First Overland: The Story of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition

In the mid-1950s, in a student residence at Cambridge University in England, the Oxford and Cambridge Far East Expedition was born:

It began, like almost everything else at Cambridge, late at night over gas-ring coffee. I lived on the same college staircase as Adrian Cowell, and I had gone up to his room one winter evening for a nightcap. He started talking of an idea he had for a combined Oxford and Cambridge overland expedition to Singapore.

Six men, one from Oxford and five from Cambridge, set off from London in a convoy of two Land Rovers, to drive to continuously overland to Singapore. The book First Overland, written by Tim Slessor, one of the team, is the tale of their voyage.

First Overland Oxford and Cambridge Team members, Large

Largely because of the nature of the expedition team members, the book is chock full of interesting technical information: we learn how the Land Rovers were packed, what that carried, and how they performed. There’s information about food on the road, camping on the road, and relations among the team members on the road.

While Offbeat in Asia concerns expedition by a team of two, and In the Circle of the Sun by a rollicking family, this book is very definitely about a bunch of wise-cracking sophomoric graduate students. They’re smart, witty, ingenious, and not a little pretentious. If my landlords at silverorange decided to travel around the world together, I imagine the tale would be similar. While this might not be every reader’s cup of tea, it was mine, and I flew quickly through the book over a couple of nights.

The writing is as you might expect from such a group (Slessor is primary author, but there are diary excerpts from others, and several other team members take on chapter):

Up at six and off by seven. Stacks on the agenda to-day. The usual fried eggies and buffalo butter for breakfast. Mustafa, the driver of the jeep, wants a chit signed to testify to his mechanical ability Authority delgated to Henry, who writes, “Mustafa is a bloody marvellous mechanic, signed Chief Engineer Oxcam Far Eastern.”

The expedition set off from London and headed south-east through Vienna, Belgrade, and Salonika, then east through Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Burma and then south-east through Thailand to Malaysia and finally to Singapore.

First Overland Oxford and Cambridge Route Map, Small

Perhaps the most compelling section of the journey is that which took the expedition along the Stillwell Road, a road constructed for World War II that had been unused, and assumed impassable, since the end of the war. Using a combination of connections, guile, tenacity and copious use of the winch, both Land Rovers made it down the Stillwell Road. What’s more, they did so in a rather miraculous three days:

On looking back, the first hundred miles of the Stillwell Road was much easier than we had ever expected. Anticipating very difficult conditions, we had armed ourselves with everything from three weeks’ food supply, to water-sterilizing tablets, from winches to machetes. A part of our success so far was due to luck — the monsoon had been unusually light, and therefore the rivers and hills were not as sodden as they might have been, neither were there any big landslides to block our way. But undoubtedly another part was due to the preparations we had made, and without eight forward gears, four-wheel drive, and winches our overland venture might had have unstuck a dozen times in the first twenty-four hours from Ledo.

While the book relates the tale of the overland drive from London to Singapore, in fact the expedition continued with a drive back the other direction (albeit steaming from Singapore to Calcutta over sea). Slessor explains: “I have decided to leave them out… because, although on reaching our outward destination we had to turn round and come back, it occurs to me that it is expecting too much of the reader to do likewise.”

The book closes with a series of appendices covering medical, mechanical, navigation, photographic, quartermastering, cookery and money issues. There are well-drawn maps throughout, and several sections of photographs.

First Overland was a lent to me by my friend Daniel, in December of 2002, temporarily purloined from his parents’ library. It is out of print, but used copies are

Book Information: Slessor, Tim. (1957), First Overland: The Story of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, The Companion Book Club, London.


Peter Lane's picture
Peter Lane on January 19, 2019 - 22:38 Permalink

Hello Graham, I recently acquired the slide box number 2. sounds identical to your no 1. Unfortunately no slides in the box. I have done a search in trove but could not find anything. My father had two Dodge trucks - the kind that moved council staff around the district. I guess 1950's model - one was fawn and the other a light green colour. He used to drive them from Adelaide to Darwin from around the late/mid 1950s to the mid 60s. Should you wish to sell yours I would be very interested in it? I work in the Adelaide CBD.

ivan Hodge's picture
ivan Hodge on April 11, 2012 - 12:25 Permalink

After completing the journey London to Calcutta in our 1960 Beetle QJ 3951, we shipped from India to NZ. I was working in Wellington and half a dozen people who had made the journey met and formed a club called “The Overland Club” the purpose was to compile information on overland journey’s and make it available for intending travelers. I have recently heard from NZ that the club we formed will this year in November celebrate 50 years since it was formed. It is still going strong. How about that.

My gulf blue Beetle is still going strong not driven enough, really needs another journey. Any New Zealanders who traveled overland and were members of the club at some time, contact me and I will put you in touch with the club. Best regards Ivan and Beth Hodge Sydney Australia

karen's picture
karen on September 4, 2012 - 21:24 Permalink

hi just found your comment re Cecil Ledger via google. I’m researching a Cecil Ledger who was born in London in 1880 and was a motor car driver and later a cab driver in London.
I know by 1916 he and his wife had seperated and later he met another lady with whom he had two children. i have no names for them.I just wondered what other info you had on Cecil? I know the birth dates don’t exactly match but its not unknown for someone to lie about their age.
Any info woud be appreciated even if its just to rule him out.
Kind regards