I started riding motorbikes during the hot summer of 1976 when I borrowed a Honda 90 step-through to cool off on the streets of Bristol. I was immediately hooked and have had a variety of Japanese bikes ever since. That was until…
I’m not sure which category Enfields fit into. Hardly modern although still manufactured; not vintage even though of 1940’s design. Classic? Mine’s an Indian-made Bullet 500cc and whichever pigeonhole I try to fit it in, it won’t go. It’s one on its own. Purists get a bit sniffy because it’s not an English made one but to me, it is the best motorcycle in the world.
I love it because I have had so many adventures and fun with it since I bought it in Chennai as a fiftieth birthday present to myself over nine years ago. It cost one thousand pounds which included crash bar, luggage racks, ladies’ handles (for sari-clad, side-saddle lady passengers to hold onto) and lifetime road tax for India! It runs on all sorts of petrol. Petrol with bits of paint in it from the Indian Army in Kashmir, petrol with rainwater in as it dripped down the throttle cable into the carburettor in a tropical rainstorm in Asia and petrol mixed with diesel given by a well-meaning New Zealander.
Enfields do have a reputation for being sluggish, but so do I which is why it took us seven years to travel home to Bristol through twenty countries. Initially, I bought it for a possible six-month trip around India with a rather nice Dutch chap who I’d met whilst I was backpacking there. I thought after that, I’d sell it, return to work, save for my pension and await my grandchildren. But things did not work out like that at all.
I loved the life of travel on a motorbike. I loved it so much that even after the Dutch chap and I separated after four years, I decided to carry on, on my own for the next three.
Until I saw met the Dutchman on his Enfield in India, I had not put my love of travelling and motorbikes together. When he invited me to buy my own Enfield and join him, I jumped at the chance as he was considerably younger than me, quite gorgeous and had wooed me with romantic tales of the open road, omitting the bits where you spend days at mechanics’ workshops up to your eyeballs in grease and oil. However, a previous career in nursing was vaguely similar to learning the workings of the bike and I got used to treating it like a poorly child, trying to guess what was wrong with it when it wouldn’t go. With its single cylinder four-stroke engine, it is basic enough to work out and as I carry two workshop manuals with me, if I can’t mend things, someone else usually can.
So there I was on the main street in Chennai having just had the bike blessed and sporting a garland of jasmine flowers on the handlebars, off we went into the traffic.
Many things Indian are calm and serene. Think of yoga and peacocks on lawns. But the chaotic, choking city traffic is not and the hooting drivers of buses, lorries, bicycles and oxcarts were not very patient with this 5’2” woman trying to sort out how to change gear instead of braking with the round-the-wrong-way gear change and rear brake. I kept stalling and had to quickly learn how to kick-start it after using bikes with only electric starters before.
But I managed not to run over anyone, or bump into any cows on the road and we set off for the beginning of what turned out to be the most adventurous and thrilling years of my life.
India is colourful, lively, in your face, hate it one day love it the next.
And absolutely magic. We headed north from Chennai spending weeks dawdling through Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal sleeping outside in the National Parks or in cheap hotels, riding through rivers and scaring village children who had never seen non-Indians before. We ate magnificently at street markets and little restaurants and drank local water and fresh fruit juice.
As helmets are compulsory only in New Delhi, I made the decision to not wear one everywhere else. I calculated that at the maximum speed of fifty kilometres an hour at which I was travelling, through choice and road conditions, it was worth the risk. I so enjoyed the freedom. I wore jeans, sturdy boots, a long-sleeved top, leather, fingerless gloves and a thin scarf over my nose and mouth to protect me from the dust, sun and occasional fall from the bike as I hit an unexpected patch of sand or mud or swerved to avoid a goat.
I have dropped the bike many, many times and every dent and scratch tells a story. I have the only telescoped exhaust pipe I have ever seen as countless helpful mechanics have tried to bash it into the lugs that are supposed to support it on the frame but never have. I have an upside-down Yamaha front brake lever as my clutch lever after dropping the bike on a bend in Nepal. It works perfectly so I don’t see the point in changing it. Somewhere on the front wheel axle is a washer made from a sardine can. The indicators were replaced with Honda ones in Thailand after a fall down a steep track. We had just visited a Thai Temple and seen the twelve year-old preserved body of its founder in a glass case like Snow White’s, wearing nothing but a skimpy loincloth and his spectacles. Although both the bike and I had been blessed again there, we were both a bit wobbly from the experience.
After India, we went to Pakistan and explored the Karakoram Highway, which although it sounds like a three-lane motorway, is often no more than a single carriageway clinging to the arid mountainsides. Breathtaking serious mountain views for much of its length from Islamabad to the border with China and beyond, it seems little-used considering the immense engineering feat it is and the great loss of life it cost in the making. As if the adventure wasn’t enough just to be on this road, we decided it would be even more fun to venture off it and ride up the Khagan Valley from Naran to Chilas. The two day journey was the most hair-raising, difficult, slippery-sliding, and repeatedly falling over motorcycling I have ever done. Not content with already taking a shortcut, we decided to take a shortcut on the shortcut and ended up on tiny goat tracks teetering on mountainsides. It was almost impossible to get a grip on the sharp stones or mud. When we got to Chilas, the first thing I had to do was to administer some pain-killers to a man with gunshot wounds who had been attacked by a rival gang. The ambulance, a pickup truck, was taking him to a faraway hospital in case the gang tried to get at him in the local one.
As winter was approaching and we wanted to cross the mountains westwards we set off from Gilgit. Halfway there I was driven into by a large, cherry red 4WD which then had to take me back the way I had just come and eventually, I was returned to Islamabad for the operation to mend the compound fracture on my right leg. After several months teaching English in Islamabad, I returned to England. Meanwhile a kind Pakistani family looked after my bike and eleven months later I went to collect it. After charging up the battery, it started first kick.
A change of plan and we went back to India for a thorough service and then it was crated up and put on a boat to Bangkok.
Thailand is a great place for motorcycling. Again, outside the capital, no helmets are necessary. We made our way to Cambodia where Highway No.1 was mostly knee-deep in mud as it was the rainy season. Where it wasn’t deep mud, it was worse. A thin layer of mud over hard-baked ground made it like a skating rink. Cambodians are a jolly lot and they laughed merrily from the balconies of their wooden roadside homes at my ungainly attempts to ride on the road through a village where I lost my balance and fell ignominiously into a puddle. That was one of the few times I wished I had four wheels, but a couple of days later, I was happy to be able to see a little-visited Khmer temple near Angkor Wat which was otherwise inaccessible.
From Cambodia, back to Thailand and then down through Malaysia which has many active classic bike enthusiasts. One group invited us to join them on a rally from west to east across the country. It was wonderful! We had a police escort and marshals. I felt like a queen for the whole weekend amongst dozens of Honda Dreams, AJS, Nortons, BSA, Ariels, Triumphs and Enfields.
It was in Penang, Malaysia that we spent a week or more doing a well-earned service at the workshop of a generous Chinese mechanic. News got around and we were featured in a local Chinese newspaper. I’ll never know if the article was accurate as it was all in Mandarin.
The Dutchman and I went our separate ways and I teamed up with an Australian sailor who said I could travel with him to Darwin, through the islands of Indonesia on his 23’ catamaran. The bike fitted snugly in the rear cockpit and I greased it thoroughly to protect it from salt and covered it with heavy tarpaulin. It did not go well. We picked up five illegal immigrants who had been floating in the Straits of Malacca for three days and took them to Malaysia, we had food and fuel stolen by pirate fishermen, we did not have the correct charts for the voyage, we stopped off at an island to get some and were robbed of fuel, money, tools, autopilot, and the skipper’s passport. On top of that, we didn’t get on. There was no useful wind and the final straw was having to ask for some diesel at an offshore oil rig as we were limping in to Jakarta. So I threw myself and my bike on the mercy of the authorities as I had no relevant documentation for Indonesia and thankfully, I got off the catamaran and joyously rode up and down volcanoes and went turtle-watching on the beaches of Java.
Australia was the best place I have been for wild camping. I spent some of my favourite weeks exploring the outback, sleeping in between my Enfield and my campfire and waking to the sight of kangaroos and fantastic birdlife. Often, on wet ground or if I had seen snakes, I would sleep on the bike with my feet on the handlebars and my backpack as a comfy pillow. I also once went to sleep on the bike unintentionally. I was in Timor and it was at the end of a long day and the road was quiet and straight. My throttle hand slipped down in my sleep raising the engine speed which woke me.
I’ve got myself and the Enfield through countless border-crossings in Asia, Australasia and the Americas but coming back to Britain was the most difficult organisational feat yet! My poor Enfield was subjected to the rigorous DVLA Single Vehicle Approval test which included revving the engine to 2700 rpm to check the noise level. This upset the gearbox so much that it jumped out of neutral into first and jammed it. For the first time ever, my bike had to be taken away on a breakdown truck. Still, one funny thing was that I had to change the front tyre to pass the test and on seeking out a new one on the internet, discovered the one I had been using for the last several thousand kms was, in fact a tyre for a side-car which explains why, with its square profile, I always won ‘how slow can you go?’ races.
Poring over Customs and Excise documents and MOT requirements has took months. I’m so glad I went travelling. And, although I don’t have a job or a pension to speak of, I have got two grandchildren now!
Jacqui’s account of her travels “Hit the Road Jac” is available via Amazon.
This article first appeared in issue 164 of The Rider’s Digest in March 2012