Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An epic 1971 world journey by Royal Enfield

A moment's peace on the road in Ethiopia.
Front fender was removed because mud jammed the wheel.
Second of three parts

Sampuran Singh, Subhash Sharma, Ashok Kher and Manmohan Singh traveled the world by Royal Enfield in 1971.

It was an idea first hatched by Subhash Sharma among friends in the summer of 1969 — a far different time.

"Imagine no GPS, no maps, no Internet, no cell phones, no clue about what snow is," notes his account, published in xBhp magazine in 2011.

A Royal Enfield almost disappears into Ethiopian mud.
Their ride was also featured in Royal Enfield's The Beat magazine that year, the 40th anniversary of the trip.

It's an amazing story, one Subhash recently shared with me.

He was only 22 years old in 1969, with little real idea what he was about to attempt. My first question was: if young again, would he do it over?

"Yes, if I were young and I had the similar friends with me, I will agree to do such a trip in a heart beat," he replied. "My desire to travel is still very strong and I still take three-to-four international trips every year but in more conventional way."

The road through Ethiopia.
I asked: Why Royal Enfields?

"Selecting the Royal Enfield motorcycle for that trip was quite easy," he replied. "In late '60s there were only three motorcycles produced in India... For our trip we needed a durable four-stroke motor with some substantial power. So that is why we picked the Royal Enfield."

Manmohan Singh already owned a Royal Enfield motorcycle. A second, Army surplus Bullet 350 was purchased at an auction.

Subhash Sharma in Nairobi, Kenya.
Far from packing for a vacation, planning took 14 months. The trip was officially sanctioned by government authorities and approved and supported in part by their employer, Tata Engineering & Locomotive Co. They departed from the firm's front gate on Jan. 29, 1971 and almost immediately found their route blocked.

International tensions denied the four permission to ride through Pakistan.

Help came from no less a person than industrialist Sumant Moolgaokar, one of the creators of Tata Motors. The team accompanied a load of Tata-made buses on a ship to Kuwait.

The team in Tanzania.
From Kuwait they rode through Iraq and Turkey. In Turkey they encountered snow, ice and sleet that froze handlebar controls. They tucked the running motorcycles under tarps and let the heat melt the ice.

From Lebanon they traveled by ship to Egypt — taking them around Arab-Israeli conflicts — but the Libyan border was closed to non-Arabs and they were denied entry. This meant a detour through Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda.

In Niger the team was delayed waiting for a big truck to convoy with across the wastes.
Officials considered it too dangerous for motorcycles to try to cross unaccompanied.
Of Ethiopia, Subhash wrote: "Though riding through the highlands was extremely precarious, we really enjoyed the pleasure of hearing our Royal Enfields' sound echoing through the canyons."

In Congo a camera filled with precious photos was stolen and there was a serious breakdown: a stuck valve. A mechanic modified a valve from a Jeep to replace it.

On the road in the Central African Republic.
The Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria brought more challenges. Mud was so thick in Nigeria that wheel spokes sheared off when power was applied. Manmohan Singh came down with malaria. While he rested the wheel of an Ariel motorcycle was modified to replace a damaged Royal Enfield wheel.

West Africa, then Mali and Saharan sand through which they literally pushed the motorcycles.

Wavy tracks mark the site of a skid and a fall in the Sahara.
A flat tire near a restricted airfield in Algeria brought near arrest by armed soldiers. But they were feted in the capital, Algiers, and told they were the first Indians to cross the central Sahara on Indian-made motorcycles.

Morocco, then a ferry to Spain, and into Europe. In Italy, after 10 months of traveling, Sampuran Singh and Ashok Kehr decided to return to India — which they would do by hitchhiking, leaving the remaining pair with the two motorcycles.

Subhash Sharma in Germany, with a mechanic who fixed one of the bikes, but refused payment.
"Up to that point in our travels, we hadn't encountered anyone who was familiar with Royal Enfield motorcycles," Subhash Sharma's story recounts. Arriving, finally, by ferry in England they expected to find a ready supply of parts. But with Royal Enfield out of business in the UK they found they would have to wait for parts to reach them from India.
A highlight of the trip: A visit to Daimler-Benz in Germany.
They arrived in the United States on Feb. 10, 1972, unprepared for winter. They struggled through blizzard conditions and weren't equipped with heavy coats and boots until a stranger insisted on outfitting them. They rode through Canada (!) and, eventually 27 U.S. states and Mexico.

They had thought to travel across the Pacific and thus to India, but wars were again in the way, and the Royal Enfields were worn down. The bikes would be shipped from San Francisco to Bombay, but the two riders still had to get home.

Which they did, by hitchhiking from San Francisco to New York and then hitchhiking from France to Afghanistan.

Arriving by train in Bombay they found it would not be easy to get their own Indian-made motorcycles re-admitted to India by customs. Eventually they were able to ride to their original starting point, arriving on July 10, 1972.

"When we were back in India on the same motorcycles we traveled to Nepal and Sikkim," Subhash Sharma told me.

Subhash Sharma's account ends with this: "Eighteen months, 108,000 kilometers, 52 countries... countless memories."

It was an epic journey that did not circle the world, but could have. The circumference of the Earth, at the equator, is just over 40,000 kilometers.

Next: Riding Through the United States

Part 1: The Story Behind the Story.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Remembering a world journey by Royal Enfield

Four young men prepare to depart India on a world tour in 1971.
Their trip was featured in xBhp magazine, but there is a story behind that story.
First of three parts

The story you are about to read is true. It's also exciting, fun and informative. But there is more to it than that.

Travel adventure stories involving Royal Enfield motorcycles are a familiar genre. You know how they go: the mountains are high, the roads bad, the weather awful. The motorcycles break down, and are cleverly repaired by the side of the road.

The dangers are often real. The constant theme is "You Won't Believe What Happened Next!"

The story of this 1971 journey by four young men on two Royal Enfields felt familiar to me until I had the chance to speak with one of them, Subhash Sharma. Now longtime residents of Texas, Subhash and wife Kiran passed through Miami on their way to board a cruise ship.

The 1971 world tour by four young Indian men has been written up before and Subhash had shared the route of the trip with me. But in person he was able to help me understand better.

For instance, the fact that it had taken a year to get approval for the journey is not just the sidelight I had assumed. Getting his employer to promise to continue his salary as he traveled turned out to be the easy part. (It would be repaid by the team visiting every company office from Khartoum to New York.)

Getting layer after layer of government bureaucracy to even allow the trip is what took time.

Subhash has the letters from government entities, one of which he showed me: The Ministry of Education and Youth Services "has no objection." It forwarded the request to The Ministry of External Affairs and The Ministry of Finance (Department of Economic Affairs) for additional "consideration."

To someone like me, who dreads having to spend two hours getting his license renewed every few years, the idea of persevering through such red tape is soul crushing.

The fact that the team embarked on the trip with only $100 struck me as simple evidence of poor fiances. No indeed. That was the amount of hard currency they were permitted to take out of India. Today's adventure traveler could at least expect to be allowed to spend his own money.

Subhash was the trip's planner. He would determine the route. In the India of that day, where could he get maps of places in Africa? He visited the United States Information Agency library, where he carefully traced maps he borrowed. His company's blueprint department turned his tracings into blueprinted maps for him.

With a smile, Subhash acknowledges his own naivety. He had no way to know that many of the roads shown on the maps would turn out to be just pathways. Sometimes there was just a line of poles in the earth. You could see the next pole, but there was no "road" to take you there.

He and his companions were not widely travelled.

"We didn't understand snow!"

Despite all his planning, the team would find itself in the Sahara in the heat of Summer, and in Europe in Winter. "Spring" in the northeastern United States turned out to include a blizzard.

Of course Subhash approached the Royal Enfield company before beginning a trip bound to bring international attention to its products. He asked the company to supply parts they'd need along the road — they couldn't carry everything with them.

He was waved off: Many would-be adventurers approached the company for support, but few followed through, he was told. He was promised only that Royal Enfield in England would help when the team reached Britain. (But, of course, by the time they did, Royal Enfield was out of business in England.)

One rarely hears the aftermath of adventure stories. Returned to India, Subhash found himself "restless." He continued to sleep in a sleeping bag!

With the trip over, the Royal Enfield company offered to rebuild the two Bullets, in exchange for the worn parts and Subhash's technical log of the trip.

He left for England with a work permit before Royal Enfield finished rebuilding his Bullet. The rebuilt motorcycle was shipped to his family, but its fate was no longer front and center for him. He doesn't know what eventually came of it.

He cut off his beard and cleaned up "for the girls," he said. That worked. He met his future wife in England.

Their son tells Subhash he should write a book about the world trip. For now, Subash prefers to tell it.

The memories are rich. "I could tell so many stories..."

Subhash Sharma and wife Kiran in Miami, sharing stories.
Next: An Epic Journey.

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