How Overlanding Has Changed Since the “First” Journey in 1955

In 1955, a Land Rover drove from London to Singapore. Now, the same car is doing It backwards.

August 28, 2019 9:44 am
The Last Overland 1955 Land Rover Series I
On Sunday, August 25th, this 1955 Land Rover Series I set off from Marina Bay, Singapore for a 100-day trip to London called The Last Overland.
Land Rover Singapore

On September 1st, 1955 six college students from the U.K. set out from London in two “normal 86-inch wheelbase Land Rover station wagons.” Six months later, they arrived in Singapore, completing an historic journey, officially known as the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, that would come to be known as The First Overland. On Sunday, August 25th, 2019 — almost 64 years later to the day — one of those two vehicles set off to make the journey once again, this time in reverse. 

It’s being called The Last Overland, and the Land Rover Series I isn’t the only carryover from the original international odyssey. Tim Slessor, one of the original overlanders who was 23 years old back in 1955, was the impetus for the adventure. Despite currently being 87 years of age, he decided he wanted to make the trip one more time before it was too late. Once he found out that one of the original Land Rovers was recovered (it had found its way to a tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean where it was serving as a chicken coop), the trip was a done deal.

Sadly, Slessor was taken ill on Saturday night and was recovering in the hospital at the time of the launch, according to the expedition’s Facebook page. When asked if they should wait, he reportedly said, “Don’t you dare!” So the caravan, led by the original vehicle, is now underway with the rest of the team, and Slessor will hopefully join once he’s recovered. 

One’s health, unfortunately, tends to change between his twenties and his eighties. And during that time, the logistics of this journey have changed as well, from the support vehicles that will accompany to the route the team is traversing to how it will be documented. Which begs the question: How has overlanding, as a sport, changed between 1955 and 2019? 

The Last Overland and First Overland Maps
The red line marks the 2019 journey from Singapore to London, the blue line marks the original 1955 route. (The Last Overland)

The Countries They’re Avoiding

“I think in 2019, the world seems like a very dangerous place,” says Alex Bescoby, a young documentary filmmaker and the other face of the expedition, in the trailer for The Last Overland. “One of my big motives is to prove that the world is not as dangerous as people think it is.”

That looks like a tough theory to prove at the outset — for the simple fact that the route is drastically different for the return trip to London from Singapore.

Strictly relating to nomenclature, the Oxford and Cambridge team drove through Yugoslavia (which is now seven different countries). The USSR was also intact. But more to the point, as you can see from the two expeditions’ route maps, the original group drove through countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and India without major incident. This time around, they’re skipping those in favor of Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China. 

The Last Overland 1955 Land Rover Series I
When the “Oxford” set off on Sunday, a convoy of 90 Land Rovers escorted it to Singapore’s border with Malaysia. (Land Rover Singapore)
Land Rover Singapore

The Changes in Political Climate

The reasons for avoiding countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious, but as Slessor noted, the political changes go beyond the general American conception of a “war-torn” Middle East. For example, it was still the Kingdom of Afghanistan back in 1955, and the group had a run-in with the monarchy. 

“We went through Afghanistan and I remember one occassion where we were looking for somewhere to camp late at night, so we pulled in under some trees,” Slessor recently recounted to Singaporian English-language channel CNA. “And within a few minutes about five people came down with bandoliers and guns. It turned out we were on royal — Afghanistan still had a king at that time — we were on royal property. And someone in employ of the king had seen this crew of Brits arrive and had said, ‘We need to guard them.’ So these people were guarding us.”

The Differences in the Car

Bescoby has noted in multiple interviews, including with the BBC, that he grew up with Land Rovers, saying his dad is a “Land Rover maniac.” But in the promo video, as Slessor is taking the Oxford (the nickname for the vehicle) for a test drive and explaining the mechanics, Bescoby admits he doesn’t know some of the skills needed to drive the Series I.

“So we’ve got no power steering, no synchromesh gearbox, so you have to double de-clutch,” says Slessor (in American English, he’s just talking about double-clutching). “If you ask people today to double de-clutch, they wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about.” He goes on to pillory heated seats, which the Land Rover definitely does not have. Nor does it have air conditioning. But if they were scaling mountains and crossing deserts in the new 2020 Land Rover Defender (the descendant of the Series I) that’s been tested in 122°F desert heat and -40°F Arctic cold, it wouldn’t be that interesting to watch.

Another thing that’s changed? Social media. The first time, Slessor kept a longhand diary that covered the better part of 400 pages. Now, you don’t have to wait for the recap: you can follow along the 100-day journey in real time — not just on the official Instagram page at @thelastoverland and on Facebook, but also via more personalized accounts from team members like Bescoby (@abescoby), Thérèse-Marie Becker (@climbofreak), Leopold Belanger (@leopoldbelanger) and Marcus Allender (@marcusallender).

Or you could seek out a Series I for yourself and plan your own overlanding trip instead of living vicariously through this one. If you take that route, though, do what The Last Overland team did: keep the rust on and skip the infotainment system.

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