Manebhanjang to Sandakphu is difficult terrain; the roads are tough, circuitous, steep, and often unpaved. The love for Land Rovers began in the 1950s when some British planters decided not to go back to England and to stay in Darjeeling. The Series I Land Rovers were produced by the British manufacturer Rover Company during 1948-50.
The four-speed gearbox was used, with a new two-speed transfer box. This incorporated an unusual four-wheel-drive system, with a freewheel unit. This disengaged the front axle from the manual transmission on the overrun, allowing a form of permanent 4WD. A ring-pull mechanism in the driver’s footwell allowed the freewheel to be locked to provide more traditional 4WD. This was a basic vehicle: tops for the doors and a roof (canvas or metal) were optional extras. In 1950, the lights moved from a position behind the grille to protruding through the grille.
The planters loved their Land Rovers. Gradually the planters went back home, but the Land Rovers stayed. All of them still run, the local owners hold and maintain them with a sense of pride. They claim these are the most powerful vehicles on the hills and give the modern generation vehicles a run for their money.
They are the medium of transport for the remotest of villages in the hills and are the lifeline of the mountains. I talked to one of the vehicle owners; he said he will continue to own the vehicle for as long as he can. The parts are difficult to get and the maintenance is a big problem. The Land Rover Owners Association is a self-help group that helps the owners keep their vehicles in running condition. In 1992, Land Rover claimed that 70% of all the vehicles they had built were still in use. I am sure the current statistics are not different. And I know almost all of them are in the Darjeeling region.
They are so fascinating, some people travel to Manebhanjang to Sandakphu route just for the ride in Land Rovers. The vehicles continue to fascinate travellers of the present times as much as they did the people of the bygone era.