A definition of adventure goes something like this: “an exposing event with an uncertain outcome”. Well, here’s an adventure for you, consisting of three parts: a Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike, the Himalayas in India and you. By Gerrit Rautenbach
For four months in the Indian summer (June to September) the snow and ice melt enough to make the highest motorable mountain passes in the world rideable for real adventurers. Very few people ever get the opportunity to ride a bike so high above sea level that oxygen masks might become a necessity. And at those altitudes the Bullets are not really bulleting. First gear, second gear, back to first – also constantly gulping for oxygen.
The road is long
That’s going up. Coming down? Well, that’s a different story. Furthermore, although the roads are classified as “rideable”, don’t expect freeways. The highest rideable roads in the world are a bit different. There is some tar in places, yes, but mostly covered in a slimy sort of ice layer – even in summertime. In certain places the road is carved through permanent snow banks. In other places the surface offers a gritty kind of gravel with loose stones and plenty of potholes.
Some of these passes will test your fear of heights. They are nothing but tracks carved out of granite, with the mountain going straight up on the one side and straight down for hundreds of meters on the other side. There are constant switchbacks … and suddenly a blundering truck coming from the front. Then it’s best to remember which side is the mountain and which is the cliff. At the bottom of every pass a river awaits you. A white gushing river. And mostly no bridges. Then that Bullet has to shoot through the white water.
The passes are high
This journey begins at Manali, located at the foot of the Himalayas and the destination is Leh in Ladakh, one of the remotest places on earth. Along the route you and your Bullet will conquer the most extreme and highest passes in the world, with the ultimate being the Khardung-la Pass at 5 602 meters above sea level, which is 222 meters higher than Everest Base Camp.
There are awesomely beautiful places to see and culture to experience. A stretch of the route you’d be riding was also part of the ancient Silk Road, used by traders from Africa, Arabia, Europe, Persia, India and China, trading in silk and other wares since long before the birth of Christ. You will also visit a thousand-year-old Buddhist temple and in certain places you will share the road with nomadic tribes – drifters that are unaccustomed to Westerners. And at times it will feel as if you and your fellow Bullets are all that’s left on earth.
Why a Royal Enfield?
It’s a classic and a cult. And it’s Indian. However, it wasn’t always as the first Royal Enfield was built in 1901 by the then Enfield Cycle Company Ltd from Redditch, Worcestershire in England. They originally designed the Bullet, and today it is the longest lasting motorcycle design of all time. The Enfield company was also involved with manufacturing rifles, which explains the name Bullet and the slogan still in use today: “Made like a gun”.
After the Second World War India knew the Bullet well as the British army used many of them in India, and after the war they remained and also became popular with the colonialists. In 1949 Indians started buying them as well. Six years later, the Indian government stocked up their army and police force with 800 Bullets. In the same year (1955) Enfield and Madras Motors joined forces, forming Enfield India. In 1967 Enfield in England sold their motorcycle concern to Norton Villiers, but Enfield India kept going independently and obtained the trading names Royal Enfield and Bullet.
Today they still manufacture this cult bike. It’s almost identical to the first one that arrived in the 40’s: a single-cylinder four-stroke thumper delivering a whopping 19.8 bhp (14.8 kW). It won’t outrun Number 46, but it’s a piece of machinery that helped pioneers to discover an awesome piece of earth. And there is one waiting for you to take over the Himalayas.
Who, what and when?
This adventure will take place from 17 to 28 August 2018 and the group is limited to 10 riders only. It is offered by Streetschool from South Africa in association with Manali Adventure Tours. Manali employs competent local guides who possess all the right knowledge and equipment.
The tour includes virtually everything: flights from Johannesburg to northern India, accommodation, meals, entrance fees, mechanical back-up and a support vehicle, your own 350 Bullet and fuel, as well as travel and medical insurance. The cost is R56 000 per person.
George Mallory was one of the very first people to attempt a summit of Mount Everest in the Himalayas. In 1923 a journalist from the New York Times asked him why he wanted to do it. “Because it’s there …” The Himalayas and its passes are there. The Royal Enfields are there. You can be the third element.