It was pitch dark as the guy assaulted the two crates with hammer, chisel and crowbar. Rough-planed pine cracked and splintered as the crates slowly disintegrated. A crowd of about fifty or so workers had gathered round, curious to see the new arrivals. Finally after an almost 4-week absence we were re-united with the bikes at Neva Sheva, Mumbai’s busy seaport.
Crating and transit from Dubai to Mumbai had been a costly procedure at £1k per bike for all associated shipping and customs costs. Most of time it wasn’t clear what we were actually paying for with bills containing line items such as ‘stevedoring charges’, ‘off-loading charges’ and so on. We queried a £35 ‘Rupee Conversion Factor’ to be told ‘it was company procedure and every customer pays it’. At the end of the day they had our goods and any protracted enquiry on our part could only delay things. We had already contacted a couple of Swiss guys who had a very frustrating 12-day wait for their bikes and we knew of another Italian chap had waited 20-days. We figured this would all incur extra costs for accommodation, food etc and of course visa-burning delays, when we could be exploring India. We had already obtained three quotes for the Indian end of the business to confirm that the prices had some validity but, given the cost of living in India, these fees really are exorbitant and I don’t think there are any poor shipping agents. As with any shipment we were also slightly anxious that our bikes would arrive with all the baggage intact in the crate. In the end our shipper, CSS lines, proved to be very honourable and our delivery timetable proceeded exactly as promised such that we had everything sorted in four days.
Riding south, we were keen to leave the polluted sprawl of Mumbai well behind. As noted in the previous post, we had enjoyed our stay there immensely but a city where the blue sky was always obscured by a murky man-made atmosphere was never going to be a place to linger and so we embarked on roads into the State of Maharashtra. That first days ride was little over 100-miles on a Sunday road to break us in gently to riding in India. Our destination; the little palm-lined beach town of Diveagar and a few days of R&R after our recent bellyful of city life. The driving on the main highway out of Mumbai was pretty crazy and once again we had grandstand views of suicide overtakes on blind bends and hill-crests that no-one with half a brain or the slightest soupçon of survival instinct would ever contemplate.
Leaving the main road, wandering on into the Western Ghats we turned off towards the coast on altogether quieter roads and slowly began to relax and relish some magnificent countryside. The trip now, very definitely, has a lusciously damp tropical feel to it with palm trees and coconut shacks everywhere. We saw our first holy cows meandering the lanes and the odd water-buffalo, each one seemingly paired with a splendid white cattle-egret perched on his back. Progress was slow; the road was winding and in places badly pot-holed so lots of low-gear riding. With this and traffic we will be lucky to cover more than 30-miles in an hour.
Suddenly the road was barred by a level crossing. We waited patiently beside a tuk-tuk and a few other small bikes, acknowledging all the thumbs ups, waves and smiley faces. The train passed and we set off briskly leaving the rest of the traffic behind. However the road looped round and after a few miles we once again caught up with the train at another level crossing where a little mini-van and an ox-drawn cart were already waiting. I had the bright idea that we could go round this pair to be in poll position for when the gate was raised, which put us slightly on the wrong side of the road and toed in across the front of the mini-van. Problem was everyone else had the same idea and we were soon compacted into a morass of motorcycles all on the wrong side of the road and pressed up against the barrier. To compound things, a second train passed so the barrier remained lowered, allowing the congestion to build… I looked at the oncoming traffic on the other side of the level-crossing; they had all mirrored our manoeuver and it dawned on me that once the barrier was finally raised mayhem was guaranteed as everyone would go for it full tilt to get back on the right side of the road.
There was a sullen silence before the impending collision. All engines were off until the trains had passed and dust motes wafted by in the slight breeze with only the odd clack of train wheel on track breaking the peace. Then, with the track finally clear, the barrier began to rise. A clear signal to ‘start your engines!’ What followed was like a cavalry charge as engines revved, clutches dropped and everyone sought a line through the opposition. I lowered my visor like a medieval knight and praised the gods for my Scorpion Exhaust can, it’s loud ‘crongle’ drowning out every other horn and engine on the battlefield. Thumb on my horn I plunged into the fray, the bike bucking like an Ardennes Heavy Horse as we traversed the steel rails, tyres slipping and sliding on the oil-begrimed gravel bed. Mags was firmly stuck to my tail, her own air-horn bellowing for all it was worth as we cleared a path through the melee. Finally we struck open road and made our escape from yet another example of wonderful Indian craziness.
The road took us down into a river estuary and we crossed at rivers mouth on a little roll-on-roll-off ferryboat called the ‘Dighi Queen’ that dropped us off on a sandy track that led into the little town of Dighi itself. Views of the coast dawned and eventually some single-track, lovely-smooth, red dirt roads led us to the grandly titled ‘Cocohut Beach Resort’ where we learned we would have no internet or phone connection, that most perfect announcement for a real ‘get-away-from-it-all’ experience. Mohsin, the manager, made us very welcome and provided many insights into life in this out of the way place.
The following day we had the best day of the entire trip so far when we set out to visit the spectacular Jangiri Fortress. We started on a blowout, two-part breakfast of puffed-rice (Poka), chick-pea curry (Chole) and Puri. This was followed by some sweet, ghee-fried semolina with spices (Rawa) tasting like a Madeira cake so light that it has simply crumbled and fallen apart. A ride on the Dighi ferry led us to a short hop along the coast to Rajapuri, a seemingly quaint little fishing village with a garish Hindu temple at one end and a 300-year old Mosque at the other. In between the beachfront was lined with brightly coloured houses festooned with colourful laundry and patrolled by a menagerie of children, chickens, cats, dogs, goats and cows. The beach itself was simply the municipal dump; everyone just abandoned their rubbish across from their home with paths cleared through the ensuing midden for access to the clatter of fishing boats that lay marooned on the beach or anchored off in the bay. The problem with rubbish in India is that there doesn’t seem to be any infrastructure for civic collection and disposal such that people just dump their waste a minimum distance away from their properties, in this case to the lasting detriment of an utterly stunning beach. We noticed a big dumpster back at the hotel and asked Mohsin how it was emptied. He admitted it wasn’t; he just set fire to it now and again when it gets a bit full.
We parked up in the public carpark near the mosque and followed a narrow meandering broken-up street towards the headland where small boats ferry folk out to the fortress. We followed two of the tiniest little tots walking hand-in-hand, their bright red uniforms, socks and enormous schoolbags beautifully illuminating an otherwise dreary street scene. As the only foreigners in town, we were clearly an oddity and were soon beset by people making quite excited demands to have their photo taken with us on their mobile phones.
We’d just missed a boat so had to wait around twenty minutes for the next one, giving us the opportunity to check out life in these narrow streets. A row of ramshackle open-fronted shops and souvenir stalls showcased dusty displays, their purveyors content to stay back in the cool shade of their inner recesses only darting forth to serve the odd customer. Here and there holy-cows and goats wandered about or dozed in the shade and up near the jetty a shack was selling fresh coconuts. We sipped on straws at the refreshing milk inside and then returned the empties back to the vendor for disposal. He slung them over his shoulder, out the back of the shop. As we wandered down to the boat we looked back and the entire headland seemed to be made of old coconut shells, all from the back of that shack.
The imposing Janjiri Fortress lay on an island a few hundred metres off the coast. Someone had set fire to weeds within its black walls such that the ramparts were draped with thick herb-scented smoke giving the impression that the fortress was very much still under some sort of siege. To reach it we had to board a shallow draught, single-masted fishing boat along with around thirty or forty other people. This being India, everyone stepped onboard at once and the boat, which had a very low seaboard, wobbled precariously in serious danger of capsizing. The crew, who were holding the vessel alongside the jetty by means of long poles, shouted lots of ‘whoas and wheys!’ to get everyone arranged and sat down to stabilize the load. With order restored we perched on the gunnels, our collective asses now about six inches off the water and the crew began to punt us out into the flat-calm channel between headland and fortress. A motorboat arrived to take us in tow and deliver us to the gaping maw of the fortress gates.
Janjiri Fortress is perhaps one of the most stunning fortifications we have ever visited in all of our travels. Walking the towering battlements, sighting the long barrels of its monstrous rusting cannon through murderous embrasures, it was indeed a formidable stronghold. Within there were two huge sinkholes (the fresh water supply I guess) now overgrown with vivid green algae, which along with a flock of emerald parakeets gave a most tropical impression. It is all sadly dilapidated but must have been an incredible residence with evidence of splendidly appointed palaces and accommodations within.
Back at the Cocohut, we had a splendid dinner of spinach curry with chapatis and Jeera rice (with cumin). Towards the end of our repast Mohsin appeared to with a delegation of two young girls and a boy, fellow guests from a couple of Poona families staying at the hotel. They had seen our bikes with their big-fat-special-off-road tyres, which were just simply awesome! They wanted to know if, after dinner, we could answer some questions about why we travelled, then apologised profusely for interrupting our meal. The interrogation that followed was beautiful both in the interest that our travels generated in these young minds but also in how honest they were in their appraisal of our visit to India. They had been really impressed that we ordered Indian food at breakfast, excitedly observing how we noted down the names of everything in a little scribbler pad we carry for this purpose. But, now this is important… did we know that we were actually eating it all wrong? They explained how we were supposed to use the Puris to mop up the chickpea sauce and not eat it with a fork! Later they confessed that they also had problems in distinguishing us white people apart from each other… did we know that to them we all look the same? Ah…. the innocence and honesty of youth!
The rest of our time in Maharashtra was spent exploring the coast roads leading south, where we visited beautiful deserted beaches at Shrivhardan and the stunning headland at Harihareshwar with its naturally sculpted rock formations. Another day, another beach; Diveagar itself this time just a few minutes by flip-flop from our splendid Cocohut lodgings and a place were the sand meets the sea, meets the sky. Here we watched little sand bubbler crabs, each a squatter in a brilliant coloured shell such that they looked like little animated pieces of jewellry scattered along the diamond grained sands of the beach. India, away from the crowds, is a real paradise and our next stop is perhaps back into those crowds as we take to the road for Goa…
The full photogallery for this blog may be accessed by clicking on the following link… Maharashtra – India Begins!