Saturday, October 18, 2003

ATV: The go-anywhere vehicle
H. Kishie Singh

The Israeli adventurers on ATVs used the mule track from Manali till Rohtang
The Israeli adventurers on ATVs used the mule track from Manali till Rohtang

IT is a very odd-looking machine. Itís a four-wheel mobike. By definition, a mobike has to have two wheels. What we have with the Quad(four) is a complete and logical evolution of the two-wheeler. Itís almost a perfect go-anywhere machine.

The USA was Hondasí biggest market in the í60s. However, since North America enjoys one of the severest winters on our planet, this meant extremely low sales of the traditional 2-wheel Honda during the winter months.

In 1967, Honda engineers set about working on a new product to shore up the sagging sales. By 1970, Honda introduced a 3-wheeler machine. It was called an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). It was the US 90, had a 7 h.p engine and sold for $595.00. Todayís price for an ATV can touch $10,000!

As Honda kept improving their machine, even bringing in punctureless tyres, Yamaha jumped into the fray, and then came Suzuki.

Till 1985, the Japanese had complete control over the North American market. That year, Polaris Industries became the first North American ATV manufacturer. It boasted of an automatic transmission. Kawasaki brought out its first 4-wheel ATV the same year. The transformation was complete. A few years later, Kawasaki introduced the Bayou 300 4x4. It was a metamorphosis of the century-old motor cycle.

Osamu Takenchi, the Honda engineer who designed and "invented" the ATV, has another first to his credit. To provide a perfect suspension, Takenchi designed balloon tyres. Because of their large footprint and low pressure, the ATV tyres exerted less pressure on soft soil than the average human foot. This was a boon to off-roaders who are accused of spoiling nature.

Though primarily a recreational vehicle, its go-anywhere, do-anything activity has tilted the scales in favour of it being a utility vehicle. It can plough field, pull a trailor, push snow and round up cattle on the range. Today, in mid-west states like Idaho, 80 per cent of the sales for the ATV are for utility purposes, while only 20 per cent are for recreational purposes.

Farmers, ranchers, search and rescue teams, forest rangers, personnel of police and fire departments around the world are asking themselves how did they ever manage without this amazing machine.

Last month a group of Israeli adventurers led by Yuri Rapporport came to traverse the Himalayas. These 15 Israelis and a lone American came on 12 ATVs. They were trucked up to Manali and for the first dayís excitement and adventure, the gang went up to Rohtang using the mule path, the traditional route to Rohtang for centuries.

It meant crossing the Beas. The water was turbulent and the riverbed boulder-strewn. Akshay Kumar of Mercury Himalayan Expeditions, the deputy leader of the expedition, said: "We crossed Baralacha Pass. That was exciting because we had to drive through a blizzard (this was August 20). We did the climb up completely off-road. At the top, we got the news that the road just after Bharatpur was blocked by an avalanche and that it would take two days to clear it. Our supply trucks had passed earlier in the day and were on the other side of the avalanche!

"We drove to the site of the avalanche and to our surprise the army had cleared a path in six hours! It was not open to traffic but the ATVs proved their worth. Not only did they cross easily, they helped to pull out a couple of buses stuck in the snow! We camped about 8 km later, at the start of the Sarchu plains".

This must have been a mind-expanding experience for the Israelis, for they come from a desert land at sea level. To drive through a blizzard, over snow at 16,400 feet above sea level must have endeared the Himalayas to these Israeli adventurers.

After spending a night in tents at Tso Khar, the ATVs crossed Lachung La, at 16,600 feet above sea level, the second highest motorable pass in the world.

"Where in the world are we?" This was a thought most Israelis voiced. "Beautiful! Amazing! I never knew this existed! Iíll never be the same again!" They exclaimed.

A back-up vehicle carried petrol. Incidentally, all vehicles were petrol engines. They used 850 litres of petrol fromManali to Leh.

"We skirted Tso Moriri," said Akshay, "and came out at the Mahhe Bridge, where we crossed the Indus. From there Leh was 145 km away. Rather than drive on road, we trucked the ATVs to Leh.

The next day was the highlight of the expedition. The Israelis drove to Khardung La, still the highest motorable road in the world. At 18,380 feet above sea level it stakes its claim to fame. This claim may soon be upped by Marshimik La which is at 18,634 feet. However, this pass is not accessible to the general public. Itís a defence road.

Back to Leh from the roof of the world, the adventurers flew to Delhi and home. The ATVs were trucked back and shipped home.