Picture the scene. It’s night. It’s pitch-black. A group of worried-looking Westerners are huddled by the side of a country lane somewhere in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Buses and Lorries are roaring past at dangerous speeds without being overly choosy about which side of the road they charge down. Beside the assembled troupe is a collection of elaborately decorated autorickshaws, the noisy three-wheeled, two-stroke contraptions that serve as taxis across much of Asia. The lead tuk-tuk (as they are also known) is in trouble and unable to carry on, its solitary front wheel badly mangled after an unfortunate one-to-one with an oversized pothole, one of the many that litter this so-called ‘main highway’. On closer inspection, something else isn’t quite normal about the damaged autorickshaw. Oh yes, that’s right, this particular vehicle is dressed like a rabbit, covered in brown fur with a giant head and ears at the front and a rather un-rabbity, phallic tail jutting out of the back as if it were in a permanent state of excitement.
Spurred on by hunger and thoughts of sleep, several of the autorickshaw teams that are not in urgent need of a mechanic decide to leave The Rabbit and plough ahead to the next town, where a hotel is supposedly booked. The new leader of the pack is the Middle Eastern Muscle Patrol, selected because their tuk-tuk is now the only one with a front light and therefore the only one that can guide the remaining convoy through the maze of obstacles clearly arranged with some sort of vendetta against axles (and buttocks). Powered by a dynamo, the light bulb emits about as much illumination as a mobile phone screen. Confidence levels aren’t terribly high and, after just two minutes, there’s a loud CRUNCH. An oncoming bus has slammed into the side of the Muscle Patrol tuk-tuk.
Thankfully, the damage isn’t serious. There are impressive scratch marks and a rip in the main fabric cover, but the standard of basic Indian roadworthiness of ‘wheels and engine’ are still functioning just as badly as before. Another inch and this story might have been somewhat different. Despite the near-death brush with Mr Reaper (cunningly disguised as a mildly sedated Tamil Nadu public transport employee) spirits aren’t yet broken, perhaps in part due to the brightly coloured Miami Vice- style suits sported by the two shaken (but not stirred) Muscle Patrol crew. One is in a delightful pastel shade of orange, the other in turquoise.
Just three days earlier, when purchasing these garish Don Johnson-worthy outfits from a premier Dubai tat emporium, we had little idea how close they would come to being the costumes for our final curtain call. Little did we consider the importance of the duct tape bought in the same last-minute pre-airport shopping dash before flying to India. The duct tape, it turned out, would be worth significantly more than the 30 pence we forked out, keeping the Middle Eastern Muscle Patrol Mobile in one, albeit rather ramshackle, piece. Thank heavens we bought a few rolls, because most of the other 30 teams of foolhardy adventurers taking part in the Classic Autorickshaw Challenge had put silly hats and vehicle decorations much further up their holiday lists than anything more useful. Pitching the challenge as ‘the amazing race for the clinically insane,’ the organisers probably already had a rough idea of the type of person who would apply.
The IndianARC has been arranging ludicrous autorickshaw tours for fearless headcases since 2006, with three so far completed ‘successfully’ (fatality count: 0). Amazingly, people pay to risk life and limb, with costs including the loan of the tuk-tuks, hotels en route and various other expenses (mechanics, maps, local SIM cards, bandages). The annual Mumbai Xpress takes drivers through four states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra) during the decidedly damp month of August. Not overly keen on our pastel polyester suits being ruined by monsoon rains, we had opted for the other option, the Classic Challenge from December 31 to January 7.
Starting in Chennai and ending over 1,000km later in Kanniyakumari on the country’s southernmost tip, this journey would test the nerves of the most fearless and foolish, with Tamil Nadu’s roads considered among the worst in the world and its drivers the most partial to onboard refreshments. Broken down (no pun intended) into seven grueling days of driving, the week would feature early starts, late finishes and plenty of ridiculous mayhem in-between.
The bus attack occurred on day two, just a few tantalising kilometers short of our destination, Thanjuvar. Day one had seen the 30-team strong throng of adventurers set off with great fanfare from beside the beach in the state capital, Chennai, and splutter towards Pondicherry, the picturesque ex-French colonial city on the Bay of Bengal coast. For most of the 60 or so idiots taking part it was the first time getting behind the controls of an autorickshaw. A ‘training session’ arranged the day before had turned into a shambolically laughable affair with most of the vehicles not arriving. The Middle Eastern Muscle Patrol had a mere five minutes learning the ropes in someone else’s tuk-tuk and managed to crash into a wall. Twice. As such, the first 100 or so kilometres down the scenic coastal road were littered with stallings, breakdowns and what US comedy scriptwriters might term ‘hilarious consequences’.
Their mobile phones constantly buzzing, the team of mechanics had an extremely busy time, their spare-parts filled minibus very much a roaming auto ambulance. Led by the super- smooth Kausar (he was caught on a number of occasions checking his slick quiff in tuk-tuk wing mirrors – when they hadn’t fallen off), the spanner-wielding mechanical magicians were the stars of the whole adventure, reassembling the abused autorickshaws by the side of the road without so much as a typical garage-like, ‘Tsshhhh, it’ll cost you’ between them.
As it turned out, day two would be the most accident heavy of the week. Broken rabbits and bus attacks aside, the most worrying news on (eventually) finding the hotel in Thanjavur was that Aravind, the IndianARC head honcho and a man with a penchant for lunatic excursions, had sent his autorickshaw nose-diving into a ditch. He spent the rest of the week enjoying the cushioned comforts of a real car (four wheels and everything), doing panda impressions with a pair of tasty black eyes. Aravind later admitted that he hadn’t actually completed any one of the three autorickshaw rallies organised so far without doing himself a mischief, a nugget of information he had strangely omitted from earlier correspondence.
That said, the week wasn’t marred by mechanical failure or personal injury. There was too much fun to be had to worry about the occasional broken brake pedal or nose. Hilarious wacky races style off-road antics down dirt tracks, countless near misses with cows (very much the rulers of all Indian roads), high speed waterpistol fights, U-turns amid the chaos of city centre rush hour traffic, cunningly hidden speed bumps sending tuk-tuks hurtling into the air and backseat passengers into the roof canvas; these were just some of the regular goings-on. We also took part in a bizarre Indian cookery competition (don’t ask), became minor Tamil Nadu celebrities thanks to SS Music TV, South India’s slightly more excitable version of MTV, which followed us throughout, and shook the hands of various moustache-sporting chiefs of police wanting cheesy photo opportunities, one who proudly declared it to be ‘National Road Safety Day’ just as we rear- ended the autorickshaw in front. Days were spent on the edge of the seat (if you had one) engulfed in the sound of insanely noisy two- stroke engines, car horns and screams from whoever was sitting in the back. Nights were enjoyed retelling calamitous tales to fellow tuk- tukkers and catching up on some much needed nutrition (after day two, stopping to eat became less important than arriving in sunlight).
The amazing thing we found about driving in Tamil Nadu was that no matter how close we came to murdering a pedestrian or knocking a poor cyclist into a ditch, we were almost always greeted with a cheery wave and a smile. This rule may, however, only apply to those driving in silly costumes or in convoy with a giant rabbit (which unfortunately lost its ‘tail’ on day six in an accidental castration). Another remarkable discovery was that every single man, woman and child is a bona fide autorickshaw mechanic. Break down anywhere and suddenly there was a crowd of part-time grease monkeys peering into the engine and arguing as to how best get your contraption back on the road using whatever resources are available (one such occasion left an entire team without shoelaces as they became essential tools in holding the exhaust up).
Despite a lengthy period without anything even remotely resembling fatty food, on day four the metal bars holding our driver’s seat snapped under the pressure of our Western bulks. Naturally, a kid no older than 12 was immediately at hand to weld them back together. Wearing a pair of fake Ray Bans as protective goggles, the iron-welding nipper requested the equivalent of around 50 pence for his work. Sometimes the local assistance wasn’t always quite so helpful. One pair of jokers managed to reduce our top speed to around 5kmph – not so handy when there’s still another 50 clicks to go and the sun is hinting at retirement. Incredibly though, all of the autorickshaws managed to make it to the final destination – the supposedly five-star (but not really) resort on Cape Cormorin, the tip of India.
The Middle Eastern Muscle Patrol wheels may have been in a poor state of affairs when it was first handed over (even a new paint job couldn’t hide countless amounts of welding) but by the time we reached the beachside hotel at Kanniyakumari on a sunny Saturday afternoon, it looked truly beaten. Our final breakdown had actually been just 20 kilometres short of the finish line, the axle finally deciding enough was enough. As far as international languages go, we weren’t quite clear on what the helpful roadside mechanic was trying to suggest when he kicked our wobbling wheels, laughed to himself and brought his mates over for a closer inspection – though it may have had something to do with our now quite filthy, though still very stylish Miami Vice jackets.