Day 0

Amit should be sleeping now, because he has to reach the station at 8.30 in order to get the two wheels packed and loaded in the train, but he isn’t.

He can’t. He’s psyched. The countdown has ended. Tomorrow he will board the train that will take him closer to his dreamland.

He’s just done with the packing. A saddlebag pair, a camera bag, a bottle bags pair, and a sleeping bag – that’s all that he’s going to carry, but this will be his entire world for the next 15 days. Oh, and he’s sad that he couldn’t fix his camera’s intervalometer – bye bye stop motion animation and/or star trails 🙁 Well, it can be done the hard way if he exerts himself enough.

But then all that is to be seen once he reaches the destination: Ladakh.

Maybe he will go to sleep now. Let’s see.

Qasam UDaanjhalle Kii

When this rider was little and rode bikes only as a pillion (or sitting on the tank), he dreamt of a place. A place high up in the mountains. A place where the landscape was white and brown, and the sky was bluest. A place where the terrain was unforgiving but the people were friendly, where monks lived, where kids were as pretty as dolls, where houses were clustered atop hills. A place where it was scorching hot out in the sun and chilling in the shade just at the distance of a few feet. A “cold desert” which was nowhere near Antarctica!

The place where, as he would later know, riders would go in big numbers every year. The place which would later become one of the hottest tourism spots in the country, where a major TV reality show’s first season would be shot, where a motorcycle company would organise an annual trip to.

But before all that, for him it was the place where Dara and Karan went on horsebacks to capture Yogi Thakur, who was out of jail and wanted revenge on his old accomplice Raja Singh, and Bacchulal of Akaalgadh fame spoke the immortal words “क़सम उड़ानझल्ले की” (qasam udaanjhalle ki).

Err what??? Are you wondering whether I have lost it completely?

Ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about the movie Joshilaay, the one which began as a Shekhar Kapur movie, but couldn’t be completed as such. It still is one of my favourite films to relax with. One of the reasons for this is Shekhar Kapur’s direction in the first half, another being R. D. Burman’s score, then there’s Anil Kapoor’s on-screen attitude, and Satish Kaushik with his inimitable dialogue delivery. But more than that, what drew me, the little would-be-rider, into this movie was the unique looking “desert”. Never before had I seen a place so beautiful and interesting being portrayed as a badland. Before Joshilaay, deserts and tough places were always amidst the sands of Rajasthan or rocks of Karnataka. Which is why this movie took me in so deeply. Joshilaay introduced me to the dream that is Ladakh.

Years later, I would see another movie. Not so commercial. Never seen at the theatres. The only popular star this movie has is Danny Denzongpa. And if you cared enough, Raj Zutshi. Set in Ladakh, shot in Ladakh, with dialogues in Hindi and Ladakhi. The cinematography and direction wowed me again, but in a manner different from that of Joshilaay. It wasn’t a hero film or an epic film. It was a sensitive film, telling an intricate story of a girl, and her father. Frozen continued the dream I have had for so long.

But why am I telling you about this dream of mine? Because it is going to come true soon.

Amongst the two big & impactful pieces of news in my life, this one is more urgent and delightful. I am going to Ladakh after all these years of dreaming. Along with my steed.

Towards the end of this month, three of my friends and I are riding off from Jammu towards Leh. Yaay!!!

Preparations have begun. The countdown has started. I dream of Ladakh every day now. I plan to keep the blog updated with the preparations, and with the ride as and when it unfurls itself.

For you to enjoy, here’s an all-time favourite song of mine from Joshilaay, and then a short scene from Shivajee Chandrabhushan’s Frozen. Towards the middle of July, I plan to start sharing my impressions and interpretation of the land. Hope it lives up to whatever expectations you have from me 🙂

Next on Ladakh: For The Happiness Of My Feet

Dahanu Madness

We’ve spent 7 hours on the road so far. Through highways, crowded towns and unbelievable traffic, 3 bikes, all with pillions and the customary luggage sets – saddle bags, tank bags, and other types of bags tied with bungees – had just crossed probably India’s busiest and most crowded area. And we still had a long way to go.

We left the beach town of Dahanu at 4.30 in the afternoon. That was because the working ones amongst us wanted to reach home and sleep before midnight. Good luck with that now.

The tea has come, and we are waiting for the bread & omelettes we had ordered. As we sip our tea, one of the riders goes to answer Mother Nature. The owner of the joint got curious with our attire and paraphernalia. He came and sat on our table and started asking the usual questions we riders face everywhere we go. Are you professional riders? Where are you coming from? Which way are you headed? Is this a hobby? Are you a club? Do you do this often?

Ride In

It all began when Sagar suggested Dahanu as a riding destination. None of us had even heard of that place, so we immediately agreed – how many times do you expect us to ride to Mahabaleshwar and Lonavla?

After a few weeks of deliberation and preparations, the ride began early morning on Saturday. Everyone was asked to meet up at the Talegaon tollbooth at around 4 in the morning. At around 4.30, there were only 3 bikes there including mine, but by 5 we had the full quorum, and we started riding west.

The gang comprised of a motley set of riders: speed hungry veterans, riders who wanted to enjoy the slow thump, bikes with new block-pistons whose running in restrictions ensured that they could not cross a certain magic number on the speedometer. As a result, we hardly rode for long stretches, and the distance which should have been covered in 4 to 5 hours, took us eight!

But it hardly felt like a burden. For the fast ones amongst us, it meant stopping at eating/smoking/tea joints and waiting for the rest, and for the slow ones it meant stopping where everyone else was waiting for them, get a quick bite/fag/sip and getting back on the road without even catching a breath.

Riding in our patent chilled way, we reached Dahanu in clusters – the fast ones first, and the ones who had flat tyres or dry tanks the last.

Dahanu finally!

Once you reach Dahanu, all you see are uncluttered expanses of clean, good roads, with a minimum of people on them and a vast beach beyond tall trees on your left and grand looking resorts on the right.

We had bookings in a resort called Pearline. However, each of us was under the impression that we had to look for a certain ‘Pearl Resort’. Close enough! So most of us kept searching the beach road for an hour, and every time we looked at the board that said Pearline, we wondered how close these two names sounded and had a quiet giggle. We finally stopped when we saw familiar bikes parked in their parking lot and wondered some more.

After fighting with the resort’s receptionist, manager and the owner regarding our bookings and availability and rates of AC rooms, we settled in, had lunch, and crashed for a nap. After which, we did the most obvious thing – we headed to the beach with our cameras and bikes.

The beach is quite unlike anything I have seen before. The sand is a dark shade of grey, and the waves are docile, almost as if marching in files under a strict leader, coming to submerge our feet ever so politely. And with these waves come the tiny hermit crabs – those parasitic crabs who invade the shells of molluscs for protection and grow into them. All of this adds up to the serene & pleasant sunset experience.

Further up north from where we were put up, there was a small village market, where you get fresh sea fish amongst other things. And on the seashore, there were groups of fishermen working on their fishing boats behind the fishing nets which divided the beach from the road. I started wondering if this is the same place, same beach as the quiet and peaceful one I was shooting away in half a kilometre before.

While shooting the beautiful scene of fishing boats through fishing nets, I heard the familiar thump of a gang of Bullets riding by and turned. The gang had started on a hunt for a famous sea-food joint called Crazy Crabs. They went ahead and I saw them disappear in the darkness beyond the market, which evidently was defining the limits of the Dahanu village. A couple of minutes later, one of the riders called me up to apprise me of their plan. So I followed them.

But even after riding for around 20km I didn’t hit any decent patch of civilization or anything that looked like an eating place. So I stopped to click the beautiful row of coconut trees against the moonlit blue sky. I decided to ride further ahead to look for my friends, when I met up with some other Bullet riders, also from Pune, and got to know that this Shangri-La called Crazy Crabs is in fact in the next village, which is quite some distance from where we were. By then news was in that the gang also broke up, got lost individually in chunks, and were returning in chunks to the resort, prioritising the needs of the moment – hunger over taste.
And so we returned to the resort and had our fill under the starlit skies.

The next morning a couple of the guys wanted to go see the sunrise on the beach. After wondering for around half an hour where the sun was, they realised that Dahanu is on the western coast, which meant that their pursuit was absurd even conceptually! The disappointed lot returned to breakfast, and began planning the return. There were a bunch of students who had no worries in the world, so they wanted to stay back another day to catch another sunset. But the majority of us were eager to get back and catch a good night’s sleep in Pune before we went back to the Monday grind.

We broke up in chunks again. A few left Dahanu just after breakfast, while the final bunch of six decided to head back at 4.30 in the afternoon after a sumptuous lunch and a little bit of lazing around.

Head Home

So we did. The ride back from Dahanu till Ghodbandar was smooth as expected but we, being what we are, stopped even then for refreshments twice in that stretch. And then, we reached hell: traffic at around 6 on the road from Ghodbandar to Thane/Mulund is nothing short of hell. It took us 3 hours to reach Thane! By that time we were getting hungry and impatient. And we couldn’t agree on a place to eat at 9 in the night!
Anyway, we decided to ride’l on, get rid of traffic, reach Panvel and think only after that.

By the time we reached the Panvel end of the expressway, even a dinner at McDonald’s sounded like a gourmet meal. So we headed into uncle Ronald’s, unloaded our bags, helmets, jackets and the likes on an unoccupied table and went bazinga on the choicest of mass-manufactured burgers and iced tea.

When we started heading back, Nipun on his Classic 500 just took off on the expressway without even waiting for us. We waited for him in front of the McDonald’s, lest he realises his mistake and turns back, or he catches some trouble on the prohibited highway. But hardly ten minutes had passed when I got a call from him – he had reached Khopoli! Wow! I asked him to stay there and wait for us. We headed on the NH4 route, but on the circle at Panvel’s entrance we lost another rider: Yogesh didn’t bother following us towards the cleaner and simpler route towards Uran, and went directly towards Panvel town instead, despite our continuous honking, calling out, and calling on the phone – he conveniently ignored all of it.

So the remaining two of us went ahead on our planned route, resigned to our fate. But just where the roads merge again after Panvel, we chanced upon Yogesh, who was bewildered with the realisation that he and his pillion were riding all alone through the town! We went on to Khopoli to find Nipun waiting for us in front of a small restaurant. We went in, and ordered a round of tea for everyone.

And it hit me: we’d spent 7 hours on the road so far, and we are still around 90km from home!

Every minute spent in the restaurant was now making me irritable – I wanted the warm feeling of my own bed and my daily dose of Eagles to lull me to sleep – and it was getting pushed further and further by the minute.
We finally finished our tea, bread, omelettes, Nature’s calls, and Mr. owner’s questions and hit the road again.
Khandala, the Khandala Ghats, Lonavla, Talegaon and Dehu Road – all went by without any stops or eventuality – and we hit the last leg of our journey home.

Our last regroup was at the Wakad Bridge, where we exchanged pillions on the basis of proximity to our destinations, and parted with a promise of exchanging the ride’s photographs as soon as possible.

Solo Saturday Ride: Nighoj

A lazy Saturday and no friends around – what’s a rider to do? Ride ofcourse. Solo.

So I did. 100km from my place on the Nagar Road, a certain SH51 branches off to a village called Nighoj, beside which flows a river called Kukdi.

You have to be there to appreciate the beauty of the place!

A lazy Saturday and no friends around – what’s a rider to do? Ride of course. Solo.

So I did. 90km from Pune on the Nagar Road (SH 27), a certain SH 51 branches off to a village called Nighoj, beside which flows a river through giant potholes. I had heard about this place from Joseph, who showed me its pictures on flickr by other people. The ones that stayed with me were clicked by Suhas Desale and some other [email protected] members.

And ever since I had seen those photographs, I wanted to go there.

So this lazy Saturday afternoon (the 26th of December), after grabbing a bite at the FC Road Subway, I just rode off on Nagar Road. After around 70km of riding on the awesome 4-lane highway, which included a bit of ghats and loads of beautiful corners, I reached Shirur. Just when I crossed the Shirur town, there was the Ghodnadi river and its bridge which were my landmarks. I crossed the bridge and kept an eye out for a left turn. It is a sharp left turn, that comes just when the SH 27 is turning right, and can be easily missed.

So I took the turn, and realised that not all state highways are made equal. From a 4-lane Nagar Road, I was now on an almost one-lane “State Highway” to Nighoj. It took me another 20km of a mix of okay roads and almost off-road patches to reach the Nighoj village. The highway turns right when leaving the village. On the turn I thought it would be wise to stop and ask for the place I wanted to go to. The only problem was that I did not know what the locals called it. And I cannot speak Marathi! Luckily the two construction workers I asked seemed to be well-versed in Hindi, and they guided me in the general direction of the place, and advised me to ask for “Kundaa” (कुंडा).

When the road turns right, on the left you can see two big facades – the kind you see at the entrance of a locality or as entrances to “holy areas” surrounding temples. The roads beyond these gates are as good as dirt patches, so I braced myself (I forgot to wear my back-support when I left home!). I drove in to the second gate, and took the most obvious turns and corners, and conveniently got lost in the fields, all the while wondering if I was on the right track. I stopped on the way twice to ask people where the “Kundaa” was, only to realise that they were speaking such a dialect which even my Marathi flatmate would have trouble understanding. As a last resort, I brought out my phone and decided to do some googling. Now the phone I have, the Samsung Marine, is an excellent conversation starter, is very good with the waterproof, dustproof and shockproof thingie, and is good with the voice and decent with the messaging, but it’s not built for data connections. Three times out of four when I try opening a webpage on its primitive browser the message I get is that the file being loaded is too big for its teeny-tiny memory. Of course it’s a tough phone, don’t expect brains from it. But I digress. With my fingers crossed, I googled for Nighoj on it, and managed to load a post on a blog just enough to catch the necessary keywords – Kundaa Devi and Kukdi. So I asked another local, who spoke to me in Marathi, and I gathered from whatever I understand of the language, that I had to turn back, almost till the Nighoj village. So I turn back, and stop to ask a shopkeeper in the village, who literally walked me to the obscure looking exit on the left which would take me to the destination. This by-road made the road I was travelling on so far look like the Autobahn. Who would have thought that you would have to take such a road to reach such a popular spot? That too without any signage. Anyways, it took me another 3-4km before I saw another gate welcoming me to the Kundmauli (कुंडमाउली) tourist area. Another couple of kilometres, and I reached a plateau-like clearing, with a couple of temples. So I parked my bike, took off the bag from the tank and walked forward. And was amazed by what I saw.

The locals call this area Kundmauli (कुंडमाउली) or Kundaa Devi (कुंडा देवी), and there is a temple called Malganga (मळगंगा) over here. There is a temple on either side, and there is a narrow bridge that takes you across.

After I spent around an hour exploring one bank of the river and clicking pictures, I realised that I was losing light – it was sunset time. Since I wanted to catch up to SH 27 as soon as possible, I packed up, and rushed back to the bike. Then it was half an hour of almost off-roading, followed by an hour or so of smooth highway riding, and then another half an hour of moving through city traffic, before I had dinner and landed up in Aundh, drinking with a couple of Firelords. A perfect end to a day well-spent.

When Distance Shrank To Fit A Day

It was 8 in the morning, once again, and I was ready with all my gear. The saddlebags on the rear seat, the turtlebag on the tank, knee-guards on the knees, elbow-guards on the elbows over the jacket sleeve, gloves and a helmet. The only difference was that this time it was an elephantine distance that was awaiting me. The last time I had done this stretch, it was in one and a half days’ time in the opposite direction. I was leaving my friend’s place in Bangalore, and needed to reach Pune the same day. Armed with confidence, but still doubtful of my and the bike’s abilities to conquer the task at hand, I hit the road. The odometer read 16708. This was my first time in Bangalore in some 15 years’ time, and the first time ever that I was driving there. The roads all seemed to look the same (though they do look beautiful and spacious), and every turn seemed to take me both towards and away from the destination at the same time.

While negotiating the early-morning rush-to-office/school traffic while still very much on the city roads, I started remembering the previous day’s journey – the 36 hairpin bends, the elephant cub and the deer on the roadside in Bandipur, the beautiful vista that the trees presented me with in the forest reserves, and then the mostly uneventful journey after leaving Bandipur. Anyways, I got to touch NH4 by around 9.30am, and hit reserve at 10.15. I had travelled 90km since morning. After refuelling, I set off again.

While I was having a discussion with Anjani the previous night, he had told me that the awesome rocks that I had seen near Ramnagar while coming to Bangalore marked the spots where Sholay had been shot. The road after Bangalore also had such stones & small hillocks. You could just imagine Gabbar Singh convening a board meeting of his executive team amongst those big imposing rocks, and asking his Company Secretary Mr. Sambha for his market evaluation as pegged by the government.

After a 50minute long brunch break (heavy eating to avoid stopping again during the afternoon) at one of the Vithal Kamats on the highway, it was time to go again. But before that I had to answer a few questions the attendant there had for me — the usual, where are you coming from, where to, why, how many, what is it, aren’t you brave, aren’t you mad. So while the odometer was showing 16868, I took off again.

Long stretches started disappearing behind me, and the sun kept shining. In January, the heat was scorching — such is the Deccan terrain in Karnataka.

The prime concern for me was the time I was doing. I wanted to maintain an average speed of 80kmph, else reaching Pune the same day would be impossible. To maintain that average speed one has to ride for stretches at speeds of 110 and above for a good amount of time. Not that it caused any stress to my 350cc engine, but it does show on mileage. And however much we Bulleteers like to say that mileage does not matter for us, fact is that when you are doing such a stretch, keeping a tab on mileage and the amount of fuel left in the tank is critical, especially when the petrol pumps are so few and far between. And to top it, there are even fewer petrol pumps who accept credit cards as a mode of payment. My mental powers were thus spent calculating the distance covered, the time spent, the amount of fuel remaining and my immediate cash and otherwise purchasing power.

If you do a simple calculation, my bike at such running conditions was returning around 25kmpl, which means that the approximate distance that was planned for the day would burn 32litres of petrol. Now my tank holds 14litres including reserve, which meant refuelling at least thrice during the day. And everytime it had to be full-tank. I was hardly carrying any cash, and as far as I have seen there are no ATMs on the NH4 between Bangalore and Pune. So the only way I had to refuel was by card. But I was not so lucky. Only once did I get a petrol pump which accepted my credit card. And that too was after roaming around in the fringes of Hubbali. While looking for the pump, I was caught by a local traffic cop wearing the super-cool shiny white cowboy hat which is part of the Karnataka police uniform, who among other questions also asked me if I had paid Karnataka road tax! Imagine a biker with a Jharkhand licence plate, telling him he is coming from Ooty in Tamil Nadu and reaching Pune in Maharashtra at the end of the day, and he wants to know if I have paid Karnataka road tax! I guess there are similar policemen everywhere. Anyways, he was convinced in some time and in fact helped me with directions to the pump, and I got to refuel and leave the town.

The other two times I refuelled, my precious cash reserves were drained. In fact, at sundown all I had in my pocket was a measly Rs. 60.50. That, combined with the fatigue, hunger and the increasing realisation that I was not doing good time, which would mean reaching Pune very late, were tiring me out.

By 6.30 in the evening, I was nearing Kolhapur. That seemed to put some hope in my heart. Home wasn’t far. One part of me wanted to just pull the throttle all the way and be done with the journey. But then the pangs of hunger got the better of me, and I pulled over at the McDonald’s just before Kolhapur at 6.45.

There I met a fellow Bulleteer who was also returning from Ooty. It was Satya from Inddiethumpers, with a friend of his, who also belonged to that club. After the general introductions, we went our way towards our respective menus. Remember I told you about my fiscal condition earlier? It was still the same, but thankfully it was just enough to afford me a McVeggie burger and a cola float. Surprisingly a glass of cola is more expensive than a cola float at McD’s! Anyway, after having my fill and recharging my mobile phone in their kitchen, I checked the odometer. It read 17355. Total distance since morning — 647km.

For most people, and even for me on most days, that would be a distance worthy of 2 days’ riding. But there was a long way to go. I still wasn’t home. And I had to reach office the next morning 🙂

At 7.10pm I started off from the McDonald’s with darkness fast approaching me. Soon after I crossed Kolhapur, it started getting dark.

After I crossed Satara, fatigue became more demanding. But I decided not to stop. Not a very good idea, I will say. A couple of times I was so tired, I could not see the approaching road-divider that I would have hit (at a speed of around 100kmph!) had I not swerved nearly at the last moment.

When it was post 9.30 at night, the journey started becoming unbearable. It was dark, the traffic was as bad as it is usually between Satara and Pune, the weight and feel of the gear on my limbs were close to irritating now. When I finally hit the viaduct, it felt like I have almost reached, but still the journey seemed liked it would never end.

Non-stop riding for three and a half hours got me home, where the only thing I looked forward to was a hot water bath, and something to eat!

Thankfully my flatmate Girish was kind enough to quickly cook khichdi for me, even though he had had dinner outside. And I was not able to sit on the floor without a cushion (remember Saif Ali Khan from Dil Chahta Hai?). Funny eh?

When I parked the Bird at home, her odometer read 17593. 885km in 13 hours! 885km in one day! Bangalore to Pune in one day!

Girish, on hearing that I had left Bangalore only at 9 in the morning, had only one thing to ask me — “Were you chasing a Volvo from there? 14 hours is what a Volvo takes from Bangalore to Pune!”

Ride Wet

One has got to ride on the NH4 when it’s raining this heavily, atleast once!

The wet roads, the green surroundings, the fog, the constant prick of rain drops on the face, and the wet and squeaky shoes, low visibility, the constant worry about the contents of the saddlebag getting wet – all of this adds to an experience that is unforgettable.

The NH4 before it rained
Originally uploaded by recaptured

Yes that is exactly what the bloke would tell you, who leaves home when it’s overcast, on the way gets drenched to the bone, and takes five hours to complete a journey which he, with a good amount of pride, usually finishes in two and a half hours, and does not want you to think he’s miserable.

A trip that I had planned for 6AM today started at 8. Whom can I blame for the delay when the whole convoy consisted of only yours truly?

Anyway, the point is that Lonavla, Khandala and the Ghats look and feel breathtaking when it rains. When you are negotiating the hilly roads of Khandala Ghat in this weather, you can hardly see anything but the one vehicle ahead of you, and only because they have put their tail lamps on at 11am!

Apart from the awesome scenic ghats, it was the breakfast I had at Amber Garden a little before Lonavla that kept me going. Well, I waited there for over an hour, clicking the clouds, the water and the flies. And when I decided to move because the downpour seemed to be waning, it poured like there was no tomorrow shortly after.

Next time, got to waterproof everything when going on a ride.