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Road trip across India: Three blokes travel 3,500km on a rickshaw

By: Katie Roberts

Fancy 3,500km across India in a glorified lawn mower? Robin Jones, Andrew Penrice Tyrie and Jon Russell recount tales of mateship, mammoth trucks, revered cows and deafening bus horns, over 14 days of massive adventure.

What is the Rickshaw Run?

Easily the least sensible thing to do with a two-week holiday. The aim is to travel from one end of India to the other in a humble auto-rickshaw, or tuk tuk, in just two weeks. It’s not a race as such, but more a test of endurance – and it’s 100-percent adventure.

What are your day jobs and how did your wives respond when you unleashed this plan?

We all work for Standard Chartered Bank in roles in technology, risk and development and, despite having desk jobs, are always on the lookout for adventure.

When Robin first came up with the hair-brained idea it didn’t take long to convince Andrew and Jon to sign up. But the responses from our respective wives varied widely. They ranged from being completely unimpressed, to blatantly ignoring the whole idea in the hope we would change our minds, to “Can I come with you?”.

Robin was repeatedly asked by work colleagues, “How is it that a risk manager would be doing something so risky?” Andrew and Jon were simply asked “Why?” by colleagues in India and Indian friends in Singapore.


How did a typical day unfold?

We woke at 5am each morning to pack the vehicle, run some checks, tighten all visible nuts and bolts and ensure the exhaust system was still intact, before setting off at about 6am. Leaving so early meant we ate breakfast and lunch on the road. This mostly consisted of chai and biscuits throughout the day, as we were careful about what we ate. We ended most days with curry and beer.

Frequent breakdowns really slowed us down during the first five days. Aside from those, we covered about 300km a day with 10 to 14 hours’ driving. Obviously, the rickshaw is not a performance vehicle. Our speeds were slow, and we managed a sluggish 20km/h up the hills, somewhat slower than a domestic cat.

On many occasions, some part of the vehicle fell off or broke; this soon became a normal part of each day. One notable piece we lost was a component of the exhaust system, or downpipe, which released a fragrant aroma of rickshaw exhaust fumes. To remedy this, we cobbled together half a dozen plastic bottles with their bottoms cut out and stuck them around the cab like funnels to channel fresh air onto the driver. Eh voilà, driver air-conditioning!

The number of trucks on the road was incredible. At state line checkpoints, the queues were a remarkable sight – a hundred or more. Even more extraordinary, though, was our ever-increasing tendency to drive like the locals, bobbing and weaving through the traffic. From above, we may have looked like a mouse running across the elephant enclosure at the Singapore Zoo.

Depending on how the rickshaw was behaving, or not, we left the making of sleeping arrangements until the last couple of daylight hours. Google Maps and TripAdvisor were very useful once we’d created our own mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, courtesy of an Indian 3G SIM card. When travelling outside big cities, we usually stayed over in small, obscure towns that are tricky to find on the map.

Driving after dark was really to be avoided if you d your life. The rickshaw was very small and its lights were as useless as bicycle lamps. On the one occasion we drove at night, we used our headlamp torches to light the way; at least they pointed in the right direction!

 

India is a big country with incredible diversity. What did you see along the way?

We started on the west coast in Fort Kochi, Kerala, a place known for its Chinese fishing nets, ancient Jewish settlement, Ayurvedic treatments and, more recently, tourism. The finish line was 3,500km away, in the north-east at Shillong, Meghalaya (roughly above Bangladesh). Shillong is characterised by rolling tea plantations, cool weather and, interestingly, was a muster point for Gurkhas during WWII.

The journey was definitely more of a road trip than a sightseeing tour, though. The terrain, people and climate changed as we drove from south-west coastal towns, then climbed inland across to the east-coast cities of Pondicherry and Chennai. From there it was 1,500km through the hot coastal plains of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal states.

We then started to climb the mountains into northern West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya, where the scenery changed and the weather cooled. The north is a heavily militarised part of India, so we saw more military trucks.

The “Finish Line” banner on the last day was a welcome sight. After 13 days and 3,505km, we had made it.

Tell us about India’s road rules. Where does a rickshaw fit in?

There is a pecking order, and we soon realised that our rickshaw rated very low on it. Cows, buses, trucks and cars are at the top, while pedestrians, dogs, cyclists and rickshaws are at the bottom.

We quickly learnt the power of the mighty horn. However, the sound of this small, lifesaving device is one we will not miss! Bus horns were without doubt the loudest; they gave us approximately two seconds to get out of the way before thundering past.

There were heavy vehicles everywhere, but on the coastal plains particularly we encountered hundreds if not thousands of very large and potentially rickshaw-crushing trucks. We spent countless challenging hours sounding the horn and jostling for space with these mammoth vehicles and trying valiantly not to get squashed.

In general, the roads in India are not in great shape. As well as speed bumps, diversions and obstacles, there are goats, sheep and cows everywhere. Other road users drove with the credo that the value of livestock is greater than that of the rickshaw and its contents. Many times, we were confronted head-on by a truck or express bus that swerved onto our side of the ride to avoid an animal.

Road trip across India: Three blokes travel 3,500km on a rickshaw
Road trip across India: Three blokes travel 3,500km on a rickshaw

Was it physically difficult?

Rickshaws don’t come with power steering, so driving involved a degree of physical exertion somewhat akin to wrestling a goat. We alternated between driving, sleeping, waving to people, taking photographs, drinking chai, eating biscuits for breakfast, eating biscuits for lunch, and eating biscuits for high tea. But a certain level of fitness is needed to overcome the eventual fatigue that sets in.

Amazingly, none of us got sick: no Delhi belly, ailments, injuries or accidents for the entire trip. In any event, we were so well equipped that any rural doctor would have been able to treat us with our own medical kit. Fortunately, we did not need to touch it.

Surprisingly, we were able to sleep in the back of the rickshaw without falling out. We snatched many catnaps, which was quite an achievement given the rickshaw’s open sides and the rough roads.

How much money have you raised and for whom?

To date we’ve raised US$7,700, and we hope to raise more. Standard Chartered Bank will generously match each dollar we donate to Seeing is Believing, one of our chosen charities. This is a global initiative to provide affordable eye care to the world’s poor. The second charity is the Frank Water Project, which supports community-owned clean water projects in some of India’s poorest communities.

Road trip across India: Three blokes travel 3,500km on a rickshaw
Road trip across India: Three blokes travel 3,500km on a rickshaw

 

Rickshaw Run statistics

The trip by numbers:

• Journey distance: 3,500km
• Starting teams: 70
• Finishing teams: 66
• Fuel stops: 32
• Breakdowns: 10
• Roof rack re-welding: 1
• Oil changes and service: 2
• Rickshaw top speed: 60 km/h
• Engine size: 145cc 2-stroke engine delivering 7 hp
• Google Maps’ journey time estimate: 58 hours
• Longest distance covered in one day: 425 km
• Shortest distance covered in one day: 125km
• Longest day of driving: 14 hours
• Team finishing position: 4th

Tips on planning for the adventure


Think months ahead about an Indian visa and insurance. All insurers we spoke to, aside from one, were very quick to decline our request when we mentioned the activity we were undertaking. Even some insurers who professed to insure adventure sports declined. Don’t forget about a driver’s licence and vaccinations.

The Rickshaw Run costs £1,395 per team of up to four adventurists; it includes the rickshaw, support team, website and tracking system and lots more.

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