Indian Takeaway - Enduro India

If you need a break from the drudgery of working life, if you want to ride a bike in a place where traffic laws are non-existent and you can do pretty much whatever you want, well, you need to go to India

Southern India is not the most obvious place in the world for a British motorcycle rally. For starters, it's 10 hours away by plane with an eight-hour stopover in Sri Lanka. Then, once you arrive, there's the combination of lethal traffic, appalling roads and quaint indigenous motorcycles that fall to pieces. You'll be lucky not to get the shits, if you don't like curry you'll go hungry and, despite being the world's largest producer of tea, it's virtually impossible to get a decent brew. I've never been before because it's dirty, smelly and overcrowded.

So, when we finally arrive in India and one zealous participant tries to rouse 100 jet-lagged souls with a stirring shout of "Enduro India 2005 is go!" I decide, there and then, that Enduro India is going to be a disaster.

As usual, I am staggeringly wrong. Enduro India is a thundering success and turns out to be one of the most illuminating, mind-broadening and riotously fun things I have done on a motorcycle in recent times. The format of the event is very simple: a 150- kilometre, seven-day lap around around Southern India on 350cc Royal Enfield bikes. In practice, however, this requires an organisational feat on a par with the 1969 moon landing and incredible commitment by both the team and paying punters alike. Just getting to Calicut - where the rally kicks off - is a huge feat, requiring us to cough up £500, raise another £3000 for charity and find two weeks off work. In India, where it takes two hours to do something as simple as changing a plane ticket, it is amazing the enduro happens at all.

Of course, it's not a real enduro. There are no prizes for first place, there are no check-points or special stages. But there are bloody tough roads to cover, and I challenge anyone to ride 250kms in the
sadistic saddle of an Enfield and not squirm in searing discomfort. It's a proper Iron Butt event, and for the last two years has been the product of Simon Smith, 32 and from London. "I did the rally in 1999 and it was run so badly it did my head in," he says. "I was in event planning , so we put two years of graft into it. It takes the whole year to organise just these two weeks; it's a massive task and if I didn't have some seriously useful people in India helping me with the politics and logistics we'd be sunk. Each year we get 1000 enquiries, 400 of those put the deposit down, and 100 actually come on the rally.

"Enduro India taps into something unique with those who make the effort to come. The shittier and more boring it is at home, the more career-focussed we become and the more people will sign up for this sort of thing. We put back an element of the danger of life. You don't want a guide standing on every corner telling you where to go; you're a big boy, so use your head. We don't want to hold their hands, we want them to work."

On first acquaintance, a Royal Enfield Bullet might not seem the best bike for the job. The gearshift is on the right-hand side, the rear brake is on the left, and with what feels like 3bhp there's no power to speak of. Seriously, my dad's Atco lawnmower would give this thing a run for its money. Perhaps a KTM 950 Adventure, or a nice, comfortable BMW R1200GS would be better suited to the hilariously pot-holed roads of India.

However, they actually make the Royal Enfield in India, and a brand-new Bullet costs just £870. But here's the thing: in the UK, an Enfield is crap and rubbish to ride. I rode one from Cambridge to London last year and refused to ride it back, yanking the HT lead and telling them it was broken and to come pick it up.

However, when you step off the plane in Calicut, you realise that not only have you travelled some 5200 miles east, you've also stepped some 45 years back in time, and a bike you would normally (and quite rightly) laugh at back home has suddenly become valid and useful transport. Out here, a Royal Enfield is all you need.

The first two days in-country are spent getting used to the heat, the bikes, and the eye-watering way the locals drive. I've ridden bikes all round the world and India gets a top three ranking in the Dodgiest Driving On Earth chart. In fact it's so bad that after day one I quietly assumed that at least a dozen of us would be going home in plaster casts or body-bags. Trucks, buses, cars and three-wheeler taxis launch themselves at you seemingly without regard for human life or the most basic of traffic laws. It is perfectly normal to see a car overtaking a taxi overtaking a bus on a single-lane road.

U-turns are performed without warning, the use of indicators is deeply frowned upon and little heed is paid to which side of the road is used and for what direction. It's like they all passed their test at the post-apocalyptic school for Mad Max motoring.

Given that some Enduro India participants only passed their bike tests to come on the rally, the expression 'baptism of fire' simply doesn't do justice for these poor souls. "After 15 minutes on the road on the first day," said mild-mannered vet Stuart Halperin from London, who passed his test in December, "I thought I was going to die. It was a question of survival , and I seriously considered ditching the bike and going in the back-up truck for the rest of the trip."

But once you get used to how the Indian system works, it really works. Your most useful driving tool is your horn. You use this at all times to alert other drivers of your presence and drive aggressively in towns, defensively in the country, use eye-contact everywhere and anticipate a Sherman tank on the wrong side of the road round every blind bend. Do this and, like Stuart, you'll be fine. "Going through the traffic was always dangerous," he continued, "but it was totally intense and for that reason I learned to love it. By the end of the first day I was hooked."

At 6am on the first day, all entrants gather round for the first of what are to become regular morning briefings. Watch out for this, don't go there and try not to hit that. Assembled en-masse for the first time in riding kit, we are an extremely motley bunch, the riders wearing a bizarre mix of motocross body-armour, cheap open-face helmets, cargo pants, knee pads and Hawaiian shirts. It's like the extras in Magnum: PI stumbled onto the set of Death Race 2000 and decided to stay. Even at this hour of the morning it's 28°, and loaded up with litres of water and gallons of bravado the 100 riders thread out onto the roads to a fanfare of horns and the odd trumpeting elephant. It's a bizarrely Bacchanalian sight.

Indian towns have great names; titles like Dappadi, Vappar, Watrap and Kambam roll past. The route of Enduro India has been thought about at length, and the first day from Calicut to Masinagudi is a warm-up, although even at this stage it's great to escape the mania of the cities and get out into the countryside. Southern India's lower plains, a mix of scrubland and palm trees, rise from a light simmer to full boil during the course of the morning. By 1pm it's above 35° and I pity those riders clothed in full protective equipment. As the roads open out we pass through one of several national parks we will encounter during the trip and crawl along at 15mph, necks on swivels looking for wild elephants or tigers. Fat chance. Despite several sightings of large animal poo, the best we manage is a few deer and plenty of monkeys.

Touring through India is a multi-layered event. On one level, you have the basic enjoyment of riding a lop-sided motorcycle around a warm, foreign land. On the next, you have the incredible topography of the country itself. And the next level is to witness the deep-rooted and genuine happiness of the Indians themselves. It really appears that Southern India is the happiest place on earth. Being the most cynical man on the planet, I immediately assumed this was an act to extort money from tourists, but it wasn't. These people are grindingly poor, and yet they could all teach us a lesson in how to smile and just get on with it.

Anyone flogging tropical basics like bananas and coconuts from the side of the road for 3p a pop is not going to be bothering Hamptons estate agents for a three-bedroom penthouse in central London. And yet it is precisely their simple life that makes them so utterly unaffected. When you have nothing it is all you can do to get by, and if you can get by with a smile on your face, then you're a greater man than me.

Skerrashh! The sight of a somersaulting Enfield brings me back to my senses. Day two of the rally brings the promised carnage on the road to Palghat, and as we wind our way down the Kundah road Bullets are going down like nine-pins. "If the elephants don't get you, Veerappan certainly will!" the locals used to say of this area, referring to the infamous bandit who killed over 130 people and 2000 elephants in a 20-year smuggling spree. As recently as last year Enduro India riders had armed guards escort them through the region, until Veerappan was killed in a shoot-out in October of 2004. Now it's just the blind hairpins and liberal helpings of gravel that cause problems. Fortunately Enfields are largely indestructible and, if the need arises, can be fixed with a screwdriver and a size 10 boot.

On day three, despite continued warnings that it would happen if thrashed, I let my throttle-hand get the better of me and seized my Bullet solid. On a Japanese bike it would have been curtains for my trip, but on the Enfield it was simply a matter of letting the old girl cool down, kick her through a few times and proceed on one's way. Albeit with a disturbing rattle from the small-end bearing that got gradually worse but never let go. Likewise, at some point my kickstart became possessed by Nosferatu and decided, entirely of its own accord, to rotate a full 180° at random intervals, whacking my ankle each time it went past. Taking it off and bump-starting was the only cure. During the course of the rally I saw the long-suffering Enfields dropped into four-foot ditches, parked underneath buses, ridden up sheer rock faces and - joy of joys! - submerged in human excrement in an open sewer. In all, 55 bikes went down and the mechanics
simply walloped them straight ready for another day's senseless battering.

But let's get things in perspective. Enduro India is not a crashfest. Well, not a painful one. Apart from one broken leg, all the crashes were minor. Chaos is part of Indian life, and it is actively encouraged by the organisers, but underneath the surface there are fairly substantial safety barriers in place. I've never seen more medics rushing around - it was a great place to graze your knee, because within 30 seconds three people would be washing your wound and making a frightful fuss. At one point the chap who broke his leg (a crew member, not a punter) was surrounded by four women, all cooing and mopping his brow. Jeez. Every time I break something, my mates have a good laugh and call me a wanker.

Talking of women, there are some on the rally. Although the event is predominantly a bloke-fest, there are a small group of hardcore girls. Anna Beazeley (sister to Andy Beazeley of Splat Design helmet-painting fame) ironically won the Biggest Balls prize for her not-inconsiderable feat of riding her Enfield further up a mountain dirt-track than any of the other attempting men. "I was bloody scared before I came here" admitted Anna. "Riding a bike in India was a daunting prospect. It didn't help my nerves that, by the time we had arrived, one of the other female medics had managed to fall off and break her wrist. And when we were leaving the hotel on the first day, the hotel manager said he was very surprised to see girls riding by themselves. He said girls in India don't ride, and certainly not on an Enfield Bullet. So I said, 'well, they do now!'" India is not a great place to be a girl, by the way. The men, quite sensibly, have set their women to do most of the hard work like ditch-digging and earning money. This leaves the men to get on with the really important stuff, like smoking and talking to their mates all day long.

It's day three that did it for me and a great many other riders. We climb to 8000 feet on our way through the tea plantations of Munnar. It is so mind-bogglingly beautiful that a lead group of us just dismount and survey the scene in complete silence for about 10 minutes. If Adam and Eve were here, they'd remark, "ah - Eden. It's been a while". Honestly, the greens of the tea and blues of the jacaranda trees are so vivid in these parts of India that they look almost unreal. At some point I expected to see Oompa-Loompas bobbing across this Willy Wonka landscape of colour. Then I realised they were just tea-pickers. Tea-picking is a tough job: You have to work your way up and down 1-in-2 gradients, balance a 30kg bag full of tea-leaves on your head, get paid 20 rupees for that bag (about 18p), then go and pick two more bags during the course of the day. And of course, they're all women.

Just as we're leaving the plantations for the evening, a herd of wild elephants wander through, trumpeting their presence as they go. They've got a calf with them and we move as close as we dare before the bull lets us know we're close enough. A somewhat incredible end to a somewhat amazing day.

We spend the night high in an old British hill station called Ooty. The air is cool after the stifling heat of the plains, and it's difficult not to feel frightfully English in places like this, especially as the central square is called Charing Cross. If I had a pith helmet and swagger stick I'd go out for an evening stroll and probably have a go at my coolies for not working hard enough. There are places in India where the days of the British Empire seem very recent indeed; the local police wear uniforms recognisable as old-school British Army and snap to attention when you toss them a crisp salute.

The next morning we ride through the fervently religiously area of Palani. National Superstock racer Rhys Boyd finds a Hindu temple to explore and, along with his mate Russ, find themselves in the middle of a fairly severe religious experience. "There were temple guards with batons yelling at us to take our boots off, stand over there, don't talk. We had no idea what was going on. Some of the women were about to enter a trance and stick needles through their cheeks. Then some Indian lady took us under her wing and made sure we didn't get beaten for doing the wrong thing. There was this massive emerald in the middle of the altar sat on top the tomb of a god who died 3000 years ago, and yet this guy was apparently alive and well and telling them what to do. The sun was blazing in and bouncing off the emerald - it was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie and quite, quite remarkable." Rhys and Russ made it out in one piece, and with their cheeks intact.

The following day, and Enduro India moves up a gear. After the the jaw-dropping views of the first few days, those who want to can now crack the throttle and enjoy some hard riding. By now, all the riders have found riding buddies of the same level and if you pull over to indulge in a bit of roadside curry you'll see packs of Bullets come thudding past, four at a time and 10 minutes in between. As the pace quickens the locals love it, waving and cheering wildly as Enfields rattle past with their side-stands and exhausts scraping white lines across the tarmac. It's a safe bet they've never seen anything like it, and stopping anywhere near a school means you're going to get mobbed. One group take an unwitting break next to the biggest school in the area of Cochin, and the next thing they know some 1200 kids are assembled, clamouring for attention and pens. Pens, you see, are the big tip out here. If you give them sweets, you'll start a pint-sized riot as the ravenous kids go nuts for them, but give them pens and there's bit more decorum. Plus it actually helps them with their schooling.

A great deal of Enduro India is a blur. There are many highlights, but here's a few. We're filling up at a petrol station when I spot, on the side of the road, the biggest, yellowest human shit any of us had ever seen. It was so horrible we had to drop the pumps and escape. After five days on the road, covered in grime, sweat and stink, the tourist town of Thekkady is a shock. We feel part of India now and to see fat German tourists is really weird. "Greetings, white men!" one of us shouts, and the Krauts wave and take our picture. Monkeys - you never get over how badly-behaved or disgusting they are. I'm taking some shots of one when, right on cue, a randy male leaps in and starts banging her (or him) up the arse. The unique way Indian scenery can go from jungle to mountain to Sussex in the space of five miles. Following event organiser Simon and South African Mike Glover flat-out down the NH47, one of the India's most dangerous roads, and laughing like a hyena every time a bus tries to murder us. The limitless flavour of genuine Indian curry, nothing like the brown slop they serve at the Taj Mahal. And John the American dropping his Bullet in the city sewer 300 yards from the hotel. "I don't know what happened - the bike was spluttering and when I looked up there was nowhere to go." You turned the fuel off, John.

Having survived the N17 'Road of Bones', for the final run back into Calicut all the riders are assembled to ride en-masse into town. Everyone's on their horns, the Indians join in and the next thing we know there's a one-mile convoy blaring their way towards the city. "It's the fact that Enduro India is a bit 'out there' that makes it work," muses Simon. "We could avoid that final lethal road, but we keep the danger so that when everyone finishes they're covered in diesel, they stink of shit, they're sweating, and then they come in with an escort, TV cameras and 100 bikes. That's a great moment."

There are cheaper and less demanding alternatives if you want to see India by motorcycle, but it's questionable whether they'll be as organised and they certainly don't raise £140,000 for charities such as the WWF and the Rainbow Trust. Enduro India is hard to pigeon-hole. It's a rally, it's a tour, sometimes it's a bit of a race and everything in between. It's also impossible to write about without sounding flowery or poofy, but India is that kind of country.

"I feared Enduro India was going to be nothing more than a bunch of ageing hippies in tie-dye shirts on a nostalgia trip," said Martin Batson, a Dyno-Rod manager from Hastings. "There was a little bit of that, but also much, much more and I cannot think of a better way to experience Southern India than on a Royal Enfield." Fair enough.

For information on the Enduro India and Enduro Africa events, go to