John Norris heads down India’s East Coast Road on a Royal Enfield Himalayan and discovers the delights of the country’s thriving motorcycling culture
Tall eucalyptus trees lined the long, dusty road ahead of me. The sun was shining, and the breeze was flowing through my hair and my cotton shirt, cooling me down. Life riding along the coastal road heading south in Goa, India felt wonderful.
I was riding a bike which was making a number of peculiar noises somewhere down between my suede desert shoes. The tiny drum brakes were useless and it had no lights (which I only discovered as darkness fell). In short, it was just about hanging in there as it weaved and tracked every ridge in the road surface on utterly bald tyres. Not really the machine to ride helmetless without a scrap of protective bike clothing, but I didn’t care, this was what freedom felt like.
Looking back to that time in the mid-1980s, I now think it’s more what ‘reckless’ looks like. The reason I was riding a Rajdoot two-stroke of indeterminate capacity and vintage, and not one of the beautiful and relatively civilised Royal Enfield Bullets available, was because, as a frugal backpacker, renting the latter was beyond my budget.
However, I promised myself that the next time I rode in India it would be on an Enfield, and so it turned out to be, 30-odd years later, although it was not as I’d envisaged then, to be on a Bullet.
Earlier this year, I found I had a few free days in India after shooting for the Calyah Design project (I’m a photographer by trade), and it was my chance to escape from Chennai on two wheels.
It was not to be some epic journey across the subcontinent, but more dipping my toe in the water in the hope that someday I’d return yet again and do some serious miles. Back in the ‘80s, the Bullet was the fastest bike on the road here and certainly the most desirable.
Four-wheeled transport was slow, mainly old British-designed Ambassadors, while the haulage trucks lumbered along at a snail’s pace. I knew that times had changed dramatically since then and, while planning the trip, I wondered if I was mad to contemplate riding in modern-day India. A number of my friends certainly thought so. I wasn’t even sure that 40 years of experience riding motorcycles in Europe would be of any use at all in the mayhem that is Indian traffic.
During my stay I had travelled across the city numerous times, being driven by local guys who knew what they were about. It gave me time to watch the city in motion from the relative safety of a front-row seat but still, none of that prepared me for the feeling I had when a few days later I pulled out for the first time into six frantic, horn-honking, engine revving, exhaust-fuming lanes of Chennai traffic.
Before I took the two-wheeled plunge, I had asked one of my drivers, “So, Bala, what’s the secret to riding a bike safely in India? Take it steady?” He looked concernedly across at me. “ No, Sir! Not slowly! If you go slowly Indian drivers will hit you hard from the back, go the same speed only.”
So, as I pulled out I took his advice and sped quickly through the gears until I was roughly at pace with the river of jostling metal around me. It’s at this point a belief in reincarnation is helpful.
This is perhaps a good time to mention the bike I was riding; a Royal Enfield Himalayan. It was a considerable upgrade from the Rajdoot! As soon as you start riding the Himalayan you just get why they are well-liked. In this hugely challenging riding environment, what I needed was a bike that, although new to me, felt instantly ‘right’, allowing me to concentrate on the riding.
After negotiating two major multiple carriageway junctions, I turned onto what would be the beating heart of my journey, the East Coast Road, known by locals as the ECR (Indians do love initialisms!). The sense of relief at having escaped Chennai in one piece was huge. I felt the muscles in my neck and arms relax and I started to look around me.
I knew of a great beach not far down the road and decided to celebrate my unexpected survival with a swim and some local fish curry at Surf Turf (it’s near Sea la Vie!) on Kovalam Beach.
I could easily have stayed there for the next few days, but I was keen to get further south and make the most of the Himalayan. I reached Mahabalipuram in the late afternoon and found a room just back from the beach where local fishing boats come and go.
This place was hit by the Tsunami in 2004 so many of the houses near the beach are new or renovated and all the wooden fishing boats lost in the flood have been replaced with colourful fibreglass or plastic replicas.
It was hard to imagine the horrors of the event, but it did also uncover sculptures and ruins of an ancient civilisation that until the flood exposed them, had been considered just myth. I decided that to make best use of my limited time I’d keep the room I had in Mahabalipuram and do day trips in the area from the village.
So, the next morning I set off for Puducherry about 60 miles away. I picked my way through the village past dogs, handcarts and voluminous potholes and rode onto the sliproad of the ECR. As I accelerated up to the speed limit of 50mph I was buffeted by a wall of airless heat.
Before too long, the dual carriageway narrowed down to two lanes, which meant an increased diversity of road hazards such as tractors with impossible trailer loads, or mopeds carrying so many coloured plastic containers that you could see nothing of the bike or rider.
I pulled into a roadside stall under some palm trees for lunch. A young guy poked an open fire under a griddle and made me a masala dosa, the local speciality, and it was possibly the best one I’d ever tasted.
Street food is like that, you can stumble on perfection at any moment in unlikely places and you’ll never taste it exactly the same again! By the time I got to Pondi, as the locals call it, it was the heat of the day and I ended up riding right through the heart of a street market by mistake.
I thought I’d never escape, but on reaching the promenade I was hit by a cooling sea breeze. It was a Sunday and bikers in India, just as they do in the UK, get out with their mates for a ride. I met a group of friendly guys, mostly on older Enfields, and they were eager for my impressions of the Himalayan.
They beamed on hearing my positive reaction, and obviously had huge loyalty to the brand. Down one sidestreet it seemed like I was back in France, lined as it was with beautiful, old French-style colonial buildings, but quickly I was back in dusty chaotic suburbs trying to pick my way back to the ECR.
On the road back I met another Himalayan rider, Sriram with his friend Ragini who pulled alongside. We had been passing each other a few times further back, he was grinning and suggested we pull over for a drink. I was surprised by the camaraderie amongst Himalayan riders over and above the usual biker connection.
It seems if you travel in India on an Enfield, and in particular a Himalayan, you will never be far from company! I began to realise Royal Enfield, once wholly British, then fully re-settled in India and now with the new Technical Centre set up in the UK, combines the best influences of both nations.
Certainly, their bikes have a unique place in the hearts of Indians. First and foremost, for the majority of owners, the Enfield is the favoured workhorse. It’s for getting the family, of up to five (without a sidecar) to school, shops, work etc. Secondly, it is a packhorse, transporting all manner of goods around town and countryside.
For many owners, this is absolutely the most valuable item they possess and is maintained with loving care, a task which is relatively cheap owing to their simplicity. Where they seem unique is that they then manage to bridge the gap to middle class, more affluent Indians who prize them in equal measure as a lifestyle choice as well as transport.
These riders, both men and women, are so passionate about their Enfields that they often possess more than one. Sriram for example, like every single Himalayan rider I encountered on this trip, had an older classic style Royal Enfield as well. Many also expressed an interest in doing more off-road riding.
These riders clock up some impressive mileage, Sriram had recently done a trip to Leh in the Himalayas and back via Rajasthan and Goa, 4,100 miles on a 1979 Enfield, but now preferred his Himalayan for longer trips.
He and Ragini suggested we all went to a place where we could watch the sunset over a vast expanse of inland water. I followed, but the exceptional drought the country was experiencing had left nothing but parched earth where a nice reflection of the sun should have been. We parted hoping that we’d meet again in Chennai, which we did.
Although the riding was less challenging along the rural parts of the ECR, I still had a few moments. At one point, two coaches were coming along the (soft) shoulder on the wrong side of the road, a surprise yes, but manageable I thought until one veered right across my path to cross over to the correct carriageway.
I hit the Enfield’s brakes so hard my upper body was right over the bars by the time the back end of the bus cleared my path. A hairy moment, but the bike, perhaps better than I, had coped with it well.
The next day I rose at 5 am to see the amazing rock carvings around Mahabalipuram. The temples and caves open at 6 am and it is cool and quiet in the grounds and doesn’t feel at all touristy until later in the morning. Most of the elaborate temples are carved out of solid rock. On my way back to the beach I stumbled on Joe’s cafe. Joe, whose family own the place, welcomed me while checking out my bike.
“I have one of these too,” he said and wheeled it out to give it a clean in front of the cafe. That camaraderie kicked in again and we were soon comparing notes on our Himalayans. Joe also had a 350 Enfield and various other bikes, including a very customised RD350 Yamaha.
An enthusiast through and through, Joe, like Sriram, went on long journeys around India whenever he got the chance. He was currently lusting after an Interceptor although he hadn’t ridden one yet. That evening, at a seaside café, the catch of the day was red snapper hauled onto the beach that morning, which I demolished pretty rapidly with french fries and a bottle of excellent British Empire beer… Only in India could you market a beer named after your former occupiers! As I walked to my room there was a dramatic tropical thunderstorm and flashes of lightning.
Within 10 minutes, all the light bulbs in my room had blown and I was in darkness. The manager told me the electrician was drunk and it wouldn’t be wise for him to come until tomorrow.
Fair enough, I suppose! I covered a few miles riding around inland, exploring with no destination in particular and armed only with two ancient maps my friend Bala had given me. One was in Hindi and one in English, neither told me very much, but I felt better for having them anyway. The time for me to return to Chennai came around too quickly.
On the way out of the village, I stopped to fill up, but worryingly my credit card didn’t work and I had very little cash left. In India… No problem! A chap from the garage jumped on his bike with a €50 emergency note I had tucked away and drove off to get it exchanged.
He returned half an hour later with rupees and the exchange receipt so I was able to pay, he added ten rupees to the petrol bill which I thought was fair. As I rode into Chennai at the end of my trip, I passed the expanse of monstrous high rise apartments built to house workers in the booming IT industries.
Apparently, only 20 per cent are occupied, which seems shocking in a country where so many sleep on the streets, and not dissimilar to the UK. The nearer I got to the centre, the more dense and crazy the traffic became. Six lanes of utter mayhem (to my western eyes) and two additional ‘sub-lanes’ running parallel, where anything too small or perhaps terrified to join the mainstream rode or drove. By now, I had learned to go with this manic flow where auto-rickshaws, cars and bikes duck in and out with literally an inch between them.
Most of the time they don’t make contact, but of course, occasionally it does all go horribly wrong and there are accidents. Despite a law that came in while I was there making it compulsory for the driver of a bike to wear a helmet, the locals often ride with their helmets on the petrol tank. Pillions seldom bother, pillions being everyone from few-month-old babies swaddled in blankets, to Grandmothers perched side-saddle and serene in their saris.
So eventually, sweat-soaked and utterly exhausted, I pulled up outside the Royal Enfield store on the Old Mahabalipuram Road (you guessed, it the OMR!). I stepped into the air-conditioned showroom and collapsed into an armchair where the welcoming staff thrust a cup of sweet tea into my hand.
Perhaps it was the dehydration or the after-effects of adrenaline, but no sooner had I cooled down than I found myself looking dreamily at a brand new unregistered Himalayan… How long would it take, I wondered, to just ride it out of the showroom and back to Dorset?
The Bike – Royal Enfield Himalayan
I chose the Himalayan for several reasons, the first of which was curiosity. Since its launch, I had followed its reception with interest, but there is nothing like trying something for yourself. It ticks a lot of boxes as to what a purpose-built adventure bike should be; mechanically simple, economical, and lightweight.
The lack of power was not an issue in the reality of travelling in India, in fact, it was a well-balanced power output that felt nice on the road. It was comfortable and, despite being 6ft 4” tall, suited me pretty well. I like working on my bikes and I could do most of the maintenance other than deal with the ABS and fuel injection.
Parts are also readily available, thanks to companies like Hitchcocks Motorcycles (www.hitchcocksmotorcycles.com). I tried a Himalayan at the ABR Festival, but now I’m keen to try it in earnest on some UK green lanes!
The East Coast Road
State Highway 49, as it is officially known, used to wind its way as a two-lane route along the east coast of India through a myriad of small villages. By 2015, most of it had been upgraded to four lanes connecting Chennai with Cuddalore. You won’t find miles of twisting, sweeping bends along its length although some nice leafy two-lane avenues remain.
The way to travel on the road is to take plenty of stops and discover Tamil Nadu, a beautiful state of fabulous food, where women wear fresh flowers in their hair and travellers are welcome. The beaches are never far from the road and Mahabalipuram, where I stayed, is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Puducherry has French influences and further south is Tharangambadi which was a Danish colony known as Tranquebar, all are worth seeing. With more time you can continue to Kanyakumari (Cape Cormarin) and return via inland towns like Madurai and Kanchipuram, which are fascinating places for a traveller and away from main attractions so you’ll see very few western tourists.