Teams of Scottish adventurers set off on a different type of race at the very start of 2008, this time on three wheels.
The Rickshaw Run is a biannual charity race during which teams drive up the Indian Subcontinent over thousands of miles of questionable terrain, travelling for more than two gruelling weeks across mountains, dirt tracks and tropical jungle to reach Kathmandu. The organisers say they don't plan the specific routes as the race is an adventure, and participants have to use their own initiative and read maps for themselves.
The rickshaws have three wheels, half a horsepower and a maximum speed of 30mph. The fuel-efficient vehicle is described by race organisers as "the ultimate long distance, off road machine". To enter, each team has to raise money for Edinburgh-based sustainable development charity Mercy Corps, and also has to fund their flights, insurance and accommodation. There is little support, and participants find their own accommodation and repair their own rickshaws.
Ulric and Ruth Jessop, adventure sports enthusiasts and stars of the recent BBC Scotland documentary X-Alps, form one team in the Rickshaw Run.
Before leaving, Ulric, 44, told BBC Scotland Outdoors: "I've spent a lot of time in India and Nepal, mainly climbing and paragliding in Himachal Pradesh, and the deprivation can be quite shocking. There's a huge range of wealth, and a vast number of people live in extreme poverty. This event is a way for me to give something back by raising money for Mercy Corps."
Ruth, 40, admitted to feeling nervous about her first trip to India, having been warned about the dangerous traffic and the potential for having a serious accident.
There are several other Scottish teams in the race, including a team made up Peter, David and Jamie Grewar, three brothers who have named their team the 'Rooster Rickshaw' after a type of potato grown on their family farm in Perthshire.
A spokeswoman for Mercy Corps, Alison Cameron, said: "Participants - past, present or future - make a huge difference to the lives of families and communities in India, by uniting their efforts to raise as much as possible for the partners and programmes Mercy Corps support."
Ruth and Ulric began their adventure on 29 December, flying via Nice, Milan, Delhi and on to Cochin. They have been updating BBC Scotland outdoors with a diary of their adventure, sending messages from internet cafes and via mobile phone.
29/12/07 The flight from Milan to Delhi was 6169km, and over the next 16 days we would be driving more than half that distance - the reality of just how mad the competition was suddenly began to dawn on us.
We left Delhi airport amid much whistle-blowing from the traffic police, giving our first impression of India, massively over crowded, thick pollution making us cough and splutter all the way to our hotel. The general reaction from locals about our intention to drive a rickshaw the length of India has been of consternation, and having experienced Delhi traffic, we understood why.
31/12/07 0545 38 degrees in Cochin, we woke up amid an array of new smells, and later collected our rickshaw. The first impression is that it might be better to keep your eyes closed, especially if you're the driver.
The vehicle has wheelbarrow wheels, and also has the suspension of a wheelbarrow! Just to make things even more difficult it has no fuel gauge so we'd just have to drive until we run out. We spent the afternoon getting to know our auto rickshaw, and getting lost. The roads are busy and incredibly bumpy. Thank goodness Ruth packed her sports bra.
1900 we headed off to an island off the coast of Cochin to bring in the New Year together with our fellow rickshaw racers.
01/01/08 1100 Everyone was raring to get on with the race. Rickshaw engines were revving and, with a cricket game being played out very earnestly in the background, the mayhem began. There were a considerable number of collisions and we hadn't even driven out of the cricket ground.
Off we rattled, shedding nuts and bolts as we went, making excellent progress and overtaking most of the rest of the field in the space of the first traffic jam. We then got lost in a jungle and ended up at a monastery selling tea bags and candles. The road we were looking for was clearly marked on the map but apparently did not exist.
We were rescued by a member of the monastery who pointed us in the right direction, gave us 12 religious calendars, his email address and a Christmas cake. Four hours, a Christmas cake and a jungle later we ended up back in Angamaly again.
After Angamaly we had another go at heading inland, for Valparai, desperate to get away from the mosquitoes at the coast. The road soon became dirt track and we spent the next six hours driving at 10km/hr, dodging potholes and dead monkeys as we ambled through a dark jungle.
2300 At last - arrived in Valparai for some rest.
Learning on the road
02/01/08 0600 After an early start from Valparai we realised we were shedding brake fluid. In spite of that, we enjoyed a day driving through stunning scenery, tea plantations and negotiating winding mountain roads. It was time for Ruth to try her hand at driving and join the mayhem of the Indian traffic.
Rickshaws are not designed for women to drive as women quite simply don't drive them. It is very rare to see western men driving them, far less a western woman. Jaws dropped and crowds gathered as Ruth took the handlebars for my first driving lesson in the middle of a cut-throat rickshaw race!
Basically to drive a rickshaw you have to try and put the engine into neutral, which is no mean feat. Then you have to lift the starting handle up and down - also no mean feat.
Then, all at once, you have to:
Turn the throttle like on a motorbike, press the clutch which is like a bicycle brake, turn the left throttle to put it in gear, press your foot on the brake, AND, most importantly, BEEP the horn.
Ruth drove the rickshaw through Coimbatore, over the mountains through Kotinagar to arrive in Ooty at 1600.
Some journalists from the Indian Times wanted to interview us. Ruth caused a major traffic jam by stalling whilst they photographed her, which proved a point for some.
05/01/08 0610 We ran out of fuel an hour after leaving Hampi. Our rickshaw runs on a mixture of oil and petrol which the garages normally mix.
The garage we had filled the cans from hadn't been able to mix the fuel as neither we nor they had a measuring jug so they just put it in two jerry cans for us.
A big crowd gathered and cups of tea were handed to us, and after a lot of scratching of heads over how we were going to measure the right ratio of oil to petrol, a plastic bottle and a crowd of helpful people did the trick.
0750 Broke down again, thought we had got the fuel mix wrong. Turned off the fuel and took out the air filter, cleaned it and set off again through the rice fields, only to break down again an hour later. We had forgotten to turn the fuel back on!
The rest of the day was spent driving across the rural plains of India, where there are virtually no sign posts.
We had the choice to could drive on "motorways", but have decided to stick to the country roads as the motorways are far too dangerous. There seems to be a system where buses and lorries reign supreme and, judging by the crumpled wreckage strewn by the side of the road, mow down any vehicles or animals in their path. Anything with 3 wheels or less or 3 legs or more is treated as the lowest of the low, which puts stray dogs and rickshaws in about equal position.
1900 arrived, exhausted, in Hyderabad to join the chaotic driving.
06/01/08 0530 Lost in Hyderabad. Everyone we asked directed us to the bus station or told us which combination of buses to follow to get to the bus station so we could take a bus. Nobody could believe that we were driving our own rickshaws. Pollution and poverty in the city were horrific, but more directly problematic to us were the vicious speed bumps everywhere in rows of three. There's a theory that instead of slowing down, you should speed up, then you are airborne over the second one and land after the third one. Testing this theory resulted in the rickshaw overheating and coming to an abrupt halt. We slowly trundled onto the North India map, with some relief as our map of South India was now reduced to tatty bits of paper and rattled across the flat central plains of a very hot India to Chandrapur.
Danger on the road
07/01/08 0515 Left Chandrapur in the pitch dark and dodged people doing yoga in the middle of the road. Oncoming vehicles all had headlights on full beam, which blinded us. We drove through isolated rural villages which had no running water, so women gathered round the village water pump doing the washing, washing pots and filling water jars which they then carry on their heads, still a very common sight in so many of the villages.
1600 Only 74 km to Kawardha where we were going to spend the night, but they were 74 km of road works which took 3 very long hours of weaving in and out to negotiate. No traffic cones, just use stones, which are difficult to see and do little to stop you being pushed off the precipitous edge of the road by oncoming vehicles. No other cars, just lorries and buses and thousands of bikes with no lights. Each bike carries at least three people on each and women perch side-saddle. On arrival at Kawardha a policeman escorted us on his motorbike to find somewhere to sleep.
08/01/08 0615 We decided to leave Kawardha via a minor road north over the mountains. We drove in the dark past groups huddled round fires and water buffalo wandering about in the road. The road was not passable, and we had to make a longer way round through a wildlife park. A sewing machine on casters with no doors is not the ideal vehicle to inspire confidence as you drive past signs in Hindi with pictures of tigers at the entrance to a wildlife reserve. Fortunately we met little wildlife and drove unscathed through the Indian equivalent to the Trossachs, through stunning villages, no litter. On we rattled across a beautiful red rocky and ravined landscape. Our exhaust manifold broke in Grimsville.
Reaching the Ganges
09/01/08 Now that we are so much further north it is freezing cold in the back of the rickshaw. We took a wrong turn into an open cast mine, where the security guard wouldn't let us leave till he had checked our rickshaw for stolen coal.
Our rickshaw became bogged down in soft earth at road works, causing much amusement from other rickshaw teams. The photo-shoot over, our rickshaw was lifted back onto the road. We have made really good progress across the plains in the last 4 days, driving 400kms most days, trying to ignore the ever louder suspicious sounding rattles coming from the rickshaw and the possibility of the whole windscreen falling out, as only a few remaining bolts hold it in place. Shortly after our first view and smells of the Ganges we reached Varanasi.
10/01/08 A day off for us, but a hard day's labour under two very poorly rickshaws for a mechanic. We went for a visit to the Ganges and on returning met our rickshaw being driven the wrong way down the dual carriageway. Judging by the way that the oncoming cars were scattering in every direction, the repairs had gone rather well.
Accident and assistance
11/01/08 Although we are going to Kathmandu, directly north of Varanasi, we have to go via the race's turning point at Siliguri which is near Darjeeling in north east India and is our entry point into Nepal. While having a conversation about the steep camber in the middle of the road, we skidded and careered an embankment, coming to rest in a ditch with the rickshaw lying on its side. Miraculously we were both just cut and bruised, and our newly purchased tow rope came in handy. A nearby Rickshaw Run team, the 'Jaldi Wallas' came to help, along with several locals. Incredibly, the rickshaw still was able to rattle onwards.
Sleeping on the job
12/01/08 0430 We found the hotel security guard taking his job very seriously, fast asleep in the back of one of the rickshaws with a can of beer. We drove across the Ganges to Patna and carried on all day through Bihar state which is one of the poorest parts of India, with stagnant pools of Gangetic water lying in the local fields.
We passed three other teams but ran out of petrol and then were interrogated about our identity and documents by a very serious army official.
13/1/08 0430 woken up by call to prayer and set off to tackle 67km of hair pin bends and 2000m of ascent through the jungle in thick mountain fog upwards to the hill station of Darjeeling, following the narrow gauge railway. The rails weave in and out of the path of the road and are a hive of activity, food is cooked, sold eaten between the tracks, washing up done, nappies changed, metal hammered into shape, the rails being used as an anvil.
14/1/08 0830 The Grewar brothers in their Rooster rickshaw had caught up with us at Darjeeling and were coming up to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise with us, but needed to stop to be sick having succumbed to the tap water in Darjeeling. We had cups of tea, scraped the ice off the rickshaw and trundled on our way again, leaving the Rooster team near the toilets at the garage.
Shortly after noon we waved our goodbyes to India and drove seemingly effortlessly out of India across the river separating India and Nepal. However, on arrival at the Nepalese border were sent back to the Indian border as we hadn't had our passports stamped.
1455 Had to get our rickshaw checked through Immigration, and spotted one of the Rickshaw Run teams' rickshaws locked in the police compound at the border - a sombre reminder of what happens in Nepal if you are accused of knocking over a pedestrian.
We decided to take a nap in the woods, and were woken at midnight by the army who told us that there were robbers in the woods. They offered to escort us back to their army base where we could sleep, and we tried to convince them to escort us in the direction we were heading. After quarter of an hour of escorting us they realised we really were going the 700km to Kathmandu and left us to it.
15/1/08 0230 Driving in the dark along the front of the foothills of the Himalayas through, a motor bike light was suddenly switched on at the edge of the forest 30m away and came at full speed towards us. I accelerated, swerved right to avoid the bike then became airborne as we hit a really badly potholed section of the road. We thought the motorcyclist was about to attack us, but the light vanished into the darkness as mysteriously as it had appeared.
0300 still in the dark forest, with a blown headlamp and almost out of fuel, we began to consider the option of flat packing the rickshaw and taking the bus, but we had forgotten the necessary tin opener. We slept in the back of the rickshaw for a few hours, woke up stiff and frozen, and joined some people in a barn beside the road for more cups of tea, donuts were fried in a deep black metal pan. A 14-year-old boy translated their questions which all went along the lines of "what on earth are you doing driving a rickshaw through a bandit filled wood in the middle of the night?" I asked if there really were bandits - silence, which I took to be a "yes."
0630 Daylight and big sighs of relief. Virtually all the petrol stations were shut as there was a fuel crisis, but that was academic as 2 stroke engines are apparently banned in Nepal.
1600 Arrived Pokhara and met friends who own the local paragliding school. Their conversation was mainly about the articles in the newspapers about bandits looting whole villages.
The finishing line
16/1/08 0500 set off to watch the sun rise over Annapurna and Machapuchare, then sped off towards Kathmandu and the finishing line. On the way we encountered the largest traffic jam of our journey, caused by a car crash in the centre of a junction. The police were in one corner directing traffic, seemingly in rivalry with the army who were in the opposite corner directing traffic towards the gridlock.
1645 The finishing line! We rattled our way into the Rickshaw Run driving history books having driven the furthest out of the 64 teams, a total of 5120 km which we are reliably informed is approximately the distance from Inverness to Timbuctoo.
Page first published on Friday 4th January 2008
Page last updated on Thursday 16th October 2008