"Just five minutes, sir!" It isn't the first time I've heard those words and I know it means my wait will not be a short one.

I am in a remote Indian village with my teammates Tom, Phil, Clare and Sofia, and one of the two auto-rickshaws we have been driving has decided to stop working. Luckily, Ahmad, a friendly mechanic, has appeared from seemingly nowhere to come to our rescue. With a big smile and the typical Indian head wobble, he listens to the strange noises emanating from the vehicle's engine and then disappears into his work shed.

We're less than a week into our mission to travel the length of India, from the tropical beaches of the south to the deserts of the north. Our vehicles, also known as tuk tuks, are each equipped with a seven-horsepower engine, a very fickle gear box, almost non-existent brakes and no lights worth mentioning; they are possibly the least suitable mode of transport for the 3,000km of potholed, dusty roads we have in front of us.

I HAD BEEN CONTEMPLATING exploring India - a country of vast diversity, natural beauty and exotic cultures - for a while, but had needed to find the right team.

Then in Hong Kong, six months ago, the team found itself: Phil, a Swiss media expert at a large bank; Tom, a British-Australian filmmaker and photographer; Clare, a Hong Kong Chinese language teacher; and Sofia, a logistics entrepreneur and journalist from Chile. Five nationalities, each with a differ-ent background and language, together we shared a passion for adventure and education.

Soon after, we were introduced to Indian charity Educate Girls, which campaigns to close the gender gap in education in the South Asian nation. More than three million girls in India have no access to schooling and, in rural areas, only one in 100 completes year 12 (aged 17). Schools in rural locations suffer from poor facilities and inadequate teaching, with The Economist magazine recently reporting that less than half of these pupils gain basic literacy skills after five years of schooling.

Our decision to explore India's education system, by visiting rural villages that are off the tourist track, was the seed from which Education Explorers was born.

AFTER MONTHS OFPREPARATION, with support from Cheng Chek Chee and Kei San secondary schools (they created the colourful designs for our rickshaws), the team finally arrive in India.

In Kochi - a bustling city in the state of Kerala, in India's southernmost tip - we take ownership of two auto-rickshaws that have seen far better days. One of the milometers indicates the tuk tuk has already clocked up more than 54,000km - not a promising start for our transport to the desert city of Jaisalmer, near the border with Pakistan. However, with some fresh paint, a few thick cushions and a small stereo, the vehicles, in which we will also sleep, are soon looking as good as new.

As we begin our journey, a Kochi rickshaw driver warns us, "Don't drive too fast, don't drive too far - the rickshaw will break down all the time."

So we probably should count ourselves lucky that it takes until the late afternoon of our second day for the inevitable to happen - a banging sound followed by some elaborate gestures by Tom means it is time to search for a mechanic.

As Ahmad runs off to find a part in his work shed, we set out to explore the area.

Immediately, we are surrounded by children and other curious locals. Clare gets chatting to Shanthi, a school teacher and organiser of a helpline that assists girls forced into child labour, and within minutes we are invited for tea, where we are given first-hand insights into how the school system works in southern India. Shanthi tells us of the pride she has for her district, where almost all the children have attended at least elementary school and literacy levels are high. However, she confirms that lots of girls leave school between the ages of 10 and 12, to get married or to work to help their families.

Back on the road, our adventure takes another unexpected turn - beach roads have turned into windy mountain roads, palm trees into jungle. Cruising down a steep lane, our rickshaw loses its way on a dangerous hairpin turn and goes straight into a stone wall. With no seatbelts or airbags, Tom and I are sent flying, but it is the tuk tuk that comes off worse - the windshield, axis and entire front end are broken. We convince a mechanic in a nearby village to repair it, but it will take a few days.

Sagar, in Karnataka - the huge state in southwest India - is a sleepy town and it takes a while to find accommodation. We decide to visit a local school and are welcomed with open arms and big smiles. Classes are stopped as hundreds of schoolchildren listen to our presentation, the highlight of which is a short geography lesson about our five home nations - we can't get enough of all those curious faces.

Forty-eight hours later, with both vehicles having been declared fit, we set off for Goa.

To make up the lost time, we decide to take the train to Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra, in west India.

"Sorry, sir, it is not possible to take rickshaws on the train."

The friendly but determined Indian Railways conductor, leaning over a thick bundle of forms, is emphasising this point for the 10th time. But Indian bureaucracy has clearly underestimated our persistence and, after more than two hours of sweet-talking, Phil and Tom have convinced the man to stamp the 20 forms required to load the vehicles.

But, to our horror, one of the tuk tuks won't fit through the train door. With two minutes to go until departure, it is still jammed in the doorway, its belly sticking out by more than a metre. Dozens of helpful locals start ripping off parts of the rickshaw to help squeeze it into the hold. Then, just as the train starts moving, with a long screeching sound, the rickshaw (or what's left of it) slides into the compartment.

Mumbai is India's commercial capital and largest city, a megalopolis of 30 million people and immense contrasts; here, corporate skyscrapers cast shadows over slums. Inconveniently, the train station is located within India's only rickshaw-free zone, with stiff penalties for those who bring tuk tuks into the area. We quickly sneak out of town, making our way through the dense throng of cars, motorbikes and people.

Happy to leave Mumbai, we head to north Maharashtra, where we meet up with Sunil, a social entrepreneur who has built India's largest online translator. He invites us to visit his education project, which is aimed at getting three to six year olds into school. We share our story with 500 children from the local college, who want to know why we are driving tuk tuks and what we have experienced in India.

We also meet members of local NGO iMAD, which encourages college students to teach teenagers English in their free time. Siddharth, one of iMADs co-founders, reiterates how hard it is for youngsters to get quality education and that most leave school without being able to speak basic English.

The roads are relentless - we pass into Gujarat, where increased infrastructure spending over the past 10 years has made for much better roads. However, this being the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we have been warned not to ask too many political questions. We manage to visit a few remote schools but our main aim now is reaching Rajasthan, the final leg of our journey.

Rajasthan is perhaps the most challenging state in terms of girls' education - here, more than 40 per cent of girls leave school before year 5 and 68 per cent are married before the legal age of 18. Rajasthan is also the main operating area of Educate Girls, the charity we are supporting and whose operations we want to visit.

We head to Udaipur, also known as the Venice of the East, where a breathtakingly elaborate palace complex surrounds a picturesque lake.

Sofia meets Mohamed, a local rickshaw driver who invites us to visit the 100 sq ft one-room hut he shares with his wife and seven children - six daughters and a son. It is in striking contrast to the lavish palaces we had been admiring just moments before.

Mohamed explains how his meagre income as a rickshaw driver means he can't afford to send his daughters to secondary school, but at least they haven't had to marry too young. His 16-year-old daughter tells us that almost all of her friends are now married with children. Mohamed has barely anything, but he and his family are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people we could wish to meet.

Frustratingly, with only 500km of our journey left, the rickshaws seem to be on their last legs. Interludes between mechanic visits become shorter and shorter.

"I think we need petrol," Sofia shouts from the driver's seat - even without a fuel-level indicator, by now we can hear and feel when the tank is nearly empty. All of our jerry cans are dry and we are still 15km from the next destination. At a snail's pace, we stutter along, trying to save as much fuel as possible.

With our last drop we make it into Sirohi, a small town in central Rajasthan and one of the district offices of Educate Girls.

In 2007, Educate Girls established a local volunteer group, Team Balika, to educate parents and the wider society in rural Rajasthan about why it is important to send girls to school. Many of these families remain very traditional, placing more importance on boys and regarding inequality as simply a way of life.

Meena's parents had taken her out of school aged 15 to get married. But her husband, a school teacher, had re-enrolled her - she now has a college degree and is a member of the Educate Girls team. She was one of the first volunteers and she manages more than 50 school-engagement projects.

THE FINAL FEW KILOMETRES seem to take forever - boring, straight desert roads, with only the odd wild camel to distract the eye. Then we finally spot Jaisalmer, the "Golden City" close to the border with Pakistan. The town's fairy tale-like fortress towers over the city on a huge sandstone rock.

As the sun sets over this imposing edifice, its towers shimmering in the fading light, I have time to reflect: it has been an amazing journey.

Our aim has not been to conduct a scientific study but to gain insight into India's people, culture and education challenges. While we have witnessed much poverty, we have also seen an abundance of hope and opportunity in a motivated and young generation, who want to change, to learn and move forward.

 

Educate Girls

Educate Girls is a non-profit organisation that aims to tackle the root causes of gender inequality in India's education system.

Founded in 2007, the NGO operates in seven districts of Rajasthan and has worked with more than 8,000 government schools, where the introduction of creative teaching techniques is believed to have increased education qualifications by up to 60 per cent. Educate Girls has helped return 80,000 girls to education.

The organisation employs five key strategies: using local volunteers to ensure girls from rural communities enrol in schools; holding village meetings to implement community-based enrolment plans; reforming school administration processes; initiating creative-learning programmes; and holding female leadership programmes, to foster empowerment .

For more information or to make a donation, go to www.educategirls.in.

 

Paul Niel is a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur and adventurer. Having worked for almost a decade at investment bank Goldman Sachs, he now focuses his time on social projects and expeditions. Education Explorers is producing a documentary about the team's Indian adventure. To view the trailer, type "Education Explorers in India" into YouTube.For more information or to make a donation, go to www.educationexplorers.org or www.facebook.com/educationexplorers.