18-Feb-2005 -- I was seduced by confluence point hunting about a year and a half ago when my friend and confluence point hunting mentor, Warren Apel, led me, sated with his olive, tomato and goat cheese sandwiches, into Rajasthan to deflower me with my first confluence point. The experience left me intoxicated and infected. Warren and I later logged another point — a virgin point this time -north of Delhi in a Sikh grain-growing region.
In late 2004, my friend, colleague and fellow Wisconsinite at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, Mike Bollom, organized a motorcycle trip into the Taar Desert in Western Rajasthan. Having earned my wings under the tutelage of Warren, it was time to fly, or ride, as it were. On Thursday evening (17 February 2005), we boarded the night train to Bikaner at a small, pleasantly calm train station near Karolbagh, an automotive area in Delhi. Having quaffed a bit of Bernie, the nutty Australian’s beer, schooled Mike in a hand or two of cribbage, and listened to Tom practice aspirating Hindi consonants, I drifted off to the rumbling and swaying of this dirty, Indian train. In early morning darkness, we awoke and readied ourselves to leap off the train during the brief stop in Ratanghar. Ratanghar could be any small railway town in Rajasthan. The partially functioning neon junction sign illuminates dusty tin-roofed shacks under which squat dusty shawl-swaddled men. Yes, we stood out. The eight bikes, which had been loaded in the school parking lot the morning before, were supposed to be waiting for us at the railway station. Bets had been hedged as to whether or not they would make it. On the train it had occurred to us that the drivers of the truck could easily have driven directly down to Old Delhi and sold our cycles for a couple of hundred rupees a piece—far more than they were earning from us.
Indeed, the bikes were not waiting for us anywhere where we could see. This was the first time that the wrath of Mike emerged. While the rest of us sipped sweet, scalding chai and smoked cigarettes, Mike raged in Hindi over a cell phone at a trucking company representative who, no doubt, was trying to figure out why this crazy American was even up at such an ungodly hour. We learned that the truck drivers had been harassed by the local cops (imagine that! In India?!) and prohibited from entering the bustling city limits of Ratanghar. We found the truck parked a kilometer or so from the train station. Although a couple of the bikes had tipped during the Dukes of Hazzard speed bump jumps that indubitably occurred while our disinvested drivers careened over dark Indian highways, they all started after an uneventful unloading. At a local hotel, we met up with the Stiff-Butt Riders—members of the Delhi Bullets Cycle Club who had chosen to ride all the way from Delhi. The train-takers were referred to as the Supple-Butt Riders; Mike, in all of his free time, selected the names. Anyhow, after a tasty, filling breakfast of Parathas, yogurt and chai, we set off on the road to Bikaner.
I was a bit frightened. I had only learned to ride a bike a couple of months earlier and had not been on many practice rides. Stippled with random barricades, cows, camels, elephants, camouflaged speed breakers, dancing bears, and whatever-ya-need wallahs, Indian roads are death waiting to happen. Darwin is alive and well on Indian roads; the biggest and strongest vehicles are the unchallenged Alpha Males. Cycles fall into the prey category; we were all aware of this. Even Diallou, piloting his jaw-dropping Honda Goldwing leviathan, had to give way to the menacing, wildly weaving lorries. Cold and foggy, I accelerated into my jitters. Then the highway began to open up, the gears tapped into place more naturally, the sun rose higher, and rolling desert views spread out beyond a scrubby foreground. The ride was on, work was many clicks behind me and I felt free.
The ride of 18 February zoomed on brilliantly. We chose one of the many palaces in Bikaner to enjoy some bourbon, an Indian feast, and a smoke. From there, we rode on to Gajner, about twenty-five kilometers away. We took our rooms at the Gajner Palace Hotel, one of the many historical hangovers that have been converted into luxury hotels in India. These palaces often boast beautiful terraces, lakes (tanks), manicured walkways, marble courtyards and a costumed staff. The Rajasthani costumes, parlors adorned with mounted tiger heads, and early twentieth century black and white photos return you to the romanticized days of the British Raj. These forts and palaces are perfect places to get away from the Indian megalopolises and sit with friends while sipping Kingfisher Beer in front of a wood fire on a chilly desert night. The Gajner Palace, owned by the same royal family that owns the Lake Palace in Udaipur, is particularly impressive, and I highly recommend a visit.
After unloading luggage, it was time to find N 28.00000, E 73.00000. Half of the group was still riding in from the famous Rat Temple; they had headed in that direction after lunch. Now, some would hang back at the palace to unwind and relax. Mike Bollom, Steve Carozza, Scott Dow, Tom Lehmkuhl, Jagbir Singh, Jagbir’s friend, and I revved up and set out. According to my Garmin etrex, the confluence point was only about five miles away. I took the lead with Steve, as we were the GPS navigators. We simply pursued the point by turning down whichever road took us closer. This is tricky in this area, for what is here is truly Indian desert nothingness. The main highway (I don’t even know the name) took us about two miles closer than we had been. A smaller road headed off to the right (northwest) and kept heading in roughly the right direction except that the point clearly lay off to the right. We got to where the point was perpendicular to the direction that the road was travelling. Decision time: head off into the desert on road bikes or keep heading north with the hope that maybe we’d find a road that would loop around closer to the point? We pushed forward for about another mile and came to a little village; “village” is almost too large a word. Eight to ten brown brick houses and the road constitute this village. We noticed that between two of the houses sat a semblance of a sand camel cart road, which slithered back eastward into the desert. We decided to give it a go. After about three hundred yards it was clear that the desert terrain alternated between hard, packed sand and soft, beach-like sand. Should we go on? The point lay about two miles east. It was about 4:45 PM and the sun would be setting in roughly an hour and a half.
While we were calculating breakdown/walking time and deciding, Scott Dow, with a “f... it” tore off into the desert like Grizzly after a salmon on his vintage 1950s Enfield. Sweet bike. “Yeaaahh, baby,” I thought as I flew after him on my Pulsar. I was full-throttle in second gear; I required power but also momentum in the sand. I could feel my bike getting hot and screaming, “Argh, I’m not meant for the Desert, mofo.” Thinking the challenge would build character in my bike, I continued on watching the tenths of a mile inch by with the speed of an advancing glacier. Half of the group crapped out. Scott and I found ourselves alone, still 1.7 miles from the confluence point. We decided to head back to make sure that everyone was still okay but also because going on did not seem like the best option. The desert was exacting a toll on the bikes, and we didn’t want to get caught out there alone for the night. We headed back to the crew waiting together a little ways back. They agreed that this was not a good route. I think that everyone was concerned about cutting short a great bike trip by trashing his cycle with a day of riding left. I thought, no worries; I’ll come out early tomorrow morning, park as close to the point as possible and walk in the two miles. No biggie. So, we started heading back to the palace for some beer, smack talking and victuals. As we came to the point of perpendicularity, however, Scott Dow slowed, scoping for an inroad. There was none but his other personality (let’s call it Zippy, shall we?) sprang forth again and took hold of the throttle.
Dripping with Marlboro Man masculinity, Scott charged into the desert again. Funny is that he didn’t even have a GPS. He must have been using a Jedi mind trick, for in the correct direction young Dow was pretty much heading. This sense led him well, for the desert in this area was just hard-packed enough to be rideable. I followed and caught up thinking at first, “Yikes, what happens if we break down?” Quickly, however, I decided, who cares? This is the stuff of stories. Soon, I noticed that Steve on his bike and Jagbir and his buddy (on his buddy's bike) were following. Four bikes, five riders. The rest headed back to the palace. After five minutes or so of watching the mile marker click down, it soon became apparent that there was no way we weren’t going to make it. As with Warren during my first hunt, I began to feel an inexplicable, geeky, slightly embarrassing, enveloping excitement. I was going to be the first person to log this spot on the globe with a GPS. Many might ask, “who cares?” It didn’t matter though. I was Magellan, Drake, Armstrong. Negotiation of the tip of South America, circumnavigation of the globe, stepping on the moon, recording Confluence Point N 28.00000, E 73.00000: at this moment they were all the same. I was making history, man. We eventually started looping around in circles through the soft sand and scrub brush. We got off the bikes and started walking, stepping a bit here and there until there it was, ten zeros that might as well have been ten gold ducats. I whooped and hollered. Scott urged us to organize our bikes and helmets in the four cardinal directions around the confluence point with the GPSs directly in the middle. A bit hokey, but we were excited. We quaffed bourbon from a mint green Nalgene, admired the sunset, patted ourselves on the back, snapped some shots and headed back to the palace to gloat and drink. It was spectacular.
As the above description and the photos suggest, N 28.00000, E 73.00000 lies in what one might call a wasteland. Considering how much the media note the massive population of India, I am stunned at how few people one sees on the back roads of this region. On the ride out into the desert we did not encounter one person. The terrain, as I said, is hard and soft-packed sand with scrub brush peppering the gradually sloping, smallish dunes. I noticed evidence of the odd camel cart path here and there, which would immediately be swallowed by the desert with the slightest gust of wind; consequently, it is overstating it to say that there are paths. The only exception to this was what appeared to be camel cart tracks that followed a poorly constructed barbed wire fence that initially led off into the desert; this soon dissolved into dessert floor. As my panoramic shots demonstrate, desert is the terrain in all four directions heading away from the confluence point.
That night, we took cocktail hour in front of the lake by a fire. We enjoyed a perfect north Indian meal and headed off to bed fairly early. We were wiped. To save costs, some of us shared rooms. I was in a suite with Mike and Mark Lemley. As organizer, Mike claimed the single bed in the small room off to the side. So, Mark and I shared a bed. We climbed under the covers together which felt a bit awkward until we were distracted by the hot water bottles that the staff had planted in our beds while we were eating. A beautiful thing, indeed. I tried to convince Mark to gossip, construct a tent and make shadow animals with my flashlight, but he said he was tired, so we slept. The next day we all rode into the desert on a beautiful loop. We even rode under the outstretched neck of a camel. After loading the bikes in the afternoon at the palace, we took cabs into Bikaner. We received the last guided tour of the day of the Bikaner fort by a guide who had done the tour, it seems, seventeen thousand times. Descriptions of the antiquated telephone exchange and World War I-Era biplane were framed by clearly rehearsed quips and witticisms. All part of the charm. After strolling through the small streets of Bikaner and taking in some of her renowned havelis (mansions), we visited the local barber for a shave, haircut and smoke then boarded the Bikaner-Delhi train. It was Saturday evening. Some local boys tried to muscle in on one of our private berths soon after leaving Bikaner. Hurricane Mike Bollom swelled up with a Hinglish invective that he was certain would scare away the troublemakers. Just the opposite happened, however; one of them exploded with even greater ferocity, threatening to tell the police at the next stop to arrest us for having open alcohol on the train. A fellow rider and a Danish diplomat, Pieter, calmly diffused the situation while Mike retreated to his corner to towel off and cool his jets. I thought I heard Bollom yell, “Cut me Mick,” but I didn’t. All turned out just fine, once the TT (ticket taker) had been properly greased and pricked pride had been properly soothed. I arrived in Delhi tired but in one piece. After untangling the fallen bikes and unloading at school, I was home by 9:00 AM. No doubt, a thrilling boys’ weekend was had by all.