Khardung La in India is, at 5 602m above sea level, the highest driveable mountain pass in the world. Voetspore’s Johan Badenhorst and his team tackled it in their Toyota Land Cruisers and a bevy of motorbikes.
The highest motorable mountain pass in the world: Khardung La. 5 603 metres above sea level. This was our aim as we headed for the Himalayas in northern India. There was a window of about three months of the year when it is possible to drive this pass in Jammu and Kashmir. By now our journey had taken us from Mumbai to Kanyakumari in the south. We travelled along the east coast past Chennai and Kolkata. We visited Darjeeling in the southern Himalayas and from there travelled to Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra and Delhi. Our biggest challenge was the heat of the Indian summer, and the driving skills of the local drivers. (No place on Earth, not even Cairo or Nairobi, challenged us as drivers as much as India) By the time we reached Manali on the foothills of the Himalayas, we had covered 8 000 kilometres with the Royal Enfields and two Toyota Land Cruisers.
Two more riders joined us. Francois Marais has been part of the Voetspore team since 2001. Because of his duties at our shop and fitment centre in Pretoria, it is not always possible for him to join a full Voetspore expedition. But he managed to set two weeks of his busy schedule aside for this special challenge. Edrique Botha has slowly but surely been getting more and more involved with Voetspore. I once helped him and a few friends plan a Cape to Cairo journey on their BMW 1200 GSs. Since then, we have had a few joint ventures. He was keen to do the Leh/Ladakh route with us on a Royal Enfield. Streicher and I were issued with two new Himalayans. This is the latest addition to the Royal Enfield range of motorbikes. The Himalayan was designed with the route we were about to tackle in mind. It is a bit of an offroader. A baby GS. One without the frills.
Most riders still prefer to use the trusted Classic (either 350 or 500cc), or the Bullet. The rental agencies in Manali have few Himalayans available. They still need to be convinced about the reliability of the bike. So we rented a Bullet for Francois and a Classic for Edrique. On a Sunday afternoon, just after lunch, we set off from Manali. Our first challenge was one of the most dangerous mountain passes in the world. With its top at 3 978 metres, the Rohtang Pass does not sound too much of a challenge, but the name literally translates to “pile of dead bodies”, referring to the hundreds of people who have died on the pass with its ever-changing weather. The pass is a winding route of switchback after switchback and no barriers to prevent you from falling down the almost perpendicular slopes.
On the other side of Rohtang La we camped at the hamlet of Khoksar. Day two took us past Tandi (last fuel stop before Leh), Keylong, over Baralacha La (at 4 950m, things were getting serious) to our second overnight at Sarchu. We covered less than 200 kilometres in a day. It was getting icy, even though we were heading for Jammu Kashmir in the Indian summer. At night, temperatures dipped below freezing. Early on day three we faced the challenge of Lachulung La at 5 060 metres. At the top, as we got used to by now, we travelled through walls of ice. At Pang we stopped for coffee and chai, then headed for Tanglang La, at 5 328 metres the second- highest motorable pass in the world. At the top we were met by a mixture of snow and sleet. Going past Rumtse, Upsi and Thiksi into the Indus Valley, heading for Leh, temperatures warmed up a bit.
We spent a few days in Ley, also referred to a Little Tibet. The people looked different to those in the rest of India. Many of them are refugees who fled from the Russian occupation of their homeland. Most of them are Buddhist. Early one morning, we set out from Leh, heading north. Apart from the road challenges that lay ahead, we were also caught up in the local politics of the rental agencies in Manali and Leh. A feud developed between these biker clubs. Leh’s agencies will not allow rented bikes from Manali to enter their area. They set up informal road blocks and confiscate motorbikes with Manali registration plates, forcing tourists to rent bikes from them. But as we have become accustomed to all over Africa, vigilante groups, also in India, are lazy buggers: they only start at 9am or later in the morning. We left just after six. We reached the summit of Khardung La just after 10am. At 5 602 metres, this 39km route is the highest motorable mountain pass in the world. There are a few other passes in the Himalayas higher than Khardung La, but they can be reached only with specialised vehicles, by bicycle or on foot.
Khardung La is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the highest for us mere mortals. It was bitterly cold at the top. The bikers wore their kit with all the inners, securely in place. Boots and gloves were waterproof. Yet we were freezing. We stayed at the top for half an hour, taking photos of our achievement, and then headed down the other side into the spectacular Nubra Valley. Two days later, we returned to the monastery at Thiksi via Wari La. This is a lesser-known pass seldom used by tourists. At the summit, it is just under 5 000 metres. When we reached the top it started to snow. This was like being in a fairytale. The beauty of the surroundings made us forget the below freezing temperatures. A few days later we returned to Manali. The two weeks we spent in Leh/Ladakh was the highlight of our Indian safari. As far as the bikes are concerned, the Classic did well and offered a comfortable ride, even on gravel and broken tar. The Bullet was by far the most powerful. But there is nothing like the Himalayan in the Himalayas. This bike was built and designed for these conditions.
The 410cc engine is quite adequate, the handling superb, the balance perfect. And the weight of the bike, at an altitude where our Land Cruisers struggled to get out of second gear, just right. The Himalayan is the latest addition to the Royal Enfield stable. It may just become as popular as the Bullet or the Classic.