Some journeys can never be repeated.
The convergence of opportunity, willingness and a whole heap of political considerations make attempting to replicate them a fool’s errand – like spinning the roulette wheel and hoping it’ll land on 32 again.
Others, however, can call out to adventure-seekers for decades, just waiting for a group audacious enough to step up to the table and give it another spin.
This is very much the second kind.
The First Overland
The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (or, the First Overland) was a 1955-56 Land Rover Series I journey from the UK to Singapore by an intrepid group of students including Tim Slessor – who would go on to become a documentary filmmaker and travel presenter for the BBC.
Decades later, one of the original two Land Rovers – battered, rusting and (almost) forgotten – would be rediscovered on the mid-Atlantic island nation of Saint Helena.
‘Oxford,’ as it was known, was fixed up, shipped back to Singapore and a new team of eight adventurers assembled, ready to get behind the wheel and complete the journey one last time.
But this time in reverse.
The Last Overland
The team set off from Singapore on August 25, 2019, aiming to cross 23 countries, overcome more than 21,000km of hard driving and arrive back in London some three-and-a-half months later.
Although Tim – at the ripe old age of 87 – had been eager to resume his position as a full team member, unexpected health problems forced his grandson, Nat George, to step in as a last-minute replacement.
battleface spoke to Last Overland expedition leader Alex Bescoby about the team’s amazing experiences on the road.
What was route planning like for the trip? The original route went through Syria and Afghanistan. It must have been a bit of a lesson in geopolitics figuring out how you were going to weave your way through some parts of the world.
It certainly was! One of the main motivations behind this journey was to understand how much the world had changed geopolitically since the First Overlanders made this journey in 1955/6. While Tim and co. had waterskied in Lebanon, went sightseeing in Syria and camping in Afghanistan, much of the Middle East was off the map for us, for security reasons.
We had planned to follow the First Overland route across Iran until just a few weeks before departing, but the rapidly escalating tensions between the US and Iran (which would peak in the killing of General Soleimani) made our crossing a real liability, particularly as one of our number was American (David Israeli). We were all sad not to be able to drive through, instead having to hop across the Caspian Sea. But as ever, with change comes opportunity.
We were able to plan a route through China, Central Asia and Eastern Europe that would have been impossible in 1955/6, as the Cold War ramped up and the Iron Curtain came down. Oxford was able to drive in countries that would have been unthinkable for Brits to cross in the 1950s (e.g. China, Georgia), or didn’t even exist as independent entities (e.g. Turkmenistan, Serbia.)
The world has changed dramatically in 64 years, but in one major sense it remains the same – the warmth of the welcome we received in each country we passed through was similar to that awaiting the First Overlanders, and it stood as a good reminder that while governments can periodically fall out with each other, down at the ground level it’s all about people-to-people relationships.
You clearly had a few hairy moments with precarious mountain roads, terrible drivers, local tensions and more. Do any stick out as particularly memorable?
Getting stuck in the middle of an escalating tribal conflict in Nagaland, northeast India, was certainly one of the stand out moments where we didn’t know quite how we’d escape unharmed. On the road from Imphal to Kohima, we were flagged down by incensed villagers who had just had a large portion of their village burned down by a neighbouring Naga tribe. The Nagas are historically notorious for headhunting, so they’re not the ideal people to meet when they’re in a bad mood.
We were held for hours as a bargaining chip, as the village elders tried to get the local authorities to punish the perpetrators. As we were sat in the middle of the roadblock more and more firearms began to appear in the growing crowd, and we began to suspect a firefight would break out.
Luckily, local religious leaders intervened to calm the situation down, and we were allowed to slip away before the situation spiralled out of control.
battleface provided insurance for you and your team for the trip, but what other precautions did you take to stay safe? Advanced driving courses? Any tech that came in particularly useful?
Before we left, the focus was on two things. Firstly, making sure we were as well-informed about the challenges ahead as we could be, and were equipped to face them, and, secondly, making sure we had the right support network around us in case something major went wrong.
Before we set off Marcus Allender, our Expedition Manager, went on a special Hostile Environment Awareness Training course provided by our security partners AKE Group. He was prepped to assess and manage a whole host of predictable risks we would face, whether medical, mechanical or political. This training really paid off, as Marcus was able to embed this thinking across the whole team. AKE were in daily contact with the team, morning and night, so we always knew if something major went wrong, we’d have our home team mobilise within hours.
We were also blessed with technology the First Overlanders could never have imagined! As well as Google Maps and mobile routers so we didn’t lose our way or lose contact with home, we also had GPS trackers fitted with SOS beacons, so had anything seriously bad happened we would’ve been easily locatable.
Thankfully due to a healthy balance of preparation and good luck, we all came home in one piece!
It must have been a real blow for Tim Slessor not to be able to do the journey. But it was certainly fitting for his grandson to take his place. How did that come about?
It was a huge blow to all of us when, on the morning of the Flag Off in Singapore, Tim was rushed to hospital with a serious pulmonary infection. He was the talisman around which the whole expedition had been built, so to lose him quite literally on the start line was a shock. However, having Nat George – Tim’s 21-year-old grandson – step up to take his Grandpa’s place was a wonderful twist.
I don’t think Nat really knew what he was signing himself up for (then again, neither did most of the team, who were taking on their first overland journey!) But Nat was cut from the same adventurous cloth as his legendary Grandpa, and became an indispensable member of the team. He quickly stepped up to be Assistant Mechanic, Assistant Producer, Assistant Cameraman and all round good egg. (His music’s a but suspect, though)
It was also very special for so many of the First Overland fans we met on the way to have that very personal link to Tim, via Nat. I think Nat in turn now fully appreciates just how famous his old Grandpa really is!
You’ve read Tim’s book on his adventure, The First Overland. In your opinion, which team had the most difficult journey, the First or Last Overland?
What a good question! I’d have to take my hat off to the First Overlanders here. They were the first to make this journey, quite literally carving out the road to Singapore. They did it in a world without the internet, mobile phones, GPS, and advanced emergency healthcare! It was an iconic and at times very risky venture, which is why we’re still talking about it today.
That being said, the Last Overlanders were still put through the wringer on our journey 64 years later. The distance between Singapore and London is still exactly the same, and driving for 111 days through some of the highest, hardest and most dangerous roads on Earth certainly takes its toll on mind and body.
But we had creature comforts (Netflix, Spotify, a portable fridge) the First Overland boys couldn’t have dreamed of, or possibly would never have dreamed of taking! Like Pat Murphy, one of the First Overlanders, told us when he helped us pack the cars in Singapore: ‘First rule of packing – get rid of half!’
111 days on the road in a 1955 Land Rover must have been challenging at times. Did it give you a new appreciation for power steering, air-con and all the high-tech conveniences of modern-day motoring?
Very much so! If we hadn’t done this journey in the original Oxford Land Rover, I don’t think we could have looked the First Overlanders in the eye. Driving Oxford for 21,000km – with no power steering, air-con, modern suspension – gives you a real understanding of the achievement their journey was. It also gives you a headache, a sore back and big arm muscles!
But if you asked any member of the team “Which car was your favourite to drive?”, you would have had a unanimous answer – Oxford. Being in that car makes any drive an unforgettable adventure. You feel every mile, you’re truly present in every moment of the journey, in a way that all the mod-cons can insulate you from. The only mod-con I couldn’t truly live without was a decent set of speakers!
It must have been amazing to cross that finish line. But as with the end of many journeys, was it bittersweet having to return to ‘normal’ life after such an adventure?
Yes, it really was. As we prepare for the TV series and book, we’ve been going back through the footage and photos from that moment. Sometimes it feels like a dream, like it happened to someone else. I still don’t think I’ve fully adjusted to life off the road.
I have a burning desire to get back behind the wheel, and I’ve been on a few long journeys in the UK and Europe since the start of the year. It’s amazing how a journey of eight or nine hours can now feel like a normal trip to the shops, and my mind is at peace when I’m on the road with a purpose.
I think The Last Overland has changed me forever, and I can see why the First Overlanders are still talking about it six decades later! Fear not though, even in these strange times of coronavirus we’re planning our next great adventure for when we can hit the road again!
All images ©Nat George firstname.lastname@example.org