Pre-Run - Shimla - Himachal Pradesh
Im not too sure what was running through my head when I signed up for the Adventurists Pioneer Edition for the Rickshaw Run Himalayas. In hindsight, im guessing I didn’t really think at all about the task at hand, at about the enormity of the situation and the grand scale of the challenge which lay ahead. As it turns out, that’s usually how my decision making skills roll, make the decision spontaneously and then think about it when the time comes.
Funnily enough, the time to put the decision into action came around quite quickly and soon I found myself sitting on a flight to India with a newly recruited member of the ‘Bums of Anarchy’, a team created a few years earlier doing a similarly mad adventure. Im pretty sure Don was, like myself, bright eyed and bushy tailed and a little blasé about what we were about to undertake. Following a good 17 odd hours of travel, we were at our destination, Shimla which is the capital of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, in the Himalayan foothills. This was to be our start line for the newest Adventurist challenge to make the world a little less boring, and no sooner had we dropped our bags in the hotel foyer, we were off to obtain our inner line permits to allow us into some of the Indian/China disputed area. As usual with the Indian bureaucratic system, a seemingly 5 minute process turned into a 4 hour ordeal but low and behold, we had all the documents we needed to set us on our merry way.
With a day up our sleeves, we familiarised ourselves with the town, met our fellow teams and had acclimatised ourselves to the 7500ft (2280m) altitude which Shimla was sitting at. Soon it was time to meet our Rickshaws and we were not to be disappointed. As veterans and pioneers, we were expected to come up with some great designs and this time our Bums mascot the ‘grim pooper’ had again not failed to stand out. With a few tweaks done to our faithful steed (a giant inflatable poo emoji strapped to the rear), we were nearly ready for launch day, but not before the pre-launch briefing, feast and celebrations!
Now before the briefing, I was still walking around oblivious to what we were about to stumble on into. After half an hour of sipping gins and listening to the organisers briefing us on what was to come, I was worried. I wasn’t worried about what I had to do, but was more so worried about the look of stress and angst on their faces. It was like they were sending their little sheep out into the pastures to be met by a pack of wolves, the fear was real and I felt the whole vibe of the room change and wash over everyone, which in turn made the room suddenly feel quiet and vulnerable. Being veterans though, we all knew that all we needed was a good dose of gin to numb the thought processes and with that, the morning had dawned and we had no choice but to get on with it.
Day 1 : Shimla - Recong Peo and Day 2: Recong Peo to Kaza
For some of us, the night had been a heavy one with some missing the launch but fortunately, most hadn’t burnt the candle at both ends and with a lot of hooting and jibing, of we set into the open pastures, ready for the wolves to strike. Driving out into the mountainous green hills we were soon in awe of the beauty which the place had to offer. Now accustomed once again to the Indian roads and in tune with the rickshaws, we were on a mission to hit the day’s target of Recong Peo where most teams had set their sights for. The Bums prospect Don handled the rickshaw like a pro and we took turns thrashing out the kilometers, grinding our way through the first day with somewhat ease but knowing the challenges were to come. Funnily enough, we had also somehow magnetised ourselves to the brilliant team ‘Hello Kiwi’, consisting of long time rickshaw veterans Ed and Lisa, a team which we would convoy with to the end. After a successful first day, we had a beer and a feed with 5 other teams before crashing out to conclude our first full day of the run. Bonds were being formed between teams and we had the privilege of meeting the likes of many past veterans and coming to the realisation that we were with the best of company with some of the greatest adventure pioneers from around the globe.
After a decent night rest we were keen to crunch out as many kilometers as we could with our nose pointed toward Kaza. We knew that the roads after Kaza were the most challenging so we were keen to give ourselves as much time as needed in the difficult section in order to give ourselves the best opportunity at reaching the finish line on time. Today the roads were amazing. Well I guess more to the point, pant shittingly amazing. We headed through the valley following the Sutlej River past Jorkanden, Reo Purgyil and the Manirang mountains, all making up parts of the Himalayan Ranges.
The roads along this valley were something else, not only were their numerous rock slides (which we were forced to wait to be cleared), the sheers drops off the cliffs were thousands of meters high with no safety barriers to stop vehicles from toppling. With unsealed roads, the rickshaw jumping around from the rocks and contending with one eyed Indian bus and truck drivers, shit had started to get real. Had it of not been for the sheer beauty of the place, I could have been forgiven for leaving the rickshaw and walking away. We had succumbed to the beast and could now only drive its lines and play the game as well as we could, I was fearful. Donovans health was deteriorating rapidly with a mixture of cold symptoms, fever and altitude gripping him and turning the run into a spin, and this was only day 2. With blind love for that feeling of adrenaline, we soldiered on and with many precarious moments, we had reached the end of day 2, staying in Kaza for the night.
With the kiwis having a recommendation for a hotel from the ‘Devils on Wheels’, we tracked down the nights accommodation and were soon in the realisation that Don was really not too well. Well, if im going to be honest, I thought that he just had a bit of a cold and should man up a bit and not ruin my adventure. I offered to go for a wander into the town with Ed and there we picked up some cold and flu tablets, some cough medicine as well as the obligatory rickshaw snacks for the next day. By the time we returned, it was apparent that Dons health had again slithered to a new low. We gave Don everything we could to keep him warm but still he was shivering and in an obvious state of delirium and fever. We were under the assumption that it was a mixture of altitude and a cold, so with that, ‘Hello Kiwis’ resident nurse Lisa ploughed on her motherly instincts and set to dose Don up with altitude tablets as well as the previously purchased pharmaceuticals. With a great dinner under our belt and a cold beer down the hatch, off we went to bed. Later Don was to reveal to me that he was scared to go to sleep as he feared he might not make it until the morning.
Day 3 : Kaza to Keylong
Waking up at 1.30am, it was soon apparent I was also suffering from some mild effects of altitude sickness and quickly popped a quick Diamox (altitude sickness tablets). I then proceeded to have 3 hours of intense nightmares about altitude sickness which woke me with a startle and head straight to see if Don was okay. I realised his health was the most important thing and asked if he would like to stay an extra day in order to rest and see a doctor. His response was somewhat different to what I expected and he said he would carry on whether he was unconscious or not. He also said we could ‘float me down a river and set me alight if it comes down to it’. Hell yeah, this boy had just about earned his patch into the Bums of Anarchy, he had the heart for adventure and the will to see through these minor death bed moments! Don was alive, and although not 100%, his condition had improved somewhat from the night before. Today was going to be a test.
Today we were going deep into the Spiti Valley and this was going to be the test of all tests for our trusty steeds and us, their drivers! With an early start, we headed out of the town before it woke (as we had heard stories of officials not allowing vehicles through if they deemed it too dangerous) and pushed on through some of the wildest roads in the world. The magnificence of this Himalayan mountain range is absolutely mind blowing. The vastness of the panoramic views is unmatched and to feel so insignificant while being towered over in this cool desert mountain valley isn’t something to be sniffed at. Whenever you turn a corner you feel your breathe taken away by its raw beauty, by the feeling that the land has been untouched and that every snapshot in your mind becomes more significant than any postcard that you have ever laid eyes on. Every single mile of vision should have its own TV show called Natural Pornographic… nothing I have ever experienced remotely comes close to how in awe I felt at the expansive beauty. The colours of the place keep slapping you about with the earthy tones which somehow feel quite lunar in its landscape. Well to be completely honest, I’ve never traveled out of the earth’s atmosphere, but the Himalayan range would be what I would imagine it to look like in places.
The ride down deep into the valley wasn’t exactly plain sailing. With Don in the back slipping in and out of consciousness, it was left to me to negotiate the rough terrain of the roads. Unfortunately I wasn’t listening in the briefing when they told us to tackle the lower part in the early morning due to the rivers and snow melt off rising from the afternoon sun. By the time we had reached the ice melts, the rickshaws were knee deep traversing through water along so called roads, better known as river beds. The river rock left us stranded in fast flowing water on many occasions but with every kilometer passing, Don seemed to be coming out of his coma and with our kiwi mates, we mate it out of the valley unscathed, albeit a little cold and wet. The next challenge was to reach our highest pass of Kunzum La, sitting at 14930ft (4550 meters) above sea level. The views and the altitude made this drive absolutely breathtaking but without much hassle, our rickshaws survived the punishment and coughed their way over the pass. With around 10 hours of bump bucking roads under our belt, Don got strength to take the wheel and spent the next couple of hours getting us to the night’s destination just after dark, Keylong (3080 meters above sea level). The day had proved to be a tough one – we had not only been crushed by a bus against a cliff face (popping our poo emoji), we had also lost many items from our bouncing rickshaw into the river – some thongs, some shoes, some slippers and god knows what else along the way – but apparently now the hard part was done!
Pulling into our Hotel (Tashi Deleg), we were greeted with wonderment from the hotels owners and given an array of rooms to choose from in the bustling abode. We were all feeling elated with the days efforts and treated ourselves to some amazing food and drinks in celebration of such a fatiguing day. To concentrate on everything around you takes stamina. Not only are you dealing with the overwhelming scenery, you are also trying to pick the best lines through the rocky terrain to give the smoothest ride, bracing yourself for the inevitable hits, pushing the rickshaws in knee deep water, hoping for no oncoming traffic and enjoying every moment at the same time. These long days ensure for heavy eyelids every night and along with the copious amounts of dust and a beer to top it off, the night draws in to a heavy sleep.
Day 4 : Keylong to Sarchu
Fortunately, we now knew we had time on our side and realised that we could take the hand off the throttle for a while. We had a brilliantly relaxing morning and had a wander around the town to do the touristy thing. Whilst we were away, Lisa was busy being interviewed by the hotel owner for the local newspaper about the madness we were undertaking. As we returned, we were all humbly the recipients of a Khata, a scarf which is given upon arrival or departure of guests. The Khata is a traditional scarf and is given with a clear conscience and have no negative thoughts or motives when given as an offering. Feeling very taken aback by the gesture, we all posed for a barrage of pictures and toddled off for another day on the road.
Being a pioneer run, we are the guinea pigs for such an adventure. I haven’t mentioned the fact that the kind folk at the adventurists had gifted us with not only brand new rickshaws, but 4 stroke rickshaws. We didn’t need to succumb to rigorous fuel mixing rituals, we even had a 12 volt charger AND a fuel gauge, unlike other runs. Was this machine still totally unsuitable for the job though? The clear answer is yes, what the hell were these things doing at altitude? They had no right being in these sort of climates, in this thin air, being brutalised on these roads. I couldn’t count how many people told us we wouldn’t make it, that these ‘autos’ wouldn’t get us to where we needed to get to. Driving past a bus, an elderly aussie guy randomly popped his head out of a bus window and said, ‘you guys have got to be joking don’t you? That’s ridiculous.’ We could only laugh and hoot like possessed madmen giving him the thumbs up and sending the throttle to full! When people would doubt, it would give us more drive, I was absolutely fucking proud of these rattling beer cans on wheels.
As we ascended through the day’s first climb, it was clear that we weren’t getting enough air into our fuel and unsure of how to fix this, we stopped for a tinker into the rear engine bay and Don toyed around with adjusting a couple of screw to rectify the situation. It was soon apparent that we didn’t have a bloody clue what we were doing and just ripped the air filter off to see how that went. This not only increased the power by up to about 15%, it also turned our whining tin can into beast mode, we were sounding more like a Royal Enfield and the machine grew a solid pair of balls… the grim pooper was in tune and the drive got a whole lot more comfortable. As I toyed around in the back cleaning the filter and playing around with the cover, I soon discovered a grommet in the drain and with a quick modification, we slapped the filter back on and still had power to boot. Life was good.
Midway through the day we had made it up to the Zing-zing bar. If nothing else, it has an awesome name and with Don ridding himself of his Bum of Anarchy, we settled in for a warm drink and a bite to eat. At 4270 meters (14010ft), it was really starting to get cold. As we had a late start, it was apparent that we needed to give it another push to gain some more ground and with that, we headed up across the Baralacha La Pass, a mega 5030 meters (16500ft) above sea level and the highest any of us had ever been on land. Fortunately, it takes a while to get to these heights so acclimatisation isn’t such a problem, and when at the top, we headed down to about 4300 meters which makes things a whole lot more bearable. Just before the night’s destination (Sarchu), we saw a couple more rickshaws parked up and flagging us in to a permanent tent campground, we stopped for a chat.
Fortunately the saffas, Brock and Carl along with the poms Ben and Charlie, had managed to set up a suitable deal with the owners and negotiated some awesome digs for the night along with a fire to boot. With 4 rickshaws in this incredible land, it was impossible to not be overwhelmed and excited, it was time to party! Not long after we had arrived, we saw another 2 rickshaws which we hadn’t seen since opening day turn up. The amazing teams of the Kenyan/Bulgarian adventurists (Jessie, Tania and Mila) in the ‘Stealth Snail’ along with Kye and Don of King Tut Tuk drove on in and 8 people turned into 13 and the booze started to pour. With an amazing backdrop, a fire and a bunch of some of the world’s best people in tow, life couldn’t get much better. The Bums pulled out their 2 liters of duty free rum, others pulled out the copious amounts of wild whacky weed the area had to offer and with that, everyone was lit up and rocked the night away. The special person award for the night definitely went to the kiwis Ed the Stayer for his Stephen Hawkins antics, and everyone went to bed with a smile on their face and memories of a lifetime imprinted in their minds.
Day 5 : Sarchu to Tso Kar Lake
Seeing as it only takes a few drinks to feel a buzz at altitude, waking up hungover isn’t such a problem, either it’s that or you can’t ascertain between a hangover and altitude sickness. It’s far easier to blame the latter. Today, after another hot tip from a seasoned bike rider, we were headed to the inland lake of Tso Kar. First we would need to climb to new heights through the Gata Loops a series of 22 hairpin bends stretching forever onward and upwards. We passed our air intake tips onto the other teams and had amazing feedback as today wasn’t the day to cough and sputter up a 500 meter elevation rise. From the picturesque Gata Loops we headed over the Nakee La pass (4739m) and eventually onto another loftier height of Lachulung La pass at 5065meters (16616 ft).
Spending most of the day with 3 other teams makes the time pass by quite quickly with impromptu races, gags and smiles and laughs a plenty. Taking many photo and tea stops along the way, the day seemed to buzz by which was somewhat causing turmoil to the mind. As mentally and physically exhausting as the trip had been, we were nearing the end of the maiden pioneer run and it felt as if we were just finding our groove. Don was getting better, the rickshaw was performing wonders and we were creating everlasting friendships – I didn’t want it to end! As the day turned to late afternoon we had found a goat track leading toward Lake Tso Kar. The roads leading towards the lake reminded me a lot of the Mongolian Steppe with many winding dirt tracks heading in the same general direction with you choosing your path at your own risk. Unfortunately, we seemed to be heading on the wrong path so Don tried to cut through and make his own track which led us to being heavily bogged, fortunately Ben and Charlie saw our predicament and helped us out with a push – and then we turned around and got bogged again but luckily got ourselves out for the second time.
Tso Kar lies at about 4660 meters (15280ft) and is known as the ‘White Lake’ due to it being salt and having salt deposits lying around its shores. The lake is towered by mountains all around its edges making for again, breathtaking scenery. With another gem of a camp being found (largely due to a Kiwi recce mission and some helpful 2 way radio action), we found ourselves spoiled with a restaurant with walls and warmth. A celebratory bottle of port was shared and we enjoyed the last night in the wild with the same 5 other teams as the night before.
Day 6 : Tso Kar Lake to Leh - The finish Line!
The kiwis’ Lisa had been a bit crook the same night (after a large bump to the head from the rickshaws roof on the ever bouncy roads) and in the morning she was ready to take off as soon as we had woken. Leaving the other teams behind to eat breakfast, we forged on with our convoy and headed towards our finish line Leh, but not before rising upward to our highest pinnacle of the trip at 5,328 meters (17,480 ft) elevation, the Tanglang La Pass. Things were starting the get extremely cold at this altitude and the elevation was on par with the Everest Base Camp. With myself dressed in a Turkey suit and Don in a reindeer suit, we were quite ill prepared for the weather but having no option, we streamed on uphill. Reaching the summit was a brilliant feeling and a previously fabricated Bums of Anarchy flag was planted as a mark of our achievements.
As with most of the trip, we were held up with getting our pictures taken with complete strangers and at the top we met up with a couple of other teams consisting of the charming pommies Caroline and Stew along with the Canadian Kids, Lee and Mardy. Being elated with our reunification with these stellar characters, we were given the word that Alan, Lee, Fiona and Emily of the Scottie Hotties were ahead. This didn’t sit well with the kiwis whom were looking to pip them at the finish post and as we said our goodbyes, we vowed we would drive like the wind. Coming down from 5300 meters we were greeted with not only snowfall and icicle bearing freezing weather, we were also met with some of the best driving conditions imaginable. Long winding tarmacked roads stretching downhill through valleys of purple and brown rock formations along the Indus river valley made for one of the most fascinating drives of my life. This along with some hair raising driving kept us in good pace and as we swept along, we saw the Scotties on the roadside eating breakfast. We hooted and waved them goodbye enthusiastically and pumped on toward the finish line. Later we were to find out that Alan of the Scotties had finished first in his last 2 Rickshaw runs but this time it wasn’t to be the case as we coasted on through to Leh with the kiwis in tow. It had never been our aim to make it into a race, but coming into the last day, it was more the banter and fun that saw us take on the challenge. Pulling into the Ladakh Residency Hotel it was to be the kiwis and ourselves who would fittingly cross the line together, I guess being the first people in the world to have ever driven a rickshaw from Shimla to Leh through the unforgiving but beautiful Spiti Valley.
I cannot thank the Adventurists enough for allowing us the privilege of participating in the Himalayan Pioneer Rickshaw Run. To the amazing teams that were also afforded the opportunity, you all made it more than was ever imaginable. There were times in the days where I seriously thought of rolling the rickshaw off a cliff and walking home. There were times that tested the bond of me and my team mate, the newly badged enforcer Donovan. We found some new charter associates and lifelong friends in the form of the Kiwis Lisa and Ed. Looking back now, I can only laugh and smile to myself about the times we had and the predicaments we found ourselves in. Would I do it again? Asking me the same question during the run I wouldn’t have hesitated to tell you to piss right off, but on reflection, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Hell yes!!
Again, a huge thank you to the Adventurists, especially Aneurin and Mr Matt Dickens, much respect to you both on what is sure to be another successful adventure for years to come. To the teams we worked with and even the ones we didn’t run with along the road, I would happily adventure with you all again, you made it what it was! Much respect to our prospect turned Enforcer Donovan, I couldn’t have done it without all your help. Most importantly we raised our target for our charities Cool Earth and The Indigenous Literacy Foundation with a massive help from Don and his local Darwin community. Thank you to Green Cane who donated the funds to help with our graphics created by the talented Matty Taylor but most importantly thank you to you, the readers for showing us support and affording us the opportunity to help this wonderful planet out with your donations and time.
Cheers from the bottom of my heart, Alan Morgan, El Presidente of the Bums of Anarchy!