Motorcycles (Okadas) and Motorized Rickshaws (Bajaji, Tuk-Tuk, Ke-Ke)

I’ve been traveling in areas of Africa with only intermittent Internet and power.  I’m back & jet-lagged, so here’s another post.

Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Charley Boorman (Mordred in Excalibur) have gone on two great motorcycle adventures. In Long Way Round, they start in London and motorcycle eastward across Europe, Asia, and North America, ending in New York. In Long Way Down, they bike from John o’ Groats, the northern tip of Scotland, to Cape Town, South Africa.

Ewan and Charley ride huge 500lb BMW motorcycles that are suitable for, well, driving across a continent. The continent of Africa is awash with much cheaper and smaller East Asian import motorcycles, which are one of the most popular modes of transport.

Okadas, or motorcycle taxis, are an easy business for an aspiring young man to get into. They are not hampered by poorly maintained rural roads, and can weave through crowded urban streets. They are just as “cool” in Africa as they are in America.

Unfortunately, these bikes are notoriously dangerous. Africa has a massive casualty rate from road accidents, and most involve motorcycles. The average number of riders on a bike is at least two, and it is not uncommon to see four people on a bike, including infants. Goats, chickens, firewood, sugar cane, 50lb bales of grain, and virtually anything else is frequently transported on motorcycles.

There is a safer alternative, though. In recent years, motorized rickshaws are increasingly being pushed by urban authorities as a replacement. In Nigeria, when northern towns banned motorcycles for security reasons, they saw a huge drop in traffic fatalities.

The motorized rickshaw has a dozen different names: Autorick, Baby Taxi, Bajaj or Bajaji, Ke-Ke, Lapa, Mototaxi, Rick, Samosa, Taxi, Three-wheeler, Tricycle, Trishaw, Tuk-Tuk. All refer to the same basic vehicle. Most are produced by the Indian Bajaji company.

The rickshaw is a three-wheeled vehicle with a driver up front and room for two comfortably or three or four packed on top of each other behind. They have a small engine and can go fifteen or twenty miles per hour, which is similar in speed to what a car actually gets over rough roads or in traffic. Like an African motorcycle, the motorized rickshaw’s complexity is low and people are able to mechanically repair them with little training.

The rickshaw has a thin sheet-metal skin, which still provides far more protection than a motorcycle. I have seen a few in fender-benders, but I’ve never seen one turned over. During rain, passengers get wet unless the taxi has a plastic cover over the windows. Most do, but it is often ripped.

While they may not be as “cool” as a motorcycle, motorized rickshaws are surprisingly fun! With the wind whipping through your hair, it seems like you’re going far faster than you really are. You haven’t lived until you’ve raced rickshaws at night through the streets of Dar es Salaam.

Do yourself a favor, and in Africa, leave the motorcycles to the Jedis.