The First Indians to Motorcycle Round the World

This incredible story marks the 50 Year Anniversary of the first Indians to ride round the world.

In 1972 Subhash Sharma and three friends rode 67,000 miles across the globe on two Royal Enfield motorcycles. They did this at a time when motorcycle travel was unheard of. Their story of perseverance shows us just how easy we have it today.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world Subhash Sharma 1971 on Royal Enfield Bullet
The four friends at the start line, 29th January 1971
By Subhash Sharma

By Subhash Sharma

Round the World Motorcycle Traveller

How it began

It was a Sunday morning in 1969 Jamshedpur, India. I was sipping tea with friends when the idea of riding round the world on a motorcycle came up. At the time, motorcycle travel was so unheard of that we might as well have been talking about riding to the moon.

Even though I had no idea what was involved in a trip like this, I just couldn’t shake the idea. I believed we could do it and started researching anyway. When we all met up again I showed them my findings and when they realised I was serious, three friends stepped forward to say they were in. And that was it – from a crazy idea over tea we now had a four man team and were going be the first Indians to ride round the world. We’d just have to figure everything else out on the way…

The First Indians to motorcycle round
The team rest after a treacherous 80-mile stint through muddy tracks in Ethiopia. Notice the front mudguard had been removed because the black clay kept clogging the front tyre making it impossible to move.

Making plans

Our initial plan on leaving India was to exit into to Pakistan before crossing through Afghanistan and into Iran. From there we would be able to ride onto 60 more countries, which we estimated would take around 18 months. But the more we researched, the quicker we realised that just getting out of India was going to be our biggest challenge.

Back then there was no readily available info. You couldn’t pick up a book about motorcycle travel or ask someone online. This type of trip was unheard of. I had to speak to someone who could at least show us where to start and approached senior officers at our company who had travelled abroad. They couldn’t tell us much, other than we’d need passports to get out of India… our first hurdle.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Uganda East Africa
Bright faced after a few days rest in Uganda in the summer of 1971.

Passports

Getting a passport was not your right, but a privilege in 1970s India. We had to explain why we needed them and were denied until the government approved our trip first. I had no idea how to, or even where to, apply to the Government of India. I contacted officials, the police, attorneys, politicians and anyone that would listen. Eventually I ended up on a two-night train journey to the Ministry of Education in New Delhi to write a detailed letter explaining our plans.

A month later I was told that the MoE would only consider our case if the Sports Council of the State of Bihar (the state where we lived) accepted our plans and made a favorable recommendation to them.

Through the old West USA 1972
Somewhere between New Mexico and Arizona overlooking the Old West. April 1972.

More red tape

At this point two of the team pulled out because of all the delays. Another friend joined shortly after but we still needed one more rider – and two bikes. But first came the paperwork. I returned to Bihar to present our detailed plans to senior officials at the Bihar Sports Council.

They were impressed, but could only give us a favorable recommendation if one of the 1936 Olympic sports legends who lived in Patna recommended us to the them first.

 Armed with only a name (because they couldn’t find his address) it took two days scouring the city of Patna to find the man we were looking for. Mr. Haque, a highly admired sports official welcomed us into his home and after listening to me for an hour he agreed to give his blessing to our project.

The next day I took his recommendation letter to the Sports Council’s office and finished the paperwork. Two weeks later, the Ministry of Education had given us permission to carry on with our trip.

More red tape followed because it had to be looked into by the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Finance first. But eventually, it was approved and we were finally the proud owners of passports.

Letter-from-Ministry-of-Education,-India-1970 Subhash
Finally, a letter of approval from the Ministry of Education, India.

Maps

The second hurdle was figuring out our route. With no books or proper maps available, I travelled from Jamshedupur to Kolkata to visit the American Information Centre run by the US Consulate. It was more like a library, but 10 times bigger than any I had ever seen before.

And we were in luck because it had roadmaps of other continents that we could use to plot our route. But the luck stopped there because we weren’t allowed to take them home. So, on my next trip to the AIC, I brought bundles of paper and spent the day tracing all the road maps we would need while writing down as much info about the countries as I could. Once back in Jamshedpur, I developed the tracings into blueprints and we finally had maps of our rough route. 

Getting time of work

Now equipped with a vast wealth of information (or so we thought), we applied for a leave of absence from our employer, the Tata Engineering and Locomotive co. It was a huge business with over 24,000 employees in 1970. We were summoned to the boss’s office for an interview and a couple of weeks later they had approved the trip. That was it, now all we had to do was find two motorcycles and we were off.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in East Africa 1971
With a well-wisher in Kenya 1971.

The bikes

We were a four-man team and would ride two-up on two bikes. In India, we were used to riding with two or three people on the back so it never occurred to us that it would be uncomfortable. But between us we only had one worn-out old BSA and a small CZ (Jawa) but we wanted at least two Royal Enfields.

 So, we decided to approach the secretary of the Telco Sports department for financial support. They refused, but one of the board members, Manmohan Singh, decided to join our team as the fourth member and he already had a 1967 Royal Enfield 350 Bullet! And due to our meager financial resources, we ended up buying an old 1964 Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet from an army surplus auction for our second bike.

Manmohan Singh’s uncle had an automobile engine repair work shop and agreed to help us rebuild the bikes on the condition that we all had to do the work ourselves under his supervision. His reasoning was very simple; he wanted us to learn as much as possible about our motorcycles so that during our trip we could fix them ourselves. It took us three weeks to strip the motorcycles to the bare frame, paint them, change all the worn parts and put them back together again.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in the Grand Canyon 1972
The Royal Enfield overlooking the Grand Canyon, South Rim in April 1972.

Why we chose Royal Enfield 

In the 1960s, India didn’t import any motorcycles from abroad and only stocked three brands. One was Rajdoot (WFM Polish) 150cc two-stroke. Second was Jawa (CZ Check Republic) 250cc two-stroke and the third was Royal Enfield 350cc bullet four-stroke, which was the biggest bike in India at the time. So, the decision was very easy to make.

The Royal Enfield 350cc turned out to be a great motorcycle for our trip. It was rugged and easy to maintain anywhere in the world. I can say with pride that our Royal Enfields carried us through rain, snow, sand and extreme heat and cold. I’m sure there were other bikes which could have also done the job, but our 350cc Bullets were outstanding.

We didn’t make any special modifications to the motorcycles except for adding custom aluminium luggage racks. We needed the extra space to carry spare parts because we knew we wouldn’t find them anywhere other than in India and England.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Cameroon
Repair work in Cameroon, Africa.

Spare parts and tools list

We carried 24 spokes, 5 clutch and throttle cables for each bike, brake pads, inner tubes, one spare tyre each, spark plugs, coils, cables, piston rings, light bulbs, wheel bearings, kick start sprocket, foot operated air pump, tools to remove tyres from the wheel, set of open-end wrenches, metal saw, hammer, chisel, assorted screw drivers, set of screws, nuts and bolts, pliers and many other knick-knacks. The total weight of tools and spare parts was about 36kg (80lbs). Our personal effects (not including the clothes we were wearing) weighed around 3.6kg (8lbs) per person.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in England December 1971
A newspaper article in an English paper found in Addis Ababa, Ehiopia, 1971.

Riding gear

We had no idea what to expect on the trip and just had to go with our everyday clothing. For me, that meant a pair of suit trousers and a couple of smart shirts. We didn’t have proper riding boots or jackets before they didn’t exist at the time. We didn’t even have helmets because motorcycle helmets weren’t produced in India back then. We approached Coca-Cola in India for funds, but instead they gave us two helmets so at least we had those! We didn’t receive any sponsorship for the entire trip and would have to rely on the generosity and kindness of strangers. 

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Ethiopia
After hours spent riding tracks in East Africa, the team stopped to stretch their legs in the middle of the road because they hadn't seen another vehicle in over 24 hours.

Support

By now our friends and family had finally started to believe that we were actually going to go. Most of our friends were very supportive, but the majority of our relatives were very opposed to the idea of riding a motorcycle round the world. And even though a lot of people supported us, almost nobody believed we would come back – they were sure we would perish on the way, have an accident or die of diseases.

In those days motorcycle travel over long distances just wasn’t a thing. Even though motorcycles were used every day by millions of people for commute within the city, travelling more than 200 miles away wasn’t common. But travelling on a motorcycle to a faraway and unknown place was completely unheard of.  

For example, my international driver’s permit issued by our state authorities carries the serial No. 0002. I was told that some years ago, a businessman flew to Japan with the idea that he might drive a car there and carried the very first IDP.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields with journalists in Kenya
A group of American journalists stopped for a chat in Tanzania.

Saying our goodbyes

It was the middle of January 1971. The four of us got together and after a few strong drinks, decided to leave in a couple of weeks. We had just enough time to thank all the people who helped get us to the start line an say our goodbyes.

On the morning of 29th January 1971, we gathered in front of the Telco offices and were treated like heroes with flower garlands and hugs from 100s of friends and co-workers. We kick started our motorcycles at 9am and accelerated towards the first mile of our 60,000-mile journey…  

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields Departure morning with Sarosh Gandhi and others
Departure morning with Sarosh Gandhi and well-wishers.

The Journey

Terrorists

The first day on the road was easy. We knew the highways and were familiar with our surroundings. We covered 235 miles and decided to stop at an Indian roads side truck stop called a ‘Dhaba’. The owner offered us free food and asked us to spend the night. The kindness of strangers had already begun.

It took us three days to get to New Delhi, where we stayed with Manmohan Singh’s wonderfully kind family. Then we spent a few days getting the visas for the first five countries on our route and the Carnet de Passage papers for the bikes. 

While waiting for the paperwork to come through, news came in that terrorists had highjacked an Indian Airlines plane and flew it to Pakistan. The next thing we know, India and Pakistan had shut their borders to vehicular traffic. We had to react to the situation fast and dashed to Bombay so we could get onboard a ship and get out of India. 

The company we all worked for was headquartered in Bombay and the Export Office manager managed to wangle us onto an East German ship leaving Bombay for Kuwait. It was carrying Telco manufactured busses and we could sneak on as “company representatives”. It was a stroke of luck. We stood on the deck watching India disappear into the ocean. Our journey was about to start…

Muslim Shrine in middle of Sahara
A Muslim shrine in the middle of the Sahara.

The Middle East

After a few days at sea, our German cargo ship arrived in Kuwait. We unloaded our motorcycles onto foreign soil and rode through Iraq to Iran. It was easy to find accommodation because it was so warm we could just stop off at small petrol stations and ask to spend the night. The food was good and the petrol cheap too ($0.15 a gallon). The further north in Iran we rode, the colder it got so we swapped to indoor shelters like small tea houses and mosques.

We made our way to the religious city of Qum and then onto Tehran, which was surrounded by snow covered mountains by the time we arrived. But our first big shock was encountering sleet for the first time when leaving Turkey. We rode for seven days through rain and the bitter cold along the Palandoken mountains and almost all of the roads in the east of Turkey were dirt tracks back in 1971. Not knowing the geography of the region, we hoped we’d hit flat ground sooner or later, but it was mountain after mountain. So, we moved south towards Syria and Jordan in search of warmer weather.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields Algeria Morocco border post
Friendly officials offered tea and shade at the Algeria-Morocco border 1971.

Borders and conflicts

Crossing borders had been easy and visa requirements in the Middle East were relaxed. Immigration officials gave us a visa to get into Lebanon on the border, everyone was friendly and very helpful towards us. And both Sampuran Singh and Manmohan Singh wore Turbans, so Arabs thought of them as fellow Muslims.

Due to the Arab/Israeli conflict in ’71, we had to be careful in the region and avoid certain areas. It also meant the only way we could cross over to Africa was by taking a ferry from Beirut to Alexandria.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields from Lebanon to Egypt
Loading the bikes for an overnight journey from Beirut, Lebanon to Alexandria, Egypt. April 1971 .

Onto Africa

Due to the conflict with Israel, every passenger was closely scrutinized and it took us four hours to get our motorcycles cleared by customs in Egypt.

Riding from Alexandria to Cairo was mesmerizing as we followed the River Nile with luscious green fields lining the way. The road sides were filled with vendors selling fresh bread and green salads picked from local fields. They were the tastiest salads I’ve ever eaten.

We spent four days in Cairo visiting tourist spots, doing some much needed motorcycle maintenance and chatting to a local newspaper before preparing for the ride to Sudan. We headed south to the Aswan High Dam passing through the cities of Mallawi, Asyut, Qena and Luxor. From Aswan we planned to take a ferry across the El Nasser Sea (the body of Nile water held by the dam) to the Sudanese border.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields Algiers city 1971
Overlooking the bay in Algiers City.

Fire in the dam

But first we needed special permission from the military to pass through the Aswan High Dam area. They gave us 45 minutes to cover 25 miles to get to the ferry port. We were about 10 miles from the port when we made a wrong turn and ended up on a 15% grade and at a dead end at the bottom of the dam. Security made us turn around as we were not supposed to be there. We started going back up before realising one of the motorcycle’s electrical wiring was on fire!

I immediately pulled the melting wire from the battery and disconnected the burnt cable. It was over 100F (38C) as our genius mechanic, Sampuran Singh, quickly wired in some new cable and we were racing back up the hill within 20 minutes. We frantically flagged down the ferry before it was about to leave and made it on board just in time. Missing it would have meant a two week wait for the next one.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields Ethiopia 1971
A view from the top of Simien Mountains overlooking the town of Debre Sina in Ethiopia.

War in Ethiopia

We were well rested when we reached Wadi Halfa in Sudan. Northern Sudan was mostly desert with a few small towns on the way to the capital city of Khartoum. After three days in the city, we rode west to Kassala – a small desert town near the border with Ethiopia. After a few days we arrived only to find that we couldn’t ride our motorcycles through the border into Ethiopia. There was an internal war going on in Ethiopia with their northern province of Eritrea.

The only way we could cross into Ethiopia was by taking a flight from Kassala to Asmara in Eritrea. Kassala was a very small town with a tiny airport and a once-a-week flight to Asmara.

The airline company insisted that we dismantle our motorcycles into three pieces each and stitch the pieces in tarp to look like cargo. We were confused as to why, but we quickly understood why they were so insistent once the plane arrived. There was no way we could have loaded our fully assembled bikes onto the tiny 15-passenger planes. We did as they asked and got our six pieces of luggage into the tiny cargo area after a lot of pushing and shoving.

While on the flight, the captain handed us a Sudanese newspaper cutting in Arabic about our trip. The airline didn’t charge us any money for the flight as the captain said they were just pleased to be helping us carry on with the adventure.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Chad 1971
Narrow tracks through the jungles of Chad. Sampuren Singh checking the bridge before crossing with the bikes.

Ethiopia and Kenya

We landed at Asmara airport, which used to be an American airbase. It took us two hours to reassemble the bikes on the runway and the next day we were rumbling over dirt tracks and heading south to Djibouti, Somalia and onto Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia.

The riding was unforgettable. Most of the roads were narrow dirt tracks and were completely covered by overgrown vegetation. The terrain varied between flat ground and mountain passes as high as 14,000 feet. At high altitudes the Royal Enfields required a little carburetor tweaking and some other adjustments but otherwise ran perfectly.

We made a base in Nairobi and stayed with Manmohan Singh’s uncle while repairing our bikes and arranging visas for the next few countries. There was a large population of people with Indian origin in the city and they welcomed us with open arms while raising some funds for our trip. We received a lot of publicity there and were interviewed on TV, local radio and by the BBC.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Somalia 1971
A breakdown in Somalia 1971.

Towing through the jungle

We rode through Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda all the way to Murchison Falls and were treated to a few good roads. But once we entered Zaire (present day Congo) we were quickly thrown back into the deep bush. No roads, no people, sparse population and difficult conditions.

It was the rainy season, which meant non-stop rain every single day. Between Uganda and the city of Kisangani in Congo there were very few places we could spend the night and about 40 miles before reaching the city, one of our motorcycle’s valves was burnt.

We towed the motorcycle with a chain for 40 miles on a wet, muddy dirt road. Just imagine four men on two motorcycles packed with all their gear being pulled by one 350cc working engine… It took some time.   

In Kisangani we found a garage, but as no new valves were available for a Royal Enfield, their mechanics modified a valve from an old Jeep to fit the motorcycle engine. It was a great help and they didn’t charge us any money for the service.

From Kisangani, we headed north to Bangassou in the Central African Republic. At the border we had to cross the Mbomou River, but the problem was that there was no bridge. Local fishermen helped us by putting one motorcycle in each boat (the boats were made of hollowed out tree trunks). We made three trips across the river to get two motorcycles and four of us to the other side.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in deep mud in Central Africa
Deep in mud, Central African Republic.

Eye watering omelettes

Republic of Central Africa, Cameroon and Chad and Nigeria were next and all of them were ex-French/ Belgian colonies. One rainy morning we arrived in a very small town in northern Congo and noticed a small brick building, which turned out to be a private club from the French era. We were greeted by waiters in full white attire and quickly ordered the omelette. Thirty minutes after sitting down, the biggest oval shaped omelette you’ve ever seen was brought to our table. As it was the first decent meal we’d had in a long time, we finished it in a few minutes and decided to order another. The manager came out to inform us that we had eaten all of the ingredients and that they couldn’t make another. Then came the eye watering bill of $36. In 1971 that was a huge amount of money for breakfast in such a small village and was what we would typically spend in an entire week on food for all four of us! Still, it was tasty.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in the Southern Sahara 1971
Southern Sahara 1971

The Sahara

The roads in these countries were bad enough, but the closer you got to the borders the worse they got. Just to reach the Nigerian border we had to ride through a river because overflowing river water had engulfed the main rickety bridge.

We travelled west towards Mali and decided to cross the Sahara Desert through Niger. We started to see loose sand on the dirt roads and were in the real desert once we reached Agadez. We were stopped by police in Agadez to make sure we were carrying a basic first aid kit for snake bites and scorpion stings.

After spending a couple of days there, we started riding north to the border with Algeria. After a few days of difficult riding through the Sahara Desert we reached the town of Tamanrasset. It was a very small town with barely basic amenities. We stocked up on extra petrol, water, dried bread, rice and canned fish. We covered a good chunk of Africa with bread, rice and canned sardines as our staple food.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Sahara 1971
Taking a lunch break lunch after four hours on gravel tracks through the desolate part of the Sahara Desert. The temperature was close to 130F (54C).

The oasis

After two days in Tamanrasset, we left another small town in the middle of the desert called In Saleh. It was our longest ride without passing any other settlements. After riding for nearly two days, we came across a small oasis with only 20 people living there next to a natural spring of mineral water. They loved that we wanted to stay the night and welcomed us with food and tea. We don’t think they had ever seen motorcycles before, and definitely hadn’t met Indians before either.

We left very early the next morning to beat the afternoon heat. At night, the temperatures was in the high 40Fs (4C), but by 10am it was over 100F (38C) and by 3pm the highest temperature we recorded was 128F (53c).

In Saleh was another Oasis, but much bigger than the one we stumbled across two days before. We rested up and rode the last 250 miles to El Golia (present day El Menia), which is where the real black top road began.

We reached Algiers city via Tunis and received a very warm welcome because the news of our desert crossing was already in the local newspapers. The Indian Embassy welcomed us and we stayed inside the embassy complex itself. After spending a few days in the city, we started riding west to Morocco. It was fun riding through the Atlas Mountains thanks to the tarmac. After spending a couple of days in Tangier, we took a ferry from Morocco to Spain to start the European leg of our trip.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Sahara 1971
A long skid in the Sahara 1971.

Into Europe and sad goodbyes

It was early October and perfect for riding a motorcycle through Spain, the south of France and Italy. We met plenty of fellow riders who were amazed at our aged Royal Enfields and had a hard time believing our bikes could survive the treacherous journey through Africa and this always brought a smile to our faces.

Sampuran Singh and Ashok Kher decided to return to India once we had reached Italy as they had been away from their families for too long. It was a cold and rainy morning when we said a heartfelt goodbye to our round the world companions. But Manmohan Singh and I had to carry on. We moved onto Yugoslavia (present day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia). It was incredible riding along narrow streets through tiny villages.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields with a German mechanic
With a German mechanic who helped repair the motorcycle between Stuttgart and Munich.

Swiss Alps

But it was Switzerland that was the real treat. The scenery was completely new to us, jaws wide open and now on one bike each we could wind open the throttle and put our riding skills to the test in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The higher into the Alps we climbed the more snow we faced; it was all so alien as we’d never experienced anything like it before.

From Switzerland we entered southern Germany along snow covered back roads and continuous sheet ice. We didn’t have the luxury of changing to snow tyres with metal studs so we took it slow all the way to Stuttgart. The city and surrounding areas are known for its history and natural beauty. But our focus was on the automobile maker Daimler Benz. Tata Engineering and Locomotive Co of Jamshedpur, India collaborated with Daimler Benz to produce heavy trucks. We were received well at the company and stayed there for a few days as company guests. The company’s training department also helped us by machining some British standard screws and a couple of extra parts to fit our British/Indian made motorcycles.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Switzerland 1971
Manmohan Singh and Subhash Sharma cruising through the Alps in Switzerland in early November 1971.

We headed East to Munich and onto Austria, Hungry and north to Czechoslovakia (present day Czech Republic). Eastern Europe is filled with beautiful old cities and historical buildings and it felt like another world. We were often stopped by police to check our travel papers, but people were very friendly and generous. Many of them helped us with food, shelter and even some petrol money.

The main highways were fine, but the smaller roads were covered with snow and ice and full of potholes. In several weeks we didn’t see a single person riding motorcycle on the roads.

We travelled further north to Poland and then East to Berlin. By now we were seasoned cold weather motorcycle riders too so we pushed on Northwest to the southern part of Denmark and then on to Benelux countries.

On the way to Calais, my motorcycle the accelerator cable broke. We had run out of spare cables so I wrapped the broken end of the cable around a small piece of wood and for next 170 miles controlled the throttle with my right hand and clutch and handlebar with my left.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields muddy tracks in Central Africa
Muddy tracks in Central Africa.

The UK

By now it was early December 1971. We took a ferry from Calais to Dover and were happy to be back in an English-speaking country, even if we were detained at the Dover immigration office. The officers were curious about our trip and wanted to know more about our experiences riding through Africa and Europe. One of the older officers used to ride a British made Royal Enfield and was very interested in how the Indian made motorcycles were performing, a chat about the bikes got us let off quickly.

The next day we reached London and the first thing we did was search for a Royal Enfield dealership. To our surprise we were told that there weren’t any in the London area. By now, our motorcycles needed quite a few repairs. After trying a little harder we did find an old motorcycle repair shop where they had a few common parts for our bikes.

Our friends in India made arrangements to send much needed parts with my nephew who was coming to England to visit his family. While waiting for the parts to arrive from India, we travelled through Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Riding through Wales along narrow roads with little stone walls each side was a great experience. The people in Britain and Ireland were very friendly and hospitable, the food was hearty and the beer was outstanding.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Cameroon
With the family of a French mechanic who helped repair the bikes and put the team up in his home for three days. Ngaoundere Cameroon.

America

We shipped our motorcycles to New York in January and caught a flight a few days after.

We rode from New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston to Buffalo. From there we crossed in to Canada. Niagara Falls was frozen, we had seen some ice and snow in Europe but the north east of the USA and Canada were something different. It was a sign of what was to come…

We didn’t know what real cold was until we rode through the blizzard of February 1972 in Buffalo and Toronto. While in the blizzard, we had a flat tyre just a few miles outside of Buffalo. Normally we could replace an inner tube in about 20 minutes. But that day it took us two hours. We had to keep the other bike running and stop every few minutes to warm our freezing hands on the engine. We were on the road for about eight hours but only travelled 35 miles.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Canada 1972
Preparing the bikes on a snowy morning in Canada, February 1972.

Broken valves

We headed west to Detroit and onto Chicago when one of the engine’s stopped with a cracking noise. It was already dark and after a quick inspection we noticed the piston wasn’t working. We towed the bike to the nearest petrol station, which luckily had a mechanic shop.

The engine was opened to find one of the valves had broken and damaged the piston and the entire engine bore. We removed the damaged parts and took them to a BSA motorcycle shop in Chicago.

The mechanics at the shop were very sympathetic to our predicament. They assured us that they would try their best to repair it. It took them 2 days to repair the engine by inserting a sleeve in the damaged cylinder and modifying a BSA piston to replace the damaged piston and an old BSA valve was modified to replace the broken valve. We carried the repaired engine parts back to the petrol station and it took us two hours to put the engine back together before we were on the road again.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Arizona USA 1972
Overlooking the Painted Desert in Arizona, USA April 1972.

The final stretch

From Chicago we headed south to St. Louis, Oklahoma, Texas and on to Mexico. The journey through the middle of the USA was fascinating. We avoided the Interstate highways and travelled on the state highways and back roads.

We’d got into our rhythm by now and would ride all day and stop in a small town around 5pm in front of a church and wait for the congregation to come out after the evening services. People would always be interested in seeing us and our beaten-up motorcycles. And this would often lead to being invited to spend the night at someone’s house or at the church. We’d come to find everyone the world over was kind.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields New Mexico 1972
Comparing bikes with a local rider in New Mexico, USA.

But the highlight for me was riding through Texas. It was like a dream come true. Maybe because I watched too many Western movies back home in India. But either way, it was the place I would end up immigrating to one day.

We travelled through the northern part of Mexico for a few days. It reminded me of small villages in India and Iran. Mule driven carts, people working in the fields and the smell of spicy food made us feel at home. We swung back north and after riding through the southern states and past the Grand Canyon we reached Las Vegas. By now it was already early April 1972 and we had made it to San Francisco.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Western USA 1972
Riding the back roads through the Old West, USA 1972.

The long hitchhike home

By now we had about 62,000 miles on the clocks. Due to the war and unrest in Southeast Asia we decided to end our trip in San Francisco and ship our motorcycles to Bombay (Mumbai), India.

We hitchhiked back to New York and took a flight to London, a ferry to Belgium and hitchhiked through central Europe to Bulgaria. After a couple of days in Bulgaria we reached Istanbul, Turkey, jumped on a bus to Tehran, Iran and then to Kabul, Afghanistan. With Indian passports we were not allowed to travel through Pakistan so we took a short flight from Kabul to Amritsar in India.

In India we took trains to New Delhi and then on to Bombay. We picked up our motorcycles from the port and rode the coast of India finally reaching Madras (Chennai) and headed to the Royal Enfield factory. After a few days as the company’s guests, we started riding north along the east coast of India and reached Calcutta (Kolkata). Now we had only 175 miles left to ride back to Jamshedpur, India.

On 10 of July 1972 we reached the outskirts of Jamshedpur. Our friends and company officials were informed of our arrival time, so we were met with a caravan of cars and motorcycles. They escorted us all the way to the exact spot in our company’s headquarters where we started the trip one a half years ago.

We received a hero’s welcome from our friends and the 1000s of other well-wishers who had gathered. It was a very happy day for me, but I also felt sad that we had reached our final destination. I have never enjoyed arriving at a destination. It’s always the journey I love and this is one I will always remember. We had just fulfilled our dreams and done something that would live with us forever. In those 18 months, I lived a lifetime.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields on January 29th 1971
January 29 1971.

Lessons From the Road

The hard parts

There’s no easy answer to this question because there are many factors that can turn a situation into something difficult or dangerous. For example, navigating our way through soft sand in the remote parts of the Sahara wasn’t very dangerous, but when you throw in that we were at times 300 miles from anyone and the possibility of a major breakdown, severe injury or encountering bandits and it’s suddenly very dangerous. But you just have to deal with them as they come as that’s part of motorcycle travel.

The hardest part was dealing with the political unrest and civil wars in some of the countries we rode through. We couldn’t differentiate between the government and resisting forces.

Chief in Niger in 1971 round the world motorcycle trip
A Warrior Chief in Niger, Africa 1971.

Plans change

The trip wasn’t even close to what we imagined before we left India. Our plans were constantly changing on the road due to unforeseen circumstances. Other than the actual riding, we spent so much time maintaining the bikes and gathering information about road conditions and what we’d face ahead. There was also a constant need to raise and manage funds to complete the trip. Plans change and we had to adapt and be flexible. And in return we were rewarded with a trip that was so much more adventurous than we ever imagined.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Niger
Taking a break on a very hot day on the way to Tamanrasset in Algeria.

Lessons learned

The biggest lesson we learnt was to appreciate other peoples’ traditions, beliefs, nature and humanity. No matter which country we rode through, we always found people to be kind, generous and trusting. Patience and humbleness will take you a long way. 

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields in Tanzania 1971
Curious children surround the riders after they stop for a cup of tea in Tanzania.

Motorcycle travel today

I feel that travelling long distances by motorcycle has changed. A few people still like to ride the old way, without help and support, but most people travel in organised groups with support teams following them today. In 1999 I visited India and came across two motorcycle riders from Japan. After talking to them I found that a company in Japan had arranged their trip. They were met by the company representative at the airport and the motorcycles and hotels were all pre-arranged. They only rode on sunny days while a support truck followed them. I guess people now have more money and less time for such adventures.

But no matter how the younger generation wants to travel, it is still a great way to learn and understand other societies and their culture and it’s one of the most incredible and unforgettable experiences you can have in life. If I were a little younger and back in my 60s, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world on Royal Enfields team in the Congo
The team with locals who offered shelter during a rainy night in the Congo, Africa.

About the author

My name is Subhash Sharma. I am 75 years old and have been living in Forth Worth, Texas, USA since 1975. Along with three of my friends, we rode round the world on two motorcycles from 1971-72.  At present, I have a 1982 Honda Silver wing. Motorcycles are my passion and I enjoy their company.

My three friends who accompanied me on the world tour were Sampuran Singh, Manmohan Singh and Ashok Kher. We were all employees of the Tata Engineering and locomotive company in Jamshedpur, India. Now the company is known as Tata Motors.

Ashok Kher died in late 1980s and Manmohan Singh was 82 when he died in 2015. Sampuran Singh is 85 and still lives in Jamshedpur, India.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about our adventures.

If you’d like to get in touch, please email me at scbhash@aol.com or leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Subhash Sharma

The First Indians to motorcycle round the world Subhash Sharma 1971 on Royal Enfield Bullet Subhash Sharma
Subhash on his Royal Enfield sharing happy moments with friends in Nairobi, Kenya.

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What do you think of this story? If you have any questions for Subhash, please leave a comment below.

52 thoughts on “The First Indians to Motorcycle Round the World”

  1. Thank you for a fascinating account of your trip. I’m surprised it didn’t take as long as it seemed when I was reading it. I don’t think our paths crossed. I left UK in 1967 on my BSA Bantam 175cc bike to go East. Never thinking I would end up working my way round the world, alone, taking nearly 9 years. I was in India in 1971 having lived and worked in Afghanistan for nearly 2 years, 1968-70. I am now 80 years young and my bike has been restored to how it was when I came back to the UK in 1976. Again, many thanks for such an interesting account.
    On Facebook I am Mary Sievier aka Mary Motorcycle

    Reply
    • Our paths haven’t yet crossed, Mary. I’m sure I’ll bump into you at one of the many organised motorcycle travel events one day. I’ve read about you so many times, I feel I know you!

      Reply
  2. Hi Subhash,

    What an amazing journey, I loved reading about it. If you ever write a book I would love to read it. Thank you for sharing it. How were the boarder crossings in Africa in those days? Did you have to pay bribes?

    Paul

    Reply
  3. Hi Paul,
    Border crossings were OK where the borders were defined. In those days African countries were quite liberal with the immigration at the land crossings. A couple of times we ran in to opposing forces controlling the borders but we never had to bribe anyone to cross the borders.
    SC

    Reply
  4. This is incredible. It’s hard to believe and understand all the bureaucracy just to leave your own country compared to today. And everything you went through is just… excellent story!

    Reply
    • Hi GSer
      Thanks for reading the article about our motorcycle journey of 1971. Yes, it does look and sound crazy that in 1970 one has to go through a wringer to get out of India on motorcycle to travel the world. Even though in 1970s people could fly out of India with simple travel documents without any problem. Our case was a little different. As we were going to ride motorcycle through the different countries our government wanted to make sure that we were up to doing what we said we were going to do. Govt. of India followed our travel with interest. The official supporting papers helped us secure the visas for different countries with ease. It was the government involvement that our travel was recognized by many Indian embassies throughout the world by inviting us to stay in the embassies in cities like Washington DC, Khartoum, Algeria, Ethiopia and so on.
      Even though dealing with red tape was frustrating but we never resented it.
      SC

      Reply
  5. A wonderful trip indeed! A book about your adventures would be most welcome. And what happened to the Enfields? They should be in a museum!

    Reply