This was the second of my roadtrips. A classic. Taking a tuk-tuk, with its eight brake horse-power and thrashing it 4000km through the heart of India and into the Himalayas. What a perfect plan.
The Radio interviews (before leaving)
The short movie
Journey begins, setting out from UK. Chris discovers he’s not brought his plane tickets. I meet Ben for the first time.
Land in Mumbai – it’s quiet, moody, atmospheric. We jump in a pre-pay taxi, an intriguing vehicle, what is it? It is butane or propane powered and bulky and oldey-worldey. £2.20 for a long old journey for 4 people plus bags. First dose of road chaos. General mayhem. Rickshaws darting about, with and without lights. People, cows, lights everywhere. Bling-bling petrol stations, adorned with fairy lights. Taxi ride to Juhu Beach – a completely surreal place at 5am! Very, very dark, yet heaving with runners, walkers, yoga practisers, cleaners, sleepers, commuters. A truly bustling beach, seemingly 24/7. Parked ourselves and our bags on the beach and waited for the sun to come up, and the bars to open.
A tough day in Mumbai – a 14hr wait (for connecting flights to Cochin) to deal with, in hot, unfamiliar surroundings, with heavy bags. Decided against doing anything touristy, opting instead to find a nice bar and chill out. Thus ensued, (after a couple of crazy taxi rides) a silly beer session – 4 hrs of turbo drinking followed by a mad dash via 2 wrong terminals, eventually, just in time, to the right one. As it happened the flight was delayed by 2 hrs meaning we wouldn’t arrive in Cochin until 11:30pm on the eve of the Rickshaw Run. All the local hotels were full, what with New Year so close and the added demand placed upon the vicinity by 35 rickshaw teams arriving! So we blagged our way into somebody’s friend’s house, coughed up 200 rupees and settled for 6 hours sleep in the company of many mosquitoes.
We sleep well, despite the braying of nearby goats and an odd ‘monkey being strangled’ noise. I have 3 or 4 bites to show from my first night, but no real problems. Omelettes all round for breakfast together with amazing freshly pureed pineapple juice. A quick stop off at an internet cafe allows me to post a website update and cover off a few emails. We stocked up on water and then headed down to the school/cricket club for the opening ceremony and festivities.
I interrupt as I write this. 3 kids have just come along to say “hello” to me and ask what I am doing. I’m slumped in a pile of sweat and bags writing my diary as the others are off eating omelettes. The cute kids have the confidence (and language to tell me that my writing is really bad. I explain it is because I’m fucking knackered!)
At the school sat 34 rickshaws and a melee of press and local folk armed with paint brushes, eager to help us decorate our vehicles. Some speeches were made by representatives of the charity, sponsors, local dignitaries and police. They were really funny, real people just laughing and despairing at us and the challenge we were about to embark upon – yet at the same time they were genuinely touched by what we were doing, and commented how it closed the divide between rich and poor and made distant communities feel connected. In a world riddled with war and conflict, it feels comforting to be doing something that seems to have a positive effect upon race relations, no matter how small a scale it is on.
Then followed several hours of painting and pimping the rickshaws. The chaos began with one of the other rickshaws crashing into a wall, still within the confines of the school yard! I had a near miss too, failing to locate the brake pedal and nearly colliding head on with some awning and a wall.
With the ceremony all done, we topped up with petrol and headed back to base to help the organiser Tom out with some clearing up and uploading some photos of the launch. Whilst most teams had dashed off already, we decided to wait for Tom and Jenny, since they had to clear up and pack their vehicle and appreciated the company rather than heading off alone in the dark.
I’m tanning myself as I write this but already my neck is burnt to pieces. The sun is fierce here.
The next diary entry will be from’on the road’ We need to take some time to get used to these rickshaws before we can feel competent…and until then it will be dangerous, but we’ll be okay.
By the time we finally got going, it was 6pm – and a substantial convoy of 7 rickshaws trundled in jerky, unconfident, yet jubilant, fashion through the winding streets of Cochin. Someone had wisely ‘borrowed’ a guide to drive ahead of us to get us safely to the main road out of the city…a journey of about 1hr. As ever with a convoy, it is a stop-start affair, both exhilarating and exasperating with lots of waiting, stopping and checking. After uncountable stops we hit the open road.
I had my first proper go in the rickshaw (having only had a brief go, under the guidance of a local, earlier in the day) just as we got towards the edge of town. After being hopeless at first, it took only 20 minutes or so to get accustomed to the controls, road manners and traffic.
As we left town it was already dark and so straight away we faced the inevitable ‘night-driving dilemma’. We’d promised loved ones that we wouldn’t drive at night if it was too dangerous. As it turned out it looked very very dangerous, but obviously we just got on with it!
On twisting roads we passed through villages and towns in convoy, stopping later in the evening for a roadside curry (something else we’d said we wouldn’t do), consisting of yam, onions and meat. It was beautiful, if un-hygienic and offered no adverse effects.
Then the fun began. News of the Rickshaw Run’s first bad crash filtered through, and it had taken place within the town of Cochin. For one unlucky team, the dream had begun with a bit of a nightmare. The petrol tank fell out of another rickshaw, and we suffered various gear problems ourselves and stalled lots. On the climb into the mountains our rickshaw lost all throttle power, resulting in us being unable to move…until it was fixed by a local passer-by.
As we were delayed and detached from the convoy when we suffered our throttle problems, we fell back, only to stumble upon the film crew. Their jeep was full of beer…every cloud eh! We gratefully had one (probably yet another thing we’d vowed not to!), standing on the road with the deafening sound of crickets, on a mountain-side, in the middle of nowhere. Finally, as the time approached 2am, we chugged into the outskirts of Munnar, finding a guest-house with a tell-tale gathering of rickshaws outside. We shoehorned ourselves into the room, making a final count of 14 people in one double bedroom. It stank.
Awoke in jungle surrounds afoot a mountain with tea plantations all around. Stunning scenery. The guest-house owner was a grower of pepper, cardamon and vanilla. Boiled eggs and leftover road-side curry for breakfast then onwards with our journey. Another exciting day on the road came next. Confusion, wrong turns, waiting around for the convoy. In the melee we bump into the American girl and her father that make up Team ‘To be Sorted’. It seems they too have had a bad crash, becoming wedged between a bus and a mountainside. Ouch. This served as a reminder of the danger the trip presents. After a slow morning, followed an exhilarating afternoon driving through an enormous mountain range, the Ghats.
Winding through stunning tea plantations, landscape as beautiful as it was dangerous. At the top of the range, our brakes decided to pack up, offering nothing in the way of stopping power. So down the other side it was, using the gears and sheer hope for brakes. At the foot of the mountains, a local mechanic fixed the problem in about 10 seconds, at a charge of around 40p. As we were getting the work done an impressive bustle of people congregated, astonished with the rickshaws, and my writing (what is it with my writing). Everyone had an opinion about the route we should be taking, some helpful, some contradictory.
Pushed on to Dindigur for the evening, shattered after a long day driving in the hills. Crazy oncoming lorries. Met up with convoy (having been well behind for half the day with mechanical issues, and ahead for the other half with ‘ragging issues’). Proceeded into town and had some beers. There was much bravado in the group about making a 6am start the following morning.
Random hotel, 50p each for a room with a fan a telly and general layer of skank on the walls. So, off to sleep, a quick pep talk about the team, and on to better things tomorrow.
6:02am start! Shower and explosive poo. Superb sugary coffee. Other teams emerged as we were loading our rickshaws, and so off we set, on a big road to Trichi. Prospects are good for New Year on the beach on the east coast.
The early start has proved worthwhile, at 2pm we’re in Ulunderpet, fully 200km from where we set out this morning. That’s 6.5 hours averaging 30kmph – though slow, its amazing progress given how slow the rickshaws are, and how busy the roads and towns are.
Chris had a driving ‘incident’, running out of fuel whilst midway through an overtaking manoevre. He was faced with an oncoming lorry and no bail-out room on his own side of the road (due to the lorry he was overtaking being there)…so off road it was, veering off the wrong side of the road into a field! When the rickshaws run out of fuel the general sequence tends to be “fine, fine, fine…splutter…complete power loss…stopped” in the space of about 3 seconds!
We’ve now pressed on, via some perilous roads to a lunchstop in a town that would surely be closed down entirely, and quarantined, if Health and Safety got involved. Smouldering piles of rubbish everywhere, and animals merrily tucking in to it. I got some pictures of local kids sitting in our rickshaws, whilst Chris and Dave went off to buy us a ‘packed lunch’ consisting of curry. Gorgeous kids, they loved sitting in the vehicle and looking back at the digital photos of themselves. Its a rare glimpse at their own identity, something they rarely have exposure to.
Now just sitting away from the road, in an area shaded by tree, settling down for lunch. Lunch was fabulous. Chris and Dave got hold of a brilliant take-away curry. 5 bags of liquid (varying colours) and a huge mound of rice served in a great big palm leaf which acts as a plate/mat. Really tasty and eaten with our hands.
The afternoon saw us pressing on further and further towards the eventual goal of Mamalapuram. The road became better and better and eventually turned into a dual-carriageway and at one point we had 4 lanes to play with. Darkness drew in and we were within touching distance of our destination..which would give us a full day off on New Year’s Eve, an unexpected bonus.
Ben had an attempt to kill me in his final driving stint of the day, inexplicably going on a “wrong side of the road” frenzy, losing all of his bearings and nerve and causing 3 motorcyclists to either skid or fall off. I swore at him, questioning why the vast expanse of clear road on his own side was not good enough for him to drive on. I think Ben was a little confused and certainly didn’t drive with any confidence thereafter. I was just scared, beginning to doubt whether I’d make it through this adventure without serious incident.
Upon arrival in Mamalapuram we found accomodation and food quickly, and got some beers in before it was too late to do so.
New Year’s Eve and no driving to do. Our excellent efforts in the day before saw us enjoying an unexpected ‘day off’ – though in reality we were busy enough. We got an oil change for the rickshaws, slightly earlier than recommended, but I suspect it is much needed after the thrashing we’ve given our poor rickshaws. As this was going on, the team pottered around looking at stone carvings (a speciality in the region). I ended up in a family home away from the ‘tatty’ main drag, looking at some wonderful art and drinking tea. 2 large and glorious pieces that I wanted were quoted to me at a combined price of more than £300. They are quite beautiful and took in excess of 1 month each to carve. They’re made from a single, beautiful coloured stone. Thus ensued several hours of negotiating. I stated that £100 was the limit of my budget and though I wished I could haggle, I had no additional money to bargain with. 3 visits to the house later and the price was falling fast. After investing half the day in visiting the bank, getting second opinions on the value of such work and haggling the quote down I eventually got my price and took possession of the 2 glorious sculptures that I’ll treasure forever – if only I can get them back to the UK. As things stand, they’re going to have to come along with us in the rickshaw until I can find a post office.
New Years Eve. Afternoon beers in the Bob Marley bar. Updates to the website made in the evening followed by the Sheraton Hotel party with beers bhangra and a lovely buffet.
Predictably, a slow start. Hangovers. Gathering teams together. Banana and chocolate pancakes for breakfast. Did a filming sequence for the crew. Additional handprint paint added to the rickshaws. Still no map! Stereo upgrade. Hammered north from 3pm onwards to Nellore where we stayed. Palacial hotel (in theory) where we had curry, watched premiership football and had a load of beers. Earlier that evening we’d enjoyed more lovely street food, roti and rice.
Observations from the day included:
- excellent grog stores with drunkards queuing up for their fix.
- people carrying massive pots on their heads
- beautiful paddy fields
- animal vehicles, pulled by beautiful oxen. Works of art, the animals and the trailers.
- multiple people on motorbikes. the record was a family of 5, with a pushbike strapped to the back as well!
Overnight 4 more teams arrived at our hotel in Nellore. We’d texted them with the town name, and after they’d spent 5 hours lost in Madras, they eventually found and joined us at 2am! News of another crash filtered through, this time with a rickshaw hitting a motorcyclist, hospitalising him. The rickshaw remained drivable. This was in addition to the 3 other crashes we’d heard about – and certainly the chances of crashing at some point seemed to be growing. Statistically, things didn’t seem great, but at least our driver competence is increasing (perhaps with one exception, I still do not feel safe with Ben, and with good reason!)
Jan 2nd was the second day of Liam joining our team – he was previously hitching a lift with a French team, and filming the adventure in an ’embedded’ way to get the best footage. A change of scene saw him join Team Curried Away – and our rickshaws strained under the additional weight of bags, cameras and another person. It really helps the dynamic though – especially as we acquired an extra rickshaw later in the day. The American team, To Be Sorted, had to fly home after the death of a family member and we vowed to get their rickshaw up to Darjeeling for them.
Much messing about in the morning, tired heads for many of the teams. I was up early trying to post my sculptures home. Wow, what a mission. I had really hoped it would be a case of:
- get directions to the post office
- go there
- queue a bit and get it posted
but no. I end up talking to one guy who packages it all up. Another ‘official’ turns up and asks me about the items – and a final bloke rolls up and takes me (and the parcel) on the back of his bike to his courier office. 1 hour later and we establish that our disagreement over price is unresolvable. I get a lift back to the hotel, having wasted loads of time, and achieved nothing other than having my sculptures put into a big box. I refused to pay for the privilege.
We thrashed our way out of town, now in a convoy of 3 rickshaws. We headed in a North to North east direction. Biryani for breakfast just outside of town. Beautiful paddy fields to start with, then steadily the landscape became more dusty. As night drew in, an incredible fog/smog descended. Eerie. We’d split from the pack of rickshaws and found a hotel, texted the others and as has become a pattern, had beers and a curry and hit the sack.
We’d had a significant gear problem, resulting in the whole unit falling apart, but Chris, with his mechanical nouse, fixed it for us.
No other rickshaws outside the hotel this morning, so we planned for a prompt start to press on. We’ve had slow starts the last few days, so it feels good to be on the road by 10am. After a sauna like shower I dashed down to update the website. Not overly easy to do with time so limited – especiallty as we tend to arrive in places long after everything is shut – and we are always looking to leave before places open. Add to that the mission of actually finding an internet cafe and it all becomes difficult. I wandered around for 15 minutes, eventually finding a place that closer resembled a broom cupboard than a shop – but I shoe-horned my way in and provided a quick update to the website. Then it was time to blast north some more – keeping on the good road we’d found for at least half a day before hopefully heading off into the mountains again for some more adventure. Our new rickshaw wouldn’t start, and required a technique that we called ‘blowing’. This involved blowing down a oil and gunge covered tube that leads into the carburetor to get it to work. Its both rewarding and astonishing to see that it works, almost without fail.
Gorgeous day again – hot as hell, still can’t get my head round the seasons here – I can’t fathom how on earth summer can be any different. We saw some fantastic urban images as we left the town of Vijayawada this morning – colourful bikes, cycle rickshaws, lorries and autorickshaws with no boot covers. People all over the road in huge clusters, cows wandering about. It was bedlam.
Another day of dual carriageway assault – gunning North-East in an attempt to munch the miles. We’d massively underestimated the total distance this trip would be, already clocking 1600km but we’re shy of half way. Had a frustrating conversation with the team about the route to take. They wanted to plough on along the dual carriageway, but all the other teams around us wanted to head into the mountains. I was keen to stay in or near the convoy and have a bit more of a ‘test’ in the mountains. Streaking ahead on a dual carriageway would be less fun, and ironically more risky I felt.
Luckily Chris managed to persuade all the other teams to join us, rather than vice versa. Once we all met, it was clear our intention of reaching the town beginning with V (??) was not going to happen, so instead we decided to head for a town called Tuni. En masse we arrived – and caused complete pandemonium on the streets. 8 rickshaws were crammed by the roadside, outside a cafe. Probably 50 or 60 people were milling about, looking at us, talking, poking, and pointing. The road became gridlocked, not helped by a massive cow just meandering in the middle.
Eventually we crammed all of our rickshaws into a tiny car park, like one of those shuffle puzzles. A beach party that was mooted never materialised, and instead we opted for Biryani and beers on the roof of our hotel, that was opened up especially for us. After that, the party continued back in our room. People were quite hammered, and I awoke the next day to find ‘Team Curried Away’ scrawled on my back in marker pen. I’ve no idea how or when that happened.
Early start – 6am alarms. Not overly welcome. We ‘unpuzzled’ the rickshaws and were away by 7.30am Its amazing how long it takes to get going, but packing all of our belongings and getting the rickshaws started takes some considerable time each day. Whizzed off. This morning I had a rickshaw to myself which was great. I enjoy the company, but it can be claustrophobic at times so a bit of space is very welcome. I mounted the video camera onto the handlebars and did a load of recording which was relaxing too. Headed up well towards the town beginning with the letter V and stopped for brekkie. Lovely roti with a vegetable curry sauce. As the day went on we finally left the dual carriageway – driving north onto winding roads again. More poverty became apparent. Straw huts a plenty, and animals instead of engines powering vehicles.
Stopped in one village for spicy samosas and we saw a cow attached to some contraption that enable it to grind up some stuff by walking in a circle. Chris and I went to look and were offered the stuff. We tried it. It tasted of earth, with a coconut tinge. A peaty turdalike taste. Not good. This place felt truly third world, the poverty far more pronounced than at any other part of the journey so far. The people increasingly poor with English language as well as their native tongue. They didn’t understand the Indian word for water…and my pronunciation isn’t that bad!
Finished up in a place called Rayagada late at night but only after a spectacular evening. We crossed into Orissa, and were delayed at the border whilst police attempted to extract some ‘tax’ from us. Nothing doing there, but we had a good wash under a fountain. We then hit an off road section on the approach to Rayagada – bumpy madness first cost us a jerry can which fell out and broke. Next to fall out was a big rucksack, then a phone and an iPod. The roads were seriously shaking things up.
Crashing through the dark we stopped at the haunting sound of drums and chants, eminating from the trees somewhere close. The group chose to investigate – gatecrashing an amazing authentic ceremony where there were fires burning and a whole village congregated, chanting and dancing and pushing 2 girls around. They seemed to be swaying and high, in some sort of trance. In the pitch black it was very atmospheric and haunting. We had no idea what was actually going on, and what significance the two girls had in proceedings. After 30 minutes there we decided to press on- in part because we weren’t entirely confident the girls were going to make it through the evening alive. The convoy chugged on about 15km or so to the town, and after an age trying to work out how to cross the railway lines we did our swiftest ever hotel-finding and entrance, dumping all our belongings into the reception area and getting straight on the case with curry and beer.
Lungs full of crap again today. It takes a good 30 minutes of nose blowing until I am clear and ready to take on the day. There’s so much dust and pollution and grime that my whole system feels dirty – and I’m not a remotely fussy person. I also felt a bit sick, but nothing dramatic, just a mild feeling. I’ve been slightly withdrawn for the past day or two – but in a positive way (at least I’m happy with it!). I’m relaxing into the adventure and am enjoying moments of quiet in amongst the chaos around me.
I almost need the quiet to really take everything in. The diary is actually a massively valuable tool in achieving this. Whilst I write this (sat in a rickshaw in the town of Bissamcuttack, Orissa) I have no-one beside the rickshaw. No locals, no gaggle, no other rickshawers. Everyone else in the team is engaged in a dialogue or a task and after such intensity for the last few days, an occasional 10 minutes of solace is exactly what I need.
Upon setting out on the trip I decided that rather than trying to organise and steer things too much – I’d instead conserve my energy and use it to enjoy myself. It can be quite exhausting making decisions all the time, especially when a group consensus is required. As a dynamic it tends to self-regulate – somebody usually cares enough to keep things moving along, and if anything goes too awry, I can always step in at that point.
In the morning I updated the website again, in a cyber cafe with surely the world’s slowest internet connection. It took fully 35 minutes to publish 3 paragraphs of text and to open one text email! Its worth the effort though, great to keep in touch with people, even though it is largely one-way. Some comments are coming through in support of the trip, which is great. The film crew (now largely following us) discovered that their jeep had a broken suspension -so we pressed on to Bissamcuttack by 2pm – the lads are playing cricket with some locals as I write this.
As we pull away again I am still in passenger mode, enjoying just taking it all in. The day turned out to be crazy, really bumpy roads for fully 80-90km. Hammering the rickshaws. Our convoy was too big as well. 4 rickshaws plus 1 camera crew = taking ages over everything. Petrol stops take forever, because only one vehicle is served at a time and its really easy for the group to be distracted. If one person needs a wee, everyone stops. I was kind of grumpy all day as it pisses me off when everyone loses focus too much – I’d rather press on and finsh the challenge earlier and then get beers in and muck about at that point. I’d told myself though that I’d go with the flow, so stopped myself worrying about it and accepted that the day was largely a write-off. In the whole day we covered only Rayagada to Bhawanapatna, just 90 km or so. Astonishingly we bumped into 3 other teams at that town, teams I’d assumed we wouldn’t see again after having headed in different directions for the past few days!
Everyone seemed shattered, and the fact the hotel didn’t serve beer was definitely a blessing. Another bonus was that for the second time on the trip, and the second time in a row – I had a bed! After a curry dinner we drifted off to bed with 8 rickshaws again stuffed into a car park.
A new day – a different day. Wow, what a difference a good night’s sleep makes. We were up early and pretty prompt at getting away. Apparently, lots of the other teams had fallen ill during the night, and although obviously sad for them, it was probably actually a blessing for everyone’s chances of making it to Darjeeling more quickly. Travelling in smaller convoys, even after a few hours delay, was sure to be a quicker way of doing this.
We blasted out of Bhawanapatna to be greeted by my most favourite road of the trip so far. Narrow, dusty, pot-holed, yet driveable at flat-out speed. In our new streamlined convoy of 3 (just Team Curried Away) we roared away; having tightened the chasis, exhaust and petrol tanks first. We travelled through noticeably more arid landscapes, making excellent progress.
A few hours later our earlier repairs began to come undone. The chassis, hopefully, remained intact,but the bolts from the exhaust came undone again and it started making a whole load of noise. We stopped to watch a game of cricket that we saw going on from the road – just a local game, but with some 200 fans (more than some English county matches) and after 3 wickets, 20 odd wild slashes and a few runs we moved on to the nezxt village where Chris arranged for the faulty rickshaw to be fixed; and Liam and dave sorted out lunch. I worte the diary (again) and Ben warbled on unintelligably to locals about Tendulkar, weed and Flintoff, to pass the time. The scenery during the day has changed dramatically, from mainly lush forest to more arid climes. We crossed several impressive bridges with dry and wide riverbeds beneath, just sandpits with occasional pools – beside which people were washing colourful clothes.
Repaired, we press on…Ben at the wheel and me at the back. I do drive…plenty…but obviously only write the diary when I’m a passenger!!!
We pressed on into the darkness, stumbling upon Tom and Jenny from out of nowhere. So we convoyed into town (Deogarth) arriving pretty late – and as is the pattern, ate curry, drank beer and went to bed. The drive was smoggy and bumpy and seemed to be as remote as we had experienced in such a vastly populated country. The town was dark and lifeless.
Early start and early promise turned rapidly on its head. After a successful first 30kms we stopped for petrol. Following loads of confusion about how much oil had or hadn’t been mixed with our petrol (rickshaws need a careful mix of the two to run properly) we pulled away…only to discover that Chris had forgotten to put the petrol cap back onto the tank. A load of fuel was lost, spilling onto the road, but the bigger problem was that we couldn’t find the cap or anything to replace it, meaning we’d be shedding fuel the whole time. Soon sorted with a jubilee clip and the top section of a water bottle, together forming a tight seal.
Worse news was to follow though, as two of the three rickshaws failed to restart after we’d stopped. They completely wouldn’t start. 2 hours were lost as we tried and tried again to resolve things. Suddenly the whole trip was in jeopardy. Some locals gradually piled in and started taking things apart. We had no control over circumstances!
As we had suspected, the fuel/oil mix was the culprit, so after hours of tinkering by locals we had to put our foot down and insist that the fuel was drained and refilled with fresh stuff. This worked and the rickshaws got going again, sounding rough as hell mind! Added to this, during the stop, we discovered that one of the batteries had completely fallen out, and one set of brakes had failed. How we had switched from making good progress to suffering a full on breakdown of 2 rickshaws was beyond me. Our early start had fallen to pieces.
Any intention of hitting a nearby wildlife park had gone by now and we got restarted and hobbled along slowly in the early afternoon. The steering rack then nearly fell out of one rickshaw, becoming so loose that turning the handlebars practically had no effect. What on earth is going on today! Our red rickshaw seized up. Chaos.
Because our progress was so slow, some other teams (the ones who had been delayed by illness) started flowing past. Nick and Harriet, Matt and Claire, and Tim and Gareth all came steaming by, stopped to say hi and assist with repairs, and then carried on. We were really suffering and decided to stop for a service at the next town. With our rickshaws we had vouchers that entitled us to a 2000km service. We were just past that and thought it well worth a go. The Bajaj garage mechanics that we found practically wet themselves when they saw the state of our rickshaws, almost collapsing in disbelief that they were only 2000km old! They couldn’t do the service we needed, nor replace our battery, nor sort the petrol cap. They did fix the brakes on one rickshaw, and we settled for that as the most important thing and carried on.
Heavily delayed now, we vowed to catch up with the guys that had passed us earlier. Text messages suggested that they were headed for Kharagpur, and that involved a monster night drive for us, along India’s National Highway 6. Trucks were everywhere and it was very dangerous. Smoggy. There were massive pot holes, not just bumps but vehicle wrecking holes. Tempers were fraying by the end of the drive – everyone wired and ratty. So upon our arrival at the Great India Hotel, I jumped straight out of the rickshaw and broke our normal lengthy unloading routine by grabbing a member of staff and insisting we had beer and peanuts before doing anything else. This relaxed us all and afterwards we got some proper dinner and had a good sleep.
We left the hotel fully 2hrs later than the others, needing the extra kip really badly after our late drive. Bizarrely, our rickshaws seemed really smooth, despite the chaos of the day before. Its almost like they needed the rest as much as we did! In the morning we gave them a mini-service, tightening bolts, refixing the filters and exhausts and giving the engines a good old blow before we set off.
Trouble-free, we picked a non-main route to the north, separating ourselves from the main pack in the process. Suddenly, and from nowhere, the end of the trip has appeared within range. It has quietly snuck up on us, in the distraction of having so many problems! Just a few days ago we were making slow progress at and around the half way mark – and now suddenly, despite all our problems, we’re looking at finishing within a couple of days. I actually can’t wait. I’m loving the trip and the challenge, but now that the finish is within touching distance I just want to get there, unpack the rickshaw and relax for a bit. The others, I think, want to spend an extra couple of days on the way to the end. I’m relatively easy but would prefer to finish earlier rather than later, then its done.
As I write, we bump into Nick and Harrie and Tim and Gareth, who have had some problems with their exhaust – and manged to get someone to open up a garage, despite it being a national labour strike. It all had to be done in secret. We talked to them about how quickly to do the remainder of the trip and it turns out everyone else is eager to finish within 14 days of starting. Excellent. We’ve just had an amazing curry lunch, intending initially to stop just for some samosas or snacks, but we were lured into an impressive new restaurant in a very random village, it was very much out of context, but fantastic at the same time. The owners were surpised and delighted to see us and we had an excellent meal.
For the rest of the day we ploughed on to the town of Siuri, in convoy, on roads of a decent quality. It is a strange town, quite slummy and without any obvious decent hotels. The usual formula applied again in the evening – though I only partook in the latter part of the evening, having spent an hour or so at the internet cafe across town, doing another website update.
During the course of the day, my throat had been deteriorating, making increasingly funny noises instead of normal speech. Chris reversed into a motorbike at a petrol station. As a team we decided to start doing our own oil/petrol mixing instead of letting petrol attendants do it. We were getting fed up of breaking down when they got it wrong. It was just faster and more accurate to do it ourselves.
Overnight we parked our rickshaws securely in the grounds of someone’s local mansion. He was clearly proud to accomodate us. And we were grateful for the security. I had a horrid night’s sleep, going top to toe (3 in a bed) with Chris and Dave. Chris slept on my feet, and that only served to amplify my ‘narrow sleeping bag’ claustrophobia. The plan at this point was to get within touching distance of Darjeeling tomorrow,,,making the final charge for the finish the day after, all being well.
Initial intention was to make a swift start yet again, but this fell by the wayside. Its always the way with a big group, and having reconvened with the group our chances were scuppered. We got up at around 7:30am but one team wanted to buy paint brushes for some reason, and then ensued the usual spiral of events that go something like this…”well if they’re waiting for that, I’ll just do this…” like a domino rally everyone starts doing something and not at any point is everyone ready to go. It’s muppetting about that costs hours rather than minutes. I’ve been feeling wiped out, so rather than getting too angst just decided to sleep in the back of one of the rickshaws, whilst all the delay went on around me. Sleeping was the best way to prevent me getting impatient with everyone. Once I’ve finished doing this diary entry I can be sure I’ll get impatient and irate with everyone!
It turns out that people were twatting about getting an airhorn fitted. Really useful on the penultimate day of the trip. And now to make it worse people are rushing to me telling me that we need to get a move on. No shit, Sherlock!
Right, grump over..we’re about to get on the road, but its more than 2 hrs lost. We set off, but wait. Ben is now lost and separated from the convoy. He probably had a stalling fit (as is his way) and then lost the group. This is really annoying but I suppose could have been worse. Just as we hit the main road, we rediscovered him. The blessing in disguise is that with our delay, we again lost the main group, so can press on more effectively just with our team, without further distraction. We drove north, through more arid terrain, still with a heavy agricultural influence though.
4:30 am start. We decided to start very early in order to make sure we reached the stunning heights of Darjeeling in daylight. A cold blast in the morning was punctuated frequently by level crossings where we stood drinking tea as the mighty trains rumbled by. We thrashed along another excellent dual carriageway for a bit, reaching Bagdogdra where we had the rickshaw services one last time, tightening bolts and re-fixing the exhaust again.
Then began the ascent to Darjeeling, amazingly bumping into Tom and Jenny, Mat and Claire – who we’d not seen for days. They broke down just a few hundred metres from where we’d stopped to take pictures. As we ascended we stopped frequently for filming and photos, it was truly stunning. Suddenly the faces on the local people were different. They were Himalayan, not Indian – a more oriental and fresh look, quite a stark difference, and such a sudden change too.
As we ascended towards Darjeeling we had fully 35km of waving people, amazed and delighted to see the spectacle of rickshaws climbing this mountain! Though we ran out of fuel on the way, we very suddenly arrived in Darjeeling. Job done. Great sense of achievement, and all of a sudden all I wanted to do was get a hotel and get drunk.
The climb had been unreal, such an amazing altitude increase in such a short space of time, yet the ‘challenge’ of the climb had not been anything like as bad as we’d been led to believe. People had consistently been telling us that rickshaws would never make it up the hill, but though it was unheard of, they clearly could make it. At the same time, it was both a relief and a disappointment.
The most striking part of the day though, and astonishingly bettering the views on offer, was the reaction of the locals. It (really) brought tears to my eyes, as I drove alone, at the front of our convoy. Children, women, men lined the streets and waved at us, cheered and made prayer signs. It was incredible,and the volume of people receiving us was a massive encouragement. they’d clearly heard via the press and word of mouth what was happening, and the fact they welcomed us so amazingly was touching and really brought home how important the charity aspect of the trip was. The scenes, though less packed, were not disimilar to those you see in the London Marathon, with miles of streets lined with well-wishers.
Two days later, we processed through the streets of Darjeeling (that had been closed by police) to another amazing reception from the local people. We drove a few km to a local school, where speeches were made and the children performed their dances for us. It was a fabulous end to a truly excellent adventure. India will remain a part of me, and I hope I remain a part of the communities I’ve helped.