“I’m not sure, but I think those guys might be human smugglers.”
You don’t expect to hear that sentence on a family camping trip, but we weren’t on just a normal camping trip. This occurred during a nine-month, 16,000-mile journey from London to Singapore, honoring the famous Far Eastern Overland Expedition of 1955.
My observation took place on a deserted stretch of beach on the western coast of Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus. We had recently taken a small ferry over from the Greek island of Chios, where we had seen lifejackets, stacked by the hundreds, on its beaches facing Turkey — a testament to how the Syrian refugees fleeing conflict had crossed the narrow channel. Smuggling gangs would bring the desperate Syrians to the coast in vans, just like the one we saw on our beach, driven by a trio of sketchy-looking young men making a half-hearted show of pretending to light a campfire without kindling, paper or matches.
We, too, traveled in a 1954 Series I, 86” Station Wagon, the same model used by the original Oxford and Cambridge expedition. While Tim Slessor, Anthony Brown, Nigel Newberry, Pat Murphy and Henry Nott had secured a then-new Land Rover, our Series I came as a mess of melted or missing wires, flat ties, broken windows, and with chickens roosting in the rear tub — what you might expect of a $300 Land Rover. We dragged it home and later bought a second 86”, a former Canadian fisheries vehicle. Scavenging parts between the two we managed to create a runner — which caught fire on its maiden run (yeah, fuses). The only improvement I made was to machine a 5/8” spacer for the rear hubs, allowing me to install Series IIA floating axles. Time constraints meant that little else could be accomplished, so we stuffed it into a shipping container, poured an ounce of gear oil on the ground while reciting an incantation to the Wilks brothers, and put it on a boat bound for England.
Our hurried departure meant that we experienced minor breakdowns — clogged filters, ignition adjustments and the like — most every day. This usually happened on the highway, so I felt it worth the risk to drive further down the sandy beach, to remove ourselves from the apparent smuggling operation. Even with our family of five and all our luggage, the little Rover floated atop the soft sand to a beautiful and remote stretch of beach. The lack of tracks or trash told us that most locals never visited this section of beach.
The original Far Eastern Overland Expedition (the official title) passed through Europe, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, Burma, and down the peninsula of Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. We wanted to retrace the original route, but with Syria in civil war, we chose to cross northern Turkey and enter Iran at Bazargan, close to Mount Ararat. A month in Iran changed our perceptions about that beautiful country and people. They kept telling us, “our government doesn’t represent us,” (ironically, what I’ve heard from 50% of fellow Americans.)
We’d always fantasized about recreating the famous London to Singapore journey, ever since meeting the original expedition members in Singapore on the 50th anniversary. Nine years later, with the 60th anniversary coming up, and the opening of the Myanmar border to overlanders, we renewed our commitment to replicate the expedition.
Our Series I not only enabled us to make this extraordinary trip, it also allowed us to meet so many wonderful people. We discovered years ago that Land Rover clubs attract generous and curious folks from every walk of life and background. As an example, when our Land Rover’s arrival was delayed a month by shipping issues, a random Facebook post resulted in a friend of a friend loaning us his Defender 110 for free for a month of touring around the UK. Needless to say, we’ve become fast friends!
Once our Series I actually arrived, our daily travels would often include another minor breakdown. The family would explore the town we were stranded in while I sourced/made parts, and then we would continue our trip. My wife Marianne actually mentioned at one point, “I’m so glad we didn’t restore the truck before we left. It’s so much cheaper to do it along the road.” At first, I thought she was being sarcastic, but then I realized she was serious. In North America, parts for 1950s Land Rovers are as scarce as experienced Series Land Rover mechanics in North America. In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, we had no problem finding parts and mechanical expertise; in fact, it seemed we had the most problems in the UK. Everywhere else it felt like an omnipotent Birmabright benefactor watched over our trip and smiled down at us. Or maybe it was just Facebook. We discovered that every country in the world apparently has a Land Rover club on Facebook. Even in Iran, where Facebook is banned, we found an active Iranian Land Rover club on Facebook.
Indeed, as we neared the end of our travels in one country, we would reach out to the Facebook Land Rover Owners groups for the next — letting them know we would soon enter and requesting a meet up. Inevitably, we found friendly and helpful Land Rover owners reaching out, offering to show us the sites to visit and camp, help us find parts, introduce us to their mechanics, and give us tips on the best places to sample local cuisine.
Take our Iranian compatriots as an example. They wined and dined us, helped us find a hotel when we needed one, took us to amazing places we would never have found on our own, and provided a goldmine of information to find parts for our Series I. Iran also had the greatest extremes of weather on our trip. When we entered the northern border, the temperatures dipped to as low as -18°C (0°F) in the evenings, but by the time we left Bandar Abbas on the South Coast, the hot desert environment made us glad we were there in December rather than the summer months (air conditioning in a Series I is dependent on opening the front vents and driving as fast as you dare).
Of course, the trip wasn’t all about breakdowns and mechanics; the Series I was temperamental, but it was also a wonderful choice for our journey and opened doors that would have remained closed if we were driving a more modern vehicle. Everywhere we went the little Series put a smile on the faces of the folks we ran into. Affluent people admired its quirkiness, and its charm and classlessness never intimidated the less affluent. We even had taxi-drivers and random strangers offer to share their food with us when they saw the condition of our vehicle.
The strangers we met, many of whom became friends, showed us their cities, their customs, and their homes. We learned to scuba dive while enjoying the hospitality of Thailand; our children enjoyed falcon-hunting and camel-riding on the ranch of a fellow Rover enthusiast in the UAE. Thanks to our new friends we swam in the blue waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. We had meals inside an Iranian family’s home — the women removing their headscarves and telling us funny stories of their children. We climbed temple steps in Myanmar, took a ferry across the chaotic Mumbai harbour, and watched the sunset from a Delhi rooftop. We camped in muddy fields in the UK, forested glades in France, in the deserts of Iran, and in the forests of Thailand. And a lot of these experiences happened because we didn’t have an itinerary. We barely had a plan or even a paper map. We just hopped in our truck in England, opened up Google maps on my iPhone, and asked Siri for directions to the ferry to France. This random and unplanned approach allowed us to detour, to follow friends, visit festivals, and spontaneously enjoy the sights and sounds of newly encountered cultures.
Yes, we had challenges, hiccups and heartaches, but when we set-off, we decided we wanted to have an adventure, and a true adventure means honestly not knowing if you will reach the end. We figured we had less than a 50% chance of success when we set off, but through the kindness of strangers and a willingness to trust them, we made it all the way to Singapore and then home, 16,000 miles and 9 months later.
Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. And so can anyone. So if you are thinking about taking a trip in your Land Rover, don’t worry. Just hop in and go, and enjoy the adventure along the way.