We’re two months into the trip and so far, apart from a few punctures, a replacement battery, and a snapped throttle cable, we’ve had very little in the way of mechanical problems. Oil tends to ooze from various places around the engine, and gear changes are becoming less smooth as time goes on, but that’s a consequence of lower quality parts wearing out, and the bikes being ridden hard, at the top end of their speed range, hour after hour every day. Oil top-ups have become a part of our daily maintenance routine, along with lubing the chain (and counting the screws that have rattled loose and disappeared somewhere along the road) and when we left Mandvi, everything was running well.
The midday heat was scorching so we randomly detoured off the main road, hoping the little track leading us past a windfarm and through sleepy villages would eventually end with a beach. After a few kilometres of dust and no sign of water I was starting to consider turning around, but our tenacity was rewarded. The road finished by some dunes and a deserted beach – obviously not well known to anyone unwilling to blindly ride down 5 kilometers of potholes. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t get the bikes up over the dunes for a little blast in the sand, so we left them by the road and wandered down the beach. A wicked undercurrent meant we couldn’t go for a proper swim, so we dipped our toes in the surf and cooled off a bit. Good enough.
A few hours later we were back on the arrow-straight main road, heading north-west along the coast and trying to keep our speed close to 100kph to avoid overheating. My bike gave a sudden violent shudder, then cut out. I coasted to the side of the road and tried in vain to start her up. Time to break out the tool kit I guess. The spark plugs seemed fine and there was no blockage in the fuel line, though the bleed screw in the carburetor had been worn smooth, presumably by the last amateur mechanic who’d owned the bike, and I was out of ideas. Maria rode back the way we’d come to try and recruit some help.
She returned with a security guard/part time mechanic and his friend, who’s main credential seemed to be that he was in the area. They busied themselves in rechecking the things I’d checked, then took the carburetor out (an incredibly simple undertaking on these little bikes) and opened it up. The thing was full of water; presumably picked up from a dodgy petrol station somewhere, and once it was all back together the bike started up fine. We expressed our thanks and set off again.
I hadn’t gone five kilometres when the same violent shudder had me coasting to a stop again. Luckily this time I’d pulled up next to a little makeshift garage. We were soon surrounded by the family, emerging – as Indian’s do – as if from nowhere. While they were far more interested in taking pictures and practicing their English, we did manage to convey our problem and the bike was once again subjected to scrutiny. This time the diagnosis was a faulty sparkplug causing a short and the youngest son was sent off to fetch a replacement. As he wobbled off on the family’s shared 125cc Honda, struggling to reach the gear pedal while still peering over the handlebars, we turned our attention back to the crowd and continued posing for snaps and answering questions. Everyone seemed particularly interested in the Tibetan flags lashed to the mirrors, and how we’d come to own them. Soon enough our young friend was back with a sparkplug, a huge bottle of sprite, and about a dozen villagers. With the new plug my bike once again started but we weren’t going anywhere: There was the makings of a party congregating around the little shack.
As dusk started to set in, we decided it’d be best to leave them to it and find somewhere to make camp. Of course, after another few kilometers of riding I was back on the roadside, puzzling over my non-starting bike. It was dark now, and the only light provided was from a worryingly big bush-fire next to me. We certainly wouldn’t be camping here. A passer-by stopped to help, but now that it was dark there was very little to do. I asked if there was a guesthouse nearby, and luckily was told we were only three kilometers away from a place. I was gearing up to start pushing the bike when a pickup stopped and insisted on loading us into the back.
We stopped and unloaded at a bustling little chai shop opposite the gates to a cement factory. As it turns out the ‘guesthouse’ was actually a part of the complex and was provided for family of the factory workers. Our situation was unusual, and it was going to take a little bureaucratic wriggling to get a bed for the night. I wheeled Khiimori through the factory gates, where a heated debate was in progress between the three security guards and the guys who’d picked us up. They, and everyone else at the chai shop, were workers at the factory and were sympathetic to our plight, but it seemed the higher-ups weren’t keen on the hassle or the paperwork involved in letting us stay. We sat meekly by the bikes and waited for a ruling.
After much back-and-forth, the head of security summoned Maria into his office, where his superior was waiting on the other end of the phone. She spent the best part of half an hour pleading our case (it later transpired that most of this time was spent trying to explain that there were two bikes, and only two people. Since he was talking to a female, he couldn’t quite comprehend how Maria was getting around the country without a man to ride the bike for her).
Mercifully, we were soon joined by the in-house head of personnel, who informed us that we’d been granted a two day stay at the complex. In addition to that, a local mechanic had been called to inspect Khiimori. Of course the mechanic in question was the same who’d changed my spark plug hours before, and was somewhat confused to run into me again, five kilometers down the road. He agreed to take the bike home and have a proper look, so I unloaded my luggage, and watched him receding into the darkness on foot, pushing the uncooperative thing along beside him.
Like many big companies and military bases in India, Ultratech Cement housed a large portion of the 2,000 strong workforce and their families on site, and the factory complex in many ways resembled a small town. As I was driven to our temporary lodging by the head of personnel, with Maria following on Nila, we passed a hospital, school, gym, and several other amenities, before arriving at the residential area. Blocks were divided into ‘bachelors’ and ‘families’, and were set along wide, tree lined avenues. The whole thing looked pretty smart.
I chatted to my host about living on-site, and the general structure of the complex, though I avoided any questions about the plant’s output and basically anything that a terrorist might ask: After the hassle of getting permission to stay I didn’t want to cast any doubt on my authenticity. We were met by porters at the gates to the guesthouse and had our luggage carried to a huge and immaculately clean suite on the edge of a well maintained grassy courtyard. A few minutes later there was a knock at our door, and another porter handed us a cold bottle of water and said that dinner would be served in the dining room upstairs in an hour! This was far better than anywhere we’d stayed to date, and I started to entertain ideas of pushing my bike up to the gates of every factory we passed from now on. Hopefully word of the unlucky bikers wouldn’t spread between companies.
The chef took an instant liking to us and spent most of the dinner hour joking around and asking about our trip thus far. Whenever he got the chance, he’d ply us with more of the great food, nicking pots of dal and pappadams off other tables when no-one was looking. Once the place had cleared out, we promised to see him again for breakfast and retired to our swanky suite for the night.
We woke to the sound of a foghorn reverberating through the complex. Whether summoning the kids to school or us to breakfast we weren’t sure, but we assumed the latter and headed upstairs for another feast of south Indian delights and entertainment from the chef.
Soon after that our mechanic showed up with my bike: riding, not pushing, thankfully. He’d replaced the starter relay, which apparently was malfunctioning and causing the cut-out. He also told me I had a gearbox problem. That’d been evident in a small capacity since I’d bought the bike, but he’d obviously had a go at fixing it, and now it was much worse. At any speed above 50kph, the bike would shudder and jerk like it was having a seizure, and there was suddenly a lot of gear slippage. Guess I can’t ignore the problem anymore.
A much more annoying development was that my Tibetan prayer flags had disappeared. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the bike had been taken back to the garage where I’d broken down before, and the guys who’d been admiring the flags had decided to help themselves. I made a few inquiries, without kicking up too much of a fuss, but it was pretty clear that as far as anyone was concerned, they’d just vanished into the ether.
Anyway, now that I had a gearbox to fix, we were headed for Bhuj. This, the biggest city in the region, was located in the centre of the Kutch peninsula, about a hundred slow, juddery kilometres away, but it was the only place around here that had a Bajaj service centre, so our hands were tied.
The garage turned out to be a two story showroom; shiny and uncharacteristically professional. A rep was assigned to our case and looked over the bike, jotting down notes as I explained the two problems; the gearbox was giving me hell by now, and the cutting-out had continued. Though I’d kept a few spare starter relays on hand to get me there, there was obviously an underlying cause. We left Maria’s bike there too since she wanted her non-existent rear brake to be sorted out, which meant replacing the disk and master cylinder, and her clutch plates needed changing. We also wanted the oil consumption on both bikes to be looked at, in case we needed new gaskets or piston rings.
After a few bikeless days spent exploring the city we headed back to check on our girls. Khiimori was sitting in a corner having been washed and polished, but Nila was still on the hydraulic lift. Trying to ascertain what work had actually been done on my bike was causing a bit of a headache. Part of the problem was that the job isn’t assigned to any specific mechanic; it’s just done in bits and pieces by whoever happens to be free, so no-one was really sure what’d been done.
What I was sure of is that the starter relay problem hadn’t been touched. And I was really struggling to explain to them that there was a problem. Eventually I gave up, and let them put the bike on the lift to take it from the first floor workshop down to street level. As luck would have it, as soon as it was unloaded downstairs, it wouldn’t start, and they had to bring it back up. By now I’d given up trying to have any impact on the situation by trying to explain which parts I’d already replaced, and I just sat back and smoked while they changed relays, the battery, and god knows what else. Turns out the problem was a malfunctioning starter motor, throwing off the spark plug timing and overheating the relay. We got there in the end!
After making them promise that Maria’s bike would be ready by midday next day, we said our goodbyes and rode off. Less than a kilometre down the road Khiimori spluttered, coughed, and died. Luckily this time it was an easy fix. The guys had forgotten to reattach the fuel line, and I’d just used up what fuel was in the carbs, so I could fix the problem without even getting off the bike.
Khiimori safely back from hospital
By one thirty the next day, Maria’s bike was almost finished. The only thing left to do was replace the centre stand, which the guys had broken some time in the past few days. The only problem; it was lunchtime, so it was tools down ’till 3pm. We even offered to do the job ourselves if they’d leave us the tools, but to no avail. Really there’s no point in arguing. You just have to accept that you’re on Indian time.
We were back at the garage again at four, and we waited around while they fitted the stand, fiddled with the clutch, and adjusted a thousand other things that didn’t need adjusting. An eternity later, both bikes were side by side on the street and we could finally leave. A tentative look over Nila showed that there were far more faults now than when we’d dropped her off: the clutch pedal had been put on backwards and then bent to fit in place, the ignition block had been fiddled with till it broke, and the front brake system had air in it. They did give us a good discount though, so that was cool.
Back to Bajaj the next day then, where it was fiddled with some more and a can of WD40 was emptied into it, till it sort of worked again. We were finally free to hit the road!