In 2019, filmmaker and historian Alex Bescoby, backed by Hagerty, set out to recreate history’s greatest road-trip – the 1955 First Overland from London to Singapore – in the very same, freshly restored Land Rover Series I, ‘Oxford’., that took part in ’55. The Last Overland, his 12,000 mile, 23 country journey across two continents, is now the subject of a 4-part series on Channel 4, and a best-selling book.
6 November, 2019: The Middle of Nowhere
Under a crystal-clear sky, in a country you’ve probably never heard of, the sand gathered slowly on the ruins of Oxford and of my great and foolish dream.
I knelt with my head in my hands, watching through gaps in my fingers as her vital fluids gushed around my feet. They formed into a little stream, running along a deep gouge in the Tarmac that Oxford had carved in her death throes. Slowly, like a tentacle, they crept to where a single tyre now lay flat, still impaled by half an axle pointing stubbornly to the sky.
She – and yes, I had come to concede the ‘Grand Old Lady’ could be nothing else – had overcome so much. She was a world-conquering heroine, lost to history on a remote, rocky outcrop, then rescued, restored and brought triumphantly back to life after six decades in exile. Oxford had been in my care for all of seventy-three days, carrying me safely across eleven countries and 8,000 miles. Together we had seen Mount Everest at sunset, dodged headhunters and the Taliban, half-drowned in monsoon rains, and half-baked in the Southeast Asian sun.
And for her troubles, I had dumped her into a roadside ditch, leaving her bleeding and maimed. There were now three wheels on my wagon, and – contrary to popular myth – I wasn’t rolling anywhere.
“Well, I guess this means we’ll be late for lunch?” said Marcus, his looming form casting a shadow on my grief.
“Do you ever stop thinking about your stomach?” said a second, Nat-shaped shadow. I had managed to keep him alive for another day, at least.
“How bad is it, Doc?” I asked, as a third, much shorter shadow appeared.
He paused, looking thoughtful.
“How do you walk with no legs?”
Larry stooped down to give a second opinion, casting his seasoned eye over the damage.
“That’s going to take days to fix, if it even is fixable, which I doubt.”
“You have only five days on your visa. After that you must leave,” said our guide Tashmurad, helpful as ever.
Recreating the 1955 First Overland road trip
Of the 23 countries we were passing through on our great overland journey from Singapore to London, this was the worst we could have broken down in. During the months of preparation for our journey I had learned that Turkmenistan, the former Soviet, central-Asian dictatorship in which we now found ourself stranded, had a less than welcoming reputation when it came to outsiders. In fact, Turkmenistan admitted fewer tourists each year than the famously reclusive North Korea.
I looked back to see our two support cars parked a respectful distance from the crash site, both reassuringly intact. From them emerged Leo and David, cameras rolling as ever. They padded up to Oxford with a rare reverence, as if filming a funeral.
The fog of shock began to clear enough for me to take a silent headcount, which then only sparked a new panic. Seven… there should be eight? Where was Tibie? Calm down – she’s waiting for us in Georgia, of course, after we mislaid her a little carelessly in Uzbekistan.
It felt like the end, but surely it couldn’t be? People all over the world were watching and waiting for us to finish, and we still had 12 more countries and around 5,000 miles further to go. I had given this ridiculous endeavour every penny I had, missing births, marriages and funerals of those I loved to see this mission through. Had it all been for nothing?
I felt my stomach churn; it had not been quite right since that volcanic diarrhoea in Nepal. I looked round at my crew, my little family of oddballs dressed in their jumbles of grubby layers, hair unkempt and faces unshaved, all of them lost in private thought. Had I dragged them all the way across the world simply to fail alongside me?
After an hour, a flatbed truck appeared on the horizon, summoned from the desert haze by Tashmurad. For the first time on her epic trans-global journey, all Oxford’s remaining wheels left the road. As she was slowly winched into place, the rescue-truck driver shouted to me in yet another language I did not understand.
“He wants to know what you’re doing,” translated Tashmurad.
“We’re on an expedition,” I said, immediately feeling stupid as he took in my bedraggled, dust-covered form. The driver screwed up his face as if sucking on a lemon. He looked at me hard, then answered, shaking his head. I turned to Tashmurad for help.
“He said: ‘No one goes on expeditions anymore.'”
After dozens of calls, Tashmurad had found a workshop in the nearby town of Mary that would agree to inspect a car that no Turkmen mechanic seemed to have heard of. We pulled into the compound. It was a place where cars went to die, their rusting innards spilling across the floor.
Only the gaggle of oil-stained men inspecting a decrepit Toyota revealed it might be more than a scrapyard. Tashmurad sought the owner, a squat man with close-cropped hair, who on seeing foreigners insisted we take no pictures or video of him or his crew. We sat in dejected silence on a clutch of old tyres while Tashmurad joined their huddle, under clear instruction to establish how bad the damage was, whether it was possible to get Oxford back on the road, and if not, how we could get it out of the country.
After ten minutes’ heated exchange, Tashmurad returned.
“Is it dead?” I asked.
“We haven’t discussed that yet.”
“What have you been talking about all this time?!”
“They want to know why you’re here. They don’t understand. I tried to explain, but they keep asking – ‘Who is paying for this? Don’t they have wives and families? Don’t they have jobs? Does their government know where they are? It makes no sense to travel just to travel.’ Don’t worry, I explained you are gypsies.”
Almost boiling over, I sent Tashmurad back into the fray. We needed to make decisions fast; the clocks on our non-extendable visas were ticking. This time, the head mechanic disappeared beneath Oxford. More bickering ensued, and Tashmurad returned.
“He doesn’t know Land Rovers. He wants to know why you didn’t bring a Toyota, much easier to fix. Even BMW – he has loads of BMW parts. Why didn’t you come in a BMW?”
Anger flashed across my face. Tashmurad raised his hands for calm.
“Okay, okay, we will have to wait while they open up the rear differential; only then can they say if they can fix it.”
Like a group of nervous fathers in a maternity ward, we discussed our options in the fading sun while the mechanics set to work.
“We have to be in Ashgabat tomorrow, 250 miles away. We can’t break the schedule we gave the government, or we’re in serious trouble” Marcus explained. “Plus, we’re due on state TV the day after. It’ll be very awkward if we don’t show up.”
“More awkward if the famous overlanders turn up in a taxi,” said Nat.
“In the worst case,” Larry weighed in, “we could ship Oxford out of Turkmenistan as freight.”
“All the way to London?” said David.
“We could jump in with her and mail ourselves home,” suggested Leo. “Much less embarrassing.”
After an eternity, the head mechanic barked to Tashmurad. My heart pounded as Tashmurad translated the prognosis.
“You are very lucky. The axle is not broken, it is … what is the word … dislocated. They can reassemble it, but it will take two days.”
Before relief could sink in, Marcus chimed, “So the risk now is relying on this guy to deliver Oxford to Ashgabat as promised. If he doesn’t, we have to leave Turkmenistan without her?”
I nodded. We would have to continue to Ashgabat without Oxford while the work was done, leaving the world’s most famous Land Rover alone with these strange men, in a strange town in an even stranger country. We had no better option.
Alex Bescoby’s book about The Last Overland journey has been selected by both Waterstones and Wanderlust as one of the ‘Best Travel Books of 2022’, and is available from all good book stores.