As Jan embraced her mum for a final farewell, her mum pressed a medallion on a chain into her fist. Inscribed on the back were the words, ‘Keep Safe.’
The day was February 4, 1977 in Brentwood, Essex, England. Alec and Jan Forman, my parents, put on the turning indicator and drove their 1974 Land Rover Series III out of their parents’ driveway. The Land Rover was fitted with 12 jerry cans, a fold-out bed, and a chemical toilet, along with an assortment of spare mechanical parts, medical supplies, and a stock of dried foods. This was no ordinary road trip.
Before they returned to that driveway fourteen months later, they would traverse almost 40,000 miles of rugged landscapes in 29 countries across Europe, Africa, and Asia. With only maps and a compass, they would cross the Sahara Desert twice, navigate the valleys of the Hindu Kush, and visit the highest point of the highest road in the world, in Ladakh.
Their travels gave them a lifetime’s worth of stunning views and rich cultural experiences in remote lands, several of which are inaccessible today due to tribal and political struggles. However, what truly defined it as a transformational adventure was the humbling encounters they had with strangers, many of whom were like angels, welcoming my parents into their homes and guiding them along the way.
My parents’ overland travels and their self-published book: Strangers Like Angels: With a Devil or Two to Boot, are the inspiration behind explmore. A community-driven adventure lifestyle (brand) mantra, explmore exists to inspire, encourage, and curate life changing adventure™, to ensure people have a greater understanding — for each other and for our precious planet — enabling progression. Our members are invited to live by this mantra, to explore more of the world, engage with others, and embrace global cultures.
My parents’ overland adventure sparked a career of overseas work and a childhood of adventure for me and my siblings — but their love of travel began much earlier.
My dad developed a yearning for adventure at a young age, as the son of a West Midlands farmer and a radar operator mother, who loved to explore the English and Scottish countryside to escape the pressures of World War II. He was a member of the Young Farmers club and also a youth hiking group, which led him to trek the 268-mile rugged backbone of England, called the Pennine Way, followed by mountain ridges in the Swiss Alps.
Dad left school at sixteen and went to work for the neighbouring farmer, Mr Pickworth, who encouraged him to join the Army and see the world. Serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a helicopter engineer in England, Hong Kong, Germany, and Northern Ireland, he took every opportunity to explore those locations. Eventually, he was seconded to the British Antarctic Survey team to work for three six-month seasons maintaining their two De Havilland Twin-Otter aircraft in Antarctica.
My mum grew up east of London and found outdoor adventure through her love of horses. Amber, her noble Highland pony, would take her across rolling pastures of the surrounding Essex parks, galloping and jumping over farm field stone walls and low hedges. She, too, joined the Army to train to be a nurse and midwife serving in England and Germany and later as a civilian in Canada and the Sultanate of Oman.
My parents met while both stationed in Germany. An early date ended with my mum tipping a pint of lager over my dad’s head. Mum was attracted to my dad’s adventurous spirit and eagerness to see the world, and early in their courtship they began to talk about doing a long-term overland adventure. She says that life with Alec felt like being in a movie and she was eager to explore more.
“When I reach my sixties, I don’t want to look back and regret not having done something with my life. I want to travel and see the world.”
After travelling during military service, they both wanted to go out unrestricted, with no one telling them when and where to go. Overland adventure appealed as a cost-effective way to experience, up-close, the ever-changing landscapes and diverse cultures. Having a “home” on wheels meant they could bring with them all the essentials and adapt to their destinations.
To prepare for such an adventure, they spent their first year of marriage working apart and saving money, with my mum in Canada and my dad in Antarctica.
“There’s not much you could spend your money on in Antarctica,” my Dad always jokes. They then dedicated a full six months, to gathering food supplies, getting necessary vaccinations, insurance, visas, and followed recommended advice provided by the AA (Automobile Association) and Trailfinders overland consultancy.
Part of their preparations were to convert and kit out their home away from home, a 1974 Land Rover Series III, a legend which they still own today.
Dad’s technical and recovery skills training with an officer of the Royal Corp of Transport and the British Army Motoring Association, proved invaluable for converting the Land Rover and anticipating mechanical needs on the journey. Whilst serving in Hong Kong he learnt the skills of cross-country night driving and navigation in a Land Rover across the New Territories.
“At the beginning of February 1977, all our lists were checked off, the ferry was booked, the Land-Rover was ready and there was nothing more to do. The time had come to realize our dream!”
Driving towards the English Channel, my parents left England with great anticipation and “an eagerness to finally get on with it.” After all their preparations and patience, now was the time to put their plans into action. Naturally they also felt daunted by what might lay ahead, perhaps from the understandable mixed feelings of my grandparents, who supportively gave them a touching bon voyage.
“As we were leaving my teary-eyed Mum placed a medallion in my hands. It was a large, cobalt-blue, flat stone in a pewter setting on a chain. Inscribed on the back: ‘Keep Safe’. Along with the necklace, she gave me a tiny oval picture of Jesus, blanket-stitched with red thread around its edge. ‘For good luck,’ she said as I tucked it into my leather passport pouch. Mum’s way of sending her love and protection with us.”
The engagements they had with other people, travellers and locals alike, proved to be the most valuable and impactful experiences of their travels. They formed a natural community between other overlanders. They would frequently meet at camping spots and exchange news and tips, help each other, and share stories as they crossed paths.
“Often you are passing those who are coming from the place you are headed,” my Mum reflects. “One benefit of today’s instant social connectivity is the ability to engage with others ahead of time.”
Interaction with local people was often a wave from the cab windows, or to ask where to find local items or directions. It became part of daily life for my parents, as there was a need to interact with local people in order to function. Conversations, through broken language, drawings, or “sign language” led to sharing about their lives. The setup of the Land Rover as a self-contained smaller vehicle (in comparison to other large rigs) made a natural space for my parents to easily invite people into the back to share a cuppa and exchange stories.
However, most often it was the locals who would invite them to experience their world, whether in modest, cosy dwellings or in the back of shops with tea and local cuisine. One night in Algeria, for instance, my parents heard a tap on the door. Upon opening it, they greeted two boys offering them freshly cooked fish and a basket of fish. But as my parent’s own dinner was ready to eat, they refused the boys offering. That left my parents feeling they had been ungrateful, but all was not lost when the boys later returned with coffee. The next day, the boys invited them to their family home to share local cuisine and have an exchange of gifts.
In some cases, locals appeared almost out of nowhere — even in the middle of the Sahara Desert — creating opportunities for special shared moments of cultural exchange.
On the return home, driving down the familiar streets of Brentwood, and back to my grandparents’ driveway, my parents had mixed feelings of joy and sadness. On their journey, they had begun to dream about what the future might hold for them, even exploring job opportunities along the route. With a new perspective of the world, its stunning landscapes and rich cultures, they began to think how they could continue a lifestyle of adventure.
Their funds depleted and thinking about starting a family, my parents started new jobs and went back into preparation mode — for their next adventure.
Want to hear the rest of the story? Discover more about Alec and Jan’s overland adventure by exploring more articles or adding their book, ‘Strangers Like Angels: With a Devil or Two to Boot,’ to your reading list.