In the mists of time, there is what you’d probably describe as the origins of an urban myth. That the humble Land Rover was the first mechanical vehicle that some of the more remotely distributed parts of world’s population came into contact with. On top of this, like Aston Martin cars, a sizeable chunk of the vehicles manufactured are still in use, one way or another.
The Land Rover is a unique creation. Part-quirk, part utility, partly soulful. Modern iterations of the marque sell well and are admired, but they don’t necessarily give off the fuzzy feeling of seeing vintage models, their warts and all.
In the 1950s, and with a point to prove that the Land Rover was the all-round, go-anywhere utility vehicle, two sturdy 86” station wagons were lent to the Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. One named after each of the university towns.
Fast-forward from 1955 to 2017, and SNX891 was enjoying a somewhat surreal retirement in fellow British Overseas Territory, St Helena.
The plan to put her back together and mimic the original journey, the First Overland, was born. The Last Overland was “go”.
Gibraltar Insight caught up with Thérèse-Marie Becker, digital editor for this epic trip.
We have to start by asking, how did you find and restore Oxford, especially all the way from St Helena?
When the First Overland drove back from Singapore, the car was then used for another expedition before it was sold on to a team of British biologists who shipped the car to Ascension Island, right next to St Helena.
Oxford was there for around a year, and at the end of their mission they gifted the vehicle to and that they decided to gift Oxford and another vehicle to their local guide.
This guide was – of course – very happy to accept both cars and he then shipped them over to St Helena where he lived. Oxford was the older model of the two and he decided to make full use of the newer car, and use Oxford for spare parts (given the remoteness of St Helena). Oxford subsequently became a luxury chicken coop. It was no secret among the Land Rover fraternity that Oxford was in St Helena, and many dreamed of being able to ship her back to the UK.
Adam Bennett is the person who was pivotal to enabling Oxford to make the journey back to British soil. He managed to convince her owner to trade for another, brand new Land Rover that was shipped to St Helena. Once the trade was done, and Oxford loaded into a container, it was evident that she been battered by time. Having said that, the car still had original paint although none of the mechanicals were functioning. Adam fully restored her in the UK, in what was a long labour of love.
How did she get back to the UK?
She came back by boat in a container and then found herself in Adam’s workshop where the restoration took about a year to complete.
You’ve found the car, you’ve had the dream – how did you put this massive logistical jigsaw together?
It was a very big project. I’m one of the last team members to have joined the expedition. The people who were really responsible for getting it off the ground were film-maker Alex Bescoby and serial overlander Marcus Allender.
The team comprised Alex Bescoby, Marcus Allender, Larry Leong, Adam Bennett, Léopold Belanger, Nat George, David Israeli, Doctor Sil and me, Thérèse-Marie Becker.
Alex had been inspired by Tim Slassor’s book The First Overland, which he had read while at university. Alex’s dad, Roger, is a huge Land Rover fan, and they had spoken about putting together an expedition based on what he had read in Tim’s book, which is considered by many as the bible of overlanding.
The first stage was Alex making contact with Tim Slassor to get some advice, which then turned into route planning to bring Oxford home. Alex had expected a polite brush-off over a cup of tea, but Tim was fully engaged and energised by the possibility of the expedition. Tim had the idea of taking a new route
What was the motivation behind taking a different route?
Two reasons … one is obviously the political situation in some of the countries can be volatile and it didn’t make a lot of sense to go and be in a complicated place with a 65-year-old car. The second reason was that Tim didn’t actually want to go through some of the countries he had been through before. Unfortunately, Tim fell ill at the critical departure time, so his grandson Nat George took his place.
For clarification, that’s quite a big team to fit into an 86-inch Land Rover … you did have other companion cars on the journey!?
We had in 3 vehicles in total. We had Oxford, PAC – named from the number plate – a Defender 110, and then there was a Defender 90.
Has this adventure been the best thing you’ve ever done?
I think that this expedition has been one of the most beautiful highlights of my short life so far. Because it has been a true adventure of discovery and true adventure of being in touch with the unknown, and also being in touch with the things that we think that we know – but then discovering that it’s completely different.
Do you know what happened to the sister vehicle, Cambridge, from the First Overland?
Actually we do you know exactly what happened but we don’t know where it is and we don’t know if Cambridge still exists. After the original expedition there was another trip, and one of the two vehicles crashed. Cambridge was in the desert and went into a ditch, and the passengers managed to escape. Rumour has it, that Cambridge remains in that ditch to this day.
Do you have any plans for another epic journey?
I think so far the thing that is complicated is that with the coronavirus everything is put into a different perspective. We are definitely open for new projects!
You supported a few causes for this trip – which ones and why?
Those causes were actually chosen by Alex and Marcus. We worked with three: Dementia UK, Walking With The Wounded and the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Alex’s grandfather had been battling with dementia for over ten years.
Walking With The Wounded provides venerable veterans independence through employment, and we thought it right to acknowledge and help former British Armed Forces personnel.
Some Gurkhas actually met us along the route when we were in Pokhara, Nepal and we thought this was our way to give back, given their association with the British Army.
Can we catch-up with what happened online?
The best place to look is www.thelastoverland.com where you’ll also find the links to our social media account and YouTube channel.
A longer version of this interview is available as a podcast – search Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google for Gibraltar Insight.
Photo credits: The First Overland; The Last Overland; Léopold Belanger; Thérèse-Marie Becker; see more on Instagram @TheLastOverland