One of the best things about being British is that eccentricity is not just acceptable, it’s almost compulsory. It’s perfectly possible to run the London marathon dressed as a tampon or to sail across the Atlantic on a sofa and still be considered entirely sane and almost normal. I say “hoorah to that” and the more such activities the better though I’d really rather someone else does them so that I don’t have to. When I read that two young women had driven a bright pink tuk tuk (auto-rickshaw) overland from Bangkok to Brighton to raise money for charity, I knew that I would have to get a copy of their book and find out more. That book is Tuk Tuk to the Road: Two Girls, Three Wheels, 12,500 Miles by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and Jo Huxter.
Jo and Antonia (usually referred to as ‘Ants’) met at boarding school and were great friends. Jo had long struggled with self-harm and depression and after leaving school she had a succession of breakdowns which led to her spending several periods in mental hospitals. When she had recovered she came up with idea of making a mammoth journey to raise funds and awareness for the mental health charity ‘Mind’. She had been to Thailand on holiday and fallen in love with the ubiquitous little auto-rickshaws that plied their trade around the city. What if she were to go to Thailand, buy a tuk tuk and drive it back to England? It sounded crazy, and anyone who’s travelled even a short distance would tell you that it would be an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing to try. But we Brits are not so easily deterred. Jo wanted to do it and she wanted Ants to accompany her and so that’s exactly what they did, setting a new Guinness World Record for the longest journey ever undertaken by tuk tuk.
Tuk tuks are beasts of burden not beasts of comfort and a standard city tuk tuk wouldn’t have been up to the job. Most of these little street warriors are tiny, uncomfortable and have such small fuel tanks that they’d limit the range of the vehicle. They are little more than mopeds with a flimsy cage around them. A mile or two is the limit of normal comfort – not twelve and a half thousand miles.
Ting Tong the Tuk Tuk was named after the Thai bride played by Matt Lucas in Little Britain. She was a special build, modified in various ways to improve comfort and safety and to meet the legislation of countries she was to pass through. She was also painted bright pink. The Bangkok engineering firm who built her also taught the girls some basic maintenance and kitted them out with some of the most likely to be needed spare parts because it’s not like you can roll up to a garage in Kazakhstan and expect them to have a few bits in the back room.
The girls set off from Bangkok, spent a long time chugging slowly through China where they were banned from using the motorways, got to the border with Kazakhstan so late that they weren’t sure they’ll be allowed in, and then chugged along all the way through eastern and western Europe until they finally reach their destination in Brighton. Along the way they’re exposed to the odd bit of bureaucracy, frequently unfriendly hoteliers, some very ad hoc repairs to Ting Tong but more importantly they discover that people are people the world over and that nobody can resist a bright pink, funny looking vehicle, driven by two slightly bewildered young women. Lots of things that could have gone very badly wrong surprisingly work out fine. Places they expect to be horrible turn out to be beautiful (and occasionally vice versa) but wherever they go, they experience acts of kindness from strangers, most of them completely baffled by what the girls are trying to do.
I won’t lie to you and tell you that it’s the best written travelogue you’re ever going to read because it isn’t. The book mostly comprises extracts taken from the blog which the girls wrote whilst on the road and there are times when accounts do get rather ‘samey’ – well what can you expect when they’re spending day after day essentially doing the same thing. It is – at times – a bit like reading an overly long and chatty letter from two old friends but I think it’s forgivable. Nobody said you’ve got to qualify as great writers before you set off to do something crazy.
I enjoyed the photos of Ting Tong and the girls on their journey, found plenty to smile at and plenty to ponder on when reading the book but I also was reminded by the photos of just what an act of bravery this was, especially for Jo. Nobody is drawing attention to the hundreds of scars on her arms built up over years of self-harm, but they are clearly visible in many of the photographs and we can see that for long periods of her life, Jo Huxter must have struggled to just get through the day.As a testimony to the power of friendship and the strength of a shared vision, Tuk Tuk to the Road is a lovely book. As an account of a marathon journey taken in a crazy form of transportation, it’s an interesting but sometimes slightly over-long account which might have benefited from a little more editing. But if you want to be reminded of our national spirit of adventure mixed up with a healthy dose of eccentricity, it’s a great choice.
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