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You can't plan much in advance for the pan-Indian Rickshaw Run, says Wellingtonian Alan Cunnane.
You can map a route from one end of India to the other and you can calculate you need to cover an average of 300 kilometres a day to meet the 12-day deadline. However, no amount of planning will help avoid constant breakdowns, mobs of locals clambering for a photo, the heat, the dirt, the cockroach-infested cells and elephants on the highways.
But that’s the allure of the infamous Rickshaw Run. You know you’re going to see the real India in all its raucous, chaotic, mind-boggling beauty.
Alan, his brother and sister and two ex-Wellington comrades met in the southwest city of Kochin in April for the 12-day fundraiser race across the sub-continent. There, each of the 65 teams was given a ramshackle rickshaw, met the mayor and was waved on their way.
With spirits high and their dhotis hanging low, Alan’s team set off on their chosen route up the road even-less-travelled, through the middle of the country, skipping the tourist-friendly cities and the majority of sealed roads.
‘‘The first rule of driving in India is there aren’t any,’’ says Alan. ‘‘The very first morning, we were driving on a four-lane highway and a bus was coming at us. It was honking and flashing its lights. It turns out the only real rule is you get out of the way of anything bigger than you.’’ They also quickly learnt the 145cc ‘‘glorified lawnmowers’’ were less than reliable.
‘‘We broke an axle on the first day. And then the GPS burst into flames. We had no petrol gauge ... and the exhaust fell off. Actually, we broke down 11 times in total,’’ he says, adding they soon became adept at using duct tape and chicken wire.
The Rickshaw Run is a regular, well-established fundraiser run by United Kingdom company The Adventurists. Each team must raise £1000 (about NZ$2000) for the company’s chosen charity that benefits poor Indian communities. In return, adventure-seeking foreigners earn life-long bragging rights for doing it rough in India.
The Rickshaw Run is very much about getting off the beaten path. The Adventurists’ website bemoans: ‘‘There’s a traffic jam to get to the top of the world’s tallest mountain, every millimetre of our good planet has been scanned by satellites and rammed into your mobile phone. What room is there left for those of us who still yearn for a bit of old-school adventure?’’
In this case, old-school adventure means experiencing an India what you don’t see on bus tours or from the balcony of your resort.
Fellow team-mate Mark Hagen says the team decided early on to forget about the race aspect. ‘‘We decided that the finish line was not worth rushing for, and that we should use every day possible to immerse ourselves in the full Indian experience,’’ he says.
They took 16 days to finish the race. Driving between 12 and 14 hours a day, they still found time to start cricket games with local kids, talk with non-English-speaking truck drivers at roadside tea stalls, and roam streets that tourists seldom see.
‘‘We got an insight into normal life,’’ Mark says. ‘‘Driving through these villages at all times of the day, you see the lads making bricks in the clay fields. You see ladies doing back-breaking work, sorting quarry rocks into different sizes.’’
Alan chips in: ‘‘The things we saw, you’d never get to see on a bus or on the Lonely Planet trail. Mark bought an Indian GPS and it sent us on some really crazy roads. It really was the best part of the whole thing.’’
They navigated their fair share of dirt roads, mountain roads and roads that weren’t actually roads. They saw rice paddies, temples and locals using the same body of water to wash their cattle and dishes.
‘‘We saw a guy herding a gaggle of ducks and chickens on the main highway,’’ Mark says. ‘‘There must’ve been 50 birds. There were trucks and buses and rickshaws coming within centimetres of them, and here’s this guy, cool as a cucumber, herding them with a plastic bag tied to the end of a long stick.’’
Curiosities aside, the Rickshaw Run is travelling without a safety net. The organisers warn there is the possibility of losing a limb or a life, and Mark can recall more than one ‘‘hairy’’ moment on the road.
The team limped home in 58th place, but managed to raise the most money (NZ$11,861), which Alan says will provide clean water for an Indian village for 30 years.
So would they risk life and limb and do it again?
‘‘In a heartbeat,’’ Alan says.
- The Dominion Post