Ready to race across south India (Tracy Hunter)
Article Words : Nick Gibbs | 01 February

Dastardly drives: rally through south India by rickshaw

Rallying's not just for playboys and petrolheads - it can be the most entertaining way to travel

After seven hard days of rickshaw racing, I reckoned I was as skilled as any taxi-wallah, so my male pride flared as Team Overdrive screeched  past me. Piloted by a pair of Indian journalists, rickshaw number 13 lurched ahead of us down the tight hill roads leading away from the Mundanthurai Tiger Sanctuary.

Coaxing an extra effort from my already overworked 50cc engine, I spurted after them. The chase was on.

It didn’t last long. Around the next corner, we came upon the Team Overdrive rickshaw – jammed into a crevasse between rocky cliff face and crumbling tarmac. Sounds of swearing over-rode the noise of the still-spinning engine as co-driver Haarman Madon berated his shaken team-mate. “I said you were going too bloody fast!”

That now-familiar Indian crowd – the one that magically appears from seemingly nowhere – heaved the stricken rickshaw from its rock grave and contemplated the damage.

Now, as I was discovering on this pioneering 1,000km adventure, the framework of the Indian rickshaw (now in its 50th year) will take just about any amount of abuse. And if the damage turned out to be mechanical, well, the entry free included the services of a back-up van full of spannermen, who could deal with almost any motoring mishap.

Unfortunately for Team Overdrive, they had sustained the kind of damage that’s nigh-impossible to repair at the roadside: bent forks. Just 65km from the finish line, their rally was – we smugly concluded – over.

The IndianARC rally is the brainchild of Aravind Bremanadam, a widely travelled Tamil Nadu local who got the idea after joining a similarly optimistic car rally from Hungary to Mali. His deft networking around Chennai (Madras) produced a media-heavy crowd and persuaded a famous local film producer to flag the beachfront start for the 17 teams.

In the uniquely Indian chaos, myself and co-driver Simon Laidlaw were nervous. IndianARC isn’t officially a race, but all the talk of flag-offs and teams gave it a competitive edge.

All those 'optional extras'

All the rickshaws were rented from the local taxi driver pool but we’d clearly missed out on the ‘optional extras’ with our 1996 model: no windscreen wiper, stingily padded seats, no speedometer and, as we soon discovered, no gears to speak of between first and fourth. Next to us the Russian Team Armageddon proudly showed their built-in fridge to a BBC reporter – now that really was an extra.

Despite Chennai’s charms it doesn’t offer a confidence-building environment for learner rickshaw drivers. Kangarooing away from the start, we were swiftly enveloped into the seething traffic crush. My left hand developed a throbbing ache as I failed to master the twist-and-snatch gear change. More proficient local drivers deftly swallowed up my safety gap to the competitors ahead. Then a powerful vortex of wind in the cab whipped away the directions to the first hotel, 76km south in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram).

Only as we arrived on the palmy coast road did the rickshaw begin to make sense as a holiday vehicle. A top speed of 55km/h and surprisingly powerful brakes meant we could stop on a whim. Over the next seven days, we braked for salt-pan workers north of Puducherry (Pondicherry), piling their white pyramids ever higher, and for a group of orange-clad Catholic pilgrims, heroically hauling a statue of the Virgin Mary along more than 300km of fume-choked roads to the ‘Lourdes of the East’ in Vailankanni.

We braked for breathtaking views over emerald paddies, for yelling schoolchildren, for glorious temple tanks, for savoury vada (deep-fried doughnuts), for a 2,000-year-old temple whose bat population outnumbered the worshippers.

We braked more often for dithering goats than the more placid and predictable cows. Unsurprisingly, we were often last to the hotel each night.

At Mamallapuram, famous for its rock-hewn temples and chariots rather more magisterial than ours, a family of five from Udaipur were seemingly minus a second rickshaw.

“We’ve only got one,” grinned Sunil Ladha, an architect with an irresistible appreciation for life’s amusements. Fitting them all in was easier given that daughter Srivanda was only four and a half. “She goes to sleep on the shelf behind the rear seat,” Sunil chuckled.

Our luck had run out...

The next day we were less lucky and broke down just a couple of kilometres out of town. We poked around the Vespa-derived engine as overloaded buses, ungainly Ashok-Leyland trucks and three-to-a-bike families periodically zoomed by. Team Extreme Trifle – two lads from Bath – were quick to diagnose our breakdown as they had experienced the same problem. In the first-day mayhem, we’d forgotten to fill up with fuel.

Thankfully, a siphon later and we were tanked up and mobile again. Later on in pub-strewn Puducherry we found that breakdowns were the order of the day, along with Bio Beer and tiger prawns. Rachel and Ian Bayles, a retired couple from Bridlington, were on their second engine, as were the Team Overdrive boys. A bust exhaust meant Extreme Trifle were driving with protective toilet paper in their ears.

Day three saw a magnificent sunrise over the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore) but our ‘smooth’ ride was not to last. In a dusty farming village, Simon had been forced off the road by a bus, as is allowed by India’s ‘might is right’ rule. He hit the brakes and found absolutely no resistance. By the grace of whatever god was in charge that day, we rolled to a halt without damaging us or livestock.

Cue a brake rebuild from the spannermen while we drank chai and ate Britannia-brand biscuits. Gently sweating in the 30ºC heat, we felt a little bit too colonial for comfort.

Despite repairs, on day four our engine spluttered out. Once again the mechanics came to the rescue with a roadside transplant. We limped into Madurai’s Taj Garden Retreat Hotel, a hilltop oasis of verandas, snooker rooms and hardwood floors where we felt much more comfortable living out the days of the Raj. A little shamefully, this extended to forfeiting the city’s universally recommended Sri Meenakshi Temple in favour of waiter-delivered gin and tonics. It had been a tough day.

None of our hotels were backpacker-spec – a relief after the grime and wind-blast of around 130km of open-sided driving. But the touristic ‘white boxes’ in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), Puducherry and Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) lacked the soul of the Taj Garden Retreat.

Day 6:

To our relief, we returned to the style in which we had now become accustomed: a stay in the hibiscus-shrouded bungalows of Courtallam (Kutralam), complete with a garage for the rickshaw.

A lush little town in the foothills of the Nilgiri Mountains, Courtallam has a renowned health-enhancing waterfall to further cleanse what the pure air can’t. Shame, then, I’ll forever associate it with near-death.

Returning to our bungalow from the waterfall, four of us packed in, American charity worker Eric Hamm missed a bend and pitched us all into a foliage-choked ditch, the rickshaw somersaulting onto its roof.

But the stunned silence was quickly broken by laughter. We all survived unscathed and managed to upright ourselves and the rickshaw. This had to be the best story yet.

Not for long. The final day took us to Kanyakumari – India’s ‘Lands’ End’ – first passing southern India’s vast army of wind farms. Distracted by the ever-changing scenery, we dawdled to the finish line. We fully expected Team Overdrive to be at the hotel. Less welcome was the news that they’d driven there after the heroic mechanics achieved  the impossible and resurrected their rickshaw at that fateful hillside bend.

The IndianARC Rally wasn’t a trip for the faint of heart, but then Indian trips rarely are. Arriving alive felt like a victory of sorts and, if a speech had been required at the wrap party, then heartfelt thanks would have been top of the agenda: first to the indomitable mechanics; then to all the Tamil Nadu locals who followed astonishment at our appropriation of their taxis with genuine hospitality; and finally to the rickshaw itself for being far the best touring vehicle I’ve ever driven.

Quite simply, it’s the most fun you can have at 55km/h.