Adventurers risk limbs to drive rickshaws in India

AP News
Posted: Apr 17, 2011 7:24 AM
Adventurers risk limbs to drive rickshaws in India

Traditional drums rolled as hundreds of spectators bid farewell and good luck Sunday to scores of flimsy autorickshaws starting the ride of a lifetime: from India's southern tip to its northeastern edge.

Keeping limbs intact will likely be a very real challenge for the 180 people from 19 countries who began the more than 3,000-mile (5,000-kilometer) ride as part of the Rickshaw Run, a five-year-old charity event.

Riding in a 150CC, four-gear, three-wheeled autorickshaw through any crowded Indian city for just a few miles (kilometers) can be quite a thrill. A two-week journey tackling the country's highways, back lanes, mountains and valleys in what the organizers describe as a "glorified lawnmower" qualifies as a bona fide adventure sport.

The run kicked off in Cochin in the southernmost state of Kerala and will end in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya in the northeast.

"We are risking life, or at least a limb, for charity," said Jenny Lucas, part of a three-woman team from the United States. "And for adventure, of course."

The Rickshaw Run, which started in 2006, equips teams with an autorickshaw, permits, a starting point and a destination, after which participants are pretty much on their own. They are expected to drive their vehicles, a skill they learn a couple of days before the event, to the destination in the stipulated time.

Each team must raise at least $1,600 toward charities working in India; this year, Social Change and Development, a rural development charity, and International Rescue Corps are the main beneficiaries.

"Online registration starts a year in advance and we sell out in a minute," said Matt Dickens of The Adventurists, the British-company that organizes the event.

"With the heat, this year is going to be a tough run."

For Lucas, the idea of "Indian traffic and going uphill in the rickshaw" was far more nerve-wrecking than the heat.

"Our friends think we are a bit nuts," said her teammate Ellen McLean, as they waited around to have their rickshaw painted like an Indian truck.

The rickshaws take on many avatars. There are tigers and elephants painted on; there is a huge plywood dove mounted on one, but Indian truck art is the most popular.

Irish couple Tracy Purcell and Gordon O'Neill have painted theirs like an Irish police car, with a "Garda" on it.

"We are hoping that it will help Indian traffic to part before us," says O'Neill, who signed on for the Run "to see the little visited parts that are not frequented by tourists."

That was Thomas Morgan's intention when he started The Adventurists, which also organizes a 7,500-mile (16,000-kilometer) Africa Rally where cars with under 1000cc engines drive from London to Uganda in four weeks.

"My own favorite experiences have been when things have gone wrong on a trip," said the 31-year-old. "We've had broken arms and legs, and some participants run into areas of political unrest in this event, but largely the local people are hospitable and helpful, and participants come away with memories for life."

The shaky nature of the vehicle becomes obvious when Morgan shows how it works to one of the teams.

"This lever works the wiper," he explains to South African Ross Macbean and New Zealander David Harrow. "But it is absolutely useless when it rains."