Travellers braving heat and dust on the Indian passage: Derick Allsop reports from Jodhpur, where the drivers in the London-Sydney Marathon had a palace for a pit-stop

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THE ultimate incongruity beckoned the bedraggled travellers from on high as they swept through the dusty chaotic streets of this city. The final turn took them from one world to another, into the grounds of the maharaja's palace.

The opulence of the overnight halt, the welcoming garlands and the banquet were at odds with life out on the road, but then this is India and this had been another fulfilling if exhausting day for the adventurers of the Lombard London- Sydney Marathon. The humble existence of the vast majority in this country may prick the conscience, yet this cavalcade of classic cars, is, in its small way, embracing the people in international sport.

That at least is the impression you have witnessing the scenes enacted along the 400-mile journey from Delhi to Jodhpur. In every village, in the remotest corners of that arid landscape, onlookers gathered to wave and cheer as the battered old cars passed through. Where the drivers stopped for drink or fuel, they were surrounded by curious, wide-eyed innocents of all ages.

As officious police tried to force a crowd back from one car, the driver insisted they be left to explore at close quarters his mysterious contraption. Another drew yells of laughter from the locals as the speakers on his appropriately coloured Holden blasted out Yellow Submarine.

In an age of super-rich and increasingly remote superstars, this jaunt towards the bottom of the world represents an acceptable face of sport. If the competitors are willing to give, then they are receiving with interest. All had tales of extraordinary generosity, both here and on the first sector, across Europe. Volunteers have helped drivers and co-drivers recover and rebuild their stricken cars. In desperate parts of the former Eastern bloc, the people have put together food parcels for the competitors.

Such experiences have fortified the enthusiasm of the crews who are, by necessity, incurable pioneers anyway. Their spirit, their determination to keep cars at least 25 years old in the rally and, above all, their sense of fun have carried all but five of the original 106 starters half-way along the 10,000-mile trek.

Yesterday the heat of Rajasthan was not quite as oppressive as that around Delhi the previous day. The temperature hovered around a mere 40C. Competitors wrapped wet towels around their heads and feet. And they drank constantly. The combination of heat and delicate stomachs is, however, proving good for the figure. Many have lost several pounds, or even stones.

There is, though, a serious side to this as all rallies. At the sharp end it is competitive and, for anyone involved, there are inherent dangers. All were reminded of this when the Australian, Brian Ginger, crashed head on into a minibus in Turkey and was killed, and again here in India, where a child died after being knocked over by a competitor.

Francis Tuthill, the 46-year-old British driver who leads the marathon, said: 'You all feel very sad when something like that happens. We all know it can happen and when it does it makes us doubly careful. That's why I'm driving slowly on the road sections here.'

Tuthill is partnered by his long- time friend, Anthony Showell, in a 1966 Porsche 911, which has been painstakingly built to endure this ordeal at a cost of pounds 40,000. Add to that the entry fee of pounds 14,000 and other expenses and you are likely to have little change out of pounds 60,000.

The pair entered a similar event in 1977 and, having convinced themselves they deserved 'a few days off and a change of scenery', planned a more concerted effort this time. Tuthill said: 'I secretly knew we were in with a chance, but if we fail I am mentally prepared for that, too.

'People may see a lot of old codgers and cars here but it's so competitive. But at the same time a lot of goodwill has been generated between the competitors, helping each other out, even working into the night to get cars fixed, and between the competitors and the locals. I also think everyone is coming out of this with a better understanding of the world.'

But then quite what this part of the world makes of the Australian ex-pat in the bowler hat, the driver with a kitchen sink on his roof, the gran using a car rug as a canopy and, of course, the Yellow Submarine, we can only speculate.