When Ewan and Charley set off around the world in 2004 on their BMWs, the market for adventure motorcycles exploded. Thanks to Long Way Round, and then Long Way Down, the big GS became far and away BMW Motorrad’s best-selling model. It’s ironic, really, because Charley Boorman (the more accomplished rider of the two) had wanted to ride KTMs, but the Austrian company turned them down. It hadn’t reckoned on Ewan McGregor’s star appeal. BMW did, however, and the rest is history. As Costa tells us this week in his review of the 2019 R1250GS, the off-roading GS represents more than one-in-four of all new BMW motorcycles sold.
Somewhere in Mongolia on that first adventure, Charley lamented that they were riding too big of a motorcycle. They were a handful to manage in the loose soil, especially weighed down with luggage as they were, and he longed for a lighter, simpler bike for tackling the rough tracks of the region. He was thinking of an 800, but the truth is, pretty much any properly maintained motorcycle can do the job – you might just have to ride a bit slower, that’s all.
This is what British adventurer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent discovered while riding a Hero Impulse through Arunachal Pradesh in 2016. This is the farthest north-east region of India, wedged up against Tibet and almost cut-off from the rest of the country by strange political borders. It’s a challenge just to get there – Antonia had to know the right people, and tell numerous checkpoint guards that her male companion John was nearby, although there was no John. She bought the used 150 cc Hero for about $600, fitted it with new tires and a custom-built topbox banged together on the spot, and set off for more than 3,000 kilometres through the jungle and mountains of the region.
I’ve just finished reading her account of the adventure, Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains, and I’m struck by how simply she travelled. Her rain gear leaked, her top box quickly cracked, and the Hero’s tires spent most of the journey slithering through mud and slop on the tortuous roads. High in the mountains toward the end, cresting the 4,175-metre Sela Pass alone on her way to visit a monastery near the Bhutan border, the extreme altitude slowed the labouring Hero to barely more than walking pace. But she pushed through and made it to the other side, and her readers are all a little richer for it.
It’s a wonderfully written book – it took me longer than usual to finish it because I kept going back and rereading whole paragraphs for the sheer pleasure of their description. I’ll open the book at random and give you a couple of examples. How about this: “Dawn broke with a record-breaking round of epiglottal exorcism; a concerto of throat-clearing, spitting and gurgling of phlegm that lasted at least 10 minutes,” she writes after a night in yet another musty Indian hotel. And riding in the Dri Valley, “coppery hills plunged towards the river, their lower slopes verdant with spruce, larch and pine, their ridges marbled with the last of the winter snows. Plum trees blossomed pink next to spumes of banana palms and the skeletal, wintry forms of elder and oak. By the roadside curling green shoots of bracken periscoped up from the brown grass, the vanguard of spring’s vivid assault on the land.” Every page is like that. Like the very best Travel writing, you’re there with her for the journey, riding on the cramped pillion.
Antonia meets extraordinary people while telling the history of the strangled region, shaped by British explorers and American airmen but always steered by mysticism and ancient faith. Her story-telling is sympathetic to the challenges of the area: “I’d travelled through Arunachal at a critical time in its history,” she writes, “when the homogenizing juggernaut of globalization was colliding with tribal cultures that had flourished in near-isolation for hundreds of years.” We’re constantly aware that change is on the horizon. Every road she rides on is under construction; every town and village is a little less isolated than it was just a decade ago.
We’re lucky to have the good-humoured insight of Antonia’s perceptive book. It’s a reminder that if we really want to, almost any of us can sling a leg over our motorcycle seat and set off to broaden our horizons. We don’t need to wait until we have a purpose-built adventure bike to have an adventure. Arunachal Pradesh is quite the challenge though. Fortunately, we have Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains to experience it, so vivid that we can smell the plum trees and hear the hoicks of phlegm.