Ships of the Desert

Trip Start Nov 28, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2005

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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Monday, March 21, 2005

FOUR states, one month and three and a half thousand kilometres later, here I am sitting high above the surrounding Thar desert in a huge honey coloured sandcastle - perched up in the enchanting fairytale Jaisalmer fort in the state of Rajasthan. One hundred kilometres to the west is the Pakistan border. All around us is a vast sea of sand. During the day the temperature reaches 45c and even a well-humped camel suffers in the oppressive heat. Summer is fast approaching, bringing warm winds from the west and blowing away the morning winter dews. Troy and I rode into Rajasthan from Gujarat - the states south neighbour, four days ago. As we approached Jaisalmer in the late afternoon, a massive golden fort stood before us, silhouetted against the last rays of the red desert sun. Truly breathtaking. Jaisalmer fort is as old as the Mughal Empire, built around the 12th century. Ideally situated on the camel trade route between India and Central Asia, the fort played an important role in bringing wealth to the area many hundreds of years ago. These days' tourists bring the wealth. Inside the fort is an amazing living breathing city, with old men whiling the days away with brightly coloured turbans and wispy moustaches, old ladies dressed in saris more colourful than a painters pallet, a few goats thrown in for good measure, and of course the always obligatory cow. Sandstone buildings packed inside the fort walls built by wealthy merchants, called harvelis, boast the most intricately carved designs I have ever seen. I really feel like I have stepped into a storybook and travelled back in time to the days of the Knights of Arabia here (minus the internet cafes).

Alas, it hasn't all been smooth sailing and living the life of dreams...

After saying our farewells to our adopted Goan family on Palolem beach, Troy and I revved our engines in the car park one last time and got the undivided attention of a bunch of bikini girls on the beach. When would we see that amazing sight again in the near future? No seriously, they really do love the sound of an Enfield, makes them giggle uncontrollably (queue Austin Powers laugh). Troy was contemplating putting a sticker on the back of his bike that read 'No Fat Chicks', but decided against it saying that it might cut his pulling chances in the future. There we were at last, all loaded with our gear on our bikes. Ready as ever to head off into the vastness of India...feeling completely confident in my now restored Enfield, and the fact that it had also had a new paint job and was now named Pegasus, after the Greek mythological winged horse who took Bellerophon into battle against the Chimera and won, I kicked the starter while everyone looked on in anticipation. Clank; snap...the starter pedal fell off. My mouth fell open. With Troy and the others in hysterics, I picked up the damned starter pedal and looked at it in disbelief. Maybe this was an omen, maybe we were never meant to leave Goa and be on our bikes. Was Shiva, God or Buddha trying to tell me something? The pedal was reattached and we burned out of the car park with relief and heads held high (once we got around the corner). we come!!

Our plan was to cover as much ground as we could in the first few days, to get as far north as we can, then relax a bit, see the sights and take it easier. Besides, for the first few days there really wasn't anything we wanted to stop and explore, going by Lonely Planet anyway. So, up through Goa and into the state of Maharashtra we rode, covering between 300 - 400km's a day (that doesn't sound far, but when you're going at a speed of 60 - 70km's per hour and playing a part in the game of Frogger, it takes a lot of energy and concentration).

As we rode through the huge state of Maharashtra and left the lush tropical hills of Goa behind, the scenery changed from lush to barren mountainous plateaus covered with hill stations where middle and upper class Indians retreat to escape the opressive summer heat. The bikes were running well, and we started having a lot of fun taking the mountain passes at good speeds and throwing the bikes into s-bends as we wound our way up onto the Western Ghats and away from the tropical coast behind us. The roads went from good to something my dad's 4WD couldn't handle. We were headed for Pune, an up and coming sprawling metropolis half the size of Sydney but with a population about the same, nestled amongst a valley surrounding the banks of the Mula River. Pune has it all, and is changing fast to become the second Mumbai in terms of wealth, with an ever growing IT industry and the world dominant McDonald's franchise to go with it. My dad had grown up here during the forties and gone to a Catholic boys school on the outskirts of the city, so most of the reason for going via Pune was to visit dad's school which is still there today, and to see what else Pune had to offer. After dodging the craziest driver's we have come across so far (Pune is known for notoriously bad drivers), we managed to find an old colonial hotel, which was once a house owned by a wealthy British family during the days of the British rule. The hotel is set in a dusty but pleasant garden with full length balconies all round. As we checked in, I imagined what it would have been like in its heyday - English aristocrats sipping tea on the great balcony and bragging about their hunting kills for the day, while Indian servants in crisp white uniforms waited on them in silence. What a life hey.

Over the few days we stayed on in Pune, we got used to dealing with the chaotic traffic of big cities, as we hadn't really had this experience before just putting around in Goa before we left. We went to see a Bollywood movie one afternoon for a laugh, but the movie just released was set to be a huge blockbuster, so as always with anything warranting attention, hundreds of Indian men clambered around the ticket window shoving each other out of the way in a frenzy for a seat in the next showing. Complete chaos (again!) Troy wasn't up for standing on heads in order to get a ticket so we decided against it. Sanity is something we still try to hold on to, as hard as that sometimes is in this country.

On the last morning in Pune, I rode down to Bishop's School, dad's old school, hoping to meet the principal and have a look around and take some photos for dad to see when I get back to Oz. Exams were going on at the time so there were a bunch of school boys in various states of ironed white uniforms with red striped ties loitering around the basketball courts waiting for morning assembly to start. After begging with the office 'boy' at the front office to let me walk around, the principal got out of the passengers side door of a Toyota Landcruiser that had just turned up through the front gates and he asked me if was being helped. I told him that I was not allowed by the office boy to walk around as exams were going on. He waved a hand in the air, balked at the office boy and said that it was more than ok to do so after I told him that my father had gone to his school many years ago. He asked me to come back to his office after I had walked around for a chat. It was a weird feeling walking around the field that my dad had played hockey on, and boxed his way to school champion in the very same boxing ring that was still there today, and no doubt had spent a lot of time standing outside the principals office for playing the class clown. The school had changed a lot, modern buildings added and computer rooms fitted, but even still, I felt a strange connection to the school, almost like I was there to see with my eyes what dad had left behind all those years ago. In a way the school is a small part of who I am as well. It was emotional. Unfortunately I wasn't able to speak to the principal as assembly had just started and he was up the front starting the morning off by giving words of wisdom in English and trying to motivate the scruffy looking lot of sleepy eyed school boys. I am so glad I went there though, even if it was just for a short time.

After Pune, we decided against turning up to my cousin's estate in Lonavale unexpectedly. The main reason was I hadn't been able to get a hold of him as he spends most of his time in Belgium. Plus we wanted to get a move on and spend more time in the north. It would have been a stab in the dark just to turn up, so a 100km detour then having to backtrack wasn't a great option. A friend had raved about the state of Gujarat and said that we must go as it hardly sees any tourists and is a refreshing change. So we decided to head north-east into Gujarat and see what it had to offer. She had said that there was a national park worth visiting with a few hundred of the last remaining Asiatic lions, and there was a good chance we would spot a few if we took a safari in the park. Lonely Planet also raved about a small beach with an old Portuguese town called Diu on the south coast of Gujarat, and described it a second Goa in terms of beautiful beaches. Being beach bums as we are, the temptation to hit the beach again got the better of us. So, we pointed our front forkes in that direction and that's where we headed for.

On the way North, we took a detour and headed to the city of Aurangabad before landing ourselves in Gujarat. Aurangabad serves as a base for exploring the cave temples of Ellora and Ajanta. Ellora caves were closer so we opted to spend a day sight seeing Ellora instead. Leaving the bikes at the hotel, we took a local clapped out bus that stank of piss and belched more smoke than a Datsun 180B. One of the joys of being on a bike that smells nice, and only occasionally used by a passing dog as a place to cock his leg on. On the way there I started coming down with a fever, got the shakes and had to hold on to the mornings wada and curry sauce (we were eating curry 24/7 at that stage). We finally made it to the cave car park and walked up with a few other tourists to the cave complex entrance. The day had warmed up to scorching, and the whole area had little shade and what shade there was under a tree that had been used as a pissing trough. Anywhere is a toilet in India. Troy had been here the year before, so I followed him round straining to hold on and smile at the hordes of red robed monks with video cameras. The Ellora Caves are listed as a world heritage site. Over five centuries, generations of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks carved monasteries, chapels and temples from a 2km long escarpment. Each cave is carved straight out of the cliff face, with each pillar, statue or stairwell connected by solid rock. It's a pretty impressive site. Unfortunately in the state I was in, all I could do was sweat and groan each time we had to climb a stair or stand in the sun to admire the view. After half an hour, I gave up and sat under a piss tree in misery and waited for Troy. We caught the bus back to the hotel, and I slept for the next 24 hours until the fever had passed. I think at this stage I had lost a few kilos, and as a result of the being sick I'd lost even more, which would in future be my reason for getting sick often.

Well again, we did the usual morning check on the bikes, feeding oil into every orifice and tightening nuts that had come loose from the super smooth Indian roads. Later that night, after a marathon 12 hour ride, we again braved the traffic and landed in the city of Surat well inside the state of Gujarat. Surat is a tangled mess of overpasses with rickshaws, buses, trucks, cows and beggars all squeezing their arses into a city about to burst at the seems. It kind of reminded me of Barter Town our of Mad Max 3, except we didn't bump into Tina Turner. Troy had a tire blow out earlier that day, so again we arrived in a city we didn't know just after sunset when the madness is at it's worst, or best. We hated Surat from the moment we got there, so early the next morning we were on our way again. Bound for the beaches of Diu to calm the nerves and recharge the batteries.

As Gujarat opened up before us, I then realised how startlingly different every part of India really is. Each state could be an entirely different country. We passed simple farmers driving carts pulled by oxen with huge painted horns, camels pulling wonky trailers, wheat and cotton fields as far as you could see, small villages, and pilgrims walking the roads dressed all in white, seeking holy places we would never find. Each face greeted us with a huge smile and a big hello, or a look of absolute bewilderment at seeing two tourists on Enfields in the middle of nowhere. And the most beautiful girls I have ever seen, dressed in beautiful saris. As I overtook a cart loaded with girls returning from a wedding in the last village we had passed through, a beautiful girl sitting in the centre stunned me with a shy smile and her emerald green eyes. I smiled back at her, waved and launched the bike into top gear showing her what this baby could do, overtaking the cart. She cupped her hand over her mouth and giggled to her friends. I fell in love in a paralell life right then, lived it full of contentment with my emerald eyed farmer girl, then died with her in my arms in that one split moment, and so did the bike's as I almost skittled a wandering goat on the other side of the road...ahh the power of horsepower! Little did we know then that we were about to reach celebrity status in this state.

Since entering Gujarat there hadn't been even a slight rise or hill. The whole place lay completely flat before us, and the roads were great. We opened the bikes up and made good time, by late afternoon we had reached the south coast only a few kilometres from the island and town of Diu. I could almost taste the salt air again. Like two horses making a mad dash for the home paddock, we raced over the connecting two-lane bridge and into Diu town, revving the bikes as we pulled up to a restaurant overlooking Diu fort and a wide sweeping bay. The fresh salt air calmed our exhausted Enfields.

We stayed on in Diu a few days, checking out the old town and it's labyrinth of winding alleys and interesting Portuguese shops and houses all built on top of each other. On the other hand, the beach was shit. Dusty and dirty. It looked like it might have been a bustling, clean beach front years ago, but nowadays all that it had were a bunch of run down cafes and makeshift stalls selling sun bleached imitation Nike singlets that must have been there as long as the old guy selling them, some crippled looking camels taking Indian tourists up and down the beach for a few rupees, and clumps of palms covered in dust and rubbish. The fishing port on the other side of the island stank of rotting fish, but we braved the smell. The women worked hard on the docks under the harsh sun unraveling the nets, laying the fish out to dry and washing the bigger fish, while the fisherman watched on the decks of the boats relaxing and drinking chai. Great to see equal employment opportunity rights working so well in India.

Next stop for us would be a place a hundred or so kilometres north - Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary - the last place in India where we hoped we would spot a lion in the wild.

We had met an English girl the night before, and she happened to be going to Sasan Gir as well the same day we were. We asked her if she wanted to jump on the back of one of the bikes, so she did. Not much to look at but a well chilled out chick, it was good to have other company besides just Troy and I. On the way we got lost, and by the side of the road popped out this middle aged skinny Indian guy with huge bullet proof glasses and short red dyed hair (for some reason in Gujarat it was all the rave for confused middle aged Indian men to colour their hair a brick coloured red?) Anyway, he spoke fairly good English, and came up to me and asked me the usual first question that they all ask - What is your country? Instead of asking me this, he asked me - what is your mating country? I burst out laughing. Indians who do speak English have a very formal way of constructing sentences or questions. Another guy in Pune asked me - What is your person? meaning what is your name. You get used to it after a while but sometimes all you want to do is get a direction without the thousand-question-barrage. Lately, when an Indian asks me 'which country' I point to the sky and reply that I'm not from any country, I am in fact from Mars, and my motorbike is my spaceship that takes me through the galaxy. They do the usual Indian head wobble and give up after that. It works.

We arrived at the Sasan Gir HQ mid afternoon, after driving through Savanna type scenery for the lat 50 km's or so, I could just picture lions surviving in the landscape we passed through. In the last town before reaching the sanctuary gates, we met quite a few Indians who looked African with skin as black as ebony and short curly hair. Descendants of Africans who once inhabited the area. Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary covers 1400 sq km's, and has a lion population of over 330 and growing. The problem is, villages around the park have put pressure on its resources, cutting trees down for firewood and illegally using land for farming. In recent years, the lions have ventured out of the park limits in search of calves. One pride ended up on the beach of Diu back in 1995! I can't see why the lions would want to venture out of the park, as there are more than enough deer in the park to satisfy even the biggest lion appetite.

Excited and so eager to see lions in the wild, we quickly booked a safari for early the next morning. The Suzuki Sierra with an open roof would be taking us, along with a tracker and a driver, at 630am for a three-hour safari. I couldn't wait, so half joking asked the hotel manager if there was any chance we could take the bikes through the park tonight with a spotlight. In true Indian hospitality, always up for making a few rupees and not wanting to ever say 'no', he said that was possible. He asked us to be back at the hotel which was just outside the national park gates before 10pm. He would organise a tracker with a spotlight. Fucking unreal! So, after a Thali for dinner, we met with the tracker, a gangly looking man wearing a huge black parker. We drove out to another entrance to the park, down a dirt road to a gate and a hut. A sleepy looking ranger in khaki greeted the tracker who sat on the back of Troy's bike with a torch that wouldn't spot a bloody elephant in daylight, let alone a lion at night. We were let through the gate and left the lights of the hut behind us, the only lights now coming from our headlights, and the stars above. Slowly we made our way deeper into the park, the air thickened around us and the adrenalin started kicking in...I realised then that at any moment a lion could pop out of the scrub and have us for dinner. To be honest it was a exhilarating feeling, and reminded me of how I felt when my dad used to take my cousins and I out shooting rabbits and pigs on a friend's farm with the spotlight at night when we were young. Some time later, after not spotting even a moth, my headlights blinked, blinked again then went out and the motor died on the bike. Shit. Troy and the tracker were well ahead, so it was the English girl and myself and a bunch of lions and absolute stillness in the starry night. Not even a whisper of wind. Was that a low growl we just heard? Paranoid stoned thoughts started kicking in from a joint we smoked earlier, I felt like the goat out of Jurassic Park - pure bait. The English girl felt my anxiety, and it only made her more nervous. A few minutes later, we saw the welcoming headlights of Troy's Enfield coming towards us. As hard as I tried, I couldn't kick the damn bike over. Lucky we were on a slight hill, so I rolled the bike down the incline and hill started it. Life again! The only thing was, my headlight had given up the ghost. We drove behind Troy and the tracker, using his headlights as a guide down the dusty dirt road. Some time later, and no lions, we decided to turn around and head back. Tomorrow was another day and hopefully a lion would cross our path.

Early the following morning, five of us, including a French couple, jumped on the back of the small Suzuki Sierra and headed into the park again with driver and tracker in the front seats. The sun hadn't shown yet and the cool morning air was chilling. As we entered the park gates again, everyone held their breath in anticipation. The driver took us off the main dirt road and down narrow tracks only a 4WD could go. Sometime later, we came across a group of spotted deer looking pretty relaxed feeding on grass. We all got excited and started shooting off shots from cameras. The French couple had a Nikon SLR digital camera so they climbed over the jeep looking for that perfect shot. We drove on, and more deer greeted us, plus a few colourful peacocks running back and forth across the track like they had somewhere urgently to get to. A Mad Hatters tea party perhaps? Click click, even more shots from our cameras. We drove on again, maybe an hour and a half now into the safari...more deer - food for lions. The point was, they all looked too relaxed to be worried about being breakfast for a pride of lions. Then the deer jokes started. Where are the lions asked the French girl - I have no idea replied Troy. Oh deery deery me...then the tracker tensed up in the front seat, motioned to the driver to stop and got out. We weren't allowed to get out of the jeep, so we watched as he bent over and pointed to a fresh lion print on the dirt track just next to the jeeps tire. A big lioness he said had walked through here only in the last few minutes. I couldn't believe it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and the adrenalin once again kicked in. The tracker told the driver to reverse, as the lioness prints faced the opposite way to which we had just come. As he reversed up, I stood up on the back of the jeep and there behind us, about 15 metres away, were three cubs, maybe a year old, walking parallel to the track in confident strides. They were so close. I almost shat my pants. Quietly I yelled 'lions' to the others, and we all stood up and watched. The jeep reversed some more and we all got out with cameras at the ready. I had already managed a few shots, so put the camera down and watched as three cubs walked across the road right in front of us with the morning sun reflecting of their light coats. I can't describe in words the feeling I had at that moment to see these cubs and the lioness. I almost cried. The lioness walked slightly away from the cubs on the other side of the track, watching them. This lasted maybe only ten minutes before the four walked off further into the undergrowth, but it was so well worth getting up early to see this truly amazing sight. There's nothing more satisfying on earth that comes close to sharing a raw moment with a wild animal.

After spotting the lions, we got pretty blaze about all the other animals we saw. After all, what compares to seeing a lion in the wild? There were sambar, mongoose, parakeets, owls, deer, wild boar, monkeys, hyenas, shit loads of peacocks, and yep more lion food - deer. At about 5am the next morning, I woke from a dreamless sleep to the sound of a lone male lion growling out a mating call from somewhere in the park close by. At first I thought I was imagining what I heard, but then it came again, that unmistakable attentive growl piercing the morning stillness. Watching the National Geographic channel over the years had taught me something!

A few days later, we left Sasan Gir behind us and headed north once again. I carried the English girl on the back of my bike, while Troy carried most of our bags on his racks to even the load (not that the English girl was that fat). Even though the sun beat down and the day turned to stinking hot, I couldn't shake off a cold sweat as we drove along. I tried to forget about it, not realising what it actually was until we arrived in a shithole of a city called Jamnagah, later that afternoon. I broke out into a full on fever again, couldn't control anything and ended up sleeping the afternoon away while Troy and co went and ate. By evening I was in a right state, so I staggered downstairs to hotel reception, slurring, drooling vomit and shitting my pants and asked someone to take me to hospital. The doctor checked me out and told me that I had an infection. A spider had bitten me in two places, one right near my testicals. I couldn't sit straight for the next week. Worst thing was, having to sit on a motorbike for most of the day wasn't great. Three days later and the fever started subsiding, so we got the hell out of Jamnagar. I realised then that my immunity levels were well detoirorated to resist anything. It started to worry me.

By this stage, every time we stopped in a town we passed through for a bottle of water and a break, we would have an entourage of Indian men and kids completely surrounding us. At least 50 - 100 Indians would stand around us watching everything we did. We quickly became celebrities. It was at these times that my bike usually wouldn't start, stage fright we called it. As I got the shits with it more and more, the locals would start laughing at me. So many times I had to control myself, and especially with the infection still aching like a bastard in the wrong place, my tolerance level was at an all time low. At first this celebrity status thing was fun, but after a while it became tiring. All we wanted to do is take a break in peace. But as we're in India, we're NEVER alone! Troy was the same, but he managed better than me. Being healthy helps a lot.

We wanted to check out the area in the far north of Gujarat, the Great Rann of Kutch. Most of the area is covered by huge expanses of salt plains, and during the dry season, which we were in, most of the area turns to hard dried mud. Not much grows here, and the isolated villages live on what they can from the ground, plus herding goats and sheep. We arrived in the areas capital, Bhuj, and checked into a hotel opposite the bus stand and the city's sweet smelling public toilet. Bhuj had been affected by an earthquake in 2001, when 150,000 people had died, and much of the city even today still lay in ruins. The people seemed reserved, and we got looks of what looked like disapproval from many. I wasn't fussed on the city, it was dirty, had not much in the way of beauty or grandeur, and all the food was sickly sweet. Nothing was savory, and the only thing we could eat without feeling sick was from the omelet man who opened his stall after 7 at night. I was craving some hearty savory food, I'd have even been grateful for curry but without the bloody sugar!

We left Bhuj a few days later after doing some minor mechanical work on the bikes. The English girl caught a train north somewhere, so Troy and I could stretch our wings again and fly! We spent the day driving out to the remote tribal villages north of Bhuj, after obtaining a permit from the passport office. Open desert and huge winds greeted us, and the biggest sandstorm I have even been in almost swept us both off the road and covered us in sand. We turned around and headed back to Bhuj, spent one more night there then early the next morning set our sights for the next state - Rajasthan. We were both looking forward to getting out of Gujarat in many ways, and from what I had heard Rajasthan was a place of palaces, forts and other great things.

Just after we had passed through the Rajasthani border, I spotted four elderly nomad women walking towards us dressed all in black with long mauve headdresses. Two wooden carts pulled by two lanky camels walked beside them. I had Groove Armada playing in my ear through my Discman as we rode along at the time, the song playing was 'I See You Baby'. As I looked back in the rearview mirror, I'm sure I saw one of the women wink at me and wiggle her arse. It happened only for a moment but there it a clip off a music video. Welcome to Rajasthan! I then thought about the extreme differences between these four nomadic women and myself. Extreme differences, but ironically we were both nomads wandering around India, just doing it for completely different reasons.

So here we are in Jaisalmer, after arriving a few days ago. I have my bike in the mechanics again. We've just come back from an overnight camel safari in the desert to the west. Years ago, I did a camel safari in Morocco. I vowed then that never again would I get on a camel...then a few days ago a gorgeous Norwegian girl talked us into joining her and some friends on one. What to do? The power of a woman is unbelievable. I agreed, and here I am now, sitting on a chair in an internet cafe lopsided as my arse is so sore. She has since left, leaving her heavenly intoxicating scent on my pillow (until it gets washed at least). Will we ever learn from our mistakes? Maybe. Without the influence of a blonde Norwegian girl at least. There is nothing more surreal yet soothing then sleeping under the stars at night in the desert. Waking in the morning to desert men making chai and hard-boiled eggs, chatting in an exotic Indian dialect amongst themselved quietly. Camels are the most disgusting animals on earth, they fart, shit and piss all day and night. But with all of their disgusting ways, they truly are the Ships of the Desert.

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