The Last Overland

The Last Overland was the greatest adventure of my life. At moments, however, I questioned what on earth I was doing: what even is “adventure” in the 21st century, where there are so few “world-firsts” left and you can view the top of Everest from your mobile phone?

Story by


Leopold Belanger

Read Time

8 minutes


In 1955, six young men set out to make history by being the first to drive 19,000 miles overland from London to Singapore. Many had tried, all had failed. But after six months of hard slog, the team finally made it. A bedazzled young BBC producer, David Attenborough, commissioned a TV series to share their incredible adventure with a post-war-weary British public. The book written about the journey — The First Overland — never went out of print and continues to inspire generations of adventurers today.

Many years later, Sir David paid tribute in a special programme to mark “this wonderful journey.” It was a journey he was sure, however, “could not be made again today.” Attenborough’s words planted a seed in the mind of 87-year-old Tim Slessor, one of the surviving “First Overlanders,” who was determined to prove otherwise.

In 2019, backed by a team from across the world, including filmmaker and historian Alex Bescoby, Tim finally got his chance. So began what’s been called “the mother of all road trips” — an audacious, madcap and heartwarming adventure in a 64-year-old car crossing 23 countries in which absolutely nothing went to plan right from the very start.

Alex Bescoby on Adventure

The Last Overland was the greatest adventure of my life. At moments, however, I questioned what on earth I was doing: what even is “adventure” in the 21st century, where there are so few “world-firsts” left and you can view the top of Everest from your mobile phone?

One of the main motivations for my globe-spanning drive — apart from it being enormously fun — was the chance to relive Attenborough’s iconic journey from the past.

It quickly became clear, however, that to try to relive the past is a fool’s errand. The best you can do is pay tribute and hopefully learn from it.

It was a lesson I registered most pointedly when we visited a house in Assam, India. The First Overlanders stayed here before writing themselves into the history books. It’s a moment I will never forget.

An Excerpt from “The Last Overland”

Welcome to the Deka Julia Tea Estate …!” Rajan crowed almost as if we had reached London, before adding, “I think.” Either side of us stretched the neat rows of waist-high bushes we had last seen sprawling across the Cameron Highlands. We were back in the ordered world of the tea plantation. Tim and company had stayed at a bungalow on this very estate before making their great voyage across Burma. It was one of Tim’s most treasured memories, but none of us had thought the bungalow might still be standing. Nat, crouched in the back of Oxford, leafed quickly through his copy of First Overland.

“No expedition can ever have had such an enjoyable or luxurious basecamp,” he shouted over the engine noise, reading Tim’s summary of their time as guests of the plantation’s British managers.

“Mr and Mrs Hannay came down the steps of their bungalow and across the lawn to meet us…” he continued, as Rajan pulled through the tattered gates.

Its wooden frame was splintered and cracked with large patches of mould on the panelling, but the Hannays’ bungalow was still very much there, and barely modified from its original condition.

It was not the Hannays who came out to greet us – they must have long since passed away – but a portly Indian man, who introduced himself as Dr Sharma. The bungalow was now his medical centre, where he provided care to the 19,000 workers and their families who lived and worked on the 5,000-acre estate.

“We cannot survive without our pickers – no machine has yet been built that can pick tea better than the nimble human finger!” he explained.

I watched Nat grip the bannister, even quieter than usual, as he scaled the same stairs his grandpa had done more than 60 years earlier. We had driven thousands of kilometres in Tim’s tyre tracks, but there was something visceral about walking in his actual footsteps. Rajan began to read: “Hey, Tim,” called Nigel from the adjoining bathroom, “There’s hot water coming out of the tap marked ‘Hot’.” I ran to inspect this wonder, and, as it was only the second time on our journey that we had seen hot water running from a tap merely for the turning, both of us nearly scalded ourselves.

We skittered excitedly through bedrooms and bathrooms, trying to figure out who slept where.

“Grandpa would know?” suggested Nat.

I dialed the number given to us by Larry’s wife ‘Simone’ and huddled around the speaker. As the dial tone purred, I realized that although Tim felt ever-present with us on this journey, the hectic pace we were setting meant we had not checked in on him since arriving in India.

“Hello?” answered Tim.
“Hello, Grandpa.”

Nat had to explain several times to Tim – now discharged from hospital and gradually recovering his strength in a Singapore hotel – where we were sitting, such was Tim’s incredulity that the house was still upright.

“Amazing, amazing, amazing! You’ve made my day, made my week!” he purred, deeply moved.

“Can you remember where you slept?” asked Nat.

“Gosh, yes! I could take you to it if I were there. Downstairs on the left.”

From memory, Tim guided us through the house, still barely believing what was happening.

“Thank your hosts for me, will you? I imagine it’s not the Hannays anymore?” Tim chuckled before saying goodbye and hanging up the phone. I watched Nat, who was clearly deep in thought.

“That was a bit surreal, wasn’t it?” I ventured.

Nat smiled. “Not as surreal as us turning up at this old guy’s house and him just welcoming us with a cup of tea. Can you imagine if an old Indian man turned up at a house in England and said, ‘Sixty-five years ago we stayed here?’ I bet he’d get told to jog on!”

I smiled. I had quickly learned Nat gave little away when it came to his state of mind, often leaving me to worry on his behalf about how he was handling the fallout from his grandpa’s dramatic exit from our story. The better I got to know him, however, the more I could see my worries about the mantle he had shouldered were unfounded. Tim’s no-nonsense pragmatism was firmly written in his grandson’s genes.

Before we said our final goodbyes, I stood on the shaded veranda where Tim had no doubt stood all those years ago. Looking down at the lawn, I could see the ghosts of six young men unpacking and repacking. There was BB dusting off his lenses, Tim tip-tapping away on the Expedition’s typewriter, composing what might be his last letter home. It was here they had put their affairs in order before entering Burma, preparing to go further than any overlander had ever been.

Since its inception, our journey’s whole purpose had been to bring Tim’s history back to life. But here in this garden of ghosts, I finally understood that, with Tim or without him, this was something

we could never really do. Here more than anywhere, we were so tantalizingly close to them, yet still so painfully distant – separated by the relentless passage of time. For a few brief minutes we had brought Tim’s voice back into this building, but nothing could bring back the four days he had spent here, filled with dreams of a future now long in the past.

I realized that from here on out, having abandoned hope of going west via Pakistan, we would soon be departing their route for thousands of kilometres until we re-joined it in Turkey. While they were near the final stage of their journey during their visit here, we were still only beginning ours – in the coming weeks, we would write a new story entirely.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, Mark Twain once wrote. Below me I watched a new generation of overlanders go about their business. Marcus and Larry huddled over a map discussing our onward journey. Leo, David and Tibie disassembled cameras and tripods before stacking them carefully in PAC. The Doc and Nat had Oxford’s bonnet propped open, no doubt checking on that dodgy carburettor.

I knew then that this was the right time to say goodbye – for now – to the First Overlanders. Rather than trying and repeatedly failing to relive the past, it was time to embrace the diversions that lay ahead and make some history of our own.

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