Explorer and historian Tim Severin recalls his undergraduate adventure retracing Marco Polo’s route to China — on a motorbike with Boris Johnson’s dad.
By John Garth
Tim Severin became a household name in the 1970s for crossing the Atlantic in a replica sixth-century leather boat — ‘the Irish Kon-Tiki’. Less well known is how it all began with a wild motorbike trip as an Oxford undergraduate in the tracks of Marco Polo.
Born in Assam to tea planters, Severin imbibed geography on journeys to prep school in England. He came to Keble with a scholarship in 1959, taking JNL Baker’s masterful course on the history of exploration. The second-year Geography summer vacation project was less appealing. Usually along the lines of coal mine study in Yorkshire, it was compulsory — ‘pretty unfair when most people could get the Long Vac off and travel’. Severin devised an expedition to retrace Marco Polo’s 13th-century route to China. But he was pragmatic. ‘We didn’t have several years so we travelled on motorbikes.’ Starting from Venice in 1961, it would anticipate the hippy trail by several years, following a route now blocked by war zones.
He was joined by Classics student Stanley Johnson (Exeter, 1959), later a Tory MEP, environmentalist, and father of the current Mayor of London. ‘He’s not only as colourful as Boris, but Boris is a total clone visually of Stanley, including the shock of pale hair,’ notes Severin. A young assistant cameraman from London, Michael de Larrabeiti (later author of the Borribles trilogy), made three. Total budget was £200. With one motorcycle loaned by maker BSA, another one sponsored by a construction company, plus a sidecar for the third man and another for supplies, all seemed set for far Cathay.
The passenger sidecar fell off in Yugoslavia. The supply sidecar lasted as far as Turkey. The front fork of one of the bikes snapped in Persia. ‘So we actually finished up the rest of the trip with three of us riding on one motorbike — Mike stuck on the luggage rack,’ said Severin. ‘Stanley was the only person strong enough to hold the bike upright. We went two and a half thousand miles like that.’ (The above photo, at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, captures how they rode.)
When Severin broke his foot in the Valley of the Assassins, it proved fortuitous. Leaving the motorcycling to Johnson and De Larrabeiti for a while, Severin went on with a camel caravan — which, he realised, was still using the south Persian route described in Marco Polo’s Travels. It was a vindication of the Severin technique: seeing what could be learned by using a historical source text as guidebook.
They reached northern Afghanistan, but Communist China was closed. Retracing their steps, they crossed the Khyber Pass and eventually — funds having run dry — managed to get free passage back to Britain from Calcutta. ‘We came back to Oxford well into late October. But we had understanding colleges — they were absolutely brilliant.’
Back home, he wrote it up for Geographical magazine and in his first book. He pursued a B Litt, went with a Harkness Fellowship to canoe down the Mississippi, then wrote further on African and Oriental travel. Teaching in Jamaica, he learned to sail.
This led to an epiphany: he realised a small boat, even of very early design, could travel great distances. The idea reached fruition thanks to the Navigatio of St Brendan, which tells how a sixth-century Irish monk sailed west to Paradise in a hide boat. Was it a visionary phantasmagoria? Or was it historical — and could Brendan actually have reached America? With a publisher’s advance, Severin built a replica skin boat and, with a crew of three, set sail from the west of Ireland — his home by that time and ever since — to Iceland in 1976 and thence to Newfoundland the following year.
‘And that’s when everything changed,’ Severin recalls. ‘There was such enthusiasm for the project that various youngsters along the west coast of Ireland started building their own miniature versions and saying they were on their way to the uncle in Boston, and the Gardai had to keep an eye on the shoreline.’
The Brendan Voyage put him on the bestseller list in 1978, in topical newspaper cartoons and on Desert Island Discs — surely one of its most apt guests ever. Still in print and translated widely, the book reads like a cross between medieval history, Swallows and Amazons and Shackleton. There is the satisfaction of seeing how medieval descriptions of sea-monsters and fire-creatures might refer to whales and to volcanic Iceland; the tension of heavy weather between Iceland and Greenland; the excitement of disaster narrowly averted after pack ice spears the soft hull.
For Severin this was the voyage’s big thrill. ‘In the morning I found that the puncture was actually within arm’s reach under water. George Maloney had quite long arms and was able to be hung over the side and stitch on a patch.’
The Brendan adventure was the template for later voyages emulating Sindbad, Ulysses, Jason and Hsu Fu, a Chinese navigator whose bamboo raft, Severin argues, could have reached America in 218BC. Severin’s Hsu Fu did not, quite: for a while, as the rattan rotted and the raft slowly sank, the crew were missing in the Pacific before being plucked to safety.
Is he fearless? ‘Far from it. I subscribe to the view that only people who know fear are safe to be with.’ But he has long retired from such expeditions, which now cost astronomical amounts. Besides, he has sailed most of the world’s oceans, he says, ‘and there comes a time when you don’t want to be climbing up the mast in a howling gale.’
Now he writes fiction, with a ‘Viking’ trilogy complete, his fourth ‘Pirate’ title Privateer out this year and his third ‘Saxon’ book The Pope’s Assassin due out next March — all invigorated by detail and colour from a stock of experience which should turn rival historical novelists green with envy. His undergraduate experience underpins all. ‘I certainly wouldn’t have embarked on this career if it hadn’t been for the Marco Polo project when I was at Oxford. That really kickstarted everything for me.’
Images courtesy of the Tim Severin Archive.