'“Enfields and adventure go together like poppadoms and chutneys. You can’t help but have an adventure on an Enfield,” said Dan Walsh. We sent him to Leicester to prove it.' So said Bike magazine in March 1998, words they had already come to regret as their intrepid reporter returned with a Kurtz-like tale and a broken leg.
t’s cold, it’s dark, it’s wet. I’m enveloped in freezing fog and I’ve just been overtaken by yet another wagon convoy. The bike rattles and shudders beneath me, the candle-like headlight illuminating a field off to my left. I’m terrified of using the leading-shoe front drum brake or the vice-like rear. I’m struggling to maintain my enthusiasm for this jaunt.
I was initially excited about riding an Enfield again. You see, I’m in love with all things Indian – actually not all things. I’m not that keen on cholera or open sewers, but you know what I mean. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I’ve never known anywhere so stimulating, so contradictory, so weird and wonderful.
From the second you get off the plane at Delhi International, you know you’re in another world. Clues abound in the muggy, pre-dawn heat, the unintelligible languages, and the fact that the 24-hour bureau de change has just closed for an hour.
Nothing can prepare you for the sensory onslaught that is Delhi – stepping out of the taxi into the narrow streets of central Paharganj is always overwhelming. You’re assaulted and barraged by noises and colours (cerise is the Indian brown, sweetie), car-horns and cow-horns, people selling you food, blessings, accommodation, people begging, people trying to get to work. And they all aim for you. You need a bubble, some space to get into the rhythm, find your feet, but there isn’t one. You just dive in and do your best. Or hide in your hotel for two days, complaining that you’re scared, as my sister did.
You need to get away from the big cities to find incredible tranquillity, be it in the mountains, the deserts, the ancient temples and ruins, or on the beaches. And there’s no better way to get between these places than in a plane, or in the first-class carriage of a train. Failing that, if you’re really desperate and skint, I suppose you could consider riding an Enfield.
Enfield of dreams
I first picked one up in the southern state of Goa, home to India’s package tourist industry and a mecca for Europe’s hippies. An Indian friend asked me to rid his bike about 80km down the Goan coast. Most of the journey would be on National Highway 17.
The bike was a disaster. A 500 Enfield with ape-hangers, an over-sized piston, bigger carbs and the noisiest exhaust I’ve ever heard. The frame was bent, the wheel rims were buckled, half the spokes were loose and the Chinese tyres were bald. The forks were bent and leaking, the front drum didn’t work at all, the rear brake lever had so much play that it could be used as a sidestand or more usually, as a pivot on left-handers (brakes and gears being arse about tit). It handled and sounded like a startled tractor. Crack open the throttle and it would either explode forwards or just explode.
The owner thought that it was the best bike in the world, and drew even more attention to it by adding all kinds of tassels, leather bits and flames. He rode it like Mr Toad, and considered my apprehension to be most amusing, “Just go straight! Why do you need brakes? Everyone can hear you coming for miles.”
The first problem was starting it. Pull in the decompressor, half a kick, check the faulty amp meter/pressure gauge, kick and... kick and kick and kick. Nothing. After about half-an-hour of this torment a local fisherman wandered over, and started it with one nonchalant stab of his flip-flop and walked off sniggering something about ‘Indian motorcycles’.
Sweet smells and ravenous potholes
The NH17 is your standard Indian highway, populated with psychotic orange trucks, Ambassador saloons and the odd cow and ox... and dogs and chickens and pigs. Technically, both the bike and the roads were a disaster. But none of that mattered – riding that road is the greatest buzz in the world. It takes you through paddy fields, up and down mountains, through sweet-smelling eucalyptus groves and foul-smelling towns. Sure, the bike was slow and unpredictable, but so were the roads, and it provided enough grunt to lurch you past the even slower traffic – sometimes.
No lid, sun on sun on your back and the most interesting country in the world all around you. Eighty kilometres and three hours of pure fun, zigging the zag, dodging ravenous potholes, pulling off the road to accommodate racing wagons, waving at children and ignoring a cop who tried to chase me on a a bicycle.
I’m desperately trying to remind myself of this while I battle with the A47’s treacherous cross-winds. Funnily enough, there isn’t the same incentive to reach Leicester as there is to reach 25 miles of Bounty-advert beaches, complete with dolphins, coconut groves and a wicked local moonshine. Cashew-nut fenny or Fox’s Old Peculiar? No contest really. Still love adventurous Enfields?
The journey to the ancient ruins at Hampi was, in principle, equally foolish. Fully kitted out with shorts, flip-flops and CE-approved prayer beads, we considered ourselves almost over-prepared for the 12-hour ride inland. We got convoyed up with a pair of Swiss doctors on ketamine and Yamahas, and a feral Scot on an Armstrong who insisted on getting flat on the tank and scraping the footpegs at every inappropriate, lunatic opportunity.
This fella had the most outrageous manner of dealing with the ubiquitous racing wagons that suddenly appear, two-abreast, inevitably on mountain hairpins. When confronted with this cocktail of 14 tonnes of metal and drivers who are bored, chasing punishing schedules and invariably full of amphetamines, the sensible option is to get off the road. Might is right is the rule of the Indian highways. Not this hero. He preferred to hold his nerve, hope that other drivers held theirs, and drive between oncoming trucks. When questioned about this he would shrug and mutter something about karma.
Moghul warlords, 2CVs
The route itself was fairly straightforward, ‘just go straight’, with an overnight stop planned at the one-cow town of Hospet. We managed to complicate things early on by seizing one of the Yamahas. It kept grinding to a halt, despite a full tank of oil and no apparent leaks. Amid much sweating and sulking we pushed it to the next town, where a taxi driver pointed out that although he admired our commitment to keeping the gearbox nicely lubricated, maybe we should put some engine oil in the other tank. Cue even redder faces.
Hampi was well worth the effort. Once an ancient provincial capital, boasting a standing army of over a million, and covering 33 square kilometres, it is now in ruins, raised to the ground by Moghul warlords. All that remains are the temples, scattered across the old site.
It’s got to be said that after a few hours of Leicester I was ready to admit defeat. The Enfield was so slow, so heavy, and so dull. There’s only so much satisfaction you can garner from racing 2CVs away from the lights. Even spicing up my life by wearing a lungi (kinda like a sarong, kinda more like a skirt) was at most a laugh, not really an adventure. Leicester market was okay, but hardly Anjuna flea market. The churches didn’t rival Hampi’s temples for atmosphere. And I was ready to accept that this bike couldn’t cut it in England. It seems to me that the importance of stimulating kit is inversely proportional to the stimulation of your surroundings. Which probably explains why the first despatcher I spotted in Leicester was riding a V-Max.
And then, boom! Ambushed by adventure. Within a matter of hours, I was in an alien environment, my bloodstream awash with top-quality opiates, surrounded by misery and disease. All around me people were grunting, wailing, shitting where they lay, monitored by an uniformed wall of inscrutable bureaucracy. I must be back in that Bombay opium den. Or in that flop-house in Calcutta. Er, no. I’m in Leicester Royal Infirmary, nursing a broken leg. In a poetic parallel with India’s clash of the ancient and the modern, my ancient drum brakes clashed with his modern ABS system, and I clashed with the tarmac.