Going the distance: 120 years of Royal Enfield adventures

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In the world of YouTube and Instagram and massive machines with satnavs, spotlights and metal panniers, it’s easy to imagine that adventure-biking is a modern phenomenon – but that’s not true. Royal Enfield riders have been doing it for more than a century.

The 120-year history of the ‘world’s oldest motorcycle manufacturer’ is packed with double-take moments – those eye-widening tales that make you say, “They did… what?” It means the lndian-owned brand’s recently completed expedition to the South Pole – 90° Degrees South, is just part of a long tradition of adventure.

It wasn’t even the first time there have been Enfields in Antarctica. The firm has kept the lights on in various research stations across the frozen continent – though admittedly not with motorcycles.

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In 1954, the company – then based in Redditch – sent an engineer called RH Watton out to the British Antarctic Survey base in Port Lockroy to install and maintain Royal Enfield diesel-electric generators.

Their importance can’t be underestimated, as the electricity they produced was used not only to heat and light the base but also to power the radios that kept the isolated facility in contact with the outside world beyond the ice sheets.

Other Royal Enfield generators sustained bases in Horseshoe Bay and Beaver Island. Though no longer used for scientific research, the Port Lockroy installation is now a museum – with that Enfield engine proudly on display.

1997 & 2019 Himalayan challenges

Royal Enfields have taken on a number of terrains

The bikes themselves are no strangers to success in harsh, cold environments. In 1997, to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, there was a mass pilgrimmage by Enfield riders from across the sub-continent to Leh in the Himalayas, over the 18,380ft (5602m) Khardungla Pass – famously the highest motorable pass in the world.

And, just two years ago, a team of 11 Royal Enfield riders set out to brave one of the few places on Earth where they could be confident of being the first motorcyclists to visit: the Karakoram Pass.

Once the highest point of the ancient Silk Road, the 18,175ft (5540m) pass was reputedly lined with the remains of pack animals that hadn’t survived the crossing. Today it sees little traffic as it’s at the heart of a militarized zone where the borders of China, India and Pakistan meet.

Even getting to the start was a challenge, with months spent negotiating with the military to get the necessary permits. The group of eight men and three women tackling the ride flew to Leh, capital of the Indian state of Ladakh, with their Royal Enfield Himalayan’s arriving on Indian Air Force transport planes.

“They were virtually stock bikes,” says Aditya Malaker, one of the riders. “The only modifications were heated grips, hand muffs and remodelled engine guards that incorporated shields to give wind and splash protection for the rider’s feet.

“We changed the oil to 0W/20 grade, which is better suited for such climatic extremes, but the tyres were standard issue for the Himalayan.”

There's no AA recovery out here!

After a week in Leh, acclimatising to the altitude and practising fitting snow chains, the team set off. The first challenge was the 17,688ft (5391m) Chan La Pass – where even though it was early summer the riders faced deep snow, ice and treacherous ruts.

Despite many bikes being dropped, they all made it to the Tangtse army base, where they had to wait four days for more acclimatisation.

From there, the next stage was a challenging ride on snowy, unpaved roads to Chongtash army camp at 17,825ft (5433m) for a final three-day acclimatisation stop.

This was followed by the push to Dualat Beg Oldi base at the foot off the pass – on a route with place names that could have been designed to put travellers off, including the Shyok River (River of Grief) and Murgo (The Gateway of Hell). Even Dualat Beg Oldi means ‘The Place Where a Rich and Powerful Man Died’.

“The terrain was really harsh here,” says Hema Choudhary, another of the riders. “In a single day we encountered everything from ice and snow to loose gravel, broken tarmac and stones falling down from the mountains. Everything that you can imagine.”

The final stage – from Dualat Beg Oldi to the head of the pass – saw the toughest riding of the trip. With temperatures as low as -30°C, the road was covered with black ice, snow, sludge and mud, so the bikes were repeatedly getting stuck.

Ice formed on the snow chains and the water in the riders’ hydration packs froze. That final 20km took them almost two hours to cover. Waiting for them at the top for a small ceremony to mark their achievement was an Indian general and an honour guard.

Then, once the riders had rehydrated and warmed up, they set off on the perilous descent back through the ice and snow.

1929 & 1933 Desert trials

Early Royal Enfield adventuring

Royal Enfields have excelled in all kinds of conditions during the company’s 120-year history – not just the cold and ice. As long ago as 1929, the machinery was being tested in the crucible of the Sahara Desert.

A group of young Swedes set off from Stockholm aiming to reach Cape Town – but the rigours of the journey across Europe gradually wore them down until only one rider, Bertil Hult, made it to Africa on his Enfield Model 182, which was fitted with a sidecar.

Landing in Cueta in Morocco, Hult set out to do battle with the desert – facing scorpions, bandits, extreme weather and even the French Foreign Legion. Time and again he was forced to change his route until finally he managed to traverse the Sahara, crossing the Niger River into Mali. Here, though, he succumbed to malaria and had to return to Sweden.

“I often think of the desert out there and my faithful Royal Enfield companion,” he wrote while recuperating. “It was a great adventure.”

It would take another four years before Africa was finally crossed by motorcycle. In 1933 a young man called KS Jones – armed with a 225cc Royal Enfield Model A – set off from Pretoria in South Africa and rode to London.

“If it is experience you want, let me recommend these priceless assets – one small two-stroke Enfield motorcycle, about £75 of ready money and six months of spare time,” he said.

His route took him via Victoria Falls and Kilimanjaro, from Lake Victoria to Khartoum and along the Nile from Luxor to Cairo. Rather than taking a boat across the Mediterranean from Egypt, he crossed the Sinai desert and rode up through Jerusalem, Beirut and Aleppo.

It was only when he was unable to get into Turkey that he finally shipped the bike to Greece, crossing the Balkans to Budapest, Vienna and Munich on his way to his London destination.

KS Jones arrives at the end of his adventure

The two-stroke Enfield Model A didn’t miss a beat – whether crossing foot-deep drifts of volcanic dust in Africa or thick clogging mud in the former Yugoslavia.

Even crashing into a dry river bed in Zimbabwe didn’t phase it. Over the whole 12,000-mile journey, the bike had only one puncture and the engine needed decoking just twice, with a single piston ring that had to be replaced.

Jones completed his mammoth journey by riding into the Olympia Motorcycle Show in London, where he was welcomed by Royal Enfield staff. “I’m glad I did it,” he said. “I would do it again tomorrow and, yes, enjoy every mile of it.”

These early trips are the stuff not only of Boys’ Own adventures but also of modern overlanding dreams. The difference is they weren’t done with satnavs and smartphones but with simple, tough, reliable machines and a determination to redefine what could be done on a motorbike.

1950: Enfield’s Australian pioneer

Winifred Wells took on the Australian Outback and won

Female riders often face a struggle to be accepted by their male peers – and we don’t imagine it was any easier in Australia in 1950.

But in the face of disapproval and scorn, a 22-year-old woman from Perth set out to prove not only what a Royal Enfield Bullet could do, but also what a woman on two wheels could achieve.

Setting out from Western Australia on Boxing Day 1950, Winifred ‘Winnie’ Wells planned to take three weeks to ride across the continent to Sydney… and back again.

With thousands of miles of unpaved roads and scorching summer heat, it seemed like a daunting task – yet she completed the entire 5504-mile round trip not in 21 days, but in just 15.

“Its mechanical performance left nothing to be desired and it maintained the same healthy even note throughout the entire journey,” she wrote of her 350cc single-cylinder Bullet.

“The Royal Enfield’s spring frame provided me with the maximum of comfort, in fact, I feel sure that without it I could not have withstood the rigorous journey.”

Enfield was so impressed that it not only featured her in adverts but also sent her an engraved silver trophy, presented at Perth’s Claremont Speedway. Winne did not rest on her laurels: 18-months later, she set off to circumnavigate Australia on her 350 Bullet.

2019: The world record breaker

Jack Groves set records on his Royal Enfield Himalayan

Setting a world record is never going to be easy. Factor in the pandemic and it becomes even more extreme… but Jack Groves couldn’t have predicted that Covid would lockdown his progress when he set out to become the youngest person to ride around the globe.

He set off from England in July 2019 at 21, crossing Europe and the Balkans, then hugging the Black Sea through Turkey. Life became progressively tougher, heading through Georgia, Azerbaijan and into ‘The Stans’ – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and finally Kyrgyzstan – before entering China.

From Everest base camp, Groves headed south into Thailand – where he rested for two months – before moving on to Malaysia and shipping the bike to Perth in Australia.

His father joined him there for a stretch of the ride, the two of them parting ways in Sydney, with Groves Snr returning to the UK and the young record chaser crossing the Pacific to Santiago in Chile. It was only as he headed north, through Bolivia, that Groves began to hear of Covid-19.

Then, when in Peru, disaster struck and the country was locked down – trapping him there for 255 days. When finally released, he blazed his way through Ecuador and Colombia, shipping the bike from there to Mexico (as the pandemic meant other parts of Latin America were still closed to travellers).

However, when he reached the American border it was resolutely shut, so he shipped the bike to Barcelona and rode home from there – completing his 35,000-mile, 30-country journey in 700 days – at the age of 23 years and 341 days.

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Simon Weir

By Simon Weir

Author and expert adventure motorcyclist, MCN contributor