In the early 1960s two young New Zealanders, journalist Adrian Blackburn and photographer Bill Rowntree, made an epic eight-month, 40,000 kilometres, overland trip from Sydney to Paris in a tiny French car. The journey, testimony to their love of travel and adventure, is now, 55 years later, in the realm of history. But that history is being disinterred in the form of a book, Overland, which Blackburn is currently writing. The accompanying chapter is an extract from that work.
Finding our way out of Kabul is a three-hour nightmare of heavy rain and wrong turnings. The puny wipers seem to simply smear the windscreen, not clear it. Inside the tiny Renault it’s either slide open the side windows, and be drenched, or try to peer through steamed up glass for the hazards of the highway.
It’s already dark outside, our business in the Afghan capital having sucked up almost all the short daylight hours. That’s even before Bill and I have reloaded the car.
For security, an astonishing amount of gear has been stashed for the last couple of days behind padlocks in that bare, concrete cell on the third floor of what the owners laughingly call a hotel.
It’s almost tempting to try to find our way back there, to joke about the jack hammered hole in the corner which serves as a toilet, an Afghani ensuite I guess, to try again in daylight.
But, six months on this epic trek already, the bulldust of an unsealed Nullarbor conquered in Australia, the bombed out bridges of the Laotian war zone just a memory, the triumph of improvising a raft to cross a river in central India long past, and more hard rain and roads behind us than Bob Dylan could imagine, we’re not about to be deterred by a minor navigational problem.
Now where the hell is the road to Kandahar?
Another hour or two and at last we’re confident that we are on the right track, though a roughly potholed one. Then there’s a queue of halted vehicles, mainly trucks, a couple of buses, but nothing coming the other way, no obvious obstacle. We drive slowly on, squeezing past the line on the narrow carriageway.
Then a crowd of arms waving us to stop, truck drivers and bus passengers. We leave the engine running, headlights on, and investigate. The rain continues to pelt down. The problem becomes quickly clear. An old single lane arched stone bridge has half washed away, leaving a barely there width of road above foaming floodwaters. There are no guard rails.
It’s not wide enough, or probably strong enough, to take a heavy vehicle, but maybe okay for a light French car crewed by idiots. We revert to our roles: Bill grabs a Leica camera and I take the steering wheel. It looks possible, just. Not good to think about the consequences if we have misjudged.
As I inch forward, trying to accurately centre the car’s wheels where it’s most narrow, near the middle of the bridge, I’m aware of the camera flash. The black and white image is in my mind now, many years on: The damaged bridge, the tiny car precariously poised above the rushing water, the crowd of impassive onlookers standing on either side of the structure in rain sodden robes.
On through the night and it’s slow progress, swapping driving duties every couple of hours, the passenger either trying to sleep or tuning the transistor radio to that now familiar eastern music. The road has become worse. In two hours we have made just 20 miles. The vehicle cants alarmingly, the offside wheels running along the high central ridge to avoid grounding on it..
There’s no relief for the windscreen wiper motor. Potholes deepen. Now and then we wash the mud from the headlights to maintain some sort of view. Then, suddenly, just blackness. The headlights have dipped under water in a specially deep hole. Just keep the car moving, keep the revs up to avoid the engine dying.
Almost no traffic. Then a big truck appears, a barrage of high-mounted lights almost blinding us. No way is the driver ready to surrender the centre of the road. Swearing, we give way in this unequal game of chicken and pull to the side. Immediately the Renault’s flat floor grounds on the mud, front wheels spinning uselessly. An hour in the rain with the trenching shovel and wooden blocks under the wheels and we give up, doze uncomfortably in the car. It’s not the first time.
Soon after a watery dawn, a bus appears. Passengers emerge and quickly push us free. Salaam alaikum. Alaikum salaam.
Nothing is easy, though the rain has eased. Across the rocky plain a range of mountains, a lunar landscape. A train of camels moves across the plain on some historical trade route.
We are halted again about midday. Another line of vehicles and a steep approach to a swift-flowing river. From the bluff above a hundred tribesmen watch a big bulldozer feed soil to the waters as it tries to re-establish the washed out approach. A big truck ventures from the opposite side, strands in the middle. The bulldozer becomes rescuer.
Too ambitious, even for us. We retreat a few miles to where we had passed an American road construction camp. That night, after excellent US hospitality, we sleep in a carpenter’s shop, the fragrance of an unfamiliar timber in our nostrils.
In the morning the river has returned to a trickle. An occasional stretch of new tarmac, from rival American and Russian roadbuilders. Kandahar, Herat, the Iranian border close by. Teheran here we come.
Our homemade snorkel is a length of radiator hose jubilee clipped to our exhaust pipe and fed up past the back bumper. The traction our narrow tyres achieve, in spite of our under-powered engine which is less than three quarters of a litre, is astonishing. Who cares if the interior is awash, everything valuable is loaded up high.
One more river. About 70 yards across, with a narrow island in the middle. We wade it first, as usual. Not specially deep. But we can see black clouds in the mountains, flashes of lightning. Let’s get moving.
I drive steadily across. But the climb up the other bank is steep and inexplicably I stall the engine. Bill throws his camera in the car and pushes from the rear as I try to restart. Bill shouts: Flash flood.
As he struggles, the water level rises half a meter in what seems like seconds. The engine is going again but the wheels are scrabbling uselessly on the slope. I can feel the rear of the car lifting and being pulled sideways. I think Bill is having to hang on to the car to keep his feet. Is this the way it will end, the car, and both of us, swept away?
A truck with Pepsi signs has stopped at the top of the bank. Its driver grabs a plank from the back and runs down to us. He puts the plank under the Renault’s rear and he and Bill heave frantically. Finally, the front wheels grip and the car is climbing the bank.. We and our car are safe. Shaken though by the experience, more than stirred.
Nightfall. We, along with the Pepsi guy are stranded between two rivers. We improvise a tarpaulin awning between our two unequal-sized vehicles. Pepsi man is, we think, Iranian. His broad smile is of international quality. Another stranded truck driver joins us as we sit on Pepsi crates under the awning.
The scene is lit bright by a Coleman kerosene lantern. Bill and I are still in our muddy shorts. On our two primus cookers we heat cans of meat stew bludged from the American road workers. The four of us eat in companionable silence. There’s milk powder for the instant coffee. And the rain has stopped. Luxury.