Road trips

Don’t break down in a dictatorship – and other tips for driving 12,000 miles across Eurasia in a Land Rover Series I

by Alex Bescoby
30 November 2022 6 min read
Don’t break down in a dictatorship – and other tips for driving 12,000 miles across Eurasia in a Land Rover Series I
Photos: Léopold Belanger and Grammar Productions

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.  

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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.

The Last Overland Alex Bescoby

            “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.

Alex Bescoby Land Rover Series I
Bescoby looks worried after Oxford loses a wheel

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.

Land Rover Series I The Last Overland road trip
The fourth emergency service

“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.'” 

Damage report

Land Rover Series I The Last Overland road trip

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.

Land Rover Series I The Last Overland road trip

“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.

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Comments

  • Sidney says:

    It would be wise to print just the one copy.

  • Ian Robinson says:

    Thanks for reviewing Alex’s book (and the accompanying TV series). This is a truly epic story that links several generations and is a tribute both to the original First Overland and the idea of recreating it in one of the original Land Rovers. Oxford is, I believe, currently on a tour of New Zealand but I am sure it will be welcomed by many followers of this story when it makes its return. Such a contrast between the two expeditions in terms of accessibility and, even in the three years since The Last Overland was completed, many places would themselves present new difficulties. In the case of “Oxford”, its rediscovery in St Helena and rebuild is an epic in its own right. Maybe another book?

  • Graeme Aldous says:

    What’s not mentioned in this extract from Alex’s book is the importance of the car itself… surely one of the top 5 iconic cars to come out of Solihull.

    SNX891 was the ‘Oxford’ car of the pair that left London on September 1st 1955 to drive overland to Singapore. The ‘Cambridge’ car was SNX761, and they were collectively the ‘Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition’. Some of the old WW2 roads they planned to use through Burma could possibly have reverted to impenetrable jungle… but they made it, with Tim Slessor’s book ‘First Overland’ (which is still in print) documenting the journey.

    After they returned to the UK, the cars were returned to The Rover Company. ‘Cambridge’ was sold to some young men for a journey to the Middle East, but following an accident on a mountain road was lost down a ravine and never recovered.

    ‘Oxford’, on the other hand, was loaned to an ornithological expedition to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, and provided transport for the researchers. When they left, Rovers said for them to give the car to someone deserving, so they passed it on to the islander who had been providing their camp with water. When he retired, he went back to his native St.Helena island, taking the car with him to provide spares for his younger Series 1. Eventually, almost totally dismantled, it was bulldozed into the hillside to make way for a new road.

    Over the years, many enthusiasts tried to persuade the owner to part with the remains, but without success, until 4 years ago a Yorkshire Land-Rover collector, Adam Bennett, managed to persuade him to let it go, in exchange for a much more recent (but pre-computerised) Defender. The remains of the Series 1s were put into a container and shipped back to York, where Tim Slessor was able to open the doors, and certify that it was indeed the car that he’d last driven 6 decades before.

    Fully restored, and with its old SNX891 number back, the car has had a new lease of life, driving into nearly every country in Europe, crossing the USA twice, and visiting New Zealand. Currently it’s in Australia, where it’s waiting for the big Land-Rover 75th Anniversary celebrations next year.

    But before that, Alex Bescoby’s expedition freighted the car back to Singapore, to complete the return journey to London, following the original outward route as far as modern politics would allow. ‘The Last Overland’ book tells the story, and UK residents can view the 4-part documentary online on All4, and there are negotiations for it to be shown in other countries in the future.

  • Graeme Aldous says:

    I’m posting this separately in case the moderators aren’t happy with what amounts to a straight commercial plug! My films ‘First Overland’ and ‘After Overland’ tell the SNX891 story — the first is based round the original films made of the journey and commissioned by a young BBC producer named David Attenborough for his ‘Travellers’ Tales’ series. Without home recording apparatus in the late 50s, the films were lost from public view until I was allowed to remaster them for DVD (and now an online stream). The second film details the rescue of ‘Oxford’ and its subsequent rebuilding for the road.

    You can see more details at http://www.teeafit.co.uk/tsv/dvdsales.htm

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