I'd really caught the rally bug but couldn't find any events to match those I'd already done. It was time to strike out on my own. I looked at a map and found the furthest I could drive from the UK before reaching water was Singapore, from there I would head on to Australia and so 'Overland to Oz' was born. My route would take me through some potentially volatile areas; so I opted for a car which would make people smile, the now infamous Pedro the Baja Bug. Pedro was a rust free Californian car from San Francisco. Left hand drive would be a bit of a nuisance in the UK but wouldn't matter once I was out of the country.
On 4th July 2009 Rica and I set off from the Goodwood Festival of Speed on a journey that would be daunting in any vehicle but in a 40 year old Beetle was quite possibly insane. Our first Breakdown was later that day at the Channel Tunnel terminal! The starter motor which had worked perfectly for months chose day 1 to pack up! We weren't prepared to head back so hit it with a hammer and diverted to a VW drag race event in Belgium. There Pedro worked his magic and the Crazy Canuck drag racers invited him into their pit garage for repairs.
It took us an hour to find a parking space near Dubrovnik's old town walls but we weren't disappointed. Mr mad, bad and dangerous to know himself, Lord Byron, named the city the Pearl of the Adriatic. Bernard Shaw called it paradise on earth; it had a lot to live up to. We weren't disappointed, losing ourselves in the cobbled streets and sampling the local ice cream while gazing out at the sparkling sea.
Driving higher into the Montenegrin mountains the climate turned tropical. Long, rough hewn, tunnels cut through the steep slopes to the Kosovan border. At the top we were greeted by children selling blueberries which turned our mouths and fingers inky blue. It was in that state we met our hosts for the next few days in Kosovo; the Mines Awareness Trust. The MAT headquarters are in Peja where we were invited to stay and to tour the landmine clearance projects we were fundraising for on our travels.
It was wonderful to see where our donations were going. The de-miners enjoyed meeting us too, they said usually only serious men with beards visit the minefields. They even gave me the honour of blowing up that days finds, two grenades and one mortar bomb.
It took us just a few hours to drive across the tiny country of Macedonia, even so customs wanted us to buy insurance to drive across their country to the Greek border. I'm not sure if Rica genuinely believed Macedonia was part of the European Union or if she just said it was to get out of paying $50 to drive for 3 hours. Either way it worked and she managed to convince the officials that our European green card covered us!
In Greece we met the Zwiad 4x4 club from Poland. They had driven from their homeland to Turkey and were on their way back when they spotted our Beetle. Their Land Rovers were fully equipped for off-roading and towered over Pedro. "We thought we were hard core till we met you." they laughed, shaking their heads in disbelief.
Rica and I parted company in Istanbul. As an American she couldn't get a visa for Iran so flew ahead to meet me in Lahore. Once clear of Ankara the roads deteriorated rapidly; the chalk dust kicked up from the road surface choked the carbs till I had to find a garage to clean it all out. It was worth it when I reached the incredible rock formations of Cappadocia though with its fairy chimney's and cave dwellings.
Crossing from Turkey into Iran meant passing Mount Ararat, fabled resting place of Noah's Ark! The Iranian immigration hall was chaos, soldiers shouted at me as, unaccustomed to my headscarf, it kept slipping. Then I heard someone shouting my name across the crowded room. I spotted a tall, white man waving at me as we were both swept away in different directions. George and Andy met me on the road from the border; they were taking part in the Mongolian charity rally. They had seen my car parked outside immigration and it hadn't taken much to figure out I was the only white lady.
Contrary to the impression given by the media I found Iran to be a wonderful, friendly country. Pedro drew smiles wherever I went and I received more offers of hospitality than I could ever accept. On one occasion I had stopped in a garage to clean the carb out again when I man called Ali stopped and helped translate for me. He invited me to join his family for lunch. I was a little dubious about following a strange man back to his house but I needn't have worried; his wife Roya waited at the door....in jeans, strappy T-shirt and hair falling around her shoulders! She was the first Iranian woman I had seen without a headscarf; it's illegal for women to be seen in public without a headscarf. Roya got round this by keeping her feet in the house as she leant out of the door waving. That night I met the rest of the family for an Iranian style al fresco dinner at her sisters house.
No visit to Iran would have been complete without visiting Persepolis; one of the oldest civilisations on earth; dating from around 515bc! The heat reached a sweltering 50 degrees as I walked around the ruined city. Luckily I'd found a tree to park Pedro under and a young girl had given me a sun visor to protect my face from the rays.
I would have loved to have visited the mud citadel of Bam but the city was devastated by a major earthquake in 2003 which killed over 26,000 people! Six years later when I visited signs of the destruction were still apparent. I hadn't planned to stay in the town, once a thriving tourist destination but now guest houses are few and far between; however Pedro had different plans. The throttle cable snapped leaving Pedro and I stranded at the roadside until help arrived. The police towed me to Ali's guest house then found a mechanic to come out and replace the cable.
Border crossings are rarely fun and leaving Iran was no exception however entering Pakistan was a different story. This was the country I had been most concerned about visiting, such is the nature of the media coverage seen in the west. Iran, although very welcoming and hospitable, is a very foreign culture. As strange as it may seem, given the heat and desert terrain, entering Pakistan felt like coming home. I drove across the border to be greeted by three policemen, grinning at Pedro. As soon as they knew I was English I was invited to join them for tea and talk about cricket. In the customs office there was more tea and biscuits and I was assigned the first of many police escorts I would be given across the country. This was because of the Taliban presence in nearby Afghanistan and occasional trouble with tribal leaders kidnapping tourists. They explained that the tribal leaders had never hurt their hostages and in fact treated them very well but it was not good for Pakistan's international reputation, so they did their best to prevent it.
It was in the Baluchistan Desert that Pedro had his first and only puncture of the rally. There was no shortage of offers to help and while my police escorts took the wheel to have my puncture repaired I was invited into a nearby, mud brick home. After more tea and snacks my puncture had been repaired and the wheel changed for me. No charge just best wishes to enjoy my stay in Pakistan. Petrol was bought from the roadside in plastic containers, black market fuel smuggled in from Iran where it was only 10p a litre! The roads were so bad that sometimes even the trucks got stuck. Pakistan has the most beautiful trucks in the world, ornately decorated with artwork and tiny jangling bells.
In Quetta I was hospitalised for two days after eating a dodgy kebab! The other ladies in the ward crowded around my bed, stroking my hair and patting my hands. The nurse translated that they thought I was beautiful and wanted to know what shampoo and skin cream I used and if I was married. She joked that they were all looking for a wife for their sons. Pedro suffered too; we had to ford a river where the bridge was still under construction. Something under the water caught the front edge of the sump guard and bent it backwards under the car. The road workers ran over to help me repair it. They explained to me why Pakistani's are so fond of the British. "You built all our bridges, hospitals, railways, schools, roads" There seemed to be a genuine nostalgia for colonial days when the system worked and they didn't suffer power cuts five times a day.
Rica and I were reunited in Lahore, she'd been staying with a family she found via the couchsurfing website. We'd both had such an incredible experience and joined in the chant of 'Pakistan Zindeban - my heart is Pakistan' at the Wagha border closing ceremony.
Flag lowering ceremony at the Pakistan - India border crossing, Wagha.
We had both fallen in love with Pakistan; me with the wilds of the country and the warmth of the people I met there and Rica with cosmopolitan city life, hanging out with young socialites in Lahore and Islamabad. It was time for our adventure to move on though and India was calling, after tackling Delhi traffic and dodgy police we headed straight for the country's most famous landmark. The Taj Mahal did not disappoint, there were lots of people there but the vast gardens didn't feel crowded and no one stole our shoes when we entered the mausoleum. India was fascinating and Varanasi more than most places we visited. We took a cruise along the river Ganges where our boatmen told us stories of the Hindu religion and how only a person who had lived a good life could be cremated on the ghats. All others were disposed of in the river, along with the ashes from the cremations. Despite this people washed in the waters, believing them to be holy.
All too soon we were moving on to our next country; Nepal. We limped in to Kathmandu leaving a trail of oil behind us. Something was very wrong! Luckily for us, back in the 60's, the 'hippy trail' led many travellers to Nepal. By far the most popular means of transport for the flower power pilgrimage were old VW Beetles and campers. Most have now been restored by local enthusiasts who have built a huge VW scene deep in the Himalayas! We were able to find a specialist who gave Pedro a thorough going over, including partial engine and brake rebuilds! The Association of Nepal Beetle Users Group, known as AN Bug, paid us a visit and stickered up Pedro. There was plenty of time for sight-seeing and finalising our permits for Tibet while Pedro was in sick bay too.
Entering China through Tibet required a mountain of paperwork, visas, permits and money! It seemed like everybody had their hand out and there was a general belief that all westerners are rich capitalists who deserved to be fleeced in this way. Government policy meant we were not allowed to travel independently and would have to be accompanied by a guide. It was the single most expensive part of the whole journey; we paid a fortune for tour company NAVO to send us a guide who was not only unhelpful and incompetent but obstructive. He seemed intent on ruining our trip. It was clear he had a low opinion of westerners and an even lower opinion of Tibetans, which he voiced whenever we wanted to visit Tibetan restaurants or admired traditional costume and customs. He did his best but nothing was going to stop me from reaching the world's tallest mountain! I hadn't driven all the way to Tibet to be stopped from reaching Mount Everest by an incompetent guide!
Highlights from India, Nepal and Tibet
In Shigatse we had to visit the police station where I was tested and given a medical to obtain my Chinese driving license. A tense time considering I was suffering from altitude sickness, fortunately the 'tests' were a breeze. Pedro's roadworthy test didn't tax him either and we spent most of our time posing for photos and letting the police sit in the car for photos. Our guide kept trying to take us to expensive Chinese run hotels, insisting they were the only ones in town. Rica and I, both seasoned travellers, took matters into our own hands. We found a lovely hotel for just 150rmb, much less than the 800rmb one that our guide had wanted to go to! We were in for a surprise when we visited the hotel 'spa' though. Rica wanted to go for a massage; the lad on reception didn't speak English so we mimed our request. It was only when a scantily clad hooker arrived to massage my feet that we realised our mistake! It was a very good massage though, even if our tour of the facilities was an eye opener!
After 10 days in Lhasa we got to know the prostitutes quite well; they even learnt to say 'Hello' in English and invited us to join them for beer on the steps of the brothel. We had only intended spending a few days in Lhasa but our tour company, despite having taken £1000's from us, refused to let us continue. Chinese law meant we couldn't continue alone and our guide was holding all the permits anyway. We were forced to send Pedro to the Laos border while we flew out of China. The truck would take longer than us to reach Boten and we both wanted to visit Borneo, so took a side trip to Kuching (Cat in Malay) to visit the nearby Orang-utan sanctuary.
Rica waited in Vientienne while I took a series of buses north to the Laos border town of Boten. Pedro wasn't there yet and Boten is basically a Chinese run casino exploiting the Laos people. I chose to wait in nearby Luang Namtha instead where an aussie traveller and I hired scooters to explore the local countryside. All was going well until a rainstorm soaked us and I hit a muddy puddle at speed, winding up in the Laos jungle with the bike on top of me! I got away with just bruising and we made it back to town in time for dinner at the food market.
Once reunited with Pedro I turned south again. In Luang Prabang I couldn't resist stopping at a guest house with a VW camper parked out front; when darkness fell the camper opened up as a bar! Lots of bargains were to be had in the Night Market where I met a German lady who was cycling around South East Asia.
In Vientienne I was reunited with Rica and we visited the second of the charities we were fundraising for; the COPE centre. COPE provide prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation for landmine victims. Laos was bombed heavily during the Vietnam war and the countryside is still littered with unexploded ordnance.
The final leg of our journey through Thailand and Malaysia was a blur of karaoke and wildlife parks. We visited floating markets in Thailand and Pedro's milometer ticked round to 00000, he'd gone completely round the clock! In Malaysia I teamed up with Kiwi, Nikkie, to visit a native village, an elephant sanctuary and the wonderful Deerland. I've never been a fan of zoos but Deerland was a great advert for happy animals who showed genuine affection for their keepers and the park owner who showed us around personally. After surviving an earthquake (I didn't even know that's what it was at the time) we limped into Singapore with a severe oil leak! I had been topping the oil up every 20 minutes and had visited plenty of garages but the fault seemed terminal! Pedro was shipped home from Singapore while I took a short flight to visit friends and relatives in Australia.
Beetle Drive, the book of this journey, is available to buy on Amazon. Read a preview here: read.amazon.co.uk/kp/embed?asin=B00I0FFWBE&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_0Slkyb6Z45MH5&tag=easterbyf-20