In 1955, six British students set out on an epic expedition in two Series I Land Rovers. The destination was Singapore and the prize was a place in history. One team member shares his best moments.
So why not? After all, no-one had done it before – though a few had tried. It would be one of the longest of all overland journeys: halfway round the world, from the English Channel to Singapore.
We knew that some earlier travellers had made it all the way to India. But no one had ever managed to go on from there. At Bombay or Calcutta, one had to take a ship. Nevertheless, maps (well, some of them) showed that a road had, once upon a time, been bulldozed through the jungle hills between India and northern Burma. But that was during the war and, in the 10 years since 1945, it seemed that the one-time strategic Ledo Road, nearly 200 miles of it, had been totally abandoned.
- Cambridge in the 1950s
- Bottom Left
- London in the 1950s
- Bottom Right
- Paris in the 1950s.
Further, given that those frontier hills have the heaviest rainfall in the world – more than 400 inches a year – it was probable that most of the road would have long been washed away. But so remote were those parts that no one really knew. In fact, our problems began much earlier than that: as undergraduates, we had no money, no cars, no nothing.
Like much else in 1950s Cambridge, the idea had its genesis late one evening over gas-ring coffee. I had gone along to Adrian Cowell’s room for a nightcap; presently he started dreaming – out loud. How about putting together an expedition to drive to Singapore? Crazy? Maybe. But why not? After all, no one else had done it. We could be the first. We got out an atlas. We roughed out a route. We guessed at mileages. We talked long into the night.
And that, more or less, was how the expedition was born. Over the next few months, our planning gave way to the business of swotting for our final exams. Nevertheless, even then, we knew that to have any chance, we would need to raise some serious financial steam… and a team... and two cars. And that was just for starters.
br> And that, more or less, was how the expedition was born. Over the next few months, our planning gave way to the business of swotting for our final exams. Nevertheless, even then, we knew that to have any chance, we would need to raise some serious financial steam… and a team... and two cars. And that was just for starters.
In fact, the team came together almost before we knew it. First aboard was our cameraman: Antony Barrington Brown (always known as BB). He had graduated a few years earlier, and he already ran his own photo studio. Next up was Henry Nott; as secretary of the University Motor Club, it was natural that he became the expedition’s mechanic. Then there was Pat Murphy; with excellent French, passable German and the prospect of a good Geography degree, he became our navigator and visa-negotiating diplomat.
We set about persuading the Rover Company that we were capable of pulling off a journey that was, according to some, quite impossible.
Now, first with a letter and then in a visit to Birmingham, he set about persuading the Rover Company that we were capable of pulling off a journey that was, according to some, quite impossible. But, as Adrian pointed out, if, against all the odds, we did make the first “overland to Singapore”, the publicity for Rover would be, well, considerable.
A few days later, Rover wrote to say that they understood the logic of Adrian’s proposal. Celebrations – and then some! So now, with the glistening promise of two specially equipped Land Rovers, the expedition was up and running. Well, sort of…
First, BB was despatched to convince the BBC that our journey would make good TV programmes. A young producer called David Attenborough was persuaded. He arranged a cash advance, some money for a wind-up camera and enough film to start us down the track. If all went well, more would follow. Then there was the possibility of a book; it was my job to chase after a publisher. I eventually landed a £300 advance.
With these key elements in place we next approached a whole range of possible sponsors: Dunlop for tyres, Mobil for petrol, Burroughs Wellcome for medicals, Coleman Quick-Lite for cookers, and more than 70 others – for everything from teabags to a tape recorder, whisky to an electric shaver.
An annual Water Festival is held in Burma, as well as Cambodia, Laos, China and Thailand
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
On 1 September 1955, we took off – literally. Silver Cities Airways, one of our sponsors, took some publicity photos and then flew us and our cars across the Channel. By the time we reached Paris we had become L’Expédition d’Oxford et Cambridge à l’Extrême Orient.
Two weeks later, we were in Istanbul. So far, so very good. Here, our cars were checked by the local Rover garage – before a six-minute ferry ride over the Bosphorus to the Asian shore.
On landing in Asia, the expedition got out its dark glasses and suncream, put on a floppy hat, and decided to wear its shirt outside its trousers. Now, rather than driving directly east across Turkey to Iran, we diverted south to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This was partly because BB wanted to photograph places like Ba’albek’s Temple of Jupiter, the long-deserted Roman city of Apamea, the Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers (thought by some to be the most perfect castle ever built), and the enormous water wheel at Homs (it had been turning, on and off, for nearly 2,000 years).
Then there were the sights of Beirut, Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad. (Yes, I agree: when one looks at those place-names from today’s perspective, one is reminded rather sharply that our route through the Middle East belonged to a totally different age). By the time we had driven across 500 miles of desert from Damascus to Baghdad, the expedition had been on the road for nearly two months.
Krak des Chevaliers, Syria
Now, after a brief pause to catch our breath, it was north through another frontier and over the mountains to Tehran. There, the local Rover agent welcomed us with the news that we were to demonstrate our vehicles to the Iranian army.
So, after a long afternoon of low-gear driving up and down near-impossible slopes (and taking a general for a spin), we were more than merely pleased when we heard that an order had been placed for 100 Land Rovers.
It was well over 1,000 lonely and mostly desert miles from Tehran to the border of Pakistan. Then, skirting the mountainous margins of southern Afghanistan, it was another 1,000 miles to Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital.
On arrival, an English-language newspaper heralded the expedition as: “A boat race on wheels”. Reporting on the sizeable winches on the front of each vehicle, it said that the expedition was equipped with “two very powerful wenches”.
Next stop: Delhi. Then down the famous Grand Trunk Road to Calcutta. This, we had always reckoned, was where the nursery slopes ended and the expedition really began. So now, for 10 days over Christmas, while kindly housed by Brooke Bond (the tea people, and another of our sponsors), we prepared for the Big Push.
Each vehicle was taken off for a thorough overhaul and a fresh set of heavy-duty tyres. The six of us had a range of vaccinations to boost the ones we had been given back in Cambridge.
We gathered an armoury of crowbars, picks, shovels and machetes. We put together a basic inventory of tinned foods to keep us going for a week if we should get stuck in the Burmese jungle.
We also found a small lake (on a golf course) where we practised techniques for fording rivers: “Take the fan-belt off, spray the electrics with a water-repellent, put only one vehicle in at a time, and keep the revs as high as possible.”
On several stretches of our way across Burma, we were given a police escort - against the possibility of ambush by insurgents.
Such was the state of the roads and the delays at umpteen river crossings, that the 1,000 miles from Calcutta to Ledo – the start of that wartime road – took us two weeks. Then, not too surprisingly, there seemed to be no formal (or even informal) frontier with Burma.
After a couple of hours driving up a steepening and ever-worsening jungle track, our Indian police escort (in old Jeeps) suddenly stopped and announced that this was as far as they were going. We said goodbye. Evidently, we were in Burma.
THE OLD LEDO ROAD
On that first day there were some problems: fallen logs had to be winched and crowbarred out of the way, boulder-strewn streams had to be forded, we had to use those machetes to hack aside the encroaching jungle.
But, amazingly, there was still just enough of the old Ledo Road left to allow progress. By evening, we had made 30 twisting miles. We camped in a light rain – elated. The next day was even better and at dusk, after another 60 miles, the jungle thinned and the track wound down to a small village. The locals were even more amazed than we were. They told us that the road would get better.
The fact was that, although we had certainly done our preparatory homework, we were also very lucky: while we had always planned to hit northern Burma in the driest month of the dry season, we later learnt that year’s dry season had been the driest for at least a decade. On the far side, in the undergrowth, was the rusting carcass of a Japanese two-man tank.
After all the problems that we had so long anticipated, the 270 miles and four days to Myitkyina, the most northerly town in Burma, were a delightful anticlimax. On several stretches of our way further across Burma, we were given a police escort – against the possibility of ambush by insurgents.
But our escort’s wartime vintage Jeeps kept spluttering to a halt. In helping with the repairs, our mechanics Henry and Nigel reckoned our guardians were at least as dependent on us as we were on them.
Onward, we crossed the sluggish Irrawaddy on a bridge and, later, we crossed the rushing Salween on a raft. Beyond were the hills and opium poppies of Kengtung. Here, in his tiny capital, the local Sawbwa (“Just call me Shorty”; he had been partly educated in Australia) welcomed us to afternoon tea and a bizarre game of cricket.
Even today, looking back across nearly 60 years, if anywhere on our long journey comes back to me as being an earthly, even heavenly, Shangri-La, it would have to be Kengtung. In just a few days (yes, I know that it is a cliché), we fell in love with the place.
- Temple of Jupiter, Lebanon
- The deserted city of Apamea, Syria
Then another police escort took us 100 miles south to the Thai border where, after yet one more up-to-the-wheel-arches river, we splashed ashore to our 13th country.
We had been five months on (and sometimes off) the road. Bangkok, 600 miles further south, was now our destination. It was raining and, in our hurry to keep to a self-imposed schedule, we skidded one of our cars onto its side. Nearby, a local bus lay immobile in a ditch. We helped them; they helped us. Then we hurried on. On arriving in the capital a day later, our priority was to ask about the one remaining barrier: a rumoured 100-mile roadless gap to the south, just short of the Malayan border.
Paradoxically, while there was no road (and never had been), the map showed a railway line. So maybe (at, say, 10 or 15 miles a day?) we would have to bump along over the sleepers – having first checked the railway timetable. Alternatively, also on the map, there was a wriggling line marked, Elephant Path. Once again, it seemed that the gods who look after Land Rovers and All Those who Travel in Them were listening to our prayers.
An attaché at the American embassy got in touch. A few weeks earlier, while in southern Thailand, he had learnt that some bulldozers were grading and widening that elephant track – so that surveyors could plot the line of a future highway. Maybe the bulldozers would have finished their work…
Once again, it seemed that the gods who look after Land Rovers and All Those who Travel in Them were listening to our prayers.
And so it turned out; in one very long day, we made it across the gap. The damage? Two fractured shock absorbers, a grumbling rear-wheel bearing, a broken spring and a big dent in one of Oxford’s doors. But there were no dents in our euphoria.
With only 700 miles to go, and good roads nearly all the way, nothing could stop us. Accordingly, the next morning we waited while, on the back door of each Land Rover, BB painted a sign in bold capitals: “London to Singapore First Overland”. He had been quietly carrying the paint and a brush since Cambridge.
A few days later, we crossed the famous causeway that led from Malaya to the island of Singapore. It was a moment that we had talked about since long before we had even started – since, in fact, that evening of gas-ring coffee. Now, at last, we were almost there… six months, six days and nearly 16,000 miles.
They gave us a motorcycle escort over the last few miles to the Rover showroom on Orchard Road. As we pulled in and switched off, they clapped and cheered, they opened the champagne, flash bulbs popped, cameras whirred, reporters buzzed about.
The two Land Rovers, in Burma
We were the centre of attention. Immodestly, we enjoyed every moment. After all, with the help of hundreds of people along the way, we had achieved exactly what we had set out to achieve. On cue and as if prompted, the reporter from America’s Time magazine commented, “I guess you boys have run plumb outta road.” We guessed we had. And it was wonderful.
What about our journey home? Well, it was never our intention to return the way we had come. Once was enough. And, in any case, the rainy season had started in northern Burma. So, after a three-week holiday in Singapore, we took a ship back to Calcutta and drove home from there. We followed a slightly different route, most notably through Afghanistan and northern Iran. Then into Turkey, past the slopes of Mount Ararat and along the shores of the Black Sea. By the time we pulled up outside the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall we had been away nearly a year and had driven 32,000 miles.
And what about the two Land Rovers? We returned them to Rover who, a year later, lent the Oxford car to an ornithological expedition going to the British south Atlantic outpost of Ascension Island. At the end of their sortie, Rover told the birdwatchers to sell the car. Eventually, it was shipped to the island of Saint Helena where, apparently, it remained a runner for the next 30 years. But, sadly, when last heard of, the car had been cannibalised; its detached cab is now a chicken coop. Meanwhile, Cambridge wound up with a three-man expedition to Iran. For various reasons, the expedition came apart and one man was left to drive the car home. Somewhere, one night in eastern Turkey, he came off the road and crashed down a deep ravine. He got out alive, but the car was a total wreck and is, maybe, still in that ravine.
2015 was the year of the Defender.