Anyone who knows George Emsden, will know he is the man behind this wonderful account of his recent travels. It takes some skill to speak this well, but even more to write as well as you speak! A privilege to host this fine piece of writing George!
Wheelnuts soaking in Oil
Last task before actually boarding a ferry is to visit the engineering company which has offered us a set of lockable wheelnuts featured on BBC Tomorrows World a few months before. Turning up at the works, the boss asks us to pop back after a couple of hours while they are fitted, mentioning that they have been soaking in oil for 48 hours – no rust on them when we finally reach Thailand.
After that it is down to a pub near Harwich and with a sea journey next day, drinking less than we might have done otherwise. Before closing time (also unusual) we find ourselves a corner of a field in a country lane and put up our orange two man tent. Anussorn and I sleep in the car while Dave and Simon sleep in the tent.
Driving off the ferry at Hook of Holland, then along the autobahnen in Germany is a breeze where for about an hour, we play tag with a Lotus Elan. This gets us to Switzerland in the evening but with snow on the ground and nowhere to camp in Switzerland in January, we treat ourselves to a bed in a pension. Feeling quite chuffed after “doing” 3 countries in one day, we treat ourselves to a beer and then remember that we have been given two cases of Newcastle Brown. We are the only guests in the hotel and chat with the hotel manager until the early hours, the five of us consuming a bottle of Dimple whisky, provided by Anussorn. The manager happily accepts our Newcastle Brown too but charges us for every single schnapps we drank when we get the bill next morning. We are a bit naïve.
Driving through Switzerland is steady, the roads have been cleared of snow so we decide to have a break with a snow ball fight and some tobogganing. Only available toboggan is a metal tray which someone has brought along to try and maintain some civilised standards of behaviour, but it works although it is slightly bent afterwards. To save time, we follow the excellent AA route notes and squeeze the Land Rover onto a train with many other cars and are shuttled through the St Gotthard tunnel – emerging in Italy on the other side. Having lost time with the frolics in the snow where we managed to get the Land Rover stuck – taking 30 minutes to dig it out, we decide to keep driving. Passing through the suburbs of Milan at 3 a.m. and down the spine of Italy the next day, we make very good progress – every little village seems to have a bypass. Since then, have never been able to understand why bypasses cause so much hostility in the UK.
For lunch, we stop for a lovely pasta lunch a restaurant but make the mistake of handing over two large Lira notes before asking the amount of the bill. The owner’s face is positively glowing when she hands back a small amount of change. By now it is the rush hour. The Land Rover is not fast, but can build up a good turn of speed but this does not stop Fiat 500s with 4 large adults inside, trying to carve us up.
After This One
We hit the coast at Bari and carry on south. Being a right-hand drive car and driving on the right, makes overtaking difficult, so the front seat passenger has to act as lookout. Simon is lookout here with Anussorn driving. A steady stream of vehicles comes past in the opposite direction. More vehicles go past where Simon keeps saying “No….no…..no”.
”Yes” he says, so Anussorn starts to pull out, with his foot flat down on the accelerator.
“After this one” says Simon!
Anussorn just manages to brake hard and squeeze back in the lane we were in to avoid a lorry approaching us with furious honking from the driver following us. Somehow Simon does not appreciate the problem here but we finally overtake the lorry. The only one who does not drive is Dave so acts as navigator for the trip.
At Brindisi in the evening, we ask about the ferry to Corfu. The shipping agent is very helpful, tells us that the Drachma exchange rate is 73 to the Pound and where there is a nice pizzeria where I eat only the second pizza of my life. There are round special ones with octopus and (to us then) other exotic stuff on them, but most of us settle for the standard ones which are cut out of huge trays the size of a broadsheet newspaper. The portions are about the size of a paperback book and cheap. We camp on the coast near a long runway, which is strewn with stones and pebbles.
Before boarding the overnight ferry to Corfu, we proudly affix the four-inch letters to both sides of the Land Rover ANGLO-THAI OVERLAND EXPEDITION with Dave making up the hyphen from some black electricians’ tape.
It is a sunny Sunday morning when we get off the boat so we decide to do a tour of Corfu or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it. Using a map from a tourist office, we set off north up the centre of the beautiful island. The road up into the central mountains gets increasingly steep with some of the hairpin bends so tight that we have to do 3 point turns to get round – long wheel-base Land Rovers are not designed for tight bends it seems. After about 20 minutes, we are ascending again and can see a village called Sok Raki at the summit of the hill. An old man carrying a large wicker olive basket is walking slowly up the hill so we offer him a lift. When we get to Sok Raki, he insists on buying us all coffee. Some of the streets are barely wide enough for the Land Rover to drive down and we pile into the café. Many people in the village turn out to have a look at us and then we notice some tins of squid sitting on a shelf above the bar. They seem to have been there for a long time but who worries? and we buy a couple of tins for our dinner that evening. After half an hour we say our goodbyes and carry on north. This leads us to a junction with roads going east and west. 5 minutes of argument and we turn right going east with Albania in the distance across the sea. Later when I have returned to the UK, I feel very smug recognising the same scene on a popular Club Med poster on the London Underground.
We eventually hit the east coast of Corfu and somehow end up in an orange grove with ripe oranges and lemons on the trees. We drive slowly through the orchard and sometimes reach out and pull in a fruit. The soft oranges open very easily and are the juiciest ones I have ever tasted. Even the lemons have hardly any bitterness to them. We are encouraged in this by a local gentleman who is more interested in helping us than anything else – we somehow have the feeling that he is not the owner. We later understand with lots of sign language, that the orchard is owned by an arms dealer who sells his wares to the Arabs and the Israelis, and we can eat what we like.
Having stuffed ourselves with oranges and lemons, we turn south. Stopping to camp, we open some Newcastle Brown and chase that down with scotch. Needing something to soak up this alcohol, the primus stove is lit so we can have our staple of omelette and rice with the squid we bought that morning. Opening the tin, we notice that that liquid that comes out is ink black rather than the pale brine we expected. Ignoring this detail, the black liquid is poured away and squid sizzles in the pan, we finish our omelette and rice and go to bed. We are too drunk to erect the tent, so I sleep in the back of the Land Rover along the rear side windows with rucksacks and other luggage as a mattress. Anussorn gets up a few minutes before me taking some pictures of the idyllic scene. One image shows me in a calm blissful sleep. This ends suddenly about 30 seconds later when I wake up with the feeling that the contents of my intestines are about to liquefy, so I get up and only just make it to the nearest tree. Thankfully, no one takes a picture.
We carry on going south aiming toward the island capital Kerkyra along an un-metalled road. Simon drives for a while and nearly forces a BMW that is coming the other way, off the road. After a short while, it becomes apparent that the gears are not functioning properly and we eventually grind to a halt with horrible clunks coming from the gearbox. Pulling over to the side of the road as best we can, Dave tries to have a look. He tries squeezing under the Land Rover but as he is struggling, I volunteer to look. Removing the gearbox oil-plug shows an hot amber liquid with lots of shiny bits in it – rather like metal-flake lacquer. Since Dave and Anussorn have done engineering degrees, they suggest changing the oil and the Duckhams engine oil comes in very handy here. It isn’t gearbox oil but it will have to do. The hole for putting the oil in is on the side of the gearbox and has to be poured into a funnel and then down a half-inch plastic tube. This is bad enough in itself, but the operation has to be stopped every time a vehicle goes past. I have to change my position each time this happens with some of it going on my face while trying to avoid the old oil, which has spilled out on the ground.
In the middle of all this fun the police arrive. Greece at that time has a military government about which horror stories circulated. I remember a pithy comment in the press just after the military government took power stating that Greece had become “the cradle and the grave” of democracy.
To their credit, the police radio for assistance and a couple of hours later, a mechanic arrives and manages to drive the Land Rover into the town of Kerkyra using fourth gear – the only one which still functioned. We find a small hotel. Next day, the garage informs us that the layshaft bearings in the gearbox are shattered (which accounts for only being able to drive in fourth gear) and that it will take about 4 days to repair.
We have plenty of time, so after wandering round the town a bit we go to the market place and decide to have a coffee. This duly arrives but with a glass of water that I did not ask for. The cups seemed awfully small too. Like other people I have seen since, I decide to down this miserly portion in one gulp with the inevitable result that I gag on the coffee grounds which form half the volume of the cup. I really appreciate the water. In the next street, soldiers patrol a state building in their traditional uniforms with red hats, pom-poms on their shoes, white tights and dark waistcoats.
We try fish and chips Corfu style i.e. whole-fried squid with brown sea salt sprinkled on it wrapped up in the local old newspaper. We spit the eyes out which are a bit grisly noticing the ink stains in the main body of the squid while chewing through it. Delicious!
A visit to the garage shows the sorry state of the gearbox where the bearings have disintegrated. Getting the replacement will take another two days. Dave gets in touch with his parents and his mother is extremely upset as the repairs to the Land Rover six months before had cost £700. She promises to wreak her vengeance on the repairers Mann Egerton. Dave says he actually feels rather sorry for them.
Our evenings in Kerkyra are spent in a local bar where we run into George, a journalist from Athens who has stayed on after his father’s funeral. He is very well dressed and smokes cigars. We smoke the local cheap and very strong cigarettes, which he gesticulates are only good for “moskitos”. We have a great time with him and Simon impresses George’s pal and us with his Greek dancing. One night we get back to our hotel at 4 a.m. The owner is not pleased but is less grumpy than I probably would have been.
The garage mechanics have initiative and the Land Rover is fixed earlier than we thought. The bearings that disintegrated are on the layshaft in the gearbox and they do not have the proper size. Never mind, they have one slightly larger – and by machining away some of the gearbox casing, the larger bearing fits and job done with no further gearbox problems.
Next evening, we eventually get the boat to the Greek mainland on a landing craft-like ferry, which has a front ramp and is half-open at the front where all the vehicles are. There is a canteen in the superstructure at the back where we can get beer, but the loos are built into the rear of the boat and are of the squat down type – no seats. As I came out of one of them, I feel a strange rumbling beneath my feet – it definitely is not my stomach. This puzzles me for a few minutes until I look forward. The rumbling is from the flexing and buckling of the hull – easily visible when one stands at the back of the boat, looking forward along the side of the ship. Fortunately, the sea is quite calm and no one seems worried. The amplitude of the flexing seems to be 6 – 8 inches as far as I can tell so heaven knows what it is like when the sea is rough. I have some ouzo in the ship’s bar which tastes weaker than usual. Someone has watered it down. If you add water to ouzo, it goes cloudy, but if you are careful you can add the ouzo to the water without this happening.
Next morning we are on the Greek mainland and decide to visit Delphi, famous for its oracle. Nearby there is a vacant campsite with running water and toilets, so we decide to make the most of it and do some laundry. Previously, Dave had told us of one method of washing clothes on the move where you put the water, soap and dirty washing into a bucket with a sealable lid and 100 miles later, Washing Done! but we never get round to actually trying this. Starting with some soap powder and cold water, Anussorn decides to aid the laundry process with a toothbrush on the seat of his jeans which are looking a bit grubby. 5 minutes of scrubbing with this implement, and there is a difference which he proudly shows us “Look, one yellow cheek, one white cheek!”
We visit the actual temple site later with its fake/restored columns and I take a few bad pictures. As we are leaving, a bored coach party of convent girls arrives. After breakfast of omelette, tea and nan bread, we set off for Athens. Eventually we camp near the sea just outside Athens and during the day, I decide to do a bit of snorkelling. Having recently done some training at Oxford BSAC, I find this quite enjoyable and am fascinated by the little mirror patches among the spikes on the black sea urchins. Months after a hitchhiking accident where I caught my thumb closing a car door, my thumbnail finally detaches itself and floats away.
We visit the Acropolis, which is in a sorry state. Only other memorable thing here is being woken by explosions from some fishermen one morning while we are having a lie in. While most fishermen prefer to be quiet, so as not to frighten away their catch, these fisherman have a different strategy – using explosives instead of bait. They are in Sunday suits a couple of hundred metres away but the noise is loud enough. We hear 4 bangs while the guys have a laugh and pass cigarettes to each other. Retrieving their catch, they move off after half an hour.
We set off east round the southern end of Greece heading for Greece’s second city Thessalonika. I had hoped we could stop at the plain of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans had stopped an invasion by the Persians. The film 300 Spartans had been one of my favourite ones but we drive across the plain in the dark with Bob Dylan’s song Lay, Lady Lay being played on Dave’s Phillips cassette recorder with dying batteries so the speed changes regularly – it is quite surreal.
Round about this time we run into a little guy called Francis who is also going to India and we decide to give him a lift. Problem is that he wants to come with us for a long way and some of us have second thoughts about this. Somehow the conversation gets round to food and the subject of aubergines and artichokes comes up where he keeps telling us how delicious they are and that he would love to cook them for us. We spend ages driving round trying to buy these things and he is overjoyed when we finally get some. Towards the evening, we are all hungry and decide to stop and cook a meal. We pull over at the side of the road and set up the Primus stove on a concrete wall. The artichokes take ages to cook and while they taste OK are not the ideal food for people going overland which just needs to be quick, simple and filling. By the time we eat the damn things we are still hungry and not in the best of moods. Later that night or maybe next day, we drop him off somewhere promising faithfully to come back for him. We drive off and leave him and his aubergines behind us, heading east for Turkey. I see him many years later in Trafalgar Square – we don’t speak.