When they decided to drive around the world in a black cab, Johno Ellison, Paul Archer and Leigh Purnell were all at university. They had very little money and not much experience – aside from a botched Mongol Rally attempt – when it came to expeditionary adventures.
But with a bit of planning, a bucket load of gumption, and a bit of local help along the way, they did it. They thought of something completely absurd, something seemingly impossible, and made it a reality.
We caught up with Johno to find out why and how this whole incredible story came together.
Take us back in time – when and where did this all begin to take shape? What were you all doing at the time? Why on earth did you land on driving around the world in a taxi?
Like all good ideas, it began in our local pub. After a few drinks, Paul got what seemed like a never-ending taxi back to the student house we shared. He saw that the meter just kept going higher and higher...then he had the brainwave: “I wonder what the longest taxi ride ever was, and if there's a record?”
So I was woken up at about 2am on a Tuesday by my housemate saying, "Johno! Let's drive a black cab to Australia!"
Naturally, I told him it was stupid idea, but for some reason we couldn’t get it out of our heads. Then our friend Leigh – who had been chatting to Paul about crazy travel ideas that night – came on board and things started moving.
What appealed about this type of trip in particular?
I think initially it was the idea of something so absurd – using an iconic British car, designed for the soggy backstreets of London, and driving it to the other side of the world through terrible conditions, including the Arctic Circle and some of the world's hottest deserts.
Later, once we started to plan a little more we got really excited about the possibility of driving through a load of more obscure places that aren't necessarily visited by many tourists.
Looking back, can you remember the reactions you got when you first told your loved ones what you were planning to do?
We definitely got a lot of smirks and sarcastic comments: "You're going to drive to Australia? Yeah, sure!" But once we actually bought the taxi and started to get sponsors people started to realise it might actually happen, and we got loads of support from friends and family.
Speaking of planning, how do you begin to plan a trip like this?
The first thing we did was return to the pub, this time armed with a large world map and a marker pen. We basically had a few drinks, had a chat and drew a line of where we wanted to go, and then started working towards making it a reality.
Paul's great at blagging things so he was chief sponsor hunter, Leigh was the most-mechanically minded so he got looking for a car, and I was in a student internship with not much do so I started looking into the many visa and border requirements.
Where'd you manage to blag a taxi from?
We actually found it on eBay and it was twenty years old when we bought it, with nearly 500,000km on the clock. Leigh – our de facto mechanic -– couldn't make it down to look at it but Paul and I pretended we knew what we were talking about, handed over £1500 of our student loans and hoped for the best.
We named her 'Hannah' after an old song called ‘Hard Hearted Hannah’, which is about a woman who loves to see men suffer.
Can you talk me through the specifics of the trip? When did you leave? When did you return? How many kilometres? How long did it take?
We left from London in February 2011, after graduating the previous summer and then spending a bit of time getting the car ready and working temporary jobs to save up money.
We'd had an idea, which seemed hilarious at the time, that all taxi drivers never take the shortest route so we decided to first head up to the Arctic Circle in Finland (via Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen and Sweden). But once we actually started the drive north we discovered that the heating didn't work properly...and Scandinavia in the winter is really really cold and dark, so our 'hilarious' idea turned out to be not so hilarious after all.
Our first ever couchsurfing host, Jasper, took us a party at a porn set in Amsterdam, and our Russian host in Moscow inadvertently got us arrested by the local police.
We then dropped into Russia, Belarus, and back into Europe just as spring arrived, then down through the Middle East – Turkey, the Caucasus, Iraq and Iran. After that we went through Pakistan and India then into the Himalayas with Nepal and Tibet, before going through China and Southeast Asia then shipping from Singapore to Darwin and driving down to Sydney.
We were originally due to finish there, but we actually got a large sponsor halfway around and so ended up shipping onwards to San Francisco, then driving across the US, shipping to Israel then driving back through Europe and all the way around the world to London.
We originally planned on being away for eight months but it actually ended up being 15 months and 67,716km! We beat the previous record – 34,908km, was set in 1994 from London to South Africa and back – in Tibet and our total meter reading at the end was £79,000. About $138,000 AUD!
How many kilometres do you think you were averaging a day?
It really varied so much with the state of the roads. A good day would be 500km, which doesn't sound like too much when you're on decent roads in a good car, but we struggled to get much above 80km/hr a lot of the time so it ended up taking a while.
Then as soon as we started getting into places like India our average just fell off a cliff as we struggled to average above 30km/hr due to terrible roads filled with rickshaws, cows and people, plus the insane monsoon conditions. And Paul got really sick. I think our final 'Moving Average Speed' – we spent a lot of time stopped due to breakdowns, traffic and other things – from the GPS was 29 km/hr.
Where did you sleep? How did you manage to fund the trip?
We were lucky to win the 'Non Standard Award' at the start of our planning – basically a grant that's given to people doing 'non-standard' things with cars but that only just covered our fuel bill, so we'd been saving up our own cash and secured a load of equipment sponsors...but driving around the world, especially in an old car that breaks down every other day, is really expensive so we were constantly on a shoestring budget.
To save money we stayed with friends and couchsurfed throughout most of Europe. We ended up meeting some interesting characters that way. Our first ever couchsurfing host, Jasper, took us a party at a porn set in Amsterdam, and our Russian host in Moscow inadvertently got us arrested by the local police.
As we moved further south and the weather got better we camped a lot, then once into Asia we were able to finally afford the cheaper hotels. We were also put up along the way by loads of friendly well-wishers. There was a lovely lady in Darwin called Bernadette who let the three of us crash on her floor for a week whilst we fixed a big car problem, and we were also sponsored by Base Hostels in Oz who gave us amazing free accommodation from Cairns down to Sydney.
In terms of the cash, because we kept having breakdowns and delays our eight months’ worth of budget had to be stretched further and further, and by the time we reached Thailand we were all almost broke. We'd paid for the shipping to Darwin but none of us could afford to actually get back to the UK from Australia. Thankfully, we got amazingly lucky and were approached by a large Taxi App called GetTaxi who were interested in supporting the rest of the trip, and even extending it.
In an amazing coincidence, their head of marketing was on his honeymoon on the exact same island that we were on, so we met up, had some drinks, got on great, and then decided to use their help to extend the trip across the US.
You were arrested in Moscow and detained by Iranian police – can you talk me through some of your most challenging moments from the journey?
Yeah, the Iran section was quite tough. The people in Iran are just unbelievably friendly and constantly offering to give you food or a place to stay but one day we had a bit of a perfect storm of a big breakdown, a really close near-miss in the terrible traffic in Tehran, and our GPS – which was essential for the Guinness World Record – blowing up!
We'd had enough of the city so drove out into the desert south of the capital and pitched our tents in the pitch black. It wasn't until the morning that I poked my head out and asked Paul and Leigh: "Are they...artillery guns?"
Along the way we lost our fuel cap, one of our headlights, ran completely out of food and water and our Chinese guide nearly had a complete meltdown.
We'd inadvertently camped a few hundred metres to a large military base in the area famous for Iran's nuclear programme. Before we could sneak off unnoticed we were accosted by the local police, and then later the secret police who questioned us in the sun for hours, asking us why there were three British men in that sensitive spot, in a car full of cameras and GPS equipment. For some reason they were convinced that Paul was an Israeli spy (he's not Israeli!) but eventually they let us go.
A few weeks later, Paul and Leigh flew over to Dubai to secure a Pakistani visa that they weren't able to get back in England but when they tried to re-enter Iran, Paul's passport had been flagged and he was deported... leaving me alone with the car to drive the most dangerous section alone with the compulsory armed escort.
Thankfully I met an amazing Australian hitchhiker from Wagga Wagga called Craig who helped me out, but he had a bit of a short fuse and I was a bit scared he'd end up getting us shot by some of the jumpier border security guards.
And you hold the record for the highest altitude reached by a taxi, right? How did that come about? Was that planned, or a bit of a happy accident?
Yeah, that's right. This was actually a bit of an accident. We drove up to Mount Everest Base Camp, a route usually taken by specially adapted LandCruisers and it took us 18 hours of driving to do a few hundred kilometres. Along the way we lost our fuel cap, one of our headlights, ran completely out of food and water and our Chinese guide nearly had a complete meltdown. The camp itself was pretty unremarkable but nearby we did reach the highest point ever reached by taxi – 5,225.4 metres! – and set a new Guinness record.
Did you learn anything about the world, or driving taxis, that you didn't know before?
All three of us now know a lot about how to fix a 1992 black cab, especially by the side of the road in deserts, but unfortunately it's not a very useful skill anymore!
More broadly we found that the vast majority of people, the world over, are friendly and willing to help you out, especially if you're doing something a little out of the ordinary. We wouldn't have made it without hundreds of people who gave us food, shelter or even just friendly smiles and encouragement.
In a broader sense, what did this whole experience teach you?
For me the main thing was that you can get by in any situation, you just might have to think a little differently. We broke down in some pretty dodgy spots and had some hairy situations but we always came out OK. Often what initially seem like major setbacks can be overcome if you just look at the bigger picture.
I also found that, nearly always, my preconceptions of places, and people, were totally off, and most of time the actual places and people were much better than I had expected.
It's OK to try something. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail, and then you can try something else.
As a means of travel, what did the black cab offer that other modes of transport don't?
The taxi is actually pretty huge inside and we also built a large wooden storage box that we called The Bar – named so after filling it with cheap wine from Paris – which had a power socket. So if you were in the back you could pretty easily put a movie on your laptop and stretch out with your feet up on. We also added a monster winch...a London black cab with a huge winch...and constantly berated Leigh that it was a waste of money until we got stuck in a mudslide in Cambodia and used it to save the day.
One thing that I missed after returning to a normal car in the UK was that everyone loved to see the taxi and people were constantly honking and waving. There was one motorway in Czech Republic where literally every single car that passed us honked.
Aside from the feat itself, was there anything else you were hoping to raise awareness for or achieve with this trip?
We were actually raising money for the British Red Cross as we thought they do amazing work both in the UK and all around the world, and we saw some of their projects in Georgia. In the end we raised over £20,000 for them!
Since all this took place, what have you been up to the past few years? Any more adventures? Any more planned?
Although we did have a few big arguments along the way we're all still good friends, although none of us live in the same city anymore! Leigh and Paul both started their own companies in the UK and I reckon this was helped by experiences gained on the trip – realising that it's OK to try something. The worst thing that can happen is that you fail, and then you can try something else.
I now live in Kuala Lumpur and I've had a few adventures since– cycled across frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia last winter and spent six weeks travelling through Indonesia down to East Timor, but I'm always on the lookout for the next big idea!
Paul, Johno and Leigh wrote and published ‘It’s On The Meter’, a book about their experience driving around the world, in 2016. Get your copy now.