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From The Beginning

I’ve been itchy-footed ever since I was a kid in the 50’s, but I had always thought that overseas travel was just for the wealthy, and involved long, boring boat trips and posh hotels. Then, in my twenties, I discovered “First Overland” by Tim Slessor, a book published in 1957 (now back in print – buy it, it’s a great read!), which described the 1955 Oxford and Cambridge Overland Expedition from London to Singapore and back again in two Land Rovers. The idea that such a trip was actually possible thrilled me immensely, and I read and re-read the book until it literally fell apart.

In early 1964 I met Brian Powell and John Sheehan; a couple of young Australians who were planning to drive a VW Kombi van overland from Bombay (now Mumbai) to London, with a view to establishing an overland bus company (which at that stage they called “The Overlanders”) and who were seeking like-minded individuals to join them. I immediately put my hand up.

Enough people had responded to the idea for Brian and John to add a similarly sized Commer van to the expedition. We sailed from Sydney in the August of 1964, picking up the Kombi in Melbourne on the way and, via Singapore and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), arrived in Bombay a couple of weeks later, where the Commer awaited us. We attached a sign to it identifying us as “The Overlanders” and set off for London.

The two vans travelled virtually independently of each other, rendezvousing every few days so that we could exchange news or swap from van to van for a change of company. Most of us helped with the driving – probably in violation of all Brian’s insurance policies – and all helped push the vans through flood waters and soft desert sands. There was a lot of that.

In retrospect, August was not a good time to drive in India; the monsoon rains had flooded rivers and cut roads and we must have pushed the vans halfway across Rajahstan. We marvelled at all the sights and either camped out or slept in Dak bungalows - simple huts built in many small towns as accommodation for travelling officials or impecunious visitors - which charged us 10 cents a night, plus another 10 cents for dinner. We would arrive at dusk and start a game of touch football with the local kids, which amused the parents whilst they cooked our meal, and they would often return afterwards for an impromptu evening of song and dance. Wonderful! Later, taking turns, we might bathe under an ox-driven water wheel; four of us pushing the yoke bar around, two more catching the water in a bucket and throwing it over the lucky, soaped-up recipient.

We had hoped to visit Afghanistan, but were defeated by the flooded Indus River, so set off down the east bank trying to find a way across. Hearing of an emergency ferry which was making the crossing, we headed for the improvised pier – only to find it blocked by a broken-down truck. In a hurry, we all fell to and unloaded its cargo so as we could push it to one side and get past. The locals found this very amusing but we didn’t, as we found that the sacks were full of chillies, and the dust on our bare backs felt like a terminal dose of sunburn!

Eventually we managed to load the van aboard the good ship Indus Queen, captained by the redoubtable red-bearded Haji Mohammed Khan. Also travelling with us were farmers with their wives and children, camels, cows, donkeys and buffaloes, as well as a troupe of performing bears which entertained us on the voyage. It was a real Noah’s Ark! We eventually cast off and, for the next four hours, chugged slowly down and diagonally across the Indus, finally reaching the other side where we debarked and trundled off across the Baluchistan desert on our way to Persia (now Iran).

Halfway across the desert we camped beside a roadside thermal spring, which flowed through a series of cooling troughs for passers-by to drink.  We delightedly seized upon the opportunity to have a surreally luxurious hot bath in the middle of nowhere, and then fell contentedly asleep beneath the blazing stars upon a spread tarpaulin. We awoke the next morning to find the mute evidence of tyre tracks in the sand made by a single bicycle which, during the night, had approached us across the desert in a straight line, made a sudden frantic squiggle around our sleeping bodies, and then weaved off rather shakily over the horizon towards the Persian border beyond. The mental image of the sudden shock the unknown midnight cyclist must have felt was so funny that we laughed about it for days. And so it went on, three months of eye-opening wonder, adventure and surprise. There were also a few tough days, but the good times far outweighed the bad.

When we got to London we were mystified (but delighted) to be continually besieged by swarms of squealing girls!  Unfortunately, once they saw who we were, they would turn away in disappointment – they thought we were the “Overlanders” pop group, who also travelled in a Commer! Brian and John decided that a new name for the company was in order, but nothing suitable came to mind until we were driving into London along High Street Kensington a few days later, when, on a sudden inspiration, I said “How about the Sundowners?” Brian nearly went off the road with delight, and “Sundowners” it has been ever since!

The overland trip was a revelation to me, and emboldened me to undertake my own adventure travel. Over the next five years I worked in England and Spain, hitched around Europe and Israel, and drove a little 850 cc Austin Minivan from London to Morocco, across North Africa to Egypt and then 1,000 km up the Nile and back to Alexandria; sailing for Greece just before the Six Day War, and then back to London. I also found time to become engaged to Diana, my wife of over 40 years, then another drive from London to Greece and Gallipoli and back the following year, before we returned to Australia to get married, mortgaged and raise a family.

When I arrived home my parents asked “Well - have you got the travel bug out of your system now?” I replied “No – it’s worse than ever.” Fortunately, Diana (who rode the Trans Siberian Railway system from Moscow to Hong Kong in 1964, smuggling out forbidden pictures in her bra to sell to an Australian magazine), feels the same way.

Still itchy-footed forty years later, we recently joined the Sundowners’ Grand Asian Caravan expedition (see page 61) to celebrate my 70th birthday. We backpacked overland with a small group of like-minded romantics along the fabled Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, and the experience was just as exciting and surprising as before. But that is the nature of this kind of travel – to experience the delight of the unusual, the thrill of the unexpected and the joy of feeling the breeze of freedom in your face.

As my father often used to say:  “No experience, good or bad, is ever wasted”.

Cam Ford