November 17, 2022 12 min read
Alex Bescoby is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author and presenter whose projects combine his passion for adventure and history. His work has taken him to some of the more remote corners of the world, including the insurgent-ridden southern Philippines, the back-country of Sierra Leone, and the Peruvian Andes. In 2019, Alex completed his greatest adventure to date - The Last Overland - a 19,000km Land Rover journey from Singapore to London through jungles, mountains and deserts. Recreating one of history’s greatest road journeys in 1956 known as The First Overland, Alex had planned to accompany Tim Slessor who was part of The First Overland on this epic drive, however Tim unfortunately fell ill before setting off so Alex was accompanied by Tim's grandson, Nat. I was super excited and fortunate to catch up with Alex who told us more about this extraordinary adventure, as well as some of his other endeavours.
Alex Bescoby in Myanmar (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
Thank you so much for joining us, Alex! Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I am a filmmaker by trade, I mainly make documentaries and I am now very recently an author. When I started making films kind of by accident, I was trying to be an author, so I sort of did it backwards. I spent my life essentially running a production company and we specialise in stories that combine history and adventure, which are my two big passions.
I’m based in London but from Manchester, but up until just before COVID I'd spent most of my 20s living in Burma in Myanmar which was my life for a long time. It was when I was living in Burma when we came up with The Last Overland.
What brought you to Burma?
I studied Burmese History at university. At the time, that degree was unbelievably useless, however it became very useful because Burma opened up from 2010 onwards, and sadly, it's now closed again. I moved there to further my study and immerse myself in a place that I've been studying from afar. I made my first film out there, and I made a few documentaries about Burma. I stumbled on The Last Overland story, partly because it was the journey we were recreating. The First Overland was done by the first people to drive across northern Burma and down into Singapore. I was living there at the time and I thought maybe it would be quite fun to recreate that, and that's how it all started.
Nat and Alex at the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
Sounds amazing! When did you find your love of travel and adventure?
Well, I’m from Manchester and when I was a kid we didn’t go too far, but I’ve always loved the outdoors. We spent most of our summers down in Wales, which is my favourite part of the world. I went to Europe with my parents and then it wasn’t until university when I basically stumbled across this scholarship that took me to Thailand and Burma when I was 20 years old – my brain just exploded! It was the first time I'd experienced culture shock. It was so out of my depth, they speak a language I don’t understand, they use an alphabet I can’t read, and their customs and beliefs are so alien to what I grew up in. I think it was that moment when I first went to Thailand and Burma in 2008, that I realised that I want to spend my life seeing as much of the world as I possibly could.
Your work has taken you to some of the less travelled corners of the world. Could you tell us a little bit more about your experiences in these kinds of remote places? What brought you to them?
My first job was a strange job to start in. I was working for mining and oil companies in their sustainability team, trying to figure out how to do natural resource extraction in a way that benefitted communities and hopefully didn't destroy the environment. Most of my time was spent going to these really back and beyond places like Sierra Leone, Peru, and the Philippines and getting out into remote parts of those countries, which are places people may not typically go to. I would interview people and communities about what they thought about their past, future and about their economy, society and environment. I was being sent on behalf of these companies, but frankly, I wasn't really interested in what they were doing. I was just really interested in meeting people and understanding how different societies worked and particularly how their histories were playing out in the present. I would end up reading buckets of books before I went on the history of these places, and then trying to understand why people or why societies behave in certain ways based on where they come from.
Moving to Burma was the big one for me because I had done so much reading and writing about the history of that country that I wanted to understand how its transition was being informed by its British Colonial history. Finding those connections back to our country, in countries far across the world was incredibly interesting. I loved filming and working with people from Myanmar to help them explore their own past and help me understand their past through them. So for me, history has always been the gateway into these places, that's what I love to do. Whenever I go to a new country, I usually sit on Wikipedia or buy books about them to understand everything about this place before I step into it.
On the way to Kashgar (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
Do you ever get scared about going to new places, particularly ones that are not typical travel destinations?
I've found myself in some pretty difficult situations, and it's often never where you expect it. In Myanmar, I knew there are people being posted there from certain organisations who had hardship payments or who were banned from travelling to huge swathes of the country. However, because I was often working for myself, I would just go, and I think as long as you're relatively astute and do your homework, and you go with people you trust and you know the place then you’re safe. There are some places that I will flat out not go to. During The Last Overland, we avoided driving through Syria, Afghanistan, and even past Pakistan. I would love to go to these places, but they're places where you might risk injury or death, or imprisonment in places like Iran. It’s really important to do your homework and its also about putting your trust in people you trust, who know what they're doing. I've often gotten into trouble in regular tourist destinations where you may not ordinarily think about security.
Whatever we hear in the news is so rarely what's actually going on in those places, we hear such a tiny window of the story. I think what The Last Overland taught me is you drive through these countries, often through the back door, you realise that most people are just the same. If you go with a good intention, whether that was trying to drive this very old Land Rover, across the world, or in my case before that, trying to understand and celebrate history, I found that people are so receptive so I've always been very lucky in that sense.
Alex in Nepal (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
In 2017, you set out to explore another little-understood chapter of world history - WW2 in south-east Asia for your In Forgotten Allies: the search for Burma’s lost heroes series. What were the main objectives of this? What were the key findings?
A lot of what I was doing was sort of correcting my own ignorance. When I first went out to Thailand and then moved to Burma, I had no idea that Burma was part of the British Empire. A lot of my early work was trying to understand why and what happened. When we're taught about World War Two at school in this country it’s so often Eurocentric. In terms of the First World War we learn about the Western Front and it’s very sort of ‘Britain first’. What’s interesting is that actually so many British soldiers were sent out to India and Southeast Asia, for the whole other side of the conflict that we never really hear about. If anything, the most brutal chapter of World War Two was the fight between the allies - the Japanese over Southeast Asia. And again, the film was to basically address my own ignorance. I certainly didn’t know that the vast majority of combatants in that war, fighting for the allies and for our side to win, were actually drawn from India and Myanmar.
Forgotten Allies was all about essentially marking that contribution of these guys who so often were teenagers when they were signed up to fight in a war they didn't really know much about, and in a global conflict that meant very little to them, apart from the fact that it was happening on their home turf. It was an amazing experience to meet these guys who were from some of the poorest and most remote parts of Southeast Asia and to listen to their experience of a conflict that we're still discussing and learning about today. The objective really was to come home and tell people in the UK, and perhaps Canada and America, where we have this kind of Euro-centric view of the war and say, these guys also did it too. The saddest part of it is we broadly have been living through relative peace and prosperity since the end of that war. However, those guys have been in a constant state of conflict ever since, that war never ended for them. In fact, World War Two in Burma sparked conflicts that are still going on right now. The current situation in Burma still very much can be linked back to what happened in World War Two.
So, again, it was firstly to address my own ignorance, and then secondly, to try and address other people's ignorance. I met this amazing charity from the UK who are still going and is run by some wonderful people from the UK and Burma. They volunteer to pay welfare grants to the surviving veterans, loads of whom are still alive today. We still have about 80 guys left who fought, and they're now in a country which has gone down the drain again. These payments are a matter of life or death - if they don't get these payments, they don't get the basic medicines that anyone over 80 might be on, like blood thinners and things like that. They can't afford it, and most of the time they die. Basic surgery that could be the matter of a morning here would vastly improve these people living with these conditions, so it's an amazing gesture.
Kaziranga National Park, India (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
That's incredible. Your biggest adventure to date was in 2019 when you completed The Last Overland, crossing 23 countries in 111 days. What inspired you to take on this adventure? What were the main objectives?
It combined the things I love most, which is history and adventure. The key objective was to try and recreate this journey, called The First Overland from 1955. These six young lads set out in two Land Rovers called Oxford and Cambridge. They set out to be the first to drive from London to Singapore. In many parts of the route, there were no roads. People have got as far as India, but it was only until 1955 there was a road through Burma, and they were able to connect the dots and finally get to Singapore, which then was a British colony. It was a very different world back then – we were 10 years out from World War Two, the Cold War was just starting, the British Empire was still a going concern in many parts of the world, and these guys decided to drive through the middle of it. It was a great adventure story which has gone on to sort of become a Bible in the Land Rover and the overlanding world.
For me, what was exceptionally special about The First Overland is that they filmed it. David Attenborough who was in his 20s at the BBC at the time, decided that he had spotted a good story and he wanted to make one of the first travel shows on TV out of this story. We had this incredible colour footage from the 50s. We also had one of the original cars, Oxford, which had been discovered on the island of Saint Helena, which is amazing story in itself. And then finally, one of the guys who had done the journey was desperate to do it again before he died. He was 87, still full of beans and he's still alive. I stumbled across the story, it was something I had on my radar and something that I was fascinated by and momentum kind of carried me away. In 2019 we set off from Singapore to do that journey in reverse, so from Singapore to London. There were some big changes to the route because back in the 50s, they had driven through Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran quite peacefully, and they couldn't have driven through Eastern Europe, Central Asia or China, because they were behind the Iron Curtain and the communist regimes. Fast forward 65 years, we could drive through China, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, however we couldn't go anywhere near Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. So, for me as a historian, it was a fascinating way of visibly demonstrating how the world has changed in 65 years, within one normal lifetime. It was also of course to have a huge amount of fun!
Oxford in the Monsoon Rains of North East India (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
It must have been fascinating being able to compare The First Overland with your The Last Overland, especially as The First Overland was filmed!
Definitely! As a filmmaker it was also lovely because you could contrast the same car driving to the same places, but 65 years apart. In some places we had these beautiful photos and we were able to recreate these photos exactly with the same building and the same car, you can barely tell the difference in some places. If you go on our Instagram, there's some lovely recreations that we did. The message of the film and the book is that the world has changed an enormous amount since 1955, in some ways, for the worse, some ways for the better. What I always say is that the response that they got back in the 50s was quite similar to us – this sense of joy, wonder, excitement and bafflement at what we were doing. Apart from one part in northeast India, which you'll find Episode Two where it all got a bit hairy, everybody was so happy to see us. It really restores your faith in the world and in humanity. Generally, whenever we read the news about what the leaders and dictators of countries are doing, generally people are nice.
We did in 111 days which is just shy of four months and they did it in six months. The car wasn't going any faster so that was a nice constant. The car if anything was going a bit slower. We still had to sleep as much and eat as much. And so, we did it faster than they did because A, there were better roads, and B, we didn't take so much time, sadly to just go on holiday, which they did. For them, the objective was just to get there, it wasn’t to get there in a period of time and they weren’t racing against anyone.
The First Overland vs The Last Overland (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
Did you face any major challenges or obstacles along the way?
All I’ll say is we were driving across some of the most politically sensitive regions on earth, in a very old car that had no power steering, and no disc brakes, and no seatbelts. So, we had our fair share of political problems and our fair share of mechanical problems but we live to tell the tale!
Oxford's Wheel Falls off in Turkmenistan (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
Did you ever come close to abandoning this expedition?
Yeah, loads. There were kind of three stages to it really, there was the preparation and there were moments where Tim fell seriously ill before the expedition and it wasn't until his grandson stepped in that we almost abandoned it at that point.
Then certainly, there were two moments in the journey where I thought we were stuffed. One was when we got stuck at the Chinese border in Nepal and the Chinese wouldn't let us in and there was no other way round - there was no Route B. We just had to sit there until the Chinese decided to let us in. The car also completely fell to pieces in Turkmenistan, and there was a moment there where I thought the car wasn’t going to be able to recover from this. I didn’t think there was much point in continuing the journey in a modern car.
What’s so special about the book and the series finally coming out is there were certainly moments where I thought neither would see the light of day. An army of people helped me over the last couple of years to get the funding, book deals, film deals, editors, executive producers, and directors. It has not been easy or smooth, but then again, nothing worth having is. There were definitely moments where the book would have just stayed as a Word document on my computer, which would have been quite depressing. It’s a weird feeling, I hope people just enjoy it and will hopefully learn something about these countries and their history. My main objective is that people just enjoy it for what it is. It’s a lovely adventure story and particularly a story about a grandfather and a grandson. That for me, is one of the greatest parts of this story. What grandchild gets to relive their grandparent’s greatest adventure while still alive. That's an amazing thing and I’m very grateful I was a part of that.
Do you have any other big expeditions or adventures on the cards?
Let's just say I have plans for a sequel to The Last Overland and I hope we’ve not seen Oxford’s final journey!
The Last Overland Team and Convoy with the Eiffel Tower (Credit: Leopold Belanger)
Thank you so much Alex, it was such a pleasure speaking to you!
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