Under a crystal-clear sky, in a country you’ve probably never heard of, the sand gathered slowly on the ruins of ‘Oxford’ and one of my greatest, most foolish, dreams.
Oxford – arguably the most famous Land Rover on the planet, to me at least – had been in my care for all of 73 days, carrying me safely across 11 countries and 13,000 kilometres. Together, we had seen Mount Everest at sunset, half-drowned in India’s monsoon rains and half-baked in the Southeast Asian sun.
For her troubles, I had dumped her into a ditch in Turkmenistan, leaving her bleeding and maimed. There were now only three wheels on my trusty wagon, and – contrary to popular myth – I wasn’t rolling anywhere.
Tim’s original journey from London to Singapore had captured my imagination
Why had I foregone the more cushy 14-hour plane ride and opted to drive across 23 countries in a car with no power steering, no disc brakes and a penchant for dismantling at the most inopportune moments?
Well, because I had made a promise to a friend – an unlikely one. Tim Slessor and I were separated in age by almost 60 years. But before I’d even met him, I suspected we had quite a bit in common.
I’d first encountered Tim as the intrepid 20-something in the pages of his iconic travelogue, The First Overland. Never out of print since first publication in 1957, the tale of his history-making overland drive from London to Singapore in 1955 had captured my imagination from an early age.
I had the idea to recreate the 1955 adventure in the same Land Rover
In 2018, my career as a documentary filmmaker gave me licence to propose the madcap idea of recreating it in the very same Land Rover (recently unearthed on the tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena) more than 60 years later.
When I first broached the idea with Tim – aged 87 years old – I never expected him to insist on coming with me. Once the shock subsided, I knew the chance to travel alongside a man who had spent his whole life travelling the world, telling stories in books and on film, was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.
I won’t spoil what happened next, but that fateful meeting with Tim undoubtedly sparked the greatest adventure of my life.
My grandfather had gifted me a passion for Land Rovers
At a deeper level, I knew that my attraction to Tim went beyond a shared thirst for adventure. I was compensating for something I’d lost – a relationship with a grandfather.
My dad’s dad, Vin, had died before I was born. He had, however, gifted me a passion for Land Rovers. My mum’s dad, Harold, was still alive, but confined to a nursing home in Manchester, his dementia having robbed him both of his ability to care for himself – and to have any clue who I was.
After a traumatic few years for him and my family, Harold had finally succumbed to the disease at the age of 90. I was driving Oxford through north-east India when I received the news. Deep in the expedition – and with a team relying on me to get them home safely – I had little time to grieve.
After the adventure, my focus started to dwindle
It wasn’t until I arrived home in December, 2019, that I had the space to do so, and to think more deeply about what the true purpose of my journey really was.
Fortunately, I was about to get a lot more time to think. A few weeks into 2020, in a plot-twist none of us saw coming, the world changed beyond recognition. I’d spent much of the last 10 years living and making documentaries all over the world, and now I was – like everyone else – confined to my room.
In the depths of the first lockdown, at first I found the solitude a relief. It gave me space to take on the daunting challenge of writing my first book (I have no idea how anyone finds time to write a book without a global pandemic…)
But soon, morale began to dip, and productive solitude turned to creeping loneliness, twinned with dwindling purpose. As I began to wonder if the life of travel, adventure and meaningful work I had known and loved would ever return, I received one blow, then another.
I began to wonder if the life of adventure I had would ever return
An old rugby-mate, who I knew had struggled with his mental health in the past, had taken his life in the depths of lockdown. Then a university friend, overcome at the collapse of his business, did the same shortly after – this time leaving a wife and young family behind. The news broke me.
Both, I can only now assume, had looked into the same dark void of a life without joy, direction and purpose, and found its call impossible to resist.
In the wake of their deaths, I took pains to put systems in place to keep the darkness at bay. Chief among them was committing to calls with friends from all over, including a weekly phone call with Tim, my octogenarian buddy.
I looked forward to calls with Tim during lockdown
Tim was living alone in London and found the lockdown especially hard, due to his advanced age and isolation from all human contact. I did my best to distract him – and returned the favour to me. Mostly, we talked about the past, about my word count and about the latest gossip. I looked forward to those calls immensely.
When restrictions to our meeting in person finally lifted, it came just in time for Tim’s 89th birthday. On the big day, I arrived having just finished writing about my grandad’s passing. I’ll admit I wasn’t feeling all that jolly.
Ever since I had first learned about dementia, the thought that it one day might strike me, had been impossible to shake. I realised now that I had chosen a life of adventure in part to try and make so many memories that dementia could never strip them away. I knew it was childish, but I did it all the same.
Life is about purpose – and having a trusted team to share it with
Tim spotted my distraction that day, and pressed me. When I shared my fear he paused for a moment, clearly pondering about how to respond. “If that is what lies ahead, would you have done anything differently?”
“No,” I admitted, thinking back to the adventures I had already had – and those still to come. “If anything, I’d enjoy it all the more,” I added.
Tim nodded, approvingly. “Life often only makes sense when you look backwards, Alex. I look back and say, ‘Shit, you did a lot Slessor!’”
“But more recently, I’ve come to see that it was never about achievement. London, Singapore, whatever – it was about having purpose, a shared objective. An objective that is difficult, but achievable. It was having a team you trust to share it with.”
During the Last Overland, my purpose was never in doubt
As a guiding lesson for life, I’ve found none better than the one Tim gave me that day. Looking back at The Last Overland now, it will always represent a time in my life where my purpose was never in doubt. But more importantly, whatever life brings, it reminds me exactly how I can find it again in the future.
Even though it was a lesson that someone else’s grandfather had to teach me, I’ll treasure it dearly.
Man to Man is a SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices each month, including Alex Bescoby – filmmaker behind Channel 4’s The Last Overland and author of a book of the same name.
Flash Pack is on a mission to make 1 million friendships through shared group travel. Few groups need those connections more than men in their 30s and 40s. Find your pack today.
Images: ©Léopold Belanger / Grammar Productions & ©Antony Barrington Brown / The First Overland