Alumni recreate legendary 1950s overland expedition

Alumni recreate legendary 1950s overland expedition

  • Alex Bescoby and Tim Slessor with the original Oxford Landrover
    Alex Bescoby and Tim Slessor with the original Oxford Landrover
  • Alex Bescoby behind the wheel and Tim Slessor in the passenger seat
    Alex Bescoby behind the wheel and Tim Slessor in the passenger seat

A pair of film-making adventurers – one 87, the other 31 – are about to combine forces to relive the journey which astonished Fifties Britain.

In 1955, Tim Slessor (St Catharine’s 1952) set off with four other young Cantabs and one Oxonian in two Land Rovers on the trip of a lifetime. Together, they completed the first overland from London to Singapore. Previous attempts had reached Kolkata but no-one had managed to go further. By the time they got home, the friends had driven 32,000 miles.

On 25 August, Tim will join Alex Bescoby (Sidney Sussex 2006) in Singapore to recreate one-half of the epic drive and help mark the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in the country. Tim won’t be the only original member of the team taking part. Remarkably, two years ago, one of the original Land Rovers was rediscovered, derelict, on the South Atlantic island of St Helena and has been lovingly restored.

Reflecting on the original expedition, Tim says: “Some people thought we were naïve, out of our skulls, bound to fail. But when you say that to 22-year-olds, well, our reaction was ‘get stuffed’. I’d done my national service in the Royal Marines Commandos in Malaya so I’d seen the bumpier side of life, and I’d always travelled but I hadn’t done anything quite like this.”

‘The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition’ passed through 21 countries including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma and Thailand. A lot has changed in this part of the world since the mid-1950s and the new expedition will be taking a different route (via China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) to avoid conflict zones.

For Tim, the original overland was life changing. Before they set off, the team convinced a young David Attenborough – then the producer in charge of the BBC’s Exploration Unit – to invest £200 so they could buy a clockwork camera and some film. Attenborough liked what he saw and this resulted in a three-part documentary series, Travellers’ Tales, which gave many Brits their first insights into the Middle and Far East. Tim went on to join the BBC as a travel documentary maker: “I applied”, he recalls, “after seeing an advert in the British Council Reading room in Tehran.”

For Alex, already an award-winning film-maker specialising in travel and history, Tim is an inspiration and a kindred spirit. “Tim’s involvement is essential’, he says. “His memory of the original expedition is crystal clear. Having living history with us is amazing and so is his energy. He’s full of advice, he spent more than thirty years making films, much of that with the BBC, so it’s a huge privilege for me.”

Since graduating, Alex has spent ten years working in Asia, mostly Burma. “Cambridge opened up the world for me,” he says. “In my second year I got a scholarship to study Burmese and Thai history in Burma, and that really changed my life.”

  • Photo from the first expedition: Tim Slessor sits on top of a landrover fording the Mesai River, Burma (Myanmar)
    From the first expedition: Tim Slessor sits on top of a landrover fording the Mesai River, Burma (Myanmar)

For Tim, the 260-mile crossing from India to Burma was one of the most challenging and exciting stages of the original expedition. In his evocative book, First Overland, first published in 1957 and still in print, he wrote that:

The overgrown path – for such it was – wound in short-terraced lengths along the jungle ridges … Many times the engines burst into a higher note as the wheels spun frantically in the mud and the cars sank to a shuddering standstill. But by reversing, by cutting bamboo to lay on the track, by pushing, and by careful driving we got clear and slithered on.

While dreams of recreating the expedition have circulated for some time, it has taken a series of minor miracles, chance encounters and a powerful sense of “it’s now or never” to make it finally happen. Alex got involved after meeting the owner of the rescued car at a 75th anniversary Land Rover event in Anglesey. After speaking to Tim, they decided to go for it and a year of planning got underway.

Alex says: “I grew up with Land Rovers, my dad and grandad were both obsessives. It’s a religion, there are clubs in most countries across the world and people everywhere who will look after you just because you have a Land Rover. That community is really special.”

Tim’s book offers compelling evidence of this, as well as the power of Oxford and Cambridge’s global reach. As the group prepared to leave the Nok Kundi outpost in Pakistan, a local man examined the side of one of their vehicles before exclaiming: “Oxford and Cambridge! By Jove! … Just come across that damned desert, have you? Driven all the way? That’s bloody marvellous. M’name’s Khan. I was in Italy with some of your chaps during the War.” He shook us each warmly by the hand, and welcomed us to Pakistan.’

No one is expecting quite the same interactions in 2019 but as Alex points out: “The beauty of travelling through a place is you end up experiencing places that don’t appear in guide books. You get to understand countries from the bottom up and have interactions with people who are not expecting you to arrive.”

“In 1955, they faced a different set of challenges. We’ve got mobile phones and the internet, plus the road networks are much better now, but we’re using the same car. We’re not able to follow the original route but we’ll be driving for days on end in the middle of nowhere, sometimes close to conflict zones and we’ll be battling with lots of bureaucracy. Iran and Turkmenistan are likely to be particularly challenging. But perhaps the biggest challenge is choosing a music play list to keep 31- and 87-year-olds happy.”

While Tim and Alex are unashamed thrill-seekers, the expedition will be “more than a jolly”, as Alex puts it. In the 1950s, the team conducted some geographical field work and this time around they will be raising awareness for two charities.

Alex says: “Tim did his national service in Malaya and I’ve spent the last three years working on a film about veterans so we’ll be awareness-raising for veterans rehabilitation charities, including Walking with the Wounded, and another supporting families coping with dementia. I would have loved to do this journey with my own grandad but he has dementia and that has affected my family very deeply. The fact that Tim is 87 and so full of life and memories just emphasises why we need to fight this terrible disease.”

Tim says: “I’m fortunate to be in reasonable health and I’m still a bit of an adventurer. I’m working on a new book entitled Before it’s too late so this trip will feed into that. If you’re lucky enough to be healthy, give it a go. I’m doing it to demonstrate to myself that I still can.”

Tim Slessor's First Overland - recent edition book cover

The original overlanders

The original overlanders were Tim Slessor; Adrian Cowell (St Catharine's 1952); Antony Barrington Brown (Gonville and Caius 1948); Patrick Murphy (Gonville and Caius 1952); Henry Nott (Gonville and Caius 1951); Nigel Newbery (Ox).

The new overlanders

The new overlanders are Tim Slessor; Alex Bescoby; Marcus Allender; Larry Leong; Adam Bennett, Léopold Belanger; Thérèse-Marie-Becker, David Israeli and Doctor Silverius Purba. 

They will set off from Singapore on Sunday 25 August 2019.

More information

For more information and to watch the trailer see www.lastoverland.com.

Tim Slessor's First Overland: London – Singapore by Land Rover is published by Signal Books, Oxford.

Words by Tom Almeroth-Williams, images courtesy of Alex Bescoby and Tim Slessor.