In the darkness of the interior you could just make out the fidgeting silhouettes. It was 4am, and we were nine hours into a sixteen hour coach journey. Everybody was shattered but sleep was only possible it a fitful pattern. Just when you’d got into a momentary state of calm, the coach would lurch sideways with a blare of the horn as yet another lorry came straight at us at the single track road with full beam on.
How ironic to die now in an air-conditioned Volvo when we’d just spent two weeks crossing Southern India in a vehicle with the crash protection of an eggshell.
This was Rickshaw Rampage, a mission to cross India from East to West coast and then south to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India where the waters of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean converge.
On a hot and humid evening in Chennai a motley collection of competitors began to gather, most of whom hadn’t the faintest idea about what lay ahead since this was the first event of it’s kind. There were teams from Britain, America, Russia, Canada, and a few places in between. The local interest in the event was huge – in fact it was a national story, but strangely very few locals were taking part. Did they know something we didn’t?
The next morning amid a clamour of news cameras, reporters and curious locals the rally was flagged off from the beach in downtown Chennai. In a haze of blue smoke the competitors weaved up the road still trying to get to grips with the gear change on these part moped, part car, part sofa contraptions. Talk about going in at the deep end.
Within moments it was like being in a gigantic pinball machine. From every conceivable angle traffic converged and somehow threaded itself through the narrowest of gaps. In the downtown streets the scene resembled a classic movie chase as we negotiated our way round crates of flapping chickens, carts piled high with water melons, and piles of cardboard boxes.
The Russian team thought they’d played a masterstroke by fitting a police siren to their rickshaw but were left somewhat disappointed when it proved particularly effective at having absolutely no effect.
In the motorised food chain, the local bus is king. A late bus equals a bus driver losing money so they basically didn’t stop for anything, sometimes not even passengers, who could be seen running alongside trying to hang off the people already hanging off the bus. In India missing the bus isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a life saver. In amongst the chaos occasionally a family of five would cruise past on a motorbike, a child perched on the petrol tank seemingly oblivious to the road wars going on all around.
It’s surprising how quickly you acclimatise to the local conditions when your well-being depends on it. The Ring of Fire regaled in the tale of how they’d outmaneuvered a local taxi driver through rush hour traffic to which he became incensed that he’d been beaten at his own game and resorted to suicidal moves in order to save face. Unfortunately his bid for supremacy ended in disaster when he shot up the inside of a parked bus only to find it unloading luggage in to his path. As we headed south the landscape became more rugged and the traffic less hectic. On a particular stretch of deserted road along the East coast, the one-upmanship began.
First up was the Reggae Ambassadors who cruised past driving from the back seat. Not to be outdone Curry in a Hurry tried a spot of roof surfing before Ring Sting successfully performed a rickshaw to rickshaw leap. During this time Team Trifle have managed to strip completely naked.
In a desperate attempt to regain the crown the Reggae Ambassadors decide to tarmac surf on a bamboo mat whilst hanging out the side of their rickshaw. Unsurprisingly our would be surfer goes under the back wheels of his own rickshaw. We decided to calm down for a bit. But only for a bit.
Behold the city of Pondicherry. A magical place where special tax breaks mean an already outrageously cheap bottle of beer is virtually free. In the circumstances it seemed churlish to send the bottle back on the basis the cap was rusty, and the brand on the bottle and the label didn’t match.