Introduction to the 1999 Edition
We Find We Were Last Over Land
When Harold Stephens and I formed our expedition and set out in 1965 to drive around the world, we had two goals. First, we wanted to drive in a west-to-east direction wherever there was land on which to drive. And, second, by selecting a route that was closer to the Equator (where the Earth bulges) than the routes taken by the handful of expeditions that had previously driven around the Earth, we sought to set a record, an unbeatable record, for the longest such journey ever made. In quest of those goals, we crossed five continents, traversed six of the world’s most inhospitable deserts, and drove from the lowest place on Earth, at the Dead Sea, to within sight of the world’s highest, in Nepal. After many mishaps and adventures-bombings, burglaries, breakdowns, floods, fires, sandstorms, stonings, diseases, wars, and romantic entanglements-we achieved both those goals and lived to tell the tale.
Our story, Who Needs A Road?, was published in 1968 to unexpected critical acclaim; reviewers found it “enthralling,” “wonderfully adventurous,” and “rollicking,” although some said we were crazy to have done what we did. Who Needs A Road? became our publisher’s second best-selling book of the year behind The Joy of Cooking. It was a distant second, to be honest, but sales were strong enough that we were able to pay off our medical bills and reimburse the U. S. Air Force for rescuing us when we’d reached what seemed to be the end of the road. Steve (he doesn’t like to be called Harold) had enough left from royalties to return to Asia and build a 71-foot sailing schooner, and I had enough to take almost all of the tall blondes in Manhattan to dinner (at third-rate Chinese restaurants.)
Despite frequent requests through the years about republishing Who Needs A Road?-from travel/adventure fans who were reluctantly paying more than a hundred dollars a copy to rare book dealers, from librarians who lamented that collectors were swiping copies from their libraries, and from young explorers who wanted it as a guide for planning and financing their own expeditions-we didn’t consent because we regarded the trip as a past part of our lives and had each turned our attention to new pursuits.
But now, almost 35 years after our expedition ended, we have consented to the republication because we have been made aware that we have achieved another distinction, although not one we sought or desired: We are the last people to drive completely around the world.
Today’s cars and tires are stronger, and today’s adventurers are every bit as fit, resourceful, and determined as we were, but because of the international situation, it just can’t be done today. Political animosities, civil wars, virulent ultranationalism, militant religious fundamentalism, and several fanatical dictators have closed the borders, severed the roads, barred or trapped the car-borne travelers, and caused such severe and dangerous problems that none but the most death-defying daredevils would contemplate this journey today. And I believe even these intrepid dreamers would give it up as impossible.
Look at your morning newspaper, and then at the map of the route we took, and the reason we are the last ones over land becomes readily apparent: Algeria is in turmoil, with Islamic fundamentalists having killed 70,000 people since 1992, a disproportionate number of them foreigners. Libya, ruled by the xenophobic and unpredictable Mohamar Qaddafi, is off limits to Americans. Egypt is beset by religious extremists who recently slaughtered 58 tourists in the Valley of the Kings in 1997. Although Lebanon is recovering from its brutal religious civil war, it is only the invasive presence there of some 40,000 Syrian troops which maintains the uneasy calm. Iraq is ruled by Saddam Hussein, one of the most ruthless dictators in modern times, and his “Mother of All Wars” and his unwillingness to give up his weapons of mass destruction, has cut Iraq off from most trade with other nations, and certainly from tourist travel. The Iraq-Iran border is today an impassable maze of mine fields, bunkers, and barricades, remnants of the brutal 1980-1988 war between these two countries which killed more than one million people, a war which is far from resolved. Iran is still controlled by the type of zealots who imprisoned 52 of our diplomats for 444 days in contravention of all international rules. Moving on to Afghanistan-although you can’t readily move on to Afghanistan-that ruggedly beautiful country is riven by fighting between three warring armies, each headed by a strongman whose goals and philosophies are anathema to the other.
A bit further east, Pakistan and India regularly exchange artillery salvos and frequently close their land borders. At any minute the situation could become worse than we found it when we shuddered in an East Pakistani (now Bangladesh) cellar while Indian bombs exploded around us.
Burma is a dictatorship, isolated by the community of nations, ruled by a military junta which has changed its name to Myanmar and has closed all its land borders to foreigners.
Singapore withdrew from the Malaysian Confederation during our journey, and recently she and Malaysia have been feuding about trade, water rights, air rights, power supplies and alleged ethnic discrimination.
As this is written, an uneasy peace prevails along our route home in Nicaragua, in El Salvador, and in Guatemala.
Their recent civil wars are on hold, their guns silent, their death squads inactive, their ruthless exterminations halted. But the huge gap between the rich and the poor has created a tremendous increase in violent crime, making land travel problematic. Crime has also increased in Mexico-more in the last four years than in the previous 60-and an Indian insurrection in the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, has caused many deaths and road closings.
Taken together, there are today a dozen countries along the route of the Trans-World-Record Expedition in which you either can’t drive at all, or do so at great personal risk. The journey we made simply cannot be made today.
Before anyone can make that drive, each of those situations will have to be resolved and those countries brought back into the community of nations truly at peace. That could be a very, very long time. Until then, we remain the last to have traveled around the world by land.
And for that reason-as a witness to the unreason in a supposedly modern and civilized world which makes travel by land far more dangerous and forbidding than Marco Polo found it seven hundred years ago, and in the hope that peace, tolerance, social justice and equality will prevail, and that around-the-world travel by land soon will resume-we have agreed to the republication of our book.
For this republication, we’ve included several corrections that were in the final page proofs of the original version, but were inadvertently omitted on publication, corrected some grammatical errors and clarified some ambiguous words. Other than that, we haven’t changed a word of the text; so you will find our hopes, opinions, phraseology, observations, and predictions (even when embarrassingly inaccurate, outmoded or politically incorrect) exactly as we expressed them 35 years ago. We have added an extensive Epilogue to provide an update on some of the people, places, and events we encountered.
We hope you enjoy traveling with us.
New York, New York