on an Enfield
A Bullet in the Ghats – one of life’s
Motorcycle touring to me has always been a strange
combination as a means to an end, and an end
in itself. By that I mean that it is an unbeatable
way to experience somewhere new, and it is the
India on an Enfield, to most people, is a double
experience. The sights, sounds and smells of
India are unlike anywhere else, and for most
of us, it is a first time on one of motorcycling’s
great anachronisms, a 1950s designed motorcycle
in the 21st century.
I am always saddened when potential customers
talk to me and insist that the only way to see
anywhere they have never been is on their favourite
bike, be it a GSXR, a BMW K1200LT, or whatever.
Remember, travel broadens the mind!
We are usually ready to accept that we should
try and conform to local customs - whether it
be removing shoes before entering, covering
up bare shoulders or adopting local mannerisms
and customs – and that should apply to
the local means of transport.
Take it from me, your GSXR or BMW wouldn’t
last an hour in Kerala, they are about as appropriate
as an SUV in central London.
The Royal Enfield in India has survived because
it is well suited to its purpose in the road
conditions that prevail, just like a Harley-Davidson
is in America, or even a GSXR in England!
Our trip started in the chaos that is Heathrow
Terminal 3 on a quiet day. After finally checking
in we ran the gamut of jobsworths shouting that
only 1 piece of hand luggage is allowed (plus
the usual lack of liquids, face creams, etc.),
we get our helmets through the hand luggage
X-ray machine without even a murmur from the
people actually manning the machines.
One change of plane later – and service
on the domestic flight from Bombay to Cochin
was every bit as good but without the entertainment
– and we arrive rather tired but excited
at Cochin Airport – small, friendly, efficient,
and a pleasant 26 degrees in November.
I won’t mention the weather again, it
stays a uniform 26 ish on the coast, a bit cooler
in the mountains, a reasonable amount of shade,
and sunny most of the time. Daniel our guide
and Niyaz, our driver, are there to meet us.
has one of life’s great jobs and clearly
relishes it. Niyaz is a marvel – we soon
discover that not only can he get a jeep through
a gap in the traffic that you have just squeezed
through on an Enfield and thought yourself a
brilliant rider in doing so, but that he has
a black belt in Indian paperwork and official
We head into Cochin to our hotel, Brunton’s
Boatyard, a slice of cool, post-colonial luxury
set in the old colonial part of Cochin. Just
down the road is the oldest Christian church
in Asia, built in 1503, and the famous Chinese
fishing nets and fish market, the other way
is Jewtown with its architectural salvage yards,
serious tourist shops, rice and spice merchants
and more people than you can imagine filling
view is across the narrow harbour entrance,
with its bustling ferries, fishermen’s
narrow boats, dredgers and the occasional container
ship blocking out the view they pass so close.
So, after a bit of sightseeing and a relaxing
beer by the pool, we take the complimentary
harbour boat tour at sunset, don’t forget
your camera. Then a short walk brings us to
our welcome dinner, al fresco on the water’s
edge. A few words of advice from Daniel on what
to eat and what not to eat and we settle in
for a relaxing evening.
After a very comfortable night, we awake ready
for the adventures ahead. The jetlag and cultural
adjustments still need to be worked through
the system, so our first day’s ride is
really just an introduction to the adventures
of the joy of riding in Kerala is the ever changing
scenery, helped by the famous backwaters –
a huge low-lying tract of land and water about
15-20 miles wide and 100 miles long –
and impressive Western Ghats, mountains rising
to over 2000 m straight up from the backwaters
and then dropping even more abruptly into the
flatness of Tamil Nadu to the east.
We meet our bikes, and Ranesh, their proud
mechanic, and a man who can fettle (great word)
an Enfield like no-one else. Daniel looks like
the aviator out of Mad Max 2 with his goggles
and kidney belt and a big grin.
My trusty steed is a classic black with gold
pinstriping and aftermarket rear gas shocks
to make life a little more comfortable. The
intricacies of the right-foot gear change and
selector are explained as is the starting technique,
and after a quick practice we are off.
We head south, out of the old town and immediately
into an area of fish farms. This is the coast
road (replaced by a ‘highway’ which
we will tackle later in the tour) to Aleppey,
a bit wider than single track, hopefully when
needed with a sandy verge not a ditch on either
The road surface is mostly tarmac, but the
adjective smooth really isn’t appropriate,
and the whole width of the road is teeming with
mopeds, people, animals and the odd truck and
We learn to pick our way round the worst of
the bumps and holes, we learn that the horn
is more important than the brakes, we learn
that there really are an awful lot of people
living and working on the roadside, and we learn
that 20-30 mph really is about as fast as you
can go safely.
By the time you’ve followed Daniel’s
route through the bumps, avoided the mopeds
pulling out, waved at the schoolchildren and
tried to take in the unfamiliar sights and sounds
your senses are loaded to the max.
stop for our first drink, right by some Chinese
fishing nets. The choice is chai – local
sweet tea (more on this later) – or lime
soda, which comes sweet or sour. Sweet is mixed
with fizzy lemonade, sour is mixed with local
seawater. It certainly tastes that way, but
hey, you have to try these things.
Another hour’s ride through a continuous
trail of fishermen’s villages and we reach
our next hotel. This is a complete change from
the almost cosmopolitan ambience of Cochin.
Our hotel is in a fishing village (no surprise
there!) and has about 2500 coconut palms, plus
a huge assortment of other trees, in its 50
acres of grounds. It is run in an environmentally
friendly way (as are most of the hotels on our
‘room’ is a palm-thatched bungalow
with a veranda, of course. The bags are in the
room by the time we’ve completed the check
in formalities and drunk our fresh ‘welcome’
Daniel gives us a quick guided tour, including
the ayurvedic centre, the pool, sundowner bar,
and the completely empty wide sandy beach. And
after a quick lunchtime snack we unwind.
The massages are a definite must, as is a
swim in the warm waters of the Indian ocean,
some time in one of the many hammocks near the
beach, and sunset on the beach (when it suddenly
The evening meal is a gourmet buffet of mainly
Keralan dishes, none of which will have been
available at your local Indian restaurant back
home. Nothing too spicy, but lots of fresh local
ingredients and very tasty. Then it’s
time for one last drink before heading back
to the bungalow, perhaps a quick read (no TV!)
and a good night’s sleep. Total distance
50 km in 2 hrs.
Up bright and early this morning. After a
great breakfast with a wide choice of Western
and Keralan dishes (I loved the dhosas) we’re
really off. We load the jeep up with luggage
and carry on down the coast road to Aleppey
with its grid system and canals hidden amongst
the throngs of people, mopeds and bicycles.
My first embarrassing moment happens as I
get the right foot gear change completely wrong
on a right turn up onto a bridge. Niyaz offers
protection from behind with the jeep as I try
and remember how to find neutral quickly and
get myself sorted and rolling again.
Everything slows and waits and I suddenly
actually feel safer than in an English city.
Embarrassment over, and we are through Aleppey
and out on the causeway over the Backwaters.
Local fishermen lay out this morning’s
catch by the roadside, which is presumably diesel
or oil cured by teatime.
Once across the backwaters we start climbing
very gently up into the hills. The scenery slowly
changes as we rid through small towns and increasingly
make an impromptu chai stop in a small village.
The tea is hot and sweet, and I was told the
Indian meals were good.
We have timed today’s ride to coincide
with a pilgrimage, so the roads are packed with
pilgrims from all over India, in a wide assortment
and age range of cars, minibuses and trucks,
clogging up the roads and slowing our progress
We stop half-way up a mountain at the Kerala
Hotel, which like all hotels in Kerala isn’t
a hotel but the Indian version of an American
one is nice and smoky, with a talking mynah
bird, but very slow service as they struggle
to cope with the influx of pilgrims. For the
women, it’s a first experience of the
local ‘facilities’, and a warning
to make full use of our overnight hotels and
to always carry some loo paper with you. How
women in saris cope is beyond me!
As we climb, we reach our first rubber plantation,
which seems to be in the middle of converting
to other crops – pineapples being obvious
to us – and the views open up due to the
cleared land. A well-disguised right turn –
road signs are not high on the Ministry of Transport
‘to do’ list – and we are
off the main road and the pilgrim traffic and
into our first wildlife reserve. The glimpses
of scenery through the trees reveal steep wooded
valleys, there is almost no traffic whatsoever,
and only a very few people - maintenance men
clearing roadside trees and appointing the barriers.
The quietness is striking after the manic bustle
of the towns and roads, but we still need to
watch the road surface.
For the next few hours we will be on effectively
single track roads through the reserve. The
road is seldom used and Daniel has exclusive
permission to bring bike tours through here.
Our paperwork is checked at the government checkpoint
by an official with a serious moustache.
Daniel does his soft-soaping and Niyaz sorts
the paperwork and we continue, past tumbling
streams, brightly coloured butterflies, mountain
streams and lots of trees. A lot of trees! We
stop for lunch at the staff canteen in the main
reserve village, with its buildings labelled
for assistant engineer, chief assistant engineer,
Chief Engineer etc.
The menu is fairly restricted, and we are served
a local dish of curry with assorted side dishes.
There is a distinct lack of cutlery, the room
is quite dark, possibly even dingy, but nonetheless
just fabulous. Ranesh has a quick fettle of
Daniel’s bike, and we’re off again.
reserve is a main source of water for the irrigation
schemes of Tamil Nadu, and we ride around three
reservoirs and cross the dams. The schemes were
built by the British over 100 years ago and
you have to be impressed given the locations
– I suspect a lot of the tarmac is original
as well! The reservoirs are breathtaking in
their scenery and solitude. We cross the final
dam, the Periyar dam, currently rather controversial
and therefore with a little more attention paid
No photos allowed here, according to the rather
aged yellow and black signs.
Up the hill, and smack into a work party clearing
bamboos from the roadside and loading them onto
a brightly painted truck.
only problem is there is no room to the side
and there’s a drop off several hundred
feet. The truck moves a bit, we squeeze the
bikes through, and not for the first time Niyaz
gets the jeep through a gap half the width of
the jeep itself! Then we loop downhill, get
our papers checked again and we are out of the
reserve. That was about 50 miles with only 1
We pick up a main road again, and then just
as we think the roads are getting busy, we’re
off again, this time into a tiger reserve (yes,
The roads are generally better and much to
our elitist dismay, we see other western tourists
on day trips in jeeps. There’s a lovely
section of sweeping bends rising and falling
along the river bank.
Paying serious attention for jeeps flying round
bends in the opposite direction we stop to watch
some monkeys, and then reach the exit checkpoint.
Much fumbling of paperwork, platitudes and being
passed from one official to the next and we
That evening we discover that tigers have
only been sighted twice in the last 6 months,
so we were pretty safe. We are now on the main
road, and for the first time we can swing the
Enfield through sweeping bends on a proper road
surface with few bumps and not to many stray
bodies and bicycles in the way.
A great final stretch that brings us to another
superb hotel in Kumily. This time we have a
duplex bungalow, just as big as last night,
again in acres of grounds. All of the trees
planted are spice or fruit tress, all labelled.
There is a wildlife room, a colonial style bar
with lots of great old photos, a pool and again,
Dinner this evening is in a small ‘hotel’
just down the road. The only drawback is that
they no longer have an alcohol license. Daniel
explains these are very expensive to buy, and
most places simply don’t have a license
and sell beer etc until they get caught. Total
distance 207 km in 10 hours.
Having climbed up into the Western Ghats,
today we get to see them from the other side.
After another good breakfast we check out to
find the bikes ready and waiting and the jeep
loaded. As soon as we leave Kumily, the road
descends through the trees. We catch brief glimpses
of a lot of space and then as we round a bend
Tamil Nadu opens up in front of us, about 600
m down the world turns flat for as far as the
eye can see.
overtake a bullock and cart (our first) and
stop to take a photo. The driver waves, and
a monkey appears just to make sure he’s
not missing out on some food. The road then
crosses the water pipes shooting straight down
the mountainside, several times as we twist
and turn to the bottom. The temperature rises
and road goes arrow straight.
It is in reasonably good condition and we
crack on at about 80 kph through the irrigated
fields and palm groves. As we pass through villages
there’s a distinct change in the colourful
saris, which are now light pastel shades, and
the people are smaller and much darker skinned.
weave our way through the traffic of Cumbum,
the first major town, and find our side road
without the help of signposts but from a few
shouted requests from Daniel just to check we’re
Then we head back up into the hills, a seriously
steep rise up a twisting mountain road, suitably
narrow enough for a car and a half, with great
views looking back. As we reach the top, the
temperature cools right down, and it is time
for a chai stop.
A pretty good road surface now, as we swoop
up and down the hills, through villages (always
watch out for roadworks in villages) and on
to our lunch stop in a nice ‘hotel’.
Biryanis are the house specialty, so everyone
apart from Ranesh, who needs meals with extra
rice to keep going, gets stuck into a beef or
chicken biryani washed down with refreshing
jeora tea. We’re about to enter tea country,
so Daniel gives us a quick explanation of the
afternoon’s ride and we’re off again.
More perfect roads suddenly give way to serious
road works and it is a couple of miles of pre
gravel before we reach tarmac, and we realize
from its condition why they are resurfacing.
This is a main road to Munnar, tea capital of
southern India, British Raj hill station and
up and coming tourist stop.
We rest at a spectacular waterfall with great
views across towards Munnar, and then head off.
A quick climb through palm groves, cardamom
and banana plantations and the scenery opens
out – its tea time.
It looks just like on the adverts, but the scale
is huge. Tea bushes and shade trees as far as
the eye can see, with a narrow bumpy road with
whitewashed edge markers. We see our first ‘gang’
of pickers – always women, with a male
The women are really small and just the perfect
height to pick the leaves on the slopes. Men
say that only women have nimble enough fingers
to pick the tea, but as some of them now use
a kind of shears I’m not sure the argument
is quite as strong as is claimed.
I think it’s just too much like hard
tedious work. After a few miles we round a bend
and the view opens up across a reservoir to
tea covered hills in the distance.
being chased by a plantation jeep down the road,
we let it pass as we reach the main factory
entrance and a tea stop.
If you haven’t tried it, 10 people is
the average number you can fit in a jeep without
losing any out the back as you bounce around
corners. We watch the freshly picked sacks being
delivered into the factory for ‘processing’.
There are huge piles of logs for the burners,
managers bungalows dotted around, and the schoolchildren
just coming out of the plantation school. Bizarrely
the tea you can buy here is only in granular
form, all the leaves end up in Europe!
our afternoon stop we climb a little higher.
For the past couple of days we have seen signs
for the mystical nilgiri flower, asking us to
preserve and respect wildlife.
The nilgiri flowers only once every twelve years
so it needs some protection from tourist and
tea planters. Daniel has never seen it before,
but because we’re here, we see some –
delicate pink flowers in a small dip near a
huge towering waterfall.
It’s a fabulous spot, with the clouds
forming above the waterfall and the view across
The road over Lockhart’s pass is a bit
daunting, but once done, seems easy, and it
is a gentle cruise down to Munnar, sweeping
round the bends. Our luxury hotel overlooks
the town, and our room, perched on a ride, has
views from both front and back. We’ve
been on the road 7 hours and covered all of
116 km up and down the hills. Just such fantastic
changing scenery. Dinner tonight is in the hotel,
again an excellent buffet of Indian dishes,
with setting views over the town.
This afternoon and tomorrow are a bit of a
cheat, as we’re taking a short cut from
the normal tour route to explore some new roads
and check out a couple of places (to keep the
taxman happy!). We leave Munnar and climb eastwards
After an unusual alpine section with meadows,
the first we’ve seen, cows, small villages
and surprise surprise, more tea plantations.
This time, it’s just one plantation all
the way up the valley, the largest in the world.
twisting bumpy road, by now expected, continues
until we are too high for the tea and we can
look back down the valley and across and up
to Ana Mudi, Elephant’s Peak, the highest
peak in the Western Ghats.
Ana Mudi does indeed look like the elephant
it is named after, and will be a constant companion
for the rest of the morning as we enjoy a gentle
ride down through more tea plantations. The
mountain views are great, the roads are lined
with bright red flowering trees, there’s
no traffic and the sun is shining. Am I happy?
As we lose altitude the tea plantations give
way to palm trees, bananas and spices. Our lunchtime
stop in Marayoor is an early one, but as Daniel
explained, there isn’t much for the next
There’s time to walk down the main street,
stretching our legs and looking at the stalls
on the bikes we continue down until we reach
the entrance to Chinnar/ Indira Ghandi wildlife
We are met at the entrance by a motley crew
of monkeys on the bridge. This is also the ‘checkpoint’
to cross from Kerala into Tamil Nadu. The Keralan
official says the road is rubbish, the Tamil
Nadu official says it is very good. The road
starts out really well as we enter the park,
with its lowland streams and grassy vegetation,
and then our Keralan official is proved right.
All of a sudden the tarmac stops and it’s
a grave road. After a few hundred yards there’s
a gang of workmen and women breaking boulders,
and grading stones, and again a few hundred
Almost until the end of the park we bounce slowly
over the stony road surface until the end is
in sight, the checkpoint is crossed and we stop
for a welcome drink, after the exercise we’ve
As we recover under a shady tree, we realise
that the tiny shack we are standing next to,
little more than an AA box in size, is in fact
the local barbershop, with barber and customer
all agree none of us needs a haircut, but it’s
good to know where the nearest barber works.
We are now riding on mainly straight and flat
roads through small farming villages (unlike
in Kerala) often with concrete houses (again
Apart from the intensive agriculture, there’s
much weaving of palm leaves, to remind us of
our hotel roofs. We then reach a crossroads,
and turn left straight towards the mountains
again. The road surface is pretty good now.
At the foot of the hills we go round another
reservoir, but this one is almost in the plains,
and much wider and ‘flatter’. After
another checkpoint we start climbing.
After about 10 minutes we get to a yellow
and black sign fixed to the wall of a bend.
It says 1 / 40. Daniel explains – the
first of 40 hairpins. Who needs the Alps! And
unlike European hairpins, Indian hairpins not
only have numbers, but several other bends in
‘race’ up the bends, overtaking
everything in sight – the Enfield really
is King of the Road here! With several stops
to take in the breathtaking view, and the colonial
era pale blue painted walls of the road snaking
down below us, we finally reach the top, and
the hairpins continue as we drop down a bit.
Into tea plantation country again, we take a
quick pause for a drink at the memorial to Carter
Marsh from Essex set on a small promontory overlooking
what was once his empire and on the Valparai,
a tea town well off the beaten track. The road
has gradually got worse as we come into town,
past the bright red painted police station,
huge pale yellow temple and into our hotel.
This is the only hotel for very many miles
and it shows. It isn’t one we have ever
used on our tours, but it is a reminder to us
of what you get if you travel India on a budget,
or if you fall into the sales patter of someone
offering cheap motorcycle tours. Yes it is only
£6/night, but you’ll still feel
After a wander around town, with lots of giggling
schoolgirls who clearly don’t see many
white tourists, we returned to freshen up for
our evening meal. The menu looked impressive,
and we were shown into the family room, with
only slightly stained walls and ceilings.
When it came to ordering, we soon discovered
that the menu selection was reduced to two dishes,
beef or chicken curry. It tasted ‘O.K’
though so we made the most of it before retiring.
The rest of the hotel had been booked to a
Tamil film company shooting a film. We had hoped
to be among the stars, but ended up among the
crew. That meant cooking in the corridor, a
late night, and the director waking the whole
hotel at 4 am for an early start. Just as we
got back to sleep, the temple loudspeaker started
up at 5 o’clock, and continued until 6.30.
6 hours, 154 km.
Breakfast was eaten as fast as we could –
we had to wait while they went and bought the
toast and jam - we grabbed a few succulent red
bananas from a local stall and got out as fast
as we could. Penny, my partner, made only one
comment - this was the worst hotel she had ever
stayed in. The road out of town was the worst
yet, and continued most of the morning. The
scenery more than made up for it as we rode
through tea plantation after tea plantation.
about 90 minutes we had covered about 25 km,
and it was time for a chai stop.
We stopped at a plantation village and went
into a smoky room with the Ashes test match
on a TV in a corner (they are definitely fanatical
about their cricket in India).
The dhosas were excellent, the chai hot and
sweet, and surprise, the place was excellent
and even had a great view out of the open window
across the valley. If only they had rooms for
The plantations finally ended as we started
dropping down. We hadn’t seen a car all
morning and another ride alongside a reservoir
in complete solitude just reminded us of why
we were here. After a further slow ride we headed
down another hairpin hill (only this time discovered
some more white tourists in an aircon MPV) and
came to the river crossing.
time for a pause and a refreshing cool drink,
take in the river, the kingfishers and other
The road improved as we approached the Richmond
Falls, a popular destination for school outings.
We were in time for a late lunch at the Hilton
Hotel (no, not that one!), overhanging the river
bank with a slight view of the falls –
and they are impressive.
quite hot but excellent biryani later and we’re
back on the road – excellent tarmac, two
full width lanes sweeping bends and little traffic.
Sharp braking and a quick left turn got us
down to the ferry – two fishing canoes
tied together with planks of wood that could
carry a couple of cars and a few bikes. The
ferry took us into a very large rubber plantation,
offering pleasant shade in the afternoon sun.
After the necessary paperwork we were back
on the main road, before turning off into another
reserve which we had gained exclusive access
to. Again the quiet struck us, with no other
traffic until we reached some canal construction.
Shortly after that we reached a large lake,
and after riding through a rather enthusiastic
stream up to our axles we stopped for a cool
drink at a snack bar overlooking the lake and
next to the entrance to a shrine to St Thomas,
the disciple who went to the Malabar Coast in
the first century AD.
Back on the Enfields, and another stretch of
reasonable main road, which gave way to 4 miles
of interminable bumps to our hotel. But it was
worth it! Situated on one side of a lagoon crated
by a nearby river dam, the Bird Lagoon was just
Watching the village life on the opposite
bank birds gathering at dusk while relaxing
with a cold beer was just what we needed, followed
by a quick shower and dinner al fresco. 9 hrs,
An early start this morning – a breakfast
boat cruise. We all meet up at 7 am, board the
small boat and head off. Across the lagoon,
under a bridge and we’re in the main flow
of the Periyar River. In the middle of the river
local men are dredging (illegally) for sand,
using long poles with soft ‘buckets’
Once the boat is full, ie with no more than
2“ of boat above the water, they head
back to unload the cargo, to be sold on for
building. Quite an enterprise, and it’s
amazing just how much sand and how many people
you can fit into a river fishing boat. We cross
the river and head into a few tributaries.
We kill the engine and the only sound is birdsong,
and we just sit in the early morning sun, with
the shafts of light coming through the trees,
taking in the beauty and peace. On our way back
we watch a family of monkeys making their way
through the treetops.
We can’t stay long as we have to get
back to Aleppey by lunchtime, and we are back
in the densely populated area surrounding the
backwaters. Progress through the towns and villages
is slow, but our reward is a real working elephant
coming towards us on the road, a load of banana
plants in his trunk.
After crossing the backwaters we meet up with
our backwaters guide in Aleppey and go to meet
our houseboat crew. For the next 24 hours it’s
just the two of us cruising gently through the
backwaters with our personal guide and crew.
After a welcome coconut drink we settle in
for lunch and then head off. The sun is shining,
the banks are full of people washing, fishing
building and repairing boats and life really
is quite pleasant. We learn about life on the
backwaters and their history.
One of the crew is also a crew member of his
village’s snakeboat, which is raced at
festival times against other villages on the
backwaters, and he explains the racing and the
festival as we pass one of the boats and the
race finishing line.
Dusk sees us tying up for the night, dinner
is served to the sounds of a local church choir
practicing, and after lashing of mozzie repellent
we just settle in for a relaxing evening. 4hrs,
This morning after another excellent breakfast
we make our way gently back to our harbour,
and meet up with everyone. Then it is an easy
30 km ride back to our beach hotel. Our holiday
is nearing its end so we jump in the hammocks
again and take in one last tropical sunset.
Tomorrow we fly home. It’s been a real
holiday of contrasts and surprises – just
to remind you of some of them:
- Throngs of people and then complete solitude
- Fabulous beaches and 6000 ft mountains
- Straight flat roads, but more winding roads
than you though possible
- Truly luxurious hotels and amazing food
- Apart from a few mozzie bites (and one
leech!) we suffered no ill effects from the
drinks, the food or the climate
- More road traffic than you can imagine,
but everyone misses everyone else
- Steep forested valleys and dense tropical
- Smiling waving schoolchildren everywhere
- An unexpected lack of the grinding poverty
of the big cities
- Riding an Enfield Bullet !
- Great tour organisation through H-C Travel,
John Elwell, Nov 2006
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