Driving Touring India's Route 66 on a classic motorbike

Stephen Scourfield with 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet Moty by a wall in Fort Kochi, Kerala.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

A Royal Enfield motorbike and the old State Highway 66 in Kerala, in south west India, are just what our Travel Editor need.

To one side is the Arabian Sea and inland is National Highway 47 — a big crazy, anything-goes Indian road linking the colourful town of Kochi to the Kerala Backwaters.

But I am not going on that.

I am heading south down the coast of this green and pleasant “God’s own country” State of Kerala on an old, relatively quiet road. It is strung with palm-tree lined sandy beaches and still waterways strung with Chinese-style fishing nets that look like gossamer butterflies. Its fleeting fishing villages are colourful with handmade and brightly painted boats. There are churches and shrines, humble homes and small, modern mansions behind gates.

Kerala is a good place to start in India and the old State Highway 66 is a good way to experience it ... for this is the “Route 66” of India; a conduit to culture as much as the winding way south.

And I am taking to this Route 66 on a rented, appropriately peacock-blue Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle called Moty. Moty has a low, single-cylinder burble, like air blown through a straw in a mango lassi. His name is to be pronounced carefully. In the local language, Malayalam, “mothi” means pearl and “moti” means fat. He proves a personable companion.

Being on Moty makes me not-quite a tourist. Indians love Enfields. They putter through Indian history, though they were made in my English home county of Worcestershire from 1949 until a factory set up in Chennai in 1955. Bullets are still made as they were then — the longest motorcycle production run of all time.

I become very comfortable with Moty, just as I am with Indian traffic, which is a cram of tuktuks, taxis and little white Tata cars. Of thin, bespectacled men with wiry brown legs cycling demurely in white dhotis on their mighty Hercules bicycles. Of classic motorbikes and buzzboxes and families going to school or church and young blokes, two up, flat out. Of fearsome red buses that often chew up the whole road. Their windows are glassless and I can see the whites of their passengers’ staring eyes.

Indian traffic cuts you up, crams, squeezes you out, lets you through, looks after you, charges into junctions, takes over your side of the road — and you do it all too, moving with them. And you do it with a calm expression or a smile, without getting overexcited, with a horn that isn’t angry and it all works perfectly. In the entire trip there isn’t one moment that scares me.

I like it all because on Moty I am moving like the locals, with the chaotic, crazy, comical, careful rhythm of India. I smell the spices of its markets and the goats on the corner; the thick, salty air, fish drying; fumes and perfumes. Stalls with hundreds of watermelons, popcorn vendors with crazy multi- coloured dancing light displays, the erratic, bluesy cadence of old diesel thumpers crushing sugar cane.

I am outside in its heat and humidity, feeling the perspiration from my T-shirt chilled in the warm wind of motorcycle movement.

I am not isolated in an air-conditioned car or coach. I am not listening to the narration of a guide. I am immersed in India and it is throwing up questions to be answered later. (How can I be assaulted by flies in remote Australia and then be in the sewery back lanes of India, cows ambling in herds and seeing not one of them?)

And I am loving it all and I am so lost in it that I can almost forget I’m working and have to dig out a pertinent T-shirt, with “Don’t Forget to Write” across the front, just to remind myself.

Kerala, on this south-west coast of India, is fish curry and coconut, sweet pineapples and pulled tea poured high and milky from a pot.

Kerala is educated (it has one of the world’s highest literacy rates) and is healthily engaged with politics. It is on a fertile plain fed by 44 rivers; blessed with seafood and agriculture. It is the birthplace of Ayurveda, the Indian health practice more than 5000 years old. It is predominantly Christian (there’s a fervent belief that apostle St Thomas landed here in AD54). It is the endemic home of cardamom and other spices and with the touch in its history of the Portuguese, Dutch and British who came first for those sought-after spices.

Kochi, which used to be called Cochin, marks the northern end of Route 66 and is a place I know and like very much.

Moty clearly loves Route 66.

We push south from Kochi through the morning traffic. Bikes laden, hand carts veering out. Dad taking two daughters to school on one scooter. We ride in company with two young, grinning blokes on a chromed 350 Bullet, before they cut off in front of a bus, thumbs up in farewell.

You could navigate south by the churches — Little Flower Chapel, St Sebastian, Xavier Desh Church, then St George.

And then Andhakarnazhi Beach, where the road curls over a rough bridge, past fishing nets, then a row of bright boats, one with a sea eagle perched on the mast, to a strip of white sand. The old, palm-fringed Malabar coast, as this was once called.

Then St Xaviers, St Anthony’s, St Joseph’s and Thaickal Beach (which the locals spell Thyckal).

And then Little Flower Church, St George and, in the town of Arthunkal, with its Arthunkal Beach, the mighty St Andrew’s Forane Church. It is Sunday and the basilica is already busy before a wedding party turns up. Women pray to a statue of St Sebastian, for whom a feast is held each January in this important pilgrimage site. Some of the devoted crawl to this holy festival on their knees.

Then on past St Reetha’s and St Antony’s to Chethy Beach; St Joseph’s to Marari Beach at Mararikulam — another long, white-sand beach, with shade under the trees and the warm Arabian Sea to swim in.

Then on through Katoor and past the many beach villas, homestays and small beach “resorts” before Thumpoly and finally Alappuzha, in the Alleppey district, where so many visitors board houseboats to cruise the Kerala Backwaters. Route 66 is a good alternative way to get here by private car, rather than highway 47.

For the Route 66 of India isn’t just a road. Not just a mostly- bitumen artery south. It has proved a vascular conduit into the anatomy of India — into its boisterous body and heady mind.

Back on the road, there’s a man on a bicycle completely enveloped by the dozens of plastic containers strapped high and around him.

There’s a row of girls on bicycles, each in immaculate and identical uniform.

I follow a motorbike ridden by a man in a business shirt, his wife in a golden sari sitting sideways on the back. As they round a bend and the light catches her, I see a baby in her arms, its face suddenly revealed in the shimmering fabric’s folds.

Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield explores the coast of Kerala aboard a classic Royal Enfield motorbike. Duration: 01m 59s The West Australian

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