«It’s worth it. It’ really, really worth it». A sentence uttered with glowing eyes and the smile of who is feeling something that can’t be easily put down in words. A 4 months journey. More than 30.000 kilometers. One car and two passengers, a dream that came true. “ From Florence to Singapore Overland ” is that dream’s name: here it is from the voices of the two protagonists, Cesare and Michele.
Class 1992, both from Florence and just graduated at the European School of Economics, Cesare Poccianti and Michele Sabatini started more than one year ago to plan their graduation trip. And they soon realized that the most popular destinations didn’t suit their ambitions.
«Our graduation trip had to be epic»: are the words of the two boys, who have been back in Florence for just a few days at the moment of our meeting. «We started writing down some unusual destinations, places that we wanted to visit. And we ended up with names like Iran, Myanmar, Turkmenistan. Those are not places where the majority of our peers would like to spend their holidays. And then a question arose: which is the most distant point one can reach by car? The alternatives were Russia’s eastern boundaries…or Singapore».
The adventure took inspiration from the very first Overland: the “Oxford & Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition”. In 1955, it saw six newly graduated boys getting on a twelve-months trip similar to Cesare and Michele’s one.
THE ARRANGEMENTS OF THE JOURNEY
The arrangements for a journey like this are countless. But everything has to be sustained by two cornerstones: the car and the drivers.
«Picking up each other for this experience was obvious» says Michele. «He loves cars, I love cars. And I have some knowledge of them; my father has been on similar trips in Africa and he still organizes them».
«He was the only one with whom I could have done something like this» Cesare adds. «Many of our friends got excited about the project but then vanished. Or either they said “yes, but I’d never do this” or “I’d never go in that place”».
The Land Rover Defender 110 HT, an historical car for great journeys into the wild, belongs to Michele’s dad.
«We were really tense before telling my dad. One evening we were having dinner together, we waited until my mum went out and then we dropped the news. “We would like to use the car that you just bought to go on a trip” “Good, and where do you want to go?” Deep silence from our side, then: ”Singapore”. He exploded with enthusiasm. It was impossible to imagine that he would have been even more excited than us. Since that moment he has been our greatest supporter».
And finding the adequate support wasn’t easy.
«Nobody encouraged us. They were all either laughing at us or trying to persuade us to quit» says Cesare. «A person who organizes similar expeditions was very kind. But he presented us with an exorbitant budget, saying that we would have never found the sponsors. A business man from Florence told us that, if we had found a way to do something like that without paying, we should have told him, so he could have gone on vacation for free himself.».
«The only people who believed in our project were the organizers of a Land Rover meeting at Il Ciocco Resort, in Garfagnana. We went there with the car to talk to them and they replied: “Yes, but you’d need the previous car model, with less electronic parts. This, or you should make some specific changes”».
And that’s when the first sponsors got involved: the Fiorentino car service and the Cairoli garage. The vehicle had to be perfect.
«The car was the only thing that never abandoned us. And otherwise it would have been the end. We pampered it: frequently changing the filters (you never know what kind of gasoline you are going to find), changing the oil in advance».
From the dream to the maps. From the creation of a strong home team to the innumerable visas to get into all the 28 nations of the trip. Eventually, the moment of departure arrived. But the tricky situations had just begun.
«All that could have gone amiss at the wrong moment…just did it» says Cesare. «After few weeks the telephone company which we had a specific contract with abandoned us. We were lucky to find a wifi connection basically everywhere. Otherwise the only mean of communication left would have been a device connected to a satellite that could send only four standard messages: we are ok and we camped out, sos come and rescue us, come and get us but we are not in danger, we are fixing the vehicle».
«The positive thing is that every time a glitch occurred we were able to find the best way out of it» Michele intervenes.«In Greece, for example, we have been helped by a man with a tractor: the only person in miles. Because we had badly got stuck in the sand. In Nepal, on the other hand, we had one of the worst moments. It was crucial to pass through it. But when we reached customs they told us that there is a law that forbids foreigners from importing their vehicle inside the state’s boundaries. In that circumstance the Italian home team has been essential: they contacted an agency and through it we got inside. But at one condition: we had to be escorted the whole time, even when we were eating at the restaurant or sleeping in an hotel».
Restaurant and hotels weren’t the usual choices, though.
«The car was equipped for air camping with a tent, camp stoves and some compartments for food and beverages» Cesare explains. «I have to say, in the majority of situations those tools have been enough, although one night we found ourselves stuck on a mountain pass 3.600 meters high (the Tourugart Pass in Kyrgyzstan). It was minus 10 degrees outside, while inside the tent the temperature reached zero degrees at the most. Michele had been the smart one, having an eiderdown as a sleeping bag, but mine wasn’t adequate at all. Luckily a truck driver had invited us for an hot supper inside his vehicle…».
The possibility of encountering a large portion of humanity had surely been one of the first motivations for the two boys to get on the adventure. And the adventure itself didn’t disappoint them.
«We met plenty of people of all kinds» says Cesare. «In the Middle East we stopped by the side of the road to wait for a boy on a bizarre ride: he was a twenty-something guy who was traveling the world on a unicycle. In Cambodia two spouses from France, both in their seventies, told us that they had been doing what we were doing for all their lives. And they only spoke French.».
«From the moment we started the trip, everybody we met encouraged us, and nobody was unwelcoming» Michele explains. «When we had to stop at customs for a couple of days waiting for some permissions, we were treated almost as family. Even the Talibans in Pakistan invited us in for some tea». «Yes, even though when we were passing through a fundamentalists’ village we had a couple of scary moments.» Cesare adds. «We were escorted between a check point and the other, and once we got stuck in traffic in the middle of a village. In a glimpse of an eye everybody in the street stopped what they were doing and stared at us. That time I thought: “What sort of situation did we end up in?”».
But there was another episodes that nearly made them think they were about to go back before reaching the final destination.
«In Laos we had a two days trip on a island. We left the car at a gas station, having given instruction to the owner before departing. When we got back the car wasn’t there anymore. We thought “ok, that’s it, that’s the end”. We went looking around and we saw the car, half hidden between a bunch of trees. The driver’s window had been shattered and all the valuable objects were missing, but only those placed in the front side, which seemed strange. We started asking around, but nobody seemed to understand English or to know what had happened.
At that point we intimated the gas station’s owner to call the police. When they arrived, here’s what they told us: the night before a nasty fire had taken the building on the other side of the road, and the firefighters had arrived after three hours. The flames were advancing towards the gas station: had they taken it, God knows what would have happened. The policemen were determined to save the car at least, so they had broken the window to push it away and to take the valuable objects with them. They gave everything back to us, perfectly listed, and they also offered us some refreshments».
FLORENCE TO SINGAPORE OVERLAND
At this point, it seems natural asking which places the two boys preferred and which let them down. The answer isn’t foregone.
«There isn’t a place that tops the other, every location has got beautiful and not-so-beautiful parts» says Michele. «The most renown streets in Pakistan are absurd, unbelievably unfinished dirt roads, with the risk of finding giant rocks in the middle of the way. And yet, the state’s landscapes left us breathless. Turkmenistan, on the other hand, is basically empty, miles and miles of nothingness, and then you run into a futuristic yet desolated city. But even there you can find a beautiful spot: “hell’s gate”, a giant crater in the middle of the desert with incessant flames inside, caused by natural gas. If you spend some moments observing it you can feel a sense of divinity».
«Every time we visited a place» Cesare adds, «we had fun speculating on what we would have done if he had to live there, which life we would have chosen, which job».
Conversation topics certainly weren’t lacking, but living so close for so long could have been a problem.
«Our friends placed some bets on who was going to explode first. But no: we never fought, we just badly insulted each other a couple of times» Cesare jokes. «It was clear for us that we had to spend four months confined together, either in a tent or in a car, which basically is a metallic box. In the end we didn’t spend more than 8 hours separated in the whole four months».
More than 120 days together, the last adventure when they were really close to the final goal (at customs in Singapore some documents were missing, only a few hours before delivering the car to the shipper that would have taken it back to Italy), an “holiday” in the Philippines to celebrate the new year and then, finally, home again. Getting back to everyday life after an experience like this isn’t easy.
But Italy has always been the final destination they wanted.
«There has never been a moment when we thought “I could stop here”, we have always taken for granted going back to Italy» says Michele. «It could feel like a cliché, but we have tasted food of every kind, from the snake to shark and frogs, many delicious dishes, but Italian cuisine it’s the thing we missed the most during the whole journey. Also, after an experience like this you’re able to appreciate more the beauty we have in our country».
Even if life projects are those that one would expect from two newly graduated boys – starting to work in their study field – the desire of exploring new itineraries is undeniable. Maybe with a tour of Africa or South America, even with a trip around the world on a sailing boat.
«It’s incredible how, while you’re traveling, you find yourself already dreaming and planning the next trips».