Dollars & Chocolate
My friend Adam had this brilliant idea: when we finish university we’ll drive his Land Rover overland to India
Adam is a very creative and motivated person, frequently beset by ideas of pure lunacy, so I completely ignored him and went down the pub. But he wouldn’t let go and, over the following few months, we started to make plans, devising vague routes and the alterations needed to his 1972 Lightweight diesel.
As the idea grew, it was decided that six of us would go on the trip, requiring a second Land Rover. At that stage, it still seemed like a pipe dream. We had nearly two years of university left at any rate, and it was bound to come to nothing. But a few weeks later I had a phone call from Adam: “I’m in Wales on a farm, I’ve found a perfect Land Rover you can buy; a 1966 Series IIA. It’s £1500, shall I get it?”
“Er, sure,” I said. Three things were immediately clear at this point. One, the trip was definitely going ahead; two, I was definitely going with it; three, so were my life savings. There was no turning back.
Deciding that we needed some sort of aim for the trip, we made enquiries and were eventually put in contact with the United Mission to Nepal (UMN), that runs four hospitals in remote areas of Nepal. Each catered for half a million people and for many it was two weeks’ walk from home. Through a drawn-out series of faxes (before we realised they had email) we found that UMN were in desperate need of a new diesel generator for one of its hospitals, as well as a complete stripdown and rebuild on three other 30-year old generators at a second hospital.
Deciding that this was ideal, we changed our destination to Nepal and set about trying to raise money to finance what was now becoming a fully-fledged expedition. We were immensely lucky to have the Rotary Club come to our aid, who provided funds for the cost of the new generator and all the spares – a total of £10,000.
Over the next year and a half at university, much of our free time was spent making plans, raising funds or working on the Land Rovers. Sam, our second Land Rover expert, took charge of the one I had bought, subjecting it to a chassis-up and engine rebuild. We had bought it with an old BMC engine, but the previous owner had thrown in a second dilapidated Land Rover which had a good 2.25-litre Rover diesel. This was the same as in Adam’s Lightweight and would therefore cut down on spares.
The chassis on both cars were essentially sound, although a couple of outriggers and the rear crossmember had to be replaced on Adam’s.
From here, a variety of extras were added to both vehicles as work continued, to bring them up to scratch for the arduous journey ahead. Second fuel tanks were fitted as well as eight jerry cans on each, giving an estimated range of 1000 miles between fill-ups. Roll cages made from scaffolding were fitted to each, and spare wheels were installed on the bonnet and back of the cars. Each Land Rover was given a Fairey overdrive and electric cooling fans, taken from Arctic-specification Army 101s.
A vice was welded to the front bumper of one car, and a winch (and bottle-opener) welded to the other. Sponsors’ stickers, meshes over the lights and exotic new paint schemes completed the “overland look”.
We had decided from the beginning that army green probably wasn’t the safest colour to be seen in, so we opted for brighter alternatives: lilac and orange were decided upon, which really turned heads (as well as a few stomachs). Adam’s lilac Land Rover was christened “Chewit” at this point, as it now looked like a blackcurrant chewy sweet. Mine became “Homer” after the toy Homer Simpson we found at a car-boot sale while looking for spares. He was strapped to the front as a good luck charm.
The day of departure, November 1, began racing towards us, and it seemed that the closer the day came, the more work we found to do. Towards the end, we were all working on the cars through the night, desperately adding the finishing touches.
Finally, we started to pack the Land Rovers with the frightening quantity of things we needed; clothes, camping equipment, cooking equipment, stores of food and endless spare parts. Unfortunately, the heavy-duty springs we had fitted to Chewit clearly weren’t up to the job; they were already resting on their bump stops at standstill. Fearing we would miss the ferry, we just had time to buy some even heavier-duty ones that we intended to fit at the first opportunity.
The overnight crossing from Hull to Zeebrugge was uneventful and, once on the Continent, our trip really began. At the end of the first day’s driving we found a quiet spot and, after cooking a meal, started work on the springs. We immediately faced problems because we only had one jack, but after improvising with various bricks and pieces of wood we found lying around, the job of changing the springs was straightforward, and the problem was solved.
From Belgium we passed through France to Italy, just edging into Switzerland on the way for a few hours. As the days passed we developed a routine, spending as much of the day as possible on the move, and looking for a suitable camping spot a few hours after dark.
At Brindisi, we booked the cars on the overnight ferry to Greece. Five days later we crossed into Turkey and later the same day we arrived in Istanbul. The first thing we noticed, arriving as we did in rush hour, was the traffic. It seemed that as each country passed the driving got increasingly erratic. We had initially thought that it was manic in Italy, until we arrived in Greece, but Istanbul was something else again.
It appeared completely lawless, with cars inching past each other from all directions in one huge scrum, and the deafening sound of a thousand car horns filling the air.
We learned from experience that the car horn is to be used as often as possible, and seemed to have a variety of meanings: feel free to pull out; don’t even think of pulling out; you’re about to hit me; hello, etc.
As we crossed the river and into Asia we also learned that, although might is right on the road, a loud horn is the next best thing and any disagreements over priority between similar-sized vehicles are decided by the volume of horn. Luckily we had been tipped off about this and had fitted industrial-strength two-tone air horns to both cars. As the standard of driving deteriorated further, we were disturbed to notice that we too had succumbed; out with indicators and safe overtaking, in with the horn and games of chicken. It was as if our two kinds of driving were incompatible and, as we certainly couldn’t beat them, we were forced to join them.
It seems that, if there is one uniting law in the world, it is that the standard of driving in any country is indirectly proportional to its people’s friendliness. By the middle of Turkey, edging along the northern Black Sea coast, we would be swamped with interested and friendly locals wherever we stopped.
Frequently, if stopped at the side of the road to eat or camp, we would have to return the waves of every single passing car and lorry, accompanied of course by a toot on the horn.
In the mountains of eastern Turkey we became very aware of a mechanical problem with Chewit, which became increasingly sluggish and unresponsive. As the problem worsened, we could barely accelerate even downhill, and 30mph became our top speed.
In Iran, after a day spent churning through paperwork and inspections to get visas, we decided a small service was called for. Stopped at the side of a quiet road, Adam changed the injectors and fuel pump and also noticed that the engine kill was not freeing up properly. The work was observed by the usual incredibly generous crowds of people stopping to offer their help. After about three hours, two offers of a meal, three volunteered mechanics, a loaf of bread, a large bag of oranges, several bottles of water and an English-Persian phrase book, we declared it a success and decided on a route through Iran.
Over the next few days, however, the problem resurfaced and it was not until we were halfway home that the root was finally found. It seemed that the grub screw that locates the injection pump drive shaft was not properly seated, leading to enormous fluctuations in the injection timing.
We hadn’t really allowed for the huge scale of Iran and, having only been given a seven-day visa, and effectively losing one day to get it and another to repair the car, we had five days left to cover the immense country.
We were pleasantly surprised to find magnificent, empty, good-quality roads stretching across the desert and with diesel at 0.01 pence per litre we had no problems covering the distance. The only problems came from navigation; we had never before had to follow road signs written in their alphabet and were forced to read road signs out as “looks like a small man lying down next to a dripping tap – 283 km”, before trying to relate this to the map.
In Pakistan and India it was usual to have place names in English and local languages.
We had to move swiftly as we crossed into Pakistan to reach the nearest village by nightfall, as the border area is lawless bandit country. As the roads became increasingly covered by the desert, we were being constantly overtaken by other cars travelling at high speed and with large armed escorts. Our fears increased tenfold when the gearbox started to make dreadful whining noises, then clunking ones.
We found we had developed a leak in the gearbox and had lost all our oil. We had no gearbox oil with us and were forced to ignore the problem until we finally reached a village in the middle of the night. After finding some gearbox oil the next day we survived for the next two weeks until Kathmandu, by adding half a litre a day.
We reached Nepal in the middle of December, after 6688 miles and six weeks of travelling. In Kathmandu, after several days making enquiries and following leads, we tracked down an aluminium welder who did a fine job of repairing the cracked gearbox. He refused to accept any money for the work and just charged us for the cost of the gas.
After Christmas, we were able to pick up the generator and spares from the airport and loaded them into the cars for the journey to the hospitals.
We had been told that the Royal Nepalese Army, with help from British Gurkha engineers, had been building a road through the mountains that nearly reached the first hospital near the village of Okhaldunga. After a two-day drive west from Kathmandu, we found the army camp, but were told the road was still 35 mountainous kilometres short of Okhaldunga, leaving a two-day walk. Carrying 300kg of diesel generator would lengthen the walk to five days. Even worse, the 20km of road that had been built was only a dirt track blasted from the side of the mountain, and the only vehicle that was allowed on it was an army tractor.
After much pleading with the Nepalese captain in charge, we managed to persuade him that our fine old Land Rovers were up to the job and he gave us special permission to use the road. This “road” worsened steadily as it wound its way deep into the mountains, at its worse points leaving only inches between us and a 2000ft drop into the valley. With gradients of about 1:3 in soft mud, and bends requiring three-point turns, the slow drive was frightening. Although we got through without incident, our fears were justified a few days later when we heard that the tractor had gone over the edge, killing several people.
When the road did finally stop, we had to winch the generator from the Land Rover into a crate, where it required a group of 12 porters to carry it for five days to the hospital, using bamboo poles to support the weight. The generator was successfully installed and we moved on to the second hospital to carry out the rebuilding of the three elderly generators there.
After two and a half months working in Nepal, we loaded up once more, and headed south into India. Passing into Pakistan, we took a slightly different route for the sake of variety, and encountered some truly horrendous roads. Although once sealed with tarmac, they had developed massive potholes and cracks. When the lilac Lightweight pulled alongside the three of us in Homer, we noticed the car had developed a frightening new pose; the two halves of the car seemingly joined at about a 30-degree angle.
We discovered that the chassis was cracked through, and the car was being held together by the roll cage. We were forced to limp to the nearest town to seek urgent repairs and luckily we found an excellent welder who got us back on the road again. We took the return journey at a more leisurely pace and found time to take in a few sights along the way.
Apart from a recurring problem of oil seeping into the brakes, and the mysterious timing problem, we had no real upsets. We had taken spares of every conceivable nature and brought back about half of them. We took six halfshafts, fearing they would break regularly. As it was, we broke only one, and that was in the car park in Zeebrugge waiting for our return ferry.
After nearly seven months, 17 countries, and 15,000 miles in harsh conditions, our two old but very trusty Land Rovers had carried us back onto home soil, still going strong.