madagascar mountains and beach
Madagascar looks even prettier from the cockpit of your very own off-road vehicle. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Madagascar looks even prettier from the cockpit of your very own off-road vehicle. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Meet the Tour Group Taking Your Next Vacation Off-Road

Nomadic Road invites drivers to channel their inner Indiana Jones on the adventure of a lifetime.

Some people’s vacation memories are collecting shells on the beach. And for others, it’s wearing a child-sized helmet while zipping through the Indian countryside on the back of a motorcycle. The latter describes the experience of Nomadic Road founder Venkatesh Kanchanayakampatti Sugavanam—Venky for short—who cultivated his love of exploration perched behind his father on meandering bike trips through the backroads of their home country.

“Back then, there wasn't much infrastructure,” he says. “There's no road access, except for guys like us—even if there was no road, we tried to go into that territory.” Not only was a sense of adventure imparted on these trips, but also a dose of fatherly wisdom. “I would be sitting there, listening to some of the most interesting stories,” Sugavanam continues. “He used to teach life by being on the road.”

man with dog in russia
Sugavanam meets a friendly local in the backroads of Russia. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

For Sugavanam, those off-the-beaten-path rides begat several truths. First, that India was a gorgeous country, especially from the vantagepoint of a motorcycle (if you’re looking for a road trip, we’ve got one to get you started—there are a lot more paved roads these days). And secondly, that the open road can take you anywhere, both mentally and physically, if you let it. “What’s appealed since childhood [are] the emotions that run through my mind when I'm on the road,” says Sugavanam. “The freedom of the open road, and going places where not many people have gone—your gut instinct takes you.”

Sugavanam’s love for that open road led him to a career in experiential marketing, figuratively trading in his two wheels for a position at a company that specialized in four-by-fours and other off-road vehicles. One of his duties included planning expedition trips intended to showcase the vehicles for journalists, overland adventures from places like India to Tibet, journeys across Africa and Latin America, and one particularly intense 22-day, 15,000-kilometer course through seven different ASEAN countries. The process of mapping out these routes plus planning meals, accommodations, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences gave him an idea: Why should journalists have all the fun?

tents in mongolia
A line of tents form an overnight campsite in Mongolia. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Then, in 2016, he launched Nomadic Road, organizing bookable, motorized public group tours—and, newer to the roster, curated private solo tours—under a name inspired by the roaming herders of Mongolia. Combining his penchant for exploration with his affinity for driving was a no-brainer, and he designed his trips to cater to a clientele seeking the excitement of an off-road adventure, but lacking the experience to execute it themselves. The company’s debut run was a rumbling jaunt through Mongolia’s sagebrush-perfumed Gobi Desert—one of the coldest, highest, most unforgiving places in the world—along the way spotting snow leopards and examining dinosaur fossils. It remains one of their most popular destinations, with two trips scheduled for this coming August.

Today, Nomadic Road offers seven expeditions lasting 10 days or more and starting at around $7,000, including four new routes this fall in Peru, Bolivia, Madagascar, and Namibia. The only thing guests need to bring is a sense of adventure. Plus, a driver’s license and perhaps a few changes of clothes. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of this type of travel before, by the end, you’re guaranteed to have a new motto: The open road will take you anywhere if you let it. And if there’s not a road, you make one.

car over frozen russian lake
You might find yourself cruising atop frozen water, like here in Lake Baikal, Russia. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

On the open road, expect the unexpected

Perhaps you’re an avid follower of a renowned road race like the Dakar Rally, or maybe you’ve just watched too many Indiana Jones movies. Or maybe you’ve checked off everything else on your thrill-seeking bucket list and are looking to challenge yourself to something new. (Skydiving? For sure. Scuba diving? Heck yeah. Safari? Several times, plus a gorilla trek or two.)

Or maybe, just maybe, you know in your soul that you’re meant to be an adventurer, but up until now, that’s merely been a fantasy. You may feel the call of the wild, but actually getting there is another story. Whatever the reason, if you want to go places where only those equipped with specialized skills and knowledge have been before, Nomadic Road can help you skip a whole bunch of steps.

What steps? A typical off-road expedition not only requires the right vehicle to traverse places like the Gobi Desert, the salt flats of Bolivia, or the sand dunes of Namibia, but each country also has its own set of rules and regulations for strangers hoping to roam around and set up camp. And then there’s researching the safest routes, making sure you’re culturally literate, and reading up on how to eat, sleep, and stay alive while you’re out there (consider bear spray). And if your vehicle breaks down, do you know how to fix it? Probably not.

"The idea is for them to get stuck."

All those pesky details are covered by Nomadic Road, including a convoy stocked with a private chef, mechanics, professional translators, and even photographers and filmmakers tasked to create the photo album of a lifetime. Depending on the location, your accommodations range from pitched tents to yurts to luxury lodges, but don’t get the wrong idea—you’re not just coasting along. Each group of up to 10 people are organized into pairs and given a four-by-four along with some cursory driving lessons on paved and unpaved terrain.

Throughout the training, Nomadic Road makes sure to emphasize that this is a motoring journey, not a race. “If this were a motorsport, then you might need to go to an arena and get into a rally mode,” says Sugavanam in his introduction to guests. “This is an expedition. You're not competing with each other.” And though you might get a flat or break the suspension—things happen, of course—actively risking harm to your vehicle won’t be tolerated. In fact, that’s the quickest way to have a member of the Nomadic Road team escort you out of the driver's seat.

truck on jungle river
Off-roading can mean many things. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

After all the instructions, the cars finally take off in a snaking motorcade formation linked by walkie talkies—each set of drivers autonomous, but with a safety net. “You are in control,” says Sugavanam, calling the format “mostly unscripted.” The route is, for the most part, already set thanks recon done ahead of time. A pilot vehicle sets the pace, warning those behind about unforeseen obstacles like, say, a recently developed crevice. “We take care of the end-to-end experience, but you’re at the helm of the adventure. You're in the driver's seat.” Literally, he means.

The landscape becomes your teacher and your entertainment. And as much as it sounds clichéd, the journey truly doubles as the destination. You’ll splash through rivers to reach Madagascarian villages where, with the aid of the cultural specialist, you’ll learn about day-to-day life in the remote farming landscape. Afterwards, you’ll follow the spice route sampling local vanilla, ginger, and cardamom that pops up in pink blooms from the side of the road.

You’ll learn to drive on varied terrain, from rocky, crumbling mountainscapes to seas of sand and salt that can easily suck you in if the atmosphere decides to add a little moisture to the mix. Which can definitely happen—sometimes the point is to figure out how to navigate sticky situations. “The idea is for them to get stuck,” says Sugavanam. “Otherwise, if you already know everything, you don't need us. You can do it all by yourself.”

driving in mongolian steppes
Four-legged friends await in the Mongolian Steppes. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Leave your comfort zone behind

And yup, precarious situations have happened. It’s simply par for the course when you’re out in the elements. “The wrath of Mother Nature in some places is so brutal and so realistic,” says Sugavanam. One day you might have to dig your wheels out of quicksand, while the next you’re contending with something totally unexpected, like the time it hailed in the Gobi Desert. “The Gobi Desert is one of the driest, apart from Atacama,” says Sugavanam. “You’re climbing the sand dunes and suddenly you get struck by hail—you never expect a hailstorm in the middle of a desert.” In situations like that, when you’re out on a hike far from your car with no shelter in sight, you learn exactly what you’re made of.

“People got hit and bruised, [but] some people really enjoyed it,” says Sugavanam. Some, however, really did not, like an Italian couple Sugavanam remembers whose tent had been dismantled by the hail. “They said, ‘How can this happen? We never expected this,’” he adds. While others in the group rolled with it, that couple ended up leaving the trip early.

Prior to an expedition, Sugavanam assesses the level of adventure a guest is asking for, and whether or not they’re being realistic. “Even if somebody says they’re interested in Mongolia and ‘this is my past travel experience,’ I might tell them that Mongolia might not be right,” he says, stressing that he always aims to determine the perfect balance between desired risk and real-world constraints. “For them, it's more of a chest-thumping moment, bragging rights for family and friends in their social circle. That's the experience we strive to create for them.”

cars in madagascar mountains
You want off-roading? In Madagascar, you've got off-roading. | Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Naturally, the clientele runs the gamut, from unaccompanied doctors wanting to test their mettle, to an adventurous team of sisters out exploring the world, to a daredevil father-daughter duo spending quality time together before her impending wedding. “They were in the first-ever expedition that went to Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet,” says Sugavanam of the prenuptial pair.

And then, there were the two mid-20s private equity investors from New York who didn’t realize they would have to drive a stick shift. “They landed at the airport and I gave them a manual transmission—they were clueless,” says Sugavanam. While not exactly easy, procuring an automatic vehicle for the pair was the best option for all involved, adds Sugavanam. “I gave it to them after seeing how they drove.”

Want to put your skills to the test? There are still spots available on upcoming trips to Atacama, Peru, and yup, the Gobi Desert, among others. Just enquire about booking on NomadicRoad.com. And maybe brush up on driving stick before you land.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She'd be down to sit in the back seat.