No place in India has a more prominent place in Land Rover’s history than Darjeeling, specifically the treacherous route from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu, the highest peak in Darjeeling located on the border of Nepal. Flashback to circa 1958. It’s just about a decade after Independence and life is tough in that sparsely populated area along the Indo-Nepal border. The locals, however, have been resolute in beating the odds, using ponies to move supplies and carry people up and down that difficult route. And then the first lot of the Series 1 Land Rovers arrived.
In fact, between 1958 and 1994, nearly 300 Land Rovers were brought into Maneybhanjang, all to carry people and supplies over what primarily were pony tracks with ridiculously steep gradients and hairpin corners. Given that today it is still home to around 40 original Land Rovers, the Maneybhanjang-Sandakphu route is truly the land of Land Rovers and we couldn’t possibly have had a better place to celebrate 70 years of this British icon.
This mesmerising story is matched only by the sheer beauty of the whole region. Talk about a local’s secret; it appears as if much of the world is yet to discover this unparalleled region, where the gigantic Kanchenjunga - the third highest mountain in the world, dominates the horizon and wide reaching valleys and tea gardens give a surreal perspective to the views. No wonder it’s a secret you will want to keep to yourself and it’s all within close proximity to the Darjeeling district.
Our celebratory drive across the Maneybhanjang-Sandakphu route actually kicked off after our overnight stay at Chamong, in a bunch of modern Discovery and Discovery Sport models. Following an hour long ride, we arrived at Maneybhanjang. Although a small town, it was bustling with locals going about their business and some tourists. Within seconds of filtering through the congested main market area, we came across several old Land Rovers in their element (in this part of the world that is), ferrying people and commodities.
Next to these daily driven heroes, the group of heritage cars (including a couple of Series 1 and a Series II A lightweight) that were to join us for the day, looked shiny and clean. Luckily, all three were running on the original petrol motor, which is rare given that most of these old workhorses here had long since been converted to run on Mahindra diesel engines for better efficiency, of course.
Sandakphu is now best known as a trekkers' paradise and the route leading up to it is far too narrow to drive comfortably. It is steep all the way through and full of hairpin corners and loose boulders. To give you an idea, the distance from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu is just 36 kilometers but the climb is so arduous, it took us over three hours to reach our turn-around point.
Fortunately, the first 20 or so kilometres had us driving over a smooth concrete road which was good for my back as I rode shotgun in the lightweight Series II. Behind the wheel sat Samantha Dong whose grandfather had lovingly maintained this car since the fifties. “You simply cannot beat the charm that this car has. It’s really good”, she said enthusiastically as she drove up the mountain without breaking a sweat.
As we negotiated the steep hairpins, the landscape along this route gradually changed from luscious greenery to the grand, harsh vistas of the Kanchenjunga range. All this while, we drew nearer to our destination - Tumling, a small hamlet close to the Indo-Nepal border.
The last few kilometres of the route was a real humdinger. The concrete road is long gone and in its place you will find proper 4x4 terrain full of rocks and small boulders. It was here that I could finally see Samantha having her work cut out as the old Land Rover struggled to make those steep hairpin turns over the rocky terrain. It may be a bare-bones lightweight vehicle, but there is only so much you can do with a 1.6-litre 55bhp motor under your right foot. That said, it was still incredible seeing this 50 year old vehicle climbing up the seemingly impossible hill without over heating or anything really.
For the run back down to Maneybhanjang from Sandakphu we were told to switch to one of the modern day Land Rovers. We got the Discovery Sport and boy was I glad as we gently rolled down the narrow and steep byway that drifts down the mountain in sharp arcs suitable for compact rally cars. Driving the Disco Sport, I was fully counting on the electronics, specifically its Hill Descent Control function to avoid getting into any trouble.
The byway made for a spectacular snaky descent down the loops. The Discovery Sport, meanwhile, made light work of the limited traction and did a great job of cocooning us from the rough terrain and the rain. Land Rover’s brilliant Terrain Response system and the strong diesel motor kept us going without any hiccups whatsoever.
By the time we reached Chitrey, which is about a few kilometres shy of Maneybhanjang, it was beginning to get dark. However, we found out later from the guys over at Land Rover that we actually ran a good constant pace throughout the day to be able to get back down before sunset.
These old Land Rovers, then, not only shaped the lives of the locals but also helped develop the entire ecosystem of the region, providing livelihood and helping people make more of their world. As for the whole setting, it goes without saying that the stunning natural beauty of this region combined with the friendly small towns will draw any nomadic soul back here over and over again.