WHAT EVERY MAN NEEDS, A GOOD JEEP
by Harold Stephens
I had always wanted a Jeep. I mean a real Jeep, one of those rugged military issues that were lightweight, powerful and could go anywhere. I fell in love with them when I was in the service, and once when I was stationed in China. I and another buddy “borrowed” a Jeep and went exploring along the Great Wall of China. What a great experience, thanks to the Jeep.
No one back a couple of dozen of years ago was too important not to ride in a Jeep. I remember seeing photos of Winston Churchill riding a Jeep in France, and there are shots of General Eisenhower at the front in a Jeep. Even Charles de Gaul paraded around in a Jeep, and that was something. And one photo I really liked was Ernst Hemmingway riding down the Champs Elysees on VE Day in a Jeep, waving a bottle of cognac.
But riding in a Jeep and owning one are two different things. I wanted my own Jeep. I got the idea when I came to Southeast Asia in the early 60’s.The roads aren’t what they are today, and getting around was a bit difficult. You needed to have a good four-wheel drive vehicle. I began thinking how wonderful it would be to have a Jeep and drive to the Hill Tribes in northern Thailand, or visit Angkor War in Cambodia in a Jeep. There weren’t the border restrictions then like there are today. I really became convinced about own a Jeep when I took a trip by bus across Afghanistan. As we rumbled along in an overcrowded bus whose only quest was speed, I could see in the hills ruins of old forts, probably dating back to the days of Alexander the Great when he marched across Afghanistan, or could it have been Tamerlane or Genghis Khan? They all left their mark. What history waited! How else could you visit and explore these places unless they had a Jeep. So I bought a Jeep, a shiny new bright red Willys Jeep. It wasn’t a World War II model but it was as close as I could get. The top came off, and I could lay down the windshield (windscreen) on the hood (bonnet, again for Auzzie readers.).
I was visiting friends in Washington, D.C. when I saw an ad for a Jeep in the Washington Post. I bought it then and there, and had my first thrill driving around the Nation’s capital in my red jeep, rumbling along besides limousines and chauffeured Royal Royces bearing diplomatic license plates. And I learned then, too, that a red Jeep attracts the ladies. But Washington was a far cry from off-road adventure. My next testing ground would be Europe to prepare for my drive overland to Asia. I loaded my Jeep and a small pop-up, two-wheel camper aboard the Queen Elizabeth, and was off. Three months in Europe, and no accommodations to worry about.
I spend the summer camped in the shadows of medieval chateaus, age-old monasteries and on the banks of picturesque rivers and canals. When I could find none of these, I camped in the farmers’ cow pastures. Believe me, many times I awoke to discover cows nibble at my shoes outside my door. If farmers came, they were usually friendly, providing I had closed the gate behind me, and often invited me to the farmhouse for coffee and homemade bread.
After that summer I was prepared to drive overland to reach Thailand. There was nothing unusual about that back in the early 60s. Travellers were making the trip in re-converted buses, Mini Mokes, Volkswagen dune buggies, bicycles, and two Frenchmen even tried it on skateboards. But I wasn’t out for any records. All I wanted was to have my own rugged four-wheel drive vehicle in Southeast Asia, and to investigate some of the out-of-the-way sites on the way
Again I crossed the Atlantic with my Jeep and camper in the hold of the Queen Elizabeth. In Paris I joined up with a Swiss Photographer, Willy Mettler, who wanted to make the drive with me to Asia. While camped in the beautiful Bois de Bologne along the Scene River, we noticed a back-alley travel agent that boasted it could arrange a visa anywhere. I was wondering how I would cross Europe to reach Asia, but I didn’t want to follow the same route all travellers then were using, across Turkey into Iran, and Afghanistan to India. “A visa anywhere?” I asked the agent. “Anywhere,” he replied. Three weeks later, and a couple hundred dollars less in my bank account, we entered the Soviet Union in my little red Jeep. We had no sooner crossed the border than we realized something was wrong. We were being followed. It turned out, which I found out later when we were in a Soviet jail waiting trial, that our visas were fakes. But what a marvelous three weeks before we were arrested—crossing the Great Russian Steppes to Moscow, the drive over the Ural Mountains to the Black Sea, and with one exciting experience after another. Each day a different vehicle was assigned to follow us. It became a cat-and-mouse game to see if we could escape them. Buying petrol was always a problem, long lines. We found if we ran out of petrol it didn’t matter. The vehicles that were following us came to our rescue and gave us fuel to continue. I assumed they wanted to get home to their families. Other times, when we were successful eluding the police following us, we did things like joining a wedding feast with Cossack peasants in an open field, and joining swimmers at a lakeside only to discover we had to surrender our clothing—it was a nudist beach.
The fun ended at the border when we were exiting Russia. They had us cold, convicted we were spies. Willy liked to photograph churches, forbidden; he liked to photograph bridges, forbidden; he liked to photograph men and women in uniform, forbidden. The authorities developed our film. It didn’t look good. Even worse, when we drove through Berlin I photographed the Berlin Wall with its reams of barbed wire. The average Russian knew nothing about the Wall. We were guilty, and told we would be standing trial.
The first place I headed was Russia. Here on the steppes at dusk. Photographer Willy Mettler joined me
Jail wasn’t that bad. We could go out to dinner if we chose, providing we took along a guard and an interpreter. We had to pay, of course. Everyone was friendly, even the Russian officers we met in the restaurants. Some insisted we drink with them, and they drank not for pleasure but to get drunk. We had some miserable hangovers.
Suddenly, one day, two months later, the prison doors were opened and we were free to go. It seems Kruchev was kicked out of powers and amnesty to prisoners was given. The Willy Jeep was waiting outside the prison walls. The camper had been stripped, and was in pieces, but we able to put it back together.
All well and good, but after paying my prison bill, I was broke. Back to America to raise more money. I left the Jeep in Spain.
A leading American magazine bought my story, and I was solvent again, ready to continue. The publicity of the Russian adventure generated interest in my overland trip. The picture editor of the magazine said he could get me sponsorship. Was I interested? Why not. While I waited, he invited me to stay in his posh apartment on 55 street in New York. He said he has some surprises for me. He did. I awoke one morning to find a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser outside the apartment. It was all mine, all mine. Free! All I had to do was drive it around the world. What a romantic thought. Around the world! The only trouble was I didn’t want to drive around the world, only from Europe to Asia in my little red Willys Jeep. But Al, the magazine editor, was convincing. Aside from the Landcruiser, and a slew of sponsors, he had raided raised a bit of money. There was a catch. He wanted to go along too.
“What about your job?” I protested.
“Never mind,” he answered. “I quit.”
He quit, and I was stuck. What a guy won’t do for money. One condition was that I would still take my Jeep that was waiting in Spain. We found another journalist who wanted to go, and I cabled Will in Europe. He would join us in Paris. Then Al said, after I banked the money, that there was one other catch.
“Your mother’s going too,” I said
“No. I needed a peg to hitch it on.”
“Hitch what on?” I didn’t understand New York PR talk. Al explained. To sell the trip it had to be more than a drive to Asia.
He had us booked for a motor trip around the world—the longest motor trip, non-repetitive miles, ever to be attempted.
So began my motor trip around the world, 42,500 miles. Such a trip today—across North Africa, through the Middle East to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Burma, and then from South America up through Central America to the US—would be impossible.
Toyota Motors was the sponsor, along with more than a dozen other companies. For them I had to prove the world was a safe place in which to live and sell their products. An idealistic dream! The tragic is that instead of the world becoming better for the traveller, as we all believed it would, conditions have grown worse. No longer can we hop in a car and drive not only from Europe to Asia but from one country to the next. Instead of announcing a new beginning to travel, my motor trip herald the end of overland travel.
Looking back, in spite of difficulties, the trip did have its compensations; there were humorous moments, along with trying ones. It’s sad that it was the last motor trip anyone can make around the world.