Motorcycle Rally At The Enduro India 2005 - Cowboys And Indians - World Travels

Carefully Scripted Tours Where Nothing Goes Wrong? Leave 'Em To Pantywaists And Milquetoasts. For The Real-Deal Adventure-Tour, Check Out Enduro India.

The most obvious place in the world for a motorcycle rally? It's certainly not Southern India, I can assure you. For starters, there are the combined matters of lethal traffic, appalling roads and quaint indigenous motorcycles that fall to pieces once you get there. If you don't like curry, you go hungry, and it's virtually impossible to get a decent cup of coffee. I've never been there before because (as everyone knows) it's a dirty, smelly, overcrowded country.

Just the same, after our plane touches down in Southern India, the 100 jet-lagged participants in Enduro India 2005 stagger from the cabin. The harsh sunlight leaves them feeling blind and near-helpless, like sick moles. One especially zealous rally enthusiast tries to roust his comrades in arms with a stirring shout of, "Enduro India 2005 is go!" He is met with an impregnable wall of silence as my eyes look to the heavens. Enduro India, I decide right there, 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, broad-minded and riotously fun things I have done on a motorcycle. By the end of the rally, I have completely revised my opinion of an entire continent and its 1.2 billion inhabitants.

The event format is deceptively simple: a 1300-mile lap around Southern India in seven days on 350cc Royal Enfield Bullets. In practice, however, this requires an organizational feat on par with a moon mission and incredible commitment by both the team and participants alike. In India, where it takes two hours to do something as simple as changing an airplane ticket, it is pretty amazing the enduro happens at all.

Of course it's not a real enduro. There are no points for first place, no checkpoints or special stages. But there are some tough roads to cover, and I challenge anyone to ride 200 miles per day in a sadistic Enfield saddle and not squirm in searing pain. Just getting to Calicut-the city where the rally kicks off-is a huge feat, requiring you pay $800, raise another $5500 for charity, and find two weeks off work.

For the last two years Enduro India has been the product of Simon Smith, 32, from London. "It takes the whole year to organize just these two weeks," he says. "It's a massive task to sort, and if I didn't have some seriously useful people in India helping me out we'd be sunk. Each year we get 1000 enquiries, 400 of those put the deposit down, and 100 of those actually come on the rally.

"But Enduro India seems to tap into something unique with those who make the effort to come. We have something here that puts back an element of danger in life. You don't want a guide to be standing on every corner telling you where to go; you're a big boy, so tune in and 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 side, the rear brake is on the left, and with what feels like 3 bhp there's no power to speak of. When you step off the plane in Calicut, however, you quickly realize not only have you travelled some 5500 miles west, you've also stepped some 45 years back in time. A bike you would normally (and quite rightly) laugh at has suddenly become a valid and useful method of transport. Out here, an Enfield is all you need.

The first two days in-country are spent getting used to the heat, the bikes and the eye-watering local driving style. Trucks, buses, cars and three-wheeler taxis launch themselves at you seemingly without any 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, and for you to have to take evasive action in the nearest ditch. U-turns are performed immediately and without warning, the use of indicators is deeply frowned upon, and little heed is paid to which side of the road is used for what direction. It's like the entire country passed their test at the post-apocalyptic school for Mad Max motoring.

At 6 a.m. of the first day, all entrants gather round for what will become regular morning briefings: Watch out for this, don't go there, try not to hit that. Assembled en masse for the first time in our riding kit, we are an extremely motley bunch, the riders wearing a bizarre mix of motocross body armor, 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. Even at this hour of the morning it's 82 degrees F, and, loaded up with liters of water and gallons of bravado, the 100 riders thread out onto the roads to a fanfare of horns and the odd trumpeting elephant.

Touring through India is a multilayer event. On one level you have the basic enjoyment of riding a lopsided motorcycle around a warm, foreign land. On the next you have the incredible topography of the country-India goes from mountain savannah to tropical jungle to Northern California in the space of 5 miles. And the next level is to witness the deep-rooted and genuine happiness of the Indians themselves. It really appears Southern India is the happiest place on earth. These people are grindingly poor, and yet they could all teach us an object lesson in how to smile and get on with it. 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 better man than me.

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 ninepins. Fortunately, Indian-made Enfields are largely indestructible, and if the need arises you can fix them with a screwdriver and a size-11 boot. On day three I let my throttle hand get the better of me and seized my Bullet solid. On almost any other motorcycle it would have been the end of 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 my way. Likewise, at some point my kickstarter became possessed and decided to rotate a full 180 degrees 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 4-foot ditches, parked underneath buses, ridden up sheer rock faces and-joy of joys!-submerged in human excrement in an open city sewer. In all, 55 bikes went down. The mechanics simply walloped them straight and the Enfields would chug off royally for another day's senseless battering.

But don't assume Enduro India is just a crashfest. Not a painful one, anyway. Apart from one broken leg, all the crashes were minor tumbles. Chaos is, after all, simply part of everyday Indian life, and something the organizers encourage rally participants to embrace. Even so, the organizers' concern for safety is evident; I've never seen more medics rushing around. The rally's 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 customer, please note) was surrounded by four women, all cooing and mopping his brow. Jeez.

Speaking of women, there is a small group of hardcore female riders, even though the majority of participants are males. For example, Anna Beazeley ironically won the Biggest Balls prize for the not-inconsiderable feat of riding her Enfield farther up a mountain single-track than any of the men.

"I was bloody scared before I came here," admits Anna. "The whole thing about 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 female medics had managed to fall off and break her wrist. And when we were leaving the hotel on the first day, the 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!'"

On day three we climb to 8000 feet through the tea plantations of Munnar. It is so mind-bogglingly beautiful that a group of us dismount and stare at the scene in silence for 30 minutes. If Adam and Eve were here, they'd remark, "Ah, Eden. It's been awhile." 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, and at some point I expected to see Oompa-Loompas bobbing across this Willy Wonka landscape of color.

The next morning we ride through the religiously fervent area of Palani. British Supersport racer Rhys Boyd discovers a Hindu temple to explore and, along with his buddy Russ, finds himself in the middle of a severe religious experience.

"There were temple guards with batons yelling at us to take our boots off, stand over there, keep your head down, don't talk," Rhys said. "We had absolutely no idea what was going on. Apparently some of the women were about to enter a trance and stick long needles through both cheeks. Then an Indian lady, seeing our plight, made sure we didn't get beaten for doing the wrong thing.

"There was this massive emerald in the middle of the altar that sat atop 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 through the windows and bouncing off the emerald-it was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie." Rhys and Russ made it out in one piece and with all their cheeks intact.

The following day, Enduro India moves up a gear. After the jaw-dropping views of the first few days, those who want to can crack the throttle some more and enjoy some hard riding. By now all the riders have found buddies of the same skill 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, sidestands and exhausts scraping white lines across the tarmac. They've never seen anything like it.

Stopping anywhere near a school means you're going to get mobbed. One group takes an unwitting break next to the biggest school in Cochin, and the next thing they know some 1200 kids are clamoring 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 a bit more decorum. Plus it actually helps them with their schooling.

A great deal of the rest of Enduro India is a blur, to be honest. There are many great moments, but here are just a few: Following event organizer Simon and mad South African Mike Glover flat-out down the NH47 (one of the most dangerous roads in India, where 13 people are killed in accidents each week) and laughing like hyenas every time a bus tries to murder us. The limitless spice and flavors of genuine Indian curry, which is nothing like the brown slop they serve at your local Indian restaurant. And, of course, John Garner (known simply as John the American) dropping his Bullet in the city sewer within 300 yards of leaving the hotel in the morning.

"I don't know what happened," he said. "The bike was spluttering and when I looked up there was nowhere to go." Uh, you turned the fuel off, John ...

There are cheaper and far less demanding ways to see India by motorcycle. Several operators run similar riding events in that part of the world, but it's questionable if they'll have the same degree of organization, and they certainly don't raise $250,000 for charities such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Rainbow Trust. Enduro India, though, is far more difficult to pigeonhole. It's a rally, a tour, sometimes a bit of a race, and everything in between.

"I feared Enduro India was going to be nothing more than a bunch of aging hippies in tie-dye shirts on a nostalgia trip," said Martin Batson, a 47-year-old drainage manager from Southern England. "But I cannot think of a better way to experience Southern India and the sights, thrills and occasional spills than on a Royal Enfield."

For information on the 2006 Enduro India and new Enduro Africa events, go to www.enduroindia.com