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Riding the Raid – the 10th Raid-De-Himalaya

Part 1: The days before the start of the rally.

This is a first person account of one man’s passion, a journey and a personal challenge.I am not sure where to begin except at a random point in my journey of life and its association with motorcycles. From my earliest memories the good ones are almost always associated with two wheels, engines, oil, exhaust, heat and most importantly that Zen like “is-ness” of things as you open that throttle and feel like you have wings.

                My first attempt at riding the Himalayas in 2006 on a royal Enfield machine (rented) left lasting impressions of what it really means to be riding in a country that you love and a terrain that leaves you humbled. Prashant, my good friend and a man after my own heart prompted a thought along the way on this tour of ours (at Kaza if I remember right). I think he said something like “we are riding the same route as the raid”. A statement like that doesn’t get erased very easily (even for someone like me who has short term selective memory loss, the keyword being selective) and before I knew it 2007 had rolled around and there I was in Shimla at Motoworld, Navbahar signed up for Raid-de-Himalaya 2007 on a bullet that Prashant had literally given me to ride how ever I wanted and as he describes it “bikes are meant to be ridden, so ride it annae”.  My stint at the 2007 raid proved rather short lived, the bike packing up on day two, hardly 2kms after the competitive stage start at Gramphoo (past Rohtang pass). This was obviously disappointing and only left me with a resolve to come again in 2008 with a better bike and with better preparation. Lessons learnt.

                Dec 07, I went to Singapore, walked into Mah Motors, set my heart on a beautiful Husqvarna TE510 (enduro). The thing weighs a meager 114kg, puts out 56 odd horses and to top it off I get a great deal on the price. I pay the dealer, come back and get a middle man to bring the bike into India. To cut the rest of the painfully long story short, the bike, the agent and I get embroiled in the beautiful (sic) folds of Indian bureaucracy and red tape and I spend the next 9 months waiting for the bike to be unleashed from the greasy hands of the system that kills almost every Indian’s spirit. The bike finally gets released 5 days before we are set to head out but luck plays another card and a missing part prevents the Husky and me mating in the Himalayas.

                A parallel story was meanwhile unfolding while the Husky saga was going on. Knowing that relying on the Husky for the raid was a big risk of a no-show, we decide to build a Karizma for the raid and thanks to my “nomadic” friend and his amazing contacts we manage (quite well actually, with the aid of a mechanic that deserves all the praise I can give him) to piece together the Karizma with a complete front and rear end of a YZ250. 

As the days progress towards our departure, everything seemed totally out of control: the tires (Pirelli Rally-cross) that we ordered haven’t arrived, the jet kits ( for the Yamaha’s get stuck in customs at the great travesty called the India postal service, the larger tank ( for the WR250 arrives but we find out that it’s the wrong one and we have re-order and wait for it to arrive and more importantly clear customs again. Apart from this Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav has issued an order that trains will not carry goods bogies for the next 20 days. Real panic sets in. We try and figure out alternate ways of getting the bikes and the goods to Shimla. Insane ideas like buying a tempo, renting a tempo, putting it all on a jeep and other such suggestions pass through various phone calls amongst us. It reaches a point when it all looks gloomy and we just sort of step back and tell ourselves that “whatever happens happens, let’s not sweat about the stuff we can’t control”.  As in all panic motivated situations and given Murphy’s Law, things magically fall into place in their own way. The tires land in India, the kits get cleared (money involved of course, are you kidding?) & the larger tank arrives (more money involved) and Mr Lalu revokes the order on the goods trains. In the background there is so much coordination that Prashant is handling with respect to support for the raid, mechanics from Delhi, support vehicles for the raid, paperwork, RC books, insurance for the rally its crazy trying to piece all this together.

Finally the day arrives for our departure. We load everything including the bikes, spares, tools, gear on the 19th of Sept and get on the same train to Delhi. There are four of us from Bangalore (Bhaskar, Prashant, Aditya and myself). Bhaskar riding Yamaha WR450, Prashant on a Yamaha WR250, Aditya on a stock Karizma and myself on a “Hero-Honda-Yamaha-ShivajiNagar-Motokraft-Karizma” 225.  Thanks to Red Rooster Racing three of our bikes are stickered with the RRR logos and they look nice together. Feels real!!

Getting the bikes and the goods to Shimla from Delhi proved quite easy (thanks again to Prashant). We unload everything on top of the Raid office and we are all quite visually and otherwise excited to be there together, and importantly all the bikes and goods are all safe. The officials at the Raid give us pieces of news that are not very encouraging as we try and prepare to go on a recce. The news all around is that the early rains have washed out a lot of the roads around Shimla and the same rains have dumped snow at the higher elevation and that the passes are closed (Rohtang, Kunzum, Barlach-la). More speculation keeps surfacing and questions of whether the raid will really run or if it does run, how long will it last. I remember 2007 raid and how it ended on the fourth day due to the weather gods. All of us were nursing our disappointments and were praying and hoping that the raid would at least start.

                25th Sept, More of our friends and fellow riders started showing up at Shimla and the hotel we were staying in was slowly starting to fill up with bikers, biker friends, rally car drivers, mechs and before we knew it the hotel which only had 8 or 10 rooms was all occupied by moto-heads. The negotiation on the hotel charges was done by Bhaskar (in hindi) and I think at some point I also started spouting what I thought was hindi (I don’t think the manager at the hotel understood anything I said, apart from the words, room, rate and friends and “hai” at the end of each sentence). Oh I almost forgot the only other word that can be used everywhere and people really understand is “behanchod”. It doesn’t matter if you are south Indian with an accent thick enough to cut through the aloo paratha. The parking lot at the hotel turned into a hangar of sorts with all kinds of bikes, a rally gypsy (driven by Sanketh) and it was a sight to see riders, mechs and friends all milling around, working on the bikes, helping each other out. The excitement was building and I think you could touch it!!

Before I get into anything more I have to tell you how this rally is organized and more importantly the routes and how its run. Spread out over 8 days covering 2100kms of terrain and landscape that is both awe-inspiring and scary there is nothing in the world that compares to this. The mighty Himalayas really make you question your way of life and in many ways have a harmonious way of making you accept yourself for all that you are.

The rally is based on a TSD (time speed distance) format and is recognized by the international rally bodies and is rated among the top ten toughest rallies in the world. Of the 2100kms about 1100km is competitive. Averaging about 300km a day, of which half of them are competitive you are riding with your heart in your mouth as you make you way through the treacherous mountain sides, turn after turn, checking for traction, on the throttle, jamming the brakes, shifting, balancing and finally ensuring that every part of you is awake. You are fighting the brain’s natural instinct to protect the body by pushing yourself to go faster. (Isn’t that the cause for the high, the rush every time you are on a bike?). All of this requiring concentration levels that would challenge your mind every second and needing the consistency to ride continuous 2 hour stretches of high speed competitive stages. The rally isn’t so much pure flat out speeds as it more to do with consistency, endurance and smarts.  The rally also covers 11 of the world’s highest passes (Rohtang, Kunzum, Barlach-la, Sarchu, Tangla, Fotula, Namikla..) touching elevation of 16,000 ft plus.

A recce is a standard procedure for anyone riding the raid. It’s the one and only way of getting to know yourself, the route, the bike and whether this is something you really want to do in the first place. Before the rest of the riders started arriving in Shimla, Bhaskar and Aditya both decided to do a recce together but as in all cases of coordination they both go separate ways in their attempt to find the start of stage 1. They both come back at the end of the day pretty pooped and I understood why only after seeing the pictures of the route and what they tried crossing…

Soon we had a big enough crowd (Prashant, Bhaskar, Chetan, Aleois, Vivek, Raveendra, Nitin Jadhav, Sanketh and Dheeraj in their  Gypsy and myself) and we all set off for a recce on the 27th of Sept after having gotten news that two of the stages of leg 1 were open.  We left early and headed onto a gravel road (mashobra to bekhilti, 18kms) which we had earlier used as a test stage even though this wasn’t part of the raid but it helped give us some practice

Bhaskar and Prashi were flying as was Chetan. The stage has an interesting mix of gravel and some fast flat sections towards the end. Everyone finished safe and headed towards competitive  stage 4. We get lunch at Narkanda (no aloo parathas this time!!)  and head towards Khaneoli where we think stage 4 starts. We hang a right at a fork and as we enter the stages things get ugly, small rocks, bigger rocks and then boulders are in our path. Some of us get down to help clear the path for Sanketh in his gypsy, but Sanketh being Sanketh doesn’t bat an eyelid and literally bull-dozes his way over some of the blocks. Not being a car guy I just stand and stare. This stopping and clearing every few meters hardly takes us another 100 meters before Prashi comes back walking and tells us that the road is washed out.

All of us turn around and go back to the fork and figure that there is an alternative route that has been sketched out by the raid officials. We head another 5 km and hang a left down a dirt road and before we know the road ends, whole mountainside washed out. Some of the guys get down and walk over the rubble and head further down towards what we believe is stage 4 start. After some brief bonding with the locals and some calls to the raid officials (yes we were also the recce team for the raid officials) we had back towards Rampur. As we head back, its getting dark and everyone’s kind of tired, we run into a another major landslide on the main road that connect Luhri to Rampur (where the hotel is). That takes 3 hours to clear and time passes with us watching the JCB entertain us.

                What a day, 180 odd km and not a single stage completed as a recce.!!! A dorm is found and all ten of us snore our way to the morning. We wake to a beautiful sun light morning and as we decide to head back to base camp a few of the guys head down to the Sutlej river bank for some fun.

 With the fun over we get back to Shimla and call it a day. Three days to go before the rally starts. Who cares if the rally is on or not, we are having  fun!!!

Are we touring or rallying? Not sure!..

End part 1