Words by Scott Hopkin | Photography by Jason Lau
It’s not everyday you receive an email asking if you’d be interested in going to India to ride Royal Enfields across the Rajasthan desert with a film crew and a professional photographer. That’s exactly what happened at the end of last year: I received an email from a guy called Matt from Nevermind Adventures. He runs organized motorcycle adventure tours all over India. Only a fool would think about it for just a second. I thought about it for two, and replied: ‘When do we leave?’.
I’ve got to be honest: I love getting out of my comfort zone. It’s these times I feel like I am truly living. The monotony of life gets me down, sometimes hard. The more my life becomes a routine, the more I hate it. Some people strive on routine; I’m not one of those people. So given the chance to escape my routine for two weeks in a remote country, riding motorcycles, is the equivalent of seeing a therapist for several years – only a lot cheaper. It breathes life back into this middle-aged body (that is fighting with the thought of being middle aged).
So I joined a group of riders and a film crew in a far away land, not knowing anyone or anything about the destination, and in my case not researching anything about the ride. All I knew was the ride was in Rajasthan. Didn’t know much about the place, but clearly more than some of the friends I told I was going there. “Is that near Afghanistan?” they would ask. “Um, I hope not.” I would reply.
Day 0 – Delhi – Always read the instructions.
Every story should start with “so I jumped on a flight to Delhi, India.” After a long flight from Australia trying to get my money’s worth by drinking lots of miniature bottles of whiskey, the plane arrives in Delhi at 6am. Arriving in India can be a bit overwhelming to say the least. Of course, I didn’t read the important ‘Welcome Pack’ from Nevermind Adventures that tells you everything you need to know. Like really important information about being picked up at the airport by a driver that will take you to the hotel. Instead I start haggling with the local taxi drivers. I kind of know how much I should be paying from my last trip here. Finally we agree on 500 rupees ($10) to the hotel. It ended up costing me a bit more money and a few changes of transport – but that’s a whole different story. Reminder to self… read the friggin instructions Scott!
I finally arrive at the hotel in Old Delhi around breakfast. Old Delhi might sound like the oldest part of Delhi, but in fact it isn’t. But it does date back to the 17th century (older than Australia). It’s also the most chaotic place in Delhi – your senses feel like they’ve gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson. There’s smells (good and bad), colours, animals, begging children and everyone is trying to sell you something or take a selfie with you. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thrive on the chaos of it all.
That afternoon, all 12 riders meet on the rooftop of the hotel, which overlooks the World Heritage listed Red Fort. It’s a sight to behold. After a few semi cold Kingfisher beers I feel like I’ve chatted to most of the riders. There’s a real mix of riders, from learners to very experienced guys who have been riding their whole lives. Jimmy, who runs a community workshop called Kustom Kommune in Melbourne, is in charge of making a film of the trip, and Jason Lau is taking photographs of the journey (all of the photos in this story are his). There are a lot of different personalities, but we are all bonded by a love of motorcycles and a sense of adventure. I instantly think we have a great crew on this ride and I can’t work out which one is the dickhead – I hope it’s not me!
That evening we catch an over night train from Delhi to Jodhpur where we will pick up our bikes and start the ride. I’m so keen to get on a bike and the excitement keeps me up for many hours on the train. We drink too much local whisky and chat for hours bonding with our fellow riders.
Day 1 – Jodhpur
We arrive in Jodhpur with a few sore heads, and are taken to our hotel. The hotel is like something out of a movie starring Indian Jones or James Bond, looking like a grand ancient palace. The guy at reception tells me it dates back to the 17th century, and from the lack of enthusiasm on his face, I think he has been sitting at reception from the start.
In the afternoon we take the Royal Enfields out for a ride. There are mainly 500cc Bullets to choose from and a few Himalayans. I’ve ridden both previously and I throw a leg over one of the Bullets. It feels like a familiar friend. We first have a quick briefing about what to do when riding. To summarize: honk your horn at everything and anything that moves, or else people will get angry at you. The horn is as popular as cricket is in India. It is to be used all the time to just to let drivers know you are near them. At first you will be a bit ‘horn shy’, but by the end of the ride you will be honking with the conviction of a crazed road rager. We all go for a ride through the beautiful city of Jodhpur to familiarize ourselves with the bikes and reach the Marenghi Fort, which is an imposing but beautiful structure. It was also used in the recent Batman Rises film where Bruce escapes the dark prison. I found it great to get back on the Enfield and once again get to know this Indian classic.
Day 2 – Jodhpur to Jaisalmer
We wake up early, as it’s going to be a big day eating up many miles via the desert Highway. They do a Hindu blessing of all the bikes, which involves burning incense and rubbing red powdered paint on everyone’s forehead. It’s already 40 degrees and I’m sweating like a fat kid in a cake shop, so the red paint just starts running down my face like I’ve been shot by a sniper. But I resist the temptation to wipe if off, because I don’t want to offend the locals providing this ancient custom.
Just before we are about to get on our bikes, a stray dog starts walking around all the bikes. He is sniffing around the place and then stops next to my bike, cocks his leg and starts relieving himself on my front tire. Out of 12 bikes lined up he chooses mine. You know when a bird craps on you it’s supposed be good luck? I’m looking at this with optimism and think it’s going to be a very lucky day. It was.
As we leave Jaisalmer we ride past a man casually taking his elephant for a morning walk down the road, which now seems as normal as someone walking a dog around my neighborhood back home.
It’s a big day of riding. And it is hot. Very hot. It’s easily 45 degrees (113 Fahrenheit) in the shade, and there’s not much shade. I’m told by Matt from Nevermind Adventures that this is the latest in the year they have done this Rajasthan ride and they normally do it earlier because of the heat. It’s fine, I need to lose some weight.
Anyway, we hit the desert highway and start travelling at good speeds while making sure to avoid making minced meat of the many cows that we share the roads with. I’ve heard stories of guys hitting cows on motorbikes in India and it isn’t one of the things I would like to experience here – although I come very close, but more on that later.
As we ride into the city of Jaisalmer after a good 4 hours in the heat, I’m blown away by the spectacular fort on the horizon. It looks like it has been carved into the rock, with many little house-like structures. It’s much more impressive than I had imagined. As the story goes, one day the local king decided to let the homeless and poor start living in the abandoned fort on the hill. Now there’s thousands of people who live up there with a whole economy of shops and restaurants. We end up exploring the fort that night and were amazed to see the ancient village markets and shops inside.
Day 3 – Jaisalmer to the Thar Desert
This is the day I’ve been looking forward to the most: hitting the desert and riding the expansive sand dunes. Have I mentioned how hot it is? It’s like being set on fire and being placed in Satan’s sauna. Seriously, it was damn hot. We make our way out of Jaisalmer dodging more cows, dogs and donkeys. As we ride further and further, the trees start to disappear and the landscape begins to turn to sand. After riding for a while we are now in the desert. It’s like something from a movie. It now felt like I was riding motorbikes on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. We stop at a small town at the start of the desert. Actually, to call this place a town is like calling a vending machine a shopping mall. It’s more like a few tents and makeshift shops that look like they’re set up as a truck and car stop for people to refresh themselves. It’s not long before there are guys on camels offering us rides and lots of kids selling cold drinks. We indulge in the latter and tell the camel traders we prefer riding the mechanical kind.
One of the film crew, Ben from Two Humans Travel, brought a skateboard with him on the trip. I initially thought this was a bit random, but then we decided to ride it down this road in the desert for some video footage and photos. After all the young kids have seen us riding the skateboard, they all came out of the woodwork, and it dawned on us that these kids had never seen a skateboard in real life before. It was such a cool experience to see these kids trying to ride a skateboard in the middle of the desert dressed in their immaculate colorful outfits.
We say goodbye to our newfound skater friends and continue to ride on through the desert. We finally arrive at more sand dunes right near our hotel. But these are some serious dunes that continue for miles. We let the air down on our road tires and decide to take the bikes up on the dunes for a session. I’ve been riding the Royal Enfield Bullet for the whole ride but notice there’s a Royal Enfield Himalayan not being used. Because the Himalayan is made as more of an adventure bike I grab it and hit the dunes. I haven’t ridden a lot of sand in my life. I have done a bit of dirt bike riding, which definitely helps. But riding on sand is something completely different – especially with road tires. I learn pretty quickly that you have to keep the throttle on or else once you lose speed and momentum you just get bogged. Here’s where I give a special shout out to the 14 year old camel rider and the amazing local guy with one arm, who both helped me lift the bike out when it got bogged in the sand. But once I got the hang of riding the Himalayan and making sure the throttle was always pinned, it was so much fun. One of the best days I’ve had on a bike, and if you could see my face under that yellow helmet you’d see a massive grin from ear to ear.
After riding for hours on the sand dunes we all sit and watch the sun set on an amazing day. As I rest, I ponder how this day could get any better. A local man comes out of nowhere, like an oasis appearing on a sand dune, saying “Cold beer and chips sir?” At first I thought I had sunstroke and my eyes were playing tricks on me. But then he hands me a beer from his makeshift cooler bag and it would have been rude not to take it. Then he tells me the price. It’s nearly 3 times the price we were used to paying. This guy knows his market and his entrepreneurial skills need to be rewarded. “Just take my money mate,” I say, smiling at him. In hindsight, he could have probably charged more.
Day 4 – Desert roads and magical drones
We wake early after a very amusing night of firecrackers, cheap local scotch and the craziest Indian drag show I’ve ever seen – not that I’ve seen many, honest. Today is a long ride through many desert tracks and sand roads through some of the most remote desert villages in Indie: Myajlar, Harsari, Balewa, Barmer and Sindari. After riding for a few hours through some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, we stop at a small village. There seems to be a lot of children here and all 50 of them come out to give us high fives. The film crew decides to get the drone out to shoot some footage. So they pull the drone out of the car and place it down on the dirt. The whole village has now circled the drone in anticipation of this robot helicopter. As the drone starts up and flies directly above the village, they all start clapping and laughing at this amazing feat. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was like we were from the future and we had arrived in a DeLorean, not on Royal Enfields.
After a huge day we make it to Jalore just as it’s getting dark. We park our bikes outside these huge gates that look medieval. We are greeted by a very well spoken Indian gentleman, dressed in an expensive suit and turban. He takes us through the gates and into an amazing courtyard that has a stunning pool and water feature. This isn’t just any hotel, it’s a palace that this royal family has been opened up to the public to help pay for the expensive upkeep of this 300 year old residence.
Day 5 – The world’s fastest Indian cow
After a refreshing morning swim in the palace pool, we reluctantly check out of the hotel and hit the road again. This day turned out to be one of the best days of riding I have had in a long time. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the roads started to have trees and greenery again, which not only made us less exposed to the elements, but also gave us more scenery to enjoy along the way (there’s only so much sand one can take in). Secondly, after riding the Royal Enfield bullet for 5 days now, I know the bike well – it feels like an old friend whose good and bad traits you know but love anyway. I had the bike dialed in and started to feel a little overly confident cruising at high speeds (Enfield high speeds) down single lane roads, overtaking anyone or any animal that came in my way. There were a few scary moments of large trucks not wanting to give way but that kept me on my toes. We ride all day, through beautiful little villages, muddy roads that were still under construction and even a highway at the end of the day that led us into Udaipur. This was when I almost hit a cow. Riding along the highway you see cows everywhere. But most of them are so undernourished and skinny that they don’t have any energy to move very quickly. Well, I managed to discover the world’s fastest Indian cow. As I approached him on the highway, he decided to run across the road into my lane, I swerve to the left and just miss him – I even felt his tail brush my leg – holy cow, it was close!
We arrive in the afternoon and check into another traditional 300-year-old Haveli homestay. We decided to go explore on our bikes and take some photos around the beautiful lake at sunset. It does not disappoint.
Day 6 & 7 – Udaipur, Octopussy & Rudyard Kipling
I think we were all relieved to find out we had a rest day in Udaipur – gave us a chance to recharge the batteries and explore this alluring city. The whole town is built around the Taj Lake that has a ‘Floating Palace’ in the middle of it. It was made famous when it was featured in one of my personal favorite James Bond films, Octopussy. I loved this scene because Bond, disguised as a crocodile, swims up to the palace to discover it was populated by young attractive women. The Palace is amazing, but unfortunately the abundance of attractive women is no longer the only set of inhabitants.
After riding all day we arrive at a small town called Bundi. This was a surprising little town. Apparently it’s the town where Nobel Prize-winning English author Rudyard Kipling hung out and wrote his book called Kim.
Day 8 – Bundi to Tiger reserve
It’s only been just over a week but it now feels like I’ve been away for twice that. Because we have been seeing so much every day, some days feel like 2 days in one. Some days we are riding through a dozen small towns and villages with the scenery always changing – it puts my sense of time all out of whack. We hit the road and ride to Ranthambore National Park through lots of great roads. The Ranthambore National Park is one of the largest national parks in Rajasthan and was a former royal hunting ground and home to tigers, leopards and marsh crocodiles. When we eventually make it to our hotel, half our group go on a safari to try and spot some tigers; the other half grab some cold beers and lounge around the hotel pool – I was in the latter group, but I think you may have guessed that.
Day 9 – Ranthambore to Agra – The home stretch.
You know that feeling when you are having so much fun and you don’t want it to end; that last day of that epic holiday? That feeling you have to go back to work soon? Well, this was the last day of riding and it was kind of sad it was coming to an end. But as they say: ‘All good things must come to an end’. So knowing it was the last day of riding my trusty Royal Enfield Bullet, I just soaked up every minute. Every corner I leaned further, every straight I rode faster and every village I smiled bigger. It was a good day. It was almost Zen like or spiritual. As we rode further and further, the villages started to turn into towns, and the towns started to get bigger and bigger, until we finally made it to Agra – the Sheraton Agra! It was a weird feeling getting off that bike with all my newfound friends who had just experienced a once in a lifetime experience together. We man-hugged and high-fived each other and cracked open cold beers.
Day 10 – Taj Mahal & the Primary School.
Agra is made famous by having the most well-known Indian tourist attraction – the Taj Mahal. I’ve obviously seen the Taj in many photographs over the years but no photos can do this structure justice. The sheer scale of this marble mausoleum is unlike anything you’ll ever see. I can now understand why it took 20,000 workers over ten years to build.
On the last day, most of the Nevermind Adventures trips end up in Agra to visit the school they sponsor through the motorcycle trips they run. The school is for underprivileged kids who would not normally be able to afford to go to school. It was great to visit the school in person and witness the great initiative Nevermind has created.
It is hard to sum up a trip like this, but you might remember the old Honda advertisement that said ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’. Well, you meet the world’s friendliest people on a Royal Enfield in India. Not only did I meet some of the friendliest local people on this ride, I was also lucky enough to meet a great bunch of riders who I now call friends. We all started the ride as strangers bonded by a sense of adventure and a passion for motorbikes. And we finished the ride as a bunch of mates who experienced something truly epic.
We are planning a limited Pipeburn ride to India in 2018 with Nevermind Adventures. If you are keen to join us on this adventure, send me an email here. Be quick because we are going to limit it to 10 riders. Watch the vid below by Adventure Machine to see the highlights from this amazing ride…