Ninety per cent of the people en route seemed to know how to mend a tuk tuk. It seemed to be either petrol, a piece of silver foil, chewing gum or copper wire that could get us going again
They have driven across India and Sri Lanka, now 60 riders are about to circumnavigate the Pearl of the Orient to help raise funds to bring solar power to villages in the wilderness
Perilous roads, impenetrable mud tracks and mountain climbs hidden by fog were just some of the challenges that Pimp My Tuk Tuk team faced when they drove across India in 2013 to help raise funds for charity. The plan started out as an unusual way to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday, but it turned into an adventure that would be repeated every other year and would help raise enough funds to build four school classrooms in Chennai, open a water purification plant in Sri Lanka and now, in 2017 they hope to create a solar-powered village on the Pearl of the Orient.
The initial idea came from Singapore-based business consultant Nick Sutcliffe when he was planning his birthday celebrations. He didn’t want to spend his birthday on a lounger – he wanted to do something for others. So he asked his friends if they would join him for a tuk tuk ride across the country of his birth – India. While his friends agreed on the spot, the only problem was that none of his friends had tackled an adventure like this before and nobody knew how to drive a tuk tuk.
“When we came up with the idea of driving from Chennai to Goa at a bar in Singapore, it sounded fantastic,” says co-founder Alex Longman. “Then it started to sink in what we could be up against.”
However, the team decided to bring Sutcliffe’s dream to fruition. They sought out a company who could help them rent the tuk tuks and book accommodation along the 1,200km route, and they connected with the Foundation of Goodness charity in India who they decided to raise money for.
As they planned to raise funds for charity they decided that their challenge needed a name so the team became Pimp My Tuk Tuk. As they were raising money for schools and orphanages they decided to bring a smile to everyone’s faces by theming each tuk tuk and turning each vehicle into a famous car, such as the Blues Brothers’ wagon, the company car from Only Fools and Horses and Austin Powers’ Jaguar.
They had the charity, the accommodation, the tuk tuk, but they needed to learn how to drive. When the team landed in Chennai, they went straight to a carpark where they received their first and only tuk tuk driving lesson, which lasted around an hour. The team joked that other tuk tuk drivers looked at them in disbelief that these foreigners planned to drive across the country in tuk tuks that they would have scrapped many years ago. “They kept saying, ‘Do you know how old those are?” says Alex Longman.
Undeterred the Pimp My Tuk Tuk team set off with the vehicles that would become their homes for the next eight days. Each set of drivers were given a guidebook that featured the roads that they were allowed to take and where and when they should make stops along the way. The stops weren’t just for street cafes or rest stops, but the team also asked if they could visit orphanages, old people’s homes and schools. “Each Pimp My Tuk Tuk journey is a grassroots trip, which is fully funded by ourselves. One hundred per cent of money we raise goes to charity,” says Longman.
The eight-day trip took them on B roads from the coastal city of Chennai, on to Vellore, Bangalore, Mysore, Mangalore and Goa. They drove from the city to the countryside, up into the mountains through paddy fields and towards the ocean. The teams started to fall in love with their tuk tuks. ”They are lots of fun – they are really manoeuvrable, and you feel really involved with everything going on around you,” says Longman. “You drive for as long as you want, then when you need a drink you can stop and have a cup of local tea with villagers.”
But at the same time. Longman says that they also felt really exposed. Buses and lorries would rattle past them on the mountain roads leaving the tuk tuks quaking in their wake. The mountain roads also came with the added fear of having a sheer drop on oneside. On average they drove between 160km to 180km a day. Two teammates would take turns driving each tuk tuk.
While they had no injuries on route, they had plenty of breakdowns, which were dealt with by the Pimp My Tuk Tuk support crew that travelled behind them or locals who were just happy to help get them back on the road. “Ninety per cent of the people en route seemed to know how to mend a tuk tuk. It seemed to be either petrol, a piece of silver foil, chewing gum or copper wire that could get us going again,” says Longman. However, breakdowns mixed with poor road signage meant that eight-hour drives could turn into 20 hours on the road as some people wouldn’t reach the hotel till 4am. And not all of those hotels were what the team expected too. “Some of the hotels, we chose to sleep on the floor because they were cleaner than the beds,” says Longman.
The Pimp My Tuk Tuk team was also treated to some fun surprises too, including the opening of a biryani restaurant. “We could see that there was a bit of a kerfuffle ahead of us on the road and it was the mayor opening a new restaurant. Before we knew it we were invited in as VIP guests and we were being photographed by the local newspaper,” says Longman.
The trip triggered every emotion for the team. From the terror of being pushed off the road by larger traffic, through the exhaustion of driving, to continually choking on bus fumes… but nothing prepared them for what they would face when they visited one orphanage. “The kids were bouncing all over the tuk tuks, bibbing the horns and playing with the toys that we gave them – they were having a whale of a time,” says Longman. “We knew that they were orphans, but it wasn’t until we were about to drive away they told us that they were all suffering from HIV and they lost one child to the disease every quarter. There were grown men everywhere crying their eyes out. No one could speak for three or four hours.”
However, moments such as this only spurred the team on to raise more money for the people that they’d met along their journey. So two years later after successfully completing their first journey, the team chose to expand to 40 drivers and drive across Sri Lanka. The journey would take them north to south. They also approached corporate sponsors so that they could boost the amount of money they raised. The result was that on the second day that they arrived in Sri Lanka, the team could visit a water treatment plant that they had spent two years raising money for.
The team were overwhelmed by the response from the villagers. “When we got there all the villagers who used the water plant came out in their Sunday best. They probably earn a $1 a week. They had all made something – a drink or a dessert. All of these people had turned up just to say thank you. It was humbling,” says Longman.
Now the team are back with their third odyssey, which will see 60 drivers circumnavigate Sri Lanka. “What’s extra special for this year is that eight are of the teams that are dads and sons, and one team includes a dad, son and grandad.”
The support for the Pimp My Tuk Tuk team has grown dramatically too, with international rugby stars, cricket players and TV stars all sending their good wishes via social media. And a film crew from the US will also be following them on their adventure. On this trip they also plan to visit the hillside village where they have installed solar panels as it didn’t have any electricity.
“From the start until now we have touched 28 thousand people’s lives through sport scholarships, dental and so on,” says Longman.
The team will be departing again in 2019. Follow their adventures on https://www.facebook.com/PimpMyTukTuk/