The International Writers Magazine: India Rubber

Motorbiking India: The Dangerous and Irresponsible Way
Paul Jeffrey

very red blooded man dreams of be-striding a Royal Enfield Bullet and riding through the Rajasthan desert, a full tank of fuel, sans crash hat and a map that Long John Silver would have balked at. Most glossy travel sections cover the all in, boots and leathers, full insurance Royal Enfield tours of India, but what about those who don’t want to join a gang of strangers or be in the saddle for days on end. For those mad enough to tempt fate on Indian roads on bikes you are unfamiliar's how.

Rock up in a town like Jaiphur or Udaipur and mention to every taxi driver, waiter and tour tout that you require a couple of good quality Enfields for about 5 days (enough time to get somewhere, relax, then drive back again) Eventually you will be offered the bikes and negotiations for daily use will come down to about 350 R per day. You may have to leave a deposit and a photocopy of your passport too. Once the bikes are secured spend a day at an Enfield garage making sure the brakes, gears and engine are in good working order. This won’t cost much and is well worth the effort and peace of mind. Now all you need to do is choose a destination, kick that beauty over and hit the road.

A few home truths about Indian roads; You are on a motorbike; only bullock carts and push-irons are lowlier than you. Size matters. Cars and lorries have right of way. Having a high speed head on collision with a lorry results in an honorable death here. Indian drivers love nothing more than to overtake, one hand on the wheel while the other continually hits the horn. The concept of ‘brow of a hill’, or ‘double white lines’ are western safety inventions that mean very little in Tamil Nadu.

At the base of the mountain passes, through blind bends with 100m certain death drops there are the burnt out remains of buses and lorries, some still smoldering. Above, all manner of vehicle are jostling at high speed to overtake each other. It’s as if the only law of the road is that drivers are obliged to overtake any vehicle they encounter and must do so while furiously honking their horn. There is scant regard for oncoming traffic or westerners on Enfields. This is the land of the Hindu religion. To die a tragic death in a pile up may lead to an elevated status in the next life, so, as Ghandi never said, ‘bring it on’.

Our destination we knew only as Mount Abu. Rajasthans only hill station. 1400m up in the middle of the desert, an 8 hour ride through tribal territory. We were warned in the town not to take certain roads for fear that the local tribesman would hurl stones at us. We ignored the warnings. Children selling custard apples threw custard apples at us.

As city roads turned to country lanes the magnificence of India unfolded before our eyes. The bikes ticked over like old friends at 50 - 60 mph. We passed camel trains bound for the Pushka camel fair and the humps of the dromadarie reflected the rolling hills of the countryside. Elaborately moustachiod goat herders with flouresent pink turbans looked on in astonishment at the Western fellows on bikes. Each Chai (tea) stop in each village was a frantic celebration of east meets west. The local men and boys crowded round us and laughed at the sweaty, sunburnt westerners who’s dropped by for tea and a smoke. In these villages a basic knowledge of cricket is essential. Conversations begin and end with Freddie Flintoff and Sachin Tandulka. We made many friends this way and possibly one or two enemies.

I suppose I ought to explain why we didn’t wear crash helmets. The answer is because we didn’t have to. There is a fantastic exhilaration in driving a big bike in the sun without a heavy old hard hat on.
This might sound irresponsible and it is, but you see, pretty soon we will have no choice, even in India. We’re here to escape the nanny state rules that bubble wrap our lives in England. I take full responsibility for the decisions I take however daft and dangerous that might seem and at the time the cool breeze on my unprotected head felt like a little blast of heaven.

After driving the backroads of Rajasthan for 7 hours the landscape changed from rolling green hills to arid desert and red rock mountain ranges. Highest of all was Mount Abu, drawing ever closer. We reached the base and began the accent which would take the best part of an hour. The roads twisted around the rock and the bikes stayed at 30 miles per hour at a 30 degrees angle. Lorries, buses and cars continued the wacky races of earlier in the day. All vehicles have ‘Use Horn’ painted on them, as if, even for one second, someone might forget to honk continually at an offensive volume.

At the peak of Mount Abu we dismounted and had a little man hug to congratulate ourselves on such a great achievement. We hadn’t quite known what to expect. At the top of this beautiful mountain there is an emerald green lake, carved, as the legend goes, by the fingernails of the Gods. The water is surrounded by lush greenery and there are flocks of dayglo green parrots in the air. As the sun set, we cracked open a couple of ice cold beers, kicked our boots off and began to realise we had discovered a little fairytale paradise on the top of the world and the two Royal Enfield Bullets parked down by the lake were our oily magic carpets.

There is nothing quite like an empty road flanked by camel humped mountains and the chug-chug-chug of an Enfield Bullet to make a man feel like he’s living alright. Navigating a bend at 40mph to find a couple of lazy cows lying in the road may shake this feeling somewhat and bring a fellow back to reality. Actually one of us did hit a bullock in a crowded town, both rider and beast were unhurt but a row insued when some chancers tried to charge us for throwing sand on the spilt oil.

Complete travel euphoria is man and machine (designed in Birmingham) ragging along the Rajasthan backroads with just a straw hat, T-shirt, jeans and dusty boots between him and serious gravel rash. Sheer joy is the sound of an Enfield Bullet in 4th gear, one eye ahead, one eye on the monkeys swinging from the trees at the side of the road.

Once or twice we were nearly killed. Once or twice we were really lost. Once or twice the bikes refused to go without a gut busting, downhill jump start. Yet throughout it all we felt so incredibly alive as perhaps only fools so close to death could ever be.

© Paul Jeffrey September 2006
Udaipur to Mount Abu -  8 to 10 hours (backroads)
Jaipur to Sariska - 9 hours
Goa to Hampi - 2 days (approx 6 hours per day)

How to break ones arm body surfing on unpredictable beaches in Gujurat.

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