drove till the sun descended beyond the horizon, painting the golden dunes in red.
The Gajner Palace surrounded by water and dense greenery in the middle of desolate desert still remains a wonder to me. However, one leisure day at this serene environment was a much-needed one after seeing nothing but sand for almost five days. It was a day well spent in the midst of history and nature as some took a cruise in the lake in a solar-powered boat, some enjoyed a safari in the surrounding sanctuary, some went shopping to the Bikaner market, some luxuriated in the opulence of the palace and some simply sat on the park benches enjoying the stillness and laziness of the day.
Gajner Palace boasts wildlife galoreThe setting couldn’t be any better to step into the New Year. A grand New Year party followed by a seven-course dinner marked the culmination of Mahindra’s Royal Escape 2015. On the New Year’s morning, as I woke up to the birds singing and sunlight streaming in through the palace’s stained glass windows, I had no reasons to regret being away from my folks for the New Year. Royal Escape is just one of the many activities Mahindra Adventure organizes every year. The Mahindra Adventure calendar comprises a series of events throughout the year such as the popular off-roading event, the Great Escape, several Challenges (sporting events in keeping with the company’s promise of providing adrenaline pumping challenges), Multi-Day Escapes, such as the Monastery Escape (10 days) & Royal Escape (6 days), the Tri- Nation Escape (Bhutan, India & Nepal- 14 days) & Authentic Goa (4 days).