Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Overlander, Francis Birtles

The word 'overland' and 'overlander' today represents a term associated with travel.  The current overlander is someone who enjoys the journey as much as the destination.  Someone who takes advantage of a vehicle to reach remote locations, solitude and adventure.
Francis Birtles - 1st London to Singapore attempt
A hundred years ago, the word 'overlander' meant something totally different.  It was a job title.  People built their careers as an overlander.  The author Warren Brown describes the early overland cyclist:
"Overlanders were a particular strain of adventurer - part endurance rider, part explorer, part athlete, part bushman and, because of the  mind-numbing and potentially soul-destroying loneliness and boredom, part philosopher".
The overland cyclist and motor car adventurer were on collision paths.  The former were being pushed to the backpages of the broadsheet media whilst the motor car claimed the front pages as new trans-continental records were being established.  Towards the end of the 1920's, overlanders were pushed to the back pages as the dashing aviator thrilled the world with flight.

A quick historical overview of trans-continental motoring...

In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson and his partner, Sewall K Crocker, became the first team to cross the United States from West to East in a motor car.  It took a further two decades before the Cape to Cairo route was completed overland.

Being successful as an overlander in the 1920's demanded that the driver, and navigator were molded with certain character traits: tenacity, physical strength to endure the harshest weather conditions, monotonous food, dirty water and a mechanical mind that could fix anything, anytime and in any condition.  Journey time was not counted in days or weeks, rather in months and years.  As an example, the Cape to Cairo journey by Major Court Treat, using two Crossleys motor cars, took 15months to complete.

London to Singapore

In the early 1920's, the route to India was established but one colossal obstacle prevented overlanders from reaching Singapore.  No motor car had managed to cross the Naga Hills bordering India and Burma. The challenge was set and in 1927, Francis Birtles joined a crew destined to drive from London to Singapore.

Introducing Francis Birtles 

Australia's greatest overlander, Francis Birtles, served his overland apprenticeship navigating South Africa's arid Cape Karoo region on his bicycle. He continued his epic overland journey in Australia setting new records and opening new cycle routes between the major cities.  The humble bicycle taught him his bushman skills, as he learned to live off the harsh Australian outback.  Tenacious in his overland journeys, he battled bushfires, dry waterholes, endless punctures - all of which provided the base training for his future overland career using the motor car.

In 1910, as Birtles followed the telegraph line South from Darwin he came across a stranded motor car. Sunk to its axles in mud, it lay abandoned.  Continuing South he reached the next telegraph relay station and met three adventurous individuals: Dutton, Aunger & Allchurch.  Sharing tales from the road, the overlanders met on common ground - the desire to be the first to open new routes in Australia using the motor car.

British car manufactures of that generation did not understand the motoring requirement the 'Colonials' required in Australia.  A perfectly suitable English car was not nearly rugged enough to handle the harsh conditions.  A challenge was set: drive a motor car from Perth to Sydney, and who better to deliver a successful result than the overlander Birtles. The Sydney to Darwin trip acheived new records. Read more via Feral Sportscar Club

Years later, his reputation as an experienced overlander lead Birtles to join the crew of uniquely designed Imperial Six motor car expedition from London to Sydney.  In short, the trip was a disaster. The newly designed, built and tested car could not handle the harsh Asian conditions and eventually was abandoned in India.  The crew, malnourished, sick and fatigued had had enough.

This failure left Birtles wanting more.  Arriving back in England, he announced that once again he was to depart for Singapore. This time, driving his Bean 14 motor car, named the Sundowner.  The Sundowner, painted in vivid Australian aboriginal art work, had previously set the record between two cities in Australia and was in England as part of the Bean car company showcase.
Birtles and the 'Sundowner' leave Australia House, bound for the Channel ferry in 1927.
Photo: Peter Wherrett archive collection.
His late departure from London meant that he was racing the seasons - the winter of the Northern Hemisphere and the Monsoon in the tropics.
Following a similiar path to the ill-fated Imperial Six trip, he bypassed various political hot-spots but endured atrocious weather conditions, the press even picking up that he had not reported in.
Caught in a blizzard, he crawled forward, snow chains bolted onto the wooden spoked wheels.

Press coverage in Australia: 

Though at present there is no cause for real anxiety those interested in England are troubled by the absence of news from Francis Birtles, who is motoring alone to Australia in a Bean car. He was due at Calcutta at Christmas, but there has been no news of him at Delhi or anywhere else on the route. No report has been received from him since he left Bagdad on November 28. In view of earlier references to a snowfall it is feared that Birtles may have been caught in the fall. On the contrary, he may be detained at a remote spot with very difficult communications.

One of Birles backers views the matter seriously. He informed the Australian Press Association, "Personally I am worried. The only hope from my point of view is that Birtles, being Birtles, will overcome the conditions and turn up somewhere."

With no partner to assist in vehicle recovery and navigation he persevered and finally arrived in Calcutta, India. The international press avidly reported that Birtles, the Australian Overlander, had reached India but looked haggard and exhausted.

Birtles, realizing that the next part of the journey was going to be the hardest, managed to meet a young Canadian cyclist whose bicycle had been stolen and was peniless in India.  The two of them bonded and Percy Stollery joined the team and the vision of driving the first motorcar to Singapore.
A man thought to be Percy Stollery creates a passage for the Bean car, possibly in India or Burma.
Photo: Peter Wherrett archive collection.

The Naga Hills provide a natural border between India and Burma.  A mountainous jungle that was rumoured to harbor head hunters, man eating tigers and venemous snakes.  The jungle terrain also presented a challenge to the Sundowner. There was no road - only jungle tracks, sometimes the width of a cart, but mostly only singletrack.  Adding this, the gradient presented a challenge. The Sundowner was rear wheel drive and included four forward and one reverse gear.  The lowest ratio gear, required for the gradients, was reverse.  Birtles knew he needed a solution - he could not reverse drive the route, but he could modify the crown pinion and invert the gears to allow for one forward gear and four reverse gears.

Sixty hills, numerous river crossings and swamps were ahead of them... each hill requiring block & tackle to pull the Sundowner up and over the hill, a river crossing often requiring a bamboo raft.

37 Days later, the 58km route was complete and the team rolled into Rangoon, describing the heat as something cruel.

Birtles and Stollery were ill, with Stollery lulling on the brink of full malaria, as the Monsoon rain swomped the open cockpit of the Bean 14.  A health decision had to be made... continue driving and risk the life of Stollery or ship the motor car and drivers from Mergui (Myeik) to Penang.  They opted for the latter, a mere distance of 700km.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), Saturday 2 June 1928, page 26
News of Mr. Francis Birtles.  

A cable message from Singapore received in London on Thursday announces that Mr. Francis Birtles, who has motored alone across Europe and Asia, had arrived there after a journey from Rangoon to Mergui. Heavy rains were encountered on the Siam border, and Mr. Birtles was compelled to travel by ship from Mergui to Penang.
Birtles and his Bean 14 motor car had successfully completed London to Singapore.

The author Warren Brown, in his book 'Francis Birtles' wrote the following:

"His heroic drive from London to Melbourne was without question the pinnacle of his adventuring career. His success in crossing the Naga Hills simultaneously infuriated professional explorers and delighted the Australian public.  the drive from England to Singapore would not be reprised until almost 30 years later when a joint Oxford-Cambridge university expedition drove from England to Singapore in a convoy of Land Rovers.  They were able to use remnants of the Ledo and Stillwell roads carved through Burma by the Americans during World War II. In 1928, Frank and Percy didn't even have this luxury.  No did they have four-wheel drive."

Trans-continental motor enthusiasts, debating the first London to Singapore journey, allocate a failure to Birtles due to the fact that he shipped his motor car.  As a result, the first London to Singapore overland crossing was completed in 1995, 27 years after Birtles 'almost' completed it.  The joint 'Oxford - Cambridge Expedition' not only completed the journey from West to East, but drove back to London from Singapore. Although the conditions for the Oxford Cambridge Land Rovers were testing, it just shows how difficult the terrain was for the motoring generation throughout the 1930's and 40's that it took until mid 1950's to complete the journey.
Birtles - July 1928 - UK to Australia completed
The 9months Birtles spent traveling East challenged all of his overland experience.  His apprenticeship in long distance cycling, and his pioneering Australian adventures, had been fully tested and had not been found wanting.

Summarizing his life is best left to the 1941 article in The Argus:

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), Wednesday 2 July 1941, page 5

"Lonely explorer on a bicycle" was the name once given to Mr. Francis Birtles who died at his home in Sydney yesterday after a short illness. He was 59.
Born in Melbourne and educated at Wandin South SS, he later travelled more than 500,000 miles alone in the most remote parts of Australia. At the time of his death he was preparing for a caravan trip to North Queensland.
He travelled around or across Australia 88 times, by bicycle, motor- cycle, motor-truck, and aeroplane. In 1927 he pioneered the England-Australia car route, via Europe and Singapore, exactly 20 years after he had made his first round-Australia cycle trip. He pioneered Central Australia by plane in 1921, the Fremantle-Sydney motor route (1917), the Adelaide-Gulf of Carpentaria motor route (1914), and east coast route (1912-13). In 1910 he made his second bicycle trip round the continent. He explored much unknown country and wrote widely on his travels, in periodicals, and in 2 books. On most of his travels he was accompanied only by a cattle dog.

On one trip he "struck it lucky" in Arnhem Land. Discovery of a goldmine made him independent for life, but it could not stifle the wanderlust and he made many more exploring and prospecting trips. When he was married 6 years ago he gave his wife a Queensland goldmine as a wedding present.


In closing, I would like to mention the book by Warren Brown "Francis Birtles - Australian Adventurer". The author sets out to tell the story of the forgotten overlander called Francis Birtles.  His book takes you on a journey, from the mention of the South African Karoo, to the various cycle and motor car adventures Birtles went on.  Written well, the book left me feeling connected to Birtles.  
There is no overland route left in our world that compares to the journeys Birtles went on.  My spirit of adventure will be made of his memories as he forged 100 years ago.

Additional Reading: 
A name totally unfamiliar to me until I spotted Warren Brown's book.  If you can't get a copy of the book, there is plenty of additional information scattered around the web.

Francis Birtles - Lonely lands: Through the heart of Australia
Trove Newspaper Archive - Search for "Birtles"
The excellent book, "Francis Birtles - Australian Adventurer - " by Warren Brown (Google Play only)
Feral Sportscar Club - Birtles book archive

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