Ride of a lifetime in Northern India Himalayas

Howick’s Liz Taylor had a dream to have the holiday of a lifetime that included her whole family, as they rode motorbikes over the highest motorable passes in the world.

That’s how a group of 18 came to be heading for the Himalayas in Northern India in July.

Liz, and her husband, Jim, revealed all about their great adventure at a recent presentation at Lion’s River Club. The participants included the Taylor family (Liz and Jim, Chantal and Matt Janks from South Africa, Sarah and Frans Marais from London, and David Taylor from Vietnam), Shaun and Sarita Mudd from London, and Midlanders Allyson Higgs, Kevin and Sarah Wallis, Graham and Debbie Adie, Claire and Rich Robertson and Rob and Gail Royston.

Their trip started in the Indian capital, Delhi, just 200m above sea-level. Liz, commenting on their Delhi experience, said: “Watching the traffic is like reality TV on steroids. It flows together and apart like water and near-misses and minor accidents happen all the time. The only thing motorists all stop for is the gracious cow.”

Things you see and do on holiday. Getting to know a friendly camel.

While in Delhi, the group took a trip to see the Taj Mahal, walked through spice markets and enjoyed shopping and learning about fabrics and carpets. Their Indian guides helped them get around without mishap.

Next it was off to Manali via “gigantic foothills”, a 13-hour trip by bus. This was characterised by narrow passes, massive drop-offs and busy traffic (think Sani Pass on steroids).

Liz described Manali as the Switzerland of India. “Huge mountains, deodar and fir tree forests, with rhododendron gardens, flourishing orchards, food gardens, scenic roads and wonderful restaurants.”

Throaty roar

This was the ideal altitude at which to acclimatise for a few days and meet their support team and motorbikes. Their trusty Royal Enfields, a legacy of the British Army and now built in India, were key to the trip.

“When started they make a throaty roar, like a Harley,” but, as Jim commented, they were solid and sturdy, just the type of vehicle to get them over the mountain passes.

Due to geopolitical issues in the region, special “inner-line permits” were required to enter certain semi-military areas. Azomid tablets were taken for altitude sickness.

A flat section of road… the Royal Enfields whiz by.

The first pass tackled was Rohtang La (3978m), via numerous hairpin bends, with extreme drop-offs. “Passing a truck requires skill, boldness and unshakeable nerves,” the pair commented. Some of the witty roads department signs included, “Keep your nerves on the curves” and “Peep-peep, don’t sleep”.

Fortunately, other than sections requiring repairs due to heavy rains, the roads were tarred and the going fairly good.

Their next adventure was a pony-trek in the spectacular Miyar Nalla valley. Here streams and rivers gushed with snowmelt. Wild-flowers, butterflies, goat herds, yaks and occasional deer dotted the landscape, renowned for its spectacular alpine flora.

Pony trekking.

Eight ponies carried camping equipment and obediently followed the horsemen’s whistles through gushing torrents. At one point three horses were washed away, but thankfully kicked off their loads and swam ashore.

Luckily, there were no broken bones or loss of life and the others generously shared their sleeping bags and tents with those who had lost equipment.

The next pass the group tackled was Baralacha La (4890m). A column of army trucks didn’t help matters and the crew had to calmly thread their way through. Luckily most army truck drivers were very considerate and friendly. Incredibly, many Indian tourists were seen cycling over the mountain passes.

Excellent food

Next came a night at Sarchu, a tented camp put up each year for the short summer tourist season. Other than a comfortable night’s sleep, the food was excellent, a feature of the entire trip.

Lachungla La pass, at 4927m, was conquered next. The reliable bikes kept going, polished daily by Honey, their trusty mechanic.

“Occasionally the mountain air took its toll and our bikes spluttered and stalled. Honey somehow whipped out the offending carburettor, cleaned and adjusted it, and on we went.”

Road signs point out the distance to the region’s cities and landmarks.

The 500cc Enfields all had carburettors, not modern electronic timing, and were either “Bullets” or “Classics”.

The second highest motorable pass in the world is the Tanglang La (5300m). The night before their ascent of this pass the team was nervous, as it was snowing. “How would we cope on ice on these roads at that altitude?” they wondered.

But luckily the weather cleared a little and they had great conditions for the ride.

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“But as we rode into Leh, across the famous Indus river, we knew one more pass was beckoning, the Kardung La (said to be the highest motorable pass on earth, at 5602m),” said Liz.

This time the challenge seemed never-ending, the switchbacks and lorries going on forever.

When they finally reached the top it was a bit of a disappointment. Other than the height, there wasn’t much to report, nowhere to eat (the restaurant appeared to be closed) or go to the loo.

They journeyed down into the Nubra Valley, winding through Ladakh and Kashmir. Here they saw road tracks that followed the ancient silk route.

The journey ended back in Leh (Jammu and Kashmir province), an oasis in a barren dessert. Watered by the Indus and snowmelt, it is a fertile valley, where man-made channels lead water to agriculture.

Heck of an adventure

“We were fortunate to visit Leh in summer, but noted how everyone was preparing for the long winter ahead. Hay was stacked on the roofs and during winter the animals are moved into the ground floor. The people live above the animals, who help keep them warm and they feed the animals from the hay stored on the roof-tops.”

Eighteen people, 10 bikes and the highest mountain roads in the world… ending off in a green oasis in a desert. Sounds like one heck of an adventure to me.

• This trip was arranged through Howick-based Carlos Gonzales, who is putting together another exciting adventure to this area for next year, from July 28 to August 11 (2019). Anyone interested can contact him at info@spanafrican-adventures.co.za or phone 076 459 9127.

Main picture, top, left to right: Chantal Janks, Allyson Higgs, Jim and Liz Taylor, Inder, Shaun and Sarita Mudd, Kevin and Sarah Wallis, Rob and Gail Royston, Graham and Debbie Adie, Matt Janks and Frans Marais, Richard and Claire Robertson, David Taylor and Sarah Marais.