Duo complete Italy-S'pore road adventure

Mr Sabatini (left) and Mr Poccianti celebrate their arrival here by popping champagne atop their Land Rover with the Singapore skyline in the background.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Charanjit Sigh Walia

Upon graduating from university, Italian students Cesare Poccianti and Michele Sabatini decided to take a trip like no other.

In September, the 23-year-olds got into Mr Sabatini's father's Land Rover and drove away from their home in Florence. Their destination was Singapore, 10,000km away.

Four months and 28 countries later, the intrepid pair arrived, travel-worn but triumphant, on Monday.

Singapore is the furthest point that can be reached overland by car from Italy. The trip was first attempted 60 years ago, when a group of students from Oxford and Cambridge universities drove Land Rovers from London to Singapore.

Mr Sabatini and Mr Poccianti decided to follow in their tracks a year ago, when they were in their second year at the European School Of Economics.

Mr Sabatini recalled: "I said to Cesare - we are going to graduate next year and we have to do something special to tell our children about."

They found a sponsor in American firm MHG, which makes biodegradable plastics that fully decompose within a year. It agreed to fund them if they would document plastic pollution in the countries they passed through, to raise awareness of the harm caused by non-biodegradable plastics.

The Land Rover took them through the majestic mountains of Cappadocia in Turkey and the vast Taklamakan desert in China.

Accompanied by a Kalashnikov-toting police guard, they also drove through parts of Pakistan where the terrorist group Taleban was active.

Home for them was a tent pitched on top of their car, even in dire weather. They spent a night freezing in the Torugart Pass on the China-Kyrgyzstan border, at a temperature of -5 deg C and winds so strong they feared being blown off the mountain.

Both said, however, that it was not the dangers of the trip they remember most, but the kindness of those they met.

"In the poorest places, people would give us all they had," said Mr Poccianti. "They were happy not to eat for two days just to make sure they welcomed us properly."

In Laos, they once feared they had been robbed after they found their car moved, its window smashed and their valuables missing.

It turned out that a huge fire had started across the road and, to save the car, the local police had broken the window to release the handbrake and push it to safety. They had also kept their valuables for them.

The men were shocked by the extent of plastic pollution they saw in the rural areas they visited, where people used cheap plastic products but lacked a waste management system to recycle them properly.

In Azerbaijan, they saw cows eating from heaps of smouldering plastic waste. "In the middle of nature, we would smell pollution," said Mr Poccianti. "Everyone was burning plastic in their backyard because they didn't know what to do with it."

MHG chief marketing officer Scott Tuten said: "The support of this trip helped us reach regions that have not been accessible to us through our current communication channels, and provided us with information that we can use to help countries reduce their global plastic pollution footprint."

The duo almost did not make it to their final destination. They were held up at the Johor Baru checkpoint for two days as they were missing some permits required to enter Singapore by car.

They got in on Monday, just in time to ship their car home before their flight out on Tuesday morning. They celebrated by popping champagne atop the Land Rover while taking in the Marina Bay skyline.

"Driving through the streets of Singapore was a strange sensation," said Mr Sabatini. "It has not sunk in yet that we did it. I am so proud. Everyone said we were crazy, but we got to Singapore in the end."


This article was first published on December 31, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.