Riding up the Himalayas on a Royal Enfield Bullet is on the ‘bucket-list’ for many riders. But it’s not often that a tour like this is for women only…
Words & pics: Kerry
When you receive an invitation to ride the Himalayas with a world first and uniquely designed safari just for women, there can only be one reply – I’m in! And that’s just how it happened.
Here I was about to venture across the world to face a new and exhilarating challenge. A safari that had been designed by Denise Ferris, Australasia’s most experienced female international motorcycle tour guide, who also co-owns the international tour company World On Wheels with her husband Mike.
Denise knew it was time to create a whole new business, offering women of the world the combination of adventure and soul that they seek – and so ‘Safaris for the Soul’ was born and I was on my way to join their inaugural Himalayan Heaven safari. It would be an exotic international motorcycling experience with even more than the riding – an adventure soul safari that would take me to the top of the world on two wheels (literally!), connect me with other like-minded intrepid women from around the globe, allow me to contribute meaningfully to a local community project educating girls, nurture my soul with yoga and meditation and give me an experience of a lifetime that I will always remember!
Day 1 | Arrive in New Delhi
With the relief of 30+ hours in transit over, we finally arrive in New Delhi late on our first night. Sporting the annoying ‘cankles’, we ventured off to find the rest of our ladies’ safari group.
Now all the travel information warns you that if you haven’t been to countries such as India, you will be shocked as you first venture out.
The smells, the noises, and the heat hit you instantly. The hooting of horns and the weaving of crammed roads packed with cars, bikes and tuk-tuks. It reminds you how you are indeed a long way from home, and now immersed in a totally different culture. Here, there are so many people surrounding you, but it’s what I came to describe as a ‘calm organised chaos’.
Our morning began with a scheduled day of calm activities to recharge everybody in our group who had travelled from all corners of the globe. Getting stuck in the lift on our first trip to breakfast was not going to dampen the day. Neither was the fact that it was pouring with monsoon rain outside. At least it was warm at 26C, unlike NZ that was averaging 12.
Day 2 | Dehli – Chandigarh – Kasauli (65km)
With an early morning start to the day, we headed for the train station to begin our 3 1/2-hour journey to Chandigarh, the capital city of the North Indian state of Punjab. This would be where we would meet our Royal Enfields and travel on to the hill-station of Kasauli, in the next state of Himachal Pradesh, for the night.
Now at a point where I thought we had seen ‘everything’, I was most sadly mistaken.
Denise, our tour leader, had recommended that we grab a bit of shut-eye on the train, after our early morning start and with a big day ahead, but this wasn’t going to be the case for me. The ‘culture shock’ was to continue. Coming to a country such as India you expect to see poverty, but nothing hits you quite between the eyes like this, when you see it up close and personal.
Houses were rare, with shacks and slums the norm. The number of people sleeping rough is just unbelievable – bodies spread in every possible place. Washing, sleeping and using the bathroom in the street commonplace, and the smell tends to kill any hunger you may be feeling. It’s also at about this point you start seeing just how good your own life is back home. Every major issue going on in your own world pales when compared to the hardship being faced by the people before your eyes.
With a mixture of nerves and excitement from our group, we finally reach our bikes, and after a good briefing on the machines, just how the roads function and what we should and shouldn’t do to stay safe, we began the process of chucking on our gear to test our Indian riding. By this stage, we had attracted quite a bit of interest from the locals who all wanted to check out these fair-skinned maidens. Feeling like celebrities, we first undertook a bit of a practice in the parking lot for everybody to become familiar with their bikes before taking a deep breath and diving straight into the calm, organised chaos of the Indian roads.
Nothing can really prepare you. You just have to do it. And forget every road rule you’ve spent years learning. Indicators…not really needed. Just toot. Want to pass on the inside – no problem – just toot some more. Want to pass on a blind corner – go ahead – definitely toot. And always watch out for the many dogs, cows and monkeys while you are at it. If you are worried they may move, give them all a toot. No need to look behind, just face forward and listen for any toots, as that’s what the vehicle coming up fast behind you will do. Toot!
Our first day consisted of only a short ride to our hotel, yet a few of the girls still needed a stiff drink at the end! But overall, everybody did extremely well. This was mostly a mental challenge, where we all learnt that once you got your head around it, you would be okay. Or were we just being optimistic…?
Day 3 | Kasauli – Shimla (80km)
Our second day of riding began with many of the group feeling a lot more confident. Once the terror wears off, and the knuckles release a bit, you slip into the groove of how it all flows. We left Kasauli and headed for Shimla, the summer capital of India before Independence, a popular modern-day destination for honeymooners and known as ‘the Queen of Hill Stations’.
Although the traffic wasn’t quite so busy as back in Chandigarh, it still gave you no chance to let your eyes wander, as you needed to expect the unexpected every minute. Dogs and cattle are always on the road and quite often sleeping. With animals all being so highly respected here in India they all seem to be living the life of Riley, wandering around at their own pace and only ushered off the road when they cause too much traffic disruption.
This would again be a shorter riding day, climbing a little higher in altitude and allowing us time to explore our fabulous destination. We were all a little pleased as it meant the heat receded to a more pleasurable level that didn’t see you pass out on the side of the road when you took your turn at the corner marking system, that reliably got us all from A to B. Rene, our lovely lady in her very young seventies today ventured on the back of a bike with Denise. A truly inspirational lady, she proved to us all that age means nothing when you enjoy riding – her first time back on a bike since she was 16 and “a dream come true”
With a bit of free time to explore the area of Shimla this afternoon, we discovered it to be an amazing town providing endless cultural, historic and shopping opportunities. It was also a time to learn that the monkeys running freely everywhere are not keen on Kiwis getting close to take photos. Lesson learnt!
Day 4 | Shimla – Shoja (160km)
Shortly after departing our luxurious hotel in Shimla, we began what was to be an absolutely magic day on the bikes. Taking a new route that had been chosen by Denise, the riding turned out to be breath-taking.
Finally, we were away from the hustle of a hundred tooting horns and the continuous mouth full of diesel fumes, instead of taking in fantastic, twisting open roads that were in pretty good shape for India. Apart from the occasional vehicle, the odd monkey, and the regular cow every kilometre, we had the road to ourselves. This was about the time that you had to remind yourself that the brakes on your Royal Enfield were not the best, so knee down riding wasn’t really an option!
After 100km of fun (that’s a long ride in India trust me!), there was a quick picnic lunch before we were off again, although this time would see a few far more interesting surfaces. Here we went from dust to gravel, to rocks, and not to forget small river crossings. All traversed successfully by the whole team, there were also many little villages where the local children would run out when they heard the bikes approaching, all wanting to ‘high five’ the passing riders. Many were sweet kids, although the odd one wanted to play ‘let’s knock the rider’s shoulder out of joint’.
Our destination for the night saw us resting up at a retreat in the Great Himalayan National Park. Quite an isolated place, where we reconnected with the simple things of life. Wifi becoming a distant memory (not that that’s a bad thing), and regular power cuts kept things interesting. But I wonder if we were the first people to stay in a while, as it had that certain ‘aroma’. Still, a huge positive was the surroundings with the most breath-taking views ever and we had the place all to ourselves.
Day 5 and 6 | Shoja – Manali (115km)
Today we had 115km on the bikes with a few more character-building road surfaces to deal with. That sort of distance isn’t usually regarded as big but riding in the congestion is a continual brain strain, with an endless number of things to look out for.
We made a quick stop off before lunch at a local women’s shawl weaving cooperative where we were very privileged to see the process of the ladies hand weaving intricately detailed scarves and shawls. It was amazing to watch the women working so precisely with such grace and ease. Without actually seeing for yourself the hard work that goes into producing such items, you could never truly appreciate the labour intensity and true value and worth of these works of art. In support of these hard-working ladies, the shop in front of the factory was soon filled with 14 intrepid motorbike lovers from across the world, purchasing special gifts to take home.
Today’s destination was Manali, a popular tourist destination at the foothills of the Himalayas that is evidently very popular with local tourists and international hippies alike. This may have something to do with the fact that everywhere you look, you are surrounded by marijuana plants growing wild. And I do mean everywhere! As we rode into town, the aroma filled your helmet and you began to wonder if the smell alone may make you giggle your way off the bike.
The following morning we were woken early by a mixture of dogs barking, a squawking noise coming from the bushes that resembled Jurassic Park, and also the sound of rain … but all was well, this was to be our first rest day.
Day 7 | Manali – Jispa (125km)
Today saw many of the women stressing about the upcoming ride to Rohtang La (‘La’ means Pass). We’d been informed that the first of our high Himalayan passes would come with some challenges and we were to expect rough terrain up ahead, maybe fog, maybe mud, water … Alongside that, we were now about to climb to 3978 feet and the effect of altitude could now begin to kick in. Denise morning prep talk encouraged everybody that we were all capable of this challenge and would survive the day! But I think a few of the ears didn’t hear anything after the words ‘rough terrain’.
With bikes gassed and altitude meds dispensed, we were off. My trusty GoPro had also been mounted on my helmet, I didn’t want to miss any of the action if anyone was to fall into the mud. This was going to be a fun day. Within 5-minutes we had our first ‘moment’. Damn, I hadn’t turned GoPro on yet! It was only a mild step off on some rocks and there were no injuries other than pride. We continued to climb some lovely roads till our first-morning chai stop. It was at this point that many of us started feeling out of breath and a little green. The altitude effect was beginning to become real.
As we approached the top of Rohtang La, you couldn’t help but be gobsmacked by the scenic mountaintop panorama. A quick stop for group photos and a look around at the summit and we were back on the bikes … now the day would become even more interesting.
Shortly after leaving the top, we encountered mud. Not a little bit of mud, but knee deep mud. Although I found this hilarious, some others in the group weren’t quite so amused. My theory was that if one was going to fall, at least it would be a soft landing. A number of our group did either get stuck or their bikes slide out, but all mud encounters were handled with a certain style, and thankfully resulted in no major injuries.
After more stunning afternoon scenery we arrived in the remote village of Jispa, where Denise had learnt a few days earlier, our arrival would, fortuitously, coincide with a local annual festival. Feeling the thinner air, it was a short but challenging stroll to the centre of town to check out the sacred festivities. You can imagine the laughter when we discovered instead half the town playing bingo! Apparently, the main event was to start much later that night and would continue for several days to come.
Wandering back to our hotel, a few of us joined in with a group of young dancers who we found on the side of the road, practising for the festival dance competition. As we laughed and danced (like nobody was watching), the struggles with air intake were becoming more and more of an issue, not that we were going to let a little lack of oxygen stop us!
Day 8 | Jispa – Sarchu (110kms)
For me personally, this day won’t ever be forgotten.
Yet again, we woke to a sublime Indian summer’s day. The weather gods were continuing to smile on us and we were grateful, knowing that things would be a lot more difficult if the monsoon rains were falling.
Today saw another morning of challenging terrain, but by far the most demanding aspect was the climb. We were all experiencing symptoms resulting from the lack of oxygen and despite being equipped with altitude pills and following the regular reminders to drink plenty of water, the atmosphere was literally sucking us dry.
Onwards and upwards, we headed to Baralacha La at 4830m. But it wasn’t until after lunch that the fun really began when 5-minutes into our afternoon journey, we (and many others) were stopped in our tracks by a Himalayan glacial melt. A torrential river now flowed for some 50 metres across what used to be the road we needed to pass, and there were lines of trucks and cars lined up waiting to get through.
A delay of more than three hours ensued until the flow of water slowly subsided enough for the vehicles to explore the safest (and driest) way through. Some bikes were being pushed through and the whole event became quite the spectacle. There is nothing quite like watching how the Indian people cooperate and help so good-naturedly so that everyone can continue on their journey.
Eventually, our amazing crew of mechanics and drivers challenged the deep water and our bikes were all on the other side. Some of us jumped in the van and took the dry route, and a few others linked arms and waded through. Although now being much later than we had anticipated the day seemed to be ending well. That is until I realised that due to the unanticipated extra bit of fun for the day, I had stopped focusing on keeping my water intake up. And now I was going to pay a hefty price.
It’s not over till it’s over and the last part of the journey to our (only night of tented) accommodation featured more hard riding. To make matters worse, I now felt terrible with a throbbing head and low energy levels. I should have pulled over and sourced water from another rider, but figured we were nearly there. How wrong I was.
We were at high altitude and I was very dehydrated, which eventually saw me climb off my bike and literally crawl into my tent, dragging myself into bed still kitted up in my riding gear. I just couldn’t move, if you can imagine having the worst headache of your life, mixed with nausea, and then to top it off, struggling to breathe due to the lack of air. Most of my symptoms could’ve been avoided if I had just drunk small amounts of water regularly (as we had been advised to do). A valuable lesson in self-care. After a bit of wonderful TLC from Denise and my Australian roommate Lida, I was able to join the world again the next morning. Luckily, I was still in my riding gear, as we were on the road for 6.30am… Yawn!
Day 9 | Sarchu – Leh (260km)
This would see our longest day in the saddle, and boy, did it feel long! The highlight was riding the Gata Loops, which is a famous section up the side of a rocky mountain with 21 switchbacks. Not only fantastic riding, the benefit is you can see the road loop for miles below and above you, which is a bonus when you really need to let out all that water that you’ve been drinking, on the side of the road and want to check there’s no-one coming. This is India remember – just do it!
Once again, 260km isn’t long in the big scheme of things. But when you have challenging roads and a million army trucks to pass on tight cliff edges, it’s an extremely long day in a bumpy saddle especially when you’re also climbing to the second highest motorable road in the world – Taglang La at 5,328 metres. Our bikes were struggling for air just as we were, coughing and spluttering continuously and adding a bit more ‘adventure’ to the ride. Nonetheless, we made it up the top, had a few smiley shots, and we were off again.
Unfortunately, our lovely leader, Denise, had a nasty off this day which saw her with a fractured clavicle and ankle. It was a strong reminder to us all, that none of us is invincible and hats off to an amazing lady and tour leader for how she dealt with it all.
Day 10 | Leh – The Top!
The day had finally arrived where we would achieve our goal with the ultimate climb to the top of the world – the moment we had all been waiting for. After the previous day’s ride, we were all completely shattered, so were given a short reprieve, not venturing up till mid-afternoon. After a short briefing on the logistics of getting through the security checks, we proceeded on our final two-wheeled ascent.
We had been warned that half the road up was in good nick, but the final 20-odd km was not too flash. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had travelled on this same road a few years ago, at which time some of it (but not all!) was given a makeover. I chose to offer up my back seat to pillion another Kiwi lady, Rhonda, who really wanted to experience the final climb on the Royal Enfield. We were both determined to make it up there on the bike, no matter what the road surface.
Finally, we had arrived, all making it safely to the top of the world! Of course, the scenery was indescribably breath-taking as it had been the entire journey … the peaks of China in one direction, Pakistan in another. This was the point of realisation that the joy really had been in the journey and a little less about the destination. We as a group of strong, determined woman had nailed this challenge. We had climbed the highest motorable road in the world and achieved everything we wanted to. The feeling of personal accomplishment was nothing short of amazing. We could do anything!
Day 11 | Leh – Home
Today was bittersweet as we said goodbye to our hardy Royal Enfields. These amazing hunks of metal, which had carried us all through so much rugged land, climbing the highest mountains, had all done it without skipping a beat. Well, maybe there was a cough or two, but they’d done it.
We were all sporting tired and sore bodies but also feeling the huge relief that we had made it safely to the end … perhaps also looking forward to the prospect of returning home to our own beds. Before we departed Leh, we had a special visit to a local school, donating the money we had raised as a group in support of the ‘Making Educated Choices Project’ for girls education.
Flying down from Leh rather than riding back, meant the discomfort of high altitude was soon alleviated. Back in Delhi, in what seemed like the blink of an eye I had gone from battling the Himalayan elements to get to the top of the world to now battling the Indian customs to try and reach my departure gate on time. One thing I certainly wasn’t going to miss was the incredible volume of traffic, but as for my Royal Enfield … it had now found a special place in my heart.
Safaris for the Soul
Safaris for the Soul established by Denise Ferris, Australasia’s most experienced female International Motorcycle Tour Guide, Director of World On Wheels, Registered Psychologist and Soul Coach, offers global adventure soul safaris for women. Safaris for the Soul provide boutique, two-week travel experiences to exotic cultural locations, incorporating yoga and meditation, spiritual connection, the fun company of like-minded travellers, contributing to the local community and, of course, adventure! If that sounds like you, visit www.safarisforthesoul.com.au for more details.
Designed for Women
With this safari being not just your typical motorcycle ride up the Himalayas, but a special ‘designed by a woman for women’ adventure soul safari, there was the daily opportunity for yoga and meditation with our own dedicated Australian Teacher Nadine, part of the Safaris for the Soul team, to provide us with the perfect way to recover from the stresses and strains of riding on challenging roads. With optional classes in the morning and evening each day, we were all able to spend plenty of time rejuvenating body and mind.