A 64-year-old Last Overland travels from Singapore to London in 111 days

During my recent ride with Royal Enfield to the Everest Base Camp in Tibet, all of us were required to visit the customs office in Gyirong, the Tibetan border city on the Nepal-Tibetan border, where our bikes would be examined.

As we waited, a convoy of three ‘Landies’ trundled in. Of course, this piqued my interest because Land Rovers with luggage strapped on them here at the ‘Roof of the World’ certainly did not mean that they were out for a weekend drive. These cars had to be doing something fantastical, like a road trip from one continent to another.

But what really made me gasp in disbelief was the battered old blue Land Rover bearing two jerry cans strapped on its front fender — one labelled ‘Gin’, and the other ‘Tonic’— and bearing the number plate SNX 891.

Since my teenage years, it has been a dream to do the Great Overland — the drive from Mumbai to London. In 2015, I fulfilled a variation of that dream when I drove an Audi Q7 from Munich to Mumbai. But before I did that, I would read whatever I could about great overland road trips and two books stood out.

A 64-year-old Last Overland travels from Singapore to London in 111 days

One was Robert Edison Fulton’s One Man Caravan and the other was Tim Slessor’s First Overland. The latter is about the journey of two Land Rovers called ‘Oxford’ and ‘Cambridge’ from London to Singapore in 1955. So called, because they were Land Rovers 86’ (designated so for the 86-inch wheelbase) loaned to the 1955 Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. And, 64 years later, on a chilly October afternoon in Southern Tibet, like a phantom ship from the past, the Oxford sailed into my vision.

The expedition that the Oxford is currently on is aptly called the Last Overland. It started in Singapore on August 25, 2019 and will roll into London on December 14, 2019.

A 64-year-old Last Overland travels from Singapore to London in 111 days

After the First Overland, the Land Rovers started the road trip back to London. The story goes that the Cambridge tragically fell into a ravine in Iran and was lost. But the Oxford made it back to the UK and was later used by the British Ornithologists’ Union for an expedition on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. It eventually passed into the hands of a resident of the island who later used Oxford as a source for parts, when he upgraded to a new model — the Land Rover 88’. When he retired, he took his vehicles to the Island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, considered so remote that Napoleon was exiled there to keep him out of mischief.

Decades later, in 2017, it was rediscovered and rescued by Land Rover enthusiast Adam Bennett from Yorkshire — a fan of the First Overland. He, with the help of journalist Peter Galilee, convinced the owner to sell both the Oxford and the Land Rover 88’ to him in exchange for a newer 300Tdi Defender model. After restoration, the Oxford passed the Ministry of Transport (MoT) test at the first go and was also given back its original licence plate registration of SNX 891.

In 2018, Adam gifted the Oxford to Tim Slessor and Alex Bescoby and the idea of the Last Overland was born: the Oxford’s last sigh — a drive from Singapore to London. Alex has been a Land Rover enthusiast since his childhood and is documenting the Last Overland.

That evening in Tibet, some from our Royal Enfield gang met the Last Overland team in Gyirong’s hippest bar, complete with pool table.

One of the members of the team is 21-year-old Natan George, who is Tim Slessor’s grandson and is as old as his grandfather was when he set off on the First Overland. Nat (as he is called) told me that his grandfather, who is 88 now, was a part of the Last Overland team. For Tim and the Oxford, this would literally be the last overland. Unfortunately, he had to be hospitalised while in Singapore, before the start of the expedition and Nat stepped in for him.

After that chance meeting with the Last Overland team, I have keenly followed their progress on social media and often received updates from Thérèse Becker, who is leading all online communications for the Last Overland. She recently informed me that they have driven more than 15,000 kilometres and have had just one puncture, coincidently on the day we met in Tibet.

I’ve been comparing the route that the two expeditions took and it is quite an insight into how the world has changed since the fifties. While the route is largely similar till the eastern reaches of India, the Last Overland heads north from thereon.

A 64-year-old Last Overland travels from Singapore to London in 111 days

When Tim Slessor and the gang drove across half the face of the globe, they stopped to sightsee in Syria. The Last Overland gang would probably find itself in the cross-hairs if they did that. Tim carried on through Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan before driving across northern India and onwards to Singapore.

The Last Overland drove through Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before traversing Turkey and heading into Bulgaria and Slovakia. This route would have been almost impossible for the First Overland because the Iron Curtain was firmly drawn across eastern Europe at that time.

For the team, whose driving licences are younger than the advent of power steering and synchromesh gearboxes, getting to know the Oxford has also been an experience. The need to use the strength in your arms and double-declutch while shifting down makes for more involved driving.

Right now, the Last Overland is speeding across the highways of Western Europe and in a few days from now, the Oxford will be back home.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 1:27:32 PM |

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