Not quite the sons of anarchy, these older riders put a classic bike through the hoops and get a grand backroads view of authentic India.
There are certain road rules to stick to if you want to survive a motorbike holiday in India. The most important of which (Rule One) is to assume everything, from buses to tuk-tuks, scooters, cyclists, pedestrians, trucks, dogs, goats, cows, oxen, monkeys and chickens, is desperate to throw itself under your wheels.
Rule two involves constant use of the horn. If you don’t use it you don’t exist and, well, see Rule One.
It all sounds pretty perilous but it’s really not. Our group of experienced Australian bikers – aged between 53 and 62 – survive the trip through southern India intact and with enough ‘wow’ memories to fill the biggest of saddlebags.
Our Royal Enfield five-star adventure starts in Kochi (Cochin), a port city in the state of Kerala, and a short introduction to the Enfield Desert Storms in the car park of Le Meridien Hotel.
It doesn’t take us long to get used to these hardy army-green machines – after all, it’s electric ignition, five gears, one down, four up, and away you go. I like it for its lack of bells and whistles and an upright riding position that doesn’t put stress on wrists or neck.
They are feisty single-cylinder beasts with plenty of power to get you out of trouble when you fluff a gear change on a sharp bend and find yourself chugging up a hill in third. And while they’re not going to win any beauty competitions they are just so cool looking.
Of course, the mechanics are one thing but it’s the heritage of these beasts that has brought us here, the chance to put a motorbike icon through its paces.
The Royal Enfield company originally started out making parts for the British Army in 1891 and made its first motorbike in 1893. And while the British company folded in 1971, Enfield of India just kept on going – a bit like the bikes themselves, which take most anything you can throw at them (Rule One notwithstanding).
Today, the Royal Enfield is the oldest motorcycle brand in the world in continuous production. So you’re not just riding a motorbike, you’re riding history.
We start off from Kochi early on a Sunday morning to avoid the worst of the traffic and it doesn’t take us long to get used to both the bikes and the mayhem. You will be fine as long as you remember that your indicators are pretty much useless, the horn and the headlights are your best friends (flash headlights when overtaking) and it’s best to hug the inside of the lane except when overtaking as everyone coming the other way will be overtaking and, in turn, being overtaken.
It is not unusual to see a truck overtaking a truck overtaking a car on a blind hairpin bend – and for one or more of us to overtake that. We become expert at praying to the God of the Gaps, changing down and whizzing through spaces we would never, ever attempt in Australia.
It’s crazy, frustrating, heart-pumping, eye-opening, dusty, dirty, diesel-belching, bum-clenching fun.
In 10 days and 2000 kilometres we pass through crowded cities, rural hamlets and towns on market days overflowing with people and errant farm animals.
We chug through English-style tea plantation towns in the highlands, along beautifully smooth bitumen ‘highways’ and around sandy back roads peppered with palms and grand white Catholic churches, garish Hindu shrines and Portuguese-style houses painted in eye-searing pinks and blue and purples.
We speed into the Bandipur tiger reserve under the glow of a blood orange setting sun, the end of a punishing 11-hour day which included a slow, gear-assisted descent down a mountainside with 36 hairpin bends.
We stop to visit peeling palaces and ancient temples at the top of steep hills, learn to appreciate the joys of a good thali plate and pass through rugged mountain passes, fecund jungle, shaded forests and rice fields spiked with egrets.
On our final day we drop off the motorbikes in the seaside hamlet of Chapora in north Goa and go to lunch with Extreme Bike Tours owner Alexander (Zander) Combe at La Plage, a laid-back French restaurant on the beach.
There, over fresh grilled fish, mojitos and beer, we Sons of Arthritis, as we’ve taken to calling ourselves, chat about our adventures, reminiscing about the trials and tribulations, the laughs and the highs and the bum-numbing, back-breaking lows. “Well,” grins Combe, “there’s a reason we didn’t call it Soft Old Farts Biking.”
To my mind, it’s worth every minute of the discomforts for the highs of an open road where you can let rip and throw your bike around the bends that sweep grandly through luminous green tea plantations or pause to admire mountainous vistas peppered with dizzying corniches.
Our tour leader, Vince Kierans, who came to Goa from Coventry for a short holiday 20 years ago and stayed, sums it up thus: “I love India. It’s why I’ve been here so long, man. It’s like an amusement park ride, but without the seat belts.”