Aparna Umesh On Conquering New Terrains In Off-Roading

Aparna Umesh, a media professional from Kochi, found her passion in the realm of off-roading and became the first Indian woman to compete in the JK Tyres Orange 4x4 Fury competition in 2022
Off-roading in India
Aparna Umesh, 32, is one of the few Indian women actively involved in the sport of off-roadingPicture Source: Aparna Umesh

Aparna Umesh, a 32-year-old sales and marketing professional based in Kochi remembers taking road trips across the country as a child with her father. Many years later, in 2019, it was her father who gifted her a 4x4 vehicle from where her journey into the terrains of off-roading began. Since her first foray into the field, she has participated in several competitions, breaking barriers in what is otherwise considered a male-dominated sport. 

In March 2022, she was the first Indian woman to participate in the Orange Fest organised by JK Tyres. Despite being unable to make it to the final rounds of the competition because of technical issues in her vehicle, she considers the experience especially empowering. 

A travel and auto enthusiast, Aparna founded a 4x4 training academy in Kerala,  in partnership with her mentor and husband, called R&T 4X4 Training Academy, which offers professional training to those interested in learning the basics of 4WD. She and her husband also set up Nowhere Hostels and Camps in Ramakkalmedu, a hamlet in the Idukki district in Kerala, as a lodge for travellers coming to the area. 

In conversation with Outlook Traveller, Umesh talk about taking the unconventional path of off-roading, how she balances her corporate job and passion for adventure, and gave tips to beginners entering this field.

Q

What inspired you to venture into off-roading?

A

I've always loved exploring new places, but I had no idea off-roading was even a thing! My dad bought a Thar CRDE in 2019, and I was thrilled. We were living abroad for a while, and we wanted a 4x4 to travel more in Kerala. When I got back to Kerala, my dad surprised me with the Thar. At first, I just wanted to learn the basics, like how to recover if I got stuck. So, I searched for academies online and found a club called R&T Off-Road Club in Kottayam.

The club's president, Sam Kurian, a national-level off-roader and three-time RFC category winner, invited me to an intraclub event to experience what the sport was all about. That is when I got to know how big the community really is. I was blown away by the modified jeeps and gypsy, and Sam even let me try out his competition-spec jeep, code-named “Blue Whale!” So, I tried it, completed the track, and instantly fell in love with it. 

Eventually, I joined the club, started attending competitions, and Mr. Sam Kurian was more than happy to help me with the training. He’s my mentor in the field. In no time, I invested in the very first jeep I tried off-roading on; Blue Whale, with Sam as the co-owner. 

I participate in local competitions, and since there aren't many women in the sport, I often compete in the men's category along with all the veterans and national-level champions. So, winning is a distant dream, but I'm loving the journey. My goal is to complete the track and get better with each attempt. Off-roading has become my passion, and I'm grateful to have found a community that shares my enthusiasm.

Off-roading in India
Aparna Umesh with her mentor and veteran off-roader, Sam KurianPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

Tell us about your most memorable off-roading journeys. 

A

I would not say just one because when we go off-roading, we always find new tracks and new trails. We explore new trails and then come back to the same place with friends and family. That is our routine. We explore a new trail almost every month. 

With a 4x4, you can explore places that are hard to reach with other vehicles or even on foot. It's an incredible way to experience things that would be tough to access otherwise. So, every time we go, it is a different view. Every time we go, it's a different experience. 

I enjoy natural trails, even more than competitions. Kerala is blessed with such diverse terrain: we have rocks, we have slush, we have everything. Across Kerala, we have all kinds of terrains; Vagamon, Vattavada and Wayanad offer some exciting trails in the state. 

Off-roading in India
Off-roading in Vagamon, KeralaPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

If someone is beginning their journey into off-roading, which route(s) would you recommend?

A

The first and most important thing with off-roading is that you should not go alone. Go as a group of two or three vehicles because anything can happen. Go down a trail only if you are sure; If you are not sure, walk and see if the trail is safe and then continue. So, there aren’t any set trails anywhere around Kerala. There are some trails like Urumbikkara or Uluppuni which are travelled through regularly and are very safe so I’d recommend that people who are beginning their journey into off-roading begin with routes that are frequented like Urumbikkara or Uluppuni.

Q

If you could give one advice to someone who's just beginning to explore off-roading in Kerala, what would that be?

A

Start by getting basic training. Having a 4x4 will not give you any superpowers, so don't go for any crazy trails in the beginning. Choose mild and very easy terrains first, or train yourself in a closed premise like a ground or somewhere near your home so that you get an idea of what your vehicle is capable of, and what you are capable of. 

Also, travel responsibly! When you go to a public space, always be mindful of locals: don't litter, and don’t create any noise because people tend to show off with their vehicles and create a fuss which can irritate the locals.

Lastly, do check if it is permitted to take the route. Get required permissions if it’s a restricted area.

Off-roading in India
Aparna at her R&T 4x4 Training AcademyPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

What makes a route challenging? What has been the most challenging journey for you?

A

Various factors can make a trail challenging. Climate is one of them. For example, talking about natural terrains, last month when we went to Vagamon, it was all dry because it was peak summer and we had no issues. It was dusty and dry, and so it was very easy for the vehicle to climb up the obstacle. But when we went last week, it was raining and the entire track had become slushy and slippery, so we had to be extra careful. 

Competitions are also challenging because of factors like the nature of the track, and your number in the order of participation; Some tracks are easier in the beginning and it gets difficult after a few vehicles run over it. So it is very unpredictable when it comes to off-roading.

The most challenging competition, and my favourite, was Dambuk in Arunachal Pradesh when I went to compete in the Orange Fest. It was through a river bed and so it was very rocky and it was very difficult also but also very beautiful because the terrain was really pretty and the weather was also nice. Closer to home, there was a competition in Kochi hosted by the Sherpa Club. The competition was particularly difficult because of the length and technicality of moving the vehicles around. I think 40-odd vehicles participated out of which only 26 completed the course, and I was one among them. 

Off-roading in India
Aparna in her competition-spec vehicle, Blue Whale, in VagamonPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Aparna seated inside Blue Whale at the Sherpa Challenge start line
Aparna seated inside Blue Whale at the Sherpa Challenge start linePicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

How do you plan your routes and itineraries for off-roading trips? Can you tell our readers about any specific tools or resources you rely on?

A

There are no particular maps or any other resources of the sort. There are known routes like Urumbikkara, Varattamedu, and Uluppuni, which can be used because a lot of information is available about them. But if you want to explore untouched and unexplored territory, then you have to go to the locals. Go to the local stores, ask them, talk to them, and they'll guide you best. 

In Kerala, some areas are forest areas and you are not allowed to go inside. So it is good to be mindful of these things, and if you are in doubt, check with a local if it is safe to go. 

We get a lot of contacts through social media. For example, last time when we went to Vagamon, the owner of this cafe called Riders Cafe got in touch with Sam Kurian and he said that there is a trail that's less explored so if you are coming along, tell us and we'll guide you through. 

It’s always good to make local connections. You talk to them, they'll guide you. They are more than happy to guide you because they also love to show you their places. So, yeah, locals are the best resources!

Off-roading in India
Natural trail in KeralaPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

Has your off-roading travel allowed you to experience different cultures and communities in India?

A

Definitely! Like I said, it (off-roading) takes you to places where you have never imagined. And when you go to such places, people are always curious about knowing you just as you are curious about knowing about them. And the locals are very welcoming. So it is a good way of experiencing different cultures. 

Even when we went to Dambuk, we were taken around by the locals, tried street food, and explored a few new places. All the locals were helpful. A unique bond develops, and it helps us stay grounded.

Other than that, I think in Kerala, we don't have a jarringly different culture across the state. We're all connected very well. So I don't think that there was any new culture that I encountered, as such. But we always meet new people and that is what we enjoy the most.

Aparna in Dambuk
Aparna in DambukPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

Within the realm of off-roading, what or who inspires you to keep going?

A

Right now, my biggest goal is to go for the RFC. RFC is the Rainforest Challenge, which happens in Goa and the ultimate finale happens in Malaysia. I go there every year to see the event. It is a super difficult event where every day is a new struggle, every day is a new obstacle. It's considered to be, I think, one of the most difficult challenges in the world. 

In general, it is both the adrenaline and the adventure that excites me about this activity. People don't see the kind of effort that we put in; Off-roading, both as a sport and as a leisurely activity, is very physically demanding. I have a regular nine-to-five job, and I work from Monday to Friday; Friday night to Sunday morning or Monday morning is when I do all my off-roading activities. This is my passion. I'm hustling at my normal job, and I'm saving my energy, money, time, and everything else for this. It is crazy tiring, physically and financially. But if you love something, then you have to keep going, right?

Q

What are the must-have items you always pack for an off-roading adventure?

A

I recommend always having a basic recovery kit in your vehicle, consisting of tow ropes, D shackles, gloves, etc., so that even if you get stuck, you can easily recover yourself. It is always recommended to have a recovery kit, and also have a basic tool kit. Always check your vehicle before going: check the oils, filters, tyres, and all other basics because on off-roading trails, it is not always easy to get help. Of course, you should also have a small first-aid kit in your car or SUV and always have a small fire extinguisher. This is an extended list because if you’re in this sport then you should be extra careful.

Q

What off-roading destinations are on your travel bucket list, both within India and abroad?

A

I was planning a trip to Kazakhstan last week, but it did not happen for some reason. After doing some research on how feasible it is to hire a vehicle to pursue off-roading in another, I found Kazakhstan to be a good option because it has some interesting trails, and it is easy to get a licence as well. Within India, my dream is to go to the Northeast because of the terrain. I’ve also wanted to go to Spiti Valley for a long time. So I’d say that Kazakhstan is on my bucket list for an international destination, and in India, it's Spiti Valley and the Northeast.

Q

Can you tell us more about Nowhere Hostels and Camps? What inspired you to start on this journey? What makes Idukki a unique location for this venture? 

Off-roading in India
Nowhere Hostels and Camps in Ramakalmedu in Idukki, Kerala, was founded by Aparna and her husband, Akhil, in 2023Picture source: @nowherehostelsandcamps on Instagram
A

My partner, Akhil, and I love travelling and exploring, and we are very close to nature. This particular property in Idukki belonged to Akhil's brother and he was planning to sell it. 

Ramakkalmedu, Idukki is a beautiful location with windmills around it, and the weather is also amazing. The space is secluded and beautiful. We didn't want to leave that space to somebody else. So we thought we'd set up a camping site for which we didn’t even need to make a very big investment. We went on and started with five tents at first. 

There's an off-roading trail to the campsite which is around 700-800 metres. We’ll help you reach the campsite on our 4x4 or the visitors can trek the distance too. What we have essentially done is set up a facility that is cost-friendly and nature-friendly in the safest possible way. 

Ramakkalmedu is also less explored than other places in Idukki. We have some amazing view points and trek options around the area. It is also very close to “Naalumala”, one of the best off road trails in Idukki. 

This is our passion project. We do all our marketing through Instagram and social media, and, so far, we’ve got great responses!

Off-roading in India
Aparna and Akhil, founders of Nowhere Hostels and CampsPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
Q

What advice or tips would you give to women who are interested in pursuing off-roading as a hobby or profession?

Off-roading in India
Aparna poses with her awards from off-roading competitionsPicture Source: Aparna Umesh
A

To be honest, I found my passion quite late; there was a batchmate of mine who was into baking and started a bakery of her own. I would look at her and think how beautiful it is, how content she must be, to do something that she loves and is passionate about. I used to wonder about what the fire within me was. I had no idea till I tried off-roading. And when I tried it, I instantly knew that this was it. 

I always tell people to try out new experiences. If you see something and find it exciting then give it a try and If someday you find something that makes your heart happy, stick to it. Work hard to keep it alive. Please don't let it go. And, especially for women, my sincere advice would be that don’t shy away from what makes you happy and don't be guilty about choosing yourself over somebody or something else. 

I'd be lying if I said that my journey in off-roading has been a cakewalk. Since it’s a male-dominated sport, I’ve got to hear some crazy rumours about myself. It’s important to realise that people will always say what they want to say, but if you're persistent and if you're serious about something, you don't have to listen to anybody.

Just keep your eyes and mind open to experiences and just do what makes you happy.

Related Stories

No stories found.
logo
Outlook Traveller
www.outlooktraveller.com