The flight from Vietnam back to India was certainly interesting. A whole plane full of Indians being Indian trying to board, packed arse to crotch on the stairs like the plane was sucking them in; as if the seats were vanishing by the minute. Once on they were trying to get up and down the plane to find a space in the overheads for all the bags of crap they’d bought from duty free. The Stewards just cried in a corner, having given up trying to impose any order on the chaos.
After some 4am haggling with the taxi company at the airport they dumped me in a rough looking industrial part of town outside a very dark hotel with a bleary eyed security guard who was very perky and happy for having been woken up to let me in. He showed me around the room like it was a 5 star resort and I’d never seen a hotel before. I just wanted to sleep and dropped off as soon as I hit the bed then woken up to a very Indian phone call. “Your booking is cancelled sir!” “eerrrrr OK?” I had no idea what he meant. “Your booking is cancelled. We tried to call you to confirm and no answer” “I know, I left a note saying the number won’t work” “Well your booking is cancelled” “But I’m already here” “Would you like to re-book sir?” “What? I’ve already slept” “OK Bye Sir”. I just went back to sleep, wondering if it was a dream.
I had a couple of days waiting around organising my stuff and planning for the next leg. India is so vast, it’s going to take 4 days of solid riding for me, just to reach the opposite side. After a lot of advice from people, I’d decided to get across to Goa and the West coast. There isn’t much to see between Kolkata and Mumbai but I was just looking forward to getting back on the bike and on the road, making some progress once again on my actual trip, instead of around Vietnam.
While I was out in Vietnam and Laos for the past 2 months, Donkey had been looked after by Mausum, a guy I got in touch with through biker connections online. Stored in a garage, tucked behind a parked car hiding under his cover. I was hoping he was still there and in one piece. I headed over and found him in good, but very dusty shape. I forgot how dirty I’d left him and a thick layer of muck had settled on the cover, I felt really bad having left him there so long. It didn’t help that I hadn’t been paying attention when putting him away and left the battery terminals connected so the battery was now dead. We jump started it with Mausums bike battery and it ran fine, a huge relief, but the battery wouldn’t hold any charge, it had drained too much. Thankfully Mausum could call in the cavalry and his bike mechanic showed up with a new battery in about 20 minutes.
It was actually scary getting back on. After riding on tiny Deirdre for over two months Donkey felt like a tank. I couldn’t even see the front wheel from the seat, which felt very odd. I honestly wondered how the hell I’d ridden him all the way here from the UK. I rode so gingerly back to the hotel, not even attempting filtering, it felt like Donkey’s weight was deciding the direction rather than me. This will take some getting used to. I got a good chunk of maintenance done that afternoon, swapping spark plugs and the air filter. The air filter was literally caked in a thick layer of dirt, it was not in good shape, the roads in Nepal had been super dusty and it had just clumped all over it. It was beginning to fail too which is not good, the inside of the airbox had a layer of dust inside which means some must have got in the engine, I just have to hope it didn’t do too much damage, a dirty piston is not a happy piston.
The hotel staff were watching me for most of the time, and there was a steady stream of people along the street that would stop and watch. I was like an alien to them, they didn’t know how to approach or interact at all. I’d smile and say hi and they would just stare, not sure what to do. Occasionally there would be someone who realised I was just a dude with a motorbike and would strike up a conversation asking what the hell such a big bike was doing here, and why it was in pieces.
After a great night out at with Arony and Mausum, the guys responsible for Donkey’s well being while I was away, I was back on the road. I was slowly getting used to the size again and could start with the power. Little Deirdre had a max speed of 35mph. Donkey could hit that in first gear. On Deirdre I would regularly cracked the throttle open full at the green lights, doing that on Donkey would be a wheelie suicide. Winding on the power took me a while to get used to, almost like riding a big bike for the first time again. I was grinning like an idiot accelerating to get to motorway speeds; remembering my lessons back in the UK and how shocked I’d been at the amount power there was.
I wasn’t grinning for very long though, there was a lot of ground to cover in the next week so on the motorway for much of the day. Just as the sun was getting low, the rear end suddenly went loose, flopping left and right whenever I shifted weight. Which sounds like it would feel funny, but at 70mph it’s terrifying, I slowed as quick as possible, knowing it was a puncture and it wasn’t long before the tyre would just come off the rim. Thankfully there was a petrol station right ahead and I could pull off the road to a shack next to the station where a guy had an air compressor set up. I found the hole and wondered how the hell I was going to fix it in the middle of nowhere at a petrol station, then slapped my forehead as I remembered the tyre plugs I’d been carrying for months. I got it plugged up and crossed my fingers it held as I pumped it up. My audience watched and cheered at all the right places. Any time you stop in India you have an audience, doesn’t matter how far from civilization you think you are.
I finished the day riding around a dodgy feeling town in the dark, looking for a hotel and getting turned away from the first two places. Some hotels aren’t allowed, or don’t want, to take foreigners. I found a place charging a lot more than I would usually pay, but not wanting to search anymore. I was so happy to be back on the road but it wasn’t a great start, long motorway runs, puncture and a crappy town. That was the plan though, just get the miles done for a few days and get to the opposite coast, crossing India was never going to be particularly easy.
The next 3 days were all just making miles. Motorways where they were available, 2 lane road where they weren’t. Some of the smaller roads were hell. All the trucks and buses mingled with the usual taxi’s and mopeds flitting between the small towns, since there was no motorway for them to use. Rumble strips crossed the road before and after every village, not just a bump or two, but 9 or 10 steep bumps end on end, making it impossible to ride fast over them or too slowly. Trucks would slow to a crawl and everyone else would just blindly try and overtake the slow thing in front of them, regardless of if it was clear the other side. This meant at every rumble strip there would be a gridlock, as two trucks from opposite directions couldn’t go forward because they were blocked by mopeds and tuktuks trying to overtake the on their side. It would take 5 or 10 minutes just to clear and get people through, and nobody seemed to mind, it was just a normal day to them. It was infuriating to be a part of, just as I was coming to terms with it and no longer screaming at people from my helmet they would step it up a notch. A bus trying to overtake a truck over the bumps, and getting equally stuck, or a tuktuk flying around the side of everything in the dirt, then swinging all the way across the road without a single fuck to be seen. After hours of that I was ready to start kicking mopeds out of the way.
One morning I was being followed by a little white car, not passing or falling back; this isn’t that weird, sometimes they’ll be taking pictures of the me and the bike. If there’s space and they’re fast enough they’ll often pull up beside and take a couple before speeding on. This guy was just getting closer though, dangerously so, and refusing to pass when I waved him through, sometimes just driving alongside trapping me in one lane. I kept glancing and I could just about make out his moving hand through the sun glare. I assumed he was waving. I slowed a little and so did he, so I sped right up and left him for dead. He tried to keep pace and caught up at the next junction. He was really close behind me so I weaved through the traffic out of sight and stopped in front of a parked truck at the side of the road, hidden I thought. I was going to wait for him to pass for a minute, then head off again. It might sound a bit weird to hide, he was just being friendly, but being on the bike you’re ultimately vulnerable, if he’s driving that close it only take a single mistake from him, me or anyone nearby and I’m sliding at 70mph on my arse on the motorway. One of the most important things for riders is giving yourself space and options to stay safe, sometimes that includes hiding behind a truck at the side of the road.
My stomach dropped when he pulled around the truck, spotted me and stopped 50m ahead. I set off again, intending to really pin it. There’s no way he’d keep up with Donkey at full whack. As I passed him I looked over and gestured my best “What the fuck dude?” and noticed the three guys in the car were wearing army gear. “Ooooops” maybe he wasn’t waving and taking photos but trying to pull me over. I’d already wound on the throttle and considered just keeping going, they probably wouldn’t be able to catch me. I didn’t really want to be on the run through India though so I pulled in to a petrol station, not being too obvious, in case they missed me an drove on. He saw me though and pulled up and got out. He walked over and I was ready to either shoot off or hand over papers if it was a scam or not. He smiled, said hi and asked “How big is the bike” in broken English. I think he read my reaction when I just said 650cc and stared at him. Anger just flooded me, he was just being friendly and wanted to chat, but he did it by endangering me and stalking me. He didn’t ask any more questions, just stalked back to his car. He must have been so confused at why I was angry, for him there was nothing dangerous about what he was doing.
The second day was punctuated with one of the funniest things I’ve seen on the road though. Some bananas had been dropped or thrown by the side of the busy road and monkeys were swarming them. One particularly ambitious one had decided to dart across the road to save his hoard from the others. he had a banana or two in each hand and one his mouth, as he shot out he realised he was in the road and turned to see me coming toward him and panicked. So he was now waddling sideways like a crab gripping as many bananas as he could hold. That image kept me laughing most of the day. Simple things.
I spent a night in Raipur, rode on through Nagpur and on to Amravati. On the road just before Amravati the apocalypse found me. There was a seriously dark cloud up ahead and I was expecting a bit of rain to break up the monotony of deadly trucks and pot holes. Just as I came around a little corner into some trees I was slapped by a hundred leaves being kicked up and thrown sideways by a huge gust of wind. I thought I’d ridden into a tornado, there was dust flying up everywhere and the wind was gusting around, throwing me one way then the other, stopping briefly in between so I’d swing too far the other way. The rain started and it was properly torrential, I couldn’t see a thing. It was almost dark two hours before sunset and the rain covered my visor completely, headlights from other cars would light it all up. I had to just stop by the side of the road. The lightening was amazing, huge cracks of it all across the sky, only half of them striking the ground with massive bangs. The rain was coming down so fast it was an inch deep river along the road.
After a few minutes I realised there was no respite, it wasn’t going to pass on it’s own soon, I would just have to ride it out. I was very low on fuel so I pulled in to the next station, but they just waved at me from behind the windows in the office, unwilling to come outside. I walked up and they said they were closed, and pointed to the sky and the flashes of lightening. What? You close because of lightening? You know you’re screwed whether or not you’re pouring fuel when lightning strikes your roofless station? I decided to take my chances on making it to the next one and luck was on my side there was a station, 10 miles down the road with a roof, that was still open. Eventually I passed from under the cloud, the rain ceased and the sky brightened like nothing had ever happened.
On my run to Goa I’d only really planned one stop, at Ajanta and Ellora caves. A quick stop, an hour or two walking around then move on, but Ellora caves captured me. They were utterly stunning. Calling them caves is crazy, a complete disservice. A cave conjures up images of a dark damp hole, maybe with a few statues carved in. These “caves” didn’t exist at all before Bhudist monks moved to the area and began excavating rock on a massive scale. They dug into the hills and carved out temples and statues as they went. Some of the temples are mind blowing, one a 3 story buildings created by carving out its negative from the rock, complete with interior stairways and walkways. Another made for living quarters, 3 huge floors carved back into the hill with statues and beds carved out. There’s 32 “caves” in total and I didn’t want to miss any so decided to stay the rest of the day to see the others and just go back to Aurangabad again. It was a day off riding but walking the caves all day in the bike gear nearly killed me, I was a puddle of sweat on the bike riding back.
Leaving Aurangabad toward the west coast got me back to some fun riding again. A little more highways got me to the hills and the fun roads and views that come with them. The first climb into them was like something out of Mario Kart. The three lane motorway serpentine’d up the mountain, with steep sharp corners, combined with Indian traffic turned it into a game, with no rules, trucks and buses cut across all lanes mid-turn just to keep their speed up. I tried driving normally in it and nearly got crushed a few times, the safest and most fun way up the hill was to be going faster than everyone else, darting from gap to gap and squirming through to the front of a crowd. Up in the hills it was cooler and a relief from the dust that hangs around everywhere on the plains. The mountain turned out to be something of a retreat and holiday place for those from Mumbai which made it more expensive and touristy than usual. I didn’t need much from it though, it was just a stop off to get me on the famous “Route 66”, the twisty way from Mumbai to the beach retreats of Goa.
In the morning I inquired the best way to the waterfall nearby I’d seen on the map. The guy looked at me like I was an idiot and asked why. “Why not, I can go see it on the bike on my way out of town right?” “No. It’s dry season, there’s no water…” Oh. Right, yeh, that’s why it’s dusty and dry everywhere. Idiot.
A really nice couple of hours on the nice twisty tarmac down the mountain. I will never not enjoy a mountain road, especially when I have it mostly to myself. The road picked up speed back onto the plains between the mountains and the sea, putting me ahead of schedule, so I was looking forward to making it to Goa early for a nice beer on the beach. This was the sixth day of solid riding, with a whole day walking around the caves in there. I needed a break. Then I hit Goa. The traffic thickened to a soup of buses, taxis and mopeds. I stopped for some fuel and asked them about the route to Palolem where I was heading, only about 80 miles away. “about 3 hours” they said. “Say what!?” I had stupidly thought it was all nice highways down through Goa. Nope, it’s mostly two lane roads through towns. They are building lots of overpasses for fast traffic but that doesn’t help me now. In fact, that just means there’s also roadworks all the way down.
Three hours later I was just rolling into town, utterly sick of anything on wheels. Fed of fighting people for every inch of road available, where if you lose, you’re either stuck behind something slow, or off the road. I dumped Donkey at a hostel so he could rest, showered and walked straight to the beach. It took 2 minutes from the door of the hostel to being sat on the beach, watching the sun set with a beer in my hand breathing a huge sigh of relief. Coast to Coast complete, now it was time for holiday mode in Goa and planning the rest of South India.
06/02/18 – 16/02/18