Goa on an Enfield
Zak Fordham gets the bullet in India
The grey bearded biker motored down the main street in Calangute at a nonchalant pace, his beard unruffled by the breeze - there was none. A dog ambled across the road in front of the custom Enfield paying no attention to the approaching machine; it's only purpose to seek shade from the oppressive heat.
Calangute is in Goa on the west coast of India and it is where the wife and I, plus ten other brave souls, started our Blazing Trails adventure holiday. Our mounts were '50s spec. 500cc Royal Enfield Bullets; nice and easy to live with, with a smooth power delivery (we're talking of just over 20hp which is plenty for the trail in question), plenty of torque and agile and nimble enough to wiggle through the traffic when required. They also have a very pleasing exhaust note that develops into a wonderful bark when overtaking. Enfields tick over so slowly you can count the engine pulses as your machine stands duff duffing away. Royal Enfield boasts the longest continuous production run of any motorcycle model in the world. The bikes are built solidly to deal with just about anything that comes their way, yet they're a real treat to ride.
The first thing you will encounter after landing at Goa is a very helpful person in each of the airport toilets, turning the tap on for you, providing you with soap and a paper towel. Next come the people in brown uniforms who will wrestle you for possession of your bags and carry them to your vehicle - again for the princely sum of 10 Rupees. If you don't require assistance - or haven't got Rupees - a firm refusal, equal to their insistence, will do the trick.
You've got to forget all your western ways; the Highway Code does not exist here. In India the biggest vehicle has priority, except if it's a bus - bus drivers are a special breed of psychopath - upon hearing the multi-tone horns of the rapidly approaching bus, the wise pull over and let it by. The bus driver's mission is to get to his final destination as quickly as possible - maybe in one piece - and nothing, will stand in his way.
The wife and I were introduced to Gareth our tour leader, Jo the tour medic, and Jamal the mechanic and tail member of the group. Ranji steps in when necessary to assist Jamal and indeed anyone who needs help. For those in need, there are seats in the support vehicle, in the very unlikely event of a bike breaking down, or rider fatigue/illness. The support vehicle, driven ably by Ali, carries the group's luggage and a supply of spares. The most common fault throughout the trip was that of people being unable to kickstart their noble beasts into life - a simple technique, once you've mastered it. The only problem I had with my bike was a broken gearbox return spring that previously had been working ceaselessly for five years, so it didn't do badly in my book. Jamal had it fixed in ten minutes flat. This of course is one of the chief joys of an Enfield: if anything does go wrong, you don't need a truckload of computers and specialised equipment to fix it. More often than not, a spanner and a screwdriver will be all that's needed to get you underway in a very short space of time.
The most important part of your machine is your hooter; in India it is your responsibility to let the person about to walk across the road, or the vehicle about to pull out that you are present. Equally, when overtaking it is your responsibility to alert the driver of the vehicle in front that you intend to overtake. Drivers do not use mirrors, except when warned of your presence, and then not always. Pedestrians do not look before they cross the road, even if there is heavy traffic.
At junctions and roundabouts the procedure is to make prodigious use of the hooter to warn others of your presence. As a group, our combined hooterage managed to bring most traffic to a halt.
Use of the hooter here is not seen as a sign of irritation or anger but an act of courtesy to warn others of your presence and intentions. If you don't toot they'll keep driving/walking and the fault will lie with you. Remember the cow is sacred and it knows it; only sometimes will it grudgingly move out of the way. Then there are goats, pigs, dogs and water buffalo who also like to amble about. In the main, goats are attended by a goatherd; either way you may encounter an excitable goat who really can't decide which way to go and so tries every direction at once. You may also come across the occasional elephant during the tour. The mahouts are well practised at driving these colossal beasts, so slow down and go around them as you would a horse. Dogs are generally the cleverest of all the loose animals and as a result tend to keep to the side of the road when tooted at.
On the first day - which is a gentle one - the method of driving does seem totally insane, but it works; it's just another system, simple as that. Everything keeps moving with, around and across everything else. If someone can't get out of a side road, they'll drive the wrong way up the road until an opportunity to cross appears. Sometimes you'll be overtaken on both sides.
If all this makes the prospect of a Blazing Trails biking tour in Goa sound like a nightmare, take my word for it, it isn't. It is one of the most interesting holidays you could go on, where you will explore the wonders of Goa and it's neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
This trip gives you a complete culture change, real Indian food which bears little resemblance to the local take away; stunning scenery; a mixture of roads, fascinating historical insights, like the air-conditioned palaces of 16th century India and the intricate carving that has to be seen to be believed; wide open vistas that you just won't get anywhere in Europe, breath-taking in their sheer scope. This isn't just a holiday; it is an unforgettable all-over-inside-and-out experience.
Take your camera, but don't expect the pictures to convey one tenth of what you see and experience while you are there. The smells, the sights, the vivid colours, so vivid that they make you think that someone's been playing around with the settings, and all the feelings that these things conjure up have to be personally experienced.
Boy racers need not apply for this holiday. You ride in a group and there is a very good reason for this: Gareth at the sharp end is there to spot and minimise any difficulties with the traffic and Jamal, looking after the tail end does the same; very useful in the busy towns you will pass through, like Mysore.
The one thing you should give serious thought to taking with you is a gel seat. The ladies might also want to invest in a sports bra (or two, given the heat) to counter the changes in gravity when travelling.
There are occasional parts of the tour where you will travel along nice, smooth motorway sections, at other times you'll be on tracks. You will see parts of India that the cosseted, air-conditioned package tourist will never see and you will be the richer for it.
There are trucks without number on Indian roads and they work hard; occasionally they break down - broken suspension and tyre blow outs are the most likely causes - and when they break down they stay where they are, even if that is the middle of the road, until they're repaired. Rocks are used as traffic cones while work goes on and the traffic just flows around the obstruction - easy.
There are frequent stops every day for chai and coffee, and to let the tail-enders catch up. Chai and coffee are always served sweet; so if you can't stand your cuppa with sugar in it, don't forget to ask for it unsweetened. Sugar is present in many things in India; it's all to do with the heat.
Accommodation varies between hotels (the best one is in Mysore), beach front accommodation, bamboo huts (cool and comfy) and on the last night of this trip, you get to sleep under the stars on the beach with the sea breeze wafting over you and the surf of the Arabian Sea breaking against the shore. You may need to cover up for this night though, it can get chilly at times.
You will be hot - every day - so take cool clothing: your everyday leather jackets and Belstaffs will put you into meltdown. Bottled water is freely available and cheap, drink plenty of it, dehydration is not good. Don't drink the local water or brush your teeth with it. Take a good mosquito spray and sun cream. We took our own mossie net which in the end we didn't need apart from one night when there wasn't anywhere to hang it. The winged demons managed to get every one of the group so good mossie repellent is important, as is anti-histamine cream. Don't forget to take a good torch each and spare batteries: power cuts occur daily, bear it in mind if you're thinking of taking mobile phones and similar equipment. With my phone coverage was limited.
When you come to buy items to bring home you will find the skill of haggling useful. At a local flea market at the end of the trip, I bought a travelling chess set in a neat round sandalwood box for 500 Rupees (the price started at 950). I thought I'd done well until I discovered that another member of the group who genuinely didn't want one and who therefore steadfastly refused the pleas of the seller, was offered the same set for 150 Rupees. When haggling, always be courteous but firm. Don't give money to beggars; this is hard to do, but necessary: give money to one and you'll soon be surrounded. What you can give away are pencils and pens: at several places where you stop, children will come out in the hope of such offerings, as they use them for school. These gifts are always enthusiastically received. The local children will often come out of their houses to see the bikes pass by and wave. It gets to be like being a film star.