By Neelima Agrawal
There was a bit of a fan moment when I first interacted with Gul Panag, stemming mostly from the fact that she was living the life I had planned for myself a few decades ago, and got sidetracked along the way. By this I mean, the lady is actually having a blast, as she ‘works’. She recently finished the second part of her series ‘Off the Road’, travelling through the north eastern region of India, through the beautiful states of Meghalay, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Most people would do that sort of thing on a vacation, and do it in parts for want of leave from office. And she did it for a living! That’s a rare kind of luxury. The part 1 of her ‘Off the Road’ through Leh Laddhakh was aired on Discovery Channel.
Panag’s character in her movie ‘Dor’ was a toughie, a fighter. I saw the movie a few times in the repeat runs on TV. Somewhere, I associate her with that in real life – someone strong and upright. Yes, films have that kind of an impact, leave an indelible impression, and blur the lines of logic and realty. In Off the Road – 2nd season, Gul Panag drove in a Mahindra Scorpio Super Milo, over 2000 kms, accompanied by her best friend Swaty and her two female beagles, Gina and Vegas, in what was to be an all-woman holiday. Her trip is intended to inspire women to be more adventurous, and perhaps emulate such journeys without fear. At all times in the video, it is only these four who are negotiating the arduous segments, gazing at the view, setting up tent etc.
Is it really possible for just women to undertake such a journey, that too in India? Gul was emphatic that it was possible. The advice she gave was not gender specific, but just common sense. Never drive after dark. Plan the journey well ahead. Keep the vehicle in fit condition. The people in the north eastern part of India are more respectful towards women, so that perhaps worked well too. Gul Panag said she chose the North East for its mysterious and untouched vistas, which she got a taste of on her visit to Shillong. Also, that the weather is great, not hot. There is a lake in Arunachal Pradesh, Gul Tso. Naturally, Gul Panag had to check it out.
But this was a movie, however live and unrehearsed the shooting might have been. Also, her film production crew was travelling with her. I asked Gul Panag some pointed questions. And she, thankfully, gave clear honest replies. I remain a fan.
Here is what she said.
Neelima A – Were there any women members in your crew (other than the four you mentioned)?
Gul P – The crew was very small. We had two female crew members from my production company TLP.
Any breakdowns along the way?
Fortunately no breakdowns. The vehicles were reliable and sturdy. We were stranded a few times though, due to landslides, bad weather and even a tree falling across.
What changes/improvements have you made in the production of your 2nd season of ‘Off the Road’ journey, as different from the Leh trip?
Both productions were in vastly different terrains and can’t really be compared. This one though was crafted for the web, keeping in mind the short attention spans that we have. The trip was also more audacious in terms of the areas we traversed.. Terrain was constantly changing and so was the weather. We went through 3 different states. And of course having my two dogs, beagles – Vegas and Gina with us was a new adventure!
You mentioned in our conversation that the entire video recording was natural – i.e. nothing was stage-managed, re-shot? Was this element different from the 1st season’s video of the Leh trip?
That is the USP of the format. The first season too was candid; as is this. The SUV is rigged up with cameras in various angles, and then we’re on a roll as they capture as doing our thing. Even when we are not in the car, the camera follows us. The format is a documentary travelogue.
A very raw footage may not make for a very interesting viewing, and such factors as perfect angles, correct lighting, appropriate apparel and makeup (you are an actor and ex-beauty queen) are expected. Please comment on this.
Let’s let the viewers judge that ! As for me, I’m not hung up on my looks or how they are perceived- perfect lighting, flattering angles and makeup up are not tools we rely on in this documentary travelogue format.
In your latest video – have you mentioned any guidelines (aside from the regular precautions) for women motorists looking to emulate such a journey? If not, please tell us
Absolutely. The entire series constantly features tips and best practices that are emphasized with interesting info graphics.
What were the additional features added to the Mahindra Scorpio used here, to handle the rough terrain?
I customised my Mahindra Scorpio Getaway to be the ultimate expedition vehicle. It has a roof top tent, on board water storage (with a tap and pump), additional lighting , a winch , a high lift jack , a CB radio set and much more.
Were all the specifications of the other vehicles in the entourage the same?
They others had critical customisation in place. Off-road bumpers, winches, a few more things.
Please do share the exact number of crew and cars traveling with you (including drivers, mechanics, doctors), to avoid using a speculative number.
We had a total of 3 cars including the one Swaty and I travelled in. Including us there were 8 people.
Here are some tips and observations from Gul P.
5 Cool Places to Visit In the North East
1. Shillong: For its café life and late night music performances
2. Dawki: Tucked at the border of India and Bangladesh, this small village homes a river popular amongst both the countries
3. Mawlynnong/ Living Roots Bridge: Cleanest village in Asia. The simple Khasi food is to die for! The bridge is a living legend worth climbing all the steps
4. Tawang Monastery: Largest in India and second largest in the world.
5. Ziro village: Home of Apatani tribe and of Ziro festival of music
5 Delicacies to Try In North East
1. Kwai Pan: Betel leaf with lime paste and betel nuts, this is offered to everyone visiting your home or is eaten even at a casual gathering
2. Thukpa: Tibetan noodle soup served with vegetables and at times with your choice of meat
3. Nakham Bitchi: Dry fish boiled and made into a thick soup with tangy flavours, overall complimenting the Meghalayan weather perfectly
4. Chicken momos
5. Pehak: Spicy chutney with fermented soya beans
Top 5 Things to Do
1. Experience music/ nightlife in Shillong
2. Ziplining at Mawkdok
3. Eat the kwaipaan while in Meghalaya
4. Stay at Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong
5. Visit the oldest monastery in India, Tawang Monastery
Music at Ziro
The best things in life come unplanned. That’s exactly how we made this trip happen. Ziro festival of music was a plan we had at the back of our heads. Swaty and I, we both love music. We believe in the bonding that happens over the course of the journey and thought the festival would be a perfect culmination to celebrate our friendship and all things we love, in an evening!
We were under constant pressure to reach to the festival while completing our leg in Meghalaya and northern Arunachal Pradesh. But along all the bad roads, landslides, heavy rain, and broken vehicles, the energy at the festival vanished our tired minds instantly, leaving us to enjoy the evening as it was, with good food, good music, old friends and lots of warmth!
3 Hair-Raising Adventures in the North East
2. Zemithang: An untouched town, 15 kms away from China, where we reached post evening. Finding ourselves in the darkness and complete isolation it was one of those impulsive decisions we had to make to find our way back home safe.
3. Thar in a puddle: At Kaliabhomora bridge, while heading to Bhalukpong, a quiet time at the riverside with Swaty and Gina/Vegas was all I wished for. But what is life without a little bit of drama. Our Thar got stuck in the slush while heading out of the place. And what happened after that…was all a part of quick decision making and theoretical knowledge earned over the years.
5 Tips for Women Travellers
1. Keep fit during the travel: Less time for exercise? 20 minutes of suryanamaskarsin a day and you’re good to go.
2. Do your research: Read on the place you are going to, the norms and culture there and go prepared accordingly
3. Be confident: Draw out a plan, otherwise have a tentative idea
4. Reach a base point before dark
5. Keep a friend or family member apprised of your travel plans
5 Tips on Travelling With Pets
1. Pack clothing and accessories for weather forecasted
2. Confirm hotel’s policy regarding pets before booking your stay
3. When parked and if in a car, roll down the window for good ventilation
4. Keep them hydrated at all points
5. Carry basic medicines prescribed to them
An adventurer at heart and mind, I have always been excited about road trips, automobiles and combining my love for them in one. And trusting my friends at Mahindra, it was time for me to transcend the admiration to reality. That’s exactly how Super Milo was born. Named after my beloved pet Milo, who passed away, this beast of a vehicle is everything I could’ve asked for. An adventure companion that takes you from one place to the other regardless the terrain, weather or your mood.
To build this all-in-one vehicle that can satisfy all the adventurer’s needs, there were certain customizations required, namely:
1. Premium tyres for maximum traction
2. Auxiliary fuel tank
3. An off road bumper that could take on any terrain,
4. A winch for self-recovery,
5. Suspension lift,
6. Additional lights for night driving in bad terrain
7. Stainless steel water tank
8. Rooftop tent