The long road home
The monsoon rains were tapering off in eastern Nepal as three gritty Land Rovers pulled into Nepal at Kakarbhitta just in time for the Dasain festival.
The Last Overland Expedition from Singapore to London was retracing the tracks of the journey 64 years ago by The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. Six fresh graduates in two Series 1 Land Rovers named ‘Oxford’ and ‘Cambridge’ after their alma maters traversed 29,000km over 19 different countries in six months from London to Singapore. It was the first time ever the trip was done by road and inspired many others to follow.
The 64 year old Oxford, passionately restored by motoring afficionado Adam Bennett, rumbled into Patan Darbar Square last week just in time for the Dasain puja when Nepalis worship all machines: from carpentry tools to ploughs, motorcycles, cars and even planes.
Expedition leader Alex Bescoby and the drivers sprinkled vermilion powder, draped the radiators in marigold garlands, lit incense and rang the bell to summon the gods to ensure that the rest of the expedition would be breakdown-free.
It was Bescoby who dreamt up the return trip from Singapore to London for the original Land Rover with Tim Slessor from the First Overlanders, now 88. Among the eight members this time is Tim’s grandson, Nathan George, fresh out of university, and following his grandfather’s tyre tracks, but in reverse. Nathan is as old as Tim was on the London-Singapore trip in 1955.
The Southeast Asian leg of the journey from Singapore through Malaysia, Thailand, Burma and into India, followed the same route as the original expedition. Many of the dirt tracks are now highways, and cities have sprung up where there were none.
In Darjeeling’s famous Mane Bhanjyang, the vintage Oxford Land Rover posed (right) with the historic toy train just as it had in 1955 (left).
The Last Overlanders were flagged off alongside 90 other Land Rovers in Singapore on August 25, and plans to reach London on 14 December – a journey of 19,000km. All along the route, Oxford and her escorts draw curious onlookers. In Darjeeling the convoy was greeted by local Land Rover enthusiast Samantha Dong, taken in a procession across town and ‘Oxford’ got another photo-op with the historic toy train.
Of the two Rovers in 1956, Oxford undertook the offshoot up from the Grand Trunk Road in Patna to Kathmandu on the newly opened Tribhuvan Highway.
This time, the route goes from India to Tibet via Nepal because of tension on the borders between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. British nature broadcaster David Attenborough, who got the BBC to support the First Overland for the BBC, says the first route by Slessor’s crew would be impossible to undertake today.
“I doubt that it would be possible now to do that because the world has divided itself against itself,” Attenborough said. “And there are plenty of places now where you will not be allowed to cross the frontier.”
After crossing into China at Rasuwa, the Land Rovers are speeding along the highway past Lake Mansarovar, as we speak. They plan to traverse Kashgar on the old Silk Road into what the crew call ‘The Stans’, past the Caspian Sea into the Caucasus, Turkey and on to the Channel.
Before leaving Kathmandu, Alex Bescoby mused: “The lines on the map are just that. What we are discovering is this beautiful spectrum of humanity where each culture or religion doesn’t stop at the boundaries, it spills over and merges and mixes and it’s really just opened my eyes to how incredibly fluid they are.”
Follow the Last Overland journey here: https://www.lastoverland.com/
Gurkha Welfare Trust
The Last Overlanders team caught up with the Gurkha Welfare Trust in Pokhara, one of the charities it is raising money for. They met 106-year-old Lal Bahadur Gurung (pictured in the cover of GWT, right) a World War 2 veteran of Libya, Egypt and the fierce battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in which 245 Nepali soldiers were killed.