Dheeraj Sharma runs the biggest travel community dedicated to the Himalayas. It’s an understatement to call him an avid traveler. He lives and breathes the roads he drives on. He likes to dream a lot, both in the day and during the night! A passionate lover of the Himalayas, borne out of respect for the mountains, he has undying zest for driving whilst exploring the unexplored. One thing I really admire in Dheeraj is his love for sharing his every Himalayan Travel experiences with fellow Travelers. He has also taken up social causes around the Himalayas especially the ecological preservation of the mighty mountains.
I met Dheeraj for the first time in 2012. He was still putting pieces together for Devil on Wheels; which today boasts rightfully to be the biggest forum and community for road trippers in the Himalayas. I was amazed with the real time information he brought to the community and everything was online. Nothing was lost in a social network. The information was gold. I asked him then too; and I asked him the same question recently too. Why do you do it? In his characteristic down to earth style and Delhi accent, he went, “Bhai, information needs to be made available to one and all. Free. If we start charging money for what we put on the website; I don’t think I will be able to sleep. No one in the Himalayas should have a hard time under my watch”.
Devil on Wheels is still bootstrapped, non profit and completely managed by Dheeraj along with a team of community leaders. And one of the stars of this community happens to be our CTO – Neeraj Sinha or Yayawar as he more popularly known as, on Devil on Wheels community.
- What inspired you get behind wheels?
I was struggling in life and nothing seemed right for me. Down, out, alone and almost surrendered to the most difficult phase of my life under depression, I suddenly thought of pursuing my passion of driving to kick start again in life, take it a step further and explore if nature has the magic that can restore the life for me.
Himalayas always had a history of being associated with peace, calmness and has amazing curative powers, so I decided to have a treatment called “Nirvana @ Himalayas”. I went to find the answers to the questions which haunts me every moment, top of the list being “Me or the Devil??”
In 2008, I decided to head for the unknown adventures on my own wheels in the Himalayas and find answers which have eluded me for quite long. No matter what the answers to the questions are but DEVIL will always be within me as a good teacher in this life.
- What kind of travel do you like?
I mostly love to do adventure and family travel road trips. At times, it is purely related with the vision to spread smiles in the Himalayas with the responsible travel initiatives of Devil On Wheels.
- Tell me about the most touching incident on the highway you’ve experienced.
There have been many incidents, almost all of them in the Himalayas. The people in Himalayas have their own aura, own humbleness and well, most of the times when I travel to these places, people up there give me a tremendous feeling of happiness. One day, we were doing DoW Causes in a remote village of Spiti, Lhalung. I still remember that the guy who was helping us in everything, walking over to all places calling the kids to come over to school. Once it ended, he invited us to his house and treated us with warmest hospitality I have ever experienced. On the next trip, I came to know he was the pradhan of the village.
- What inspired you to start DoW?
Well, I went to Chandratal in 2009 summers. I was a new kid on the block, knowing nothing about high altitudes and what it can do to you and your body. Negligence and foolishness resulted in a situation where I literally cheated death and came back alive in single piece. That day I realized that I should do something for other fellow travelers, to share some valuable and practical tips about traveling to high altitude places in Himalayas and helping the lives of local Himalayan people who helped me in cheating death in that harsh terrain. Had those Himalayan people not helped me that day, I would not be writing this today. This gave birth to Devil On Wheels 🙂
- Which is your favorite highway in India? and Why?
NH1 as it leads to Himalayas, higher trans-Himalayas which I love most 🙂
- As travelers what can we do to keep the beauty of the Himalayas intact. What has DoW done in this space?
Well, being a responsible traveller is one key aspect to protect the beauty of the Himalayas. We have to be sensitive about how we travel to the eco-sensitive zones. We should know what we should do and what we should not. Unfortunately, many people we see don’t care about the environment and once a place gets popular, the most unfortunate part is the locals also pander to the comforts of tourists who litter inconsiderately.
Along with spreading smiles with DoW Causes we as a travel community follow and preach these 22+ tips of Responsible Travel in Himalayas and each year we organize a DoW Mega Meet to ensure we spread the spirit of Responsible Travel among all the participants so that they can further pass on to their knowledge. The chain has worked very well so far. I cannot claim to have changed the world, but I am sure DoW has made a difference to many people’s lives and the way they travel in the Himalayas. That is what I dreamt about at the start of Devil On Wheels. Apart from that we also organized a clean up drive in Kasol, a dental camp in Harsil and have setup a DoW Spiti Library in Kaza, Spiti Valley.
We also have a dedicated forum for Responsible Travel where people share the experiences of executing DoW Causes in Himalayas. There are about 40+ instances of documented DoW Causes and some of these are at a very large scale, especially in DoW Mega Meet 2014 and 2015.
- How do you go about planning your road trips?
I read a lot about the place I am going to travel. I extract out the unusual things and try to plan most aspects right from special local stays and local dhabhas to eat, to where and when to stop. It helps me know where I am traveling and I try to see, explore more about the place after learning things about it.
- Now that you are in US, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much are you missing the mountains?
10! I miss them day and night, every moment. There is nothing like Himalayas in the world though mountains are around me here as well but nothing can be compared with the Himalayas 🙂 … Our parents made sacrifices for us, it is our turn now to enter that stage of life.
- What’s your opinion about road travel in India?
Apart from Himalayan roads, I have not travelled much by road to other parts of Indian except covering Rajasthan. The driving gives me pleasure, it helps me connect to myself. That’s what I enjoy about road travel. Traveling on road in India means, you have to plan time for unexpected road closures, traffic jams, rallies etc. So, I keep a bit of a buffer at times known only to myself so that I do not get frustrated on the road and keep enjoying my travel. In some places in the plains you feel scared at night but when I am driving in Himalayas that’s just not there.
- How did you grow this community of DoW? Could you tell us some of the growth hacks you employed?
I feel it all comes to being honest, determined and how consistent you are when it comes to blogging and creating a community around it. I try to produce content which is practically useful to my readers and not the content which gets lost after driving traffic to my site for few days in the form of listicles. Other part being more transparent to your readers about what is advertised or promoted, unfortunately most PR agencies don’t like it. But, that is what helps when you blog part time because in that case it is your way or no way 🙂 I try not to follow the book rules of blogging and try to focus on just one book rule – “Content is the King”! The more useful content you write for your readers, the better readership you will attain.
Consider one thing, if the content you are writing is worth your time of reading it, in case you wanted to plan a trip using it, it will help one get better and better traction. There is still a lot to do with Devil On Wheels. All this we have done so far without spending a penny from our pockets on advertisement. We have never got involved in any kind of paid promotion ever using any of the services – either through PR, Google ads or social media.
- Are you road tripping in US? How is it different from India?
Yes, I am driving miles in the parts of US as well though it has just been 7 months. Here, you only get summers to travel as winters almost makes it impossible to travel especially in the East coast region I am residing in. So, we started traveling a bit from April and till now have done few trips nearby, in the Pennsylvania area. Apart from that we did couple of road trips to the New York, New Jersey beaches, Outer banks in North Carolina and the world famous Niagara Falls. Plans are to visit some state parks in Virginia this Fall and then may be a long road trip to the Southern most point in US covering the east coast drive from home in PA to Orlando – Miami – Key west area, towards the end of this year.
The road trips here are completely different experience in US than in India. Here, you get all the facilities on roads with various rest areas and pit stops demarcated properly. You don’t have to worry about signal loss, someone will come to your rescue in case of issues. The fear of getting robbed is a little less and driving is quite easy with less traffic and mostly on cruise control. The drives take lesser time, means you can cover more distance on roads. Tolls are costly but the inroads are beautiful too. However, the saddest part is that you cannot stop at the road side to take a picture of a beautiful scene or spot you see. I feel sorry to travel this way because in Himalayas we are not used to it. Though they have marked scenic spots on the drives , sometimes you feel you should be allowed to stop to take a picture at least on the curb side.
There is nothing like the fun of enjoying a road trip in India and nothing beats a road trip to Himalayan roads, nothing.
- When you think of road travel what first comes to mind?
Nothing but a road trip to the Himalayas. Some say it’s an obsession but I say it’s love 🙂
- Why Devil On Wheels?
This name is a reminder that there is a devil inside of me, which shall never manifest itself in this new age of my life. Instead of depression pills, it is the reverse psychology of reminding myself to not unleash that kind of a devil again in my life. This has helped me restore the good things in my life. It is a reminder for me each and every day, each and every moment of my life.
Note: All photos taken from Facebook and Devil on Wheels official page.