Squeals on Wheels

The delight that Indian lovers of the outdoors life have always dreamt of - homes to go travelling the countryside in
Caravans
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART GOES A modern caravan offers a heady mix of luxury and freedom to enjoy the outdoors (Photo: DAULAT DESHMUKH)

Every few weeks, Daulat Deshmukh, a 47-year-old Pune real estate developer, drives from his home to Mulshi, a few kilometres away from the city. Along with his wife and two children, Deshmukh spends his weekend at what he calls his ‘farmhouse’. Except that this farmhouse does not have a house. It is just a 50,000 sq ft farm. On these weekends, the Deshmukhs live in their vehicle. They sleep, read, watch movies on TV, cook and eat meals—in air-conditioned comfort on warm days—all inside their vehicle. There is also a portable toilet and bathroom.

Deshmukh first came across caravans and trailer homes in 1997 during a year-long backpacking trip in Australia and New Zealand. A few years later, once he was back in India, he ventured beyond the real estate business to start another company. He called it Overlanders Specialty Vehicles, and started developing caravans on the chassis of sports utility trucks (Tata TL, Tata Motor’s 4X4 vehicles).

Working with designers and automobile engineers, he built bedrooms, kitchens and refrigerators into his caravans. Each vehicle of his had almost everything one would need in a house—an air-conditioner, TV set, DVD player, table, water tank, fans, reading lights, mirrors, a portable bathroom with its own discreet tent, and another tent to lounge about when camping, apart from two double beds, a kitchen and refrigerator. He called his caravans Freedom. Each of these sell for around Rs 22 lakh.

Of course, he keeps one to indulge his own love of the outdoors. He travels almost every year, driving from Pune to Srinagar and Ladakh during the summers. In the winters, he takes a similar trip for a few weeks to Goa and the Konkan region. He has his family and sometimes friends accompany him. They drive throughout the day and usually stay in hotels at night. But when they reach some place picturesque, like the hills or a beach, they sleep amid natural surroundings in the vehicle. “Some of my fondest memories are of waking up on a beach in the Konkan belt,” he says, “There are no hotels, no people. Just me, my family, the sea and my caravan.”

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Deshmukh is currently looking for a venture capitalist who could help fund the expansion of his business. His has pinned his hopes on the Government’s Caravan Tourism Policy that was announced last July. By this policy’s statement, caravans hold a lot of potential for tourism in India, in recognition of which the Centre proposes to set up modern caravan parks under public-private partnerships.

Several other luxury motor-home businesses have also come up recently. A few weeks ago, Basecamp, a Mumbai-based brand that was selling travel and adventure gear, launched two well-known German caravan models in India. The Dethleffs New Line 410 TK, which is priced at about Rs 16 lakh, can accommodate two individuals, and comes with a mini fridge, bed, compact toilet-cum-bath and a kitchenette, with a dish sink and hot plate. Their other model, Hymer Sporting 465, has the same facilities, but is larger. It also has two bunk beds, a sofa-cum-bed and a collapsible dining table.

At the higher end, Delhi-based Pilote India—a two-year-old partnership between the French caravan maker Pilote and an Indian group of service businesses called Group Mega—sells caravans priced in a range from Rs 80 lakh to Rs 5 crore. “The motor-home market in India is developing exactly like it did for luxury cars, though it is in its nascent stage,” says Mudit Srivastava, CEO of Pilote India, confident that the market is poised for rapid growth over the next three years. While the company offers a choice of 60 configurations—all of which have an inbuilt kitchen, bedroom and washroom—it is also ready to customise caravans to customer specifications. The vehicles are built on the chassis of either a Mercedes Benz Sprinter or Fiat Ducato. These are currently being imported from France, but if business picks up, Srivastava says some of the assembly work could be done in India too. So far, Pilote has sold only 14 caravans here.

Basecamp’s Managing Director Anish Goel, meanwhile, hopes to sell around 600 units in the next one year. “Apart from individual clients,” he says, “we are looking at selling them to travel companies, infrastructure companies looking for mobile-homes for their employees, and even filmstars who want plush mobile vans.”

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In the 2002 comedy-drama About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays a 66-year-old insurance executive who, on the day of his retirement, realises just how miserable he is. His daughter is marrying someone he doesn’t approve of. His wife, whom he dislikes, dies. And later, while grieving her death, he learns that his best friend was having an affair with her. This late-life crisis sends Nicholson off on a long caravan road trip. He revisits his life—the house he was born in, his playground and high school—meets other people (apart from unsuccessfully trying to make out with a woman in her caravan), and finally makes it to his daughter’s wedding. In a way, the caravan trip serves him a reflection on his life, helping him understand himself better.

Suresh Sharma, a former Army professional who now works as a photographer, speaks of what one misses in the regular rigmarole of a static life—freedom and reflection—as the main charm of a caravan trip. As someone with a passion for automobiles, he designed and created his own caravan for this purpose. With the assistance of just a carpenter, he took only a few months to convert a Bajaj Tempo Traveler into a caravan. That was back in 2000, and it had all the amenities of a fully functional house, but he continues to work on making it better.

Among Sharma’s many travels, one stands out. In November 2003, he, along with his doctor-wife Ranbir Kaur and daughter Sukhmani, then only six months old, left their home in Chandigarh for what turned out to be a six-month-long trip across India. Apart from occasional stays at a few friends’ places and at the odd hotel, the family spent most of their sojourn inside their caravan. They travelled from Chandigarh to Kerala (along the west coast) and back, covering over 12,000 km. “It was just a sudden urge to travel. We just travelled from one destination to another, extending our trip by a few months, until it had become almost six months. That’s what a caravan allows you. No need to plan, reserve hotels or book tickets,” Sharma says, rephrasing Nike’s slogan to add, “Just travel.”

Sharma hasn’t been on a caravan trip for over three years now. His daughter is nine and he has a son who will turn seven soon. The family plans a road trip this winter, though their itinerary is yet to be finalised. In preparation, he has built a foldable tent on his caravan’s rooftop for some extra space. 

The former Army captain claims he’s has been in love with the outdoors since his childhood. Now he has transferred this love to his wife and children. When he had just gotten married, he and his wife would use the caravan to visit her house in Delhi. While his wife would stay under her familiar old roof, Sharma would sleep in the cosiness of his caravan. One day, he recounts, his mother-in-law turned up to see him in his mobile home parked outside; “How have we wronged you?” she demanded, “Even the neighbours are talking.” Sharma didn’t know how to explain himself.

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With additional reports by Aanchal Bansal