The only thing I love more than an overland DIY project is an overland project on two- or three-wheels based on an unlikely vehicle. Call it my affinity for the underdog, but I’m all in for something as basic as a tuk-tuk going on overland and off-road adventures. Like those of Tuk South, a team of riders piloting two Piaggio rickshaws from Mount Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa.
The kind of adventures that Piaggio Apes — basically, commercial versions of Vespa scooters — were never meant to embark upon. I very much doubt Piaggio designed the 430cc Ape with the conditions of a nearly 4,000 mile off-road journey in mind. And yet, the tuk-tuks are out there raising funds for wildlife conservation, and for Kenyan rangers who fend off poachers.
The team credits local workers in Kenya who fitted one rickshaw with a roll cage made using basic hand tools. Other than a skid plate, seatbelts and seats from a junked car, the passenger Piaggio is not that different from stock models. Of course, there are tie downs and strap points to bring just over five gallons of extra gas and about 16 gallons of water. The team calls it the Sports tuk-tuk.
But the cargo rickshaw is the star; the team calls this one “Princess Buttercup:”
“She’s not designed to be doing the things that we make her do, and we have filled her with enough gear to make a car break, but she plods along. We took a lot of inspiration from American and Australian overlanding rigs and van builds and built a whole frame into the back. It’s got a side door and a kitchen table that pulls out with drawers, a sink for doing your washing, and a 200-watt solar system. Gas is piped into the thing. We’ve got a 6-inch wastewater pipe. It’s a weird s-bend shape, which we sealed on two ends with a bicycle nozzle coming out of one end. You fill it up with water and can pump it with a bicycle pump, and it gives you 20 liters of pressurized water to shower in and wash plates and bowls.
It’s great when you pitch up to places because they see this box tuk-tuk—they’re rare to see—and when you open it up in villages, they love the fact that you have all this tea gear rigged in. While chatting with rangers, you can have the kettle boiling in the background.”
Depending on terrain, the 8-horsepower Piaggios average a speed of 13 miles per hour on dirt roads. They average about 26 MPH over tarmac, and as they approach 37 MPH, the team says it feels like going warp speed. The tuk-tuks might rattle like they’re dying, but the riders say the journey is peaceful.
And the best part about going off-road is that both tuk-tuks are light enough to physically move if (when!) they get stuck, as the team explains:
We’ve loved tuk-tuks for a long time. When we were in Sri Lanka, Jasper and I rented one for a day. You could drive it up and down the roads; people generally put their surfboards on him and take them to the beach. We drove straight into the middle of a game park, where you’re not meant to go in tuk-tuks. There were buffalos, leopards, and elephants, and you had these giant safari cars going everywhere. And it was just me, Jasper, and this other guy in a tuk-tuk, driving around the safari park and having really good fun. And if it gets stuck, you can push it out because it weighs about 200 kilograms [440 pounds.]
The tuk-tuks are also very basic, lacking working speedometers. The riders use GPS apps on phones to track their speed, but claim it’s OK: speed is beside the point. The point is to connect with the environment, and encourage people to approach them. In that sense, the tuk-tuks are much more successful than any serious or purpose-built overland vehicle.
Motorcycles — or in this case, tuk-tuks — are best for being among one’s environment rather than secluded within it. The team says the idea brought them joy, and now they’re spreading it around the safari. They expect to finish in June, and are already planning another ride from Patagonia to Alaska.