Michael Palin embarked Around the World in 80 Days in 1988 and again from Pole to Pole in 1991. My wife and I were avid watchers of his adventures on BBC TV. And inspired by Palin, we left England to travel overland to Australia following his “Pole to Pole” route and means of transport in 1995.
My wife and I had set off backpacking from Sydney, Australia, in 1987. We lived and worked in England, and it was our base to explore the UK and Europe and, further afield, the Middle East and Africa. But by 1995, we were both homesick for family and the warmth (and reliability) of Australian summers and ready to return home.
We had always planned to end our time overseas with a long journey. And a 1958 edition of First Overland by Tim Slessor I found for 25 pence at a secondhand book market had us fantasising about driving a Land Rover from west to east.
But while the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition’s route through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan was adventurous in the mid-1950s, it was dangerous (if not impossible) in the 1990s. So, we reorientated our planning to north-south through Africa and shopped for a Land Rover.
Larry Land Rover
In 1990 my wife and I bought a lime green Land Rover Series III station wagon and named it “Larry”. We kitted out the back for storage and sleeping and went on trial camping trips, including the Isle of Wight.
Just starting “Larry’s” diesel engine to drive to the shops felt like setting off on an adventure. Albeit a slow and noisy one that didn’t win us any friends on the motorways.
After 18 months of route planning and playing overland travellers, however, my wife and I began to doubt we’d be capable of driving through Africa. One problem was my lack of mechanical expertise — when things broke on “Larry”, even something simple, like the window wipers, I couldn’t fix them. (“Hello, is that the RAC?”)
And then our doubts were confirmed by Palin’s Pole to Pole.
Shifting Sands – Sudan to Ethiopia
Pole to Pole first aired on BBC TV in October 1992. Having loved his Around the World in 80 Days series in 1989 and bought the book, my wife and I were keen to watch Palin’s latest adventure. And in particular, the leg through Africa where we hoped to glean some travel tips.
Palin flew to the North Pole to start his journey in the first episode. He then headed south, intending to follow the 30-degree east line of longitude as closely as possible to the South Pole. And from Norway onwards, as Palin wrote in his book:
The plan was to “journey overland on a mixture of ships, trains, trucks, rafts, Ski-Doo, buses, barges, bicycles, balloons, 4-litre Landcruisers and horse-drawn carts”.
In episode four, Shifting Sands, Palin deviated from 30-degree longitude to avoid conflict in southern Sudan. And he took an alternative eastwards route from Khartoum to Ethiopia in what Palin described as “three spanking clean Toyota Landcruisers”.
However, the roads proved poor (and non-existent in parts), and the vehicles ended up repeatedly bogged in deep muddy ruts left by trucks. Palin and his team were forced to dig out and push the “spanking” Landcruisers to free them from the mud. And, as he wrote after their 24-hour ordeal to travel 95 kilometres to the Ethiopian border:
“[It appears as] the Promised Land, the end of the worst stretch of the journey since leaving the Pole. Our battered convoy rolls down the hill towards a collection of thatched huts and crowds of people miling around a small grubby building marked ‘Sudan Customs’.”
When the episode ended, my wife and I looked at each other and decided to “reorientate” our planning again. With all the resources of the BBC behind him, Palin had struggled on the African roads. What chance did we have? It was time to sell “Larry”.
Windsor Castle to Harare
Palin’s Pole to Pole had scared us off self-driving through the heart of Africa. But my wife and I were still keen to follow in his footsteps on a north-south overland adventure. And over the next few years, we researched and mapped a route.
Our backpacking experience suggested we could rely on ferries, trains and buses to travel from England through Europe and down to the Middle East and into Africa. However, as it had been for Palin, the Sudanese and Ethiopian sections would be problematic.
A truck safari came to our rescue. My wife and I would make our own way to Cairo, where we’d meet the truck. It would then take us on a two-month tour through Egypt, across to Sudan, through Eritrea and Ethiopia, and to Kenya. From Kenya, we’d be back on our own again.
After a night in Windsor Castle (courtesy of a friend who sang in the Castle choir), my wife and I caught a train to London on 1st July 1995. And two days later, we boarded the Eurostar and bid a fond farewell to England.
We headed north to Finland to stay with a friend in her summer house. And then my wife and I turned south, travelling by ferry, train, bus, taxi, truck and bicycle, like Palin, for the next eight months to Zimbabwe. Our overland adventure ended on 23rd February 1996. And we boarded a plane to fly from Harare to Perth, Western Australia.
Thanks, Sir Michael
My wife and I settled back in Sydney in March 1996 and, a few laters later, we had a child. And as we set out on a new adventure, we left our old backpacking and overland travelling days behind us.
However, the 2020 BBC TV series Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime reminded my wife and me of Palin’s instrumental role in planning our journey home. And we watched it with our now-adult son, sharing with him our favourite scenes from Around the World and Pole to Pole — especially Palin’s muddy 4WD drive through Africa.
So thanks, Sir Michael. It’s unlikely you’ll ever read this blog post, but my wife and I loved your travel adventures, and you inspired our own. And as a wannabe writer, I kept diaries and travel journals, like you, and placed faith in your quote:
I think some of the best modern writing comes now from travellers.
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might also like to read about the ten days my wife and I spent backpacking in Syria during our overland adventure, Syrians Love Peace, shared on Tall And True.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead. A writer-editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.