In 1969, as the free love music of Woodstock filled the air and the most impressive journey ever undertaken by mankind was completed when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon, Ben Bangerter decided to take a giant leap of his own, not so much for mankind but for his family.
Ben and Sheila Bangerter were both born in England and emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1970’s. Their journey is quite extraordinary, due to the fact that they travelled overland to get here accompanied by a group of family and friends.
This incredible undertaking, this remarkable adventure, sadly came to our attention while Helen, (Ben and Sheila’s youngest daughter), read Sheila’s eulogy in December. Ben sat quietly in the corner, the fog of age disguising the man who once embodied all that an adventurer could be, and it goes to show that you should never judge a book by its cover.
With the help of a diary kept by Ben’s sister-in-law, Janet Field, and the memories of family, we managed to piece together their adventure..
In 1969 there were no mobile phones, internet, GPS, or other technology, there was simply a map and a compass, that’s it! At 29, Ben Bangerter, along with his wife Sheila, and two young daughters, (aged 4 and 5) and extended family, decide to immigrate from England to New Zealand. Nothing unusual about that you may think, except they don’t hop on a plane or a boat, they got into a Landover and drove.
The man at the helm of this expedition was Ben Bangerter, an ex-policeman from the London Metropolitan Police Force and with him a group made up of family and friends, taking the total crew to 17. This was a big undertaking and without the resources we have at our disposal now, the logistics must have been daunting.
To put the period into perspective, it was a time of conflict and a time of change. British troops had been sent into Northern Ireland in an attempt to restore law and order, the Vietnam War was in full swing, the Soviet Union had just invaded Czechoslovakia and there were serious border clashes between the Soviet and the Republic of China. Tensions between Iraq and Israel were high after the Iraqi authorities killed 14 suspected spies in a public hanging, inviting citizens to “come and enjoy the feast”. 500,000 people attended the hangings and danced and celebrated around the dead. This was the climate and the region that Ben and his family were venturing into.
Unperturbed they left England on 25th October 1969 and travelled through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Australia before arriving in New Zealand on 20th January 1970.
Conflict continues today, tourists still get beheaded and arrested, but we have at our fingertips up to date information to help us stay safe. Yet, there’s an old saying, “where ignorance is bliss, it’s folly to be wise” and maybe not knowing something is often more comfortable than knowing it. We live in an information overloaded world and all that information, a lot of which is negative because that is what makes the news, would stop anyone taking these ‘risks’ so ignorance can be bliss. For Ben and his family, they relied on wit, intuition, good old-fashioned kiwi ingenuity (although they were British then) and Ben’s police credentials.
In 1969 many of the places Ben and his crew travelled through were little known and rarely visited by tourists. A lot of what they saw seemed strange and unusual; there was no TripAdvisor to tell you not to stare at the guy with the turban. They visited many countries with religious beliefs not common in England at the time and they had not seen poverty like they came across while travelling. The suspicion however, worked both ways as these locals often viewed them with caution.
As the group travelled across the world, without the ability to check google for the best places to stay, they would often pull up on the side of the road or in a soccer field and set up camp. Freedom camping back then was not without its challenges and at times they were asked to move on, often in the middle of the night. The few hotels they could afford to stay in were often poorly run, and anything but clean, with rice and rats running freely through the rooms. Most of the time they camped, setting up tents or sleeping in the cars.
Safety was always a concern, and although they did not have google at their fingertips, they knew enough about the climate they were heading into to be wary. At each town they entered, Ben would find the local police station, flash his police credentials and ask for advice. Often someone at the police station would offer to help or let them camp behind the police station for the night.
The journey was not without its scary moments. While camping on a river bed in Erzurum, Turkey, the local police drove up and warned them of bandits in the area, forcing the men to stay on guard, taking turns with the one gun they owned to keep guard throughout the night.
Although not officially at war in 1969, Afghanistan and Pakistan were still considered to be a dangerous zone, with tolls being demanded by gun-toting locals at unofficial “road blocks”. They were warned of bandits patrolling the Khyber Pass, the mountain pass on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and carried a gun with them just in case. Fortunately, they crossed through this area without any major incidents.
The roads also proved somewhat of a challenge as they were often unsealed and unformed which caused numerous breakdowns. Garages were far and few between and they often had to buy petrol off other travellers and syphon it from their tanks. When anything broke down, they had to have the knowledge to fix it themselves.
Communication was also a difficult, and they often relied on sign language and on occasion the brandishing of the gun! Communication to loved ones was limited to letter writing which were sent to local embassies or post offices, and the occasional phone calls if a phone could be found.
For this group of adventurers, the sights were varied and intense. From the incredible mountains in Austria, the autumn colours in Germany, the bazaars in Istanbul vibrant with colours and snake charmers, the vastness of crossing the desert in Australia and everything in between. It was such a vast contrast to their lives in England.
Most of us would be somewhat relieved to finally land in New Zealand after three months on the road, but for Ben this journey sparked an idea. Once settled in NZ he opened his own travel company, Overland Safaris, the first commercial company to operate a Safari overland between Auckland and London, travelling all the way (where possible) by road. It was basically the trip he had done with his family but in reverse and included all transport, food and accommodation for a mere $1,300.00. If you wished to do the return trip it was just an extra $400! On top of that the travelling time was stated as taking approximately three and a half to four months!
The Overland Safari brochure, which Sheila had kept all these years, describes the trip and Ben’s adventurous attitude best. “Make no mistake, this is a safari in the true sense of the word. We camp wherever possible and expect you to partake in the running of your safari. We will give you three meals a day, which you will be expected to help prepare, the rest is up to you! We guarantee to get your there but not by any set date and if we break down, and we usually do from time to time, then our staff will not hurry to make up on lost time as this can ruin the rest of the trip. Our chief aim is to make this the best 31/2 to 4 months of your life!”
Ben ran the business successfully for a few years before he was ready for a new adventure. A lack of qualifications never stopped him doing exactly what he wanted. Along the way he was a cafe owner, a bus driver, a customs officer, a driving instructor and then finished his working life as a science teacher – a job he loved, working with young people and sharing his love of life.
Although Neil Armstrong only stepped on the moon for 2 1/2 hours, for the length of his long life he was able to gaze into the night sky and see the moon beaming back at him, and he is one of the very few men who can say, ‘been there done that’. In the same way Ben Bangerter can look back across his life and see that this crazy adventure, as wild and reckless as is seems in hindsight, was just a small part of his adventurous and full life and if anyone said, ‘who would drive from England to New Zealand?’ he can smile and say, ‘been there done that!’