The Last Overland: the mother of all road trips
Overland from Singapore to London, in a 1950s motoring icon
What would possess eight people from six different countries to drive a 64-year-old Land Rover on a bone-rattling 19,000km journey across the planet?
“To prove Sir David Attenborough wrong” is not the obvious answer. But, that was certainly one of the motivations behind award-winning filmmaker and historian Alex Bescoby’s decision to recreate one of the 20th century’s greatest road journeys.
Back in 1955, then just plain-old David Attenborough, was a producer at the BBC. There he was approached by six recent Oxbridge graduates on a mission to be the first people to drive from London to Singapore. Many had tried, but none had succeeded.
Sensing this time might be different, Attenborough gave “The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition” enough film-reel to cover their record-breaking journey. In March 1956, 19,000 miles and 6 months after leaving London, the six graduates in their two Land Rovers - “Oxford” and “Cambridge” - finally made it to Singapore.
The series Attenborough released in 1956 – Traveller’s Tales – would grip the nation. The book published shortly after, First Overland, has never been out of print, and inspired generations of adventurers. In 2005, to mark First Overland’s 50th anniversary, (now Sir) David Attenborough took part in a BBC tribute. He said, resignedly, that it was “a journey that I don’t think could be made again today”.
To one Land Rover-mad and travel-hungry teenager in Manchester that felt like a challenge. As Bescoby’s own career in adventure filmmaking took off, Sir David’s words never left the back of his mind.
In 2018, he was lucky enough to cross paths with Adam Bennett, a First Overland enthusiast who had rescued one of the original First Overland Land Rovers – “Oxford” – from lonely exile on a small island in the South Atlantic, and restored it to its former glory.
Bennett was determined to see Oxford repeat its epic London to Singapore journey – but this time in reverse. Fortunately, one of the original First Overlanders and motoring legend, Tim Slessor, (now 87-years-old) was also keen for one last ride, and so the idea for The Last Overland expedition was born.
Slessor’s rallying cry – “it’s now or never” - captured hearts across the world, and supporters as varied as Singapore Tourism Board, Land Rover, Opihr Gin and automotive enthusiasts from all over the globe stepped up to make the dream come true.
On 25 August 2019 at 9am, The Last Overland convoy of three Land Rovers lined up by the start line of the Singapore Grand Prix. What looked like every Land Rover in Singapore had lined up behind Oxford. TV crews from across the world joined a huge crowd gathered to see the journey begin.
Sadly, the man of the moment – Slessor – was missing. Despite being the inspiration behind the expedition, and flying all the way to Singapore to start the journey, he’d was taken ill that same morning and had - to universal heartbreak - withdrawn from his last great adventure.
Luckily, like every great adventurer, Slessor had a Plan B. Sat in his place alongside Bescoby in Oxford was his 21-year-old grandson, Nat George, freshly graduated from university.
For the next 111 days, crossing 23 countries and 2 continents, George carried the torch for his Grandpa. The team of overlanders battled their way through jungles, deserts and some of the highest roads in the world, crossing Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, Tibet and Turkmenistan - among others - on their way to the UK.
They were unable to recreate Tim’s exact 1955/6 route through Iran, Iraq and Syria for security reasons, but this opened up an exciting new route for Oxford, crossing Tibet and the Central Asian “Stans”. Their route through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan exposed them to the breath-taking, mountain-strewn vistas of the Pamir Highway, a stretch of road snaking along the Afghan border for hundreds of miles which once formed the backbone of the ancient Silk Road.
Inaccessible to outsiders during the reign of the USSR, and later too dangerous at the peak of the Afghan conflict, this stunning stretch of road is now an option for braver tourists with the right local support.
The team withstood all that man and nature could throw at them, and when Oxford and the team finally reached British soil on 14 December 2019, they had not only completed an epic journey few could even contemplate, but they had also fulfilled Slessor and Bescoby’s great dream.
Perhaps in 64-years-time, Oxford might ride again? Or maybe it’ll be a little sooner? Watch this space.
Find out more at www.lastoverland.com, or follow the story on social media @thelastoverland. A TV Series and book about the expedition are planned for release in late 2020.