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Meet the overlanders who are making a home on the road

Self-reliant travel over long distances is catching on as more people discover the joy of open highways, living out of their vehicles and sleeping under star-strewn skies

Overlander Dhruv North and his van (Sulaksh Kaushik)

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The first time Dhruv “North” saw the 1988 Matador van that would become his home for weeks on end, he nearly cried. “It was in such terrible shape,” recalls the 33-year-old Dehradun-based businessman, who runs the popular YouTube channel First Indian Camper that focuses on overlanding and van living in India. Dhruv dropped his last name and took on the name of the van, North—“a symbolic representation of life” that draws from the expression “find true North” or go in the right direction—that he had bought from a seller in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, in 2017. He spent around three years restoring it. “Our transaction occurred over the phone. I bought it without seeing it,” he recalls.

Dhruv, who was based in Gurugram, Haryana, at the time, had already experienced travelling and living out of his car by then, creating a makeshift bed and storage space in his Datsun MUV ( multi-utility vehicle) by ripping out the rear seats. It wasn’t easy, he says. “I wanted a bigger vehicle that could accommodate more people, where I could cook and so on.” When the van arrived, more beaten up than he expected, he decided to rebuild it from scratch. It was a 1988 variant that had gone out of production in the early 2000s, so finding parts was not easy.

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For Dhruv, rebuilding became something of a personal challenge, a metaphor for his own life. He was going through a personal crisis at the time and was struggling with his mental health. “Both me and the van were in really bad shape and we both had two options—stay where we were and give up or fix everything,” he says.

He began work on the van, scouring markets for replacements week after week, and, in the process, gave himself a sense of direction, a goal. “It went on for five-six months and I was able to replace every part,” says Dhruv, who worked with a local mechanic and spent over 10 lakh on the vehicle. Fabrication and converting the van into a living space took longer—the van was completed only by mid-2021.

In December, after a series of test drives, he finally took the van for a tour with other members of the overlanding community, accompanied by his wife,Vaishali, and four-year-old son, Veer. They travelled from the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh towards Pushkar in Rajasthan, stopping at Bisalpur Dam on the way. “It was the closest thing to freedom I had experienced,” he says.

THE BACKSTORY

Overlanding, the term applied to this sort of backpacking out of a vehicle, surfaced in Australia at the turn of the last century. At the time, however, it was used to describe the droving of livestock across the vast Outback in search of new grazing land. Today, it refers to self-reliant travel in a mechanised vehicle, usually an SUV (sports utility vehicle) or MUV, modified to withstand long journeys and support living on the road. The easiest way to define overlanding is to examine the motive for travel—if the point is the journey itself and you carry everything you need within the vehicle you travel in, it can be classified as overlanding.

“The goal is to see and learn about our world, whether on a weekend trip 100 miles from home or a 10,000-mile expedition across another continent,” notes the Overland Journal, a publication for global, vehicle-supported expedition and adventure travel. “The vehicle and equipment can be simple or extravagant—they, too, are simply a means to an end. History, wildlife, culture, scenery, self-sufficiency—these are the rewards of overlanding.”

People have been overlanding in other parts of the world since 1900 or so. By 1950, the Australian-British writer and playwright Barbara Alex Toy was taking solo trips across deserts in her Land Rover, Pollyanna. Perhaps the best-documented overlanding trip is the six-man Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, a six-month and six-day drive from Hyde Park in London to Singapore. The drive was repeated in 2006 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the expedition.

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In India, overlanding is at a fledgling stage, though the number of people taking long road trips—Kashmir to Kanyakumari is a favourite—seems to be showing an uptick. One of the biggest issues, of course, is safety and lack of infrastructure to support camping or living in a car, especially when you are travelling with family. There are other hurdles too: the absence of a central policy, paucity of suitable vehicles in the market, the high cost of modifying cars, restrictive laws. The biggest hurdle, of course, may be that for most Indians the idea of a holiday continues to be relaxation, not exploration.

Yet it also seems clear that more Indians are choosing overlanding, whether they are looking for freedom, safe travel during the pandemic, a sense of community, adventure or just a long road trip. Dhruv agrees. When he started travelling, posting videos of sleeping in his car, people would laugh at him. However, six years and “countless” trips —through the North-East, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan—later, the situation has changed. “I get queries every day now on how to do it,” he says.

One of the biggest reasons is the pandemic, which prompted cooped-up, travel-hungry people to look at ways to travel safely. Certainly, videos of idyllic moments could be tempting, feeding visions of Instagram-worthy portraits of beauty, inner peace, self-actualisation and unbridled freedom.

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But other factors are driving this too, including a spurt in the number of companies supporting this sort of travel, the emergence of remote and hybrid workplaces and classrooms, a reassessment of priorities, and, importantly, a newly active, formal community of overlanders, India Overlands, which has already organised one significant event.

Vikram Madan's son takes an online class on the go
Vikram Madan's son takes an online class on the go (Courtesy Vikram Madan)

For many, overlanding seems to have been a natural segue from a road trip—or several. Ask Vikram Madan, 52, the founder of India Overlands, a private Facebook group for the overlanding community which has around 2,600 members. Madan, who runs a hotel business in Kashmir, says that growing up in the hills meant he was always connected to nature. “Trekking, camping and all those things were put into me in the early days,” he says, recalling day camps spent with family that kindled a spirit of adventure and a deep love for nature.

When he got his Tata Safari in 2010, he started driving with it all over the country. “My first long trip was from Kashmir to Kanyakumari; I drove 12,000km in 45 days with my children, then aged 14 and 3,” he says. They stayed mostly in hotels, sometimes camping in tents. “We did not camp that much but it helped me consider overlanding seriously thereafter,” says Madan, who has been on countless trips since.

He has always loved travelling and exploring the unexplored—overlanding helps him do both, allowing him to park and camp at spots where there are no hotels. “Also, during covid, it helped me travel in isolation and stay safe,” he says.

THE PANDEMIC EFFECT

Covid-19 has played a huge role in catalysing India’s overlanding movement. People were stuck at home, spending too much time glued to computers, says Madan, who himself spent a lot of time checking YouTube videos and discovered that many other people were also overlanding, either alone or with their families.

“So, I thought—why not make this more organised? We could camp together as a group,” says Madan, who started India Overlands in 2020. A couple of other online communities have also sprung up, or become more active on social media, trading information or planning group trips.

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The India Overlands page is remarkably active, filled with videos, photos and information. The community has started planning group trips. Between 24 December-1 January, around 20-odd vehicles with 50 travellers, including children, set off on the first group expedition Dhruv refers to, from the Kuno sanctuary to Pushkar. The overlanders came from all over the country—Srinagar, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Telangana, Nashik, Delhi and Dehradun, says Madan. “It is wonderful; we have planned more trips for the year.”

Admittedly, to call overlanding a trend may be a stretch—in a country of 1.4 billion, a few thousand trundling across a country in cars and vans is a drop in the ocean. However, going by social media posts, the phenomenon of people swapping the creature comforts of a hotel for star-strewn skies, meals cooked over open fires and the romance of the unknown is significant enough to warrant a fair number of #overlandingindia and #indiaoverlanding posts. And it’s reflected in business and industry too. Mahindra and Mahindra’s automotive division recently signed a collaborative agreement with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras incubated Campervan Factory Pvt. Ltd to launch budget-friendly luxury campers in India.

“These well-equipped campers, based on the double-cab Bolero Camper Gold platform, will cater to the self-drive tourism segment that is gaining popularity in the country,” says Veejay Nakra, chief executive officer of the automotive division.

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State governments, including those in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, have announced caravan policies or programmes where tourists will be able to rent a caravan and camp out at night. In September 2021, for instance, Kerala announced a policy that will put in place an approval mechanism, based on motor vehicles rules and procedures. There is a proposal to develop caravan parks “in the private sector, public sector and joint sector”. It’s a start.

Dave Banerjee, 52, co-founder of the months-old Crossroads Camping, a wilderness destination with camping and overlanding facilities in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, says it’s very early days. Earlier based in Bengaluru, he would undertake long road trips abroad with his wife and daughter. “But when it comes to India, we don’t camp,” he says. Safety and infrastructure were significant concerns.

At Crossroads Camping
At Crossroads Camping (Dave Banerjee)

The pandemic led to a change of heart. In October 2020, he and his family, the other founders of Crossroads Camping, decided to start living on the piece of land he had purchased in 2014. “We lived here in tents for eight months. It was in the wild—we didn’t even have running water,” he recalls.

“People started telling me that it would be great to have a network of places like this one. We formally opened around four months ago and now get guests four-five times a week,” he says. Many of his guests simply set up tables and work from the camp. “Young people are making money, want to explore more things. This is going to be humongous.”

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GETTING THE WHEELS RIGHT 

People have been travelling long distances by land for at least 80,000 years—ever since early humans left Africa, walking across land bridges or wading through shallow stretches of ocean to fan across Asia and beyond. However, as Tucson, US-based travel writer and overlander Jonathan Hanson pointed out in a 24 June 2020 article on the Overland Expo’s website, it was only in the early 20th century that people could start doing it for fun. As Hanson, co-founder of Overland Expo, an iconic annual adventure travel event held in the US, put it, “It was the internal-combustion engine that made that possible (few people would have called overlanding by covered wagon and a two-brace draft of oxen fun).”

Clearly, getting the right vehicle is central to a good overlanding experience. Creating a camper van or converting a car into an overlanding vehicle takes time, money and a lot of patience. Since India does not make the right equipment for life on the road, such as chemical toilets or folding cutlery, modifying a vehicle can be prohibitively expensive. “You have to import many of these things and pay import duty and transport costs,” says Madan.

Unlike in the US, where living in a car or trailer often indicates that one is at or below the poverty line, Indian overlanders are a well-heeled lot. They have to be—the cost of modifying a vehicle in India is often four times the cost of doing something similar in the US. “It costs around 5-6 lakh to convert an overlander and 10-15 lakh to create a caravan,” says Dhruv, who has done both. And yes, this is over and above the base vehicle charges.

Falguni and Harishkumar Shah with their Isuzu V-Cross
Falguni and Harishkumar Shah with their Isuzu V-Cross (Courtesy Harishkumar Shah)

When Falguni Marwadi Shah, 44, and Harishkumar Shah, 65, started looking for a vehicle in 2021, they weren’t sure which one to pick. “My options were the Mahindra Thar, Force Gurkha and the Isuzu V-Cross,” says Harishkumar, the “har” part of Falhar Nomads, a YouTube channel on which the couple chronicle their overlanding adventures.

The Gandhinagar-based Shahs, who moved back from the UK in December 2020, had always been avid travellers, zipping across the UK in their small car. “We began questioning the meaning of life. Do we have to run behind money or make our lives better?” says Harishkumar, who chose the Isuzu V-Cross. He lists some of the modifications needed to make their SUV suitable for overlanding: a protective bumper, a snorkel to get cleaner air into the engine, extra lights, a rooftop tent, an ironman suspension system. They have done several trips since: to Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan.

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In the case of a camper van, the modification process is even more intense, says Meenakshi Sai, 49, managing director of Lakeside Resort in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu. Sai, who has explored nearly 90 countries by road and completed three cross-country trips, decided to buy a Force Traveller in 2020. She had wanted one for a while, she says, but never got around to it until the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, travelling solo in a caravan seemed a safer option than staying in a hotel, where hygiene could be suspect. Her finished camper will be a home on wheels, with a bathroom, a bed, a table and a kitchenette, solar panels and a genset. “I will be completely self-sufficient,” she says. “I can camp anywhere I like.”

Identifying the right vehicle is just the start. One of the biggest challenges is procuring and modifying the base vehicles. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that modifying vehicles was illegal and could lead to imprisonment of six months or a penalty of 5,000 per alteration. According to Section 52 of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, “no owner of a motor vehicle shall so alter the vehicle that the particulars contained in the certificate of registration are at variance with those originally specified by the manufacturer”.

So you need special permits to modify a vehicle, explains Jigyasu Joshi, co-founder of Carvaa Travelers, a Delhi-based camper van rental and modification company that rents out caravans of different sizes, starting at 5,000 a day. “A modifier needs an ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India ) certification or certification of a similar level. Apart from that, we also have to get approval from the RTO (regional transport office) for the design.”

By most accounts, getting permissions is a tedious process. For instance, since most base vehicles for camper vans tend to be tempo travellers used commercially, they come with the yellow number plate of a commercial vehicle. “This can get really expensive,” says Sai, explaining that you would have to pay taxes in every state with a commercial vehicle.

Deepak and Ruchi Pandey
Deepak and Ruchi Pandey (Courtesy Deepak Pandey)

Right now, the registration process is challenging. “There are exceptions and provisions but many RTOs aren’t aware of it,” says Sai. “I had to spend four months trying to convince the RTO in Ahmedabad that I was a genuine buyer and that my van was for personal use,” says Deepak Pandey, 43, who prefers not to state his profession. Pandey, who finally succeeded in getting permission, runs the vlog Vanlife Indian Couple with his wife, Ruchi, 41.

“We have been doing this for 20 years,” says Pandey, adding that they started with a small car, graduated to an SUV and finally—as the family grew bigger, including three dogs—decided to invest in a van in late 2020. “We used to hate leaving our fur babies at home when we went on vacations due to space constraints in the car and the discomfort it would cause them,” says Pandey.

After the long-drawn registration process, they received the van in April 2021 and began working on it. Over the next 100-odd days, they worked with welders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and others. “I didn’t want to waste any time,” says Pandey, adding that the couple, their teenage sons, dogs and Deepak’s parents, both in their early 70s, took the first, 20-day drive in September. They visited a number of places, including Alwar, Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar, Kargil, Ladakh and Manali.

“It would have been possible only in a caravan for my parents to see the dazzling beauty of Ladakh from the comfort of a home. We camped on Pangong Lake; it was a dream come true,” says Pandey, who had ensured that the caravan was stocked with medicines and equipment like a BP monitor, an oximeter and an oxygen cylinder.

Living in a mobile home meant they had access to home-cooked food and could lie down or stretch their legs whenever they wanted to, he says, adding that the entire trip cost them only a lakh or so. “If we had gone through regular means, staying at hotels, visiting so many places would have cost us 5-6 lakh,” says Pandey, who went on to complete two more trips—through Rajasthan and Gujarat. “We are planning Uttarakhand in May/June,” he says.

It’s not all hunky-dory, of course. Overlanding involves hard work, constant uncertainty and everyday inconveniences. “You don’t know what is going to happen. You should prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” says Madan. Even something as simple as finding a suitable camping ground or parking spot can be a challenge in India. “You often end up doing more work on your holiday than you would at home on a regular basis,” he adds.

Joshi concurs. “Living in a very limited space is a task,” he says, pointing out that picking up after yourself and keeping your surroundings clean at all times is mandatory. “Otherwise, you will feel the van is coming on to you.”

And yes, there is the added worry of staying safe and finding a decent camping spot. Banerjee points out that India fares poorly on iOverlander, one of the best-known apps for overlanders, with a database of places and amenities. “There are absolutely no places for overlanders to park safely, especially since many of them travel with family,” he says. He himself has been robbed while camping. ‘Some guys came, cut our tent and took out our stuff,” he recalls.

THE SCENIC ROUTE

For those who are prepared, though, the risks and discomfort can be worthwhile. The desire to experience, to live more deeply, connect with local communities is impetus enough to keep going through breakdowns, mud-clogged wheels, unexpected rain.

A video on the Vanlife Indian Couple vlog, uploaded on 2 March, portrays a peaceful scene. George Benson’s Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You plays in the background, while someone—Ruchi presumably—has her legs propped up on a comfortable couch festooned with cushions, the largest proclaiming “Home Sweet Home”, watching television. The camera pans the pristine interiors of the camper van, past a curtained toilet, to a charming kitchenette where a smiling Deepak sautés a pile of bright peppers and onions. “We have one life; you have to create moments you want to hold on to ,” he says.

Overlanders camping at night 
Overlanders camping at night  (Sulaksh Kaushik )

Overlanding trips, going by what most overlanders post on social media, seem to be composed of these moments—pristine shots of vast empty roads, looming mountains, people huddled around campfires, azure oceans, bright sunflower-fields—that radiate a studied tranquillity. And that is, perhaps, why overlanders get into their vehicles and hit the road, over and over again.

Banerjee must agree. It is the fascination of the unknown that draws him to this lifestyle, he says. “I have spent only short spans of my life in nature, but those months and weeks are what I know I will remember when I die.”

Dhruv echoes this perspective. “We have been programmed to think that everything is in our control,” he says. “But if you step out of this notion and go along with change, it is beautiful.”

He is now planning his next trip, a two-year tour of all states, covering 25,000km. Given his own experience, “this tour would be about raising mental health awareness amongst youth as well as about promoting camping and caravan tourism,” he says.

Overlanding, he believes, will become easier and safer as more and more people open up to the possibilities it offers, even if they don’t necessarily choose to hit the road themselves. Today, “if I go to any state in India and put up a post on my social media, I will find someone who will let me park in their lawn”, says Dhruv. “Travelling this way was my long-term dream, and I see it finally happening.”

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