ENDURO INDIA 2003 had always been an ambitious project. The organisers of the event hoped to get 100 motorcycle enthusiasts to Kerala in south-west India to take part in a 2500km endurance rally. The purpose was to raise money for a number of charities including WWF’s Tiger Emergency Fund, The Rainbow Trust and the Pain and Palliative Society’s new hospice in Calicut.
By the time we met the main organiser, Fiona Shapcott, at Heathrow it was clear that not everyone who had paid their deposit was going to turn up. Some simply could not raise the cash. Some did, but opted not to go. One man cancelled the night before citing personal reasons for not coming, but in these few cases, all the money was willingly passed on to the charities anyway. For those of us who assembled there was a degree of trepidation. Few of us really new anyone else on the rally and there was always that nagging doubt about the event ahead, the prospect of Deli Belly and the concern of making a total pratt of yourself in front of all these other experienced bikers. Jonathan Gilbert and Amanda Jupp arrived the same time as me and we all went for a bite of breakfast. With the addition of Rich Berry who sat beside us on the plane, we formed a core group that stuck together throughout the trip. On the flight over some folk talked themselves up – what they ride, how big, how fast and all the events they attend. Others talked themselves, down pointing out they were Sunday drivers, only ride in the dry or were born again bikers slowly trying to relive their youth. A few sat back, reflected and said very little at all, at least about the event or their biking skills.
Thirty hours of travelling later we settled into the Taj Residency in Calicut, hot, bothered and squeezed in four (some five) to a room. The reception of garlands and lime soda was most welcome. After having a day acclimatising to the 35º C heat by the pool, the bikes arrived from Royal Enfield. Ninety black and gold brand new 350cc RE Bullets. Along with them came a mobile Enfield workshop and a team of mechanics set to repair the inevitable damage we were about to inflict on the machines. I doubted then, and still do now, the wisdom of taking such a large group into a rally on new bikes. From my own experience running in an Enfield last year, there are a lot of teething problems in the first 500km as the engine wears itself in, the gears smooth themselves out and the filters, oil and fuel system settle themselves down. Add to that the fact that the Enfield’s gears and breaks are on the opposite side to most motorbikes (and the gears are one up three down), and it was clear the riders were going to experience a little frustration – especially those who normally ride slick superbikes.
On the morning of the 23 February we set off on a short 40km run to Kappe Beach and back. The fun and games started here, as people learned their new riding technique on the hoof. The driving itself was quite intimidating for both Indians and Enduroists alike. This was a clash of driving systems which resulted in colourful language and Indians (unfairly) being decried as terrible drivers. In truth it was us who were appalling, failing to realise the subtleties of Indian driving which allows for any possible combination of road position, overtaking and speed. And once we realised that the local drivers are looking out for you, have no intention of hurting you and can’t conceive of road rage, driving actually became a pleasure – at least for most of us. An outstretched arm, palm backwards, means stay in, you’ll never make it. When the road ahead is clear, truckers, car and bus drivers alike will beckon you past, usually with a smile and a greeting. All you need is a calm temperament and judicious use of the horn to let other drivers know where you are on the road. At all times recite that mantra “when going round a corner always expect a truck, a pothole or both”. Back at the hotel there were still a few curses aimed at the driving conditions and the Enfields. For me the only problem was getting used to slightly less power and a less satisfying engine noise than my 500 Bullet at home. But in general the short drive encouraged us that the Enduro would be fun and that India is indeed a beautiful country. The dolphins cruising close to the shore at the beach enhanced the positive feelings.
On the second day we were introduced to city riding as we set off to the Pain and Palliative Society hospice in Calicut while the second group of riders flew in from Britain. As fifty of us pulled out of the hotel there was chaos. In the heart of rush hour traffic, the close quarter driving became too much for some as the first of the Enduroists hit the tarmac after finding the gears instead of the breaks trying to stop his machine. Others stayed on, but quite a few returned with dented rear mudguards as fellow riders failed to stop in time at junctions or in traffic generally. As we set out through the town, trying to maintain contact with the leaders, other drivers fell by the wayside. Bikes stalled, some riders got lost and in the chaos only nine of us made it to the hospital for the guided tour (though a second group arrived much later). It was depressing at the hospital. Being confronted with abject poverty is bad enough, but when that is accompanied by the knowledge that these patients were all terminal with HIV or cancer, one cannot help but be moved by their plight. Respect grew as well as they tried to raise smiles to accommodate this unfamiliar collective. That is so symptomatic of India, that desire to greet, accommodate and generally acknowledge their fellow human being. Many of us got into the habit of that lovely side nod of the head. Our admiration also extended to the doctors as well who take their free time to work at the hospice for no pay whatsoever. The whole operation runs on donations, a minimum of 40 rupees a day being required to look after one patient. Think, fifty pence a day to give a dying person some comfort in their final days. The press turned up to photograph us and we managed to muster up smiles, but I don’t suppose many of us were unmoved. We pressed on to the new hospice building which our sponsorship money would help to fund. Spacious and modern with room to accommodate family members to comfort the patients. The drive home was contemplative.
Back at the hotel we met up with the stragglers and a second hospital run was organised for the following day. But there were other discussions afoot. Most serious of all were the doubts raised by some of the riders as to their ability to compete in the Enduro given the experiences of the last few days. One of the riders opted not to compete. Having raised all that cash and made the flight over, she opted to do the rest of the trip being carried pillion. Other riders expressed reservations about ‘novice riders’ and their eligibility to participate during interviews with the TV film crew from Hub TV. Well, in India we were all novices.
On the third day in India we had another short run to the beach at Kappe. I nearly came a cropper on the way home thanks to a local woman and an episode straight from a Buster Keating movie. She had a pole with two buckets suspended from it over her shoulder. As she swung round to look at Jonathan roar down the side street we were on, I had to duck to miss the bucket swinging into the centre of the road. Moments later, Jonathan had his first emergency stop as a car pulled out in front of him. I locked up the back wheel behind him, realising the bikes do have breaks after all. We both stayed on, and after these introductory experiences the Enduro finally got underway.
We got up at 5am for breakfast and the first briefing. I say woke up, but many admitted to having had a restless night. The anticipation got the better of most of us and in fact our room were all up and into the Kevlar clothing by about 4.40am as we left the hotel lobby a traditional group of musicians arrived with horns and drums. The bikes had been lined up in the four colour coded groups so we could leave in an orderly fashion. Dignitaries from the city, the police and the event sponsors and the charities gave their speeches. Two elephants stood at the front of the procession giving the film crews the spectacle they hoped for. The signal was given to start the bikes, and to hail of camera flashes we processed into the streets. The marshals ensured we made it out, two abreast in convoy with the ambulances, support trucks and outriders spaced evenly among the convoy. The rally maps we were given gave distances between junctions and descriptions of the landmarks we would pass en route to the days destination at Jungle Hut, a famous holiday destination in Masinagudi in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. To get there we drove along NH212 before heading onto the more interesting minor roads. Between Thamarassery and Vythiri we encountered the first of what would become a familiar driving experience – the hairpin hill-climb. The road was accompanied by awesome views, the first of the monkeys and the thinning of the pack from one large mass down into smaller groups as riders left the four assigned groups and teemed up with others of equal ability and pace. Half way up a group of local Royal Enfield owners had gathered to watch with a banner wishing us all luck. No time to stop though as no-one wanted to get left behind. However, as the views became more stunning, you could not help but pull over briefly just to soak it in, but the reminder we were here to rally kept the stops short. After the hairpins we regrouped and were witnesses to an extraordinary sight of thousands of women in procession in the most beautiful costumes. They were in large groups, each of which wore a different colour scheme. Whether it was a religious, political or other event remains a mystery, but most smiled, many waved and quite a few blew kisses towards the alternative procession passing them by.
Eventually we turned off into one of India’s many nature reserves passing armed checkpoints designed to intimidate the poachers. As we drove through the roads deteriorated from poor to worse. Indeed for large stretched at a time we were effectively ‘off-roading’. Where there had once been tarmac, only rubble and red dust remained causing dust clouds and flying debris as we made our way through small hamlets and past busses, ox drawn carts and (for some) the occasional wild elephant. Indeed the nature park was alive with deer, wild dogs and monkeys, one of which stole a bag of onion bajees from off the seat of Amanda’s bike when we stopped for a rest. It was then bold enough to sit eating them only feet away and fend off a dog who tried to steal them. So having learned not to trust the locals we proceeded on eventually arriving six hours later. We were the second group in on a stage that was expected to take nine. And indeed for some it took longer than the allotted time as some sections proved very taxing for the novice and less fit riders. As we sat around debriefing each other on the day we learned of the first of the accidents. Jerone the Belgian had collided with a cyclist and paid him the paltry sum of 200 rupees in compensation. There were a few near misses in the traffic and one person dropped their bike on a hairpin. But we were all in safe enough. Most of us slept under the stars after a night round the bonfire. We were open to the jungle and the noise of the wild elephants, birds and insects made for a gorgeous exotic lullaby for some. For the majority though, this was another wrestles night due to the over enthusiasm of some revellers at the camp-fire who kept singing through the night. The snoring of my neighbours got to me, and after I awoke to a dream where I was being savaged by wild dogs, I took my sleeping bag and wandered deeper into the bush to take my chances with the elephants and beasties of the night.
Another early breakfast, and another feeling of trepidation. We had been told by the group leaders the night before that yesterday had been a ‘break-in’ day. I don’t suppose any of us believed that the roads could be any harder than what we had already ridden. Then came the briefing and the news that we were about to climb to about 8000 feet to Ooty (a settlement founded by a Scotsman in the nineteenth century), down several thousand feet again and finishing at Palaghat. This was a day of undulating hairpins, mountain roads with sheer drops and, we were told, a special treat! On our rally charts we were told to strike out huge sections as permission had been granted for us to pass through roads not even marked on the map. This permission had only been granted the previous night after four months of negotiations by Simon. Due to the restricted nature of several stages we would be accompanied for most of the day by armed guards. Sometimes only one or two, sometimes many more. We were warned not to become overconfident and that this day would affect how we drove the remainder of the ride. Jerone, over enthused on the previous nights celebrations, was declared unfit to drive and disappeared for the next two days pondering any future participation in the rally. For those of us remaining, the day did indeed prove challenging.
We reached the base of the first 36 hairpin climb to Ooty quite quickly, passing through some low lying scrub towards the impending mountains. Without stopping to contemplate the views, we hit the hairpins – some quite literally. Indeed as we stopped to regroup at the top of this section we heard the news of the first group of casualties. Alex Schaafsma, one of the novices was off, but unhurt and at least she learned enough to stay on the bike for the rest of the rally. Seven riders at least had dropped their machines on the way up and two had to abandon theirs because they simply did not have the driving skills to complete the climb. These were driven up by mechanics while the stranded were taken pillion by other riders. A slight blessing was the lower temperature at this altitude, but still some riders abandoned their protective jackets and chose to ride in shirt-sleeve order.
There was a perceptible change in the architecture on the roads beyond Ooty, very different to the huts on the coast. It was more European, and indeed the rows of cottages would not have seemed out of place in Scotland. Not long after a small town called Charing Cross we assembled again in Combai (Coimbatore) to fuel up before tackling the Lovedale to Kindau road. This was the diversion we had been briefed on, and though it shortened the distance of the rally it was easily one of the most challenging of the event. Another 40 plus hairpin section (plus hundreds of other corners of equal challenge) on a dirt track – now we were rallying! It was on this section that Joe from Dublin came a cropper. With the camera woman as pillion and a lack of protective jacket it should make for good footage on Men and Motors, though luckily both completed the day after the rider’s wounds were cleaned. As we regrouped again at the start of a restricted nature reserve we heard of another two or three who had fallen. This day was truly turning into an epic. We had to wait for an age in the heat for permission and the tail-enders to catch up and those with Deli-Belly took the opportunity to amble into the scrub. In this section they wanted to keep us together in a tight group (it didn’t work) as we went through the tiger reserve. No self-respecting tiger would have eaten those guys with the squirts!
Like earlier in the day this was an off-road section in all but name. More hairpins, blind bends and lungs and eyes full of dust. But after climbing and descending another mountain the confidence had built up and the concentration began to lapse as people became mesmerized by the view and scanned the bush for a glimpse of the tigers we knew lived there (to my knowledge no-one actually saw one). This combination led to the first of the ‘spectaculars’. Seumas Bradley had always seemed to me one of the most laid back riders since I had sat with him on the plane over. Who knows what he was thinking, but the moment must have got to him as he decided to overtake his group leader on a hairpin. He later said that as soon as he opened the throttle he knew he was off. He went into a slide after which his bike hit a rock and tumbled end over end over the edge of a spectacular drop. Off went Seumas, after his machine and over the edge down the precipice. Those who saw it all reckoned him dead. As they stopped and shouted and looked they could see nothing for the carpet of foliage. Then in a Dublin brogue came the dulcet tones of ‘I’m alive’ followed by manic laughter. Emerging from the bushes that broke his fall about 50 feet down the slope, our humbled hero appeared. Shaken and quite stirred he finished the day in the ambulance. The bike was recovered by the mechanics and returned to the road the next day, though not in the rally. Seumas had had enough. After lecturing the t-shirt wearers on their stupidity and praising his new Indian crash helmet to the full, Seumas and the rally parted company as he opted for a more sedate ride around India on his own.
But the stage was far from over. Moments after Seumas had his epic, another rider joined him in the ambulance after hitting a tree, while Jonathan Gilbert managed to hit a cow on the horn. He managed to keep control and keep riding. We stopped in a small hamlet to gather ourselves, take on some water, fruit and head of on the next section of road. As everywhere else we caused bemusement and interest to the villagers who were all keen to watch this most unusual spectacle. But sometimes this interest became too much as cheering groups gathered on the track from both sides forcing driving errors. It was here that Rich Berry took his eye of the road to wave at the crowd only to break sharply and take himself and one of the mechanics off their bikes after the latter had stopped to check directions. No harm done, but the cheer from the crowd was deafening. As the film crew came up to investigate we realised that they were probably the reason the crowd had been so stirred up when we arrived. Thankfully for Rich, the camera was off during his tumble.
The road to Anur took us through some arid country with an unexpected reception half way along by Royal Enfield who supplied cold drinks and biscuits for all concerned. Another chance to gather ourselves for the final ride of the day to Palghat and the Hotel Tripenta. Most completed in the allocated 8-10 hours though some limped in after dark. At the end of the day we counted about 18 incidents of riders coming off, with several completing their journey in the ambulance. And that was only those admitted to by the few folk still up after ten o’clock. I hear there’s about three dogs killed by Endurists to date and who knows how many other minor bumps with cattle and goats. Another day without serious injury though, for which we all were thankful.
Many people had an uncomfortable night last night despite the late start of 5.30am. Some were now reacting to the food which had begun to strike some competitors right in the stomach, boosting sales of Imodium and ensuring that the word ‘endurance’ received added meaning. The flying ants in the rooms and the lack of air conditioning also caused discontent. But for others there were other things to contemplate. Sara from Belfast decided not to complete the ride as a driver for, as she pointed out, the strain on her partner Colin Wilson was bad enough without him worrying about her. She spent the rest of the trip enjoying the scenery as pillion. One of the older riders, Chris Wilson from Canada, was under medical instruction not to compete today due to exhaustion. As it turned out later he had contracted pneumonia and spent most of the rally in the ambulance! So a few less starters today. At the debrief we were once more cautioned about overconfidence and reminded of yesterday’s casualty list. I doubt if anyone didn’t give it serious thought and certainly more were wearing protective jackets today, or at least had gaffa-taped the armour from inside them to their elbows and shoulders.
Once more we left the hotel in convoy heading through Nellepilly, Gopalapuram and Umamalaped towards the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary. We were not out of the hotel more than five minutes when we drove through an ‘insect storm’. I never worked out what they were, only that they were big and hurt when hit at speed, especially for those of us with open face helmets. The most of the ride there was on busy roads and today I took Balu from Cornwall as pillion. We had a few interesting moments before the regroup point as trucks overtook trucks overtaking busses, all coming towards me. However driving over the rough-ground at the side of the road was an easy, if uncomfortable way out. Just after reaching Kurichukottai, the terrain had noticeably changed to a more bush/scrub like landscape. The roads became much narrower, with small stunted like trees at either side. When we turned into the wildlife park we regrouped once more waiting for the tail-enders beside the crocodile sanctuary. This gave us a chance to walk round and see the reptiles for the massive price of one rupee (less than 2p sterling). But the wait in the heat prompted the Enduro to split into smaller groups than anticipated and so about 20 of us headed out through the sanctuary. There had been a paved road there once, but we were off-roading again which made life interesting given the pillion passenger I was carrying. Not only that, but the group was being led by Charlie, one of the guides not renowned for hanging about. So it was that we went thundering through some more lovely scenery with hoops of delight from riders and pillions alike as the bikes frequently left the ground and negotiated the roughs, ruts and rubble. Those non-Enfield owners were blatantly impressed by the punishment these bikes could take.
By the time we arrived at Karadakootam though I had paid the price and as we drove through the town I got a case of gear lockage, which meant I had to waive goodbye to my comrades and pull into the side of the road to let the engine cool. Still I had kept pace with the leaders in tough terrain. As Balu and I let the engine cool, we were surrounded by inquisitive Karadakootamonians. Balu managed to find a Gujarati speaker among them with whom he could explain to the others who we were and what we were up to – these strange men in warm clothes on a day like today. But after five minutes the engine cooled down enough to get us back on the road. A second group had gone past and we set off through the town in pursuit. As we left we entered on a lovely shaded road, rich with greenery where the trees formed a natural tunnel. A small group of four bikes had pulled up in the shade and I deposited my pillion with them for the rest of the day in order not to put any more strain on the engine. Especially since now we were about to enter the highest hill climb of them all.
Riding solo through the trees, stuck between groups I finally caught up with a familiar pairing of Mark and Sue from the West Midlands. I pulled up with them and waited till my usual riding partner Rich Berry arrived carrying Nick the cameraman. We headed off together up a 40 plus hairpin section. Yesterday had more of these than today, but the views on this stage were among the best we saw in India. My respect for the Indian hairpin was tinged with trepidation as I was in front of Rich and Nick. Knowing that the bike and shoulder cameras are on you as you negotiate roads notorious for bringing rider and India into closer proximity had an effect for the first corner or two. But after a while you forget that and lose yourself to the rhythm of braking, gear change, horn, deceleration, cornering and acceleration. Always reciting the mantra “truck, pothole or both”. Each corner is as exciting as the next and round each one there is always the promise of hazzard. If oncoming vehicles, these had to be avoided, if going the same way they had to be overtaken. You simply could not lose the momentum – and bless those Indian drivers for making this a (relatively) easy process. But as the scenery became ever more spectacular we simply could not help but pull in. At one hairpin a collective of Enduroists gathered and gasped looking down on the spectacle of the road they had only half way climbed. But as some of the trucks and busses started to pass us again we pressed on.
When we reached the next chai stop for that famous beverage and some watermelon we heard the news about Carrie Aucott. We’d passed the collection of bikes but thought it was just another view stop. In fact, Carrie had had a head on with a jeep on one of the corners and had been knocked out. One of the paramedics, Kipp, was there in minutes and the doctor followed close behind. Carrie is a professinal motocross instructor and had her full chest, back and limb armour on. This may well have saved her life, and the markings on her protective clothing became yet another reminder that this is a dangerous event. Had it been one of the clowns in t-shirts, the consensus was it may have been a fatality. Reassured she was going to make it we headed ever upwards to Kodaikanal. The roads flattened out in places but the views constantly reinforced the stunning image of this part of India. As we neared Kodai we were greeted with more throngs of people out waiving to us. We didn’t need the maps as they pointed the correct direction to us at each junction. One man jumped onto my pillion seat and told me he worked at the Hill Country Resort where we were going, and so for the last few kilometers we rode in a small convoy to the end with on board local knowledge.
This hotel was about the best we’d seen since the Taj, and only three to a room! Some kids at the back of the fence came and starred at me doing my laundry and shouting all the English words they knew – Cricket and Ball. They sat on the side of their hill for hours starring into our window. As we gathered round the bonfire listening to Credence Clearwater Revival, we heard of the last of the accidents. Sophie Phipps had stopped at the gate of the hotel when another rider missed the breaks and hit the gears. He careered into her leg with the engine bar of his bike causing some pretty spectacular bruising and an injury that took her out of the rally for the following day. We sat and watched the sun go down, talked over the day and the uninjured headed of for a very comfortable night’s sleep.
What a treat, a long lie until 6.30am and a leisurely breakfast during which we heard yet more tales of spills and thrills from the previous day. The briefing emphasised the need for caution today as we renegotiated the hairpins down towards Palani. A few more riders sitting out the day, we left the hotel at 30 second intervals to make sure we all had a clear run at the steep set of hairpins that marked the exit of the hotel. Some riders stalled here and had the arduous task of trying to restart their bikes on the incline. Once at the top we gathered into our now established riding parties and headed off into Kodai ‘line ahead’. We kept this formation for the next 4-5 km and due to the nature of the tight streets and undulating ground, it was probably the first time we had maintained such a large formation since day one. Once clear though the gaps opened up as the drivers of various ability settled into their own pace. These roads were as difficult to negotiate as the day before, though with the added bonus that the views on the downward route were more accessible than on the way up. Also, given the fact that today was marked down as a ‘short’ day, we decided to ease off the throttle and soak in more scenery rather than make a dash for the finish line.
From Palani we took the road to Udamalapet. About 10km short of the village we pulled up to watch a proper test of endurance. In a tiny village we noticed a festival where several young men were being supported by colleagues and marched round the village followed by the rest of the inhabitants all cheering and jostling. The young men were barely clad while the others were all dressed in their finest. It transpired that they had fasted for two days and gone without sleep or water then undertaken a 10km ritual walk between villages. And all this time they held bowls of fruit and water on their heads before arriving at a make shift shrine to give thanks. It was one of the few occasions that we stopped anywhere that we were ignored by the majority of the village. Only the kids swarmed around and the one English speaker took the time to come over and interpret the event for us while some guys dished out sweets to the kids. We moved off to cheers from the youngsters and all admiring the young men for their determined efforts.
On the way to Udamalapet the film crew started buzzing round our group. That was all very well except they were the biggest threat I felt to my safety as they weaved in looking for that action shot. At one point they cut several of us off as we moved to overtake a bus and two of us ended up off-roading as a result. But a chai stop later it was all forgotten. Well, they do need their action shots. From this point on we were told it was a straight run into Munnar. It was, but the expectation that it would be an ordinary drive soon fell by the wayside.
On re-entering the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Reserve that wonderful feeling returned of being back on semi-dirt track and in the midst of an endurance rally. Constantly on the look out for elephants (and elephant dung on the road) we kept a steady pace, and took time to wander down to watch people do their washing in a river teeming with fish. Fiona got in the water to have her photograph take beside a cow and gave Jonathan an image she’ll probably buy from him not to be published – nuff said. A little further on we walked into the park to scale a watch-tower which was well worth the 10 rupees we paid to the guard. Still no wild elephant sightings for me, but what a stunning view. And all accompanied by the usual companions of deer, buzzards and other exotic wildlife. Refreshed from that wilderness drive we left the bush land and started climbing into the upland tea plantations. We stopped off in a small town hamlet called Chattumunnar for a lime soda and a chance to see India take their first Pakistani wicket in the cricketing world cup. Now there was a grudge match. However, as Fiona and the medics settled down to a lime soda, they were called back to deal with another accident. I think that’s where Gordon Smart broke his leg. The rest of the ride to Munnar was taken at a steady pace, always with an eye to the road and an appreciation of yet another sort of breathtaking scenery. And of course the different sorts of monkeys that ran out in front of us as we drove past. As we pulled into the Hotel Westwood, there were less than ten bikes in ahead of us. But after a shower and a mineral water, I felt I had not had enough of this very special location and strapped on the Kevlar for another ride around the country.
I stopped in town to pick up some pineapple and mango upon which a young man called Joseph came up and passed comment on the Enfield. He said that he would like a drive on it, and that in return he would take me to a famous local waterfall. It turned out he was a professional tour guide and we back tracked about 10km from Munnar near the foot of the sacred Rajamali mountain. Returned around 7pm and still got back before the last of the tail-enders (so much for a short day!). As we sat gossiping over a dram we heard the news that Gordon had broken his leg. That seemed to be today’s only bad incident, though there were another couple of ‘sliders’. As people become more used to the Enfields, and gained respect for the Indian roads, the accident has dropped off to a trickle. I spent the rest of the evening talking with the mechanics and watching India beat Pakistan at cricket after a very dramatic come back. Still, like most nights it was reasonably early to bed after a singsong round the fire.
Despite rumours that yesterday was an easy day, they said the same about today. We set off on the ride to Thekkady and immediately upon leaving Munnar we headed higher into the tea plantations. Most were in the mood for absorbing as much of the view as they could and every passing place for miles held gaggles of Enduroists embracing the aspect below. But as we turned one corner in particular, and not believing that it could get any better we saw what would become for some the image of the event. Along the Lockhart Pass, the road had been washed away. To the right the drop continued for over a thousand feet – and that was only as far down as the cloud base. To be riding above it like this allowed us to see mountain-tops protrude like islands through the clouds. In front, and in the distance, a ridge rose out of the cloud with a second cloud layer crashing against the left hand side and cascading over the right like a waterfall. In places the road had been washed away and there was no kerb or verge whatsoever. The surface comprised of whatever had settled. This did not prevent busses and the odd repair truck coming head on, but the sheer unevenness of the surface led to a couple of fallers. I heard later that one guy was thankfully pinned under his bike, precariously perched staring down the sheer drop below. In our group though, there was only one guy ahead who dropped his bike, but with no injury. As we started to descend we encountered yet more hairpins as we headed out of tea country and into the domain of the spice plantations.
The roads in this area were full of land-rovers crammed with political activists clutching party flags and banners. We negotiated our way past these, although they were less keen in aiding this process than most of their countrymen. In front of me as we proceeded through the green-lanes, the silencer fell off Amanda’s bike causing me to swerve. But what a sound the un-silenced Enfield makes. A mechanic was right behind me and replaced the missing part from his own bike so we could continue on our way. But not before a following group stopped to listen to that throaty engine-sound. Indeed, some suggested we should all complete the rally in the same condition, as if we were not loud enough already! Once back on the road it was a gentle ride to the next stop point with a fruit and chai stop on the way. This had been a short, but spectacular days riding which saw many of us arrive at the hotel before 1pm.
Once at the Cardamom County Hotel we had a quick dip in the pool before Rich and I headed into town for a meal in a local bar. This was not a tourist stop. The manager came up and warned us against speaking to the locals as it would probably end in tears with us being ripped off and him being several hundred rupees down. When we asked if we should leave, he insisted we should not, but he gave us some generally sound advice on the town and the tricks of the con-artists. This was an interesting place. When you ordered a dram, they brought you a sealed half bottle. This was for the same price as a dram in most hotels. The locals took one each, some pouring half into a glass and topping it up with beer before polishing it of in seconds. We were more restrained. The whisky (Bagpiper) was ok, but tasted much better when drunk after a mouthful of lime chutney – hot! We had a plate of chillie chicken which we ate Indian style much to the amusement and positive reaction of the clientele. The total for three half bottles (two as a carry out), the meal and the extra chutney and chapatti’s came to about seven pounds. You can’t complain really. We headed back to the hotel via some shops and for another rest by the pool. Just after 3pm we set off on the roof of a truck to the game reserve and a river-boat ride. That photo made the local papers. More importantly, we at last saw herds of wild elephants, deer, buffalo and assorted other creatures. I think I had heatstroke at this point and generally felt a bit rough while also fighting off a cold, although the sights will eventually blot out that memory I’m sure. I headed back into town for an hour and a half long massage and steam bath just to try to get back into some kind of shape. I think it did the trick and both Rich and Sophie described me as being in a kind of trance when I returned. The evening meal was the best laid out yet, though given the sugar content I stuck to fish and nan-bread. Unfortunately it was accompanied by the most unconvincing ‘native-dancing’ with Indians dressed in grass skirts doing some kind of pseudo-African tribal dance. The Asians among us were quite offended at this representation of Indian culture, though all were impressed by the traditional dance and costume of one of the solo female dancers. A few more whiskies round the fire and it was up to the room to write up the journal. We were joined again today by Jerone the wayward Belgian who had rejoined us the previous night after his wandering off from Jungle Hut.
In that familiar subtle way, news spread of the daily incidents. Middlesex Richie came off with Ruth on the back. He’s had a few now having already had his leg injured by our own Ambulance. Another rider got a kickback and received an inflamed leg. By the flight home this had gone very septic and he had to pumped full of anti-biotics. Kipp even wanted to take him to hospital but had no time to do so.
Another theoretical long lie today as we were not expected to get up before 6am. As usual, lying in the dark awake not long after 5am, I felt as though I heard Rich’s eyelids open. Seconds later I heard that familiar “How you doing mate”. And so it was we got up and started our daily ritual of packing up the rucksacks, sorting out the days rally charts and generally psyching ourselves up for the day. As I attached the tank bag to the bike I got a strange sensation that it would feel odd not to do this ritual in the morning, not to be with these people, not to hear the start up roar of 90 Royal Enfields. As we left the Cardamom County Hotel on the road to Kalady, I had Nick the cameraman as pillion. Again the first type of road we hit were the hairpins and twists as we gained altitude. Saw Leigh Smart on the ground after a slide on one of the corners, but he was clearly OK so we drove on. It was the windiest it had been – a refreshing breeze in fact. The road to Idukki was simply gorgeous though at some points we saw more of the countryside than we expected. Being now used to the philosophy that a large group of bikes going in a particular direction must obviously be going in the right direction, we took a spectacular detour! Sophie took us up a road that deteriorated into an off road hill-climb, but rather than turn back, about 20 of us persevered as far up as we could go. With Nick on the back, and passing a few stalled bikes, we actually got quite far up. Nick had the camera rolling and managed to catch some of the fallers on film. Once the error was fully realised by the pack, we retraced the route down. Only for me this was done with the engine of, as once more it had overheated. I’m not surprised, and even some of my fellow riders said they could not imagine how I got the bike as far up as I did without falling off or stopping sooner. Truth be told, neither do I. So after freewheeling down hill for about 2km, the bike rolled to a stop. Nick jumped on the back of Rich’s machine and they headed off as I sat to let the engine cool. It was totally silent sitting there on my own, off the beaten track. A few school-kids walked past and smiled, and a woman came out to wave. After about ten minutes I started the bike up and found the gears had released themselves. As I headed back down the road, I wondered just where I was. I was delighted to see Amanda coming the other way – she was always looking out for others. Within about five minutes we caught up with Rich and Nick and headed back on course, beckoned in the right direction by a small group of villagers. When you see the junction we got lost at, it actually was an easy mistake to have made.
Playing catch up was an interesting experience. Villagers in each town helped by pointing the correct route out to us, usually without us asking. When we caught up with the luggage truck we realised we were on the right route, but just how far behind we were. The next vehicle of ours we caught was the mobile workshop after which we all pulled in together for a chai and a banana. Nick looked exhausted and KD, one of the mechanics, took my bike for a spin and adjusted the clutch which had taken a right hammering on the off-road section. The Enfield guys hung out with us until we were all fed and watered, and Amanda had been escorted off for a ‘posh pee’. Then we were off and playing catch up for real. We were joined by another Nick ‘The Scribbler’ who had equally lost the trail earlier on and believed us to be about 20km further on than we were. Nick came back on my bike as pillion and we had a serious drive up into the mountains. Sometimes the bends and the bikes just hit harmony, and this was the case here. We passed some large dam or other, but all the way the intention was to find the group no time for sightseeing. Eventually as we neared the top of the hill section we saw the official back marker. But not being in the mood to slow down we kept pushing it. As we neared the next assembly point at Idukki dam we opted simply to press on. Nick switched to Rich’s bike and we were off again, now about half way up the pack. We kept the pace on until we were forced to stop for half an hour due to a peaceful protest on the edge of the Idukki Wildlife Reserve. So it was that we were again up near the front. After a snack we were off in the first group to leave, the momentum still with us after the charge. In fact we drove so hard today that we got into Angamaly (Hotel Surya) before 2pm, among the top group of bikes in. By the car-park we heard stories about Johnny landing up in a hedge, but I think it was a light day for injuries.
In Surya we were five in the room, with (unfounded) threats of that becoming seven. It must have been the rush of the day. If this had not been the most technically challenging ride – I still maintain that was days 2-3 –it had been the hardest driven by our group. And that energy reflected itself in the bar where several of us got involved in a massive session with the Smart family and Simon. This ended in a tut-tut ride to the barbers where some of us got ridiculously short haircuts. Leigh got quite emotional during his scalping (he’d had a tough day), but the cut suits him. Returned to the hotel where I went onto the water, had a meal and retired early from the festivities. Rich and Jonathan were not far behind. What a day.
Getting up today was strange. We knew this was the last time the whole group would assemble like this. We were also briefed that this was going to be a day of crazy, mainly urban driving as we blasted up the main road to Calicut. Like the first morning, a lot of photos were taken here as the sun came up over the back wall of the car-park. As we were warned this would be a nine hour stage, we were also urged to be cautious and not ‘blow-it’ at the last leg. I think I said to Rich that it would be typical if I came of today. None of us that had not had a spill were feeling smug about it, especially as others gloated that they had had their incident so it would be one of us. Well, I’m not superstitious and put that rationale out of my mind.
The Hub TV crew were trying to stir up a frenzy as we pulled out across the central reservation of the dual carriageway in small groups. We waited until we had about 20 bikes over before setting off with both Charlie and Simon in front. When riding with them the pace is always sharper, but they seemed to glide through the traffic with such ease. I took in none of the scenery today. My memory is of lines of bikes pulling past trucks and a constant vigilance on the road. To westerners the traffic can only seem chaotic, but the Indian system works. Again I had Nick as pillion. He is a gentle and kind person, disinterested in chasing the dramatic footage for which he had ample opportunity. He is far more concerned with the human side of the event, more of an artist than the other mob. Poor Nick, he had a couple of epics today.
As we fought through the traffic I gave us both a fright. I became trapped between a bus and a concrete road divider. The bus obviously started to overtake something and I had nowhere to go. But I could see the driver watching me in his mirror. Our lives were in his hand. A woman stepped out and I could not see how I could avoid her. I dropped a gear and accelerated, squeezing the maximum acceleration from the Enfield. The driver must have seen this was the only way out and decelerated and pulled in enough so that we squeezed between the woman and the bus and away along the road. She seemed un-phased and he waved as we went past. Like I said before, these drivers mean you no harm and look out for you. Nick’s next epic involved a boulder flying in front of Rich’s tyre, but he missed it. Ah! adrenalin.
Royal Enfield had put on another refreshment stop in one of the towns. The usual round of water juice and biscuits. I saw a woman living in a shelter behind the awning. Too small to stand up in, she lived there with six kids, a man and her father. I think quite a few emptied their pockets of change. She did not ask for it, but accepted it with an uncannily pleasant smile. It makes you think. We did not stop long and made our last dash to the Toyota dealership 6km short of Calicut. Here we extorted ourselves to buy water at inflated prices and gather for the final cavalcade into town. Riders who had sat it out for a few days returned to their machines. Gordon sat as pillion, and even Fiona got on a bike. We were led into town two abreast with a police escort. You could see the joy and emotion on the faces of both the riders and the public. Crowds cheered, we waived, quite the conquering heroes. Todd rode beside me, but I wanted to go in with Jon, Rich and Amanda. Too hectic to arrange, Jon had picked up a cameraman and hell, there was still time to meet riders I could not recognise even after all this time. The only one missing was Seumas, still riding solo somewhere in Tamil Nadu. Back at the hotel a homeless man in the car park received a 90 Enfield salute as we parked up the bikes beside him. The traditional drum and horn group struck up and the elephants were there. Like I said, there was still time to meet people.
I sat on the steps of the hotel and chatted with Sara as if I’d known her for years. I drank my first beer for over a year, knowing full well this would be bad news for the diabetes. But in that heat right there, a beer was right. Rich and Jonathan came over with Amanda and we sat and chatted. The evening was mad. Speeches and thanks, a whip round for the mechanics and yet more lovely food. We were told that there had only been about a 40-50% incident rate, well down on the expected rate of 70%. Some folk like Dilip Dhanak added to this stat by coming off no less than four times, but the actual injury rate had been low. The relief showed, though by now even some who had prangs were trying to talk down the event. Yet I’d heard the same guys express trepidation during it so they can shove their bravado…. But what had changed was the commentary on the Enfield. I heard quite a few ‘super-bikers’ expressing an interest in buying one back in the UK. Early skepticism had turned to proper respect.
That night I could not stop dancing, Alexia would have been proud of me. The comments I got the next day about me and wee Sarah’s dancing…… But about 4am the beer (yes I stayed on the beer all night) got to me and I fell asleep on a sofa. Sara made sure I was ok and I was escorted off to my room still grinning.
THE DAYS AFTER……
Got up at about eight. It was a subdued breakfast. Many still in bed and some were preparing to leave. We were going to go into town, but sitting by the pool was the order of the day for most. Eventually I took a car to the sari shop with Lord Paul. But we came straight back again and went back to the pool. Then after a club sandwich I walked towards town with George. Ostensibly we were off to the Enfield dealership, but really we just wanted a look in town. It was very reflective talking to George. It was a very reflective day. Stripped the bike of trophies, got Middlesex Richie’s back-rack to take home, the red team ribbon, an Enfield first aid kit and of course the key-ring. I took some portraits and a last one of the team on the bikes. But there is not much more to be said about the day. And the next we were travelling. Daryl Simpson and Rich got final haircuts and shaves and I bought some bits for my bike from the dealer shop (and for a memory, a half bottle of Bagpiper). Then it was that 40 hours of travelling via Bombay, Muscat, Bahrain, London before I got home to Aberdeen. But I don’t really want to think about that.
First published in the Bullet-in [A magazine for Royal Enfield owners] over three editions (April, May & June 2003)
Total individualy raised for the charities between January and March 2003 = £4255
Last total I heard for the whole Enduro = £102,000 (estimated)