Umpteenth Overland

Being an account of an overland journey by Land Rover from London to Singapore
by Terence and Patricia Ball in 1965/66

Many have followed the overland route from London to Singapore since it was pioneered by the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition of 1955/56, and doubtless there are many more still to come. However, very few have overlanded the whole journey, and because of the political and physical difficulties in Burma there has been for many years a compulsory sea section from Calcutta or Madras to Penang. For us, and many others during the 1965 "season", the overlanding stopped short at Karachi due to the war between India and Pakistan which completely closed the land frontier between these two countries for many months after the cease-fire: in fact, when we left on 23rd December it had still not been re-opened.

The question that most people ask is "Why?". Why drive over 12,000 miles across thirteen countries taking four months to arrive at a place that can be reached in 24 days by ship and only 24 hours by air? The reply given by most of those who have done the journey is "Because we wanted to!" I can give none better. For my wife and I, the idea became a serious topic of conversation about October 1964, and from January 1965 the tempo of planning gradually increased until it reached fever pitch by the end of June, when we both left our full-time jobs, with only two weeks to do those things which couldn't be done outside office hours. One of these weeks was taken up by a lay course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which we both attended and found very interesting as well as instructive. A few last minute visits to embassies for visas, and some final "shots", and we were away on 14th July 1965 from Dover to Boulogne.

On arrival in France we had our first incident with officialdom; this was with the French Customs over the 10 gallons of BP lubricants which we were carrying for later stages of the trip. The oils, "Longlife" and "Visco-static" SAE 90EP (5 gallons of each), had been very kindly provided by BP London, since I had corresponded with the Touring Service since the early days of preparation on such matters as route, camping sites, fuel supplies, etc. However, France took strong exception to the importation of 10 gallons of British oil, even though I pointed out that it was not intended for use in France and would be re-exported within a few days when we crossed into Switzerland. After consultation with M. le Chef, and a lot of arguing in French between the RAC port representative and the Customs Officer, we were let off, but, as the RAC man told us afterwards, we were very fortunate to get away with it! After that we experienced no trouble at all with customs or police authorities all across Europe and Asia, and it was not until Karachi that the next incident occurred. However, I am jumping too far ahead.

From Boulogne we travelled across France, pausing briefly in Paris, Versailles and Fontainebleau to sightsee. Then into Switzerland, calling at Geneva and Lausanne; over the Simplon Pass into Italy and then across the northern part of the boot to Venice, where only the cost kept us from days of idling along the canals in gondolas! After Venice, Trieste, and then into Yugoslavia, but before turning south to the Adriatic we diverted north to the Julian Alps almost to the Austrian border for an all too brief holiday in the mountains - a favourite pastime in N. Wales before leaving U.K. The Yugoslav Adriatic Highway was opened in its entirety for the first time in 1965 and we followed it all the way down to the south and the Albanian border. For various reasons, Albania was "out" and so we had to turn inland there to Titograd, go up around the top of Albania and then turn south once more to Greece and Thessaloniki. After a few days rest there we continued along the Agean coast into Turkey, via Ipsala, and on to Istanbul - our first taste of the Orient! We camped a few miles outside the city at the BP Mocamp, which was by far the best equipped camping site seen on the entire journey. From the Mocamp we ventured into the city by public transport, which is in itself an experience in Istanbul (or any other middle-eastern city for that matter). At last we had to go into town under our own steam, for there was no other way to get across the Bosphorous and into Asia; but we took the easiest way along the waterfront, avoiding the teeming city centre, and did it early in the morning at that! From Istanbul we drove without delay right down through the middle of Turkey, via Ankara, to Tarsus on the Med. Then it was into Syria and the beginning of the Arab World.

After Turkey, camping sites are unknown, and so when the time came we just stopped and 'camped'. I should explain, however, that we did not camp in the tenting sense (although we did carry one which we used when stopping at any one place for several days); instead we slept in our Land Rover. We had had this specially converted in England and it was well worth the extra cost. After driving all day we thought it would be too wearing to have to put up a tent each night, maybe in the dark and/or rain. We only had the short wheelbase model and so we only just fitted inside, but it did work and even in the hottest weather it was not too bad with all the windows and the back open. Of course, it was not always a case of stopping just like that; the right spot had to be selected - suitable to both parties - and it is surprising how difficult that can be!

We were pleasantly surprised with the warmth of the Arab peoples; in spite of the politicians the ordinary folk were extremely friendly everywhere. Hardly a day went by without we were invited to chi by someone or other, and in many cases we were asked to stay the night in people's homes. In fact, this hospitality became an embarrassment at times because we felt we just couldn't go on accepting it indefinitely, and yet to refuse might give offence. Our route was devious, and from Turkey led via Antakya, Beirut, The Cedars of Lebanon (there were surprisingly few of them), Baalbeck (where by chance, and to our amazement, we arrived in the midst of "Le Festival" among the ruins - a beautiful sight at night in all the floodlights), Damascus, the Dead Sea (where we floated on, rather than swam in, the famous saline water), Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho. After that, the cultural part of the journey ended, and we turned east across the Great Syrian Desert along the road which follows the oil pipeline from Mafraq to Baghdad. This was one of the most enjoyable sections of the whole trip - three days almost non-stop motoring in peace and quiet without any human habitations. The solitude of the desert once experienced is never forgotten, and with a good tarmac road ahead all the time, 20 gallons of fuel in the tanks and 18 gallons of fresh water on board, there is little to worry about. But for those who first traversed this wilderness by motor vehicle, and it was only 40 years ago, it must have been a very different story!

Baghdad was hot! The temperature was well over 100 deg F, but we were told that we were lucky; only a week previously there had been an unprecedented heatwave, with a maximum of 130 deg F! As with most large cities, we didn't stay any longer than was necessary to collect mail from the embassy and take on fuel, water, and provisions. From Baghdad we headed towards Teheran, but before visiting the capital of Iran we diverted north to the Caspian for a much needed swim after the heat and dust of the desert. The usual route from Teheran runs across northern Persia to the Holy City of Meshed and thus into Afghanistan and Herat, but we had decided before leaving U.K. that we would make a large loop south, east, and north again in order to see as much as possible of the country. So we turned south to Isfahan and Shiraz, the two showplaces of Persia, both of which we thought more than equal to their reputations. Close to Shiraz are the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, in which we wandered about for hours in the scorching sunshine, although one could have spent much longer there, such is the size of the place.

After Shiraz, the tarmac road finally ran out and we had our first taste of the infamous corrugated gravel! The road across the southern Persian desert to Zahedan, via Sirjan, Kerman and Bam, was quite lonely, and the section to Sirjan was in places little more than tyre tracks in the sand, but we only lost the way once, and fortunately there was an isolated police post nearby to which we returned for the night, as it would have been impossible to have reached Sirjan that evening. I should add here that by this time we had been "warned off" just stopping in the middle of nowhere and making camp, both by the police and the army, and so in Iraq and Iran we made a habit of stopping at wayside police posts and always found the owners most courteous and helpful, although the language difficulty was troublesome since there was little English spoken in the more remote places. Zahedan is quite a large town and is, in fact, the frontier town for Pakistan for those taking the southern route. But here we turned north again (much to everybody's amazement) and headed for Meshed, where we ran into a cholera epidemic! There had been roadblocks throughout Iran to check on vaccination certificates, but we were told in Meshed that we were very fortunate as up until recently the town had been sealed and anybody who once entered had to stay put! But after a couple of days we left without undue trouble and without taking some dreadful pills which we were told had been forcibly administered to all and sundry in addition to vaccination!

At Herat, the first large town in Afghanistan, we found, to our complete surprise, the best road since U.K. We discovered later that a completely new road was being constructed from Herat to Kabul via Kandahar, half by the Russians and half by the Americans, and the Russians had completed and opened their part from Herat to Kandahar a few months prior to our arrival. The American section from Kandahar to Kabul was due for completion within another six months, and it too was in operation except for a short stretch of about 50 miles. All that is needed in Afghanistan now is the traffic to use the road, for all the time we travelled along it we hardly saw another car; what traffic there was consisted of lorries, petrol tankers and buses - all three of which seemed to be used for the conveyance of the maximum number of persons imaginable - in, on top of, and hanging on behind! Whilst in Herat we met a young English girl who was doing the overland trip in what must surely be the most unlikely manner - by normal service buses from one town to another, alone!!

On arrival in Kabul we enquired at the respective embassies about the Indo/Pak war and were informed by both parties that the land frontier was still closed, with no re-opening date known to either side. We therefore decided on yet another diversion, this time north to the Hindu Kush to see some real mountains. We had originally planned to drive up to Nepal from India to see the Himalayas from Katmandu, but as that proved to be out we decided the Hindu Kush would be the next best thing. On this trip we saw another example of Soviet road building - a completely new route over the Salang Pass, with the highest tunnel in the world at 11,000 ft., a remarkable engineering feat we thought.

On returning to Kabul further enquiries revealed that entry into India was going to be impossible, and so we decided to make a long, non-stop run down the Indus Valley to Karachi and take ship from there to Singapore. Others in the same position in Kabul who had definite arrival dates planned for Australia and other places were less fortunate than ourselves, and had to sell their cars and equipment in order to fly on to their destinations. On leaving, we decided to make for Peshawar if possible by nightfall, but we only got as far as the Pakistan border at Torkham. We had been told in Kabul that there was a Rest House on the Pak side at Torkham where we could stay if we had not got to Peshawar by sunset, for even today the Khyber Pass is still closed during the hours of darkness. So having gone through the formalities on the Afghan side we crossed over the bridge that forms the border (and, incidentally, crossed over to the left hand side of the road once more after more than 10,000 miles driving on the right) and entered Pakistan, where we were promptly told that we could not stay the night there because of the "war" regulations, and were sent back into Afghanistan! Not even Pakistani nationals were allowed in the vicinity of the frontier at night. Next morning, after a night camped outside the Afghan Custom House, we tried again and were soon on our way, descending all the time now, which we noticed as much by the temperature rising as by the angle of descent! Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore were reached in quick succession, and in Lahore we were very pleased to find some American friends still there despite our having heard along the route of the evacuation of all foreigners from Lahore at the time of the "invasion". So there we stayed for a very pleasant week, and thus ended our plans for a quick run down to Karachi!

Having stopped once on a supposedly non-stop trip, we decided that one more stop wouldn't make much difference, and so when we reached Hyderabad we called on another friend (both this one and the American in Lahore I had met on a Land Rover maintenance course in Solihull last February) who was running a mobile missionary hospital about 80 miles out in the villages of the Sind. We stayed there another week! We finally arrived in Karachi about noon on Saturday 6th November, and so had to wait another 1 days even then before we could begin to make enquiries about a ship that would take us and our car to Singapore. This task proved even more difficult than we had anticipated, for even when we had obtained a booking on a Yugoslav cargo vessel, there was delay after delay in the ship arriving, and it was not until 23rd December that we finally sailed. We were very fortunate in making more good friends in Karachi who helped us in many ways, not least of which was the use of a beach hut, and so we were able to pass most of the time swimming and fishing. When we did get on board the ship our delays were still not over, for most of the cargo was for Indonesia, and seven more weeks were to pass before we thankfully set foot in Singapore on 15thFebruary 1966 after visiting the ports of Djakarta, Surabaya and Makassar.

We were warmly received at Crosby House, and in no time at all things were on the move regarding our onward passage to Australia: even accommodation was provided for us during our stay in Singapore, for which we were very grateful. By the next day it was fixed that we should be sailing for Fremantle on 26th February, and in the meantime we decided to pay a quick visit to the mainland, which, of course, we had missed by sailing direct to Singapore instead of to Penang as we had originally planned. On the 18th we left early for K.L. and spent the 19th "doing" the town and the Batu Caves. On the 20th we motored up to the beautiful cool air of the Cameron Highlands and spent the 21st walking jungle paths and looking at waterfalls. A quick run back south via the west coast after another overnight stop at K.L., and we were back again in Singapore on the evening of the 23rd February. After three months of doing nothing in Karachi and on board ship, it was a great pity that we had to rush our visit to Singapore and Malaya, but we were way behind our planned date for arrival in Australia, and could ill afford any more time.

As mentioned earlier, we travelled in a Land Rover, and it may be of interest to anybody planning a similar journey to know that with the improvements made in recent years to the roads of most countries, such a vehicle is no longer essential, provided one sticks to the main route. Let me add, however, that a Land Rover is, in my opinion, still the best vehicle tor this journey because of its strength and tremendous carrying capacity (almost everyone overloads them:). One sees people doing the trip in VW "'Beetles", Ford "Anglias" and a whole host of special motorised caravans, but they cannot carry the load as well as a Land Rover, neither can they travel over rough country when it does turn up and believe me it does in some places if one leaves the main road - and that surely is where the fun really begins!

We had a "Safari" conversion by R.J. Searle Ltd. which consisted of something like a bed/settee in the back which when folded down lined up with the front seats (also folded flat) to make sleeping space for two. In the short wheelbase Land Rover this doesn't leave room for much else when the bed is in position and if it was raining this made things rather complicated when it came to preparing a meal, but usually the weather was fine and one could work on the tailboard, which also serves as a convenient table (other than this there is a model with a door at the rear, but I think the tailboard is more useful, even if it makes it more difficult getting in and out). We were very fortunate in that we had no mechanical trouble at all: our only minor defect was a leaking petrol tank in S. Persia, which we were able to get repaired at once; plus two punctures. With the use of "Longlife" one's engine oil problems are greatly reduced, and I well remember we changed oil only twice - in Yugoslavia and again in Lahore. Rovers recommend that the oil in the gearboxes and diffs be changed every 9000 miles, so with the 10,000 miles for "Longlife" it can easily be arranged to do everything in one go with a little give and take each way, and I found this a very convenient arrangement. With one 5 gallon drum of each oil we had sufficient for the whole trip, and with the drums mounted externally at the rear of the vehicle they were no trouble at all. Indeed, quite the reverse, for on several occasions they served as "shock absorbers" in minor collisions from the rear!

No doubt those asking "Why?" will also ask "What did you get out of it?" We got most pleasure out of meeting people - all kinds of people: in fact, if it were necessary to single out just one impression above all I would say without hesitation that it was the friendliness of the people we met on the journey. I could not possibly recall the number of times we were asked to take tea, and quite often we were asked in to take meals and even stay the night with people we had never before met and were unlikely ever to meet again. We British have certainly got a lot to learn in that respect.

At the beginning I said we did it because we wanted to, but to be fair I should add in conclusion that Singapore is not the end of the road for us, and the overland trip was only the means to another end - our plan to emigrate to New Zealand. From Singapore we are sailing to Fremantle and then propose to drive across Australia, stopping and looking (perhaps even working!) where the fancy takes us, before finally sailing from Sydney to New Zealand, there to settle down....perhaps!

Author's Footnote: April 2009

We never did get to New Zealand! We left Singapore on board mv "Centaur" on 26th February 1966 and docked at Fremantle on 4th March 1966.
Today we are both still living in Western Australia.

Author's Second Footnote: July 2018

Despite many years delay, both of us did eventually (and coincidentally) visit New Zealand in 2018, but on separate occasions, having previously divorced.

Readers will have noted that BP played a significant role in the journey and this account was written on a portable typewriter (which accompanied us in the Land Rover throughout the journey) in Singapore in 1966 at the request of BP for publication in their House Journal. It has been faithfully reproduced on this web site after OCR scanning of a carbon copy of the original document, which, still in my possession 43 years later, has now become somewhat fragile. Hopefully, this web site will preserve the document for posterity!

For those who may be curious about the title of this article, it comes from our inspiration and 'bible' for the journey: Slessor, Tim. (1957), First Overland: The Story of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, The Companion Book Club, London.

See also: http://www.firstoverland.com/ [A Google search on "First Overland" will reveal many other web sites on this topic]

TB


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