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kerala motorcycle touring

Kerala Bike Tours - India by Motorcycle

(from Motorcycle Trader mag #357, March 2020 - look for more pics & vids at the end)

by Guy 'Guido' Allen

More
We shot several quick videos and lots of pics on the run.
See them here.

kerala motorcycle touring

Bullet Train

Guido and Spannerman head to India to ride with a pack of Bullets on their home turf

Maybe it was the accusation that we were getting into a rut. Whatever the cause, the International Touring Division of the Lemmings Motorcycle Club (motto: Death before Courtesy) decided that we could give Vietnam a rest this year. Dammit. I like Vietnam. Okay, so we had been riding there a zillion times, to the point where we were on first name terms with the denizens of several remote villages. But it also happens to be about the best bang for your buck on the planet.


So where next? India, apparently. To be specific – and you need to, because it’s a very big place – the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala, and the Cochin region in particular, are famous for being scenic and relatively laid back compared to much of the more heavily-populated and industrialised north. It’s also the one state in the country to be run by a communist government. Given the politics of Vietnam, maybe we’d feel at home!


Next question was, how? Actually, I think the ‘how’ may have led to the ‘where’ in this case, as we were specifically chasing a guided tour package that sorted everything, including motorcycles, guides, accommodation, reliable supplies of gin and tonic and so on. This corner of the planet happens to have what seemed like the perfect solution: a mob called Kerala Bike Tours, run by an English ex-pat called Daniel Benster (pictured below) with local business partner Niaz and ably assisted by mechanic/roustabout Sonthash.

Kerala by motorcycle


And yes, before you ask, we do know how to travel without guides. It’s just that, once every few years, I and a few others like the idea of doing something where 99.9 per cent of the organisation is someone else’s problem. Really, all you have to do is turn up and your biggest decision for the day is whether or not to have a beer with lunch. A proper brain-in-neutral holiday.


For us, the adventure started with being collected by Daniel at the airport around midnight, with his matte black Mahindra crew cab back-up truck, aptly named ‘ the Beast’.  With a decent drive to our first stop at Indriya Sands, we got to know a little of his background.


The short version is he washed up in India in the early nineties and sort of fell into the whole tour business by mistake. He’d done a lot of touring by bike in the region, and someone suggested he should start showing other people for fun and profit. As it turned out, that was a good idea.

kerala motorcycle touring

ELEPHANT MAN
With the ocean a literal stone’s throw away, and work a distant memory, we got down to the nitty gritty. Which consisted of a relaxed rider briefing over a cold drink. I’ve been to a fair number of these things over the years, but I think this is the first involving palm trees, shorts, a cold beer and elephants. Yep, elephants.


India has both domestic and wild versions blundering about, with the former being just as dangerous as the latter. Apparently that’s because they sometimes crack the shits over being dressed up and paraded around during assorted festivals, and may seek revenge by tossing around people and tuk tuks.


We were heading into elephant territory - national parks – and the advice was fairly straight-forward. Don’t panic, give them a wide berth, stay on the bike with the engine running. And the big one: no selfies with the pachyderm as it probably won’t end well. Rightio.


As for the rest of the briefing, it dealt with the local traffic culture, which will look very familiar to anyone who has spent time in various parts of Asia. Horns are used liberally to let others know where you are and what you’re doing, no-one gets aggressive or cranky, but get used to chaos and super-crowded situations where the main rule is often might is right. So motorcycles give way to pretty much everything. They mostly drive more or less on the left in India, so that was a bonus.

kerala motorcycle touring


And the bikes? Royal Enfield Bullet 500s, of course. What else would you ride, given their 65-year history of manufacture in the country? India has produced millions of the things over the decades. While the 500 is now being phased out, the 350 version remains a top seller. I first sampled one in the mid-1980s, when they were being imported to Australia in tiny numbers, and the thought of finally getting to ride one in its home environment was a major treat.


The route was themed as ‘tea, jungle, beaches and hairpins’, which summed up the plot pretty well. We were to cross two states, climb assorted mountain ranges, and go hunting wildlife in the most benign way possible. Much of our route took in a network of national parks, which the country is throwing a lot of resources at to develop. The areas we encountered were part of a wider network that effectively created a nature corridor that spans three states. Impressive.


You could never complain about a lack of variety in your riding diet. We start the day out near the coast, cruising past some fish farms, wrangle our way through the tuk tuks and buses crowding through the local towns and next thing you know you’re belting down a narrow little jungle road, dodging the bigger patches of elephant dung.

kerala motorcycle touring


By the afternoon, you’re clambering up the nearest mountain range, into tea country. It’s something to ponder next time you’re standing at your kitchen bench, bleary-eyed and spooning your preferred blend into a pot – the sheer scale of what’s required to produce the morning cuppa is mind-boggling. Whole hillsides are landscaped to produce the stuff, with the bigger estates boasting an extensive private road network, their own schools, villages for their sometimes indentured workers and of course factories to produce the final product.

HAPPY ENFIELDS
It’s funny how a change of scenery will very quickly alter how you regard a motorcycle. For years I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Bullets. Sure, not necessarily the quickest or most sophisticated thing out there, but usually a very amiable and relaxing way to get about, so long as you’re not in a hurry.


Riding though India teaches you a whole new respect for the things. Daniel’s fleet consists of generally late-ish models, many sporting local mods. For example, they generally carry a sari guard on the left rear and often an extra pillion handle attached to the top of the right rear shock absorber. Why? So your lady passenger may sit sidesaddle, if she prefers, with some sense of decorum and without risk of her outfit getting caught in the back wheel. Front protection bars are also universally popular.


The crew has resorted to converting some fuel-injected models back to carburettor, because the latter are less sensitive to the very patchy quality of local fuel. However the downside is the bike then doesn’t adapt as well to changing air density as you climb up the local ranges. It’s a trade-off that they continue to wrestle with.

kerala motorcycle touring


Perhaps inevitably, Daniel has become a Bullet expert and enthusiast, with some older examples in his private collection. He’s a big fan of the breed and points out they put up with an incredible amount of abuse with little complaint. Major mechanical breakdowns are extremely rare.


The gentle power delivery, which may seem a little marginal on an interstate freeway in Australia, makes all the sense in the world during a big ride around India. Generally you’re relying on low-range plugging power and mid-range torque to tackle impossibly gnarly traffic, mountain switchbacks and roads that rarely see the speedo needle hitting 80.

kerala motorcycle touring


Even the handling and brakes work very well in this environment, which would sometimes challenge the best high-tech gear. And, surprisingly, there was no complaint from the folk riding two-up when it came to power. It’s hard to think of a bike better suited to the purpose.


All the machines in the fleet have names – which can lead to some weird overheard conversations, such as, “I think Harry needs a service when we get back.” Lucky Harry! It turns out that Daniel’s son gets to name the machines and the results can sometimes follow whatever books/movies/games appeal to him at the time. Some even suffer from gender changes – Harry was once a Jasmine.

kerala motorcycle touring


Names aside, you soon get distracted by the roadside signage. Follow a long mountain road and you’ll discover this part of the world has a thing for numbering the hairpin curves, so you can count down or up your progress, celebrating when you reach hairpin number 20 of 40. In between those markers, you score some attention-getting warnings, such as the mind-boggling number of crashes in the region or that there may be tigers hiding in the bushes.


Road safety is a bit of an issue, manifested by the increasing insistence that motorcycle riders should wear helmets. However the police seem benign in their approach. One of our roadside stops was so the local cops could get a photograph of a bunch of westerners on Bullets in all their riding gear, for a social media post.

kerala motorcycle touring

MONKEY HOUSE
It’s not every day you awake to the thundering of dozens of paws gallivanting across your tin roof, followed by the happy sounds of garden furniture being tossed around with gay abandon. What the…? It turns out the local monkeys were in a chipper mood and wanted everyone to know it. That was at one of the favourite spots on the trip, a farm stay in Tamil Nadu.


We talk about wildlife in this country, but by comparison it’s relatively benign. On that side of the world, when they say don’t go wandering too far outside daylight hours, they have very good reasons.


The farm stay was in complete contrast to the Raj-era hilltop tea homestead, the curious centuries-old restored traditional long houses apparently in the middle of nowhere or the aptly-named Secret Garden in Fort Kochi. Or the coastal spots where it was barely a 100 metre walk to the beach. Prior to this trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this was well beyond my rather more pedestrian imaginings.  The final kicker was the Savoy in Ooty, which saw us off with a little farewell cake wishing us a happy ride…

kerala motorcycle touring


Past experience has proved that it’s worth having a couple of wind-down days after a longish ride, before you hop back on a plane. Among other advantages, it gives you a chance to spend a little time away from the saddle and get to know at least one place moderately well. In Fort Kochi, we took to hiring a local tuk tuk driver to show us around and share a bit of local knowledge. We also tackled an evening walking spice tour that added another dimension to the place.


Speaking of spices, there’s no prizes for guessing that you’ll be presented with Indian food in India! A few of the places we stayed turned on brilliant freshly-cooked food, and it wasn’t necessarily the high-end or branded places that won the silver spoon award. For example, the farm stay, though looking very modest compared to flash place like the Savoy, turned on infinitely better meals. And, if you’ve done a little travel around Asia, you’ll already know street food and often uninspiring-looking roadside cafes can turn out to be gems.

kerala motorcycle touring

ROUND TWO?
There’s no question the trip was well worth the effort and expense. There were a couple of outside factors that helped it to work. For a start, we went in relaxed and in the mood to just go with the flow – like I mentioned before, everything was someone else’s problem. Second, we were travelling with a group that we knew well and had ridden/travelled with in the past. And we were all big and ugly enough to wander off and do our own thing, if we felt like a bit of time alone.


One glitch was that, apparently, we weren’t allowed to take the Bullets home with us – not even as hand luggage. Believe me, it was discussed, but the fact is we do have Bullets over here, too. I guess the real test of an experience like this is whether or not you’d do it again. And the answer is yep, in a heartbeat…

kerala motorcycle touring

Kerala by motorcycle

Kerala by motorcycle

kerala by motorcycle


Travel Tips
Language: English is widely but not universally spoken.


Visas: India has an online application process that works but takes a little to get your head around. The smart thing to do is have everything (passport, airline ticket and accommodation details) on hand so you can complete the job in one pass. The system is a little odd, in that you must not apply more than 30 days out from your date of travel. Expect to be photographed and fingerprinted on the way through customs.


Money: When we went, the exchange rate was about 50:1 for the Rupee. While you might take some cash with you, we found auto-tellers were generally easy to find in any reasonable-sized town. You generally get a lot more bang for your buck as most prices are lower than Australia. Tipping is widely expected.


Phone/internet: Mobile coverage is pretty good and local sim cards relatively cheap. The hot tip was to get the latter at Cochin airport.


Fuel: Readily available and fairly expensive at around Au$2.00 per litre – no wonder the locals value good economy in their vehicles! Quality is enormously variable.


Local custom: As with much of the world, it’s expected you eat with your right hand as the left is used for cleaning yourself. The right is to be used when you pass over money and documents, too.


Kerala Bike Tours: the cost of our 12-day tour was Au$3600 per rider and $2950 per pillion. That included very good accommodation, a lot of meals, bikes and of course the guides/back-up. You can find them on the web at keralabiketours.com

Kerala by motorcycle

More
We shot several quick videos and lots of pics on the run.
See them here.

Kerala by motorcycle

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