Round India on three wheels: the Mumbai to Chennai rickshaw rally


Aravind Bremanandam was under a Lada, sheltering from a sandstorm, when he had an idea. Stuck in the Sahara during the Budapest to Bamako Rally, he decided that the adventure might transplant well to his native India. “People want stupid?” Bremanandam said to himself. “I’ll show them stupid.”

A decade later and I’m in India, about to embark on the Mumbai Xpress. This is the longest and most testing of the five rickshaw challenges that Aravind’s company, the Travel Scientists, now organises every year. The routes and durations vary, but the concept is the same: foreigners come to hare through India in rickety auto-rickshaws, the ubiquitous three-wheel taxis that swarm through its major cities. This edition starts in Mumbai and ends 1,300 miles and two weeks later in Chennai. It’s like driving from London to Madrid on a lawnmower … well, a bit.

India map

To add to the challenge, the 40 or so participants, divided into 17 teams, are encouraged to dress up and to customise their rickshaws. There’s “Mario” and “Luigi” from Australia, their rickshaw painted eight-bit chic to match their outfits. Impressively, they have the Mario Bros theme tune playing too. Then there’s the Temporarily Misplaced team from New Zealand, who look as though they were conceived in the aftermath of a potent dose of magic mushrooms. Bare-chested, but wearing top hats and suspenders, the men sport neon feather-boas, glittery masks and little daisies, neatly daubed on their prominent nipples.

These are wacky races, heavy on the wacky, easy on the racing. You “win” by fulfilling challenges such as photographing the tuk-tuk in front of an ancient temple, wearing costumes, creating social media output and posing for a photo with a policeman. Aravind’s advice before we start ranges from serious and useful to a kind of pitying amusement. “Please do not ask India for logic,” he says. “We only have lanes in this country because we had some spare paint.”

There follows a few hours’ practice in empty school grounds before we are turned loose into the howling bedlam of the Mumbai streets. Instantly, it’s something of a disaster for me. I stall in the middle of the first junction, a cacophony of protest rising around me; less than two minutes later, I scrape a stationary truck, tattooing scars down the side of my little red rickshaw. The trauma leaves me gasping for breath.

Round India on three wheels: the Mumbai to Chennai rickshaw rally
‘It’s cool to see all the random stuff that’s around’

Not enough is made of the stench of Indian cities – people don’t warn you properly. They don’t tell you that when the wind blows one way you’ll smell life – food, festivals – and when it changes direction you get the reek of the other thing. He never feels too far away, the man with the scythe, partly because locals drive as though their vehicles are made of rubber. Aravind was right about the lanes, too – traffic is fluid and organic, cars becoming blood cells in a giant, often clotted artery.

Perhaps none of that sounds like a great deal of fun. But these niche adventures have become so popular that a kind of arms race is going on between the various rally companies. The Travel Scientists will soon launch the Bullathon, in Tamil Nadu, in which participants must manage a chariot pulled by a pair of oxen, and operates several other rallies including the Caucasian Challenge, between Istanbul and Yerevan in Armenia, and the 4,000-mile Central Asia Rally from Astrakhan, Russia, to Kyrgyzstan. Similar rallies are organised by The Adventurists, pioneers of the infamous 10,000-mile Mongol Rally, whose most recent wheeze is the Ngalawa Cup in which participants race 300 miles down the coast of Tanzania in very basic wooden sailing boats.

In all cases, the rallies are marketed as “minimal assistance”, meaning that while the organisers will book hotels for you and give you a vehicle in working order, they won’t give you directions or hold your hand as you go. A support vehicle follows behind, but for the most part, when (not if) the rickshaw breaks down you have to find the nearest local mechanic. Thankfully, even the most rural villages have someone familiar with the vehicles’ rudimentary innards.

Round India on three wheels: the Mumbai to Chennai rickshaw rally
Sound the horn … Luckily, the ‘racing’ aspect of the challenge is not taken too seriously

For the participants of the 2015 Mumbai Xpress, the reasons for signing up ranged from charity (several teams have their own causes; the Travel Scientists also support projects around the country) to drunkenness. Most already had plenty of stamps in their passports, but not 25-year-old Kiwi builder Rhys O’Connor. This isn’t just Rhys’s first time in India, or Asia – it’s his first time out of New Zealand. With no travel experience at all he opted to dive in at the deepest of deep ends with concrete boots on. “I know, I’m an idiot,” he laughs.

India wasn’t even on his list of places to go. “Richard [Purvis, another rally participant] came up with this stupid idea and I thought: ‘Yeah, why not?’ We organised it, then all of a sudden it was: ‘Oh shit, we’ve just booked tickets.’”

Now, with his partner Victoria, Rhys is whizzing around rural India and through cities like Pune, which he’d never heard of before. He’s learning a good deal about the world, and about himself too – he hated crowds before he got to India, but he’s a bit more relaxed about them now. “Plus it’s been cool to see the countryside and the scenery,” he says, “and all the random stuff that’s around.”

Round India on three wheels: the Mumbai to Chennai rickshaw rally
Licence to thrill – and spill. Photograph: Katy Morrison

With 1.2 billion-plus inhabitants, India has plenty of capacity for random stuff. And for noise. Horn-honking means many things around the world: in the US it’s a kind of protest, in the Middle East it’s a chastisement, and in the UK it’s rarely used – but if things go that far, get ready for total war. In India, it simply means “I’m here” but with so many people on the roads, there’s an endless din of existential affirmations.

Once you can look beyond the mania, however, there’s a chance to enjoy the remarkable scenery. No one is sad to leave Mumbai behind and head south, first to the sea-fort town of Alibag, then on to booming Pune, with its craft-beer bars and seven universities giving it a more hopeful feel than Mumbai. From there, the landscape changes to misty mountains around Mahabaleshwar, an old British hill station, then down through ancient valleys to windswept beaches at Ratnagiri. When, after a week, we get to Goa, with its fancily painted houses and grand cathedrals, it feels as though we’ve driven into a different country, or a different era.

After a day’s rest there, the Mumbai Xpress continues down to Mangalore, turns inland towards the finish line 500-odd miles away in Chennai, through yet more gorgeous countryside, over mountains which leave the engine squealing like a dying pig, and into more chaotic cities such as Bangalore. As the journey continues and we meet more locals, each rickshaw gets increasingly garishly decorated, first with ceremonial garlands of fiery flowers, then toys and, at one point, hundreds of packets of crisps. Everywhere we go, people take photographs of us.

Round India on three wheels: the Mumbai to Chennai rickshaw rally
Rickshaw Challenge India

There’s a deep sense of achievement that comes with surviving each day, but when out on the roads, I find it necessary to try to disconnect from the lunatic driving conditions. In the months preceding the rally, I became increasingly fixated with the psychedelic death race movie Mad Max: Fury Road. Screaming lines from it eases my troubled mind. To a distracted cab driver I hope to overtake: “Witness me, blood bag!” As I squeeze between two thundering lorries: “Riding to Valhalla!”

I’ve also bought a pair of goggles not dissimilar to those worn by Nicholas Hoult’s character Nux, but find them of no practical use on the rally; sweat makes them fog up within seconds. So it’s a good thing I’m not wearing them at certain moments: those times when I’m trying to overtake a truck on a bend and can feel the engine failing, and then a car decides to overtake and so does a motorbike, and now we’re riding four abreast as though it’s the Derby; but then I see an even bigger truck coming in the opposite direction … They’re the moments when I expect a herd of smug, sacred cows to shamble out into the road.

Complaints, though frequent, are fleeting. People signed up knowing they would be tested – mentally, physically, mechanically. The toil is the appeal. As it goes on we master the rickshaw, cease to be so shocked all the time and quickly learn to have a lot of fun. Personally, the rally days taught me a new kind of patience, a realisation that with a bit of time and determination you can overcome almost anything. You need only to smile, wave often and keep a few rupees in your pocket for baksheesh, just in case.

Way to go

The trip was hosted by the Travel Scientists (, who stage an array of rallies. The next Mumbai Xpress ( is from 7-20 August and costs from €1,750pp, including hotels, luggage transfer and rickshaw servicing. Etihad ( flies Heathrow-Mumbai/Chennai-Heathrow, both via Abu Dhabi, from around £690 in August