THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER ONE: THE OVERLANDERS
I am a voracious reader as well as a prolific writer and I can rarely resist browsing through any type of reading material which comes to hand. I occasionally leafed through some of my mother’s women’s magazines when no one was looking. I secretly read the advice column to the lovelorn, always hoping to learn something about those fascinating, mysterious and bewildering creatures who actually write to and buy the magazine. I usually finished the page convinced that I knew exactly what “worried from Birmingham” really needed, and it was not moral advice from Aunt Ethel. However, that isn't the point. The point is that it was in one of those magazines that I unexpectedly found an article entitled THE WORLD’S MOST FABULOUS BUS RIDE. Plus a string of sub-titles which said: It costs £100. It covers 10,000 miles. It takes two months. And it's run by a 26-year-old girl. That was the first I had ever heard or the Overlanders.
I read on. The twenty-six year old girl was Janet Hammond from Kent who had already run twelve overland coach trips to India and then on to Nepal. The whole thing sounded a fine idea, and although I would normally steer clear of an organized coach trip the article stressed that there was no rigid schedule. Later I was to remember that bit as a wry joke. It appeared that the party camped out, cooked their own food, everybody mucked in with the chores, and no one over forty was allowed aboard. I visualized a cheerful, travelling youth hosted, a sort of Garden City on wheels, and so I decided that I would go to India. By this time of course, Garden City had become a fond and distant joke and an invaluable part of my bar-room conversation.
I wrote to the magazine for more details, obtained Janet’s address and wrote again. Next came a meeting of all prospective future travelers at Janet‘s dress shop in Chatham, and I remember thinking that they looked a wholly unlikely lot. There were about forty of us, men and girls, farmers, salesmen, secretaries and nurses, and not one of them who looked anything like an intrepid overland traveler. Then I realized that I looked the least intrepid traveler of them all, took the plunge and parted with my eighty-five pounds. The price had come down because this trip was only aiming for Kabul. India and Pakistan had recently had their little dust-up with tanks and jets over the Kashmir issue and their border was still closed.
I never really regretted it, even though both coaches developed punctures the first day out and one coach never finished the journey at all, and that unlikely looking lot proved to be as cheerful a bunch of companions as anyone could have wished for. They are widely scattered now, but if any of them should ever read this then here’s “Cheers and good health,” to the lot of you, especially the old drinking school.
We left England on the seventh of September 1966, just in time to escape the coming fogs and snows. At Chatham where we joined the two coaches there was just time for a farewell pint in the nearest pub. At Dover there was time for another. On the Channel crossing we reminded ourselves that there would be no more British beer and quickly had another. That first morning in Belgium while the first flat tyre was being fixed in a garage there was time to find an adjacent bar, and by that time I knew who my friends were.
There were seven of us in the school, the Not-Quite-So- Magnificent-Seven, and I’ll list them in alphabetical order. There was Allan, from Ireland, Dick from London, Doug, from North of the Border, George, from Newcastle, Jim from Cornwall, and Stan who was returning home to Mount Asa in Australia. It may be noticed that none of them came from a particularly teetotal area, but I who made the seventh can proudly say that I upheld the honor of Suffolk in their thirsty company.
We had decided that the ice needed to be broken to turn the two coach-loads of strangers into one happy family, and for our part we broke it most heartily all the way to Istanbul.
My diaries are mostly vague and illegible for that first part of the trip. Europe was old stuff and I had promised myself that I wasn't going to use up any of my film or note- books until we reached Turkey. We averaged about two hundred miles a day and Janet had three drivers, Roger, Jim and John, who alternated at the wheels of the two buses. The rest of us gossiped, told jokes, held sing-songs, played chess and cards, and once even held a conker tournament up and down the aisles. Someone had thoughtfully brought along a book entitled, “How To Amuse Children On Long Car Rides.” We also had Uncle Dave who daily read us a chapter from Winnie the Pooh, complete with actions, faces and voices. The golden rule was never to sit in the same seat for more than two days running, which meant that we were constantly shifting about around the luggage and never got bored by talking all the time to the same face.
At night we would invade the nearest camping site, whereupon chaos reigned. The lads milled around and erected tents, none of which ever went up straight, while the girls flocked around in an equally disorderly bunch to peel, scrape and cook the evening meal. We had six, spluttering primus stoves which it was also the male privilege to attend, and there were times when I felt convinced that all six of them had seen service on all of Janet’s previous expeditions to Katmandu. Our supper was always soup-potatoes-and-spam, soup-potatoes-and- pilchards, or stew. It became a monotonous diet but Janet insisted that it contained all the necessary proteins and think of the poor Chinese who ate nothing but rice. I thought about the poor Chinese but it was still a monotonous diet, but we weren’t paying a-la-carte prices. Breakfast was always porridge but I rarely saw any of that. My breakfast at that time was always black coffee.
After supper there was always a general movement, spear- headed by the Not-Quite-So-Magnificent-Seven, to the camp bar. They were memorable evenings and I can vividly remember standing on a chair to sing “We All Live In A Blue And Yellow Bus,” to the massed company. The theme may sound familiar but I don't think that I infringed anybody’s copyright, for I had written all new verses and I couldn't sing in tune anyway. On the way back to camp that night I cheerfully molested one of the girls in the dark, woke up most of the camp in searching for her sandal which had come adrift in the long grass; and woke up the next morning feeling deservedly ill and unable to face anybody.
On another occasion Gerald sneakily taped a stag session that we held one night when there were no girls present. We were really merry that night, and next morning I had the horror of hearing my own voice loudly bawling rugby songs from inside the red bus. It was all about two dozen innocent young ladies who came down from Inverness to attend a certain ball, and the whole thing was punctuated by Doug loudly trying to organize a round of beers. Needless to say those same girls whom we had so carefully respected when they were in our company were all sitting in the red bus and chuckling over the tape recorder.
Salzburg I remember not so much for its beautiful setting and the majestic castle that crowns the town, but because there was an excellent beer garden half way down the castle hill.
Vienna was a fleeting impression of age-old grandeur and sedate calm, and the feeling that one day I must return and spend the time to see it properly. Yugoslavia was long and dull and flat, and Belgrade struck me as a most cheerless place. Bulgaria was a little better, but although Sofia was draped with national and communist flags to welcome a visiting President from Czechoslovakia there was still and impression of drabness underneath. Both capitals appeared drained of any source of humor and gaiety, and I noticed that the bookshops contained only political and technical works.
Gerald came back with a book entitled, “Teach Yourself To Read English Newspapers,” which was full of select pieces, mostly from the Daily Worker, with accompanying translations in the local language. The editors had drawn heavily upon the thirties and every item was about Britain's starving poor, strikes and labor troubles. Later items idolized the likes of Jack Dash and damned the rest of us as greedy capitalists, and it made amusing reading until it was realized that the Bulgarians for whom it was intended would be unable to see the joke.
I was glad to get out of the communist world and cross the frontier into Turkey. We camped for the night at Edirne which was mostly a horsey smell and a final night of wine-drinking. By the time we returned to camp we were spread out across the road with half the wondering Turkish population in tow, and Dick was leading us in a rousing version of ''She Went Into The Water And She Got Her Ankles Wet.” Dylis, Tessa and Caroline had joined us that night, and I’ll swear that they sang louder than the rest of us.
Next came Istanbul and we stopped at Florya on the Sea of Mamara which I remembered so well. We stayed there three days and on the first night I was automatically appointed guide to Doug, Jo and Pippa. We saw the Blue Mosque but mostly we were searching for a changey-money-johnny, for Istanbul has a moderate black market in currency. Finally it was a changey-money-johnny who found us. He was all gold teeth and moustache and told us that he knew an English girl in Manchester. It's remarkable how all the pimps, touts and changey-money-johnnies in the Middle East all seem to know an English girl in Manchester. They use the claim as a sort of conversational passport to acceptance. Anyway, we changed what money we needed and continued on our way feeling rich. The girls, both returning to down-under and with the usual Aussie appetites, bought a mess of sickly caramel cakes and something that tasted like honeyed shredded wheat, which we ate as we walked along. We wandered as much of the city as was possible and then returned to camp.
My diaries get more detailed and legible after that, mainly because after Istanbul there were no more camp sites and no more bars. We simply pulled off the road into the desert to sleep out under the stars. It was time to quit drinking anyway, because we were all feeling hung-over and bleary-eyed. I even tried to get an early night’s sleep on our second night at Florya, but that was a waste of time. I lay awake and moaned at a bunch or noisy soldiers kicking up the same sort of racket that I usually made. Then Jean came along, cheerfully tipped me off my air-bed, and rolled me along the ground in my sleeping bag: She ran off fast before I could get out and catch her, and I had barely dropped off again before Christine came along and hauled me out because she needed a docile male to help her erect a tent. Why she needed a tent I don't know, because everybody else had dispensed with them, but after that I crawled under the bus and slept there out of the way.
On Wednesday, September the twenty-first, we left Istanbul and crossed the Bosporus into Asia. Naturally at least two Overlanders had to miss the ferry; they were Jean and Cherry who were waving frantically as we sailed away. We had to wait on the far side until they came over on the next crossing and then we drove on across Turkey towards Bolu. The scenery was mostly of low sloping hills, some of them green and some barren, with small patches of cultivated land. We passed some Gipsies camped by the roadside with a dancing bear, but most of the time I was half asleep. I revived around dusk and there was just time for George to beat me at chess before we stopped to make camp in the mountains. At that time everybody was beating me at chess.
The bus had been climbing steadily in darkness when at last we arrived and pulled off the road. The red bus rolled up a few minutes later, and the girls peeled vegetables by torchlight while the rest of us hunted for wood to build our first camp fire. We soon had a roaring blaze which included two six-foot lengths of telegraph pole that some intrepid hero had dragged up out of the night. It all crackled beautifully, sparks cascaded up into the sky, and after we had wolfed our stew we all gathered round for a rowdy sing-song.
We had picked up a new passenger in Istanbul, Big John who only accompanied us as far as Beirut, but he had a guitar and for the first time our singing had some accompaniment. At one stage Roger lit a golden spray firework, no doubt especially reserved for such a festive occasion, and it was very late before we all broke it up and groped around to find our sleeping bags.
The next morning we drove on to Ankara. The scenery was practically empty of life. There were rugged hills decked with small bushes and occasional pines, and once high, frowning, rock and pine-splashed slopes that reminded me of the Epirus Mountains in Greece. We passed some small flocks of grubby sheep, and herds or dull brown, scrawny cows. At intervals the buses stopped for what Janet delicately termed, “ twinkle time,” a phrase that eventually inspired me into poetry:
Twinkle, twinkle, in the trees,
I can see your bright pink knees,
I wonder is this pose habitual,
Or perhaps this is some ancient ritual.
You smile as though it's almost pleasant,
But look out, here comes a Turkish peasant.
He's spotted you behind the bushes,
Oh my but how the poor chap blushes.
Away he speeds with beetroot face,
Straight for town at frantic pace.
To tell with wonder and with awe,
Of the strangest thing he saw.
Scattered o'er the hillsides bare,
All radiant with relief sublime,
When Janet calls for Twinkle time.''
As the trip progressed “twinkle” stops became noticeably longer as we waited for the shy ones to return from the empty desert horizons, and by the time we reached Kabul I don't think anyone had any inhibitions left.
Ankara turned out to be a widely-spaced city of sprawling streets, lacking both charm and character like all new capitals. I wasn't particularly sorry that we had only a few hours to spend there and was much more fascinated by the fairy chimney valley of Goreme which we visited the following day. One guidebook describes it as an eerie and bewildering moonscape, and I can't improve upon that.
The whole region is one of fantastic cones and hollows, carved by natural erosion from the many-colored volcanic rocks. The cones are all riddled with caves that form tombs and dwelling places and over three hundred larger chambers designed as churches. There are thousands of caves, most of them now empty, but they were inhabited by an early Christian community who settled here soon after the time of Christ. Christians were a minority then, so presumably they choose this unusual and isolated lunar valley to escape religious persecution.
There are some very fine paintings on the rock walls and domed ceilings inside the church caves, and the people who made them must have lived a weird and troglodyte, hermit and religious existence. Now the jagged cones with their pock-marked caves and doorways resemble giant, deserted ant-heaps scattering the dusty floor of the valley.
We spent two hours in exploring part of this fascinating maze, and at least half the party advised me that I ought to use the location as a setting for one of my thrillers.
In one or the larger honeycombed cones we found a wide chimney ascending steeply upwards. It was reached by climbing through a hole in the ceiling of the ground floor chamber to a second level, and from there the bright circle of daylight was some twenty feet further up. I hauled myself up cautiously, followed by Doug and Dick, and although the exit hole needed some tricky maneuvering we at last struggled out on to the top.
There we found that there was an easy path up on the outside, and Veronica and Bridgit were already sitting up there, admiring the view over the valley and calmly writing their postcards. Then, just to demonstrate that the hard way up wasn't so difficult after all, Dilys and Christine followed us up the chimney. Dilys always seemed to be in all the unlikely places and much later when I explored a cave full of tiny flying foxes in Malaya it was Dilys who wandered in behind me.
We left Goreme and drove on through South East Turkey. The country was poor and in many places semi-desert. The towns were small and many of the villages were no more than a crude collection of low walls and mud brick huts. The people were small and dark, almost Arabic in their dress, and many of the country women were veiled. In the towns we found that now a small crowd would gather round the bus to stare with blank curiosity whenever we stopped and as we progressed through the Middle East the staring crowds became larger and more blatantly rude. Perhaps the girls shouldn't have worn their shorts, although they put skirts on top whenever they left the bus.
That night a deluge of rain obliged us to pitch most of the tents, although quite a few of the Overlanders had decided that it was easier to sleep inside the buses if the night threatened wet or cold. I was one of the latter, having found that my air-bed fitted most comfortably across the seats, but tonight Jean was plagued by an upset stomach so I surrendered my air-bed and took her camp bed to join Andrew in a tent. By this time most of the party were gulping down their Entero-vyoform as they went down with tummy troubles one by one, but my stomach was hardened after Egypt and I had only two rough days in the whole six months of traveling.
But to return to that night in Turkey: I awoke at about four o'clock in the morning to the ominous sensation of cold rain water trickling gently around my right hip bone. It was pitch dark, the rain was lashing down, the side of my sleeping bag was soaked, and it was obviously time to abandon tent.
Such is the reward of gallantry. I noted that Andrew still appeared to be asleep and dry, and so I left him and made a dive through the downpour for the bus. Uncle Dave, Vivien and a few others all shot bolt upright in the seats as I blundered in, no doubt expecting an invasion of bloodthirsty Turks, but finally I settled down on the front seat. There was no more sleep that night for without the now-wet sleeping bag it was too cold to do more than doze. I was glad when the darkness brightened slowly into dawn, even though it was still pouring with rain, and for the first and only time I was up early enough to give a hand in messing about with the primus stoves and preparing breakfast. I innocently asked Janet how does one transform dry oats into wet porridge and she shuddered from her sleeping position under the bus and said that this morning we wouldn't bother, coffee would be sufficient.
However, the primus stoves were pumped into life. Uncle Dave took three of them into the bus while Derek and I crouched over the remaining three inside the cramped alcove of a small water fountain nearby. There was water everywhere that morning. Various bodies began to appear, bedraggled, dripping, “ughing,” and running for the buses. A sudden burst of hilarity had both Janet and Gerald filming rapidly with their cine cameras through the bus windows, and through the deluge I could just distinguish Malcolm struggling out of a collapsed and soggy tent. All in all it was a crazy morning and Janet was impatient to get the buses packed and drive away. When we did so there were wet sleeping bags hanging everywhere.
The weather cleared during the day, and by the afternoon the scenery became mountainous again as we passed through the Taurus ranges. It was all violently beautiful with high, grey rock walls and great slopes of dark green pines. The steep climbs made the old blue bus grind slowly, and we passed the red bus which was boiling over. After several hours we descended once more to a flat plain, and then rolled through Adana, Turkey’s third largest city.
When we left Adana it was dark, but a fierce electrical storm was raging and every few seconds our surroundings were lit up as brightly as by day. Thunder and lightning boomed behind a thick bank of white cloud, and the flashing streaks would wriggle brilliantly through the shielding barrier. We had intended to drive down to the Mediterranean to camp overnight on the beach at Payas, but our luck was out. We stopped for diesel and learned that the Payas road was completely blocked by a landslide.
There was no other convenient place to camp, and as the storm and the driving rain that had now joined it made any further driving unsafe both buses pulled up beside the garage for the night. Supper was simply soup, crackers and cheese, but a bottle of Slivovitch plum brandy was passed round to make the night bearable. To cheer us up we had a special reading of “Winnie the Pooh”, from Uncle Dave, and I told the only worthwhile stories I know which were suitable for mixed company. After that we made ourselves as comfortable as we could for the night, and I slept on top of the luggage that was piled on three of the centre seats.
The following morning dawned reasonably bright and the road climbed straight up into more mountains. It was soon clear why Roger had not been prepared to drive on through the stormy darkness for the road became a zig-zagging series or hairpin bends with some fearsome drops falling away from the very edge of the road. The descent into the vast valley beyond was even more hair-raising, and at one stage we had to back up to give room to a climbing lorry on the narrow road.
Shortly after we had made our noon stop for lunch the bus began pulling badly. We stopped and Derek and Jim hauled the floorboards up and began poking about with the engine. I helped by staying out of the way. I'm not the mechanically minded type, and when I tinker with engines I invariably end up with a mess of pieces left over which refuse to fit anywhere. Derek reported that the trouble was something to do with the injectors, but they couldn't fix it either. The bus finally struggled on, but she wouldn't pull up the hills fully laden and we all had to get out and walk.
We created quite a stir as we straggled upwards in a disorderly line through a small village where the whole population came out to watch us pass. My beard seemed to excite more comment than the girl's shorts, and at the time I supposed that they had never seen a ginger beard before. It proved a long hike up that first hill, and at the start I don't think any of us fully realized that we were expected to hitch or hike the forty odd kilometers to the Syrian border where the red bus which had gone ahead would have to wait for us.
Dick, Pippa, Vivien and I were bringing up the rear when we were lucky enough to get a lift in a Dormobile that came rattling up behind us. As we progressed up the hill we quickly gathered up a full load of Overlanders until there were about ten of us squeezed inside. We waved gaily to the not-so-lucky ones still walking, and then sailed majestically past our slowly puffing bus. A little later we passed Andrew who had got ahead of the field and was now standing in solitary splendor in the back of a stationary lorry. We continued up into the mountains, and when the Dormobile dumped us down and turned off the main road Andrew’s lorry came along and picked us all up again. The lorry had a load of black sand in the back but we piled in nonetheless.
By this time it was getting dark, and cold. The girls were wearing thin blouses' and Uncle Dave and I had left our shirts in the bus. The wind whipped through the canvas hood of the lorry and soon we were all decidedly shivery. The lorry stopped again to pick up a young Turk who smiled at us all and politely offered the loan of his jacket. I equally politely allowed Uncle Dave to accept the offer, and a little later I was sitting on the spare wheel with my arms around Vivien and Jean, purely for mutual warmth of course. I was happy until the ride came to an end and we all had to clamber out on to the winding road.
Now it was pitch dark and we were stranded, nobody quite knew where, in the wilds of the Turkish mountains, still some ten miles from the Syrian border.
We started off by alternately walking and running, which helped to keep us warm. Then finally we linked arms and strung ourselves over the width of the road, playing at high stepping chorus girls and singing rowdy songs to frighten off any lurking Turkish bandits in the night. It was all an adventure, even though we were lost and freezing, and I can quite understand why foreigners talk of mad dogs and Englishmen.
We flagged down a passing car but found that it was already full of Overlanders. However, they promised to send the red bus back to collect all the stragglers once they reached the border. Another mile or so and we came to a police post where the Turkish police took us inside and gave us shelter. We had only been there about ten minutes when there was a shout from Jean and Cherry who had elected themselves to stand the first watch in order to wave down whichever of our two buses should eventually appear. It was not the red bus returning but our own blue bus chugging slowly along in low gear. Now that the road had become more level we could get back on board, so we quickly said goodbye to the friendly policemen.
Just as quickly we had a minor celebration. I had a bottle or wine which was passed round, and after everyone had had a swig Jean and I took what was left into the back seat and killed the bottle. Uncle Dave handed round another bottle of Slivovitch and Anne had a bottle of Marachino which was almost as fiery.
By the time we reached the Syrian frontier I was in the mood to continue, and as most of the Not-So-Magnificent-Seven had managed to find a bar I promptly joined them. We all had odd notes of Turkish Lire to dispose of so we made a session of it. Tomorrow, we told ourselves, we would cross the Syrian frontier into the Middle East and the world or Islam where there would definitely be no more alcohol. This was the fear which had inspired our drinking all the way from Dover, and the excuse still seemed valid.