Queenstown man’s close shave in India

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Pathankot, India, 1974, was the first time I saw daylight in my young life – and near where I almost saw it for the last time.

My hippy parents had decided I was going to be born in Tibet, but snow on the pass prevented them from reaching Dharamsala and they sat it out in Pathankot.

So when Queenstowner Lucas Fornes asked me to join them for an epic bike trip, starting near Pathankot, from Dalhousie to Leh, I said yes.

I bought a full carbon 26-inch hardtail Wilier Centouno. Struggling with a back injury, I didn’t test it. The maiden ride would be in India with Fornes and fellow Queenstown-based companions Gary Erving and Morgan Garandel.

Arriving in Delhi, I was expecting hordes of people trying to get me a taxi, selling me stuff, begging, but it was nothing like it.

I booked a taxi and luckily enough got a coffee so I had enough small change to pay seven porters fighting to put my bike box in the taxi. It was 250 rupies to the hotel.

After breakfast we made our way to Chandrigar to meet tour guide Dilib.

Driving India is an experience – there are no road rules. Everything moves left to right, there are cows on the street, and you overtake any way you like. It is totally ok to jump lanes, squeeze into a gap. But it all seems to flow as long as you ‘blow the horn’.

At mountain village Dalhousie, at 2800m, you can feel the effects of thin air. Running up stairs makes you feel like you haven’t done anything for a year.

Dilib’s father had a lodge in Dalhousie where we stayed and met the crew – drivers, chefs, and a former Queenstown local MJS, who used to co-own Little India on Shotover Street.

I am sure the Indians thought we are complete idiots – why on earth would you ride a bike?! 

Day 1 (Dalhousie to Tisa)
Everyone curious how we’ll deal with heat and altitude. No problem, roads great. Scenery spectacular, changing after every pass and valley.

Day 2 (Tisa to Kilar)
Time to grow chest hair and master first pass of 4300m. Nice tarseal, views to die for. We high-five at 3800m, are bewildered to see a shepherd with goats at 3500m, chatting on his Nokia. On the final stint we feel the thin air. Biking’s harder. In ‘grandma’ gear uphill, struggle to breathe. Doubt fitness but view at top worth it. Then it’s downhill, more suited for a proper downhill bike, not my carbon hardtail. Surface changes, rocky to sandy and halfway down I think it amazing nobody’s crashed. Getting so tired I want it to end. Careful what you wish for.

Speed around a fast corner to the left and change lanes, front wheel digs in to piled-up sand in middle. It forces wheel to do 90-degree turn, and sees me go straight for 150m drop. Cat reflex makes me turn and let go of bar, thinking I need to stay on top. I landed on road and feel bike swing around, unclip and dive off by itself down the canyon. Retrieve bike, it’s broken in half. MJS pours me a stiff whisky. Drive to guest house, glad to be alive.

Day 3 (Kilar to Ulapor)
Luckily, Dilib has a bike, thinking he’ll do some riding, but he’s given up, thinking we’re crazy. So I take his. It’s 34 degrees, dusty and windy. Ride through little villages, see hundreds of people working roads, doing manual labour. One guy stands atop hill with crow bar to wedge out big rock. It drops to road, they break it down with sledgehammers. Never complain your job is hard again. Start to feel result of previous day. With sore asses and blisters, every bit of tarmac is a gift from heaven. Landscape gets drier. Put Vaseline in nose to prevent it drying out. After 84km, reach camp, lovely site next to river.

Day 4 (Ulapor to Jispa)
Easier day, roads better. Once we get to main road, I call it quits for day, still tad shell-shocked from crash.

Day 5 (Jispa to Barachala Pass)
Rest day works wonders. Refreshed we start rise to Barachala Pass at 4930m. Legs feel good, but as soon as we sit on our saddles, we’re reminded of previous three days and are grateful for every bit of tarmac. Not that it lasts – 15km in the road starts to go up, nice gentle climb. Short ride, reach camp early.

Day 6 (Barachala Pass to Gata Loops)
Body adapting to altitude but doesn’t mean ride gets easier. Cross pass, do tourist thing, pictures at top with Tibetan flags. Ready for long downhill. Reach campsite, cold bath in river.

Day 7 (Gata Loops to Pang)
Day to tell the kids – two big passes, live up to expectations. Start 9am, climbing up Gata Loops. Riding hairpins a true delight. At top get pleasure of looking down winding streets to see where we’d come from. Dry thin air fills lungs, wind picks up, glacial air blows in faces. Photo op at 5000m pass, start downhill.

Day 8 (Pang to Nomad camp site)
Woooooooosh! Short climb out of camp before 40km of super-smooth new asphalt (left).

Day 9 (Nomad camp site to Leh)

Big day – highest pass 5328m and longest day 140km (above). Crossing highest pass gets heart beating faster.

Real milestone. Start best downhill of whole trip. Reach hotel, hot shower, out for dinner and reflect on amazing trip. We just rode across the Himalayas – and survived. 

Niels Koervers is a Queenstown photographer who works at The Hills clubhouse bar