Tips to Survive the Rickshaw Run
So you are thinking about doing the crazy Rickshaw Run and are wondering what you are letting yourself in for. You are wondering how on earth am I going to complete 3,000km in a rickshaw, I’ve never even driven a motorbike. You are wondering what to pack, what to bring? Do I need tools, do I need music, how will I find accommodation, do we book in advance, what happens when we break down, how will I survive without a sit down toilet?
Not to worry there is help at hand. From my journey from Cochi in Kerala to Jaisalmer near Pakistan I will try and tell you my tips to survive from what I learned so that might make it that little bit easier for you. You will just have to get used to the squat toilets.
The Rickshaw Run – Best time to drive is in the morning
It may be hard and you may be hungover but if you want to get the k’s under the belt then getting up early is well worth it. Early being around dawn time and not 9am for you lazy folk. Indian roads are much quieter in the mornings and it is especially worth it if you are in a city. It is a beautiful feeling watching the orange sunrise and zipping along watching people start their day, get the cattle ready and do a number 2 in the field! No matter where you are the roads get much busier in the afternoon so progress will be reduced. It is worth noting that rush hour in the mornings isn’t half as bad as rush hour in the evenings.
The Rickshaw Run – Worst time to drive is the dark
This is a well known fact for anybody who has read up about the Rickshaw Run but it is definitely true. Indians drive with their full lights on so if you combine this with the battery torch that the rickshaws have it makes for almost pure blindness. I am not saying not to do it but I am saying not to do it over the first few days until you are totally comfortable with the vehicle and the nuances of Indian roads. You may be forced into driving on death lane like we were on our first day but try to avoid it. Motorways, a busy city or quite roads are not too bad in the dark but definitely try to avoid single lane each way roads. As well as the blinding lights coming against you where you struggle to see the line middle of the road because there are no cat’s eyes, the Indians also walk on the side of the road so you could end up knocking someone over if you don’t keep away from that side too!
The Rickshaw Run – Bring warm clothes – it’s cold (very cold) in the morning
I did the Cochi (south) to Jaisalmer (north) route and although Cochi was 30deg Celsius during the day it was chilly at dawn when the wind of the rickshaw gets at you. There are no windows remember. It got colder as we headed north and by mid way it was freezing in the mornings. I brought a long sleeved t-shirt, a fleece and a hat but despite these, other layers and looking like a terrorist I was still shivering for hours afterwards. You may have to buy a blanket when over there but it is worth bringing some warm clothes over with you.
The Rickshaw Run – Trust people – not everybody is out to rip you off
I was very sceptical about being a gringo travelling the length of India in a big lawnmower without getting ripped off. But the longer I was there and the more we talked to people and broke down then the more I realised that they don’t just want my money. Once out of the major centres such as Cochi, Mumbai and Delhi then people don’t just see you as a walking ATM. Several times on our trip when we thought a tip was justified they turned it down. Such as when we broke down and another taxi rickshaw driver pushed us 5km (with his leg!) and waited 1.5hrs with us but then wouldn’t accept any money. Another time a rough looking guy drove his motorbike to show us to a mechanic (the wrong way down a one way street) 5minutes away but wouldn’t accept a tip either. Neither would that mechanic for that matter who fixed our head gasket straight away but wouldn’t accept the 30cent tip we were giving him. That was 30% of the total cost, yes a ridiculously low price.
Although most towns and villages we stopped in we were surrounded by people nobody ever tried to rob anything. We were careful of course but that goes without saying. I am a guy so you may use that against me but there were also teams of girls in the challenge and they also had no problems.
The Rickshaw Run – Should I book accommodation in advance?
In my experience no. We booked nothing in advance and never had a problem finding accommodation (other than a teeny problem on Day 1) but other than that it was fine. It is also very hard to book in advance as it is difficult to know how far you will go on any one day as the traffic and roads vary so much. You may have a good road and zoom at 50km/hr for hours and gain and hour or two or there may be really bad traffic in a town that loses you an hour or two. If you book in advance it will hinder more than help you. If you start looking for accommodation about 1hr before it gets dark then you will have plenty of choices and plenty of towns to choose from.
The Rickshaw Run – Bring bungee cords, duct tape
You may get away without bringing these and they are not as important as the first three points but they are definitely handy. A few different length bungee cords are much handier to secure your bags than rope. Duct tape which I intended to buy over there is very hard to find so bring it if you need it. We scoured Cochi but only ended up with brown parcel tape (which worked surprisingly well). Duct tape can hold anything in place from your exhaust to roof rack so it is definitely worth bringing along. Most other equipment like rope, cushions, funnels, hoses etc can be bought over there.
The Rickshaw Run – Bring print out maps – GPS is not as good as you think
People have various ideas on this but from my experience some print out maps are vital. I printed mine from Google maps screenshots (zoomed in and took me 30min to do) so at least we would have some idea of where we were going. We lost them and then used the GPS with disastrous consequences. Unless you have unlimited data then GPS will not work well when away from cities. I will admit that in cities GPS can save hours. Although you can download the maps to your phone for offline use they seem to need updating every few days and won’t work once this happens. This was my experience at least. If you do get stuck with no GPS or data at least then you know the next big town to ask for directions from your trusty paper map.
The Rickshaw Run – Breaking down can be fun
You may be dreading breaking down at the beginning of your trip and wonder how you will ever survive without AA on hand but don’t fret. You will learn that some of the fixes (such as changing the spark plug) you can do yourself and you get promoted to the title of ‘mechanic’. Other more serious breakdowns though require help and in India there is always help on hand. We blew two pistons and a head gasket on our trip and each time it was fixed within a few hours because of the kindness of the locals. The breakdowns can even be a bit of fun presuming you aren’t having one every day. You really get to be the centre of attention when they open up your bonnet (even more than usual) and you get to interact with the local tradesmen. It also means that you see parts of towns that you normally wouldn’t frequent and see how people really live.
We broke down 7 times in 14 days and twice more before we left the starting line. Of these 3 were minor and we could fix ourselves and 4 were major. I would recommend that everybody have this amount of breakdowns!!
The Rickshaw Run – Can I hook up music to the Rickshaw?
The answer is yes you can but you shouldn’t unless you want to buy a new battery. The batteries in the rickshaw are very small and barely have enough power for your lights, indicator and wipers so if you get an inverter for your music and speakers then the rickshaw might not run at all. If you want music for your trip have it run on batteries or something that is rechargeable. That way you can have your music but not kill the rickshaw. It is also worth noting that the rickshaw is loud between the wind blowing and the engine so if your music is loud enough to hear then you may return home deaf.
The Rickshaw Run – Learn the basics of a motorbike engine
You are given a crash course (20min talk) when you land at your starting city but between the other 30people listening in it is very hard to see what he is pointing at and hear what he is saying. The rickshaw engine is very like a 2 stroke motorbike engine so if you get a chance it is well worth a 1hr tutorial before you go. My neighbour gave us one and it was very helpful to skip the real beginner’s questions. If you do this then you will know what the piston is and what it looks like. What the carburettor is and what it does etc as well as some common problems. By the end of the trip you will probably be an expert regardless but I would be my ‘tip of the day’!
The Rickshaw Run – Bring gloves for driving
Those of you who move building blocks for a living don’t need to worry about this one but for the others who get blisters on their hands from typing too much may want to consider it. Driving the rickshaw is fairly physical so if you had a rickshaw like us that kept cutting out all the time then the palms of your hands are going to get fairly sore from starting it never mind the driving. The tuk-tuk starts a bit like a lawnmower by pulling a lever and not by just turning a key. Remember this isn’t a Merc you’re in! Most teams were in a similar boat I think but it took us about 10minutes of constant pulling of the lever just to get started in the morning.
We didn’t have any gloves but we did use a rag to help our poor hands when starting.
The Rickshaw Run – Strengthen your left arm
Another point on the starting but when you pull the lever you are actually turning the engine in the back to get it to start. This requires a bit of effort. It was hard enough that one of the girls on our team couldn’t do it at all. Every time she cut out one of us had to hop out and start it for her! Fine in the middle of nowhere, not so fine in the middle of traffic. The other two girls on the team had no problem starting it so it is not a female thing. Weaklings beware!
The Rickshaw Run – Petrol stations have toilets and washing water
This is a valuable snippet of information. Petrol stations in India are generally clean and practical but don’t sell much other than petrol and a bit of engine oil. They do though usually have toilets and running water. Have a bar of soap on hand and you can leave with an empty bladder and petrol free hands.
The Rickshaw Run – Hotel means restaurant
Don’t be fooled when you see hotel signs dotted along the road and think you are sorted for the night. The word hotel for the most part means a restaurant so if you are looking for accommodation then the words ‘lodging’ will get you much further. This may save you a lot of the messing around that we did on the first few days.