James Nestor is the author of the new Kindle Single "Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History's Most Insane Around-the-world Adventure," which tells the amazing true story of Ben Carlin's attempt to circumnavigate the world in a single vehicle.
It started as a honeymoon, but, ten years later, Ben Carlin was still at it, vomiting over the window of a fleabag hotel in Calcutta. His skin was sunburnt and caked in sweat, eyeswere jaundiced and swollen from another sleepless night.
It was 1956 and, accompanied by his wife Elinor, he had just travelled 9,000 miles from England to Calcutta by land and sea aboard an amphibious Army Jeep called Half-Safe.
The trip had been hell.
In Iran, it got so hot in the Jeep's tiny cabin that the plastic toolboxes melted beneath the dashboard and gasoline boiled over in the tank. In Pakistan, sandstorms almost buried Ben and Elinore alive. Still, nothing compared to India: breakdowns and Dengue Fever were followed by bad directions and days spent floating aimlessly down the Ganges with the windshield of Half-Safe hovering just a few inches above the polluted water. Ben was broken and Elinore was worse. Her once voluptuous figure was now skeletal. Much of her hair was gone, her stomach was infected and her lips had blistered and crumpled, like hot dogs left on the barbecue too long.
Adventure was what drew Ben, an engineer from rural Western Australia, to Elinore, an Army nurse, when the two married at the end of World War II. And there could be no more wilder exploit than to spend their honeymoon "driving" around the world, attempting the first-ever circumnavigation of Earth by a single vehicle.
And what a vehicle. Half-Safe was a converted 1942 General Purpose Amphibian Jeep built by Ford for the U.S. Army. It looked like a cross between a 4x4 and a rowboat, with a stubby pointed front, square rear end and a five-by-ten steel box on top. Half-car, half-boat and entirely ridiculous, the GPA Jeeps were designed to putter through shallow streams for a few minutes at a time and carry supplies back and forth on short overland hauls. They usually failed even at these simple tasks and had proved so useless in the field that the Army cancelled production.
This reject carried the Carlins across the Middle East, war-torn Africa, the Strait of Gibraltar, through Europe and up to England. It floated them across the Atlantic Ocean.
When I first heard the story from a friend in 2002, I thought it was complete bullshit. Driving -- really driving -- around the world would have been a more remarkable feat than Amelia Earhart's attempted around-the-world flight or Nellie Bly's 80-day circumnavigation by luxury steamship, yet history had ignored the Carlins. What happened?
The more I thought about the question, the more I had to know the answer, which is how I found myself in the dark corner of a library in Perth ten years later. Ben Carlin's careful notes from his circumnavigation attempt were in the care of his childhood school, Guildford Grammar. He'd bequeathed them to the obscure institution when he died in 1981 for a right-thinking cause, "the proficiency of the English language with the avoidance of clichￃﾩs."
Soon after I arrived at Guildford in November 2011, I discovered that, after Ben returned from his circumnavigation and divorced Elinore, who had abandoned Half-Safe in Calcutta, he had a daughter with a woman 31 years his junior. Ben never met his daughter after the age of 4, despite searching for her for the rest of his life. Her name was Deirdre and I found her working as an administrative assistant in downtown Perth. She had never been to the Guildford archives and didn't know her father's story. I felt strange telling her details of her father's -- and her own -- forgotten life.
In the end, I found enough material about Ben Carlin and the Half-Safe to answer the questions that had stuck with me over the past decade. But there is still one question I can't fully answer, a question about my involvement in the story.
Since my story, Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History's Most Insane Around-the-world Adventure, was released a few weeks ago, readers have repeatedly asked why I wasted ten years tracking down the story of Ben, whom many thought was an "obsessive," "self-absorbed," "selfish asshole" for risking his wife's life on such a ridiculous quest.
I don't know for sure, but I have an idea.
The way I see it, the world is full of selfish assholes. Still, there is a difference between an asshole and a majestic asshole, an asshole willing to do something insane and grand. If you're going to spend a lifetime causing other people grief, why not also drive a reject Jeep around the world?
Ben never became rich or famous, but he wouldn't have known what do with that sort of respect anyway. He was a strange man who went on a weird quest for no particular reason. This is probably why his story didn't resonate in the 1950s and probably why his story resonates so strongly with me. He took a well-worn adventure -- circumnavigation -- and subverted it so completely that it seemed new again. In this, he was perhaps a grandfather to those of us who were born too late to discover the Arctic, but might be the first to try surfing it.
"By nature I am an ornery SOB in that I cannot bear to follow the mob." he wrote. "When men go to sea in ships, I take a vehicle; when they tackle continents in automobiles, I prefer a boat."