The year was 1969. Four friends.One dream…to see the world.The spirit of adventure was alive and well among the youth all over the world, including four young men from the steel city of Jamshedpur.
The paths of S.C Sharma (23), Ashok Kher (29), Manmohan Singh (38), and Sampuran Singh (36), four employees of the Tata Engineering& Locomotive Company at Jamshedpur, from very different backgrounds intersected to make this dream a reality.
Forty-two years ago (in the summer of 1969), one morning I (S.C Sharma) was having a conversation with a couple of my friends about traveling the world. After a spirited debate, we concluded that motorcycle was the best mode of transportation for such a venture. That is how the idea of seeing the world on motorcycle sparked in my mind.
I proposed this idea to three of my friends. They all agreed enthusiastically to join the team of four. Once I started the process of getting information, I realized that, with our meager resources, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to acquire all the relevant papers, government permissions, taking leave of absence from TELCO, convincing family members, and purchasing motorcycles.
After a few months, two of the original team members gave up. Now it was up to me and Mr. Sampuran Singh to keep this dream alive. Our family and friends didn’t believe that we would ever leave the country.
In the fall of 1969, we applied to Mr. Sarosh Gandhi, Foundry Division Manager of Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company, for leave of absence to undertake this epic journey which could carry the TATA banner to the remote parts of the world and spread the message of goodwill on behalf of our country. It took the management a few weeks to decide upon the fate of our application. In the winter of 1969, we were granted the coveted leave of absence, with pay, for a year-and-a-half.
In January of 1970, we came to know that for such a trip, we needed permission from the Ministry of Education of the Government of India. This was the most difficult task till date because it required the blessing of the Bihar State Sports Council before the Ministry of Education would even consider the case. After many trips between Jamshedpur, Patna and Delhi, and knocking on many doors, we did receive permission from the Bihar State Sports Council. After that, we submitted the final application to the Ministry of Education. We waited a couple of months before we received a letter from the Ministry of Education. To our great elation, permission was granted!
Detailed planning took a year and a half…before the first mile was even logged – imagine no GPS, no maps, no Internet, no cell phones, no clue about what snow is. There were many pitfalls and opportunities to give up the dream: the tedious process of the necessary government permissions and sanctions, slogging through bureaucracy, acquiring visas, and finally acquiring the motorcycles. It began to seem an insurmountable task considering our meager resources. Early support from our family and friends began to wane.
In May of 1970 Mr. Ahsok Kher joined our team. He was a very hard working person and dear friend. By now most of the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. Now we were concentrating on acquiring motorcycles. Around this time, we approached the well-known sportsman, Mr. Manmahon Singh to see if he could get us some funds from the Sports Department of TELCO. To our surprise and amazement, he expressed his desire to join the team. We were glad to accept him as the fourth member of the team. Not only did he own a Royal Enfield motorcycle, he also brought in his resources in the company and of his family.
We bought an old Army surplus1964 Royal Enfield Bullet 350 motorcycle at an auction. We dismantled both motorcycles and rebuilt them ourselves under the supervision of a master mechanic who was also Mr. Manmahon Singh’s cousin.
It took extreme perseverance, dedication, vision, and a bit of good fortune to make this tour happen. Help from many people, including Government Ministers, sports icons, political leaders, and management at the Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company played an important role in making the dream a reality.
After last minute preparations and final goodbyes, on January 29, 1971, we arrived at the front gate of Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company.
After a heartfelt sendoff from the main offices of TELCO, many friends followed us up to the city limits on their motorcycles and cars.
After a few days, we arrived in Delhi. With barley any dirt on our bikes, we were informed we could not go through Pakistan because of political tension with India. An Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Lahore on January 30, 1971. We were not granted permission to cross, so further arrangements had to be made to leave India by ship from Bombay.
From Delhi, we traveled to Bombay and met a Mr. Nerhu from Tata Exports, who helped us make arrangements for passage on an East German cargo ship carrying buses from Tata Engineering& Locomotive Company that were headed for Kuwait. We also met the then Vice Chairman, of Tata Industries Mr.Moolgaoker. Along with his encouraging words, he also gave us a handsome amount as spending money on behalf of Tata Industries.
March 10 1971 –
Our ship set sail from Bombay to Kuwait. On March 26 1971 the ship docked in Kuwait and our real journey began.
We started by seeing Kuwait, Iraq and riding through Iran to Turkey. It was very new experience driving on the right side of the road as opposed to the left hand side in India. We were amazed to see vehicles driving in their respective lanes as we did not have to worry about oncoming trucks running us off the road.
While traveling through Turkey, we experienced extreme cold, snow, and freezing rain for the first time in our lives. The dirt roads through the mountains were very treacherous. Compounding the situation, our brake and clutch levers kept freezing. Snow, ice, and sleet seeped underneath the protective casing of the cables, causing them to jam. We found that by keeping the engines running and covering the bikes with a makeshift tarp, the heat generated slowly melted the ice-encased levers and we were on our way. Sleeping out in the open under the elements proved to be very difficult as well, so we spent many nights at petrol stations and small roadside restaurants – the owners were often very generous in allowing us to stay at their establishments after hours.
When we arrived, we realized there was a wedding taking place and we were received with open arms by their family and friends. It was such a jovial scene and they even fired guns in the air in our honor.
Reaching Lebanon was a wonderful experience. The very first night in town, we came across young men who owned the petrol station we had eyed as our resting place for the night. They were duly impressed after hearing our story and wanted to learn more. They invited us to their home. When we arrived, we realized there was a wedding taking place and we were received with open arms by their family and friends. It was such a jovial scene and they even fired guns in the air in our honor.
After enjoying Arab hospitality we left for Beirut and arrived there late in the evening. In Beirut a very well-dressed elderly gentleman approached us and asked who we were. We explained our story. He shook our hands and inquired if we have a place to stay in the city. We had not made arrangements for the night, so he suggested we stay at the apartment building he owns for as long as we needed. We gladly followed his large Mercedes to the apartment complex. Once we settled in, he invited us to dinner. It was there we found out that he Mr. Mullhas, was a very well-known industrialist from the city of Tripoli, Lebanon.
To avoid the Israeli-Arab conflict, we traveled from Lebanon to Alexandria, Egypt by ship. Riding our motorcycles through the luscious fields of northern Egypt was an oasis after our first experience riding through freezing rain and snow.
When we arrived in Cairo, Egypt, our bikes were in dire need of repairs. Lucky for us, Tata Trucks had a dealership in town. They allowed us full use of their service shop facilities. After a few days in the legendary city of Cairo and repairing our bikes, we planned to go to Libya (we were told by the locals that we would be able to get visas at the border – as we looked like Arabs.) After riding 800 miles and arriving in Mersa Matruh,Egypt, we found out that the border was closed to non-Arab foreigners. We had to double back to Cairo and make slight adjustments to our trip. This was the beginning of our southward journey through countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and on to East Africa.
The journey through the highlands of Ethiopia was very interesting as 90% of the roads were simple dirt tracks. These unplanned roads through the mountains connecting different villages and towns consisted of hundreds of hairpin curves and dangerously steep grades. Though riding through the highlands was extremely precarious, we really enjoyed the pleasure of hearing our Royal Enfield’s sound echoing through the canyons.
Riding on the dirt tracks and muddy roads posed their own unique challenges. Slipping, sliding and getting stuck in the mud was quite routine. The motorcycles needed more frequent cleaning and servicing.
We enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the large Indian community in Kenya and Uganda. We then moved to South central and then to central Africa. In Congo, it rained everyday for all seven days we were there. All of the roads were mud tracks, the riding and living conditions were very primitive. Mostly we survived with the generosity of the local people as they shared their food and shelter with us, whether it was their little hut or the barn where they kept their cattle – we graciously accepted. This is where we also had our one and only camera stolen. The film inside carried some of our most precious pictures – forever lost or perhaps a pleasant surprise for whoever developed the roll. In Congo we also had our first major breakdown. The engine valve got seized in one of the bikes. We had to tow the motorcycle to the next town. There an auto mechanic found an old Jeep valve which was close to the one in our motorcycle. He modified it to make it fit in our motorcycle engine and we were on the road again.
We then journeyed north -northwest through countries like the Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, and mosquito-infested Nigeria.
In Nigeria the dirt was so sticky, the spokes of the rear wheel of one of the bikes sheared off as we gave it torque, making it un-roadworthy. Two of us then went to the nearest town, Kano, for help. A day later we returned with help, only to find Mr. Manmohan Singh shaking with a dangerously high fever. We took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe case of malaria. We spent a few days there while he recuperated.
By now we had run out of our spare spokes for the wheels as these spokes were not available in town. We found a wheel from an old Ariel motorcycle. It had different size spokes, but with the help of a local machine shop, we modified those spokes to fit our wheels.
From Nigeria we moved towards WestAfrica and then crossed over from Mali to Niger. Driving through Mali we had our first substantial experience driving through the loose desert sand.Traveling half a mile took up to 3 hours because we had to literally push the bikes, 150lbs of gear in tow. Riding through Niger brought us to the very middle of the grand Sahara Desert. We didn’t encounter another vehicle for several days while riding through the desert from Niger to Algeria. The only humans we saw were in a couple of small oasis along the way – days apart. This section of our travels took us through the exotic cities of Tamanrasat and In-Salah. Both were beautiful cities with small populations of a few hundred people and the bare minimum of facilities. We had to carry many gallons of water and petrol with us. For food it was mostly canned fish, dried bread and some dates.
After travelling for weeks through the jungles and deserts of Africa, we finally encountered paved roads going to Algiers City. We had barely traveled a few miles on this beautifully paved road, when one of our bikes had a flat. While we repaired the bike, a jeep full of Algerian armed military personnel jumped outpointing their guns at us. As none of them spoke English, communication was very difficult. After a few minutes of fruitless attempts to communicate they demanded our passports and drove off leaving one soldier pointing his gun at us. We sat motionless not knowing how this soldier would react to our movements. After 20 long minutes, the jeep returned now carrying their senior officer who spoke English. The first thing he did upon seeing us was to to tell the soldier to move away from us. He explained to us that we were stopped because we were in a no-stopping zone due to an airfield nearby. They waited as we fixed our flat and then left as we drove off.
After a few days, we arrived in Algiers, capital of Algeria. The city welcomed us with open arms. Our arrival had been published in the local newspaper ahead of our arrival. We were the guests of the Indian Ambassador and we soon found that our money was no good at any restaurant in town. There we found that we were the first Indians to cross the central Sahara Desert and first Indians to cross the Sahara Desert on Indian-made motorcycles. After a few days rest, and some much-needed repairs to the motorcycles, we resumed our journey to northwest Africa. From Morocco, we took a ferry across to Spain starting the European leg of our journey.
Once in Spain, we visited the Indian Embassy in Madrid and found out India was participating in the 1971 Men’s Hockey World Cup. We drove overnight covering 600km to Barcelona to find out India had lost to Pakistan in the semi-finals. We had the opportunity to see the final between Pakistan and Spain. As we parked out bikes outside the Real Polo Grounds, we noticed a few Indians coming towards us. We then realized these were the same people we met in Kenya a few months earlier. They took us to the VIP section of the Kenyan team and we enjoyed the final match. The third-place match was between India and Kenya on Oct 24 th. In Barcelona, we saw our first bullfight – a very bloody, but amazing sport. From there we rode to southern France and Italy.
From Italy, after 10 months of travelling together, Mr. Ashok Kher and Mr. Sampuran Singh decided to head back home to India due to family and personal reasons. Their return trip was quite a story in itself. The only way back was via hitchhiking from Italy to India. They started their journey back home on the 10 th of November 1971.
We remaining two had both bikes and twice the gear. We trekked onward to central and eastern Europe. We had some of our best experiences with the local people of the eastern European countries. Up to that point in our travels, we hadn’t encountered anyone who was familiar with Royal Enfield motorcycles. They were all amazed to see a single-cylinder motorbike had ridden so many miles in so many countries and still going strong despite its weather-beaten exterior. One night, while driving in Germany one of the motorcycles broke down. We could not find the problem in the dark so we spent the night on the roadside in an under-construction building with no roof and snow on the ground. It was reading -5deg.C on our thermometer. Next morning we pushed the motorcycle to a mechanics shop. He was an old man who found some water in the coil connection. He fixed this electrical problem for us. Upon hearing of our travels, he declined our money for his services. Free of charge. For a few days, we were the guests of Daimler-Benz in Germany. After visiting the Daimler-Benz plant, we felt a deep sense of pride that our plant in Jamshedpur was the nicer and cleaner facility. We took a ferry from France to England and at the port we were detained for several hours while immigration officials were deciding if we were bonafide travelers passing through. We finally got our entry into the United Kingdom on Dec 1. We were very happy to be in England. We had been assured by Royal Enfield personnel in 1970 in India that we will be well received by the Royal Enfield MotorcycleCompany in England where we would be able to get any parts we needed for our bikes. The first thing we did when we arrived in London was to stop at a motorbike shop and asked where the Royal Enfield Motorcycle Company is located. The gentleman at the counter gave us a strange look and said the Royal Enfield Motorcycle Company was closed in 1966 and they had sent all the machinery and equipment to the Royal Enfield Company in India. And if any, there were barely any parts available for the old Royal Enfield bikes we had. We had to wait almost a month to get bike parts flown in from India. We then repaired our bikes and prepared them to be shipped across the Atlantic where we continued our journey to the USA.
We arrived in the USA on the 10 th of February 1972 We met a very generous man at JFK Airport in New York. He allowed us to spend a few days at his place while we waited for our bikes to arrive on ship. Our planning was so poor, that we arrived in the northeast US in the coldest month of February. We were extremely ill-equipped for the brutal weather of the northern US and Canada. We had no idea about snow blizzards with whiteout conditions. Not understanding the severity of weather conditions, we were ignorant enough to venture out from Buffalo, New York to Cleveland, Ohio thinking that we would make it to Cleveland in 8 hours. Due to the snow blizzard and problems with our drive-chains, we covered only 35 miles struggling for 8 hours. Fixing the drive chain usually took 15 minutes in normal conditions, but took 2 hours in the bitter cold – we couldn’t feel our hands. That is when we were introduced to snow boots and heavy jackets by an interesting gentleman who was watching us with keen interest while we struggled on the roadside. He took us to the store, bought us warm clothing and took us in for the night – a very common occurrence throughout our tour. After traveling through Washington DC and New York, we headed north to Canada. From Toronto we drove west to Chicago and then south to the southern U.S. to Mexico and on to the western U.S., going through 27 states and seeing beautiful places such as the Painted Desert, Petrified Wood Forest, Grand Canyon, the legendary city of Las Vegas and finally to Los Angeles. Our plans were to go to Japan and Southeast Asia, but due to the very poor conditions of our bikes and political turmoil in the south East Asian region, we decided to ship our bikes from San Francisco to Bombay.
Once the bikes were loaded on the ship, on 11 th of May 1972, we started hitchhiking back to India from San Francisco.
Once the bikes were loaded on the ship, on 11 th of May 1972, we started hitchhiking back to India from San Francisco. It took us one week to reach New York. Then we took a flight to London. We spent four days in London then hitchhiked across France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and then took a flight from Kabul to Amritsar on the 10 th of June 1972. Then we took a train to Bombay where we were to receive our motorcycles. It was a horrific experience dealing with customs. We had the most difficulty bringing our own motorcycles back to India, than we encountered anywhere else in the world. The customs officers were very reluctant to admit the motorcycles into the country, as they were wondering if we had put new engines in our bikes. We drove from Bombay to Goa, Kerala and Madras. Then to Orissa and reaching our starting point Jamshedpur on the 10 th of July 1972. This trip could not have been possible without the help of countless people in India and abroad; who
touched our lives so closely and dearly.
We had the most difficulty bringing our own motorcycles back to India, than we encountered anywhere else in the world.
A couple of stills from their reunion in India in 2011.
Mr. Ashok Kher passed away a few years ago. Now Manmohan Singh is 78 living in Poona. Sampuran Singh is 76, living in Jamshedpur. And yours truly, Subhash Sharma is 64, living in Texas, USA
18 months. 108,000 kilometres. 52 countries….Countless memories.
Truly and epic journey for the ages.
We are extremely humbled and thankful to Mr. Subhash Sharma and all his teammates for sharing these beautiful memories with us. A special note of thanks to Mr. Ashok Naidu from Pune for connecting these wonderful gentlemen to us!