2,000km across India in a turbo-charged rollerskate
As a bored office drone twelve months a year, I need something interesting to keep me sane. And so it was that I found myself on an overnight flight to Chennai, India in order to compete in the Mumbai Xpress Autorickshaw Challenge.
If you have never seen an autorickshaw, imagine a scooter with a park bench stapled on the back, open sides and a fabric roof stretching forward to a windscreen sporting a single sorrowful wiper. Our windscreen wiper would eventually and irrevocably give up the ghost, hanging loose and pointing straight down at the ground and twitching for most of the rally, after we were attacked by a drunk driver who took out his road rage on it. He accused us of insulting him as we overtook, presumably in our fluent Tamil above the roar of a two-stroke engine at full throttle. Driving in monsoon season, this was somewhat of a hindrance.
With a top speed of around 75kph, fully loaded and heading downhill, the humble three-wheeled rickshaw is powered by a two stroke engine. Its beauty is in its simplicity, as a two stroke engine is so basic it is started with a starting handle, and does not have its own lubrication system. Instead, oil is mixed with the petrol in the tank, and the tuktuk is shaken to make sure the fuel is properly mixed. If not, the engine can seize up or lose power. Simplicity may be a virtue, but there are still plenty of ways a tuktuk engine can go wrong.
Steering is by way of scooter handlebars, with the accelerator on one hand, and the clutch and gear change on the other. There is a footbrake, of varying effectiveness, and on your right thumb, the single most important part of the whole vehicle: the horn. This should be sounded before every change of direction, every overtake, every time you see a pedestrian, vehicle or cow. Without a horn, you won’t survive out there.
The humble tuktuk is not built for long-distance travel. Its fuel tank is minute, meaning that in order to cover the distances involved, we were carrying water bottles ready-mixed with oil and petrol to feed the two stroke engine if we ran short in the middle of nowhere. When, during a lay over, a taxi driver tried to argue our fare up on the basis of the price of petrol, I was able to retort that I knew precisely the going rate as there was seven litres of the stuff stashed under my bed.
Having never driven a tuktuk before, we were arriving at 4am and planning to go straight into our training day, which we had been promised would answer all of our questions. Bleary-eyed, we first sighted our vehicles that afternoon in an Indian driving school, where the twenty competing teams headed off in different directions in their brightly-coloured tuktuks. Within minutes, we had come perilously close to tipping the thing over in an emergency evasive manoeuvre. Our footbrake went flat to the floor without troubling to engage the brakes. With the tuktuk up on two wheels and my teammate hanging out of the back trying to stabilise it, we hit a concrete bollard on the side of the track, scoring a dent down the side, but ultimately righting us on all three spindly wheels again. After this, we had our brakes tightened.
Our first experience of an Indian road was driving through Chennai that evening: a city of 5 million people in the dark. Without street lights, and when the brightness of a tuktuk’s solitary headlight is proportional to its speed, it was a baptism of fire.
Things had not improved the next day, when, feeling woefully unprepared, we all assembled at the start line…in our assorted fancy dress. As a charity rally, we were going to tackle this challenge head-on and looking ridiculous. Most teams had adopted a theme, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. We competed against Batman and Robin, a huge hit with the children everywhere we went. There are few things funnier than seeing two embarrassed-looking, cape-clad caucasians being seriously interviewed for Indian TV.
The Norwegian entrants, The Lost Vikings, sweated around the subcontinent in fake beards, horned helmets and brandishing swords. Two Brits competed as pirates, which gave us the opportunity to unexpectedly board them during an overtaking manoeuvre. Once rid of my weight, my teammate raced off into the distance, whilst the four of us in the pirate ship slowed to a crawl. It took a long while to persuade my teammate to take me back. With twenty teams entering, one team of British air hostesses resembled Penelope Pitstop in their all-pink vehicle, leading one of my friends to quip, “were you two Dastardly and Mutley, then?”
Our chosen team name was ‘Two Tukkers In Tukxedos’, and we proudly arrived at the start line in our chosen attire of black tie and board shorts, christening our faithful, bow tie-emblazoned steed, ‘Jeeves’.
In a charity rally, run entirely on public roads through villages, towns and cities, in the interests of safety we were not competing in a race. The aim was to finish each day’s drive on time, rather than particularly quickly. The rally was broken down into stages, with each team covering the same ground every day and staying in the same places. En route we would have to answer questions and complete challenges in order to score points. For example, we visited landmarks, were blessed by elephants, chatted with priests and found our way to local schools.
However, from the start our tactic was to take life as leisurely as possible, with the maximum number of stops for chai (sweet and milky Indian tea) by the side of the road as we could reasonably accommodate. At one chai stop, in the midst of a particularly bad monsoon storm, we tried to show the chai wallah how to make an english cup of tea. The first attempt involved him tearing open the teabag to get at the tea inside. Luckily, we had a spare and once we had brewed up we offered him a taste, but he was most unimpressed at the paltry dash of milk and dearth of sugar in our cuppa.
With each passing day we grew in confidence, although it’s fair to say that my erstwhile teammate took to it far more quickly than I did. In fact, he showed no fear. Whilst the rules of the Indian road are various and complex, in our short time I feel we gained a small understanding. When you pass signs bearing such slogans as “this is a highway not a dieway” it is difficult to forget the simply frightening statistics that accompany road safety in India. But it is amazing how often the road can seemingly expand in order to accommodate all users, no matter how many impromptu lanes have appeared. That said, the sheer number of lorries and buses lying on their side in ditches represented regular and sobering reminders of the stakes. They had made the smallest miscalculation and found the soft verge that marks the ultimate limit of the seemingly ever-expanding carriageway.
Our wake up call came early, when my teammate attempted an overly-ambitious overtake between two huge trucks. I could not believe he was attempting it, and I did not want to distract him as we hurtled for the smallest of gaps between the on-rushing juggernaughts. I quietly braced myself for impact. We later learnt from a tearful woman travelling in the tuktuk behind that Jeeves was on two wheels as he slammed back across the road to safety. There was a moment’s silence as we contemplated how close we had come to disaster, which was eventually broken by the following conversation:
“I have a question…”
“WHAT WAS THAT? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? DON’T YOU EVER DO ANYTHING LIKE THAT EVER AGAIN!”
By the end of the rally, we had both scared each other a few times, but I shall for evermore be able to say that my teammate’s driving is so bad, he made someone cry.
For the 40,000 km covered in total by the twenty competing tuktuks, there were only two accidents. A figure that compares favourably with the average on Indian roads as a whole. One of those was minor with no-one hurt, but a broken windscreen and dented pride. But the other was serious.
The wisdom of attempting such a rally at all is debatable, but we were attempting it in monsoon season. In an open-sided vehicle, with a leaking canvas roof and broken windscreen wiper, staying dry is not an option. In a particularly severe monsoon season, we were forced off a series of main roads as each had successively been washed away. In appalling conditions, one tuktuk slid off the road and crashed into the ditch. The bottles of spare fuel they were carrying burst and ignited.
The driver whose error had caused the accident was more badly hurt than his friend and passenger. However, the passenger was trapped in the crashed tuktuk and the driver had to pull him out of the burning wreck. The driver needed stitches to reattach his ear, and the tiny rural clinic that treated him failed to even clean the wound. Ultimately, he had to have the wound re-stitched at the next city with a hospital, where they cleaned out leaves and dirt.
With no maps, we relied on word of mouth, and were often greeted with the ubiquitous, but (in the context of asking for directions) infuriating, Indian head wiggle. Seemingly meaning yes-no-maybe-hello-goodbye-you’re welcome, it is a charming gesture for all eventualities. However, our only means of navigation for traversing the subcontinent was pulling over every few miles and asking for the next large town in a string of short hops to that day’s destination. I guess it was the equivalent of fifty foreigners driving London taxis and speaking no English rolling through my home city and trying to get directions, and I don’t think the responses in that scenario would be anything like as patient as those we received.
From Chennai (Madras of old) on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, we headed west via Bangalore, until we hit the Indian Ocean again at Mangalore. Then we turned north, running the length of India, pausing for a rest day in Goa, before finishing the rally at Bombay (now known as Mumbai).
Specifically included in our plan of action was a commitment to pick up hitchhikers where we could. Our record was five at the same time, collected on the outskirts of Mumbai. In order to cram so many bodies into our tiny tuktuk, we had four in the back and I had to share the driver’s seat with one hanging out either side. Whilst pulling away after our first pick up, we promptly broke down. Helpfully, our hitchhiker was able to locate a man with some tools and the necessary skills to fix Jeeves. Although decidedly not built for long-distance travel, even in rural India you are never far from someone able to repair a broken tuktuk.
In total, the rally raised over £10,000 for a variety of charities, including seven schools that we visited in the course of the rally. We were mobbed at each by hundreds of screaming children, for whom we signed autographs and posed for photos.
The arrival at the finish line was a huge occasion, covered by media networks throughout the country. We were filmed by cameramen hanging out of the open boots of cars as we drove in, and interviewed by reporters with microphones.
Later that evening, we were unexpectedly crowned world champions. Having had no interest in winning, we had not known that we were even close. We were presented with the prestigious rickshaw meter trophy at a glitzy ceremony and finishing party. Unfortunately, we had a little accident with the trophy during the celebrations, having dropped it out of the side of a cab after one too many celebratory isotonic soft drinks, as consumed by all sportsmen at the top of their games. However, I do still have all three bits.
Having a microphone thrust into your hands in front of a room full of people and cameras is intimidating at the best of times, but after a few drinks it is not a good idea at all. When a speech was demanded, I had intended to say something profound about my trip. I had wanted to explain how my previous backpacking trip to the tourist-trap sites of north India could be summed up largely by the words of Hindi I had picked up en route: dast and baksheesh. Meaning diarrhoea and ‘tip’, this experience could not have been more different. I had wanted to talk about how there was no better way to see a country than at low speed with many breakdowns, far away from any other tourist. I wanted to talk about all the kind people who had helped us along the way, many of whom we could not communicate with and could not believe their eyes. I wanted to talk about the schools we had visited where there were no toilets and even fewer books. But I highly doubt that by that point of the evening I was being anywhere near that eloquent.