Thursday, November 8, 2012

Exploratory Road Trips: the 1961 Cambridge Afro-Asian Expedition

A while ago, a series of intriguing photographs popped up on Retronaut, showing an old VW van plunging into rivers and pausing in front of mountains. The writing on the side of this van read 'Cambridge Afro-Asian Expedition'.

Images: I B Tauris Publishers, via Retronaut
I was intrigued, but there's not much written on the 1961-2 Cambridge Afro-Asian Expedition. There is a book on the subject being published soon, which is where these photographs have surfaced from. Otherwise, the only information on the trip I can find are the notes of those working on the book. 

I can't find a definite rationale behind the trip, or any information on why these particular students were chosen to travel the world. The nine of them drove Cambridge through the Soviet Union, across to Tashkent and then back to Kabul, down around India and then across the sea to Mombasa and Nairobi. The group finished in Port Said. The notes mentioned above suggest the purpose of the trip was to gather information on the relationship between youths and universities around the world and the way higher education operated internationally.

It's astonishing to me that something so ambitious with such striking visuals (though I suppose they're more striking now, with the dated bus labelled with its dated font) can be forgotten. This isn't an isolated example, though: I've been meaning for a while to write about Citröen's exploratory road trips much earlier in the century. 

In general, exploratory road trips seem to be a genre of travel that doesn't seem to get much after-the-fact examination. This is perhaps because the idea of a road trip is, even in the mention of road in the name, seen as following somebody else's path, not charting new territory. Or perhaps it's because cars are associated with suburban sprawl and repetition, the antithesis of curiosity.... perhaps it's that research and cruising on the open road are an unlikely combination, or perhaps it's just Jack Kerouac's fault.

It's probably a whole range of factors, but I find these sorts of trips interesting and I wish I heard more about them -especially this one, as I'd guess the records of the trip are held in a library somewhere within a few miles of me (though search catalogues yield nothing). 

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