BOOK REVIEW: The Last Great Australian Adventurer – Ben Carlin’s Epic Journey Around the World by Amphibious Jeep by Gordon Bass

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Great Australian Adventurer – Ben Carlin’s Epic Journey Around the World by Amphibious Jeep by Gordon Bass

Random House Australia
July 2017
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories

7.5/10

The name Ben Carlin may not mean much to some people, but American author, Gordon Bass is trying to rectify that. Bass has penned a biography called, The Last Great Australian Adventurer that chronicles the life of this world-record holding explorer. Carlin circumnavigated the world in an amphibious jeep in an arduous journey that took him around a decade to complete. The Last Great Australian Adventurer captures Carlin’s mad quest from his formative years in Perth, his time spent in the U.S. and the bitter ending to his ridiculous mission.

The inside of the vehicle’s open cockpit looked surprisingly like that of his own army jeep: two seats in front, a bench seat in back, a windscreen that could fold down, all the usual features. And it rode on four knobby tires. But the otherwise jeep-like vehicle was wrapped in what appeared to be a battered boat hull, and there was a propeller in back. He crouched down for a closer look and saw how its propeller shaft and axles passed through the hull, how its flat bow gave it the profile of a small barge, how in theory it would be equally capable on land and water.
And in that moment the seed of a strange idea emerged from nowhere.
Major Carlin turned to his counterpart on the inspection assignment, Group Captain Malcolm ‘Mac’ Bunting RAF airfield specialist. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘with a little titivation you could go around the world in one of these things.’…
And so he let the obsession take hold.
‘You know, Mac, it could be done,’ he said, a bit more emphatically. He was going to make a name for himself. He was going to be someone.

Carlin was a man who lived a colourful, transient life. He worked in the goldfield and rose to the rank of Army Major. In 1950 he ventured off on a fool-hardy journey without a GPS, satellites or life vests. He would traverse the globe in a second-hand army vehicle that he had purchased for $901 at auction for no real reason other than he wanted to. His mode of transport was an amphibious jeep he nicknamed Half-Safe, which seems like a good joke but is actually a reference to a deodorant advertisement. It was an ex-Army surplus vehicle that was heavy and slow on land and too fragile and often sunk in the water. It was little more than a shell of a boat placed over a car that wasn’t much larger than a Toyota Camry. Many would consider it a suicide mission.

For anyone who stopped to think about it, it was entirely crazy. Almost unbelievable. Later Ben claimed people often refused to believe him when he said he’d crossed oceans in the jeep. And if you actually saw the jeep bobbing down the Seine, or parked by a Calcutta kerb, would you really believe? Or would you think it a stunt, a practical joke, the idea of this hard-drinking Australian and his seasick wife sailing the oceans in what a friend called an ‘absurd contraption’?

When Carlin first planned his trip he was the eternal optimist. He had just married his second-wife, a loyal and driven woman named Elinore. They figured that they could complete the round-the-world trip in about six months. The reality however, would see Elinore quit after a few years due to the tiring nature of the travel and the ill-treatment she received from Carlin. The voyage eventually took Carlin a decade with a handful of other revolving travel companions. The journey was a perilous one, they could have died as they ventured across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, for instance. They also drove into a hurricane on one occasion and at other times they had to trek through desert. To say the journey was an arduous one is an understatement.

There was always something to do to the jeep, and Ben tended to it like a nurse, no like a lover, more aware of its mechanical rhythms and sounds and needs than to those of any person, his hands often bloodied with the work. More than any woman, Half-Safe was the greatest relationship of his life. Ben had imagined it…imagined her. He had conceived her and nurtured her. He understood her, even if he didn’t ever love her. He was happiest with her grease under his nails. Her shimmies and sounds told him where she was weak, where she needed attention. He knew her smell, a peculiar tang of oil that even in the middle of the desert was as much boat as car.

The journey has previously been described by Carlin in his two books, Half-Safe and The Other Half of Half-Safe. These autobiographies were considered commercial flops at the time they were released. In them, Carlin recounted things from his own perspective, often taking liberties with the truth and history. In Bass’ meticulously-researched book he presents a more authentic story, capturing Carlin’s difficult character as well as what motivated Carlin and made him tick. Bass also speculates and tries to answer the question regarding why Carlin was so tenacious and perseverant in the wake of tragedy and set-backs at every point. But only the late Carlin can really justify the method to his madness.

Half-Safe always made its strongest impression when emerging from the ocean at the end of a long voyage when the sheer absurdity of its amphibious nature and the audacity of its voyage were perfectly clear. On land, ‘She was just another weird-looking vehicle, perhaps an armored car, perhaps a garbage truck,’ said Ben. ‘Only on islands do they realize fully you’ve arrived by sea.’

Bass’ book is ultimately a fascinating and easy read. His father met Carlin when the adventurer was making modifications to his jeep for fuel and mechanics while living in the United States. It took Carlin five attempts in order to successfully launch and navigate from North America to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean. It is incredible to read this story, especially when you consider that Carlin was a self-taught mechanic who had no real safety net to prop him up if things went awry along the way. He eventually navigated 15,450km by sea and 62,765km by land in 1958 – a record that still holds to this day. It is sad that when Carlin finished this epic pursuit, he was met with such an anti-climactic reception. There was little fanfare and people had largely lost interest in the story because it had taken so long to be completed. Carlin’s tale seems to have been omitted from most of the history books, until now.

MONTREAL, May 14 – Australian engineer Ben Carlin drove his amphibious jeep Half-Safe into Montreal yesterday, completing a round-the-world trip that took him 10 years to complete, covered 50,000 miles and cost him £17,850. Carlin, 45, said he had proved his point – that he could cross land and sea with the 18-foot United States army surplus vehicle. But he had little affection for ‘Half-Safe.’
‘I can’t get rid of her fast enough,’ he said. ‘It’s been a tortoise shell on my back for many years.’
The Age, Melbourne, 15 May 1958

The Last Great Australian Adventurer is the compelling tale of a man with dogged self-belief and determination in completing one crazy and foolhardy pursuit. It often feels like this story is a work of fiction because it’s so strange and bizarre that you’d be forgiven for questioning its accuracy. Carlin should be applauded for crossing no less than four oceans and five continents in his gruelling, ill-thought journey. The Last Great Australian Adventurer is ultimately a fine read about a difficult soul and his amazingly hard journey.

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Great Australian Adventurer - Ben Carlin's Epic Journey Around the World by Amphibious Jeep by Gordon Bass

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  1. Gordon Bass says:

    Thanks for the review, Natalie!

    For anyone interested in the amazing, death-defying and ultimately tragic life of Ben Carlin, the Adventure Travel Film Festival is showing a rare documentary of the journey, shown only once before on an American TV series called “It’s a Small World” back in 1964.

    The Adventure Travel Film Festival takes place in Bright, Victoria in February, and again in Perth in May. I’ll be at that one talking about Ben, and you can see his jeep there too.

    Details here: http://www.adventuretravelfilmfestival.com/

  2. Thanks Gordon for the comment and your great book about the inimitable Ben Carlin! 🙂

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