This piece is a tribute to a trusted Land Rover Defender 90 that’s having to go out to pasture – it’s reached the end of its COE life. Over that time, the vehicle has taken its Singaporean owners LARRY LEONG and SIMONE CHAN on all kinds of adventures and overland trips in different parts of the world.
Among these was an epic Singapore to London overland trip in 2015, when they were joined by the couple’s daughter Lucy. She was just five years old at the time, making her the youngest Singaporean ever to make the journey.
Larry has done the long drive between Singapore and London on two other occasions – both in the trusty Land Rover. The first was a west-to-east journey in 2007 when Simone joined him for the leg from London to Turkey. (He’d managed to get unpaid leave from IBM for the whole trip, but she had to go back to work.) Most recently in 2019, Larry was part of an official team on an expedition called “The Last Overland” (lastoverland.com). Simone and Lucy joined him for the last leg from Paris to London.
Here, we chat with the pair about their journeys, and ask them for a grab-bag of insights into their time on the road.
What got you started with overlanding?
Larry: I bought my first Land Rover Freelander in 1999, and we started with camping trips and off-roading in Malaysia. I added the Defender when I realised that it was the “Real McCoy” – or the “King of the Jungle”, you could say. We moved from driving and camping to overlanding, doing a few drives up to Thailand and Cambodia, before heading to China in 2005.
The inspiration for the first long trip in 2007 came initially from Tim Slessor; he was one of six university students from Oxford and Cambridge who drove two Land Rovers on a famous journey from London to Singapore in 1955 (known as “The First Overland”). We met him at the 50th anniversary of the trip, at the Old Ford Factory in Bukit Timah. And that really got our wheels turning!
What do you need by way of background for these kinds of trips?
Larry: Basic mechanical knowledge is a must. For all three trips, we had a “bush mechanic” who needed to adapt quick fixes at different times to get the vehicles going. We could hit the potholes at great speed and survive, but the vehicle might break down due to accelerated wear and tear on bad roads. You do need to remember to drive accordingly to the road and vehicle conditions.
What have you enjoyed most about overlanding?
Simone: For me, it’s more about the journey than the destination. It’s about the people we meet and the friendships we make from those encounters – friendships that last long after a trip is over.
What was it like travelling with your five-year-old daughter?
Simone: Traveling with Lucy on the 2015 trip gave us a chance to see the world through her eyes. There were plenty of memorable moments, from our first snowball fight high up on the pass between two mountain ranges, to dancing with a donkey in the Himalayans, and getting a piggy back ride into the Potala Palace at Lhasa! We also visited the living quarters of the first space astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, in Kazakhstan, and explored an ancient city carved from a rock mountain. And Lucy loved the cows and cowbells in Switzerland too.
These are just some memories we built together that I hope she will always remember.
What’s been your favourite country to visit?
Larry: One of the most hospitable and wonderful countries on the 2007 trip was definitely Iran. The scenery was exceptional – Tehran and Isfahan were especially wonderful. Everything was so cheap too: it was US$1 for a full tank of diesel, and $1 for a tip. The people were so generous and so accommodating – they didn’t want us to pay for anything. I even had a knock on the door one day asking if I would marry someone’s sister!
What about the most beautiful countryside?
Larry: Tibet! The scenery of the snowy peaks while driving at 5,000m above sea level was literally breathtaking. In the vast emptiness, we could see humans and animals adapting to the harsh environment. There were clear blue skies and no pollution, and seeing Everest from the North Face and up close was priceless. There was also a lake near Mount Kailash, in the far west of Tibet, with gorgeous colours by day and night.
Having said that, the fjords of Norway can compete with Tibet – every picture we took there is “calendar grade”! We were equally amazed by the road infrastructure; we travelled all the way to the North Cape, and visited the Arctic Circle and saw engineering marvels – tunnels cutting through the mountains, with roundabouts for exits to different locations. The North Atlantic Highway was a rollercoaster ride; our Defender got baptised by the sea while travelling along it.
For a long and complex overland trip, it’s not a simple matter of jumping in your vehicle and taking off. There’s loads to plan and consider. Here, Larry and Simone provide a few small insights into the “day to day” of this kind of adventure.
“We’ve learnt things like not to charge your phone in the hotel, as you might leave your cable there or the electrics might fry your phone if it’s too unstable. In 2007, we used ‘proper’ paper maps and a Garmin GPS. In 2015, we had a Wi-Fi router in the back of the car (and others in our convoy drove very closely together to access it!). For our first two trips, we needed cash, all in the different countries’ currencies. In 2019, we didn’t need cash at all!”
“We take lots of bak kwa, vacuum-packed food, plenty of snacks and orange juice, and we always have a thermos and a slow-cooker. We had to be a little more organised with food and supplies when Lucy was with us. On the road, milk can come from anything, cows, sheep, goats, yaks, reindeers or even donkeys! We once made a rendang from reindeer meat – that was interesting!”
“You should probably budget US$25,000 per person for the whole Singapore to London route. That includes all hotels, local fees, food, air fares, and extras like support vehicles and staff in certain places. You could probably do it for less for a family of four if you’re on your own rather than with a group of vehicles, but it will take you a lot longer too! Also, factor in shipping the car back; most recently for us, this was about US$5,000, but costs have increased.”
Land Rovers are very safe and sturdy vehicles, but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter some hairy moments after weeks and even months of longdistance driving, over roads of questionable quality. Larry recounts some specific challenges, from potholes to politics.
Which countries are the worst to drive in?
India is bad in general for animals on the roads, but in Assam in particular there seemed to be a lot of buffalos and cows making love on the road! China has a lot of tunnels, and roads that are under construction or repair, but also some great highways and even full 4G coverage.
The roads in Nepal were terrible after the earthquake of 2015; it was pretty upsetting to see the impact of that, and difficult to manage the road damage.
When we were in Tibet in 2019, some of the GPS devices would say we were in India; others said we were in China. That was confusing!
8 Scary moments on the road!
• Once while crossing the border into Russia from Kazakhstan, we were asked to unpack the whole car. It was high up on the mountain pass and it took them one hour to clear us – we were freezing! The ultraviolet holograms in our Singapore passports were all different, because the passports were issued in different years; they thought ours were fakes. That was nerve-wracking!
• The starter motor caught fire in Yunnan, China, in 2007. After a push-start, we drove it all the way to Luang Prabang in Laos without turning it off. There were no brakes while going downhill, and no power steering.
• In Kazakhstan, it was often 300km between towns, with no petrol stations!
• In China, there were so many army manoeuvres – it was like a war movie! You’re not allowed to take any photos of the army or police, so just keep your phone tucked away to be safe.
• The shock absorber broke in Pakistan, but we had to drive the whole night without stopping because of nuclear testing in the region.
• Between Finland and Norway, you go through a tunnel in the mountain that’s like a corkscrew!
• On our first trip, we didn’t know that Asian diesel turns to gel at zero degrees Celsius. The slopping noise stopped and we had no idea what was going on.
• At one border, some guys had put washing powder in a zip-lock bag and the police thought it was drugs! We were waiting for more than six hours!
What have been some particularly challenging moments behind the wheel?
The drive from Moscow to St Petersburg is 700km, which you’d normally do in eight hours, but we had wheel bearing and steering issues. We were topping up lubricants into the bearings, but any speed above 40km meant a horrible metal-hitting-metal sound. Every time we hit a pothole, the Defender swerved. It was the longest and scariest drive in my life! When we got to a workshop in St Petersburg, it showed the wheel bearings were in smithereens. Absolutely amazing that the car managed to keep going. (What a car!)
Another memorable moment was trying to exit the Champs-Élysées with our whole troupe of Land Rovers on the 2019 trip; we had to go round several times to get the courage to make a charge out at an exit!
Speaking of which, what’s the hardest thing about travelling in a group of vehicles?
The most difficult task is moving the entire convoy as one. Getting everyone to head off was easy for the first two weeks. After that, people start getting restless; the initial euphoria goes, and tempers flare. Human interactions can become difficult.
On our first two trips, we travelled with some of the people we had done our shorter trips with, so that was easier. The last one in 2019 was different – it was a meeting of strangers. Other than Tim Slessor, whom I’d spent some time with, the rest I’d only met briefly. I was the most experienced overlander, and my concern was getting everyone to London safely; it reminded me of military training.
You get to know others as well as you know yourself. The most important lesson is that it’s okay to lose your temper once in a while – just move on and remember it’s never personal. Team members have to rely on each other.
What about political issues and complications?
Travelling in 2007 was very different to 2019. We were a bit of a novelty back in 2007, and people and countries seemed far more welcoming. In 2019, regulations were tighter all round. We had to remove almost every piece of luggage and equipment at the Chinese border, and the exit from the Nepal border was just as difficult. Our belongings were searched and all our prayer scarfs given by well-wishers in Nepal were confiscated as they were deemed prohibited items in Tibet.
There were more border checks in 2019 too. Our routes through Tibet and Xinjiang had to be submitted to various ministries for approval before entry. And the locals didn’t seem as friendly as before. We didn’t see any detention camps while driving in Xinjiang, but we did see razor wire along some stretches of desert highway, designed to “keep people in”.
Petrol stations were also fortified. You would need the proper permit to enter and purchase fuel. During one security check, my gas canister used for a portable gas stove was confiscated; we also weren’t allowed to carry extra fuel in jerry cans.
There was no access to Facebook and Google in these areas, though the biggest problem was that WhatsApp wasn’t working, which made communications difficult; many of the team resorted to VPN. At our last exit point, one member was questioned because she was typing on her MacBook.
The powerful Singapore passport was useful across all the trips. For one thing, one of my team members from Indonesia had to spend a fortune on visas, and they occupied quite a few pages in his passport.
What’s next for Larry and Simone? “With the recent purchase of a seven-year-old Land Rover Discovery 4, we would like to do another big trip in about nine years’ time, when Lucy is 20. We have Africa, New Zealand and Mongolia on our bucket list! While the original Land Rover from 1955 (named ‘Oxford’) is currently touring New Zealand after travelling through the US in 2020, and the Queen of England still has her one from 1972, sadly our Defender – aka ‘Enterprise’ – can’t have its COE renewed here in Singapore. But we’re looking forward to more adventures nonetheless.”
We’re not sure we’re brave enough to take a trip like this, but we hope the story helps if you’re planning your own journey! We’re sure Larry and Simone would be happy to give you more tips, too – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll link you up.
This article first appeared in the July 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!