I had long had a hankering to visit India in a more leisurely way than the experience of a couple of business trips, which I had made in my previous life. Train travel would be part of the visit. However, on my somewhat unexpected retirement a few years ago, I did not see overseas travel as part of my retirement agenda. I thought I had had my fill of it over my working career.
However, with my discovery of motorcycling, I saw an opportunity of combining this new passion with that long hankered-for trip to India.
I was introduced to Ferris Wheels Motorcycle Safaris; and didn't take too long to reach the conclusion that here was an interesting and adventurous opportunity not to be missed. One of their several tours was a three-week motorcycle tour of the great western desert State of India called Rajasthan.
Not being particularly motorcycle savvy, a Royal Enfield to me conjured up the concept of a rifle. However, I was soon to learn about and come to love and hate the famed Royal Enfield Bullet. And, after all, what else could you possibly ride on a tour in India!
What really got me hooked and committed to the tour was the wonders and magnificence of a tour through Rajasthan. Rajasthan encapsulates such a wide variety of history, culture, landscapes, people and politics that one could be tempted to think that it, alone, is India. Of course, it's not. But I doubt if there is another part of India that has so much to offer. There are the magnificent forts and palaces of the Mogul emperors and the Indian maharajahs; the intricate architecture of the merchants’ mansions (the havelis); the changing landscapes, from desert to mountains to vast savannah; and the ancient, not so ancient, and modern cities. Although not in Rajasthan, the tour also included Agra and the Taj Mahal, perhaps the most breathtaking day of all.
I flew into Mumbai some days ahead of the official start of the tour from Delhi. That allowed me to get in my train journey of some 22 hours. I made all the bookings on the Internet through the Indian Railways site. It was a pleasant relief to get to the station for a 9.00pm train to find my name on the manifest, with carriage, compartment and berth numbers all allocated.
I shared a compartment with three others, two of whom departed early next morning. The whole day was then spent in the company of the leader of a Hindu religious sect. He was a somewhat rotund man who squatted on his berth and seemed to enjoy engaging in discussion about religion, philosophy, politics and the hot subject of the day, which was the Indian Bollywood star, Shilpa Shetty’s run-in with one of her fellow contestants during the British Celebrity House TV show. You couldn't help but to be up on this issue at the time, because it was headlines and the subject of editorial comment in just about every Indian newspaper. His opening comment to introduce the hot topic of the day was “Jade [Goody] didn’t realise what she was saying.” I was obviously expected to know what he was talking about. Fortunately I did. A lot of time was also spent taking in the sights and sounds of the passing countryside. Overall, the train trip was both enjoyable and memorable.
After an overnight stop in Delhi, the day of introduction to the Royal Enfield was upon me. There they were, all in a neat row, in the hotel car park waiting for their new riders to begin a 2,200km (~1,377 mile)j journey around Rajasthan. However, there were to be some lessons and practice before the journey could begin.
This was February. I had come off my provisional licence the previous October. I had learned a lot about riding motorbikes in the year and a half since I had earned my learner's permit. But I was soon to learn a lot more before this day was out.
I had, somewhat naïvely, assumed that a motorbike was a motorbike was a motorbike. But no, firstly, there was no easy push button start. As part of learning how to kick-start the bike, I was introduced to another ‘innovation’, the ampimeter. I readily mastered the ampimeter, but, even after three weeks, I think I was still more scared of the bike than it was of me when it came to kick-starting. As if this wasn't bad enough, I then learnt that motorbikes were definitely not all the same. Not only was the gear lever on the wrong side, but the wretched gearbox was upside down. So much for having learnt by heart over a couple of years the catchphrase ‘one down, five up’. I now had to cope with ‘one up, three down’. Of course, all of this is well-known to the Royal Enfield aficionados; but it was a startling revelation to a newcomer.
Map of the Route
Here is an interactive map of the route. You can click in the middle of the four little right angles at top right of map to get the larger map. Then you can scroll down to the bottom of the map legend column on the left to get to the satellite mode.
For better or worse, this write-up is a lot less detailed than pages on subsequent tours. The reason for this is that it was written a couple of years after the tour - and from memory.
After an hour or so of practice around the car park, we would then be led out onto a minor highway, where we could get some real life practice coping with Indian motorised and animal-drawn traffic. We had only a few kilometres of this before we got to the major highway and our first roundabout experience. On a previous visit to India, I was once told by a professional driver who had made a few visits to Australia that the road rules in Australia and India are pretty much exactly the same. The only difference is that in Australia drivers tend to adhere to them.
While the Indian traffic, particularly at roundabouts, seemed absolutely chaotic, there was, amongst the chaos, a few basic constants: everyone recognised that everyone else had to get onto and off the roundabout; you had to push your way in to gain a spot on the roundabout and manoeuvre your way out to get off it; while nobody would actually hold back for you, your rights to get in and out were respected and accommodated. The upshot was that, provided you didn't lose your nerve or hesitate unduly, the whole system worked quite smoothly and respectfully. Not in three weeks of this seeming chaos did we encounter anything close to road rage.
We did all learn a new road gesture - and it wasn't anything like the more common gestures one encounters on Australian roads. It was probably the one and only, universal gesture that seemed to be employed on Indian roads. It consisted of an arm stretched out, with palm facing up and a slight movement upward of the outstretched hand. This gesture could and did mean anything that the giver or recipient felt appropriate at the time. It seemed its meaning included a sunny ‘hello’; a ‘thank you for your courtesy’; an invitation to overtake or sneak in; a ‘what on earth were you thinking’; or a range of obscene messages conveyed by more common Australian gestures. The key thing was that nobody seemed to take offence.
Apart from losing a couple of the team within the first half-hour, we were pleased to have made it to our first night's accommodation, which was a magnificent, restored old fort at Neemrana. Forts and palaces, with a few havelis, were to be our expected accommodation for the tour. There were a few hotels as well, but the atmosphere and charm of restored forts and palaces and renovated havelis contributed significantly to the overwhelming experience of Royal Rajasthan.
We soon mastered, at least, for the most part, the vagaries of the Royal Enfield. There was still the odd occasion of a back wheel lock-up, with a determined foot to get the bike into gear, forgetting that the gear and brake levers had been swapped from one side to the other. There was a bit of angel gear coasting off the bitumen and onto the dirt verge when the gears would refuse to cooperate as a bus or over-laden Tata truck ignored your right to be on your side of the road as it overtook other vehicles. There was the occasional dropped bike, but nothing to faze the toughness of the Royal Enfield. And then there was the run of punctures, blown head gaskets, collapsed pistons etc. But none of this could stop the progress of the tour. We were accompanied by two mechanics from the company that hired out the bikes. They were wonders to behold. The speed and alacrity with which they could make all manner of repairs, even completely stripping down an engine, cylinder and all, ensured that hardly a minute was lost of anyone's enjoyment of the trip.
Every day was an adventure. Every day seemed to bring new experiences and encounters. There was the changing landscapes, so many different cultures each with its own idiosyncrasies, the architectural magnificence of the forts and palaces, riding through the crowded and busy towns where the wandering cows had right of way (that alone certainly kept you thinking about where your gear and brake levers were), the shopping (yes, indeed, the shopping), the food, (enough curries over three weeks to do you a lifetime -- but I still eat them regularly), and, of course, the camaraderie of your fellow riders.
We all made it back to Delhi safe and sound. The last day's ride from Agra to Delhi, on what was probably the busiest stretch of road we encountered, saw most riders employing to the full their three-week experience and familiarity with the Royal Enfield. Darting in and out of traffic, squeezing in where you could, overtaking anyway that seemed safe and practicable all became part of one's enjoyment of the Royal Enfield in its Indian setting. Even the gears seemed to work that day, as though the bikes knew it was almost over, so they could be kind. These memories plus the recollections of all the experiences of Royal Rajasthan -- and the fruits of our shopping -- all came home with us.
For the very keen would-be traveller to Rajasthan, here is a copy of some informal notes I prepared for our group. They seemed to have been well-recieved: Robert's Roughguide to Rajasthan.
A couple of gems on the last days were the old Mughal capital (for a short time) of Fatehpur Sikri and Agra. We did some touring of both these sites. Delhi itself is a treasure trove but I fell far short of doing it justice. I made up for that subsequently; and have written a page on all these places here.