February 05, 2010 GMT
India - Gujarat

Entering Gujarat from the NE one tends to hit its biggest city, Ahmedabad. We didn't want to stay in a city, so we looked in the guide book for alternatives. It mentioned a Bird Sanctuary not too far from there. Now that was a good idea indeed, so we headed to Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary on the spot.

Very friendly villagers on the way to Nal Sarovar - some people just love having their picture taken:


It doesn't take much to be happy on a trip like this... just a shortage of immediate annoyances. This photo would be titled "Happiness on the way to Nal Sarovar" and simply captures a moment of lovely weather, riding through tiny villages on a back road with no traffic, surrounded by farming fields and beautiful nature. We're healthy, we're together, what more can we ask for?


The sun setting over Nal Sarovar.

We located the hotel right next to the Bird Sanctuary and noticing there was plenty of space around the bungalows, we asked if it was ok to camp. Turns out it was, so we started pitching our tent. Easier said than done... for some reason the tent attracted even more amazement and bewilderment than the bike itself. We pitched it with 10 people standing right next to us, being in the way, looking at our every movement... we had to politely get back our poles and pegs from their examining hands to actually pitch the thing. When we did, we reached an impasse: We needed to start putting stuff in the tent and to take out all the bike gear (as it was quite hot). But with everyone there just waiting around, staring at us, waiting in mild amusement for our next move, how was this going to happen?

The penny dropped when a young woman from the audience built up the audacity to unzip the tent's flier WITHOUT ASKING US and putting her head to take a good look inside. What do you mean "private space"? I was extremely offended by this, uttered a barely controlled "excuse ME!" while grabbing the zip from her hand and doing it back up, and then realised one of us would need to stand guard while the other would be in the tent sorting the stuff out. Unbelievable, isn't it?

Our tent in its most spaceship-y shot, trying to explain why it attracted so much attention from the hotel patrons.


After sorting everything out (and ensuring there were no other assaults on our tent), we went for a short walk through some fields around the tourist complex, cooked some dinner and collapsed in our sleeping bags.

The next morning it became evident that it was way too hot to spend the day comfortably in the tent. So we packed up and moved into one of the bungalows. Because our stomachs still weren't settled, we continued the ritual of cooking on the petrol stove. Opening our last can of tuna was a disappointment - I didn't carry it all the way from Pakistan to figure out NOW in a time of need that I was being ripped off! Argh!


We had to remain vigilant throughout because our bungalow door sported a special cat hole, which meant the minute you relaxed and looked out the window the cat would bolt in and rummage through the foodstuff.


The quick and dirty solution was to put my boots right there, so that the cat would at least have to make some noise which would alert us to the perimeter breach.

Next day I was feeling healthy enough to hazard a much needed oil change for the bike. Let's see, last time I changed engine oil would have been in er... Van, Turkey, which meant this batch had been used for... oh about 9,000K. Just 50% more of what the manufacturer suggests. Oh well, what do those Japanese know about motorcycles anyway?

So I had bought some half-decent (non synthetic) oil in Pakistan and had been carrying it around in typical Alex fashion for about 3 weeks now. Not as bad as the back tyre that I carried from Van, Turkey all the way to Islamabad, Pakistan to end up selling it to Simon, two months and a few thousand kilometers later. Oh well.

I knew I needed to remove the engine guard to get to the bolt that allows the engine oil to drain, so this is what I did first. I took out my tools and in the most manly imaginable fashion undid the 4 screws that held the engine guard and just like that, removed it. I was surprised at how easy it was, since I take for granted that I'm useless when it comes to doing anything with my hands.

vstrom engine guard at nal sarovar highlighted

Next question was "where do we dump the used oil?". Engine oil is extremely pollutant and hazardous to the underground waterways etc - a single drop of this thing pollutes a silly quantity of fresh water. Asking around resulted in blank stares. I tried the local petrol station, no oil changing facility there. People's attitude was "well, we just dump it in that field there".

On my trip out of the hotel complex my mission was two-fold: Besides finding a non-hazardous way of disposing of the old oil, we were also running out of supplies, so I had to find some rice and any vegetables I could get my hands on. On my way back from the petrol station I asked some people that appeared to be just chatting, half-blocking the road, about where I could find food. Their English was limited (and my Gujarati is notoriously poor), so one of them rang someone on the phone, who said "follow the man with the phone, he will guide you to a food shop". Turns out the man with the phone was the local chief, something like a super-mayor for the municipality. His son, who could speak English, soon joined us on his motorcycle. He took me to a stall by the lake that had cauliflower, tomatoes, onion, rice, nuts and even some chocolate, all of which I snatched. He then took me to an old man with a wreck of a stall on the side of another intersection next to the hotel who was willing to collect my engine oil and reuse it (sell it, perhaps). I did the oil change on the spot under the watchful stares of about 20 people and felt a little bit (I suppose) like Bob the Builder.

After this ultra-successful trip I got back to the hotel, picked up Ping-Yi and met Kayaam again (the leader's son who had helped me) and a friend of his. All four of us went to the lake and took the standard tour on a small raft that was being pushed with a stick (sorry for generic terms) by our trusty guide.


Even though the afternoon is not the best time to see birds, it was still lovely.


This was a procession of cows apparently going for a swim... no idea what they were doing in there. Crazy moos!


After a while we reached terra firma once more, on a different shore of the lake:


There we walked a little bit, stretched our legs, saw huge flocks of birds resting and respectfully did not approach them in order not to upset them. Unfortunately my camera's zoom capabilities are quite limited, so no pictures worth posting from that distance... (unless you enjoy pictures of vast plains with many tiny black dots on them)

Our guide, whom I quite liked.


On our way back the peacefulness of the lake took us over and we barely talked, just allowing ourselves to take in all this peace and quiet...


The beach community next to the lake, and some impressive birds.


Now THIS would be useful all over the country... but it was only to be found in the very well built and organised information centre of the sanctuary. Highly recommended to visit if you're ever in the area. Kayaam kindly arranged for it to be unlocked so that we could have a look (the Information Centre, not the "spitoon"), since on weekdays it's usually shut.


Local women going about their chores in colourful outfits.


One thing led to another and soon enough we received a dinner invitation by Kayaam to join his family for dinner that evening. We gladly accepted and indeed had a lovely time. This is a memento right before we left their place, after having had a good dinner and a chat, seen family pictures, talked about our lives and laughed a lot. Good people!


Kayaam had also tipped us about the nation-wide kite festival that was apparently climaxing the following day. He said it would be worth going to Ahmedabad to see it, as there would be thousands of kites in the air.

We complied! That's the beauty of tramping around on a bike, one can go wherever, whenever. So we zipped over to Ahmedabad the next day, where we were repeatedly harassed by overenthusiastic youngsters approaching us and wishing to speak to us IN TRANSIT or (even better) were trying to cut us off, to force us to stop so we could have a chat.


Disappointed with the kite festival (nothing impressive to see, really), we flipped through the guide book and spotted a "Deer Park" a few Ks out of the city. The book also said it had a campsite! Now that sounded promising!

So we made our way out of Ahmedabad north towards Gandhinagar. A shot on the way there that depicts the harsh reality of Indian roads. Anything can be found in your path...


As soon as we entered the park we were at a loss about what to do, as of course there were no signs in English, and the guy at the ticket counter also couldn't speak much English and couldn't give any useful information.

So I approached a group of people that seemed to be there with some sort of an exhibition stand, figuring they would have information about the park... ten minutes later we were being fed by what turned out to be a group of nature lovers who were running a bird rescue rally on the very day most people were busy flying kites that (with their strings) injured tens of birds around the city.

I tried to get them to sit down and have their meal (by example), but blatantly failed.


After meeting the Bird Rescue team we had a stroll around the park. It was a really well done place. It started with a funny mirror hall to get people laughing and thus relaxed...


...then offered a few interesting crocodile pits:

(note - this was the first time I see live crocs!)

It further offers an endless supply of OK bricks, whatever these are. Regardless, they make great conversation killers when one is tempted to hold up a brick instead of verbally saying "OK".


By the time we were done exploring the park, the bird rescue team got another phone call about an injured bird that had been collected somewhere nearby, so we jumped in the car with two rescuers and hit the road.

This is what most trees looked like in the villages those days. With all those strings tearing through the skies, one can imagine how many birds were injured/killed mid-air.


Alok and Ping-Yi, after having picked up a patient with the BirdRescueMobile (okay okay it's not as crisp as "Batmobile", but there you have it)


Back at the makeshift clinic in the park, providing first aid to the injured bird.


After a couple of hours of hanging around while everyone else was doing some real work, we were lucky enough to get a special sighting of one of the leopards of the park.


Again, a first for me. A leopard! Whoa. What a majestic animal. Note that this particular one has been in captivity since birth, doesn't get enough exercise and is much fatter than the wild ones. Which gave people a good chuckle when I asked "is she pregnant?", only to get the retort "well, that would make it the first pregnant MALE leopard..."

That evening we were invited to stay over at Chaitanya and Anjana's place (the organisers of the Bird Rescue day), which we very gladly did. We had some food and plenty of good discussion, even though we were all exhausted. It had been a very full day!

Next morning it was time to say goodbye. After some farewell shots we hit the road again.


On our way out of Ahmedabad Ping-Yi noticed a "hyper-market" and we thought "could it be?". Well, it could, and it was. It was a proper huge grocery store with any *vegetarian* foodstuff we could want. Fruit, vegetables, bread (unheard of!), rice, pasta... oh bliss! We had been forced to do our shopping from off-the-road stalls and street vendors that usually had 3 cabbages, all looking battered and miserably small, and now we were back in foodland! Our shopping frenzy was only moderated by how much we could carry on the bike. But we were happy. Oh, so happy to finally have proper supplies to cook with!


Leaving that food market was the first (and so far only) time on the trip that I extended the tank bag to its full-open configuration, simply because there was no other space on the bike. We had even stuffed (egg-free) cookies in our pockets!

Our destination for the day was Jamnagar, since our rough idea was to reach the coast, Jamnagar was on the way and at the right distance, and Chaitanya had a friend there who would be willing to show us around. He had called in advance and given us his friend's phone number, to be contacted when we were approaching. The royal treatment I tell you!

So we followed the highway which took us through various towns with the usual anarchic traffic...


On the way to Jamnagar, good shot of the typical use of a motorcycle in India. As always, overloaded and completely unprotected...


On reaching Jamnagar we met Anil, Chaitanya's friend, who kindly located us with his motorcycle and led us to a hotel near his home. He checked us in, we made dinner arrangements and met later in the evening.

During dinner with Anil's family I mentioned something Chaitanya had told me, that one of his friends in Jamnagar was a keen star-gazer, and I asked Anil if he was the one. He said no, but he could arrange something for later. Not thinking too much about it, I said "sure, would love to" and carried on with the meal.

Turns out Anil is not a star-gazer. He isn't even a friend of Chaitanya in Gandhinagar. But because Chaitanya's friend had not been in town to help us, he had passed us along to Anil, who was basically receiving, helping and entertaining the whims of two complete strangers! Talk about hospitality...

He nevertheless made a few phonecalls and sure enough, a star-gazer with a portable telescope was found, and even though the man had the flu, he packed his telescope and came over so that we could see the stars.


When this whole thing became clear to me, I was rather embarrassed I had even mentioned the star-gazer. But this is how things happen on this trip. I'm constantly surprised by the kindness of people and the lengths they will go to make me (us) feel at home. Truly impressive.

When we were done star-gazing (which I was doing for the first time ever) Anil took us for a drive with his car around the city. The lake was beautiful at night:


For the next day we had arranged to go for yoga and then a walk around the lake, where birds gather in the early morning. But I had a rough night, my stomach giving me grief, so I didn't feel like going anywhere at 6am. I had to sleep. Ping-Yi did go and capture some beautiful pictures of the birds:


This is a shot outside the hotel. An idea of the commotion the simple act of parking the bike created in Jamnagar. Anil (foreground) seems to be enjoying it!


Anil also thought local media would be interested in this trip, so he made a few phonecalls and sure enough, a reporter was there within the hour. He took some footage of the bike and us two talking to the camera, answering the very important questions that people like us are born to answer.


Making sure we weren't picking our noses in front of the camera:


Leaving Jamnagar the next day, we realised we hadn't been online in ages, and sort of needed to check on a few things... so we tried to locate an Internet cafe of sorts in the small towns west of Jamnagar, on the way to the coast, but after being sent from one hotel to another and one non-working "Internet point" to the next, all we had managed to find was some sort of (funeral?) procession:


We also met the cow with the most intimidating look in India. I stopped the bike to take a look at it, because even from a distance that animal looked eeeeveeel! (the fact that it was taking our lane and not budging was completely normal by that point)


This is a quite representative clip of what riding a National Highway in India really is like. As you're watching it, imagine riding 300km of this (sure, with many isolated stretches) in a day.

We then reached Dwarka and the coast. I realised I could see the sea for the first time since Antalya, Turkey, 3 months back!

We visited (rather perchance) a beautiful temple dedicated to the wife of Krishna. It was a peaceful place slightly out of Dwarka's centre. We removed our shoes and walked around the temple, taking pictures, only to be told very politely after a few minutes that pictures were not allowed. Good thing we didn't even try stepping into the temple.


We left Dwarka swiftly and headed south. An Indian biker we had met in Nal Sarovar had tipped us to the existence of a nice beach close to Bhogat (south of Dwarka) and that was exactly what we were looking for now... There was no obvious entry, and the highway was far from the sea (we couldn't even see it!), but we took a turn in a sandy dirt road and after more than 2K of slow and bumpy riding (that sometimes forced us both to stand on the pegs), we hit the beach!


Exuberant that we actually found the beach, we enjoyed the lovely sunset for a few minutes before starting to unpack, pitch the tent etc.


This is one of those moments that I look at the bike and just slowly shake my head with a content smile on my face, doing a Charlie Randall impression. I like my bike. It's a good bike. It takes me places. Even when they're unmapped sandy tracks in India, with two of us and a full load on it. It's a damn good bike.


After dinner and some amateur star-gazing (with minimal light pollution nearby, the sky was a joy to behold) we hit the sleeping bags. It was a totally silent night... no road or village nearby, no wind, no animals. Bliss.

The next morning I woke up early, rejoiced once more at how lucky I was to be there, took a couple of shots of our improvised camping site and then proceeded to drag Ping-Yi out of the tent.


The early morning beach was just too good to miss.


Clean, unspoiled sand, packed with little treasures.


Our spirits were really high, so we shot this photo to send to all of our friends in Gujarat who had made this possible. Without you, we wouldn't have been there. Thank you!


The sun was seriously out now and the temperature was climbing rapidly. We had lunch, packed and took the coastal road south.

Art of the road...


As we were slowly making our way south, the landscape changed,becoming more tropical. I expected to see something like this in South India, not in Gujarat! A very welcome surprise.


Camel-powered carts used for local transportation. These must be the Mercedes of carts, considering others are powered by oxen (or, in Pakistan, small donkeys and horses).


Another sample of road safety and value of human life versus necessity and/or practicality. Can you imagine what will happen if a tyre of that pickup truck blows out?


Turning away from the coast, taking the road to the mountain and to Sasan Gir National Park.


Reaching Sasan, we spent the night in a home-stay: Basically someone who was renting out rooms of his house to visitors. I was reluctant at first, but it worked out just fine. Much better facilities than a hotel and a much warmer environment, since we got to hang out with the family.


The next day we went on a "safari" in the national park, hoping to spot some of the last remaining Asiatic lions ("and annoy them a bit more...", I kept thinking to myself). We got up at 05:30, hopped in a 4x4 and bobbled along for more than 6 hours around the park and the villages in and around it.


We visited some free-range crocodiles:


...and held conversations to the effect of:

ME: Why don't we go closer?
REASONABLE GUY: Because crocodiles can run as fast as 30km/h.
ME: (thinking hard) Well that's not THAT fast!
R.G: Six times your normal walking pace... wanna have a go?
ME: *grumble*

The ride in the 4x4 was an experience excruciating to such a degree that when our guide got a phonecall with the whereabouts of some lions and we did go and briefly see them, we were too tired to be impressed:


To see the lions we had to walk on a railway bridge. I love this stuff:


Back at the house, we caught a few Z's (i.e. slept like logs) and then got up for the strenuous task of... cooking dinner under observation!

Blatantly, these people gathered only when we started cooking. It had been a peaceful yard before we emerged.

One of the guys we met in the village told us in a conspiratory voice that he could take us leopard spotting that night. We had no idea what that entailed, but he seemed reasonably reliable and we agreed. No money involved, this would be on a friendly basis. So around midnight we met, walked across the village, descended into the riverbed and sat there, waiting for the leopards to come. I remember thinking at the time "this isn't such a brilliant idea, is it?", realising that we were completely vulnerable to an animal that could smell us from hundreds of meters away, while for us to see it in pitch black, the leopard would need to be brushing its whiskers against our face. I somehow didn't look forward to that happening, and was relieved to go, without seeing anything, an hour later. Instead of leopards we visited the cows in the dude's yard. Peaceful animals, they were even slightly frightened at our arrival in the dead of the night. I love moos.


Next morning, it was time to leave Sasan and head back towards Ahmedabad. Ping-Yi's flight was leaving in less than 48 hours and we had some 400Ks to cover.

We shot an educational video on ways to solve pipe blockage problems once and for all:

...and were off!

The road back NE took us through Junagadh, where during a rest stop we made the acquaintance of an interesting chap who was looking at us as if we dropped from the sky:

Looking at spaceman in Junagadh

While others were staring, we admired what seemed to be a mosque: (now I know it's part of a mausoleum):


We saw even more dangerously loaded vehicles on the road, but remained unimpressed, by that time used to the sightings of Indian roads:

Overloaded Enfield

Reaching Rajkot by noon, we had a quick cup of chai with Anil, had a chat with some friends of his about the trip etc, went to the bathroom and (a mere whole hour later) were on our way.

This is when it all went down. Leaving Rajkot on the NH8. Right mellow bend of a dual carriageway, the road relatively empty, us on the fast lane doing 70km/h, when I saw him. An idiot having just squeezed his bike through an opening in the curb that allowed him to come into our direction of traffic. He was holding the bike perfectly perpendicular to our axis of movement, blocking our entire lane, and seemed to be pondering how and if he should get on it or just push it to the side of the street. He was cutting through the entire width of the NH8 by pushing his bike. We were at the wrong spot at the wrong time. After a moment's hesitation (enough to defeat my own "Surely, he'll get out of there" optimism) I blasted the horn and hit the brakes. I still thought it was only a nuisance and the idiot just needed a good telling off. I hadn't realised we were in real danger.

Seeing us come right at him, lights blaring and all (which is unheard of in India - riding with your headlights on), he panicked. Instead of staying put or pulling back, he hopped on the bike. Seeing this, I thought "bollocks" and broke left, rapidly changing lanes. We would have avoided him if he hadn't managed to start his bike and move it just enough to crash into our right side as we were passing him from the left. Then the Strom shaked. Next think I know I'm on the road and I can see the Strom skidding behind me. Everything stopped pretty soon.

I take a moment, feel no pain, and try to get up. What happened? We spilled on the left side. Ah, grand. The bike is on my foot and I can't dislodge it. Fab! I try to look around for Ping-Yi but I can hardly move my body with my leg stuck like this. I shout out at her and get a response - in fact she's over my head quick enough and trying to pick up the bike along with a passer-by. Once they do, I get up. Foot feels a wee sore but works fine. We look over ourselves. Ping-Yi could have just walked out of a motorcycle store with brand new kit for all I know - her Hein Gericke suit doesn't have a single visible scratch! I look at the bike and see one pannier sheared off and on the road, another hanging from the strap cord I use to keep Ping-Yi's Ortlieb sack on the bike. Broken footpeg. Bent brake lever. Broken indicator light. Broken exhaust protector. Bumped exhaust pipe and engine guard. Broken pannier base.


Basically, the panniers seem to have had it, but everything else is pretty damn minor! We're quite lucky, but at that moment don't realise it. I'm angry with myself for letting this happen. The guy who hit us has of course already fled the scene and there are about 100 people around us, making it impossible to locate all the bits and pieces that have broken off the bike.

Then I noticed I had landed on my left elbow, tearing the jacket. Strangely, I was more upset that after 13 years I tore my trusty jacket, than for all the bike's injuries combined.


We ring Anil on the spot. We were with him 10 minutes ago... this is ridiculous. He gets there in what seems like less than five minutes. Helps us pick up the panniers and any bits and pieces of the bike lying on the road. He brings along a friend of his, who guides me with the bike (which is still rideable - engine, fuel system, transmission and front brake seem to work fine) back to his shop, while Anil loads all the debris and our luggage in his car, takes Ping-Yi with him and follows us.

At the shop, we stop for a breather. I'm still running on adrenaline, which must be very obvious because everyone is telling me to relax. Anil takes Ping-Yi to a friend's house to calm down, and myself and the two gentlemen who get on the case do damage assessment.

The panniers are in a bad way, but the advantage of metal is that it can be bashed back into shape, patched, welded, fixed an endless number of times (I'm now at "4" and would like to stop counting if I may).

The left pannier:

Left Zega pannier

...and the right one:

Right Zega pannier

The irony of it all is that when I opened the top case, the batteries were still charging. The same charger that has been disconnecting seemingly on every bump, has survived the crash and is happily charging away. Go figure.


For my sheared off right footpeg the dudes get creative. They procure a footpeg from another bike (don't ask...) and then proceed to weld some metal pieces to it to make it fit the Vstrom:


In the meantime Anil is back with supplies - he has brought food for me and chai for everyone!


Himanshu Vadesa, owner of Ruby Auto Services, with the final work of art:


Using simple tools and good thinking to straighten the pannier base:


Once everything was done Himanshu said "let me take it for a test ride". My foot hurt quite a bit by that time so I nodded "sure", right after which he miscalculated the width of the bike and proceeded to rip out the rear fender of Anil's car with my right pannier. Ping-Yi and I were speechless, but everyone else just laughed about it. A-ma-zing...

Less than five hours later, we were ready to go. We had a plane to catch and didn't want to be defeatists and take the bus or something like that, so we hopped on the bike and (cautiously) left Rajkot for good.

This is the team of people that worked nonstop to make this happen, without accepting anything in return (well, I just had to talk to Himanshu's wife on the phone for a bit to get him off the hook for missing lunch that day). I don't know what we would have done without them.


The road back to Gandhinagar was a long 250K stretch. It was the first time we were riding in the dark (not advisable at all on Indian highways - horrible glare, vehicles with no lights, no street lighting, unmarked obstacles etc etc), and especially after the accident it was a rather scary experience... the highlights of the route included the friendly petrol pump attendants who scrambled to bring us chairs to sit on, when we simply pulled over in front of their petrol station for a quick stretch of our legs, and bizarre signs like this:


By 22:00 we were in Gandhinagar, taking refuge in Chaitanya's place, benefiting from his calming and healing powers. We hadn't broken anything, but the bruises were bad from the side the idiot with the bike hit us (our right side) and we hadn't given ourselves any rest that day. We went to bed late, slept for 3 hours and then woke up to take Ping-Yi to the airport.

She flew out at 6 in the morning. And with that, this bizarre, powerful, unexpected, beautiful chapter of the trip was closed.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at February 05, 2010 04:48 PM GMT

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