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London to Colombo by road

London to Colombo by road - Neville Asirivadem

Neville Asirivadem relates his experience to Dyan Seneviratne

Back in 1972, Neville Asirvadem drove a Ford Cortina from London to Colombo overland! With his son [now mature adult!] Johann chipping in with anecdotal snatches – this is their story…

Dyan: London, Ostend [Belgium], Paris, Luxemburg, Germany, Austria, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Balukistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka – No! I have not changed jobs and become a Geography teacher! I am only jotting down the significant cities & countries that this month’s ProFile personality Neville Asirvadem touched base in his overland drive way back in 1972 in a pre-used Ford Cortina with his then young family – wife and three small kids! Neville’s better half being Monica, daughters Lesley & Gina and son Johann; Neville had also cajoled his cousin in UK, Reggie & Marjorie and kids Ruchindra & Ramola too to join the trip in their VW Kombi Van. So they had company in a journey that one could rarely think of today!

Dyan: What made you to drive from England to Sri Lanka, instead of simply taking a flight?
Neville: [smiles] my life-long ambition was to personally drive a car from London to Sri Lanka but I did not have the finances for such an undertaking. However the opportunity presented itself when an Accountant friend of mine in Sri Lanka got a Permit [during the dark days of 1970 to 1977 people had to be armed with a ‘Permit’ to import even a secondhand car!] to import a car; my friend who had then not yet mastered the art of driving, was aware that I had this burning desire to drive overland; so we both mutually agreed that I scout around for a road-worthy car within the affordable budget and simply drive the car from UK. I took on the challenge whilst in UK, went over to a pre-used Automobile Showroom in London with 2000 Pounds Sterling in my pocket and bought this used Ford Cortina. I must confess that apart from changing a flat tyre, I was blissfully unaware of the workings of a car engine at that time when I was around 40 years!

Dyan: You mean to say that you simply decided to drive an ‘unprepared’ secondhand car with your wife and three small kids all the way from England overland with no mechanical sense?
Neville [laughs] Well at least I had the sense to go over to an automobile workshop in London and seek professional advice; I told them that I would be making an arduous drive from London to South Asia and wanted to know what spares I should take with me. He advised me to have spare radiator, top & bottom hoses along with a fan-belt. And with that, we packed our three weenie kids, meager rations, clothing & some personal effects and set-off on the THE Drive! Alas, when we reached Dover to take the ferry to France [there was no ‘Chunnel’ then!] we saw to our dismay the ferry leaving the port! As the next ferry to Calais, France was to arrive only 8 hours later, I decided to take the ferry that was leaving in an hour for Ostend, in Belgium instead. So we got on the ferry with car and went to Belgium! It’s 44 years since I made that wonderful trip and now at the age of 84 I could still recall some of the unforgettable experiences we went through! We roughly clocked around 350 miles a day and mostly used ‘campsites’ available for the night; my wife cooked for all of us, mostly using the canned food we carried, once each evening which we had for dinner; washing of cloths was done when we stopped for the night and dried the cloths by keeping them on the dashboard for the sun to do the rest! It was fun…

Dyan: What about state of roads; how did you get about at a time there was no Google Maps?
Neville: I relied on road Maps and the ready assistance of representatives of AA [Automobile Associations]; of course my wife was the Navigator and at times, Co-Driver too! The roads in Europe were first-class! It was a pleasure to drive on those roads, made even better by drivers who invariably showed so much of respect and courtesy for other road users. We hardly lost our way; the troubles started when we were nearing Asia, from Turkey onwards to India, of course! Most of the Asian roads, especially in Pakistan and India were bad. And so were the drivers, yet we resolved to look at the positive aspects; marvel at the unfolding scenery; the mountains and sweeping lowlands, the trees and vegetation, and of course the different cultures and people.

Dyan: Neville, you said that troubles started from Turkey onwards, could you give more details?
Neville: When we were approaching Mount Ararat in East Turkey near the Iranian border conditions were cold and blustery and then half way up the mountain it started to snow – un seasonal snow and soon I could not drive the car as the road was covered with ice! When we were left stranded, a Pakistani couple who were driving past advised me to tie ropes around the surface of tyre – my tyres did not have studs or chains around tyres meant for winter driving! Apart from chains, I did not have even ropes! So we stayed put with the engine and heater on for some 5 hours until the fuel ran out and then I could not even heat the car! I was praying to God to help us when suddenly we saw a ‘Snow-Plough’ coming along and sweeping the snow away from the mountain road providentially! I plucked up courage and asked the driver of the Snow-Plough whether he could tow us; he agreed, but only to the top of the mountain! Meaning we had to find ways & means to go down-hill! So we were towed up Mt. Ararat; it was incredibly chilly at the peak, fortunately there was a shepherd’s hut at top of the mountain; we asked the shepherd whether we could stay in his hut for the night; he obliged. The next morning we found the Ford Cortina fully covered with snow! The kids were thrilled at the sight! Anyway Monica & the kids helped me to get the snow removed; but the car wouldn’t start as the radiator hoses had burst! Since I had the spare hoses we managed to replace the hoses but another metal part at the top of the radiator had also burst and I did not have a replacement! As a patch-job I put a piece of soap and frequent topping up with water and we managed to struggle a few miles; eventually got the car towed all the way to Teheran – Iran was a lovely, peaceful country then under the Shah of Iran –where radiator repair job was done

Dyan: With the cooling system taking a beating – did the A/C and Heater work without a hitch?
Neville: No, that’s exactly what happened; the heater and Air Conditioner packed up, and as a result we had to drive with our windows mostly rolled down – thankfully the bitter cold part of the journey was behind us but intense heat and desert sand storms awaited us! The next mishap was in India when I hit the bottom, damaging the sump; had to wait a day in an Indian garage to have the oil sump repaired and off we went. Let me get my son Johann [pronounced Yohann] to take over from here; being a younger man his memory would be more sharper, clearer, plus of course he would have his own anecdotal stuff to share with you, Dyan!

Johaan: Dad got a crazy idea of driving overland while on Company training/holiday in the UK. Everyone said it's insane, but mum agreed. The family consisted of my parents: Neville & Monica Asirvadem, daughters Lesley and Gina and me the son Johann.
Dad also convinced his cousin and family to join which they did in their VW Kombi van.

Air tickets were returned and refunded. Camping and other gear purchased. AA contacted and the route sorted out. Insurance Cover for the car arranged with AA’s assistance. We then set out for Dover in a high state of excitement. At France: did our first camping. Camping out for nights was routine thereafter! Much colder than we figured it would be! Nice hot baguette bread for breakfast warmed us up. The roads in France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg & Austria were simply great. Everything was so clean; memories of beautiful countryside with orchards of Grapes and flocks of sheep grazing, just lovely! Drive, Camp & Drive – it was almost mechanical! Also booked into a few motels when camping sites not found; whilst driving thru Bulgaria and Yugoslavia we got boxes of grapes from harvesting workers. Although they couldn’t communicate, they were so warm and friendly. Once we even stayed with a famer’s herd of swine and enjoyed his simple hospitality; loved every moment. Hit the tarmac. Constantinople (Istanbul) had a different vibe. Busy markets and souks; even the smell was different!

Leaving Europe into Asia, found roads not so wide and clean. Livestock and shepherds on the roads. Style of clothing had changed. Hot flat bread baked on heated stones. Great taste and smells, but so different from Europe. Nearly got held-up by a man soon after enjoying our Sheik kebab dinner; scary!

On our way into the Middle East proper, encountered terrible roads; often covered over by shifting sands. Plenty of sand storms; Hashish was freely available. This was the then famous ‘Hippie Trail’.

Kids of the area had a crazy habit of stoning vehicles for fun! We devised a ploy of waving frantically at them. Distract them until we pass. Worked fine; windscreens not covered by insurance for that area!

Attempted camping in an enormous culvert under one of the roads but we were warned off by passing truck drivers. The culverts are built so large, just to accommodate flash-floods that flow across the desert when it rains. Apparently many people have died camping in the culverts. So we drove on.

Iraq and also Iran were lovely peaceful countries then. Went thru many sand-storms; when a sand-storm hits, the sand is so fine like a dust, it gets into all crevices; weather mostly hot – it parches everything around! No Asian Highway; but more importantly, no war: that madness started many years later!

Whilst in Afghanistan, stayed with German friends; as opposed to current perceptions about a dangerous war-torn country, Afghanistan was then a peaceful place with clean, good food. We caught up with much needed rest. In fact I remember having the best grapes I've ever eaten in Afghanistan!

When we ‘hit’ Pakistan found it to be dirtier than the earlier places we drove thru before. People looked aggressive, but were actually not so. Drove over the famed ‘Khyber Pass’; it was mostly deserted with strong winds buffeting much of the ‘Pass’. We were warned that the ‘Khyber Pass was notorious for highway robbers that waylay tourists. We got through safe though, sans any incidents! Thank God!

India was something else. Really! It just is teaming with people, odors, colour and full of life. But oh so dirty with a lack of toilets! Mum who is a cleanliness freak reached the end of her tether; she was paranoid re bad tummies! Before advent of bottled water: so clean water for drinking was a worry.

We eventually reached Talaimannar pier, saw famed Cross. What elation! The roads then were bad, but this is our motherland. The smells and sights are familiar. One final drive to Colombo, and we are home!

In hindsight, I would never have the sheer grit or audacity to take on such an adventure with such a young family. Truly an once-in-a-lifetime adventure with the greatest of memories etched forever!

What a story! On behalf of MOTOR, I thank Neville, his courageous wife Monica & effervescent, articulate son Johann for sharing with me the highs and lows of this over-land drive - 44 years ago!