The final stretch. The big finale. The climax. The endgame. You get it, it’s the last few days of our Rickshaw Challenge.
Having mastered our little three-wheeler we felt ready for anything… but we really should have known better. It wouldn’t be India if it didn’t throw something new at us, with plenty of surprises right up until the final night.
Here’s the diary of the final four days, as written at the time.
Day 11: Mangalore to Mysore
Distance: 252km / Google Maps Estimate: 5 hours, 32 minutes.
The country celebrates its 70th Independence Day today, which we celebrated during our first visit to one of the schools supported by Round Table India (RTI), which is one of the beneficiaries of the Rickshaw Challenge. The charity provides everything from books to physical classrooms for schools that need it most, giving children who may not otherwise have had a chance at a decent education.
Children, parents, staff, and charity volunteers were waiting for us as our convoy of rickshaws arrived at the school. The children performed numerous songs for us, as well as various dance routines, which were somewhat militarian. The performances culminated in a flag raising ceremony followed by a visit to some of the classrooms, where we dropped off some of the school supplies we’d brought from Ireland.
While it was brilliant to visit the school, we were all very conscious of the fact that today was also our longest drive of the entire Rickshaw Challenge. We needed to make sure we had enough time to reach Mysore before darkness fell.
Thankfully, a lot of the route was “motorway.” I use quotation marks because it’s not quite a motorway by Irish standards but at least it had two lanes which were (mostly) usable. There were random roadblocks along the way which involved a bit of swerving here and there but nothing the old ‘shaw couldn’t manage.
While parked up on a steep mountainside road, I had an interview with Tommy Marren on Midwest Radio detailing the ups and downs of our adventures across India so far. I obviously offended the weather gods during the interview, as after I mentioned to Tommy that the morning had been sunny, the weather changed in a big way. Monsoon hit. Hard.
As we traveled along what I now know wasn’t the best choice of route, we had to battle the wind, rain and lightning. As we got closer to Mysore, the weather worsened. It was as though it didn’t want us to make it to our hotel at all.
With the rickshaw sides fully open, rain was lashing us and the wiper was in overdrive. Cars, buses and trucks were splashing us as they passed, and we were entering puddles without knowing just how deep they were.
Sections of the road were completely flooded, and as the rain continued to hammer down, it was easy to see why a lot of motorbikes and rickshaws had pulled in for cover. This wasn’t safe.
With no sign of it abating though, we had to continue. If it got too dark, our lack of lights would put us in truly precarious position. Thoughts of trying to organize a room to sleep in entered my head. It wasn’t something I wanted to actually resort to.
With Kathy co-piloting, we soldiered on and the city limits eventually came into sight.
The rain, however, seemed to intensify and the roads were even more flooded, which meant more splashes from passing vehicles. I wasn’t sure how the rickshaw would navigate such waters, and the fear of flooding the engine was very real as it began to struggle in parts.
As the light faded, the hotel came into sight. The rickshaw survived and a hot shower was never so welcome.
We learned later in the night that the area had been hit with record monsoons – the worst in decades. Lucky us.
Google Maps Estimate: 5 hours, 32 minutes.
Reality: 10 hours, 03 minutes.
Start time: 08:04, Finish time: 18:07
Day 12: Mysore to Bangalore
Distance: 142km / Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
A much shorter distance to travel today, which began once again with a school visit.
It may have been the fact that it wasn’t Independence Day but the school felt much more relaxed and far less regimental. The children seemed very excited to see us and, again, there was plenty of dancing and singing from the kids. Then the tables were turned and the children called for us to dance.
We could hardly say no so we did the only dance that’s seemingly known worldwide, regardless of language – the Macarena.
I’m not sure if the children really knew what the hell was happening but they seemed amused.
Post dance, we handed out a number of gifts to the children, and lots of photos and selfies followed.
After leaving the school, it was a handy drive to Bangalore… until we got lost.
Bangalore is famous for its chronic traffic and it certainly lived up to its name. Legally restricted from using the Expressway, we had to cross this traffic battlefield the long (and slow) way around.
With roadworks aplenty, the traffic wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen. A very tense drive, we were mere centimeters from crashing on a number of occasions. On top of this, our map failed us, telling us we’d reached our destination when there wasn’t a hotel in sight. In fact, we were in the middle of a four-lane road when the map decided we’d arrived. Nightmare.
We were forced to pull in and seek the help of locals – some useful, some not so much.
With the traffic flowing, fumes were being pumped out all around us and under the afternoon sun, this was an arduous detour, as well as being a health hazard. A taxi man was eventually able to pin down where it was we needed to go. By the time we reached the hotel, we had wasted an additional hour or so driving around. We were wrecked.
Our day wasn’t finished, however, as we still had to source “a few bits” to take part in the ‘Makeover Challenge’, ie. decorate the rickshaw.
We had bought a big bright red teddy bear earlier in the day and decided to hang crisps from the rickshaw in what was, in fairness, a pretty lame attempt at fulfilling the challenge.
Kathy headed for a nap while I ventured out (on foot) to see if I could find the crisps so we could at least make it look like “Teddy’s Travelling Rickshop” was something we’d really put a lot of thought into.
I spotted a small shop that sold crisps but it did involve crossing seven lanes of traffic to get to it. It felt like crossing the M50 right in the middle of rush hour traffic. A character building exercise, to say the least.
As well as putting my running abilities to the test crossing the road, it was clear this was a waste of time when we saw Blake & Stacia’s balloon bridge across their rickshaw (Team 5 – Oh Yeaahh!!!) and Jorg & Babette’s rooftop hammock (Team 3 – Just In Time).
It’s the taking part that counts though, right?
Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
Reality: 7 hours, 35 minutes.
Start time: 08:52, Finish time: 16:37
Day 13: Bangalore to Vellore
Distance: 212km / Google Maps Estimate: 3 hours, 49 minutes.
With our rickshaw festooned, we convoyed through the heavy traffic to another RTI school. The “updated” rickshaws caught the attention of the police though, and the whole lot of us were pulled over.
Passers-by are usually bemused when they see us driving along so for there now to be a group of rickshaws parked in a line along the side of the road, all randomly decorated, and with a police car pulled up behind, I don’t think onlookers knew what was going on.
Thankfully, the police let us all off and a short while later, we were being greeted by another school full of children.
Three students chose the winner of the ‘Makeover Challenge’. Jorg and Babette’s efforts paid off as they were crowned champions, and deservedly so. In what was no real surprise, we didn’t even make the top 5.
For this school visit, we walked around to the various classrooms and talked to the kids, which was fun. Some classes sang for us, others tried speaking some English with us, but it was probably the infant class that won our hearts.
Their recital of the English alphabet, with one boy standing up and the others repeating what he said, made for an entertaining watch. Kathy was also in her element, almost slipping back into full teacher mode.
After the school visit, we hit the road, which was pretty much highway right through to Vellore. The true horrors of the day lay at the hotel.
It was only as were checking in that we learned that due to new laws, the hotel couldn’t serve alcohol. A beer run was needed.
A few brave men stood forward to take on this mighty challenge (although we did also need petrol). Our initial drive bore no fruit so we sought the help of a local rickshaw driver, who told us he could drive us to a bar that would sell us some beers to bring back to the hotel.
We followed his lead (for a small fee, of course) and he lead us to said bar, only to find it was closed.
Deflated, we stood there trying to figure out our next steps. A man then approached.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Beer,” we said.
“Come with me,” said our shady new friend. We obviously followed.
Although costly, we secured 40 bottles of beer, some of which they had to drive out to buy (something we could have done ourselves if they told us where the bloody shop was, but anyway).
While our own hotel was reluctant at first to let us drink the beer in a public space, they eventually opened up a private function room for us where we set up shop for the night.
The hotel provided a box of ice for the beer, as well as glasses. They set up a music system, and they delivered food up to us from the kitchen. Heroes.
With Spotify on the go, the tunes were being pumped out, with the group “treated” to a rendition of ‘Tommy K’ and ‘Riverdance’. Obviously.
As is often the case, the unplanned nights are the best. A great way to round off the penultimate night.
Google Maps Estimate: 3 hours, 49 minutes.
Reality: 8 hours, 12 minutes.
Start time: 08:43, Finish time: 16:55
Day 14: Vellore to Chennai
Distance: 137km / Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 38 minutes.
The final day began in a slightly hungover fashion, with flashbacks of the night before hindering my breakfast. The cringe was strong.
To kick off the day, we visited a local RTI auto parts factory, which employs disabled and destitute women to give them a chance at living a decent life. Nobody was working when we visited as they all had a day off.
As we went to leave the factory, there was a brief moment of panic as the rickshaw wouldn’t start. It was clear something was afoot though when all but two rickshaws wouldn’t start. It was clear who the culprits were.
Everybody’s start plugs had been disconnected. It was a quick fix though and we were back on the road a few minutes later.
We had a slight detour to Kanchipuram to fulfill our sole challenge of buying a silk scarf.
We encountered a horrendous traffic jam about 40 minutes from our destination and fearing the thought of being stranded for hours, ourselves and the Team 2 (3 Amigos) maneuvered around the traffic, passing on the inside via a dirt path before then blatantly driving on the wrong side of the road. Doing as locals do.
When passing between a car and truck, I managed to scrape the ‘shaw off the truck, slightly ripping the side of our rickshaw. Although damaged, it didn’t look too serious and the truck driver didn’t seem to care at all, giving a wave as we drove on.
We met at our designated meeting point on time and then we all convoyed to the finish line – another RTI supported school.
Speeches followed and medals were awarded, with Jorg & Babette crowned deserving winners, with Team Not Fast, Not Furious given the ‘Bonkers Award’.
We then had a 20km drive across the city to the hotel to drop off the rickshaws, collect our luggage and get ready for the final celebratory night out.
Although probably not much different to traffic at any other time of the day, it was technically ‘rush hour’ and traffic was ridiculously slow moving. It took close to an hour to reach the hotel but we did get there in one piece. We quickly showered and headed for Elements Hostel for the party (and where I collected our passports).
Brought there by a rickshaw taxi (obviously), the traffic was still quite heavy, taking around 40 minutes to travel 10 kilometers.
With everyone now scrubbed up, and the rickshaws gone forever, we all enjoyed the food and drinks, as we talked about the ups and downs of the previous 14 days.
There was one more surprise in store though as Rito surprised Gudi (both of Team 13 – Daft Trunk) with a wedding proposal. Having survived this mammoth trek across India together, they’re sure to survive marriage.
It was the perfect way to round off such an exciting adventure.
Google Maps Estimate: 2 hours, 38 minutes.
Reality: 6 hours, 1 minute.
Start time: 09:01, Finish time: 15:02