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The Sundowners

A Short History of Not Knowing It wasn’t Possible!

It turns out not to be so easy to trace in any detail the origins of Sundowners.  It was, after all, somewhere around the middle of the last century.  And it is now as though it’s just beginning to acquire the aura of myth and legend which comes not with the absence of story but, more likely, with a labyrinth of them.

Just how and when and why seem reasonably established:  1964, and a group of Aussies setting off in a couple of combies to travel overland from Oz to the U.K. Did it already have the name? Apparently not.  The version most subscribed to is that it got that moniker along the way.

Were they motoring rather than flying? That popular assumption is wrong.  Ships, not planes, were the preferred conveyance at that time.  And it is definitely part of the folk-lore that these adventurers, not overly informed or worldly, had little idea what ‘easy pickings’ were the boat-loads of even less savvy Antipodeans who would arrive at Southampton to be whisked off to Kangaroo Alley, that is to say Earls Court, which was quickly becoming the Aussie ghetto in London.  And, if Western Europe…why not Eastern Europe too?  It seems it sometimes really pays to be either as ill-informed or as un-biased as those early Aussie adventurers. . . . had they not heard of The Iron Curtain, The Berlin Wall, The KGB and the rest of it, including the impossibility of getting visas?  Clearly not.

And who in England had included Turkey in British concepts of Europe?  Perhaps school had glossed over defeats, not least if it were mere colonials who suffered them.  Not so, however, a new generation - but not a new breed - of gallant farm-reared Aussies and Kiwis for whom ANZAC Cove raised tears and pride in equal order.

And so things took shape and the shape was The Sundowners.

Every successful business needs an inspirational concept and  Sundowners found three. Young Australia really got the travel bug big time and The Sundowners were arranging berths and flights, meet-and-greet programs on arrival in the UK, tours around Europe and, not least, the great adventure overland eastward beyond Turkey. The Sundowners coaches around Europe, and indeed Morocco, were robust enough to go beyond to Persia, Afghanistan and The Indian Sub-continent. . . . . and back again.  And so were an extraordinary bunch of cheerily indefatigable drivers and guides.  When it was finally time to head for home, the fun and value of the European tours, and the lure and ‘up-manship’ of arriving home after an adventure-studded trans-Asia journey captured many an Aussie heart and wallet.

But did that need to be it?  Didn’t we at The Sundowners, of all people, know how to conjure up Soviet visas?  Didn’t Thai by then fly out of Australia via Bangkok to Japan, and didn’t Japan have a sea link with the Soviet Far East?  It was Nahodka in those days – Vladivostok so hush-hush it didn’t officially exist.  And it would be good if there were a Trans-Siberian Railway we could travel on!   And while we are at it, let’s talk with the Mongolians (with whom we share a nomadic spirit).

And thus that same failure to believe it can’t be done kicked in. And there in a nut-shell you have the earliest days of The Sundowners

The Sundowners time-line was also registering stuff like the Six Day and The Yom Kippur Wars, India verse Pakistan (no, not cricket), the tensions with the Ayatollah’s Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Sundowners were turned to by The Soviets, in a last gasp effort of state tourism, to pioneer new routes beyond The Trans-Siberian.  Finally we were issued with less restrictive visas allowing us into the so-called ‘Stan Sates’, Azerbaijan and Georgia.  Here was the magic of Bokhara and Samarkand and Khiva, Dagestan and The Caucasus.

I have in particular a classic memory of an Australian Pole returning with us to his enforced lodging in Tashkent, having previously arrived there in 1942 by cattle truck whilst fleeing the prospect of a far grimmer Nazi alternative.  We searched: “I’m sure this is the place”, he said, knocking. Tears welled in his eyes and a woman of about his age opened the weary courtyard door with first a frowning askance and then a shriek of disbelief.

Those same ‘Stan States’ remain out of the political lime-light like they have always been.  But just a minute, Marco Polo wouldn’t agree with a word of that.  Surely their mighty cities straddled the known-world’s grandest corridor where fabulous trade was arguably less valuable than the ideas and concepts that made their way along it.  Indeed, the story of Sundowners is inextricably linked to the story of The Silk Road.

Was it all gung-ho and daring do?  Probably not. . . there was, I remember, an awful lot of hard grind and broken half-shafts and sputtering diesel pumps and the picking a way through a farcical charade of red-tape (or sometimes not quite managing to and not absolutely never without a $50 bill in the back of one’s  passport).  That then: that was the way things were.  This now:  this is the way things are.  Adventure has not been redefined; but just as Marco Polo would have found our early days more scripted and technologically advanced so, exponentially, is today’s  computerized, professionally proficient operation.  But the Adventure?  The dreams that Sundowners has been made from?  This is the same Adventure.  These are the same dreams. They have always been Sundowners, are Sundowners, and surely they will be at the heart of Sundowners for a long time to come.

In this new era, and with huge challenges, when it is far, far more positively understood that Russian and Chinese and American and European and Australasian can and must, with everyone else, share this finite planet responsibly, The Sundowners story - some of it based on not knowing it wasn’t possible - is not entirely an inappropriate metaphor.

Tony Jones