Around Indonesia in a Tuk Tuk

Written by James McClure, Be Movement issue 2 – BALI, published April 2013

It’s never easy explaining things to the police.

It’s made harder when you’re in Indonesia and your local language skills sum up to being able to count from 1 to 5, order a beer and say “You’re beautiful”. It’s even harder when you’re driving a ridiculous vehicle (a tuk-tuk) and you’ve been illegally barrelling down a major toll road for the last 40km.

The conversation went a little like this (but with more sign-language):

Police: “What are you doing?”

Me: “We’re driving a tuk-tuk from Bali to Medan as part of a 25-team race to raise money for charity.”

Police: (after a pause) “Why?”

Me: “er…good question… because we can.”

Police: (shaking his head) “Bule gila.” [translation: crazy white person]

Fortunately, the police officer was so amused by both our vehicle and our predicament that after a couple of photos and handshakes we were free to go. However, these two questions had been a staple of my last few weeks before and during this trip from friends, family, co-workers and passers-by.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

A British company called the Adventurists, they describe themselves as “hell bent on fighting to make the world less boring” and arrange a variety of adventures worldwide. These typically involve driving a ridiculous distance somewhere exotic in a vehicle with the power of a hairdryer that you wouldn’t trust to get you to the nearest restaurant without breaking.

This particular adventure was the Rickshaw Run Indonesia: 25 teams from around the world each with a tuk-tuk racing 3,500km across Indonesia in order to raise money for charity. The rules are simple: there’s a start point (Bali) where you get a tuk-tuk, an end point (Medan) where you give it back, and apart from that it’s up to you. No set route, no support, no advice; just a couple of parties and the opportunity to meet some other like-minded idiots.

WHY? 

There’s the technical explanation to this, but I don’t really have a better answer than “because we can”.

Raising money for two great causes was certainly a big driver. The official race charity was Birdlife International, which funds a series of bird sanctuaries around the world (including Indonesia). We also chose to support the Henry Surtees Foundation, which supports head injuries in motorsport. This is something that my teammate has become involved in over the last couple of years and is quite relevant to the challenge itself. Our fund-raising wasn’t exactly inspired, largely asking people for money plus I also grew a sponsored moustache before, during and after the race in that traditional charitable trade-off: reduced dignity for increased sponsorship.

However, what was also a big reason for this was the sheer challenge. It gives you something largely unknown and the chance to genuinely test yourself, which doesn’t happen often. How do you think you would react if your exhaust pipe fell off in the middle of the jungle or your accelerator cable snaps on a major highway? These aren’t everyday situations; typically, my driving problems have been finding a parking space rather than major mechanics. For the record, the sensible answers are (a) swear loudly then tie it back on and (b) swear loudly then ask where the nearest mechanic is.

The policeman didn’t ask the following questions but if my Bahasa had been better and I’d been less worried about being asked for a bribe, I would like to think this is how our conversation might have continued:

ISN’T THIS A BIT DANGEROUS? 

Yes. Although this is meant to be fun and ridiculous, everyone does go in with their eyes open to the realities of the danger. There have been accidents in the past. Not particularly surprising given that the roads are of extremely variable quality, as are the other drivers around you…

For both these reasons we quickly decided that driving at night was a bad bad idea, especially as the few times we did drive in the dark the passenger had to hang out from the side with a torch to help light the way. We managed to avoid any major accidents but a couple of other teams weren’t so lucky; one had their brakes fail downhill and careered into a barrier which wrote off their tuk-tuk and required stitches in the head for the driver.

But despite driving only in the daytime and avoiding any big accidents we still averaged a couple of breakdowns per day for various reasons, the main reason being that the tuk-tuk was about as reliable as an Indonesian road traffic law. Over the two weeks we suffered a broken accelerator cable, a broken clutch cable, a leaking radiator, snapped crankshafts (the metal rods which allow you to change gears), a broken drive-train (what makes the wheels go round), flat tyres, plus every single morning we had to push start it. Our first push start came to a grand total of 8km away from the start line.

This sounds like a pretty long drive…

 

Apart from actual breakdowns the other major loss of time was hills. The tuk-tuk was very comfortable going down hills (apart from the dodgy brakes), setting our top speed of 62km/h whilst going down a hill with the engine turned off. However, going up hills, even a medium incline, was a significant challenge. There must have been well over a hundred occasions when the passenger had to jump out to help push/reduce the weight as the driver changed down into the lowest gear possible. This was somewhat survivable and in fact at least gave us some much-needed exercise, but on a few occasions even this tactic couldn’t get us up the hill.

When this occurred we would have to unload all our stuff by the side of the road and one person would attempt to drive the much lighter rickshaw up the hill whilst the other had to flag down the next truck/bus/car and hitch a ride with all the stuff. Sorting out the ride was actually much simpler than it sounds: normally within a couple of minutes you’d find someone willing to help and within 10 minutes you’d be fast friends (or at least as far as limited shared language allows).

WHAT WAS THE BEST THING ABOUT THE TRIP? 

The sheer amount of help and friendliness which we received was pretty staggering. Once you factor in breakdowns, getting lost, failing to get up hills and a few other minor issues, we must have had assistance from literally hundreds of people along the trip. This was most notable when we broke down and wherever we were someone would come over or stop to see what the problem was.

One time, we heard this new scraping sound and knew it was trouble. We’d become accustomed to the mid-level rock concert decibel levels of the normal running of our rickshaw, but any new sound meant that some problem was rearing its ugly head. It became clear all too quickly what the problem was when someone overtook us, pointed wildly to our rear and told us to stop. He was right because our exhaust pipe was trailing along the floor. We happened to stop outside a small store and immediately the owner came out and surveyed the situation. He rushed back to his shop and brought out two bits of wire which we bent with pliers in order to tie the exhaust to the rear bumper. This displayed both the eagerness to help and also the expected nature of such breakdowns. I could search stores in London or New York for days without finding a length of wire the right size and yet this man in the middle of nowhere had some. I’ll take this situation over skinny lattes being served on every street corner!

Something which consistently raised our spirits no matter how many breakdowns was the reaction we got as we drove through a village or town. Vehicles similar to what we were driving are only seen in a handful of cities (Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Solo). This meant that the presence of a bajaj in somewhere like rural Sumatra is the equivalent of getting a London black cab in the Scottish Highlands, let alone one spray-painted yellow and in a considerable state of disrepair. This surprise typically manifested itself in shouts of “Bajaj” and then “Bule” once they realised it was a couple of white boys driving. Such reactions were even better in the hill-towns largely because we were going so slowly up a hill that people could actually jog alongside.

We were particular favourites of schoolkids. Seemingly in Indonesia kids are always on the way either to or from school but rarely actually in school. This gave them lots of opportunities to shout “Hello Mister” or “Where you from?” to us and then giggle at our answers.

WHAT WAS THE WORST THING ABOUT THE TRIP? 

I said at the very beginning that it’s never easy explaining things to the police. That’s true but it’s also very hard to explain when you set yourself a big goal and didn’t quite make it.

We experienced this for the first time because we genuinely thought that we were going to make it to the finish line in time for both the big party and our flight home. With each individual breakdown our reserves of positivity and drive were hit. Sometimes a little (push starts became expected) or a lot (getting the two back wheels stuck in a crevasse and having to deadlift the 400kg bajaj out alone). But through a mixture of blind luck and sheer bloody-mindedness, waking up at 4am each day and driving hard, we’d got to the stage where we felt we would finish. We’d (largely) successfully ascended a 1,500m mountain range and put in two 400km days when our previous average had been 250-300km for a 13-hour day. This left us 600km to do in a bit over 3 days, which even at a normal breakdown rate would see us home and dry in time and under our own steam.

Whether you call it karma, Murphy’s Law, hubris or something else, never underestimate the power of something you think you’ve kinda tamed to come back and bite you.

Our first warning was a new sound just after an unexpected pothole, never a good thing. Unfortunately, this time it was loud, very loud, like a robot being put in a shredder – grinding metal on metal. It turned out that we had lost some of our gear plates somewhere, which meant that we couldn’t use 1st or 2nd gear. What was fatal about this breakdown was that the nearest spare parts were about a week away. We briefly considered seeing how far we could get in reverse gear, which still worked, but that was avoiding the reality we couldn’t face.

We would not finish the race. We had raised about US$15,000 for charity and people expected us to finish. We had invested a lot of time. From around day 2 the most important thing in our lives was not our families, friends or jobs but finishing this task we had set ourselves. The realisation that something is truly over is one of the hardest to open up your mind to. Think how many times you’ve clung on to a relationship for longer than you should have. Having said that, if I’d put any ex-girlfriends on a truck for 20 hours overnight then it might have been more obvious that it was over… but that moment of realisation that we would not finish under our own steam was easily the lowest point of the trip.

SO WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE RACE? 

It turned out that our difficulties were shared, if not trumped by the other teams in the race. It transpired that we arrived at the finish line first: no other teams managed to finish without some sort of truck assistance and we got the furthest before having to put it on a truck. This gave us some small consolation and we then set about the key task of chatting to the other teams and letting off some steam.

by James McClure

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