Muck, landslides, cloudbursts and hailstorms headlined Harley-Davidson’s maiden sojourn to Kaza
Words: Vijay Parmar
Photography: Abhishek Yadav
Twenty one Pan American motorcycles stood lined up and ready to depart for Spiti, the first off-road adventure for Harley Davidson, which would firmly put their new adventure motorcycle on the ADV map. The rain, however, was incessant and more to the point, the roads were closed. The bikes were all dressed up with nowhere to go. This was going to be more than just another Himalayan adventure - this was going to be the ride of a lifetime!
Our first run was from The Koti Resort, Mashobra to the Hotel Batseri in the Sangla valley. Fog, slush and wet roads were the instant encounter as we started out. Harley riders are not usually comfortable in the mud and there was plenty of that to welcome them to their first off road experience. News of a landslide at Nigulsari was confirmed. The government had issued a notification giving a tiny window to cross the stricken area and we aimed for it. The Pan America is a very competent motorcycle on the mountain twisties, so despite unruly traffic, we managed to surmount landslide and rock falls alike to finally make it to our lunch halt at Badhaal. News that fresh rocks had descended on the road came through, spoiling the taste of the rajma-chawal and shakar-roti no end. However our luck was in, as an extremely skilled JCB operator cleared the debris really quickly, and after waiting for about half an hour at the Nigulsari slide we managed to thread the needle and regrouped at the Tapri pump.
The skies were blue as we headed up the Sangla gorge, and the growling Pan Am engines happily gobbled the miles to Batseri and our night halt there. The usual bonfire and stories, mostly unbelievable, were shared, and a generally happy group crept off to their rooms, one by one, to get in some shut eye. Tomorrow was going to be a long ride to Kaza.
The phone rang at 2 am. I woke disoriented. A friend was calling, saying that the roads had been washed off at Shalkar, just short of Sumdo, and a cloudburst had inundated other parts of the road for miles and miles, filling it with a deep layer of warm, sticky, impassable mud! Even through the fog that surrounded my brain, I could see that from all apparent inputs that the Harley Davidson ride to Kaza was over, even before it had really begun. Kaza was unreachable - Spiti had closed its doors to travellers!
The learning over the years has always been not to take decisions at night so the next morning, after a few preliminary enquiries from the BRO, we set off for a ride to Chitkul. We would decide the course of action once we hit the ‘last Indian village’ in Himachal. The BRO informed us that they had been working all night to clear roads and expected the path would be open by 1700 hrs at best. We had enough time on our hands but decided to hurry closer to the break rather than spend time in the Mastrang forest lazily shooting the breeze. A quick refuel at the Sangla pump and a mad dash down the shoelace, which masquerades as a road, to Karcham and onwards to Khab. The venturi effect at the Khab gorge was insane with wind speeds touching 90 kph while standing! After a short break for photographs we climbed the Kah loops with much abandon and then as we turned the corner and looked upto Nako we saw the blackest, most evil looking cloud over Malling Nala. I knew that the day was done. This dark cloud meant business, and it stood menacingly above the Chango - Shalkar stretch which already had severe cloudburst damage and eight road closures in a five kilometre stretch. We quickly donned rain gear and against the better advice of an old Kinnauri lady who warned me, witchlike, with regulation broom in hand, that we were heading into the very jaws of hell. We mounted the steeds, kicked up the side stands and were off.
Three hairpin bends later, the storm hit. After an experimental few drops that seemed bigger than the apples of Chango, the skies opened up and the rain turned to hailstones of biblical proportions. The attack was so ferocious that the music in my helmet was drowned out by machine gun fire as each hailstone beat an ear-splitting tattoo on the helmet paintwork! Visibility came down to a metre at best and the waterfall at Malling Nala was now a rushing torrent. We crossed over and just then the radio crackled out a message that the cars behind had been hit by stones falling on their roof and bonnets, damaging both. Malling Nala was living up to its infamous reputation of being a car killer! Nevertheless, this is all part of the Himalayan adventure matrix, and our posse soldiered on.
A complete waste of time, as the police stopped us in Chango, saying the cloudburst had once again wiped out the road in 8 places! No choice now but for the advance team and motorcycles to head back to Nako, recross the Malling Nala, and seek refuge in whatever form of shelter was available. Two hotels overlooking the Nako Lake were commandeered, and the bruised and battered Harley squad hunkered down for the night. An unexpectedly delicious dinner later, the group generally decided to leave Kaza for another year, spend a lazy tomorrow at Nako, taking pictures and generally regrouping.
The gods weren’t having any of this though.
The ‘Himalayan adventurer’ does not give up. The next day dawned beautifully clear, and encouraged by reports from the BRO, we broke the news to the now relaxed HOG’s that a change in the plan had been made. We would ride to Kaza, come what may, fighting landslides, washouts and the like and reach our goal irrespective. To my great delight everyone echoed this, and geared up in record time. Luck favoured the brave and we rolled into Kaza, mud caked and a bit battered, but exulting that the ride had been completed. A biryani lunch followed by a sumptuous dinner at the Deyzor Hotel, where we had bedded down, completed what was a perfect ride day.
We had reached our end destination, Kaza, and now all that remained was to return to Mashobra and another cold beer!
The Pan Americans had proved their mettle and vindicated the choice made by every owner. Stellar is how one would describe their performance!