Meet the Adventurer: Alex Bescoby on the trials and triumphs of overlanding

The filmmaking historian discusses how recreating an 13,000-mile journey from Singapore to London was the perfect way to explore our changing world.

By Matthew Figg
Published 30 Nov 2022, 08:00 GMT
Alex and his team recreated a historic 1955 expedition, travelling between Singapore and London in a ...

Alex and his team recreated a historic 1955 expedition, travelling between Singapore and London in a 64-year-old Land Rover.

Photograph by Alex Bescoby

What sparked your interest in travel and adventure?

As a kid, I was a real dreamer and a big reader. I spent a lot of time buried in history books and I fell in love with stories of great journeys. When I was at university, I won a scholarship to study Thai and Burmese history in Thailand and Myanmar, and it blew my mind. The experience transported me to new cultures, languages and ways of thinking. It was like someone dropped a bomb on my life in the most wonderful way. I got the travel bug at that point.

From then on, I knew I wanted to forge a career that would allow me to constantly drop myself into new places and try to understand them. The thrill of culture shock has never left me — I find it absolutely exhilarating.

You spent many years exploring Myanmar. What drew you to the country?

When I first visited Myanmar, I specialised in modern Burmese history, and I knew I needed to move there to understand more. I was passionate about finding ways to share it with the outside world. As a Brit, I thought it was unforgivable that almost nobody knew the huge impact our country had on [Myanmar]. Its colonial experience is unbelievably traumatic, so there was a debt of ignorance I had to overcome. The deeper I dug into Myanmar’s history, the more fascinating I found it and that’s what kept me there for so long. I was able to combine my two great loves of travel and history, exploring the most obscure corners of the country.

How did you get started as a documentary maker?

Almost by accident! I love reading and writing, and I knew I was following in the footsteps of the likes of Orwell and Norman Lewis through Myanmar, as well as modern writers who went on to write fantastic books about the country. I was researching a book into the post-colonial experience of Myanmar when I interviewed someone who turned out to be the heir to the throne of Burma. I was so fascinated by him and his family — they were the country’s lost princes and princesses.

I felt it was a waste for their story to stay hidden in a book that few people might read. I loved historical documentaries, but I didn’t have the first clue about how to make one. One of my best friends had been to film school, and I asked him if he would like to join me to film the story. We applied for an award through the Whickers World Foundation, which backed the film. Suddenly, I had a budget and a team of incredible filmmakers.

For your latest project — The Last Overland ­— you recreated a historic 1955 expedition, travelling between Singapore and London in a 64-year-old Land Rover. What drew you to the venture?

When I stumbled on the story of the First Overland — possibly the greatest road trip in history — the chance to recreate the expedition ticked all the boxes. It had everything for me: history, film, writing, travel and Land Rovers. I grew up in a family of Land Rover nuts!

The real cherry on top was not just that the original car was around, but so was one of the original crew — Tim Slessor, who wrote a book documenting the expedition. He was up for joining me, and this gave it a wonderful human story of a man who refused to give up his wanderlust even at the age of 87. Unfortunately, he had to pull out just as we were about to leave, but his grandson Nat took his place. Their combined narrative gave a whole new dimension to the journey.

The Last Overland was also a means through which to explore how the world had changed. You’re literally driving on the same road in the same car, but 64 years apart. We could draw on the footage from the original expedition, as well as Tim’s book and diaries.

The Last Overland expedition attracted lots of attention what was that like?

The first few weeks were just chaos. There was a year of work to get everything organised, and the two months leading up to day one were some of the most stressful of my life. By the time I got to the start line, I was absolutely exhausted.

When we started driving, there was a caravan of madness that began in Singapore and lasted all the way through Malaysia and Thailand. You had a groundswell of Land Rover clubs and people who remembered the original journey or had read the book. I quickly realised how much the expedition meant to everybody. It was the most soul-nourishing journey.

The Last Overland expedition was a means through which to explore how the world had changed.

Photograph by Alex Bescoby

Why do you think it captured the imagination of so many people?

Anything that’s a ‘first’ will always be special. What the original expedition did was so optimistic and joyful — they really did break new ground. They were driving through jungles and off-road on a genuine frontier expedition.

Tim’s book, too, is just wonderful. It captures a moment in time with humour and humility. The idea that he’d want to do a journey like this again, in his late eighties, was such an inspiration.

People also appreciated the sheer ridiculousness of driving across the world in a 1955 car. And then to have Nat step in — how many people can say they’ve relived their grandfather’s greatest journey while he’s still alive? Finally, I think many people just love the history. They might have tuned in for the car or the human story, but there’s also so much to learn along the way.

How did you manage the stress?

By having a brilliant team. Some of them were there by design, some by accident, but we couldn’t have done it without every one of them. They were all carrying more than their fair share. The expedition was certainly the most ambitious and tiring thing I’ve ever done, but there was always a great sense of humour. It turned out to be the most enjoyable four months of my life.

Who’s your biggest inspiration?

The person whose career I admire the most, in terms of the way he brings history and adventure to people, is Michael Wood. He and his partner, Rebecca Dobbs, basically invented the history and travel genre, and they’re still making fantastic films over 40 years after they started. For me, this line of work is all about enthusiasm, passion, good communication and a sense of adventure. Michael and Rebecca definitely embody that.

Why do you think overlanding has such an appeal?

It’s incredibly accessible. We can’t all climb Everest or go to the North Pole, and many of these big projects cost a lot of money. With overlanding, all you need to do is pay for gas and food. There’s such freedom to it — you can even sleep in a van if you design it well. When flying, we sacrifice the journey for speed and convenience, and miss so much along the way.

How do you think the world of exploration will evolve over the coming years?

For a long time, exploration has been defined by being the first to do something. These days, the opportunities for doing that are increasingly small. But you’re always able to document a moment in time. You can always bring a fresh perspective to a story and share that with others.

In terms of the environment, conservation and science, there’s always work you can be doing to learn more about the world. That might not be conquering a mountain, but it might be discovering a new insect or helping to preserve another species in a fragile part of the world.

We’ve always got something to learn about ourselves, too. Ultimately, we go on these journeys to experience the world and come back better people.

What’s next?

For me, everything comes back to history. I love smashing stereotypes about a place or helping people understand more about our common humanity. For example, much of my work to date has explored Britain’s role in creating the modern world — the good and the bad.

I’m now looking at lots of different projects that will combine a journey with a historical story to help us better understand the present. Not just telling history for history’s sake, but looking behind the headlines, shining a light on underrepresented groups or visiting corners of the world that we might have a negative impression of and showing that there are ordinary people living extraordinary lives in those places.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Passion and enthusiasm are what open doors in life. Great people and opportunities are drawn to you when you invest time in something that you love.

Alex Bescoby is an award-winning historian and filmmaker specialising in telling stories from remote places. His recent expedition — The Last Overland — is the subject of a four-part TV series and book.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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