There is a road in Tamil Nadu called the 209. Not an inspiring name. In other parts of the world you get sexy or evocative names like the Stelvio Pass, The Transfagarasan Highway, The Pacific Coast Highway, Route Napoleon, the N260 at Puigcerda … d’oh the Spanish ruined the name game! Anyway, all of them are great roads with technical hairpins, fast sweeping turns for getting your knee down and crazy steep bits. I’ve done most of them on my amazing and well used Sprint 1050ST (except California which was somewhat ruined by a hired BMW 1200 – dull gutless lump). India doesn’t do sexy road names, it keeps its best bits of tarmac fun well hidden. The turns on the 209 are so tight that a large scale map doesn’t show them in enough detail, but when the sat-nav shows 28 hairpins, a load of slightly less acute but still terrifying corners and some smile-inducing wide sweeping bends for the next 50km things are going to get interesting. I allowed myself into the upper limits of the rev range for the first time since leaving the South Downs, typically the video camera decided to corrupt the file so it’s not on film, probably for the best, my Mum wouldn’t like the angles! Even fully loaded with 3 aluminium boxes stuffed full of tools, spares, personal stuff and needless accoutrements (come on, everyone carries a load of unnecessary stuff, it’s just they don’t admit it), and carrying me, and a full tank of fuel this bike leaps up mountains and out of bends like a Bengal tiger. It’s got enough torque to pull the rings off Saturn so pulling me, itself and my gear around these super-tricky turns is a stroll for this engine. I’m running out of braking zone space before the rev count reaches 60% and if I’m not careful with how quickly I twist the smile-control for a bit of power out of a corner it does its best impression of Zoro’s horse and rears up on its back wheel! The traction control light flickers in 1st and 2nd to tell me that all the Bosch MTC computer trickery are actually working to keep the thing pointing the way I intend to go. The aluminium pannier boxes behind my legs stick out nearly a foot either side so leaning the bike over is occasionally compromised when the outside edge of a box bottoms out on the road. It’s a bit unnerving mid-corner to have the back wheel momentarily unweighted as the box makes a firmer contact with the road than the tyre, so I’m not going for crazy lean angles (until I take the boxes off tomorrow!). And seeing as today is the height of a national festival called Pongal; today being Pongal O Pongal day, there was very little traffic on the road, especially good was the lack of trucks and buses … Yay for Pongal day. Everyone was busy having fun which left me a whole mountain to do a bit of kneeling at the shrine of petrol-power (sorry, way too much Clarkson in that sentence!) A few days later, heading for Bangalore, having followed the Sat-navs predictably unpredictable route through a tiger reserve, down some dirt tracks, over the hills, far away, and round in a bloody big circle … it’s a good job I’m not in a hurry, and I enjoy back to back S-bends for several hundred km. Eventually I got to a proper bit of road, with smooth tarmac, no cows, three lanes, a bit like the M40 heading into London; they both wind their way through wooded rural landscapes before taking a tunnel or two through suburbia and a fly-over into the city centre where they grind to a halt with gridlock. OK, the M40 through Berkshire doesn’t have many rice fields, banana plantations and trucks spilling their coconuts, and the NH7 lacks the lane discipline but they both lead to really cool cities. I like Bangalore, it’s like London on a sunny summer afternoon. It’s got city centre parks, big palaces, culture, night-life, coffee bars and totally confusing one-way systems. Thank God for sat-nav.
A few days previously I completely missed the completely miss-able road which leads East off the 209 to Thalavadi, a small country town in the middle of a huge tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu. I had stopped 5km short of the junction having ignored the Sat-nav which, 10km ago, had typically wanted to take me down an impassable bit of sand and rock that in anyone’s book would never be a good idea on a fully laden 1190. The sat-nav was right in wanting to turn East, but it insisted on turning round and going back to the sand pit track, I was having none of it. I got the map out, but couldn’t place exactly where on the 209 I was when a couple of guy in their twenties pulled up next to me on, guess what, another baby KTM 390cc! One of them is a mechanic at a KTM dealership, he was super-excited to see a big 1190, he only works on 200 and 390cc machines. It is complete fortuitous fate that I have brought a KTM, I had no idea they were so sought after in India. This bike attracts people even whilst lost on a remote road in the middle of a tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu! The two guys on the baby KTM escort me to the Thalavadi road and insist on about a dozen selfies with me and my 1190 in return … that’s all good with me! In Thalavadi a small Indian guy called Kimal was waiting for me although he spoke no English so making himself known to me amongst the usual throng of guys who always surround the bike when I stop for a BB in a market town was tricky. Eventually after much phone waving and hand gesticulating it became apparent that he was to show me how to find the VK Farmstay, and that this entailed him riding pillion on my bike and issuing directions by waving his hand over my shoulder. This was fine, the road did its usual thing of winding through the countryside, narrowing, then disappearing altogether leaving us on a sandy dirt track with the front wheel occasionally washing out on corners, but this didn’t seem to worry Kimal as much as me. I put the bike in off-road mode which did nothing to help the front wheel grip, it just allows the back wheel to over-rotate (skid) up to twice as fast as the front wheel, in essence then, both wheels are skidding! As I slide down the sand tracks using a bit of opposite lock to avoid crazy amounts of oversteer I wonder if the boffins at Bosch who designed the variable traction control system on this thing envisaged an adrenaline-junky musician, a small gesticulating local dude, and 40kg of luggage to be barrelling through the Indian countryside. I hope so, they nailed it! Twenty-five km outside Thalavadi on uninhabited farm tracks I’m starting to feel I’m being led astray, never to be seen again, abducted by a bunch of Tamil separatists (the Western world and its assumptions of wrong-doing are hard to shake). But no, worry not, eventually Kimal’s arm waving brings us to the VK Farmstay which truly is completely in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by one of the largest tiger reserves in South India. My room, lit by a neon strip light which is attached to the corrugated roof by a bit of string, was painted lilac last century, possibly the century before that, and hasn’t been cleaned since. Everything is old, dirty and unkempt, but the water heater works, the shower is hot, the bed is harder than hard-board and the door to the yard, made of iron, creaks, groans and complains when I try to open or close it. Closed is best, it creates a bit of a barrier between me and nature. Nature, in my yard, is an over-friendly sheep who tries to nibble my knee, two cows (I’m assuming mother and daughter by their comparative sizes) several friendly dogs, and a gazillion things which creep, crawl, buzz, fly and bite, oh, and a large yellow gecko on the inside of the window, eyeballing me. Oh joy. You can’t imagine my relief when I remember that the hammock which many said was a silly thing to buy instead of a tent when back in the UK has a built-in mosquito net, so with the hammock suspended just above the hardboard bed, the mozzy net up to keep the smaller wildlife out, the iron door keeps the cows, sheep, dogs and tigers at bay.
Oh, and finally, I found a winner for the "how much stuff can you load on your bike" award. There's a guy probably still weaving his scooter down the 209 with his small friend crouched on the footplate, clinging to the front forks, and the entire kitchenware department of Harvey Nick's strung up on the back of the bike. Genius!