Once known as Kaalapani because it was isolated from the rest of the country, Dambuk in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Dibang Valley district has undergone a complete transformation. So much so that adventure is no longer a reality of life for the people there; it has turned into a festivity.
In December, the tehsil hosted the eighth edition of the JK Tyre Orange 4x4 Fury — one of India’s foremost off-roading events.
The off-roading spectacle — the flagship event of the Orange Festival of Adventure and Music — saw 20 competitors participating in three stages held over two days (December 16 and 17) as men and their machines were pitted against the force of nature. This was a conflict the village had seen before, about eight years ago, albeit in more dire circumstances.
“When we started in 2014, we did the recce on elephants. The entire area — Dambuk circle of Lower Dibang Valley District of Arunachal Pradesh — used to be known as Kaalapani. Seven months every year it used to be cut off from the rest of the world due to floods. People used to live a tough life. It was a real eye-opener for us at the Motorsports Club of Arunachal. We were invited to see the area by the director of the festival. They wanted us to conduct off-roading here because this is the paradise of off-roading. We don’t need to go about making the circuit because the whole topography is off-roading paradise. You have the rivers, boulders, water-crossings, mountains, and jungles. We don’t need to go scouting for routes. We just come one week before, do a proper recce, do waypoints and then come three days before the event again to finalise and cross-check everything,” Lhakpa Tsering, president of Motorsports Club of Arunachal, told Sportstar.
ALSO READ - Red Bull Racing coming to Mumbai, Coulthard to drive RB7
The first stage of the off-roading competition was held over a five-kilometre long circuit on the eastern dry riverbed of the Dibang river. Drivers negotiated a treacherous mix of gravel, boulders, loose sand, and elephant grass. That same day, the second stage was conducted over a six-kilometre course on the western flank of the Dibang; it involved crossing a shallow stream and plying on dirt tracks in forests, besides braving the inescapable and ubiquitous riverbed gravel.
Test of perseverance and skill
Capping off and highlighting the event was the 22-kilometre course on the second day held on the riverbed of the Sisseri river, a tributary of the majestic Brahmaputra. Competitors were faced with similar obstacles in the form of rocks, boulders and sand in an ultimate test of perseverance and skill. Drivers were slapped with penalty points for arriving late at pre-designated checkpoints and the winner was adjudged on the basis of the least penalty points accumulated over the three stages.
With 136 penalty points awarded, Marnya Chiram and navigator Mari Basar emerged victorious in the under 2000cc category in their Maruti Gypsy. Devjyoti Borah and Sandeep Gogoi were the winners in the above 2000 cc category with 210 penalty points in their Force Gurkha.
“In the first two stages, the waypoints were hidden. In the third stage, we could see them but there were so many obstacles that it took a long time to reach them,” 53-year-old Chiram, a Superintendent Engineer in the Public Works Department who hails from Lepa Rada district, said.
“We are given a pinpoint. It’s totally controlled by GPS (Global Positioning System). We have to download an app. It’s a paid app called GPX Viewer. The Android phone locates the pinpoint but we have to figure out our own route. However, driving skill is a must regardless of how good the navigator is,” Basar, president of the Lower Siang district cycling association said, explaining his role.
ALSO READ - Hyderabad all set for Formula E debut after thrills and spills of Indian Racing League
Hailing JK Tyre’s role in sponsoring participants competing in an expensive sport, Chiram also acknowledged the role the Orange Festival played in creating awareness about tourism promotion among the locals. “The youth here was aimless. They didn’t have a destination. Now, because of road connectivity and the Orange Festival, the brain has changed. They are getting into business and moving towards being self-sufficient,” he said.
Taste of modernity
The quaint village of Dambuk, caught in the wave of infrastructure development, has its fair share of anachronisms. Now, sports cars are plying on its roads and resorts are springing up in little pockets of the area. In September 2021, Chief Minister Pema Khandu tweeted a video of a host of supercars that would drive 1000 kilometres across eastern Arunachal Pradesh, bearing testimony to the improving quality of roads in the State.
Speaking from the sight of luxurious Swiss tents arranged for the media and organisers along the pristine waters of the Dibang river, Tsering reminisced of a time when the hospitable and proud residents of Dambuk village had qualms about taking money from the participants of the Orange Festival who were going to be put up in their homes because “how can we take money from our guests?”
“The festival has been a good exposure for the people of Dambuk. The roads have been developed. Since 2019, when the bridges opened up and the national highways connected this place, it has grown to a huge extent. At that point of time, there was not a single room except for the government dak bungalow — here we call it the inspection bungalow. Now, there are more than 500 beds in and around this area. If you include the areas that are an hour’s drive away from here, then you have more than 1000 beds. However, the event is so popular that we are still facing a shortage,” Tsering quipped.
Against the backdrop of the Orange Festival, where American hip-hop bands like Big Mountain and Flipsyde enthrall crowds, a beading expert from Longding, which shares its boundary with Myanmar, sells her wares and an off-roading enthusiast gorges on coffee in one of the numerous food stalls. The anachronisms dissipate into the misty evening air. Revellers, perhaps fleetingly, are transported to a more sustainable variant of Dubai, where the festival’s famed and eponymous oranges are headed.
The writer was in Dambuk at the invitation of the organisers