The Royal Locomotive: Bangalore to Goa


Meet Dhanno, a Royal Enfield Bullet Standard 500cc, an old school Black Beauty, and on this road trip she will be rolling through the Western Ghats carrying a mountain. 
  


Diwali of 2013 was approaching, a time for performing rituals and honoring tradition. For me, that means an annual pilgrimage to Goa. As for the means of reaching there, I wanted it to be a bike this time, as this Bangalore to Goa ride would be my first and it had been long overdue. The problem was that T-Bone, my 350cc, was demanding a vacation at the mechanic's. So, I and my travel mate, Robo (his real name), decided to ride down to Goa on his bike, Dhanno.

Robo's purpose for the Goa trip was not religious. He had a top-secret and a super-sensitive mission: rendezvous with his then girlfriend there, who was flying in from Delhi. Now, Robo is a Delhi-Punjabi army-kid with a demeanor of a British bourgeois and the thoroughness of a German, and needless to say, he loves his bike and loves riding. All these traits can be summarized by the following graphic.


This bachelor-pad of a setup, however, is from a different trip and, personally, I would have loved to be a pillion on that piece of opulence.

Coming back to the this road-trip, we planned the following route: start off from Indiranagar in the evening by 1800 hours, take the Tumkuru road and follow the NH 48 (formerly NH 4) to reach Chitradurga by 2300 hours, where we would crash for the night. Then early next morning we would start the drive upto Hubli, take the Ghat roads to Ponda, and merrily reach Baga by afternoon.

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Of course, such plans tend to unfold a bit differently.

We started off early enough at 7pm, and drove right into Bangalore's legendary evening rush-hour traffic. As it was a Friday heading into a long weekend, that day the traffic-mire was especially fantastic. That's one of the features of living in Bangalore: to take a break from the city on special occasions means thoroughly earning it by crawling through endless jams, pot holes and smoke till the city limit. It took us over two hours to reach Yashwantpur, even though we tried to bypass the city center via Outer Ring Road. We finally tasted freedom after the Tumkur Flyover at 2130 hrs.



We reached the town of Chitradurga at 0100 hrs, and had a late dinner and tried to get some sleep. Note that 'tried' is the key word here, I don't remember sleeping at all. The hotel was called Amoga, a clean and comfortable place with a helpful staff, which managed to get us food in the dead of the night.

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Next day we actually did manage to wake-up early morning at 0700 hours. Gracing the view from the window was the famous Chitradurga Fort, looking over the town through the morning mist.

   
I did not know this at that time, but this fort is supposed to be of great historical and architectural significance, with several folklores and legends built around it. One such legend is that of Onake Obava, a common soldiers wife who defended the fort single-handedly, during which she killed scores of enemy soldiers, one-by-one, with a wooden club. She has since been considered a champion of the kannadigas, both locally and state-wide.

Source: http://www.rejectedprincesses.com
Incidentally, those soldiers belonged to Hyder Ali (Tipu Sultan's father), who attacked the fort three times over a span of twenty years, and third time was the charm. More on this landmark soon in a future post.
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Tile artwork inside Hotel Amoga

By 0740 hrs we were back on the road and decided to have a quick breakfast at a small food shack next to a toll-stop. We ordered chaklis, chilli bhajji (pakodas) and something called rice bhath.

The paradoxical bhaath bhaath 
The dish in itself was straight forward, boiled rice with a few vegetables, and quite literally, all the spices in the world. But it is the name that bothered me the most. Bhaath translates to rice locally, so what we were having was "rice rice". What the fuck is that supposed to mean? It's question that still keeps me awake some nights.

We set off again. Now heavy with rice and wondering about rice2, and also very much deprived of sleep, I managed to doze off while riding pillion. That's the first and only time I have done that. It helped greatly that I was wedged comfortably between the rider and the luggage, and the road was smooth and straight throughout the National Highway. The gush of the wind was like music and Dhanno's constant low RPM thump provided the rhythm.

Meanwhile there were demonstrations of the festive season throughout
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We must have been a sight for the on lookers. Two huge guys carrying heaps of luggage on a Bullet. All included, it added up to almost half a tonne of metal and mass. We were a mountain rolling down the road. And carrying it all on two wheels was this old-school iron work-horse. I feel that's an apt way to describe the bike. Unlike all the juvenile Bullets out there (and now everywhere), flashing around their shiny new UCE engines and roaring and zipping around like there is no tomorrow, this bike has a cast iron, 499cc engine, belonging to the era of the Greatest Generation. Its a design which has been around since 1950s and lasted all the way till 2007, a testament to the spectacular endurance and sustainability of the design, specially for the Indian environment.


Till this day, even in a plethora of highly advance, even state-of-the-art, machines readily available in the Indian market, the old Bullet still commands a large cult following. If you ask a die-hard 'why?', perhaps the only answer you will get is: 'feel'. Feel of the transmission, the engine, and especially, the feel of the iconic thump. And there is much more to the feel than just the tangible.

The love-affair between the bike and the rider has no parallel when it comes to the old Bullet. She becomes an indulgence and an obsession, where the owner keeps tweaking, tinkering and modifying the features and looks of the bike, forever pushing towards an ideal. On the flip side of this relationship, the rider has to frequently get down and dirty with the bike. Even kick-starting the bike involves a long foreplay with the compressor. It is said that any bulleteer worth his salt must be a proficient mechanic, and should be thorough with the workings of the machine. Bullet breakdowns and malfunctions are legendary.  However, due to the simplicity of the classic design and the completely mechanical nature of the machine, most problems are easy to fix and it's rare that the bike actually fails you. The bullet is a tough mistress (and many love her for that), but at the end of the day, she makes you feel like a king.

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Talking about random glitches . . .

We made a fuel stop outside Haveri where Robo showed me the tricky kick-start protocol of the bike, and the bike starting making pigeon sounds, literally! It was as if we had picked up some avian stowaways in the carburetor. This needed to be investigated, and lucky Robo knew the location of the only Enfield mechanic in a 100 km radius and he was right there in Haveri: Raju (+918095121770).


Now Enfield mechanics are a special breed. They specialize in Royal Enfield machines almost exclusively, and tackle problems that none other dare take up. Clearly, they are a precious resource. In a previous trip to Goa, Dhannno had succumbed to a jammed engine right around Haveri, and it was then that Robo discovered Raju. As jammed engines take weeks to fix the bike was at that garage for a long time, and Raju got to know Dhanno well. 


The stuck-pigeon-syndrome turned out to be a leaky gasket, nothing serious, but we had to wait around at Raju's garage while he source a replacement seal. We had a quick lunch there and heard stories from Raju's life. He told us about a stray dog that lives in the garage and is taken care of by him and him crew. The dog is free to roam around the streets and frequently got into vicious fights with the other strays. He looked pretty roughed up that day too, with several wounds and big patches of fur missing. Raju was used to fixing him up after such events. In his turn, the dog, fiercely guarded the garage at nights. Raju recounted how a few months back some thieves had broken in and were thwarted by this brave and scrawny canine. He even warned us to not to interact with him, as the hound was loyal only to the garage crew. But, the way those two were wrestling, it was hard to imagine the him to be dangerous at all.  



We set off again at 1300 hours. The gasket's broken rubber had delayed us by at least two hours.

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We followed the National Highway till the outskirts of Dharwad, and took the bypass road to take the State Highway 34 connecting to Ponda. This is where the roads got interesting. Karnataka state highways were a far cry from the National Highways. They were two-lane and two way road, with large sections of them under construction at that point, and thus, were mostly rubble. They also went through mostly rural areas, crossing through villages and farmland. The road was also going uphill wit mellow curves, leading into the Western Ghats

It's on this road that I got to ride the vintage Bullet for the first time, and it was a challenge to say the least. Unlike all the bikes I had ridden so far, this one had the breaks and gear paddle in the right and left side respectively. My biggest battle was that with my muscle memory, where I was hitting the gear shift instead of the break. The second challenge was to get used to the bike four speed system, instead of the five speeds I had become used to for such heavy bikes. This proved especially tricky because there did not seem to be an overlap between the third and the fourth gears. The bike seemed to be in no-mans-land at the speed of 50. Moreover the clutch handle of the bike was way tougher than any I was used to. My hand started aching within 10 minutes of riding. And, lastly and significantly, this was the heaviest two wheeler setup I had ever handled, and that too through the curving Ghat roads. I was riding a mountain over the hills.       
  
I made a few false starts and several hiccups. The bike sputter and jerked along for the next half an hour, but I did get a hang of the machine. 

At around 1630 hours we stopped for tea at a road side shack, where I had an interesting photography session. 




and yeah, a couple of curious kids joined in the fun. They belonged to the shack owner I assume.





After a half hour break, we started off again. Robo offered to ride as the roads were more difficult further uphill. This is a heavily forested region in the Ghats surrounded with wildlife sanctuaries. This was simultaneously, the worst and the best section of the entire trip. It was bad because of the condition of the roads. There were huge ditches which could swallow an SUV, there was loose gravel everywhere, which made curves pretty dangerous. Also, there is usually some amount traffic in this section, which is relatively heavy for two-lane road full of potholes.


Of course, all  that did not matter; all roadies are nuts for riding on hilly curves. Moreover, we were surrounded by lush forests and it was close to sunset, the glorious Golden Hour. I sat pillion with my camera while Dhanno rumbled on. 




We saw several Bullet gangs on these roads as well. It was good to ride a while with comrades.


As we started our decent down the ghats, the quality of the roads changed, dramatically. They were smooth with stable ledge fences and free of pot holes. We had entered Goa. This coincided right along with the sunset and it was magnificent.


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I took the handle of bike again after the Ghats. Somehow, I was more confident this time around, but still made some mistakes. How do I override my own muscle memory? The trick to quickly learn any new machine or activity is, again, in the 'feel' of it. The more one tries to consciously micro-control their actions and that of the machine, the more difficult the whole learning process gets. The idea is to add layers and encapsulate different sequences of actions step-by-step, and eventually treat at the whole experience wholistically.

Take the case of this bike for an example. The first step is to be able to balance the huge monster. Second, is shifting gears at the right time, hitting the right side paddle. Third, to slow down with the break paddle on the left. After making my self thorough with the minutia, and while I was struggling with the reversed controls, I told myself: don't do think about the details, treat it as a single action, and most importantly, become a part of the machine, a part of the system.Then my instincts changed and somehow I automatically knew controls, and did not have constantly keep reminding myself. Eventually, I and the bike were riding as a single entity, rather than me trying to control her. The movement was guided singularly with my mind rather than individual parts, just like walking. This is how I like to visualize driving or riding or any new physical activity. It provides me with extra brain cells to deal with other problems, like the ubiquitous Goan traffic in this case.
    
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It's always a pleasure traveling through Goa. Good clean roads, green hills, back waters and beaches, a mix of Konkani and Portugese culture and carefree locals following their moto of susegad. The most over-whelming thing about driving through Goa are the fantastic colors the buildings flaunt, something only the Goans can pull off. 




Another noticeable feature about Goa is the sheer amount of development the state has undergone. The state is densely populated, but it still seems well organized. There are buildings and construction projects everywhere, and it is rare to see long open stretches of empty land. In fact the most of North Goa can be construed as one big urban area.

We reached Panjim after dark. We crossed the spectacular Mandovi bridge and soaked in the breathtaking lights of the Panjim harbour, where the river meets the Arabian Sea (no pictures of this, unfortunately). This city is one of the most beautiful in the country and shall be covered in a future post.

An hour later the ride was concluded at our hotel in Baga. I must say, I was pretty proud of myself for being able to handle Dhanno, and was on a high as well. We had reached the Holy Land, and celebrated with the vintage ritual of downing a carton Kings Beer, and all the while, reliving the joy of the ride and the 'feel' of the machine which brought us here.  



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