Stuck in salt flats - the Rann of Katch
Subtly at first, and then with more force, I felt the bike starting to labour and inexorably lose forward momentum. I shifted down a cog and continued, but the drag worsened. Nightmare scenarios of mechanical failure ran through my mind, but glancing over at Olli I could see that he too was in difficulty. Then I looked down, and knew with certainty that we were sinking. The surface here was not as solid as the previous day, and we were making heavy weather through what was rapidly becoming soft salt-topped mud. Oh dear, I thought, or words to that effect...
20 January 2001
I left Jaisalmer on Christmas eve with Olli, a German biker on a magically maintenance-free Transalp, with the intention to head out into the desert for a Christmas meal cooked by campfire. So we loaded up with the ingredients to make a desert Christmas. One bottle rum, the makings of onion pakoras (a delicacy we learned from the camel-men in Jaisalmer) and baked spuds, a fresh chicken, herbs & spices, and some "Hide and Seek" biscuits, which are without doubt the finest form of confectionery in the known universe. A veritable poem in choc-chip loveliness, oh yes indeedy.
If you go west from Jaisalmer, an interesting thing happens. First, the tourists thin out, and disappear. Then, people by the side of the road starting leaping up and down and waving excitably. Fair enough. We waved back.
Comments like "Go back, go back!" were less open to misinterpretation, but we carried on regardless and found that the best Christmases are to be had in militarily sensitive border areas.
But at the time we didn't know this, and pressed onward to find a fine spot off the road in amongst the thorn trees and the dunes. The pakoras sizzled, the chicken barbecued, the rum flowed, the stars shone, and the biscuits...errr....just got eaten. It appeared that the Pakistani military did not object too much to our presence, for we were not bothered during the night except by a small herd of cattle, which ambled past a few hundred yards distant. They clearly found nothing to excite their interest, sighed resignedly, talked the situation over, and wandered off into the night.
The following day dawned bright and fresh, and we discovered that sleeping under the sky seems to efficiently negate the effects of a hangover.
This was just as well, as the roads leading south to rejoin the main highway were periodically subject to huge drifts of sand from the desert, which piled up often a foot or two deep, for several hundred yards. I hate sand. This sort of stuff is no problem in a 4-wheel drive, but on a heavily laden 2-wheeler can cause problems. Unless you hit these hazards just right, the vehicle starts to weave alarmingly from side to side as your speed drops, and you end up either dropping the whole bloody lot into the (mercifully soft) sand, or hopelessly mired in the stuff, up to your hubs.
Trying to extricate a bike from this sort of predicament is hot sweaty work and you can quite easily burn your clutch to a frazzle if you try to ride the bike out without help. The main rule seems to be to keep going forward at all costs. So we did, and learned a bit about sand riding in the process - though I still hate the stuff and will do anything to avoid it. I made a solemn promise to my poor abused motorcycle not to go off road again on this trip. This was a somewhat optimistic promise, as events were to prove very shortly...
The Rann of Katch
After a night in a guesthouse, we set off to travel over the Rann of Katch, which barred our path to the south. The Rann is a huge flat salty plain, which is connected to the ocean in the West, but doesn't actually contain any water - except during monsoon, when it is largely occupied (according to the guide) by mud and wading birds. There are two subdivisions of the Rann, and we intended to cross the smaller of the two, an area about 50 kilometres diameter. Although there was a perfectly serviceable main asphalt road, Olli wanted to cross by a route which was marked on our map as a jeep trail.
Now, in view of my recent experiences in Northern Pakistan, I tend to receive premonitions of imminent doom when someone mentions jeep trails, but I threw caution to the winds, or indeed down the lavatory, and agreed.
This is symptomatic of the division of labour in our expedition group. Olli is in charge of navigation, insane ideas, public relations and opening beer bottles. I take care of tea-making, dishwashing, falling off, worrying about the bikes, and saying "bloody hell" a lot.
So we headed towards the Rann, with the by now familiar crowds of bystanders gesticulating frantically, and hopping up and down: "Go back, go back....!"
I was not in the least surprised when the jeep trail degenerated into deep rutted sand (sand! goody!) and then disappeared entirely. But then we emerged from the scrubby bushes and entered the salt lake itself.
Seeing these things on television does not prepare you for the reality of biking across the middle of a blinding white emptiness, with the sun beating down on the hard dusty salt-encrusted surface and a trail of dust billowing from your back wheel. We were travelling now by compass bearing, due to the lack of any visible landmarks whatsoever
- just a flat blue-white horizon, and in the distance I could see Olli, a tiny shiny bike pelting along at the base of a huge plume of dust. After a time, the horizon sprouted a small raised island with a few thorn trees, which was marked on our map as the approximate centre of the lake. An excellent place to stop and camp.
The sun went down in splendour over the flat empty plains and we felt privileged to be the only two people there to see it.
Sunset on our island in the middle of the salt lake
The following morning we continued South towards the villages on the distant side of the Rann. Subtly at first, and then with more force, I felt the bike starting to labour and inexorably lose forward momentum. I shifted down a cog and continued, but the drag worsened. Nightmare scenarios of mechanical failure ran through my mind, but glancing over at Olli I could see that he too was in difficulty. Then I looked down, and knew with certainty that we were sinking. The surface here was not as solid as the previous day, and we were making heavy weather through what was rapidly becoming soft salt-topped mud. Oh dear, I thought, or words to that effect.
Remembering my sand schooling of the previous day, I tried to keep going in a forward direction for as long as possible, in the hope of finding firmer ground. Instead, the surface seemed to worsen. The engine began to rev higher, though I was patently slowing down, and in confusion I glanced behind to see that I was creating a picturesque ten-foot fountain of mud as my wheel spun in the gluey surface.
Overheating and sinking in the salt lake
Still, we were moving forward, albeit at a reduced rate. I glanced at Olli, who was similarly using the rear wheel of his Transalp as a sort of 600cc muckspreader. Farmer Olli churned over towards me with a huge grin on his face, apparently oblivious to the huge strains we were placing on the motors of our machines. This unshakeable confidence in the capabilities of his bike is one of Olli's trademarks, and one which I cannot emulate, so I do the worrying for both of us. We continued, to the smell of burning engine oil. Smoke started to come out of Olli's engine-oil dipstick hole, so we stopped for a bit to let things cool down, and eat biscuits. (This tends to be our initial response to any crisis). On closer inspection the rear wheels of both bikes were now completely without tyre-profile, just smooth mud. It was like trying to ride round on an 18-inch doughnut. Each bike had also collected about 10kg of glutinous mud.
Olli was cheerful and confident. I said "Bloody hell". We continued.
As it happened, we were past the worst, and were convinced that the game was over when we reached a group of salt "miners" who were working within sight of "land" on the far side of the Rann. The process of extracting salt from a salt lake in the dry season involves digging a deep hole, from which water is pumped out into a shallow square lagoon, 50 metres on a side, about a foot deep, bounded by low earth walls. The salty water then evaporates slowly, leaving the salt, which is harvested. I know all these fascinating details because I had the opportunity to inspect the arrangements very closely, mainly because the miners directed us straight through the middle of the lagoon complex. I think the best way to tell whether the salt is ready to be harvested or not, is to send some dipstick biker straight through the middle. If they don't come out the other side, you know to leave it a few more days.....
Trying to escape from the salt lagoons
- Connor with bike
So it was two very muddy and knackered bikers who finally made it, gasping, to the first chai stall on the other side. Olli had got irretrievably stuck at one point, and I had to push him out - this was when I learned that the best way to get covered from head to toe in mud is to push a wheel-spinning Transalp through an Indian salt lagoon for 50 yards or so. You are invited to test the hypothesis for yourself. Bring your own Transalp....
I travelled the remaining distance to the night's guesthouse with the salty crud rapidly drying on the front of my leather jacket and trousers. By the time I arrived, I appeared to have some sort of advanced industrial disease - yeah, salt miners crotch, a nasty case....
So at length 2 dusty and weary bikers arrived in Diu, for a well earned new-year break in the tropical paradise on the Arabian sea
- my definition of paradise being a warm sunny place where beer is 30 rupees a bottle, half the price in the rest of India.
And bless me father, for I have sinned mightily, in that I did verily go to the beach on my bike on numerous occasions, and yea didst drive most recklessly through sand and salt and all manner of crud, and thereby didst have a right good time but didst shorten the life of my holy chain and sacred sprockets by 1000 kays or so. I am a sinner and will surely go to hell, amen.
After this debauchery, I headed East, still in the company of Ollie and having additional members of the party in the form of Mike, an Aussie on a rented Enfield, and Carmen, riding pillion with Ollie and expanding his luggage to the point where space and time in the region of his back box were starting to show signs of strain.
The next few days passed at a leisurely pace, and I learned a lot about Enfield mechanics. I am currently possessed by an illogical and masochistic desire to own one of these things, enraptured as I am by the agricultural nature of the engineering, and the ability to access all necessary spare parts for a full engine rebuild at the local back-of-beyond corner store.
But I guess such advantages evaporate if you take one of these bikes out of India........so stick with your trusty Tenere, you disloyal sod. To quote desiderata:
"With all its knackered suspension, dodgy 5th gear and elderly camchain, it is still a beautiful motorcycle. Be careful. Strive to drink more chai...."
But all things come to an end, not least of which my visa for India.
With the expiry date fast approaching, I had to hotfoot it alone from the pilgrim town of Omkareshwar North East towards Nepal. I remember very little of this hectic flight, except that the take-home message is that being in a hurry on Indian roads can be hazardous to your health. I guess most of you knew that already, but some of life's little lessons we have to learn for ourselves....
So here I am in Kathmandu - having arrived after dark (breaking my golden rule of not travelling at night) and with my headlamps failing (breaking my basic common sense rule of not travelling when its DARK and you cant bloody well SEE ANYTHING YOU IDIOT), and I plan to rest up, fix my electrics, straighten both my buckled wheels (again), eat some biscuits, and generally enjoy myself in like fashion for a week or so.
The good times are here again
More soon - Connor.
Posted by Connor Carson at 12:00 AM