“The organisers give you a short driving course at the beginning of the trip, show you some basic maintenance tasks and warn you about altitude sickness, but then you’re on your own,” says John Stokes. “We soon learned to take corners carefully because tipping over is a risk. Fortunately the rickshaw is light so you can drag it upright easily enough.”
Meanwhile, Dickens reckons that after Manali, the 85-mile-long Spiti Valley road is easily the toughest he’s driven anywhere in the world and everything you might imagine a Himalayan ‘highway’ to be: narrow, steep and occasionally almost impassable thanks to landslides and crossed by rivers of snow melt.
“The Kunzum Pass is the highest point,” he says. “The switchbacks are steep and tight and there are signs everywhere warning drivers to be careful.”
Many of the extreme sections along the Himalaya run from Leh to Shimla are closed for much of the year due to snow and ice, but they open briefly from May to September. Encountering crews from the Border Roads Organisation tirelessly repairing the highway is common, but much of their maintenance work is undone during the cold months.
A rickshaw sounds like a thoroughly unsuitable vehicle for such conditions (which, of course, is the point). Stokes recalls meeting locals along the way who claimed never to have seen one. However, he also says the only time his team was stopped in its tracks was when they encountered deep sand and struggled increasingly desperately to free their bogged-down vehicle. In comparison to that, pushing it through 18in of rushing snow melt later on in the drive was a doddle.
“Forget cruising along and admiring the scenery and instead prepare to spend most of your time in first gear if you’re lucky, or pushing your rickshaw if you aren’t,” he says. “And if someone’s selling petrol at the roadside, first check it’s not sunflower oil and then buy it, because you don’t know when you’ll find you next top-up.”
Dickens is unrepentant.
“The idea is that if people get stuck, they sort themselves out,” he says. “If that means asking for the help of locals, then so much the better, since the trip is about interacting with the communities you meet along the way.”
That interaction can extend to bunking down in a stranger’s house or negotiating your way into one of the nomadic-style encampments along the route at some ungodly hour. However, as Stokes discovered on the night following his near-death experience, it might also mean breaking into the nearest hut.