Interested in adventure sports? This summer try off roading in Chennai

All about Chennai’s growing community of off-roaders and the colliding worlds of man, machine and Nature

Updated - April 06, 2023 12:48 pm IST

Published - April 05, 2023 04:18 pm IST

Summer makes for an ideal season for off roading

Summer makes for an ideal season for off roading | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A trail of nine SUVs sets off to an undisclosed location North of Chennai. Past wetlands and fields of red earth they arrive at a sandy patch of land, well off the beaten path. From the vehicles emerge a group of recreational off-roaders who meet every weekend to keep their passion for the sport alive. 

For this community, unforgiving terrains are a barometer for the adrenaline that this underrated sport generates. The thrill of the sport is tied to two key pointers — the undulation or the nature of the landscape and the mechanical challenge that the SUV or four wheeled vehicle must take on.  And of late, Chennai is seeing a robust growth of off-roading communities whose connect is in the clash — with terrains as varied as mud, muck, sand and rock.

Sundararaj Subbarayalu, a mechanical engineer says, “To me off-roading is about three things — first, is to be with Nature, second, is the connect between man and machine. Finally, it is like meditation because it requires complete focus.”

Arkaprava Datta, off-roading organiser and auto motive technician with Chennai-based Terra Tigers, has been organising expeditions for the past fifteen years. “Terra Tigers started off as a recreational space that has now evolved into a professional team owing to the growing interest. We organise sessions, do vehicle prototyping, offer training to budding off roaders on how to retrieve a vehicle when stuck and on the sport in general. We also have our technical division which is called Terra Tech India.”

Competitive off-roaders from Chennai like to unleash higher levels of the sport and test their mechanical strength on rugged, sandy and snowy terrains. While the community is growing, Chennai has always drawn a committed group of off-roaders. The Palar Challenge, held annually before the onset of monsoon, is organised by Terra Tigers and is one of the country’s oldest and most celebrated off-roading challenges.

Jaisalmer in Rajasthan is famed for its Ultimate Desert Challenge where expert players race on the dunes followed by a series of activities that are on the higher side of endurance and difficulty scale.  

Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh is popular amongst off-roaders who own sports bikes and take on the extremely rocky trail on the Sela Pass. 

Goa is a much a sought after destination for the Rain Forest Challenge, held annually during the monsoon season.  

Across the country, the activity is catching on and people drive to sand dunes and sand craters of Rajasthan, rugged and rocky areas of the Himalayan passes, in the snow in Himachal or on mushy and muddy lands in Kerala .  India’s growing off-roading community is a testament to the fact that the sport is no longer limited to its former heartland of Russia, Abu Dhabi, or Africa, where it has been popular for more than four decades.

Unwritten Rules

Common to both recreational and competitive players are some unwritten rules of the game. Major Swaraj Roy, a retired army Major and an adventure sports enthusiast from Chennai who runs Adventure Zone, explains, “When new players learn about off-roading locations and activities on Facebook, they come unsupervised and often drive into badlands, wetlands, barrages and man made structures made for specific purposes — landing them in legal conflict and incurring the bad faith of the people living in the area.” So, when off-roading organisers put together a session, they make sure none of these boundaries are overstepped.

In Chennai, as more people experiment with off-roading, the search is constantly on for quiet, and relatively undiscovered sandy beaches or muddy river beds to drive across. Locations, most of which are about an hour from the city are guarded fiercely, which is how we find ourselves being sworn to secrecy, even as we clamber on board an SUV in a fisherman’s village close to the limits of Pulicat. Off-roading organisers also focus on performing the sport only on landscapes which do not run the risk of erosion or environmental damage. This is why locations remain undisclosed to protect natural bodies.

What gives the sport a foretaste of life, is the purgatory moments that punctuate it. As Arka turns off the ignition after a session and sets the rear view mirror right, he has a changed gaze, one that is able to look defiantly at challenges. With every expedition, there is a yearning to come back. For, an off-roader cannot leave without tread marks on the sand.

In 2005, the seed of off-roading in India germinated on a Yahoo group called Jeep Thrills. In a world devoid of WhatsApp, the group slowly branched into private Facebook groups. The larger group has broken into several smaller communities, belonging to different regions of the country, one of them being Chennai. “It is difficult to put a number to the number of groups there are in Chennai but most have 30 to 40 players who practice diligently, “ says Arkaprava.


A four wheeled drive off roads on sand

A four wheeled drive off roads on sand | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The drill

When one vehicle off roads, six others surround the area and make a stage of sorts like a safety blanket. While off-roading with a group of recreational players in a sandy patch of land in Pulicat, one of the cars — a Pajero, had sunk its heavy wheels into the ground. On being towed out with a tow strap and electric winch, the driver climbed out of the car, hugged and fist-bumped the driver who retrieved the car. The beauty of the sport lies in these subtle shades of camaraderie, making the entire spectacle a moving experience.

Veena strikes a pose

Veena strikes a pose | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We want the cars to get stuck so that the triumph of overcoming the challenge doesn’t go to the head,” asserts Arka. 

Veena poses alongside her Mahindra Thar

Veena poses alongside her Mahindra Thar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Veena Murali is one of the few amateur female players in the community. After 10 years of contemplation, Veena acquired a Mahindra Thar in 2022. On weekends, she off-roads with senior players from the Chennai Jeep Club. “I love four wheeled drives and I believe that whatever man can physically do, women can do the same on any given terrain. I hope more women join me in Chennai. Most of my female off-roader friends are from Kottekkad and Perumbavoor in Kerala,” says Veena.

Off roading in water

Off roading in water | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For Major Roy, the sport is not just limited to a game. “When I was in the Army, we were trained and moulded to absorb higher levels of difficulties in order to navigate our vehicles on terrains accessible only by the Army, in the border areas and under inclement weather conditions,” he says.

Modifying the cars

SUVs in line heading to an off roading spot

SUVs in line heading to an off roading spot | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The world of an off-roader begins in the garage where even damaged sports utility cars can undergo a prototype change and be modelled into a fully functioning off-roading vehicle. “While Mahindra’s Thar is suitable for off-roading, other sports utility vehicles (SUV) have to be a modified 4xwheeled drive vehicle,“ says Arkaprava. 

Off-roading is an expensive hobby. Each session runs the risk of getting stuck and causes wear and tear to the tires, inevitable dents on the body of the vehicle or abrasion to the under carriage. “After each session one will have to spend between ₹5,000 to ₹10,000, depending on the kind of damages incurred,“ says Major Roy. He also adds, “Perhaps this is why most off-roaders are in their late thirties or forties and are driving their third or fourth bought vehicles. Younger people with new cars will think twice before getting into the sport.” 

A drone shot of the Palar Challenge

A drone shot of the Palar Challenge | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On getting stuck, the vehicle needs to be winched or towed out by another vehicle. At times the automobile can also go into self-recovery mode and pull itself out. If all else fails, a tractor is arranged to facilitate recovery.

The Palar river glimmers under the summer sun

The Palar river glimmers under the summer sun | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Attempting to explain the allure of the sport, Major Roy says, “Every time I come across a challenge, I want to make my vehicle overcome it — so you either modify the vehicle or your driving skills. It’s a mechanical challenge where you are pitted against the terrain.”

An aerial view of SUVs, ahead of an off-roading session.

An aerial view of SUVs, ahead of an off-roading session. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Where can you off road this summer?
- Terra Tigers, Ambattur. Contact 7200666657
- Chennai Jeep Club, Royapettah. Contact 9080197056<SU>
- Adventure Zone, Madurantakam. Contact 9444384608<SU>
- Off Road Sports, East Cost Road. Contact 9840922122<SU>
- Tuskers, Tuskers Wilderness on Facebook. Contact 9840299800


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