We need a vehicle for the trip, and it’s not going to be the Bedford Dormobile or the more common VW Camper. While the trip to India has been done on bicycles, motorcycles – with and without sidecars and even a little Austin 7, we are going to do it in style in a Land Rover.
Anussorn is studying Exchange & Mart and after looking at 3 different ones, buys a sand coloured one with a double-skinned tropical roof. It is a 3 year old 12-seater Land Rover with a six-cylinder engine giving it a bit more power than the standard 4-cylinder one but at a cost of two miles per gallon. Deal done, he sets off to drive it back to London but has to stop half way to rest his right leg! Land Rovers then seem to be designed for heavy-footed farmers in wellingtons. Also, from Exchange & Mart, he buys some ex-Army metal ammunition boxes of various sizes as they are robust, cheap and in the case of the smaller ones, waterproof.
We will be driving through several countries in Asia who will charge import duty on the vehicle, so we get a Carnet de Passages en Douane. After putting a deposit in a bank, this allows the temporary import of a vehicle where we are given a large orange booklet with ten pages, one for each country.
An Exit Visa?
We need visas for ourselves too, and depending on the weather, I hitch hike or get the train to the embassy concerned. At that time, the Foreign Office has a small white booklet showing visa requirements for countries around the world. In the days before the internet, it advises a telegram contact name Prodrome, if help is needed. Iraq is the most difficult place as you need an entry, transit and strangely, an exit visa. Our route will be further north from Turkey to Iran, so this is not an issue. Hitch hiking to collect visas is fun where people are fascinated by the trip. Lifts which linger are: a pretty dark-haired young mum in a short lime green dress with her two children in the back of her open Morris Minor who drops me off in South Kensington near the Thai embassy, and another guy in an open Triumph TR4 which reeks of BRUT aftershave with the metal label proudly displayed hanging from one of the switches on the dashboard.
Another time, a group of us end up at pub off King’s Road. It is a pleasant Summer evening. We are in a group at the back of the pub and an old man is staring at us:
“What’s the problem?”
Looking at the girl sitting next to me, he says “You can’t bring her in here.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is a queer pub!”
Popular films at the time are The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and The Magic Christian. While the former is still remembered, the latter has disappeared without trace.
My passport with an easy to remember 4-digit number, fills up with visas and in May it is time to leave my job as a bus conductor in Oxford. Dad is now on his own after Mum dies in September at age 48 from pancreatic cancer but he is happy for me to do the trip. I give a £150 contribution towards the Land Rover and it is time to head north.
Dave, the third member of the crew is a friend from UMIST and has his Chemical Engineering degree with Anussorn having his Electrical Engineering one. We spend June and July 1969 shuttling back and forth between Liverpool, Manchester and Bradford where Dave’s family lives. Dave’s friends invite us to the North Pennine Club for one unforgettable drunken weekend. The potholers/cavers (“it’s another excuse to get pissed”) seem to be a wild lot where one story is of their driving to the pub and back with a mole wrench clamped to the steering column – the steering wheel having been removed for some reason. In another pub trip, with no roof and the windscreen down, a well-groomed American girl is furious after the wind makes her well combed blonde hair stick out like a scarecrow.
Now there is only one more visit for Anussorn to say goodbye.
Anyone want to buy a three-engined VC-10?
Lunchtime at Derby, Anussorn and I park the Land Rover outside the agreed pub, going in to meet two friends from UMIST who are now working at Rolls Royce. There is much excitement in the press about Rolls Royce’s new RB 211 jet engine, the first one to use carbon fibre. A flying test bed for this engine has one RB 211 engine on one side and the two standard Rolls Royce Conway engines on the other side. Pictures of this lop-sided machine have been in the papers for weeks and the first comment when we sit down is, “Anyone want to buy a 3-engined VC 10?” Ha, ha.
In days before health and safety is the current religion, one of them has a trip in a McDonald Douglas Phantom jet which is being re-engined by Rolls Royce for RAF – this is after the TSR2 project was cancelled by the Labour government. Getting into the rear seat, test pilot tells him, Don’t touch that white button. Probably feeling that you are only young once, curiosity gets the upper hand and he finds out what this little button is for – it is the afterburner button where he blacks out with the sudden acceleration.
By chance, I get to see the effect of this myself. My route 2B bus journey goes past the MG factory to the village of Marcham passing RAF Abingdon. On a quiet day with no passengers, I notice a jet flying very low and fast. It is a brand new Phantom being shown off to some RAF top brass. At 400 feet, the pilot is doing rapid rolls, tight turns and kicking in the afterburners in the middle of turns to get round more quickly. He seems to be having the time of his life and while I only see it for about 20 seconds, it is the most dazzling flight display I have ever seen.
Lunch over, we climb back into the Land Rover and set off for Liverpool where we will pick up Dave, and set off the next day.
Left at the traffic lights and there is a right-hand bend further up ahead. Anussorn turns to me and says “Well, that’s the last of the goodbyes”. Saying something like “Now we can be off at last” I sit back feeling quite content. Approaching the gentle but noticeably banked bend at a relaxed 40 mph Anussorn turns the steering wheel to the right but while the Land Rover turns, it just keeps going in the same direction.
We career off the road sideways coming to a sudden halt in some scaffolding on a building site. A scaffolding pole pokes in through my closed passenger window cutting into my ribs (still have the scar) fortunately not breaking any of them. And in a painful reminder of Newton’s First Law of Motion, a large metal ammunition box which has been in the back, shoots forward through the windscreen ending up on the bonnet spilling its contents of a bag of rice. On its journey forward, it bounces off Anussorn’s head leaving him with a large cut on his scalp. Some building workers approach to help us while someone calls the police. Their examination of the Land Rover shows all 5 wheelnuts loose on the near-side rear wheel. Incredibly it had stayed upright but someone had a strange sense of humour.
The scaffolding holds the placards of the various contractors building Rolls Royce’s brand new Carbon Fibre Factory and the navvies who come over to see us are more worried about the damaged sign than our state of health. The insurance claim included a £40 bill for rebuilding it. That it was being built at all is even stranger. Original planning application for a (dirty old) Foundry even by the town’s largest employer is rejected. A little gentrification of the design and a name change to: Precision Casting Facility – application approved!
An ambulance takes us to the local hospital and I have the usual tetanus injection and butterfly straps across the cuts under my shoulder, while Anussorn has the same injection and stitches in his head. Dozing off while having this done, he wakes up suddenly realising that he is stroking the nurse’s hand – she doesn’t mind apparently.
We call our respective families that the trip is Off (for now) and the Land Rover goes to the garage. Repairs will take ages, so it’s back to work plus some of the visas will need to be redone. Dave goes off to work at an engineering firm in Bradford.
About this time, Monica tells me about a computer programming job with NCR in Greenford. Her friend is secretary to the Personnel Manager there, a Mr Maybey (sic) and in the first proper job interview of my life, I pass the aptitude test to train as a programmer. I mention my planned travels – no problem, contact us when you get back. They are also kind enough to reimburse my travel expenses but computers are different in those days. What would now be done in seconds with a desktop and quiet printer, takes a couple of minutes with a loud electro-mechanical machine the size of a suitcase perched on top of a counter which hums and grunts for ages, finally producing a receipt.
Working in Aynho
Oxford Bus Company don’t want me back, so I work for British Gas emergency gas leak team as a radio operator, then as a live-in waiter in the Cartwright Hotel in Aynho, a few miles from Banbury. Staff accommodation there is in some charming 16th century cottages – built in an era when people were shorter. With a couple of drinks after work, anyone taller than about 5 feet 8 inches, gets a painful reminder of this from the low ceiling oak beams. Anussorn proudly says he has never needed to work and has no intention of doing so until he is back in Thailand.
Interesting crew at the hotel. One is the son of a Blue Chip company director who is not happy about his son working as a waiter. Another is a school friend of my brother in Oxford while another is a jazz musician who seems to have been everywhere and hates the hotel business. Also unhappy is a young lad from Glasgow. After seeing a newspaper article about The Pill, he mentions that he knows one family with 26 kids and another with 24. Strangest comment from him is when I mention that I am off to a party in London’s West End (one of Monica’s friends). He is amazed that I am going to a party in the West End of London. West one! West one, he keeps saying.
One of the perks at the hotel is free kitchen access, in particular their delicious and very popular home-made sorbet and chicken liver paté plus there is the cheese trolley where one can scoop out huge helpings of Stilton.
Manager of the hotel and his pretty blonde slim-hipped wife are a perfect young couple with a young boy aged 2. While the staff are in their beds or having a beer, this glittering couple have a marvellous life entertaining hotel guests – sometimes till the early hours.
We Become an Expedition
During the 5 months it takes to get the Land Rover repaired, I decide to use the extra time to try and get some sponsorship visiting Oxford Reference Library which has a big book of company directors. Someone has the bright idea of giving our venture the grand title: ANGLO-THAI OVERLAND EXPEDITION which goes as a heading on each letter. Typing these out slowly on my mother’s portable typewriter, we end up with Duckhams Oil, Champion spark plugs, two large packing cases of Tetley’s Tea bags, a Kenlowe electric fan, lockable wheel nuts which had been featured on BBC Tomorrow’s World, two huge boxes of toilet paper, tubes of Nestlé condensed milk, luggage straps called Autoclips and 5 Avon tyres. Most appreciated of all are two crates of Newcastle Brown cans, which we jealously guard for the trip. The book is sometimes out of date where one reply to my request for sponsorship starts “Thank you for your letter to the late Mr A E…..” who had died in a car crash.
The Tetley teabag boxes are huge and block vision out the rear window, so we end up selling some of them in pubs in north Oxford. Where did you get them from a customer asks? Tetley’s gave them to us! She obviously doesn’t believe me but as they are cheap, buys a box anyway.
While in Yorkshire, we meet one of Dave’s brothers who has previously visited Bangkok. This was in his career as a merchant seaman where part of the cargo was a new supply of banknotes for the Thai government. Obviously, these were kept in a strong room, but for good measure the safe doors were welded shut as well. Under glare of searchlights, soldiers with machine guns covered the unloading.
And for our personal health, Dave’s father, a doctor donates some old WW2 shell dressings – fortunately not needed but possibly so, if we did the same journey now.
We are finally ready again in January 1970 when Dave’s friend Simon joins us. He has registered for a forestry course in Yorkshire starting in September that year with a preliminary course in June. As we plan 3 months or so for the trip, this suits all of us.
In case you missed it, Part One is here