Himalayan Elan

Our 2007 trip was to the roof of the world or as near as we could manage. Our trip was to India, Nepal and Bhutan, the car may not have actually seen Everest – but we did from a chartered sightseeing jet from Kathmandu airport!

The trip was planned well in advance and the cars were due to be shipped two months before we flew to Udaipur in western India. So plenty of time to prepare, no last minute gremlins – wrong! The drive to the docks had to be abandoned due to fuel starvation – the engine which had been fine pottering round home just died when we were ambling along the motorway at (shall we say?) just about the speed limit. The float chamber had no fuel but the tank was half full – probably the braided fuel line delaminating so we changed that and the (mechanical) fuel pump and all was sweetness and light.

We next saw the car along with its fellows in the Motor museum owned by the Maharana of Udaipur. A Maharana is like a Maharaja only the Maharana is more important. The other cars in this tour (not a competitive rally) were 6 Mercedes SLKs, two 1950/60 Bentleys, two Volvos, two pre-war Bentleys, a 1935 Rolls Royce and two Sunbeams. The reports from the crew who unloaded the cars from the containers were that the car was “pretty sporty”. This time we had the S/E engine and yes we were concerned that the local fuel or the effect of altitude could spell disaster and we took two spare cylinder head gaskets just in case. In fact apart from asking for a change of points and condenser, the engine behaved perfectly and was completely unfazed by the 87 octane fuel (87 on a good day). How did it ask? Well it poured out black smoke, refused to idle, lost power and had a good sulk!

In Udaipur we stayed at the Lake Palace hotel – anyone who has seen Octopussy will recognise the hotel in the middle of a lake – Bond and the villains used a replica crocodile to get over the water, we just used the hotel boat!

The Maharana flagged us off on the first leg to Jodhpur and already the Elan was attracting attention. For the Indians a two seater car was of little practical use and its size and particularly the headlights were a magnet; other competitors complained that the Lotus was the centre of interest. It featured in all the photos printed in the local papers – though its description as a 1965 Volvo was a little off the mark!

The feature of Indian roads is that they’re busy. There are some cars, there are lots of lorries and busses, there are a few elephants, there are carts pulled by tractors, camels, horses, water buffalo, humans there are pedal powered carts there are tricycle carts, there are three wheeled rickshaws and pedal rickshaws, there are sheep, goats, people, bicycles (lots and lots), motorbikes and yes, there are cows. The cows do just as they please – well so do the people but the people do at least respond to liberal use of the horn whilst the cows just look at you – and carry on doing just whatever it was they were doing before.

Another feature is that they’re noisy. We had a very big horn in a small car and when the horn decided it was being overworked – well you were insignificant, nothing. You had no way of doing anything. The horn is essential if you want to drive forwards, backwards, sideways – or if you are a bus – even to stop! If you want to overtake with no horn – it just does not happen, you cannot do it unless you want to get pushed sideways off the road.

The third feature of the roads is variability. You do not know what comes next. It could be an excellent surface where you’re happy to go at 80. Its just as likely that 25 yards ahead of you will be a sleeping policeman (favoured spots in villages, at railway crossings and both ends of bridges). Or you might find potholes (favoured spots on hairpin bends and in the shadows of trees but also found in otherwise perfect pistes of tarmac). You are most likely to come across broken tarmac, where one patch is about an inch below the next patch, a trench across the road or no tarmac at all, where you’re driving over – well anything from mud to riverbeds to landslides. Now its fine if you know what’s coming next and its consistent but consistency is a guaranteed no-no.

Jodhpur is home to the magnificent Blue Fort, which we enjoyed wandering round before setting off towards the relatively quiet and well surfaced Rajasthan desert. Our route saw us struggle out of town – until you’ve driven there its difficult to comprehend the sheer chaos of an Indian road.

There are all the other contenders for roadspace, there’s the noise they make – the slower the traffic the greater the noise – there’s also the use of that physical space. In principle they drive on the left – so its easy? Well not exactly! If there’s no-one else around and if your side of the road looks no less attractive than the other side you might well drive on the left. But if there’s anyone else around and particularly if traffic is slow and your horn is in good condition you drive on any piece of road that isn’t occupied by someone else and if your horn is louder you carry on driving on your chosen piece of road and push everyone else out of the way. This does have implications for traffic flow and congestion when the road is closed – as for a level crossing.

The opening of a level crossing in a busy town is an interesting experience. Traffic isn’t moving so the first imperative is to sound your horn. Next you advance as far as you can across the tracks until you encounter the oncoming traffic. Then you stop because all of the road is now occupied! You have moved to the right of all the traffic waiting at the crossing so as to get away quick and make full use of the space available. Equally and logically the oncoming traffic has done just the same; so you all stop and then you start inching and squeezing. Whatever progress you can make is slowed down by the motorbikes who are weaving every which way, the pedestrians who are everywhere and the cyclos, pedal carts and hand pulled/pushed carts which have limited acceleration. And you’re all trying to avoid the sleeping policemen or in our case go diagonally across them so as to minimise the distance travelled on the sump guard. Yes its interesting and it does occupy your day!

The desert was a welcome relief!

The next day was the longest drive of the rally, 545 kms with a scheduled time of 9¼ hours. That’s an average of 37 mph for a whole day – and it was a good road – on the whole! We spent the night in Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, which we were able to visit in daylight.
Sunrise was about 6am though it varied slightly as we changed clocks between the three countries and we always started as early as possible so as to benefit from the cool of the morning and the absence of other road users much before 8.30. This was the cause of daily friction in the cockpit – I wanted my breakfast whilst Allison wanted to get away at the crack of dawn. Strange, back home she’s always the one to want to stay in bed!

Next day we travelled to Dharamsala, home to the exiled Dalai Lama. Now we were in the hills, it was cooler and the engine markedly less happy – it didn’t pull so well and first thing in the morning could hardly move the car until it had warmed up. Maybe the choke would have helped but we don’t do chokes! We had to tighten up a lose compression joint at the fuel pump but otherwise the car was fine and now after 900 miles I had still not had to add any oil to the engine. We had our first sight of the Himalayas during the day – distant, white, exciting!

On to Simla, summer capital of the British Indian Empire, where I had some family business to attend to. My grandfather had lived there in 1901 and my task was to locate the house and give a full report to my father. It was here that we had our first mechanical problem – one front shock absorber had leaked; useless! Both tasks were resolved fairly easily. We found the house, now with a full military guard and used as a guesthouse by the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army western command. The shock absorber was rebuilt locally using parts from a similar one for the grand sum of £4.50! The other drivers told us to slow down – what? Drive a Lotus and slow down!

Caution being the better part of valour, we phoned home for a set of front shock absorbers to be sent out to await our arrival in Kathmandu – and don’t tell me that’s not a world first! Susan Miller now describes her business as “Far Flung Parts a Speciality”.

From Simla we tracked east towards Nepal. A rest day at a Tiger Reserve encouraged Allison to demand an oil change which was fine until the threads on the sump decided they were worn out and it took liberal use of PTFE tape to persuade the sump plug to provide an oil-tight seal. Moral – yes you’ve guessed – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! No we didn’t see any tigers.

The next day was bad news. The road book said 150kms with a time of 3½ hours. Well not exactly! The distance was wrong, the roads were bad, the directions inaccurate so we took a huge detour and the brake servo packed up. It didn’t just stop working; it began by pushing the pedal back against our feet then it locked the brakes solid. As we were trying to go uphill, down dale and round hairpin mountain passes this was not very helpful! One of the Indian mechanics was helping us as the day turned to dusk and then to pitch black. The simple idea was to bypass the servo and join the in and out pipes together – one nut seized on the pipe which snapped as he undid it. Plan B was radiator out and join the master cylinder direct to the brake junction (located under the coil on the inside of the chassis). That took a little longer, the torch went flat, it started to rain (heavy rain) it was cold and miserable, Allison fell down a gully in the dark, the room was damp, the sheets fusty…..not a good day.

We set out late next day after completing our repairs in daylight. The Nepal border crossing was straightforward and our delay meant that we avoided the fate of one crew who were “invited” by Maoist demonstrators to join their protests. Our problems were still to come! The last 10 miles were along an “unmade road”. This included a dried-up riverbed where a following car got lost in the dark trying to follow the tracks and went a couple of miles downstream. We continued through a village in dusk, with small boys shouting “one rupee, one rupee”, dodging the rocks, bumps and potholes until the headlight relay packed up. This was not the place for delicate electrical investigations or emptying the boot to locate the electrical kit and reroute the wires. Fortune smiled and one of the organisers’ jeeps came along. We followed close on his tracks, praying that he had a good idea of our ground clearance and breathing in lungfulls of his dust. The sumpguard saw plenty of action and we made it in one piece. The hotel had good showers!

The convoy of cars leaving next morning provided amusement for the locals as we gingerly retraced our way through their village. We found that we wanted to go faster than lot of other cars despite the terrain and that the riverbed was rather a good overtaking zone!

Problems of a different kind emerged the next afternoon. As we approached Pokhara, the second city of Nepal, all the fuel stations were out of petrol. The Maoists had blockaded the one Indian border crossing which was the only route for importing petrol – there was plenty of diesel but we did not want to experiment! Next day was a rest day so we luxuriated in the Fishtail Lodge hotel, waking to a view of the Himalayas from our patio and able to forget the bustle of the town on the far bank of the lake!

We were too confident. After adjusting the rear shock absorbers and spring height, we found that the front wishbone bushes were loose. Instead of the wishbones staying where they were bolted they flopped around at will – the rubber/metal bond had disintegrated and we figured it would not be long before the wishbones themselves would be rattling around and with them the steering and front wheels – not good! Decided there was nothing to do today so moved the car into the shade – no clutch. Slave cylinder. No problem we had a seal kit. Not quite! The slave cylinder had become firmly attached to its housing and would not be separated. On investigation we also found that the cylinder bore had become rough inside and had chewed up one seal and would do the same to the new one.

The Indian mechanics spent a couple of hours delicately smoothing the rough edges – not easy when lying on your back in the hot sun under such a low slung car. It was well dark by the time we had bled the system, refitted the sumpguard and the organisers had found enough fuel to get us to Kathmandu. I was shattered – mild sunstroke – and supper in this luxury hotel was wasted, I was too ill to be interested. The next day had to be better!

We left early, the scheduled time was only 5 hours but we wanted to get out of town before anyone started asking where our fuel had come from – we felt uneasy ostentatiously driving thirsty cars during a fuel strike. Leaving town we glanced the rear side of a motorbike; he wobbled but stayed on we went off as fast as we could.

Ours was not the only rally in town – coming towards us a high speed, with lights and flashers, pushing everything out of their way was the South Asian 4WD rally all in modern jeeps – you can easily ride the bumps in them!

Kathmandu was busy, very busy, the last 8 miles took over an hour. Fuel was going down, oil pressure was close to zero and the water temperature reached 108 – we had a 50% antifreeze mix which raises the boiling point – somehow it did not boil – no idea how it managed that! The road was narrow, our windows just at the right height for lorries to fill the car with black, hot smelly clouds of their exhaust. Buses as ever stopped just exactly where they wished, the policeman, all wearing masks, waving them on had no impact whatsoever. It was hot, dusty, noisy and we sat, choking, sweating and hoping those gauges would not tell us that disaster was at hand. It took us nearly 6 hours and we were the fourth car to arrive.

The afternoon was for a snooze and some sightseeing. Allison recognised the temples in Durbar Square from my photos of 25 years earlier. The difference was that then it was peaceful and quiet – not now! Next morning we took a dawn flight to see the Himalayas – the roof of the world just the other side of the cabin windows!

We had been told of a midday convoy for fuel. This was abandoned on the grounds that it might just be provocative! We were told to expect 2,500 litres to be delivered to the hotel in the early evening and to get some cans so as to have enough fuel for India – 350 miles away. We estimated we would need 70 litres to be safe and persuaded the mechanics to carry 20 for us – we always carried 10 litres in the boot. Dusk came and the civilised hotel car park was transformed to a mad house as fuel was syphoned out of 45 gallon drums into cans and the stench of petrol filled the air and the surrounding streets. We all overfilled our tanks so petrol was swilling everywhere.

We left Kathmandu before six so as to be out of town before the locals were awake and because today was the longest day with a scheduled driving time of 10½ hours. We knew the last 8 miles was on rough tracks and with the front suspension feeling most unhappy we had to take this section very slowly. We were on minor roads climbing out of the Kathmandu valley and they were bad! Potholes, broken tarmac and stretches of track and roadworks. Roadworks in this case means rough stones and dirt, with gangs of women chipping the stones to make a hardcore base for tarmac. You don’t go very fast!

For the last 100 miles the engine was coughing and spluttering but not seriously enough to warrant a roadside repair. As we crawled along the track to our overnight campsite (no hotel tonight!) it got worse and at the end it was all we could do to get any life out of it at all. We just made the car park and it died with clouds of black smoke. The popular advice was fuel but we decided that points/condenser were the cause so we changed them – and all was again sweetness and light! I had broken one golden rule during this work – the car was on a weed-covered field and I knew I should put down a ground sheet to catch the bits I was bound to drop if it wasn’t there. So I didn’t and yes I did! I mentally thanked a friend who had persuaded me to buy one of those flexible mirror stalks with a magnet attachment so I could retrieve the little screw which holds the distributor in place…….!

Next day we left for India and wondered who had left a trail of oil in the dust – no not us! The engine was using next to no oil. I reckon in all the 3,500 miles we used about half a litre (well, plus the oil change). Down the road we came across a sorry Bentley bemoaning the loss of transmission fluid and feeling very despondent thinking he had a cracked transmission casing after a particularly bad bump. In fact it was only a broken hose, located in an inaccessible spot, which the mechanics somehow got into – they are ingenious!

India was welcome security and peace of mind – did I ever expect to hear that? Leaving the border control was slow as, in traditional style, everyone wanting to enter Nepal had spread across the entire road and the verges so we were stuck in the press of lorries, jeeps and cyclos.

We climbed up hairpins to Kalimpong, in tea country and another relic of the British colonial summer exodus to the cooler heights. Today was another “electrical” day as a blown fuse had killed off the wipers, indicators and fuel gauge – but they were all fairly irrelevant here. Next day we descended through the Darjeeling tea plantations, where people bobbed up and down, their bright clothes contrasting with the single green of the tea leaves. We did not see another rally car all day, which was unusual but it was a short day; our hotel was just inside the hidden kingdom of Bhutan and after finding Indian border control – not easy and we could easily have missed the inconspicuous drab building in the middle of the main street – we arrived in time for lunch.

We parked in the underground car park and decided that, for the first time in a rally, we should replace a donut – better to do it now than as an emergency at the roadside!

Next day the King’s grandmother came to greet us and send us on our way. Today’s topic were the major roadworks at a place called Confluence where our road met two valleys, one to the second city, Paro and Bhutan’s only airport, and the other to Thimpu, the capital. The new king’s coronation is planned for next year and the roads are being upgraded for the foreign dignitaries travelling from the airport to the capital. The road was closed for two hours at a time as the hillside was blasted away – you can probably imagine the state of it in the open sessions! Most of the largest boulders were cleared away but what remained was not exactly smooth!

Most of the later rally cars came through under police escort but we managed alone – and without our horn, whose fuse had also blown. You’re very vulnerable and lonely without your horn but the drivers must have been warned about our arrival because with the exception of the rally’s baggage van they all pulled over to let us past. At one stage we flew over a smoothly tarmac’d crest to land with a bang in a section of bumpy unmade track. The passenger’s door flew open, the route book and map had to be retrieved and the offside rear suspension banged and clattered for the rest of the day – another “dead” shock absorber but who could blame it?

On inspection the shock absorber problem was that the “collar nut” holding the shock absorber into the bearing housing had come undone. Diagnosis was easy but putting the nut back without removing the spring was very delicate and time consuming. With the assistance of the mechanic’s trolley jack and the Rolls Royce crew we managed it – thankfully!
Next morning saw the energetic competitors climbing to the Tiger’s Nest monastery, perched high and inaccessibly in the hills, the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. Back for a late breakfast we visited the National Museum and the Paro festival held in the courtyard of the Dzhong – a fort-cum-monastery.

Then a return journey through those roadworks and along the other valley to Thimpu. Fortunately we timed the road closures to perfection and arrived in daylight. Over half the rally got it wrong and endured a slow dark and dusty crawl. Two cars had to be towed – a serious challenge for all concerned.

A rest day to allow us to visit the biggest Dzhong in the country but first an inspection of the car revealed that the front wishbone bushes were “shot”. One o/s top bush was so far gone that the top of the wheel had about an inch of horizontal play. The tourist guides located a garage owner who managed to concoct and fit a replacement within about an hour on Sunday morning – and all for about £7.50!

Next day and another go at those same roadworks as we had to enter and leave Bhutan by the same route. We left early again and avoided most of the heat, dust and traffic. Descending towards the Indian border we were in thick cloud but sadly every vehicle we tried to follow in the murk courteously pulled over to let us go ahead – not what we wanted! Today was a good day for electrics so we had the benefit of both lights and wipers. Arriving at our underground hotel workshop/parking the most serious task was to take the door apart to untangle the knitting otherwise known as the wire and pulleys for the electric window.

Our route ahead was straight to Kolkata over three days. West Bengal was mainly flat, always busy, noisy and dusty – and hot and humid. I really feel that if I wanted to go there, which is debatable, I would not chose just now! Having sent an email of our progress to friends and Lotusnet, in praise of our tyres, we had a puncture! But one puncture, repaired at the roadside for 50p, was remarkable in 3,500 miles of these “roads”. To our great astonishment Kolkata’s traffic was not bad and we reached our hotel with no alarms – except for one friendly guy who opened the tinted window of his air conditioned modern luxury to tell us “your right rear wheel bearing is not good; your wheel is wobbling”. He was right but I had figured that, whilst I had a spare, I was not going to replace it now and that it should last the distance – it did!

It just remained to take the cars to the inland container port and hopefully we’ll see it again in Felixstowe in a few weeks time!

What’s next you ask? How about Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam followed by Iceland? Yes, 2008 should be busy!

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