The truly unique way to see India: by tuktuk, while dressed as a chicken

Pandemonium reigns along 1000km of some of southern India's worst, most pot-holed roads during the 10-day Rickshaw Challenge — all in the name of charity (and adventure). 

Even on a quiet day, the centre of Thanjavur, in India’s south, is chaotic. Today, though, it is pure pandemonium. A tuktuk driver has stalled at a roundabout and all around him cars, trucks, bullock carts, motorbikes and scores of other tuktuks are honking their horns and shouting at him to get out of the way.

The problem is I am the offending driver and no matter how hard I yank the starting handle, my battered old auto rickshaw refuses to start. Oh, and to make matters worse, I am dressed as a chicken.

It’s day three of the Rickshaw Challenge, a madcap 10-day rally through south-east India, along 1000km of some of the country’s worst, most pot-holed roads.

My wife and I form one of 20 teams from around the globe taking part and everyone has entered into the spirit. With team names such as My Midlife Crisis, Mad Max and Shark Attack, there are superheroes, ice hockey players, cricketers and even ninja turtles.

The man behind this madness is Aravind Bremanandam, a jolly Indian entrepreneur who divides his time these days between Chennai — where our challenge began — and the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

His introductory pep talk had been to the point. “You are driving a piece of crap with little more than a lawnmower engine inside it,” he told us. “You will break down — probably many times. You will get lost. And most importantly, there is no logic on Indian roads. Do not look behind you — the traffic in front is scary enough. Make sure you smile a lot — especially if you hit a police car. And never, never hit a cow.”

Armed with this vital information, we were taken to an old carpark on the outskirts of the city where we picked up our machines, all beautifully handpainted with our individual designs. Two hours later, after the briefest of driving lessons, we were set loose and told to find our way back to the hotel — quite frankly, a terrifying proposition.

Less than 30 minutes later we had our first accident, smashing the wing mirror off a bus that unfortunately turned out to be a police vehicle. I am ashamed to say that, egged on by scores of laughing locals, we fled the scene and somehow made our way back to base camp.

Now, a couple of days later, stuck in a traffic melee in Pondicherry, I wait as a burly traffic policeman wades through the mass of vehicles to our stricken tuktuk. I wonder if he has been on the lookout for a hit-and-run chicken and my number is up. Instead he shakes my hand, asks for a selfie and, with one flick of his wrist, restarts our tuktuk.

It’s the kind of experience that becomes the norm over the course of the 10 days. Literally hundreds of people — children, adults and numerous other policemen — cheering us on and asking for photographs as our bizarre entourage motors south.

Aravind’s motives for starting the Rickshaw Challenge had been threefold. “I wanted to create a crazy adventure for open-minded travellers,” he says. “I also wanted to create a different way of seeing this magnificent country. And I saw it as a great way of raising money for charity.”

Now in its 10th year, the event has raised some €350,000 ($520,000) for the Indian Round Table. And it has since mushroomed into a series of rallies, which criss-cross the subcontinent.

In the early days the auto rickshaws were hired from third parties and proved terribly unreliable. Now Aravind’s company, The Travel Scientists, owns a fleet of 40 vehicles and a travelling team of mechanics provides much-needed roadside assistance. Nearly everyone breaks down at some stage. One Canadian team’s engine actually blows up in spectacular fashion. The clutch cable snaps on our jalopy but luckily we are being followed by a team called the Coopermen, and minutes later a large crowd gathers to witness the bizarre sight of a superhero crawling underneath a stricken tuktuk.

There are some perilous moments along the way. As we were warned, there are few road rules in India. On dual carriageways it is common to see buses and trucks driving the wrong way and heading straight at you. At roundabouts, if the clockwise route is blocked, drivers don’t hesitate to go the wrong way round. But by far the worst experience is driving at night, which was mercifully only forced on us once, again as a result of a breakdown. With no street lights and a headlight as useful as a fading hand torch, we spent a terrifying two hours trying to stay on a rutted track, while continually swerving to avoid the numerous vehicles, ox carts and sacred cows that suddenly appeared out of the gloom.

The most amazing thing is there have been no major injuries or other serious incidents since the event started. Not surprisingly, a few tuktuks have been toppled, but they are resilient beasts. And with a top speed of around 60km/h, they are hardly hot rods.

“Of course we have had our share of mishaps,” admits Aravind. “But thankfully no major injuries — cuts, grazes and a couple of broken fingers, that’s about it.”

He does tell me about a team from the Wall Street Journal who were taken to hospital after crashing their rickshaw in a ditch. “They went back the next morning and set fire to it. Their pride was hurt more than their bodies. And they lost their deposit.”

I have to say it is a unique travel experience. The sights and smells are fantastic and it is, as Aravind rightly points out, a wonderful way to enjoy India. Our route takes us through historic cities, remote villages, across vast rivers, into jungles and even a tiger reserve.

We visit magnificent Hindu temples, palaces and basilicas. But, above all else, we encounter the inimitable Indian people whose sense of fun is utterly contagious and makes for a riotous 10-day adventure.

In a word: extraordinary.

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