Monday, 4 April 2011

I was savoring a cappuccino at an Italian coffee shop in Aucklandpark and happened to notice a guy in his fifties at the table opposite me scanning pictures on his laptop.  Interesting pics I thought…, wonder where on earth he took those?.  He then clicked the down button and a picture of him on some antique bike loaded with more stuff than I can ever get on my Africa Twin scrolled open on his screen. Interest turned into voyeurism as more pictures of him on this old bike appeared.  Two coffees later I ended up sitting next to him in a long discussion about his bike adventure in Ladakh. Ladakh has been described as “The Last Shangrila”, a living museum of Tibetan Culture, nestled high in the Himalaya mountains and accessible by road just 2 months out of the year.

I was going to do it come hell or high water; the problem was that those two months in the middle of the year. It was already August and I missed the 2009 window. Besides that I really can only take a reasonable time off in December.
Well the second best option became reality when my girlfriend Ragini and I arrived in a hot humid Mumbai on the 17th of December 2009 . We had exactly a month and decided to circumnavigate the shout of India. We spent many hours carefully planning a route starting in Mumbai on the North West coast, ride across India to the Chennai on the east coast, and then we would follow the coastal road to the southernmost tip of India and then back to Mumbai along the west coast.


Herman Schoonbee & Ragini Reddy Grantham
Recovered from our jet-lag at our “couch surfing” host (See www.couchsurfing.com)  Ajay Palekar and his parents we were eager to get the bike and hit the road. Our first stop would be the city of Pune a mere 160 km from Mumbai. I felt that it would be prudent to make the first stop a very short ride, not more than two hours or so. Or so I thought.
We arrived at the address the bike rental lady gave us by e-mail. We were expecting some Avis or Herz like office or at least some bike shop; instead the address was a seedy looking block of flats. Three Enfields parked in the parking area indicated that we might be in the right place. Everything we agreed upon was now different. Suddenly there was no insurance on the bike and I had to leave my credit card details to recover any costs. What was supposed to be a brand new bike ended up being a three year old bike with 18 000 kms on the clock. However looking at the bike it was more likely 118 000.  The thing was leaking oil, there was rust everywhere. However I decided that 36 000 Rupees or R6000 for renting a bike for a month is ok even for an old bike. We would later discover that you could easily buy a reasonably good bike for R 24 000 rupees or R 4000.00, get it completely overhauled in two days for R 2400 rupees or R400.00 and sell it again for R4000.00 after the trip.  The bike was a Royal Enfield Bullet 500 Machismo, and our sales lady pointed out with great pride that this one had an electric starter. Yes an electric starter, big deal I thought, even scooters come out with those.
We packed our bags and left for what I thought would be an easy ride to Pune. Following the directions given to us by our host Ajay, we hit Mumbai traffic at 10am.


Herman & Ragini in Mumbai           Photo: Herman Schoonbee


Shear madness followed. Imagine Joburg peak traffic… multiply that tenfold, ad a million motorcycles that follow no apparent rules, throw in a hundred thousand trucks, then there was the livestock, now im not talking domestic animals of which there was a fair amount. Im talking pigs, chickens and cows. Turn off 90% of the traffic lights, then to put a cherry on top throw in some potholes and in some places remove the road totally. What personified the madness was that within 5 kms of driving in this chaos, a cop pulled us over and pointed at my headlight and with a stern accent and Indian head wobble (side to side head movement) ordered me to turn off my headlight immediately as it is against the law to drive with your headlight on in India. This was the first of many very strange rules we encountered along the way.
What was supposed to be an easy two hour ride turned into a 6 hour rollercoaster ride. Mostly because of my South African riding mindset. That first six hours was without a doubt the best training on riding in India, and prepared us perfectly for another 4000 kms that followed.



Photo:Herman Schoonbee



The rules are simple, to start you have to drive with sheer confidence, this is critical as you would then drive more predictably for other road users. If you hesitate for a second, someone will hit you and it will be your fault. The next most important rule is to totally ignore any traffic behind you and focus all your attention on what happens in front of you. If someone wants to overtake you from behind they will sound their hooter or horn as they call it here. You then simply keep your position and speed and make no sudden moves. The same applies when you overtake. Use your horn liberally and overtake on any side. Often it is best to overtake on the left to avoid oncoming traffic and potholes. (See Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d31HwfB1VIs ) 
Exhausted we arrived in Pune at our second couch surfing host Rita’s place, the Bullet’s tappets sounding like someone shaking a bunch of marbles in a tin can. This was very disconcerting as we have covered less than 200km’s and were only on our second day. Rita provided us with some sense of relief as she knew a guy that knows a guy that knows all about Enfields. Here I realized a valuable addition to a trip like this is a partner with a positive mindset. I was bitterly disappointed and saw visions of us returning to Mumbai and me ending up in jail after throwing the owner of the bike rental company from the balcony of her fourth floor flat. Ragini maintained that we keep our cool and meet with this Enfield boffin and take it from there.  



Photo:Herman Schoonbee

Baljeet Singh was the man, and what a man he was!. Baljeet is very proud Seekh dressed in a neatly pressed shirt with matching turban complete with a curved dagger on his side.  He owns an open air restaurant and insisted that we sample a variety of his foods while he organized the mechanic that will sort out our tappet problem. Over a fabulous tandoory chicken he told us in great detail about his riding experiences in India and I immediately felt more confident about our ride. Firstly the tappet noise was fairly normal and apparently posed no real danger, secondly you can get anything fixed on this bike anywhere in India. This proved to be the key to our confidence. After refusing to accept any payment for the scrumptious meal, we followed Baljeet on his Bullet to his home. Traveling through hectic Indian traffic on your own is one thing, but trying to keep up with the fastest biker in India is an entirely different thing. Weaving through the traffic he would fly trough gaps that I wouldn’t take with a bicycle. The only way I could keep up with this flying Seekh was to ignore red robots, jump a pavement or two and force my will down on any tuk tuk driver while Ragini wildly indicated our intentions with arms all over the place. Baljeet introduced us to his wonderful family and proudly showed us an enormous collection of racing trophies and video clips of his “Bullet” experiences.



Photo:Herman Schoonbee

I knew we were in good hands. A scrawny little guy arrived with a set of tools rolled up in an oily rag. From Baljeet’s  earlier telephonic instructions he knew exactly what needed to be done. Without a word he adjusted the tappets, tightened some nuts and decided that the timing was slightly out and adjusted that too. An hour later he got up from behind the bike, pressed the starter button, smiled and did the head wobble. 300 Rupees (about R50) please, he said with a strong Tamil accent. I was expecting at least 800 rupees. I gave him a 500, and we returned to Rita’s flat with renewed confidence.  


With a newfound respect for our ride we decided to christen her after the holy cow Laksmi. By now I was a qualified Indian biker. Ragini was full of confidence and found a way to mount the bike with a left foot on the left footrest and on my command “hop on babe” would swing her right leg with acrobatic flair over our luggage landing with her butt on the back seat. Riding in Pune peak traffic was now almost fun. With left thumb on the horn performing morse code like beeps, coordinated clutch and brake movements from my side and Ragini assisting with arm and hand movements indicating our intentions we weaved our way smoothly through the mad peak traffic. After twice asking for directions we found the national highway to Sholapur on the road to our first real rest a place called Hampi. Don’t be fooled by the word national highway. It is a single lane road where the chaos is now sped up and squeezed into a straight line. Emotions vary from excitement to thrill to sheer horror. Close calls become an order of the day. Here trucks and busses rule the road, outranked only by the occasional cow that would calmly cross the road and force traffic to a standstill. Motorcycles have the lowest rank off all and are totally disregarded. All drivers myself included get possessed with a strange obsession to move forward at all cost. It is like a nightmarish dehydrated stampede chasing an invisible water source somewhere in the distance or a terrified herd fleeing an evil predator that is gaining hot on our heels. Believe me passing the vehicle in front of you, no matter how risky, far out way your shocked surprise when a fifteen ton truck overtakes you. You know that this beast overtaking you on your right will send you into oblivion without hesitation if he has to avoid a pothole, cow, dog, chicken, human or an oncoming vehicle. You further quickly learn that drivers heading in your direction are possessed by the same demon you are. You often face a car overtaking a truck which in turn is overtaken by a bus. With three angry vehicles storming head on at you all you can do is brake hard and head for the side of the road, hoping there is no ditch pothole or mammal of any kind meeting you there. This is all not as bad as it seems as the fundamental difference with highway riding at home is that it all happens at a substantially lower speed. Averaging fifty k’s an hour is very good going and proof of the term speed kills is that we encountered surprisingly few accidents on the way.

We were about 60 kilometers from Sholapur, our target for the day, when Laksmi suddenly over-revved and immediately slowed down. Gearing up and down, attempting to find the slipped gear I pulled over and on closer inspection realized that we had a broken chain. I have been motorcycling since my 15th year and I am now 43. In those 28 years of biking I have had flat tires, blown gaskets, fuel pump malfunctions, blown fuses and a couple of dry fuel tanks but this was my first broken chain ever. The sun was setting behind us and I knew we were in for another interesting challenge.

The trick is get off your bike, light a cigarette and on realizing that there is nothing you can do with the limited tools in your possession to remedy the situation, adopt a totally helpless expression on your face.  Within minutes an Indian Samaritan will appear from nowhere. Remember you are in a country only twice the size of South Africa with a billion strong population all governed by a plethora of gods where an opportunity to help a stranger can improve his chance of entering Nirvana or reincarnation to a higher cast or at the very least add some unplanned rupees to an empty wallet. Ragini was uttering something that probably resembled, “that fucking bitch that rented us this piece of shit!”. Clearly it was my turn to be cool and positive. I finished my cigarette and as I put it out with my shoe an elaborately decorated bright orange Mahindra tractor pulled over in front of us. Ten minutes later we were towed by tractor about five kilometers to a village. The tractor with us in tow found its way through narrow streets lined with Indians from all walks of life all stopping what they are doing and staring at us in awe. Some openly laughing, some amazed at the sight and some even trying to sell us something while we were on the move. The tractor pulled up in front of a Royal Enfield workshop, oh yes you read correctly a fucking Royal Enfield workshop in the middle of a shithole town. The shop came complete with a faded logo of the company that was probably sign written forty years or more ago.
The workshop was about two and a half meters wide and about eight meters deep. The unpainted walls were lined with racks laden with all kinds of Enfield parts and in the middle of the shop was a stripped down Bullet 350 balanced on a wooden crate, surrounded by two middle aged guys sitting on tiny stools. Surprisingly the tractor driver refused any form of monetary “thank you” and left in a puff of diesel smoke. He gave us a friendly wave combined with the usual head wobble as he disappeared around the corner. I am embarrassed to say that even after the fantastic help we received from total strangers over the last three days, my suspicious nature, probably fueled by our first negative experience with the bike rental lady, I almost expected to be screwed by these guys. Again I was wrong, almost an hour later we were mobile again and yes it cost us a ridiculous R180 rupees. Yep that’s R30. With all our earthly possessions still strapped to the bike I had to remain at the workshop while Ragini used the time to get a local sim card for our phone.





She disappeared down the road with a bunch of children in tow and later returned with fat smile on her face again with a bunch of kids around her. By now it was dark, continuing another sixty k’s in the dark on a pothole and animal infested road would be plain stupid. We decided to try and find a hotel of some sorts. For the next ten k’s we must have stopped at five or six real dumps that Ragini found unacceptable for human occupation before we found a half decent hotel. They proudly advertised that they have hot water. After unpacking I looked forward to a long shower only to find that the hot water is delivered to your room in a bucket.




Photo:Herman Schoonbee


The road to Hampi took us past Dijapur and Hospet. Leaving early and stopping every hour or so proved to be the secret. By now eating from street vendors became an interesting adventure in itself and surprisingly we very seldom contracted the notorious Deli Belly. Despite popular belief roadside foods are almost 100% safe. I suppose harmful bacteria has a hard time surviving in the massive array of spices found in all foods. For a red blooded meat eating South African the vegetarian variety took some getting used to. Every time we passed a holy cow I had visions of a nice rare sirloin. These visions became an obsession, now and then a restaurant had steak on their menu and I would give it a go, only to be bitterly disappointed. So the lesson is to stick to Indian food until you get to a big city where you have more options. Besides that Indian food is so cheap, R50 can keep two stomachs full for a day.


Photo:Herman Schoonbee
Arriving in Hampi was like riding out of a dessert into an oasis. Hampi, as it is popularly known today was the medieval capital of the Hindu empire Vijayanagara (the City of Victory) and is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Dotted around the hills and valleys are 500 plus monuments. Among them are beautiful temples, basements of palaces, remains of aquatic structures, ancient market streets, royal pavilions, bastions, royal platforms, treasury buildings.., the list is practically endless. Hampi is a backpacker’s paradise and it is here that we met Guy our travel partner for the remainder of our trip. Yep his name is Guy, an Israeli that has been travelling on his 350 bullet for the previous 4 months.  Guy was not only a wonderful companion but he had an iphone with a GPS. We spent a glorious five days in Hampi, a bikers paradise. No helmets or shoes required. Good roads with almost no traffic winds through bouldery hills and valleys of rice paddy’s with a something interesting to see or do around every bend. Evenings were spent mingling with travellers from all over the world.


Photo:Herman Schoonbee


Photo:Herman Schoonbee
Photo:Herman Schoonbee




A biking highlight was crossing the river at various places ranging from overloaded boats to a bamboo basket.

 Together with Guy we left for Palolin in the southern part of Goa province. Guy had a bright red flag on his bike which made him stand out amongst a million motorcycles and made it easy to follow. The downside of the flag was that it advertised that there are tourists on the move here and attracted anyone from beggars to street vendors or just people interested to see what idiots look like. The general consensus amongst the locals were that anyone riding so far on these dangerous roads when there was perfectly good trains and busses available had to be insane.  Proof of this finally came after pushing the envelope and maybe because of overconfidence gained from the past week of incident free riding. An idiot in a little car came flying around a sharp turn first narrowly missing Guy in front of us. A split second later he hit us full on the right side luggage rack. My back pack with my laptop inside took the brunt of the force; however we still ended up screeching along the tar. Ragini was nicely cushioned by our luggage and my body and walked away with a bruised confidence that took a while to improve. I had bruises on my right arm and shoulder and felt a familiar pain in my chest. I knew from broken ribs in previous falls that this was one of those again. On regaining my composure and after feeling confident that Ragini was ok I turned my attention to our ride Laksmi, I was filled with admiration. Besides a broken headlight and rear indicator a bent luggage rack and foot rest, she was all intact. A similar fall on my Africa Twin back home would have set me back at least R5000 in repairs. While Ragini went to a local clinic to get checked out Guy and I, with the help of the idiot that hit us drove to the nearest town to get the bike fixed up. By the time we had the bike ship shape it was dark. We were exhausted after a long day riding and by now the pain reducing adrenalin in my body dissipated. It felt like a steamroller drove over my chest and a sharp pain would hit my spine at the slightest twist of my body. There was nothing you can do to a broken rib but hang in there for a week or so. We all piled into a reasonable hotel room for the night and woke with renewed energy, looking forward to a couple of days on the beach. We took an easy ride along the coast and arrived in Palolin after only a half an hour’s riding. I was extremely relived as for me it felt like a six hour ride. Every bump in the road was picked up by my ribcage. Now and then Ragini would give me a loving hug from behind that felt like she was drilling a dagger into my chest. Being a tourist trap that catered for western tastes we devoured a couple of fantastic pizzas. We agreed that Ragini would go with Guy to find us accommodation while I reported the accident to the cops. It was a total waste of time. After sitting in the police station for hours the outcome was this. If I wanted to get a police reference number (for insurance purposes) I would have to make a case against the driver. Firstly that would mean that I would have to return in a couple of week’s time when the local court is in session and in the mean time the bike had to be left with the police.


Photo:Herman Schoonbee



Cows on the beach                                                       Photo:Herman Schoonbee


















Guy and Ragini managed to find us fantastic bungalows on the beach in Agonda a little further north. Agonda was paradise, Margaritas at sunset, great food, warm sea, and amazing travelers from all over the world made the following five days a close second to Hampi in highlights of our trip.
Our next target was Kochi, the capital of Kerala state. From time immemorial, the Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese have left indelible marks on the history and development of Kochi. All these influences are clearly visible in the port district of Fort Kochi, and on the recommendation of fellow travelers we set our sights in that direction. We had 900 kms to cover in as short a time as possible. Guy met some babes at a party and wanted to stay a day longer and thought that he would catch up with us as we planned to do the trip in three days and he felt he could do it in two. We left at the crack of dawn and managed to cover 500 kms, a hundred kms past Mangaluru, our target for the day. In addition to remarkable scenery and occasional stretches along the ocean, and great roadside food, the roads were better and there were a substantially less trucks on the road. As far as animals is concerned there were plenty. We dodged many cows, pigs, and chickens and luckily had no adverse effects from hitting a stray dog with our crash bar along the way.
We were certain that the remaining 400 kms would be a breeze.






Photo:Herman Schoonbee


Photo:Herman Schoonbee



Again we left very early; the first 100 kms flew past pretty uneventfully. However as we got closer to Kochi the traffic increased incrementally and at an average of 15 to 20 kms an hour in 38 degree heat and the midday sun pounding down on us the ride lost all its appeal. We stopped every hour downed a bottle of water and calculated our progress from the last stop. Nothing is more depressing than realizing that you spent an entire hour in horrible conditions to cover a miserable 15 kms.
Determined to beat Guy to Kochi we decided to press on no matter what. Dehydrated and utterly exhausted we arrived in Fort Kochi at around 7:30pm. Again a magnificent oasis. This time on Lake Vembanad. Beautiful old English, Dutch and Portuguese style buildings remind you of this town’s colonial past. Protestant Catholic and Hindu churches and temples compete with its splendor. Restaurants and cafe’s line the main street that might be mistook for a quaint backstreet in Lisbon. On the shoreline fishermen earn a living using Chinese fishing nets. However on subsequent closer inspection I found that they make more money from tourists wanting to be photographed pulling down on the enormous boom of this amazing contraption.   





We booked into a luxury air-conditioned guest house for the extravagant price of 600 rupees (R100) a night for the two of us. We totally deserved it and my aching chest needed it. While enjoying a scrumptious Masala Dosa over a glass of disgusting wine, we had a call from Guy. He was bringing a girl with him on the trip but only managed to make Mangaluru. Suffering from a hangover; the result of a party the previous night they left late and had to call it a day sooner. They arrived safely late the following evening. We soaked up the culture for four days serviced the bikes, not because they needed a service but because it was cheap. We met up with a group Israeli girls that toured India following a two year military service. We booked a houseboat for the six of us in Allepuza about a 100 kms further south.
Four of us on Enfields and two in a tuck-tuck did the 100 km stretch in just over an hour on what must have been the best road in India. Our cruise was the epitome of relaxation in style. The air-conditioned rooms were luxurious. We were treated like royalty by a crew of five guys. We drank beer and freshly squeezed juice, played cards until the early hours of the morning and feasted on an interesting variety of South Indian cuisine.











So far we did very little planning and our trip took shape based mostly on recommendations by other travelers.
And as fate would have it Guy received a sms from a traveler he befriended earlier. According to this guy a town called Munnar about 200 kms to the north east was a must see. So we took a vote and after consultation on the best route with one of our crew we roared off northwards. We left around noon in about 35 degree heat with 100% humidity.  I mentally prepared myself for a tough ride. However the route was lined with shady trees many interesting stops on bridges covering a number of rivers.  The landscape changed as we headed into the mountains. At the same time the temperature dropped dramatically to a very comfortable 20 degrees or so. The roads curved sharper and tighter the higher we rose. The traffic thinned out but the remaining trucks and busses now came flying around the bends at insane speeds. Our previous ordeal and a nervous pillion behind me forced me to slow down and I decided to let Guy go ahead at his own speed. I hardly made that mental decision when a bus appeared around a bend cutting fully into our side of the road to avoid flying off the cliff as he misjudged his speed. Guy reacted in a split second to avoid a head-on collision but ended up head over heels in the gravel on the side of the road. Guy was thrown away from the bike and rushed towards Michal to help her get her leg from under the bike. They suffered no obvious injuries, Guy made a stupid joke to relieve the tension of the situation but Michal was clearly in shock. Ragini lost her temper and crapped on Guy for driving too fast and taking too many chances. Guy’s Enfield had a few scratches but started with one firm kick. His older bike had no electric start. We took a slow ride up the mountains for the remaining 50kms or so, this allowed me to enjoy the breathtaking scenery around us without constantly mentally preparing myself for a quick evasive maneuver to avoid an oncoming bus.   




Photo:Herman Schoonbee





Photo:Herman Schoonbee









Photo:Herman Schoonbee








We arrived in Munnar in a slight drizzle and took shelter at a restaurant that had a menu adorned with a picture of the most mouthwatering looking hamburger I have ever seen. I felt at home, I could feel my stomach rumbling with delight at the thought of the coming meal. I didn’t even open the menu and pointed at the cover to the waiter. “You bring this” … The waiter gave me a sheepish smile and said in a hindi accent while doing the head wobble. Sorry sir we don’t sell hamburgers.  Well ok they had a damn good lamb curry with rotti.  We scanned Guy’s “Lonely planet” for accommodation, made a few mental notes and set off to find a place for the night. After trying a half a dozen places we settled for a fantastic backpackers lodge called Aida lodge; a backpacker’s lodge with hot water from the tap. It was heaven. We stayed here for the next 4 days. Munnar now even outranked Hampi on the biker friendly scale. All the roads in the area was brilliant, we were high up in the mountains with roads winding through lush green tea and spice plantations. The weather was delightfully cool, the views spectacular the people fantastic and as always at a backpackers lodge we again met amazing people from all over the world. Guy dumped Michal and met another Israeli girl named Moran. She also completed her military service and planned to study medicine after her year of traveling.







A vast improvement on Michal I must say. The four of us inspected every nook and cranny of the area, Guy lugged a set of pots and pans and a gas cooker with him and often slapped together an Israeli dish or some of the local tea. This however is not recommended, Food and drink can be found around every corner for almost nothing.  
Our time was slowly running out, we had a week left before we had to return to South Africa from Mumbai Airport. We were more than 1300 kms away from Mumbai, and decided to return to Kochi put the bike on a train, fly to Mumbai get the bike at the station and spend the remaining days there. This would give us a big enough safety net to get to know Mumbai hand the bike back and give Ragini ample shopping time.




Photo:Herman Schoonbee

Photo:Herman Schoonbee



Guy decided not to collect his bike from the station but rather forward it straight to Delhi, his next port of call. This was no problem at all as all three of us now travelled on Laksmi through Mumbai traffic. This is really no big deal, seeing bikes with four or more people on it are nothing out of the ordinary. By now after 4000kms in India Mumbai traffic was a breeze.
We said farewell to our new lifelong friend Guy at the Mumbai station delivered our bike to the woman from “India Bikes” and while Ragini went off with a taxi driver to do some last minute shopping before our return I opted for a Bollywood movie.     


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