Across India in a tuk-tuk

A voyage of discovery doesn’t stop once you have conquered a fear or climbed a mountain.

I had already summited Mt Kilimanjaro in September 2011 with Daina Borillo and Benn Dalby, so when they suggested I join them to drive a tuk-tuk 3700kms across India to raise money for Frank Water www.frankwater.com, it didn’t seem like such a ridiculous idea, in fact I was quite excited.

Daina and Benn already had their crew, so my first mission was to convince some friends to join me on this adventure.

The organisers website warns:

“Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high.  Individuals who have taken part in past Adventurists’ adventures have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled and even lost their life. 

This is not a glorified holiday, it’s an unsupported adventure and so by its very nature extremely risky. You really are on your own and you really are putting both your health and life at risk. This is what makes them adventures.”

I knew that too much thinking would make us realise the stupidity of this undertaking, so I found five willing participants who joined me in signing up and paying the £1395 entry fee.

It wasn’t long after parting with our hard earned cash that I discovered the only way to get travel insurance to cover driving a tuk-tuk was to have a motorbike license. Never in my wildest dreams had I considered riding a motorbike but there it was, just another item on the checklist.  Adam, Carol, Katelin and myself spent many Saturday afternoons at Motorcycle Motion in Moorabbin, riding around and around that parking lot, before finally walking away with our license.  We had months of practice on our Honda 250cc, kindly purchased and restored for us by Chris Patterson. This was a little adventure in itself.

Next was the ‘Pimping’ phase, this was the fun part where you get to design your own tuk-tuk.  Two fabulous designers kindly donated their services, Alice from Dolly Rogers www.dollyrogers.com in Amsterdam designed ‘Uggi’ and Jessica Brent from Sibling www.siblingnation.net in Melbourne designed ‘Half a Tribe’. We proudly spruiked their fabulous designs all across India.

One important detail before departing was to apply for our visas. Seriously an arduous and bureaucratic process, requiring my father’s name and birthplace, my grandparent’s details, a curiously non standard size passport photograph and an application for an alcohol license.  They’re dying for you to get it wrong.  A guy even skulks around in the lift lobby to ensure you have the correct size photo as you attempt to enter the application centre.  I could only assume that if  you got it wrong he could make a quick buck and hit you up for another photograph in the correct non-standard passport size. Once you’ve made it past him, before you get to take a seat and wait your turn, another guy wants to inspect your application form in the hope you’ve made some mistake and they can upsell the add-on service of having you pay to have someone help you complete it.  A very strange experience all round and I hadn’t even left Melbourne.

Departing Melbourne it was an unexpected pleasure to be upgraded to business class, courtesy of Emirates (best Airline in the world). I arrived in Kochi on Friday 4/4/2013 to join my team at Saj Homestay (www.sajhome.com), a family run guesthouse with loads of generosity and great food, lovingly prepared by Saj’s wife.  Our adventure was about to begin.

We made our way to the parade ground where 74 fabulous little tuk-tuk’s were lined up awaiting our arrival. We were given two days for test-driving, mechanical issues and a little bit more ‘Pimping’. It was a bit of a false start for ‘Uggi’, we couldn’t even get the engine going. We mulled around aimlessly until one of the official Indian mechanics told us to check if there was fuel. How stupid of us to assume we’d be given a vehicle with at least enough fuel to make it out of the parade grounds – thanks Adventurists! As it turns out our tuk-tuk needed a complete overhaul with a new battery, horn (an extremely essential item in India), exhaust and some broken rubber pipe thingy. From this very technical description I’m sure you’re beginning to gather that I was of no help whatsoever when it came to the mechanics of the tuk-tuk. All I can say is ‘Thank God for Chris’!  I did however excel in outfitting our little vehicle. I scoured Kochi for the cutest red hubcaps, came across the yellow flowers and red dolphin along the way, sourced the cup holders to accommodate 1 litre water bottles and tracked down the handle bar covers (which turned out to be functional as well as decorative). So while completely useless on the mechanical front, I did get our tuk-tuk a little dolled up.

To summarise, here’s what it’s like to drive for 14 Days, spanning 3700km on Indian highways:

  • Crazy Indian drivers will overtake you from the left and right simultaneously. If this isn’t confusing enough, particularly given that one of the vehicles is usually a motorbike and the other a damn massive, monolith of a bus or truck, one must also keep their peepers posted to avoid a head on collision with the random vehicles that literally advance into oncoming traffic. Think nothing of entering a highway facing oncoming traffic, think nothing of it at all! The most disconcerting thing is the over zealous cars that beep and wave furiously at you as they overtake – very friendly bunch – and then practically side swipe you as they make their way into your lane. You’ve barely had time to recover from the distraction, which usually involves trying to return some kind of greeting… and then BAM you’ve nearly hit the buggers. It quickly wipes the smile right off your face!
  • Intersections and roundabouts are mayhem, the only way to make it through an intersection I found was to advance into oncoming traffic and furiously beep the horn.  If you hesitate, you will quickly be overtaken from both sides by traffic from behind, further complicating the task of making it through the round about.
  • Speed bumps, often unsigned, appear out of nowhere and can span up to 16 bumps. You definitely don’t want to hit these at 40km an hour in a tuk-tuk.
  • It’s a fine art to avoid pot holes the size of meteorites in a 3 wheeled vehicle
  • Highways are littered with safety signs spouting a host of driving recommendations, all of which are completely and utterly ignored. These include:
    • “Lane discipline gives you long life”.
    • (Life expectancy in India has to be at an all time low, because I can assure you no one in India knows what a lane is, let alone in which direction you should travel).
    • “Be alert, accidents hurt”.
    • “Expect the unexpected”
(they’re not kidding).
    • “Alert today, alive tomorrow”
(not necessarily).
    • “Traffic rules are life saving tools”
(not if they’re not policed).
    • “The safe way is the right way”
(indeed).
    • You are exposed to wind and dust constantly, your skin is dry and scorched and no amount of moisturiser is going to help. Your hair isn’t hair anymore it’s straw, and no it’s not your imagination, it really is falling out. Your fingernails look like you just dug your way out of Alcatraz and your feet look like you’ve donned a lizard costume.
    • Long haul tuk-tuk driving isn’t too dissimilar to architectural photography; the best hours on the road are the first and last 2 hours of each day.

At the end of a 9-10 hours driving in a tuk-tuk on the Indian roads there is always a feeling of exhilaration that you have survived yet another day.

So what were the highlights?

  • The kindness and generosity of the India people en-masse. What a fabulous group of human beings!
  • Attending ceremonies of worship at Srikalahasti Temple, one of the most famous Shiva Temples in Southern India.
  • Staying at Palm Coast resort in Chirala, a quirky little beachside resort owned by a bone surgeon and run by a fun team of young Indian boys who helped us find beer and danced with us late into the evening.
  • Being invited to breakfast by a beautiful family in Rajamundry who picked all six of us up from our hotel and served us a banquet of Indian delights including:
    • A sweet rice dish flavoured with cashews, lychees, ghee and milk.
    • A savory dish of coconut and spicy condiments.
    • White bread and jam.
    • A selection of almonds, dates and pistachio nuts.
    • Bowls of pomegranate, grapes, apple and papaya.
    • A brew of coffee.
    • Chocolate cake and biscuits.

That’s some serious Indian hospitality!

  • Swimming at Gopalpur in the Bay of Bengal where holiday resorts go to die. Hotel Sea Pearl was a dismal representation of her once former glory; sad, run down and in desperate need of some TLC.  Quirky enough to be cool with camel rides on the beach to boot!
  • Overnighting in Chandipur where the sea recedes by as much as five kilometres every day offering us the opportunity to literally walk into the sea at sunset
  • Skirting the foothills of the Himalaya’s.
  • An elephant travelling the wrong way down the NH31C.
  • Hiking to the root tree footbridges in Cherrapunji.  The bridges are molded and formed over centuries from tree roots.

Most people visit India in the hope of experiencing some kind of enlightenment. Driving across India in a tuk-tuk would have to be the furthest possible place from enlightenment; in fact it’s probably better likened to a living hell.

On 19/4/2013 @ 5.00pm after 13 Days on the Indian roads driving 3700 kilometres, we arrived in Shillong to find that in excess of  £50000 had been raised from the combined efforts of 74 teams making their way across India.

Thank you to all the friends and family who donated and supported us.