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The #vanlife trend has taken off in a big way in recent years, with countless travelers opting to hit the road in tiny homes on wheels.
However, setting off on the adventure of a lifetime in a converted van is by no means a new sensation; campervan conversions have been around since as early as the 1950s.
But what was it like to drive across the world back when there were no GPS systems or mobile phones, not to mention social media platforms?
UK travelers Alec and Jan Forman drove across Europe, Africa and Asia in a Land Rover Series III in 1977, relying on a compass and various maps to guide them through 29 different countries, including Afghanistan and Iran.
The couple, who met in the social bar of a British military hospital in Germany back in 1972 and were married two years later, say they spent around five years saving for the incredible 14-month trip.
After searching for a suitable vehicle to embark on the trip in, they settled on a relatively new Land Rover owned by Alec Forman’s uncle, who’d been using it to carry pigs and potatoes at his farm, and set about converting the iconic British-made off-road vehicle into a campervan.
“We kept it simple,” Alec Forman, who trained as an aircraft mechanic in the British Army, tells CNN Travel. “It wasn’t like all the vehicles they go with now, that have got all the bells and whistles. We were very basic.”
Before setting off, the couple say they visited British travel agent Trailfinders for advice on obtaining a Carnet de Passages – a document that allows travelers to cross international borders with a vehicle without paying customs charges – and read two books related to certain parts of the journey.
“There was a little bit of information in there,” he adds. “But nothing like what’s available now.”
The Formans would go on to write a book themselves, “Strangers Like Angels: With a Devil or Two to Boot,” originally published in 2014, recounting their time on the road.
Armed with months’ worth of dried foods, including blocks of dried meat, they left England’s West Midlands on February 4, 1977, crossing over to Belgium on a ferry and then making their way to Germany. One of their first stops was Rinteln, Germany, the town where they’d first met.
“We wanted to revisit it,” explains Jan Forman, who trained as a nurse and midwife in the British Army.
The pair then traveled through Germany into France and on to Spain, before crossing over the Mediterranean to Morocco.
“There was a lot of that journey that we were familiar with,” she adds. “Because we traveled quite a bit when we were stationed in the army in Germany, so we’d explored Europe.
“It wasn’t until we got to Morocco that it felt like we really were on this adventure.”
They then headed up to the Algerian border, traveling along the coast to Algiers and then moving south through the Sahara desert.
Before heading into the desert, the Formans stocked up on fuel and water, ensuring that they had more than enough to make it across.
“We had 75 gallons of fuel to cross the desert into Tamanrasset, which was the first place we knew we could get fuel in southern Algeria, and 20 gallons of water,” says Jan Forman.
Unfortunately, when they arrived they were unable to get fuel immediately, and had to wait several days before they could move on.
While Jan Forman took on some of the driving at the start of the trip, she was less confident about maneuvering through the desert, so the pair decided that Alec would be the main driver, while she took on the role of navigating.
“There were lots of levers,” she explains. “And I thought if I get this wrong, and we’re stuck in a desert, that’s not going to be a good scenario. So we split our responsibilities. And it worked very well.”
Jan Forman noted down the compass bearings and mileage of any significant sightings, such as abandoned vehicles, or specific rocks, to ensure that they could turn back if they got lost and would have a fair idea of where they were.
It was during this part of the trip that they met one of the many “angels” who would feature in their book: A man on a camel, who gave them some camel’s milk, before instructing them to go in a different direction.
“We later found out that the area we would have continued off into was deep, deep, soft sand, and it may have delayed us considerably,” explains Jan Forman.
As they had calculated exactly how much fuel they’d need for each section of the route and had none left to spare, any delay or off route turn would have put them in danger of running out of fuel and potentially failing to make it to the next town.
The Formans went on to visit Niger, a landlocked country in West Africa, then south to Nigeria and Cameroon, where they visited the equatorial rainforest.
They then headed back towards Europe, driving through Italy and Austria, before passing through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and then Turkey.
After visiting Iran, and realizing that they’d have to wait around two months for a visa to enter Iraq, a couple they’d recently befriended suggested that they travel to Afghanistan instead.
“We’d not done any research on Afghanistan,” admits Alec Forman. “But we were convinced by the other two that that was the place to visit.”
As they were only permitted to travel to Afghanistan in a convoy, they teamed up with two other couples and headed off together.
“There is a central route where you drive 1,000 kilometers off-road, driving up river beds and crossing very doubtful bridges,” he adds.
One of the couples was forced to turn back when their vehicle was damaged, but the Formans and the other twosome continued on together.
When they reached Afghanistan, they were readily welcomed by locals and even received an invitation for tea at the home of a local family.
“The people were nothing but kind and generous,” says Alec Forman. “So we had a great time.”
Their next stop was Pakistan, where they visited Swat Valley and Lahore, and then India. While much of their journey went to plan, the couple experienced their fair share of tricky encounters.
One of those came about when they decided to drive to the highest point of the highest road in the world in Ladakh, a mountainous region east of the Kashmir Valley.
“Alec stood at the South Pole in Antarctica, so he thought it would be pretty cool to go to the highest point of the highest road in the world to match that,” explains Jan Forman.
While there were signs pointing the way to the top, there were also messages warning drivers that they were not permitted to go any further.
The Formans and their two friends decided to continue on, passing an open barrier, and made it all the way to the top. But on their way back, the barrier was down, and they were confronted by a guard.
“He came out with a rifle and said, ‘Where are you going? You’re not supposed to be up there,’” says Alec Forman.
“We said, ‘we’re very sorry, officer. We won’t do it again’. And he let us go. We figured he’d probably get in more trouble for us having gotten through in the first place.”
They went on to visit Nepal, spending Christmas in Kathmandu, before making their way back to the UK.
Although the Formans did their best to keep their families updated on their adventures, this was far from easy at the time.
“We couldn’t phone our family or anything,” says Jan Forman. “We had to rely on letters. So we would let them know when to send letters to certain points and try to work out when we would be at a place at a certain time.”
According to Jan Forman, her father had a big world map on the wall at the family home in Essex, which he used to plot out their journey as they told him the names of the towns they’d visited.
When they returned in March 1978, they neglected to tell their families that they were arriving a few days earlier than planned, opting to surprise them instead.
Once they’d settled back into life in the UK, the couple went on to have two daughters, Esther and Heidi, and took many family trips in the Land Rover.
By the time they had their son Charles, they decided to get a caravan they could attach to the back so that there was enough room for the entire family.
In 1985, the Formans moved to Mali, where they lived for 14 years. Their youngest daughter, Maria, was born in the northern Ivory Coast. The family continued to use the Land Rover to travel within the UK whenever they returned home.
“It had always been a part of our lives, until we literally grew out of it,” says Jan Forman.
When they moved to Germany in 1999, the Land Rover was returned to their home in UK county Hertfordshire, where it remained for several years.
The Formans eventually had it transported across to Germany, leaving it at the bottom of their garden for 17 years. Back in 2018, Alec Forman began to dismantle the front section until only the chassis axles and two wheels were left.
In May 2021, the Land Rover was towed on a trailer to France by a friend of the family, who brought it to a barn on his farm, where it remains to this day.
However, Charles Forman recently launched a Kickstarter in a bid to raise funds to publish a new photo book containing around 300 photographs from his parents’ overland journey and potentially restore the vehicle to its former glory.
“The original book had some photos,” explains the designer, who launched explmore.com, a website focused on life-changing adventure, inspired by his parents’ trip, in 2016. “But this is like a full collection of all photos.”
The project is particularly important to Charles Forman, who has fond childhood memories of times spent traveling in the Land Rover and is keen to see the vehicle reimagined to its original exterior look and finish from the 1977 adventure.
“On a personal level, I’d love to be able to use it and go on adventures with my family to continue that sort of nostalgic legacy,” he says.
“And It seems wasteful not to try to at least restore it in some sense. But the biggest part of it is to utilize it as a sort of source of inspiration.”
He goes on to explain that fans of “Strangers Like Angels,” and others who’ve come across his parents’ story, are often interested in seeing the vehicle in the flesh.
While the Land Rover would need to go through various modernizations, with existing parts repaired or replaced, in order to be roadworthy again, Charles Forman has been researching potential solutions, including converting the engine to an electric one.
“Nowadays, a lot of these old Land Rovers are being converted to electric because of technology,” says Charles Forman. “And I think that that would be a cool thing to do.”
While this certainly won’t be a simple task, he believes that the vehicle could still have more adventures ahead of it in the future.
“We hope to use it to share with others at special events and maybe take on further overland adventures to places it has not yet been driven to,” he adds.