THE STORY BEFORE
I guess it started maybe eighteen months or more before we left.
The enlarged version of our social group of friends met at the ‘Napper’ (The Sarecen’s Head) in Priory Street or at the Safari on Dudley Zoo grounds next to the Plaza on Castle Hill. You could always find someone you knew to share a pint and a natter in either of these establishments. I worked at the Safari for a few months before I left and for a somewhat reserved chap I did a lot of growing up there.
Those of us from around the Buffery and some teammates in Dudley Old Boys football club also met on quiet nights at the Locomotive Pub in Vicar Street down from Top Church, usually for a game of crib or darts and a few beers. The landlord’s two sons (a few years older than the group) had travelled to Australia and brought back tales of fun in the sun and roads ‘paved with gold’ – well anyway lots of work opportunities.
At the time - 1967, 1968 - migration (or assisted passage) to Australia was in full swing. For £10, singles and families looking for a new life, as long as you had the skills they were looking for, were shipped to the other side of the world. I don’t think any of us had any thoughts beyond another adventure, just like two weeks at Butlins, or a holiday in Ibiza…
Sleepy (Dave Jones) and I think Dave Edwards had applied for assisted passage in Wolverhampton where they were holding interviews. For one reason or another neither was accepted. So between the boys at the ‘Loci', news reports at the time of The London to Sydney Car Rally, and the stories we were hearing of the Flower Power Hippie trail (London – Kathmandu) plus maybe too many beers, a few of us decided to look at making our own way to the land down under…
My memory doesn’t recall this, but we must have heard of someone who knew someone who knew someone that had driven across land to the India sub-continent. Before long we were checking out Land Rovers for sale and pouring over maps. I think the first discussions were between five of us – Dave Jones, Fred Ashman, Mick Haden, Dave Edwards and myself. Ted (Dave Edwards) pulled out first I think, and via "The Express and Star" we found a Land Rover in Walsall for £135 that we thought would fit the bill.
It was a short wheel base soft top model, Series 2A, five or six or more years old, but it ran OK. It was somewhat quieter when we got the front wheel bearings fixed. Ada's (Mick Haden's) gran shared a back fence with an old lady at the bottom of the Buffery, who let us have a garage she wasn’t using (we had to fix the timber floor a bit first). Ada then got involved with a good looking brunette and decided his immediate future wasn’t traipsing halfway across the world with the rest of us.
A car maintenance course at Dudley Tech for the three of us was supposed to give some confidence to fix anything that lay ahead, but with hindsight I think we were just lucky. Dave, being a patternmaker, fitted a hinged-door timber box to the well in the back of the Land Rover. We renewed the canvas top and fitted chicken wire to the underside of the canvas for more storage room.
The ‘Army and Navy Stores’ in town near the markets became our fashion shop of choice. From singlets through to greatcoats and boots (the shop assistant reckoned I need oars with mine – smartar**) we no doubt thought we were the ‘ants pants’. Fashion aside, the other purchases of a three man tent, sleeping bags, petrol stoves, cooking utensils and jerry cans were invaluable in the months ahead.
We spent a lot of time obtaining paperwork for the trip. Maps for available campsites, visas for us and the Land Rover and scenarios for what we would or could do when we made India. This was a bit of a grey area as we weren’t sure how far we could actually go with the vehicle before we had to sell/ transport it. Thanks to Ray Lester who helped us with insurances and Carnet de Passage (the Land Rover’s passport). We had to have special visas in our passports for Yugoslavia, Iran and Afghanistan from their London embassies. Of concern was Afghanistan, which would only give us a seven day visa to get in and out.
Another issue we hadn’t bargained for was lack of money!! Whilst we had all been saving hard for the trip, Harold Wilson (prime minister of the day) and his boys had other ideas…. In force at the time was a monetary policy with a limit on annual travel allowance of £50 outside of a Sterling Area, with control of any traveller’s cheques or foreign exchange stamped in your passport. You could have unlimited value traveller’s cheques but only for use in Sterling Area countries. So we could access all our meagre savings, but only when we got to Pakistan!
So with just £150 between the three of us to get there, we couldn’t play the tourist if we'd have wanted to and we’d have to be frugal with our spending. Thank God for canned food - Dave’s box in the back of the Land Rover was filled with tinned steak and kidney pies, stews and sausages. We hoped to buy fresh breads and salads along the way to reduce costs and prayed that the extra weight in the back could be handled by the Land Rover.
I’m not sure, even now, what our families and friends thought about what we were doing. We certainly had the support of our families when we needed it most – especially with not enough money to get out of Singapore. I remember when it finally dawned on us that this wasn’t just a holiday – somewhere in Turkey still driving away from the old dart. I can’t say that Ted and Ada made the wrong choice, hey, five of us in a short wheel base wouldn’t have got to Dover!!
I was trying to figure why we went when we did, mid-May. Was it to miss the winter travel in the Middle East or was it just that we wanted to finish the football season? Things happen for a reason and not always the way you want them to. I had to ditch my job at Round Oak Steel when I told them I was going to Aussie. I gave them twelve months’ notice of me leaving, as I wanted to swap my last year part time course of HNC Mech. Eng. for a full time course as I would be missing the exams. The Personnel Officer’s response – “If you ain’t gonna be staying here, we ain’t gonna send you to either of them”. And so I did the full time course at my own expense, and spent my working days before the off at the Safari.
The big boss of the Zoo catering that looked after the Safari and the Queen Mary Ballroom, Max Lucas, sponsored us for £25 if we would take some stuff out to his son, George in Sydney. We also got some assistance from Head Master Burrows at Sledmere Primary School who had one of his classes following our progress. Fred’s dad was caretaker there.
Fred’s brother was able to get us a few lines and a picture in the Birmingham Post, where he worked, in the days before we left. We adorned the Land Rover with our names on the doors DAVE/FRED/LEN.
We were young. We were naïve and ignorant of what lay ahead. Didn’t even have a camera. But we did something that few think of, let alone get to do. And we had a bloody good time. The trip of a lifetime.
Well that about wraps up the ‘before’. This part was put together nearly forty four years after the events, and as such my memory may have failed me in some details. I’d be happy to discuss and adjust as necessary.
*** Apologies to all non-Dudlians who haven't got a clue what I'm talking about here. I'm in the process of putting together some mudmaps and brief notations about Dudley. So come back soon to check it out.