Many people have been to Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in Ladakh, year after year, hoping to catch a glimpse of the snow leopard. Photographer Nitin Pasricha however, was among the lucky few to catch a rare sighting on his first trip. He was part of a 10-night guided driving holiday through the Spiti Valley when his group received a call from a local hotelier in Chicham who tipped them off.
“We got news of leopards being spotted at the sanctuary. We drove quickly from Theog [7,578 feet] to Chicham [13,615 feet]. Usually, one has to acclimatise to the elevation at Chicham for a few days before they hike up to the sanctuary but we did not have time. Amidst sheets of white snow, we spotted two snow leopards. They were mating — an incredibly rare moment,” he says.
He was numb, he says. He stood still, not taking his camera out.
If he had not been travelling by car, it is unlikely that he would have been able to catch this sight. OneLatitude, his travel company, has received inputs regarding the animals from the hotel they usually tie up with.
With snow chains and arid landscapes for company, Nitin clocked around 1,350 kilometres all through Spiti Valley. He plans to return next February to be amidst snowfall and find the leopards again.
Driving holidays in the country are not new. On weekends, families and friends who enjoy quick getaways tend to make an effort to step on the accelerator and take the car out for a drive. More recently though, the drives have become more adventurous, including unexplored foreign destinations.
Travel companies that especially focus on curating driving holidays have been putting together itineraries offering both popular tourist locations as well as off-beat trails with a side of luxury.
The prices for these holidays within India are usually upwards of ₹1 lakh per person for a 10-day vacation. The starting rate for international driving vacations is usually between ₹3.5 lakh and ₹5 lakh. It increases based on the number of days.
Customers of companies that curate travel experiences, have been exploring places like Namibia, the Balkans (countries like Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina) Cuba and Kazakhstan, sometimes crossing several international borders. This industry, among the worst hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, is bouncing back to its original glory, with more travel services being offered across the world.
A trip a month during each region’s most glorious tourist season has now become guaranteed. An interesting trend remains that a large number of their clientele come back to repeat their holidays.
Today, on driving holidays, a mechanic, a personal chef and a spare driver are present to aid with technical difficulties. Food and stay options remain luxe. Even the rest and fuel stops are picturesque. There are visas for cars.
And if you like, you can opt to drive a Lamborghini or an Aston Martin.
Simran and Bharat Seth, co-founders of OneLatitude, began their company in 2021 after noticing that there were several places getting drowned in the noise of mass tourism.
Simran and Bharat had roughed it out on the roads in the past, enjoying their own respective times driving through different countries and from India to Bhutan. They however, realised that a niche audience would enjoy these drives if proper reconnaissance to their destination — stay, food, experiences, fuel stops and toilet breaks — could be curated. Today, the company, like a handful of others in the Indian market, offers guided trips as well as specially curated trips for smaller groups. Their groups range from 10 to 14 people to enable them to personalise each experience.
“We try to get everyone’s dietary requirements well ahead of the trip. On one of our vacations, we knew that someone liked horse riding and another enjoyed kayaking. We tried to facilitate them on our trip,” she says.
Simran adds that she enjoys doing the recce for her trips. On their recent trip through South Africa, the two founders started from Johannesburg, liaising with local driving companies and finding local guides. This becomes seminal to the process for on-ground support. “We try to take different routes during the trip so there are several detours. The aim is not to reach the destination quickly. It is to find the most interesting off-roading places, towns and villages. Scenic routes are also a priority,” she says.
For the team at Embarq which was started by six friends in 2016, a factor that they have seen playing a major role in clients choosing destinations is the side of the road people drive on. This however, has been changing over time.
More recently though, Indians have enjoyed travelling in the Balkan regions, one of their most preferred trips. Like other major Indian travel companies focussed on driving, this operation also takes people through parts of Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Although South-East Asia is a preferred destination with Indians wanting to drive from here to Bangkok (Thailand), border issues at countries like Myanmar pose blockades.
“When tensions ease, the trips will of course become more accessible. For now though, a handful still ship their cars, taking special visas for vehicles called Carnet de Passages by the Western India Automobile Association to drive through these countries. These tend to be priced high and requests to drive one’s own car in distant countries tend to be rare,” says Sujal Patwardhan, co-founder and director, Embarq.
Food continues to remain a priority through travel. All through Central Asia, where meat is staple, Indians who are vegetarian and vegan require specific instructions to be passed onto chefs. Reiteration and specific plant-based recipes have helped them cross the road. “While we curate interesting, fun menus for those who want to try local cuisine like horse meat in Kyrgyzstan, we also carry lots of Indian food on hand,” she says.
Today, visas and permits to travel to Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States of America take time, which can be challenging. The hospitality industry is struggling with manpower post-Covid, she says, adding that the cost for travel has also risen by 20% to 30%.
However, they make up with planning much ahead. Sujal adds that roads all across India have seen improvement, making the country a viable destination for road trips. Their trip across the north-eastern region of India has many takers, she adds. “Trips have almost doubled in post-Covid years. We do fixed departure trips, one every month, with an increase in the average group size. Fully customised, bespoke drives have also almost doubled with large family groups going on driving trips on their own,” she says.
Driving holidays are not for adults alone. To accommodate children, Simran says they create games, scrapbooks and experiences which they will enjoy. Their diet is customised well beforehand and communicated to chefs who travel along, she says.
Sanjay Madan, co-founder and director of Adventures Overland, says that their annual turnover pre-COVID was around ₹10 crore. Their projection for the current financial year ending 2024 stands at ₹20 crore.
Group sizes too have doubled from 10 to 20 guests per trip. To cater to demands, they have also increased their staff in India from 12 before the pandemic to 30 people, he says. Their flagship trip Bus to London covers 18 countries, 20,000 kilometres over 60-odd days. Although it is not a self-drive trip, it sells out in a week each year, he says. This is their most expensive trip, priced at ₹25 lakh.
Adventures Overland, like Embarq, also offers a range of luxury cars to drive in including Land Cruisers, BMWs, Audis, Mini Coopers and Range Rovers. People prefer convertibles on such rides, says Sujal.
When one is tired of driving or finds it challenging during extreme weather conditions, their teams have spare drivers who are adept in manoeuvring through tough roads. “Once, a car encountered some issues in Ladakh and it was snowing and we needed to make it to our destination quickly. We left the car by the side of the road and the mechanic on our team worked on it without any pressure,” Sujal adds.
Both these groups have strong ties with garages and hotels at these remote locations in cases of emergencies.
Considering many of the locations are remote, Simran speaks of having people from the region on the team. It is a rapport that has been built over time that has helped them sustain business, she says. She adds that being conscious about sustainable travel has helped the company grow. They are mindful about their carbon footprint, particularly with respect to fuel. It is why they are focussed on trips with small groups that depend on local expertise.
Simran strongly believes that some things — a breathtaking sunrise, an odd yet amazing culinary experience — could only be experienced while driving through a town. While the process of driving may be challenging, it is equally rewarding.
Cars quickly become the medium through which one makes interesting friendships in unknown destinations.