Enduro India 2004
John Spinks samples a different riding style
I can speak with some authority, having bought one when I became re-born, that the Enfield Bullet is total crap. India, I had been led to believe by none other than the great Freddie Trueman, is somewhere that everyone should go. Once. It was therefore with some trepidation that I had signed up for this year's event, which involved riding said total crap around a place that had got up our Fred's nose well and truly.
India is an assault on every one of the five senses; it was a complete shock. I have been to places before where people are dirt-poor, but enough of my family. The initial impression was of a generally squalid, litter-strewn place and that got to me, but I suppose it's not surprising that after a 24-hour journey something's going to. It seems that they just don't notice the litter, and after a day or two neither did I.
India's traffic is an assault on every one of the five phases; it too was a complete shock. There is not a traffic sign or road marking to be seen. None. They don't have them. They don't need them, either, given that their secret lies not in having a system and not using it but in not having one in the first place. They just go where they want - slowly, much as pedestrians do. Continual use is made of the horn, which is not seen as aggressive but more of a warning of presence since rear view mirrors just aren't there, or if they are they aren't of any use whatsoever. They are not aggressive drivers, and once that is realised things become easier.
The week's riding started and finished in Calicut, which is on the south-western coast of India, and meandered for 1000 miles through the Western Ghats, a range of hills that separate the state of Kerala from Tamil Nadu. Being not far above the equator it's to be expected that temperatures will be high and the first couple of days to acclimatise and take some gentle rides on the new bikes were much needed. 80 riders of all ages on 80 new bikes soon sorted the men from the boys; the men could remember when bikes were built like this and treated them accordingly and the boys buggered them up in pretty short order. 80 riders of all ages, the majority intent on buggering the bikes up, mean that riding styles and standards are bound to vary widely, and it quickly became apparent that the maintenance of safety space and many other aspects of safety were completely wasted concepts on many of them, as time would tell.
In the initial briefing session covering the traffic and associated risks it was suggested that the Highway Code and Roadcraft were best confined to the bin. This was not intended as an irresponsible attitude but more an acceptance that in India things are different and that there is no system. For many, though, it was a wasted gesture as, with the benefit of hindsight, it became obvious that they had read neither. For those of us who had, though, time would tell that much of the general wisdom of Roadcraft was most applicable, imperative almost. Hazard perception took on a whole new meaning; yes, ok, children and dogs are as likely to run into the road there as here, but the concept of meeting two, or even three, vehicles abreast around a corner is a very real possibility; I jest not! So the wide line into corners becomes tempered with the need to recover the inside line - quickly, leading at times to the adoption of a slower speed (is there anything else on those bikes??) to accommodate an inside line altogether.
The rural roads, though, were largely traffic-free with buses being the main contenders for the limited space available between the pot-holes. Up and down the hills with 30 or more hairpins at a go was an exercise in not being on one with a bus - they don't make good bend-fellows and the gradients on the insides of the bends were frequently too steep for the bikes, with their limited power. Scenery was spectacular and not at all what I had expected, and as we moved into the tea-plantation countryside the bike became merely the transportation between the increasingly frequent camera stops. The acres of uniformly flat-topped tea bushes, a variety of laurel I think, followed the slopes and valleys of the terrain and every so often parties of pickers waved cheerfully as we chuffed past. A very green and pleasant land.
In contrast the main (?) roads really are something else. Once it is realised that they aren't aggressive drivers but merely adopting the policy that "might is right", and that consequently motorcycles occupy a lower rung altogether than even the humble tuc-tuc, things become, well, not exactly easier but at least understandable. Buses have a mind of their own, more so than even lorries and all are in various stages of dilapidation with the only functioning components seemingly being the engines and the horns. All are oblivious to oncoming traffic and bends in the road, and all have such a consuming need to be in front that overtaking, once started, is only aborted in the presence of something bigger coming the other way. For we motorcyclists, then, the common avoidance is to hop off the road onto the dirt verge; cars have a much more difficult problem. Stop-lights have yet to make inroads into the Indian markets; there's a great future for them there, especially on the buses as one of our number will testify. A slow learner, is Callum, who had not recognised even after a week that a bus coming into a village is going to stop without warning. No permanent injury, thank goodness, and a sobering reminder to the rest of the need for constant attention.
Having said that, though, these roads were, to me, a refreshing change from the twists and turns of the hills. Chaotic though it is, the traffic is interesting, and at the relative speeds the bikes are more than adequate for making good progress using our tried and tested principles plus a liberal sprinkling of toots on the overtakes. IPSGA works as well there as it does here.
But as enjoyable as the roads, scenery and motorcycling were, it is the people who have provided the most enduring memories of this truly magical week. I had not expected so much of what I found and even in BWAM I have not met such friendly, warm and genuinely genuine people as I met in India; their generosity is as warm as their weather and their smiles as bright as their sunshine. These friendly, inquisitive folk, young and old, would gather round as soon as we stopped and inevitably one or two would have enough English to make some sort of conversation possible; all were interested in our trip, where we came from and what we thought of Manchester. This seemed strange at first, till I realised that they meant the United version. Our money was a fascination to them as was their delight in having their photographs taken, and I regretted not having taken a better selection of coins to be able to leave as mementoes, and not having taken a Polaroid camera so that I could leave behind a copy of the many lovely pictures I had taken of them.
It would be remiss of me not to pay respectful tribute to the organiser Simon Smith and his father, Graham. Simon first visited the region in 1999 on the first Enfield Challenge, as it was then, and fell in love with the place; as you can guess, I can quite see why. Following the demise of that event Simon has taken up the reins to produce a format which enables us all to sample this lovely place in the security of numbers and with the accompaniment of medical and mechanical backup, whilst at the same time making our contribution to the area in return by way of the nearly-50% donation to charities both there and at home. A good rider as well, Simon and his team do a fantastic job of shepherding us around in a manner which allows each to ride in his own way and at his own pace.
So I came to two conclusions during my all-too-short visit. I was wrong about the Enfield in that it should not be judged against competition in this country where it is a fish out of water; in its own context it is fine. It still clatters most terribly but so does everything else there; it has no power but neither does anything else and at the relative speeds our kind of riding is still the best way to enjoy motorcycling as we did all those years ago. Here it is a time-warp; out there everything is time-locked in the age when these kind of bikes were pretty mean machines.
And insofar as the part of the country we visited is concerned Fred was wrong about India. The warmth of the people and the wonderful scenery of the hills, not to mention our considerable relative wealth, are such that I certainly intend to buck his advice and go again. I have no wish to see the bits that are best avoided but I do want to go to Kerala again. EnduroIndia 2005 -- go and you'll feel the same way; visit www.enduroindia.com to find out more and to register. You'll not regret it.