A trek to the Nepal border from Darjeeling took us back in time, to the British era... and on a tranquil and beauteous trudge over hills and vales.
Signing up for a trek from Darjeeling to Maneybhanjyang to the Nepal border past the Singalila National Park didn’t prepare us for the history we would encounter. Or the sheer beauty that led us through hills and vales. A tradition that has become an intrinsic part of this region’s ethos, which has sadly been relegated to a distant memory — The Land Rovers of the British Raj chugging along winding roads. These Land Rovers have been tarrying trekkers and travellers on the mountainous and steep inclines of Darjeeling since the British Raj. Legend has it that many old vehicles were left by the Britishers, local youth saw a livelihood in these antique beauties, and revamped them completely. So much so that the great Land Rover’s classic body is no more. It’s been fashioned for the terrain, and what’s available in spare parts! The drivers are folklore here as they rev up the antique engine, cough up those mountainous curves. We were dropped off at a village on the foothills of the magnificent mountains, to be taken by the ever-smiling Land Rover driver towards Nepal, past small villages with tiny monasteries, and a few homes scattered with prayer flags flying high, to the border of Nepal. Many take a breather from the arduous climb, and incline with a welcoming hot sumptuous slurp of thukpa, and then trudge past the hills and winding paths gulping the freshest of air, revelling in the beauty.
Our guide was the very knowledgeable Nikhil, who takes aspirants for week-long treks. As newbie trekkers, we settled for a day trek going down! But first, was our altercation with the Land Rovers that sadly, have since, been banned (though some still chug along) tarrying trekkers and their luggage. No ordinary vehicle can make those turns. So it falls on these creaking beauties to manoeuvre those steep curves. Revamped and refurbished, from bumpers, seats, body, some still have the original chassis. They form the livelihood of the youth of this region. But because there are no proper papers for most vehicles, and parts are not in production, authorities have deemed them unfit and dangerous, banning them, much to the dismay of the drivers who want to see this part of hilly history prevail. These chugging vehicles were used on tea plantations in this rugged and twisty terrain. We had a smiling young Maneybhanjyang resident who made us sit in a bare grey vehicle which coughed and spluttered along sharp turns, giving us many a tense moment as it veered to, our surprise, towards nadirs and dangerous edges, safely. This Land Rover of ours even went up a grass-topped hill to stop for breakfast at a local shack where we welcomed hot piping tea in the nippy weather, and gobbled on scrambled eggs made by the lady of the shack. We hopped onto our antiquated beauty towards another small village with a beautiful monastery (taken care of by a family in the village). The monastery was specially opened for us. We paid our respects, and marvelled at the different forms of the Buddha and colourful depictions in this peaceful place of worship.
The maximum number of Land Rovers Series 1 and 2 are operational along the Maneybhanjyang to Sandakphu and Phalut trail which is the most famous and beautiful trek in North Bengal. The Landie as it’s fondly called was famously conceived after a sketch on a beach by the chief designer of the British Rover Company in 1947 during the aftermath of World War II. Most of the surviving Landies are Series 1 and Series 2 (produced between 1948 and 1961). Our driver was heard complaining about how their livelihood was in danger, and spoke of his vehicle with a fondness of a long lost friend. Apparently the parent company was coming in for Land Rover’s 70th anniversary celebrations to rever this age-old tradition soon. A tradition that might be banished as most of these fabricated vehicles are living on their last leg, with no spare parts available, and the authorities breathing down on them. A vehicle synonymous with the heritage of Darjeeling, one hopes that something can be done to help the drivers of this area and their creaking beauties.
We reached our base Tonglu and trekked back down after a hot meal of Wai Wai noodles. The trek seemed easy enough. And then we realised that going down meant going up many a hill for about 25 km! A mammoth task! The path was green, blooming with flowers like the famed magnolia spreading its scent, as we walked, huffed, puffed, and made our way up slowly, heaving, down steep inclines as our knees buckled. We took a breather at one peak… where the air was crisp, the wind caressing our sweaty faces. We stopped at the shack to have their fermented beer made of ragi. Beautiful, tranquil and invigorating, we walked on, and in the distance, we heard those Land Rovers spluttering along. This is Army outpost land, with nary a village. We chanced upon one, waved at a few trekkers who braved the uphill, and gulped cold water from a stream, drank sweet tea with gusto with some Parle G biscuits…
As first timers, we were out of breath. But awestruck by the beauty. We were reminded of a quote by mountaineer Erhard Loretan, “All my life, I have never felt as happy on Earth as when I’m getting closer to the sky.” This is true… as the untouched path, the sheer magnificence of the mountains, and the pristine air takes over those tired limbs as you walk along… it’s not the destination that beckons, but the journey that invigorates.
Save the Land Rovers
The famous Land Rovers were brought during the 1950s by British tea planters who chose to stay back after the Independence. It was used as the mode of transportation in the tea gardens of Darjeeling. By the 60s, the Britishers left but the Land Rovers stayed back. The vehicles were used as public transport at all over Darjeeling, that also served the locals for more than three decades. These hardy touch antique vehicles are still serving in this rugged terrain of hills for the past 70 years.