Arrrr….There be Dragons

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A motorcycle tour through Bhutan, organised by Mike and Denise Ferris of ‘Ferris Wheels’ fame, had been in my sights for several years. Speaking with them at the Ulysses AGM in Launceston I found out the next such tour was scheduled for March 2017.

Riding home from Launceston on my old 1940 Harley outfit, I decided it had to be now or never, as my big ‘Eight-Oh’ birthday was looming large on the horizon. So I was the first to register, just after my birthday. Ferris Wheels had been re-launched as World On Wheels and the tour had been re-titled the Thunder Dragon tour, it would be a joint venture in cooperation with Australian Road Rider magazine, but the fundamental structure of the tour remained the same.

Arriving in Kathmandu on March 6th I soon met up with the other participants. There were three pillions and fourteen riders including the leader Mike Ferris and the newly-appointed editor of ARR, Greg Leech. We had two days checking out Kathmandu and getting to know one another. There were two backup vehicles, a small truck with tools and bike spares and a minibus with our luggage.

On a very soggy day, dressed in all our wet weather gear looking like spacemen, we prepared to board our respective spaceships. These spaceships were actually rather antiquated 500cc Royal Enfields, still being produced in India to their 1950’s design specs. Fortunately, the gearbox and rear brakes had recently been relocated to the correct sides of the bike – by modern convention at least.

An ignominious start for me. Five minutes after leaving the hotel, a young girl on a push bike cut across my front wheel on a slippery downhill, causing me to notch up the first spill. The rest of the day I stayed upright despite the horrendous traffic around Kathmandu, and we arrived at our resort in Pokhara at 5:00pm. A rest day here gave us the chance to go paragliding from a nearby hill, giving spectacular views as we glided into a valley with the large lake Phewa below us, weather perfect.

The Birthplace of Lord Buddha

The next day’s destination was Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. Our start was delayed due to a sudden petrol strike, but Mike’s local partner Amar convinced the gas station proprietor to be kind to the tourists and he opened up specially for us! Wonderful people, the Nepalese. The combination of bad roads and continuous rain provided a steep learning curve for me, as cross-country riding was not my forte.

Our longest day of 320k took us to the town of Biratnagar near the border. Once again Mike and Amar had organised for us to get emergency fuel which was just as well, as we saw long queues of vehicles lining up outside gas stations. The Hindu Festival of Colours ‘Holi’ was in full swing, where the locals cover each other in colourful powders. We stopped to observe the music and dancing and within minutes we were covered in colours. When we got to the border, no-one at Immigration even batted an eyelid at the 17 foreigners covered from head to toe in yellows and reds and purples.

Into India

The first thing I noticed after crossing the border into India were the better roads and less traffic. The ride up to the local capital of Darjeeling passed through numerous tea plantations spreading up the side of the hill, on a very narrow road full of hairpins. Magazine editor Leech had us riding in formation for an amazing photo opportunity showing the hilly landscape and winding roads.

We stayed at the wonderful Cedar Inn at the very top of the town, with magnificent views looking down across the whole town and valley. We had a rest day to explore the Darjeeling Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, founded by Tenzing Norgay after he had climbed Mt Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary.

Interestingly, World On Wheels utilises the same corner-man system as is popular within the Ulysses Club, where the rider immediately behind the leader is designated to stay and mark a corner until Tail-End Charlie comes along. Interestingly, it often goes wrong because the chain is only as strong as the individual links. And so it was that several of us missed a vital left turn which led to the border into Bhutan. Fortunately, one of them/us was Chris, who had already been involved in one or two corner misunderstandings and had developed a ‘homing pigeon’ sixth sense and was able to get us back on track. We caught up with the main group just as they were finishing apparently a gourmet lunch, and reunited we made it through to the Bhutan Immigration Office before the 6:00pm close, although not before one of our number had a spill after hitting a rock growing out of the road.

Bhutan

Crossing into the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan meant we needed to have a government-appointed guide. Yongten had perfect English and was very well educated; we could not have asked for a more knowledgeable guide. The roads and traffic were remarkably better than in India, which was already better than in Nepal. A rest day in Paro gave us time to climb up to the ‘Tigers Nest’ monastery, an amazing sight perched precariously on the side of a mountain and built more than 400 years ago. The climb took a couple of hours and halfway up it started snowing, so by the time we returned to our hotel I was well and truly ready for the ‘Signature Ritual Massage’ I had pre-booked earlier.

Next day was an easy half-day ride to the capital Thimpu, allowing ample time for us to take in a Grand Tour of this amazing little city. On a nearby hill is purportedly the world’s largest Buddha, it was certainly large enough to be visible from all over the valley including all the approach roads. We then visited the Golden Takin sanctuary to observe Bhutan’s national animal the takin, which looks like the head of a goat has been transplanted onto the body of a cow.

A day I was really looking forward to was the visit to the magical Punakha Dzong, which is a fortress monastery at the confluence of two rivers with a commanding view down the valley. A spiritual reading I’d taken before leaving home indicated I’d had a past life here as a senior monk. Wow!

The following day was only 90k to the regional capital of Jakar but the road was shocking. Mike decided to drop to the rear rather than the front in case he was needed, and indeed the road was a virtual mud bath, causing many of us to have a spill. I had my worst spill here, falling heavily on my left to bury myself head to toe up to my armpit and crotch. Although shaken, I bounced back on the bike and rode on, after Mike took the obligatory photo of course, of me absolutely caked in mud. I ended up in a lot of pain that evening after the adrenalin wore off, but not enough to stop me riding on and enjoying the rest of the tour.

Mike observed that the brilliant roads he’d promised us had been ripped up since he was last here two years ago, in a huge government ‘highway improvement’ program. And so the next couple of days had to be scheduled around road closure timings. We had an early-ish start (8:00am) from Jakar to ensure we reached a certain place by a certain time, which meant climbing our highest pass at 3,780 metres with fresh snow still on the ground, which made for hazardous riding. Trucks had pushed snow and mud into a hump in the middle of the road which made negotiating traffic and bends quite challenging. I’m still not quite sure how we survived these last couple of days!

The following day, Trashigang was only 90k away but some of the group were delayed by an unannounced road closure. Those of us up front enjoyed a liesurely lunch in the beautiful town square of this gorgeous little place. Correct and considerate parking was strictly, but charmingly, enforced by the local policewoman. Polite law and order is a delightful aspect of this country. Mike recounted an episode from a previous tour where his entire group had briefly parked illegally to watch an archery game, only to earn the wrath of the local policewoman. Threatened with fines and a consequent delay, Mike asked politely if there was another way to redress their misdemeanour. After consulting with her seniors on the radio, the young officer turned and announced to the group, ‘You must all come to the Police Station and apologise to my Superintendent’.

Our last day in Bhutan was stressful and exhausting. It started off really well, stopping for coffee in a quaint little village. Mike seems to know how to sniff out these delightful little shops which are invisible to the rest of us. But our local escort Yongten warned of more road blockages ahead for blasting, and we missed the 12:15 window of opportunity which meant we hastily aborted our liesurely picnic lunch and hurried on, so we didn’t miss the next one at 3:00. The roads were very dusty, narrow, and littered with large boulders from the blastings. Trucks coming the other way gave little room or concern for motorcycles, as they were in a similar hurry to beat the road closures. The World On Wheels motto of ‘Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all’ took on a very real meaning.

But it must be said there was still time to stop and take in the magnificent views from the mountain roads to the plains far below. The final section found us on an excellent new road with virtually no traffic to the exit border town of Samdrup Jongkhar, giving us the chance to hone our cornering skills on long, sweeping, wide roads.

After crossing back into India again we rode for another 100k to our final destination, the Assam capital of Guwahati, where we kissed the bikes goodbye. After 2500k of very demanding but exhilarating riding, this was quite an emotional moment for many of us. I, for one, simply loved riding my trusty, reliable, Royal Enfield. This evening was a celebratory farewell dinner where we enjoyed the excesses of all that was on offer!

The bonus encore of this tour was then flying to Chennai (formerly Madras) on India’s east coast for a visit to the Royal Enfield factory. This new production line was built in 2011 and is immaculately clean and very well run. It was fascinating to follow the different models from the spare parts section to the paint shop and assembly line. One completed bike rolls out every 20 minutes to be immediately tested on the dyno and the purpose-built test track.

For me this was the trip of a lifetime. Mike and Denise’s World On Wheels operation is certainly well organised and well run. They run this tour every second year which means the 2019 tour should be all on brand new completed roads. W O W !!  Highly recommended. (www.WorldOnWheels.tours)

Graham Felton

# 32345

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