Tuk to the Road Charity ride
First published 22nd May, 2006
Did you know that to drive a car into the Czech Republic you need to have a warning triangle, a fluorescent jacket, a spare set of glasses (if you wear them), a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher and a replacement bulb for every light in the vehicle? I didn't and nor did Jo Huxster and Antonia (Ants) Bolingbroke-Kent of Tuk to the Road. For Jo and Ants, two British 27 year-old women from Brighton and Norfolk these are the vital snippets of intelligence they've been collecting this year in preparation for a 10,000 mile epic trip from Bangkok to Brighton raising money for the UK mental health outfit Mind... oh and did I mention they're doing it in a bright pink tuk tuk called Ting Tong?
It would be fair to say I've spent more than my fair share of time in a tuk tuk, but the idea of spending almost three months, 10,000 miles and a dozen countries in a pulsating buzsaw-powered tuk tuk, struck me as being totally batty. So when I heard they were looking for more sponsors, I (or rather Travelfish) thought why not -- it's a terrific idea, for a great cause and after all who ever heard of a pink tuk tuk called Ting Tong.
So that's how I found myself one grimy Bangkok morning in Jo and Ants company at a Bangkok tuk tuk factory seemingly half way to Cambodia. Expertise is the brainchild of Anuwat Yuteeraprapa, whose family has been in the tuk tuk business for over four decades, exports around 90% of their tuk tuks around the world. A fast talking and excitable man, Anuwat dancing around Ting Tong's skeleton, explaining how his craftsmanship is going to get the two girls safely to the UK. A car (and tuk tuk) racing enthusiast, Anuwat is not shy about claiming to be the best in the business (Thailand has four main tuk tuk producers) "The others, they're just businessmen" he says. "But me, I really care about what we make -- it is my, and my family's name." When I question him about the length of the trip, he looks at me with a glint in his eyes and raises two fingers. "Two of my tuk tuks have made it. All the way to Europe. It is possible. Absolutely 100%" he smiles.
This is the first time Ants and Jo have come face to face with Ting Tong and while they're a little let down that it isn't complete, this setback quickly becomes an advantage under Anuwat's guiding hands, as some last-minute tailoring comes into play. One of the first challenges is organising a bigger lock box -- as they'll be travelling with a laptop, satellite modem and various other technological bits and bobs, the originally planned lock box is too small. Anuwat is quick to suggest a multitude of solutions -- here there, bigger, flatter, wider, taller -- we could move the battery, change the speaker size, what about over there -- and what about colour?-- should the box be pink too?
We spend a good two hours at the factory dithering and dathering, going through colour swatches -- should the roof be blue or pink -- I foolishly suggest red but it's quickly pointed out to me that red clashes with pink -- now why didn't I know that? Other pressing issues include speaker location and how to manage the sounds system (Anuwat was banking on a CD player, but Jo and Ants were thinking iPod) but overall things appear to be on the right track, and, despite my initial concerns, a bright pink tuk tuk looks pretty cool.
After leaving Anuwat's workers to get on with the job, we relax in Vientiane Kitchen, a northeastern Thai restaurant in Bangkok, where Jo and Ants chat frankly about about their fears (not least of which is the fried frog curry on the menu) and their excitement about finally getting this epic journey underway.
Tuk tuks are best known for their buzz saw engine and ridiculous appearance rather than any modicum of security and both Jo and Ants are well aware of that -- "One of our main concerns is personal security", says Jo, "in stretches of Russia and the Ukraine we'll need to be particularly careful, but the further west we go personal security becomes less of an issue, but theft can be a real problem."
One issue that is paramount in my mind but hardly seems an issue to Jo and Ants is the actual driving. While Ting Tong has been modified to be driven as a car rather than a tuk tuk, neither of them have more than 30 minutes tuk tuk driving experience -- "All up maybe one mile between us" says Jo, laughing, "and all that driving on a field".
This isn't to say they're not prepared -- aside from deciding what colour speed-stripes are needed for the seating (pink and blue was the final decision) most of the major decisions are already well behind them.
"We did a survival course run by military guys -- survival in the wilderness -- that kind of thing" says Jo, "at one stage Ants had to skin a rabbit but she's an avid vegetarian -- watching her do it made me cry."
When not busy skinning rabbits, Ants got down to brushing up on her Russian. "I'd studied it at school, and so decided to do some refresher courses online via Skype with a teacher in Finland. At 35 quid per hour it wasn't cheap, but I think when we're dealing with border guards and officials we'll see the real value."
During the planning stages, Antonia looked after managing the media and travel planning through the Russian and European legs, while Jo looked after sorting out a tuk tuk long distance (we'd like a pink one please) along with the planning of the Asian leg of the journey including the complicated paper-trail that follows them through China.
"China was difficult, but once we got the right person to talk to it mainly came down to the money -- the cost is on a per province, per day basis, so the longer we stayed in China the more it would cost. Partly as a result we've budgetted to do over 300 miles in one of the worse days." With a comfortable cruising speed of perhaps 50mph, that makes for a long day in a tuk tuk.
"We ended up with a strict day by day itinerary, along with a minder who will ride with us in the tuk tuk for the full stretch of the China leg" says Ants, "all this came for a mere US$9,600 -- a seemingly absurdly high amount when you consider the whole purpose of the trip is to raise money for charity."
I guess those Chinese number plates they'll be needing don't come cheap.
We talk of how they're harnessing modern technology and the results so far have been a pretty mixed bag. For example, the Traveller's Simcard performs so badly they use my mobile phone for calls, and, by the next day have bought a local prepaid Thai simcard. They've also had problems with the satellite modem, which was planned for updating their blog during the trip, at least for the Thai leg they'll have no problems as internet cafes are as common as somtam sellers, but further along the way, this could be a serious problem.
On the other hand, some technology -- particularly the internet -- has been an absolutely indispensable research tool. Horizons Unlimited and GT-Rider, two primarily motorcycle travel focussed websites were packed with resources and helpful members. "I posted a question on one of the messageboards and I got back this amazing blow-by-blow answer that just went on for pages and pages" said Jo, "the support and assistance was really amazing".
Jo and Ants talk of the support and assistance they've received -- both from friends and family and people they've never met. Yet its now, in the final days before departure that it is finally just the two of them ... and Ting Tong. When I ask what have been their greatest challenges, Antonia's immediate response is "Getting BT to connect the internet to my house", while Jo says "well we're yet to come up against something we weren't able to solve between us".
It's this reply that stays with me as we up and leave the restaurant. It's one thing to say something is a great idea, but another completely to go and actually do it -- particularly when it involves driving a pink tuk tuk half way around the world. They're doing it for a terrific cause and if anyone was going to pull it off it is Jo and Antonia.
Tuk to the Road are underway with their fundraising, but there's a long way to go. We highly recommend you take a look at their site and consider making even the smallest donation -- and a year from now when you see a pink tuk tuk driving around Brighton you'll know you helped it get there.
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