RESEARCH suggests that shared experiences, particularly of a challenging or dangerous nature, promote a strong sense of belonging, strengthening the group bond. Presumably, this has something to do with the evolutionary tribal instinct to enhance a group skillset in order to cope with specific threats.

I knew from my work selling tree shelters and planting accessories over the past 20 years that I already had plenty in common with David Gwillam from Prees Heath Forest Nursery, Julian Burchby from Pryor & Rickett and Ben Anderson from Abbey Forestry. Not only were we all involved with forestry in the UK, but we were also bikers – that eclectic bunch of thrill-seekers that seem to puzzle most regular folk. Therefore, it was no great surprise when all three jumped at the chance to join me and a few other like-minded souls in undertaking the trip of a lifetime – riding motorcycles over the highest navigable roads in the world, in the high Himalayas.

No great surprise except for Ben who, though he’d ridden motorcycles around the farm as a boy, didn’t even have a motorcycle licence when he committed to our trip. Still, that was no obstacle to ‘last-minute Ben’ (as he came to be known), who secured the necessary authorisations a full two weeks before we were due to set off.

Forestry Journal: A spectacular frozen lake on the Tanglang Lo pass.A spectacular frozen lake on the Tanglang Lo pass.

An India-based company, OMG Himalaya, dealt with most of the bookings, including hotels, hire of the motorcycles and all required documentation for the various regions we were due to travel through, including the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir. We were each left to book flights, endure the required vaccinations and purchase international driving permits – a cardboard relic from the 1950s in which, for the princely sum of £5, the post office official would painstakingly stamp our eligibility to drive a motorcycle in the country of India. All-in, the price came to around £2,000. Partly to justify the expense to our families and better halves, us four ‘forestry types’ decided to use the trip to generate sponsorship for our own favourite causes. Mine was Winston’s Wish, the child bereavement charity, David’s was Motor Neurone research, Julian’s was Diabetes UK and Ben’s was Papyrus, which works to prevent suicide in young people.

Forestry Journal: Tim with his shiny 500cc Enfield Bullet, keen to set off.Tim with his shiny 500cc Enfield Bullet, keen to set off.


June 28 dawned and we set off for Heathrow with a due sense of trepidation, plus bags packed with biker gear, spare socks and a bewildering selection of medication. Oxygen levels are considerably reduced at high altitude, and advice when ascending to higher than Everest basecamp (as we were) is to take it slowly – climbing a few thousand feet, then resting for a couple of days to allow the body to acclimatise. We didn’t have time for all that, of course, so instead took pain killers to dull the headaches and dizziness, plus a substance called Acetalzolamide, which helps to reduce the affect of AMS (acute mountain sickness). The other essential when travelling in the Indian subcontinent is Imodium to help ‘manage’ stomach upsets – Ben considered this more important than money.

This summer’s UK record temperature of 38 degrees paled to insignificance when compared with the 49-degree blast furnace that awaited us as we stepped out of Delhi airport. During our first day of sightseeing, India showed herself to be hot, crowded, colourful, dry, dusty and noisy – a bit like a hangover, really. But the following day, as we stepped off the plane at Kullu in the foothills of the Himalayas, everything changed, and the exquisite majesty of this wonderful country captivated like the sight of one’s first child. The atmosphere was hushed, the colours vivid, the air fragrant and humming with vitality as we stood beside the runway, lost in our own thoughts and trying to savour the moment.

At Manali, 30 miles north, we took charge of our mounts for the journey – identical 500cc Enfield Bullets. Designed in the 1950s by Royal Enfield and built under licence in India since the mid-1960s, they proved themselves to be heavy, dependable old plodders.

Forestry Journal: One of the few trees to be found on the trip, a copperpod.One of the few trees to be found on the trip, a copperpod.

At just over 13,000 feet, the Rohtang La pass was the first to come under our spotlight, and the ride up through some wonderful deodar Cedar forests was something of a curate’s egg. Parts of it were very good. All the high passes in the Himalayas are closed during winter months due to deep snow, and though the lower slopes were on relatively good tarmac, once we got above the tree line the roads fast deteriorated into pot-holed similes of ‘no man’s land’.

Around two hours of solid climbing, through sleet and near-freezing temperatures, saw us reach our first goal. Laughing maniacally, we posed for photos, thoroughly relieved to make the first pass in one piece, and with that monkey off our backs, the run down to our overnight stop at Jispa was a gleeful experience.

We knew we’d reached the top of each high pass due partly to the fact that the road started going downhill again, but mainly when we saw row after row of frayed and colourful prayer flags. Fluttering like so many tattered butterflies, they festooned each pass monument, making them look like Christmas trees decorated by an over-active toddler. We were each given a small string of these flags to attach to our bikes, which tour leader Aman told us was the best insurance he could give us to guarantee a safe ride. The Tibetan word Lung Ta translates as ‘wind horse’, and the five colours represent the elements which must be in balance to produce peace and harmony. Buddhists believe that prayers will be cast over a large area if the flags are strung in high, windy places, so it seemed logical that the route we rode from Manali to the Nubra valley should now be filled with peace and harmony.

Forestry Journal: The tattered butterflies of the Tanglang La monument, festooned with flags.The tattered butterflies of the Tanglang La monument, festooned with flags.


Day two was the longest ride of the trip – four high passes, including the second-highest navigable road in the world (Tanglang La at 17,480 feet), and a total of 11 hours in the saddle. Our ancient Enfields performed admirably, but as we neared the tops the lack of oxygen caused both rider and machine to wheeze a little. Ben had a minor mishap when he collided with a large boulder which robbed him of his exhaust silencer, and though the part was rescued before a following truck driver managed to purloin it, no tools were available to re-attach it to the bike. As a consequence, he spent the remainder of the trip doing an aural impression of Geoff Duke at the TT races.

We came across a new challenge on day two, in the form of fast-running rivers of snow melt crossing our path – sometimes up to 18 inches deep and 20–30 feet wide. First through was always our local-born tour leader Aman, so at least we had someone to follow, but even seasoned riders in the group were forced into the odd ‘dab’ mid-stream. Here’s where the first of my well-laid plans came unstuck. I had decent waterproofs and sturdy motorcycle boots, so in theory should have enjoyed a dry ride. However, no matter how good your gear is you’re going to get wet feet when the water is deeper than your boots are high, and some of us took to raising our feet high out of the water each time we crossed a raging torrent. Unfortunately, David came a cropper on one such stream crossing, hitting a deep underwater pothole which caused the front wheel to rear up and to throw him off. Fortunately (due to his prayer flags, no doubt) he fell on dry land rather than in the actual stream and suffered no injury other than to his pride.

Forestry Journal: The beautiful Nubra valley, an oasis of green amidst the mountains.The beautiful Nubra valley, an oasis of green amidst the mountains.

Next morning’s run from Lato to Leh, with the sun shining on the verdant valley of the Indus river, and the barking of Ben’s bike echoing off the mountains either side, was glorious, but entry to Leh was chaotic, with Julian just managing to avoid a local scooter rider who pirouetted gracelessly across his bow, having struck a deep drain cover. The town is a popular destination for Western travellers, as evidenced by the excellent Wi-Fi and coffee (in contrast to everywhere else we stayed), and a peaceful afternoon was spent contacting family back home after two days of email silence.

Unfortunately, it was at Leh that some of the gang started to exhibit signs of altitude sickness. Ascending to high altitude and immediately coming back down again didn’t seem to be a problem, but staying overnight at just under 12,000 feet was proving problematic, particularly for Julian. His blood oxygen levels dropped to around 70 per cent (compared to a healthy 98 per cent) and he was finding it difficult to sleep, feeling dizzy and experiencing severe headaches. Nevertheless, after a few hefty snorts from the hotel’s oxygen cylinder, he donned his bike gear and we set off for a quick dash up the highest navigable road in the world before descending to a safer altitude the other side.

Forestry Journal: The highest cafe in the world, at Khardung La.The highest cafe in the world, at Khardung La.

Whether the Khardung La pass really is the highest navigable road in the world is perhaps debatable, but it certainly feels like the top of the world, and like over-excited children on a school trip we pointed out the various features, pronouncing them ‘the highest toilet in the world’, ‘the highest cafe in the world’, or even ‘the highest metal waste bin in the world’.

Our route up the mountain wasn’t without mishap. Adding spice to the adventure, an unseasonably late snowfall, followed by a thaw, caused a small avalanche to block our path. Coming the other way was one of the many military trucks that travel the roads of Kashmir, and the driver, presumably pretty confident that it wasn’t his turn to meet his maker on that particular day, attempted to traverse the steeply angled wedge of snow. Halfway across, the truck started to slide towards the road-side precipice. Each time the driver tried to move forwards the wheels slipped sideways, and the truck lurched towards a drop of many thousands of feet. In panic, the driver abandoned the truck, which was soon surrounded by a voluble mob from vehicles now stacking up in both directions, all keen to offer advice and encouragement.   

To be fair, once the hubbub had died down the locals dealt with the situation quickly and relatively safely. Using only a few metal bars that the truck happened to be carrying and whatever rocks they could find by the roadside, they hacked a groove in the snow on the upper side, and created a higher track on the downward side of the slope, levelling the terrain and enabling the driver to regain his seat and continue his journey.

Forestry Journal: Riding a camel after several days on a motorbike – not a comfortable experience.Riding a camel after several days on a motorbike – not a comfortable experience.


The final leg of our journey took us along the Nubra valley to the village of Hunder – another lush oasis between high mountain peaks, but this time with sand dunes, and home to the only structured forestry site we found on the trip. This consisted of some fairly scrubby tamarisk behind a thorn hedge, but it was proudly marked ‘Forestry Plantation’. 

The Nubra valley is famous for adventure sports, where quad biking and dune buggies seem popular, but with just a couple of hours to spare before dark, some of us elected to try out four-legged transport in the form of a short Bactrian camel safari. The twin-humped Bactrian camel is a lot more comfortable to ride than the single-humped variety, and one can nestle one’s posterior betwixt the twin humps most comfortingly, which came as a relief after many hours on a motorcycle saddle. However, the camels still lurch alarmingly when mounting or dismounting, which was far from comfortable, as the look on Ben’s face testified.

It was with some sadness that we pocketed our little string of prayer flags and handed back the keys to our faithful Bullets which, apart from a couple of punctures, had served us admirably, and the flight back to Heathrow was a rather sombre affair. For some in the party this was their first time to India, and although this was my third visit, I’d like to think it won’t be my last.

A massive vote of thanks must go to industry friends, colleagues and companies who donated so generously to our various charities. The latest count shows the total raised between David, Julian, Ben and myself was just a little under £5,000, with exceptional donations coming from:

Pryor & Rickett Silviculture (Euroforest), Abbey Forestry, Prees Heath Forest Nursery, Suregreen, Knighton Countryside, Maxwell Amenity, Trojan Timber and the Royal Forestry Society.