The Himalayan Challenge
21 September - 11 October 2018
SEPTEMBER 26, 2018
Manali to Shimla
Hanging by a thread
At 5.00am this morning, with the mercury sat at a chilly 10°c, a convoy of some 33 rally cars rolled out of the Manali White Mist Hotel, heading south.
John Spiller had worked out a way to get his men and machinery out of the Kullu Valley and back into the game. The details of this plan had been announced over dinner the previous evening. All who heard it seemed to agree that it was a bold move indeed and one which was likely to break the current deadlock, and would hopefully, get us on the road again.
As the convoy stole through the unlit streets, (as quietly as such a collection could) the only other living souls that stirred were the stray dogs, picked out variously by the cool blue moonlight and the flickering headlamps of the cars.
Key ERA team personnel had already gone ahead, with some having left as early as 4.00am, in order to put this audacious escape plan into effect. They carried orders, 'secure the last bridge in the valley at all costs and to Hold until relieved'. This was no ordinary bridge though, and this would be no ordinary crossing. Our early morning passage over the very narrow Raison suspension bridge will most definitely go down as an extraordinary feat.
With only the moon to guide them, and a set of well-prepared route notes, this mechanised column, stretching for almost a kilometre, was led by Ed Rutherford, who was charged with delivering everyone safely to one vital hairpin bend which led to the crossing point. This sharp right turn, onto a semi-metalled track was the point of no return. Too narrow to turn around on and too long and steep to reverse back to the road. As such the cars had been rigorously assessed and their dimensions carefully compared with that of the bridge.
The 25 km journey to the bridge passed slowly and, as the white peaks of the high Himalaya disappeared from view, the dire state of the roads we’d be leaving behind became clearer by the minute and our thoughts turned to those not so fortunate who would have to stay, pick up the pieces and live with the consequences of the past few days.
Tony Jones and Jamie Turner were the marshals chosen to line the vehicles up correctly for their crossing and were also on hand to give the crews a quick pep talk, before they set their wheels on the unsteady platform spanning the Beas River. Local vehicles had been using the crossing regularly, so no one doubted the integrity of the structure, but it took a certain amount of resolve to release the handbrake and press the gas pedal.
After a single but seemingly long hour everyone made it safely across to the west bank. The sun rose and began to warm us, and our rally world was suddenly a better place to be in.
Paradoxically, it was pretty much downhill for the rest of the morning as we rolled into the lower foothills through towns such as Kullu, Bhunter, Mandi and Sundernager before checking into a Passage Control in the busy town of Ghaghas where there was also plenty of choice for a midday snack.
The temperature now sat at 30°c and some of the cars suffered on the inevitable climbs out of the valleys and onwards to the night halt in Shimla which sits at 2,000m.
Matthias Bittner and Denis Billon’s Volvo limped for a while with a heat related fuel issue whilst
Bjorn Schage and Trond Brathen’s Morgan blew a water hose and discovered a leaking radiator cap but, these two Peking to Paris veterans decided to sort it out themselves calling on the sweeps only for moral support. Tomorrow they plan on fashioning a permanent repair and will look at their rear shocks which they fear might well be about to fail.
Tonight we’re staying in the Oberoi Cecil and the mood is victorious. It’s likely that we'll be in Shimla for three days at least before we pick up the original rally schedule on day ten but there’s plenty to do and see in this busy town which was once the summer capital of the British Raj.