No one thought they could do it. Engineers and auto industry specialists had told them it was impossible. Even they weren't completely sure that their tiny car--a Tata Nano Twist--could make it through 18,000 kilometres in rough terrain from London to Mongolia over a gruelling two-month schedule.
Yet, on Thursday, the three Bengaluru-based friends--Sunaina Pamudurthy, Binoy John and Bhairav Kuttaiah--ended their 48-day trip across 13 countries, five mountain ranges, three river crossings, and a massive desert to reach the finish line in the 2016 Mongol Rally. All this to raise funds and awareness for children in Indian shelters.
It was Kuttaiah who had first heard about the rally. In a Whatsapp conversation last August, the criminal lawyer asked Pamudurthy and John if they would like to do this together. Kuttaiah and John were childhood friends, and they followed rallies closely. Pamudurthy had gone to college with them in Bengaluru, but they had met only once they graduated, about five years ago. They had travelled together in a road trip earlier, Bengaluru friends driving up to Coorg. Last year, they took part in the Singapore Grand Prix. But this would be dramatically different.
All three were up for a challenge, but they knew it would be a huge commitment. They would need to take two months off their regular lives, and for three working professionals, it was going to be tough to organise their lives around the rally.
"We didn't mean the "yes" at that time," said Pamudurthy, who works with a startup. "It's probably not on anyone's bucket list because it's so unconventional."
A trip like the Mongol Rally can be challenging in many ways, but it can also make or break friendships. "You have to make sure you are ok with 50 days in a closed space with two others," said Pamudurthy. "We are three different characters. We knew it would be too much fun on the road."
So they decided to dive right in.
John, who works in the automobile industry, has his own startup, and he worked out a schedule that would allow him to take the time off for the rally. Pamudurthy's schedule too allowed her similar flexibility. Kuttaiah timed his job change in a way that the transition period coincided with the rally. They really wanted to make it work.
"We wanted to stand out," said Pamudurthy. "We just really wanted to make a difference through our journey. We wanted to think beyond ourselves."
Pamudurthy had, in the past, volunteered for the non-profit Make A Difference (MAD), which helps children in shelter homes. As the Mongol Rally requires participants to choose a charity of its choice, the team decided to raise money for MAD.
"We feel that the education space is the answer to most of India's problems," Pamudurthy said. "But education doesn't ensure the children aren't back in the streets. We picked MAD because they go beyond education, and give emotional support and run programs for these children to actually solve the problem."
"We just really wanted to make a difference through our journey. We wanted to go beyond ourselves."
The trio then approached Tata Motors because they wanted to drive a Nano for the rally. They wanted it to be really challenging, and the rules of the rally require the car to be below 1000cc. Driving the tiny Nano through 13 countries would certainly fit the 'challenging' criteria--it's a car built for city roads, not rough travel. Experts from the technical and automobile industry had told them it was improbable that the Nano could go all the way.
But John had a Nano, and they had decided they would drive one for the rally. They wrote to Ratan Tata to tell him their plan, just on a lark. "He actually replied to us and wished us luck," said Pamudurthy, adding that Tata Motors became an official sponsor, giving them a Nano Twist for the rally.
"No one really believes in us ending this," Pamudurthy had told me towards the beginning of their trip. At the time they were on the 11th day of their trip, and had clocked 5,000 kilometres and stopped at Toulon, in the south of France. "It motivates us more to finish it," she said.
"We are pretty confident the car can make it."
There were plenty of obstacles--their car withstood some severe beating on more than one occasion, they lost their way in Mongolia and got stuck in the sand in the Gobi desert, and visa complications in Russia almost forced Pamudurthy out of the rally--but they survived it all.
As the three friends travelled across France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Belarus and several more countries, they found themselves being welcomed into locals' houses, eating their food, sharing cultures. "We packed Maggi and all to 'rough it out' but they (the locals) are doing everything they can, pack food like our moms do back home," said Pamudurthy. "The hospitality of the locals is the highlight."
Everywhere they travelled, they found people cared about the cause they were raising money for. "People in the remotest provinces of France concerned about children in India," said Kuttaiah. "Smallest of small villages wanted to donate." By the end, the team had raised enough money to help 150 children for a year in shelter homes across India.