|A Diary of my overland journey from England to Australia
By Steven Abrams
It all started when I telephoned the overseas touring department of the AA to ask them to send me the Eastern Europe handbook. I was starting to plan my 1967 summer holiday in which I intended to go motoring behind the Iron Curtain for two weeks. As events turned out the holiday was destined never to take place, but that is another story. The brown envelope that arrived in the post a few days later contained the Middle Eastern handbook. Some clerk in the overseas touring section had obviously considered his duty completed, after all the word "Eastern" was correct. This seemingly minor mistake was to change my life.
The book made fascinating reading. Even though I thought it was highly unlikely I would ever get the chance to travel overland to such places I still read it from cover to cover. By the end of a week I could have taken an exam on the contents and passed with flying colours. Suddenly I became aware that there were roads to places beyond Europe and I felt that I just had to drive along them. I was able to study street maps of cities like Tehran and Kabul and cities as far away as Rawalpindi. The handbook was to stretch my imagination into realising that roads went to such far off places such as Pakistan and India. It also tickled my sense of adventure by mentioning the possibility of onward travel to other even more distant places such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and even mentioned the possibility of continuing on as far as Australia. I had never before even considered the possibility of overland travel beyond Europe, yet this book was quite casually explaining the traffic regulations in all those wonderfully mysterious far off countries.
By early March I had decided to change my summer holiday destination so as to at least try to get to the start of the book's territorial coverage. The Iron Curtain was out and Turkey became the new destination. I spent the next few months trying unsuccessfully to persuade some of my friends to take a motoring holiday of making a quick dash to Istanbul and back. I figured that it was about the furthest I could get during my two weeks annual paid leave from the family printing business. I enthused on the merits of the trip to any unsuspecting person who would listen and as a result everybody started to avoid me. "I must be mad to consider such a journey by car," I was told. "If you want to go that far you should fly."
"But that would take all the fun out of it" I would reply.
At last I managed to cajole one of my unsuspecting friends into sharing the trip with me. To keep an element of the original holiday intentions alive it was decided that the route would pass through some "Iron Curtain" countries. We had all the necessary visas in our passports and car documents were obtained for a July departure. Apart from the usual "green card" for the car, we also had to obtain International driving licences and a customs carnet for Turkey, which the AA issued free of charge to members taking out the Continental touring service. We were on our way; nothing could stop us now, Turkey, here we come!
About a month before our departure, events in the Middle East took a distinct turn for the worse and on 5th June war broke out between Israel and it's Arab neighbours. Being Jewish I did the expected thing and during the days running up to the start of the war, I volunteered to go to Israel to help. To be honest, although I had volunteered I didn't really expect to be accepted, so it was much to my surprise that a week later I found myself on board an El Al jet heading for Tel Aviv. By the time I arrived in Israel the war was over and like the war, events had moved along at a very fast pace. So fast indeed that before I knew it I found myself picking apples in Kibbutz Hulata in the Upper Galilee only 3 weeks before our planned departure to Istanbul. I was not due to return to England until October even though I was still booked to go on the car ferry from Dover in only 21 days time. A few airmail letters later and I had managed to sort out that problem. Now all I had to do for the next four months was to pick apples and enjoy kibbutz life.
At Hulata there were about 50 volunteers from all over Britain, but the majority of them came from Liverpool. Being a small Jewish community in Liverpool, I knew them all except for one. I had never met Lawrence Goodstone before, but his influence on my future was to equal that of the AA Middle East handbook. This may at first seem to be a strange simile, but Lawrence had already completed the journey that I could only dream about. The reason I had no seen him around before was because he had only recently returned to England after an overland journey to Australia. Now at last I had found another loony to talk travel to, somebody as mad as myself; After all he seemed perfectly sane to me.
By the end of my four-month stint at Hulata I returned home with a definite resolve to "do" the overland trip. On my first morning back in the family business there was a banner stretched across the machine room. It read "Welcome home Steven" in large letters. Underneath some joker had hung a smaller sign that read "When are you going away again?" Little did they know that I already had plans for just that event, only trouble was that I couldn't pluck up the courage to tell anybody.
Over the next few months, life on the surface returned to normal, while inside I knew that I just had to do this overland trip. Outside everybody made plans for my future in the business; after all I was not yet 21 years old and in 1967 I was still classed as a minor.
I was involved as a youth leader in the Jewish Lads Brigade (JLB), an organisation I had been a member of for the last 9 years. I had come up "through the ranks" and was now a junior officer. While I had been in Israel a new officer had joined the Brigade who like myself was active in training members for Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme camping expeditions. His name was Louis Simans and we became the best of friends. It turned out that Louis also had plans to travel once he had qualified as a chartered accountant. In December I told him of the journey of my dreams and from that moment on it became a shared ambition. We agreed to carry out our ambitions as soon as he had qualified and I had finished my apprenticeship.
After my discussion with Louis I finally plucked up the courage to tell my family. To say that there was one hell of a row would be an understatement. It was put to me in no uncertain way. "If I wanted to continue with these lunatic ideas of travelling the world I could say good-bye to any future I might have in a successful family business". In other words "don't even think of it".
It came as quite a surprise to both Louis and myself when following the spring examinations he learned that he had passed his finals and was now a fully qualified accountant. Suddenly the dream looked more and more like it would become reality, but first ... the family had to be told!
The row in December was tame compared to this one, but this time nothing they could say or threaten would stop me from going, my mind was made up. Nobody spoke to me in a normal voice for at least a week but gradually they got used to the idea that I wouldn't be around for the next few years. Eventually tempers subsided and by the time I finally set off on my adventure I think my father would have dearly liked to join us.
Over the next few months every available moment was spent planning and buying. The original plan was to take a car but the cost of getting it past India appeared prohibitive, Also, although the AA would issue a customs carnet free of charge, it didn't include India. To get a carnet for India we would have to deposit a sum of money equal to three times the value of the car. Although we would eventually get it back when we left India and the carnet was discharged, there was no way we were going to be able to find that amount of money, so this idea was dropped in favour of motorcycles. One major drawback was that neither of us had ever ridden a motor bike before. This would mean learning and taking a driving test before we could set out, which wasn't the only problem. Louis didn't know a spanner from a spark plug and although I was able to carry out complicated repairs on my car, I was not too familiar with the intricacies of motor bike mechanics. After dismissing these options we were now down to a rucksack on our back, a pair of stout walking shoes and our soon to be well-exercised left thumbs. Yes, to everybody's horror we had decided to hitch hike ... oyvay!
The list of items bought that summer was as follows:
Army surplus "man pack" frames. These were extremely lightweight alloy frames fitted with quick release straps to enable things to be attached. They were originally used by the United States Army for carrying heavy items of ordinance, so we decided that they could be used to attach a suitcase that could be carried on our backs just like a rucksack. The main advantage of using a suitcase was in the amount that could be carried as well as much easier access to the contents. Our Duke of Edinburgh's Award experience had already taught us that whatever you wanted to get out of a rucksack was invariably at the very bottom. Not only that, but rucksacks had to be packed very carefully to avoid things sticking through the soft sides and digging into your back when they were being worn. The man packs were comfortable no matter what weight they were loaded with. The main drawback being their rigid shape and sharper than normal corners meant they couldn't be squeezed into a small space like a rucksack.
Mess tins for cooking and eating out of; a new sleeping bag and a ground sheet for sleeping rough (which fortunately we didn't have to use too often). We managed to get aerogramme forms without the stamps, so we could use them in any country and stocked up with many rolls of film. We even obtained a blackboard to write our destination onto and hold up when hitch hiking.
Trying to find a small blackboard was not such an easy task as you would expect. Wooden blackboards tend to come only in large sizes. Smaller ones available in toy shops are usually made from hardboard and we felt that they would soon get damaged. Eventually we found an ideal one in Philip, Son and Nephews book shop at the exorbitant price of four shillings (20p). We thought this very expensive and asked for the manager to try to obtain a discount. The horrified expression on his face as we explained the purpose it was to be used for indicated that he thought we had escaped from a lunatic asylum. He eventually gave us the board at half price, but I think it was only to get us out of the shop before the moon came up.
I had taken an extended lunch hour from work and now headed back to my car that was parked just around the corner outside Frank Hessy's musical instrument shop. Hessy's main claim to fame was that they had sold instruments to the Beatles in the early days before they became famous. As we walked past I noticed that they had a display card of flageolets (penny whistles) in the window, complete with a booklet for teaching you how to play it. On impulse I decided to buy one.
Back at work I was running a long job on one of the printing machines that was tucked into a corner behind a large stack of paper. I had very little to do that afternoon except watch the machine to make sure the sheets of paper were fed and delivered without fouling up. And so I settled down to teaching myself to play the flageolet. I had assumed that the machine noise would mask the squeaking sounds I was generating. Unbeknown to me some of the higher pitch notes were being heard across the machine room. Teddy Jones who used to maintain the machines could hear a noise that sounded like a machine in urgent need of oil, but where was it coming from? And which machine? He spent the best part of the next hour oiling every part that moved on the four machines that were on his side of the room.
Unable to find the "dry bearing" he called my uncle and my father over to tell them that one of the machines was making a strange noise. Because he wasn't' able to find the noise everybody joined in the search; everybody that is except me. Hidden behind a stack of paper I was in a world of my own. While my machine chugged away I was happily oblivious to everybody.
My Uncle Stan eventually worked his way across to my side and found the source of the "dry bearing" noise. To say he was not amused was an understatement. At least all the printing machines had received a thorough oiling that afternoon.
During my next extended lunch hour Louis and I visited the AA office. It was after all their fault that these events were taking place. If everybody else we visited thought we were both mad, the "very very nice man" at the AA dealt with our enquiries as though it was a daily occurrence. (Of course we didn't tell him we intended to hitch hike.) He took our request to have a route prepared with as much surprise as if we had requested one to London or Glasgow.
Not surprisingly they didn't have any road maps for Afghanistan or India in the Liverpool office so he gave us the phone number for John Bartholomew & Son. They proved very helpful and supplied all the road maps we needed for the princely sum of seven shillings each. At that price we decided to order just two maps, one of India and one of Australia. The India map covered an area from the Iran and Afghanistan border in the West to Burma in the East and later proved to be an invaluable map.
Both Louis and I had been to Israel and had our passports stamped. Although we were not intending to pass through any Arab countries we still decided to get new ones just in case. (Although Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are Muslim countries they didn't at that time impose any restrictions on holders of passports bearing Israeli stamps.) A new passport cost £1-10-0 (one pound ten shillings, or £1.50 in today's decimal currency) and the day after we handed the completed application forms into the passport office they arrived in the post.
The next problem was currency. In 1968 there were strict laws governing how much you were allowed to take abroad. There was an annual travel allowance of £50 and whenever you bought travellers cheques or foreign currency the transaction was entered on the back page of your passport. This was fine and quite adequate for a two or three week holiday but was certainly nowhere near enough for the time we would be spending abroad. The limit was strictly applied and nothing we could do or say could persuade the Bank of England to allow us to take any extra, even though it was our intention to be away for two or more years. They still couldn't or wouldn't make any exceptions and we were only allowed to take just the one current year's travel allowance. It was not going to be possible to achieve our goals on just £50, so something had to be done.
Some months earlier we had already made arrangements to take a group from the Jewish Lad's Brigade abroad in their mini-bus. By collecting everybody's passports I was able to get the full £50 allowance for each person in travellers cheques (TCs), half with my signature and the other half Louis signed. Also on production of the relevant documents we automatically qualified for an extra £25 of travel allowance for the vehicle's expenses. This meant that Louis and I became the bankers for everybody throughout the trip and at the end of the holiday there was nearly £200 left and our own allowances were still intact. Everybody received their refund in cash and we kept the TCs. A bit illegal, but the currency problem was now solved.
Now we each had almost £150 of TCs valid anywhere in the world, but this was still not going to be enough to get us all the way to Australia. Fortunately the law still allowed us to take an unlimited amount of TCs that were only valid in Sterling Area countries. Apart from the UK, the Sterling Area mostly comprised of Commonwealth countries and a few other countries such as Jordan and Kuwait, who's own currencies were tied to Sterling. We would be visiting Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia and would be able to use the Sterling Area TCs there. We decided to get these TCs from American Express. This qualified us to be able to use at any of their offices world wide as a mailing address. This would later prove to be an invaluable facility that was used by just about all overland travellers we met.
My interest in photography proved useful for our passport photographs. We had been warned that we would need lots of them, mainly for visas. We took each other's photograph and I then developed the film and printed of about 30 passport size prints for each of us. Just for good measure we also packed the negatives in case we needed more prints along the way. As things turned out we would eventually use 22 of the photographs just for visas and a few more for other bits and pieces that I shall mention later in this diary.
By the beginning of August we were almost ready to go and decided to set our departure date. The first week of August was the annual JLB camp at Deal in Kent and the mini-bus trip was due to depart at the end of the month. Jewish New Year fell near the end of September that year followed ten days later by Yom Kippur and we decided to spend the festival period with our families before we left. So the date was set as 3rd October 1968, the day after Yom Kippur.
At JLB camp that year we decided to tell everybody that we were going to Australia. It was much less complicated than explaining our overland trip to everybody. Eventually it leaked out that we were going overland and much to our joint surprise we were not considered quite so mad. It was probably down to the fact that most of the leaders also had a sense of adventure. On open day the inspecting officer that year was the Warden of the Cinq Ports who was none other than Sir Robert Menzies, the former Prime Minister of Australia. Louis and I were introduced to him. It was a typical English summer day, sunny with light clouds and a cool wind. I remember him telling me that, "In Australia at the moment the weather is just the same as it is here, only we call it winter."
One job left to the last minute was membership of the Youth Hostel Association (YHA). We were both of us already members but only until the end of the year. As we were to be away for a while we needed to extend that membership. This was only possible from 1st October, so bright and early on that date we visited the YHA office in Birkenhead to become their first renewal for 1969. It was also a pleasure to talk to somebody who offered us encouragement and wished us the best of luck for the journey without sounding cynical.