THEY had their car smashed into and hundreds of pounds worth of equipment stolen in China. They broke down in the desert 600 kilometres from the nearest major town in Kazakhstan. And they spent five hours being interrogated by gun-toting border guards in Russia.
Oh, and while surfing in Indonesia, Joe Ferrar had his arm ripped nearly clean off by a shark.
And yet, today, the 31-year-old Bawtry boy and his Australian girlfriend Penny Young insist the last 12 months have been the best of their life. The pair have been on a monster road trip, driving from Sydney to Sheffield, while making a documentary for the National Geographic channel.
“Yeah, there have been some pretty sketchy moments,” says Joe down the phone from Berlin where they are preparing for the last stretch of the journey.
He pauses for a second, perhaps remembering that moment on a Bali beach when he saw his lower arm hanging by a thread of torn muscle to the rest of his body.
“Seeing my arm looking like a butcher’s steak was a low point,” he says. “But, overall, it’s been crazy and amazing and every other superlative. It’s been the trip of a lifetime.”
It was nearly two years ago that Joe, a Sheffield University maths graduate who had been working in Sydney for four years, decided he wanted to return to South Yorkshire.
Instead of catching a flight, however, he decided to buy a 20-year-old land cruiser ‘troopy’ (one previous owner – New South Wales Fire and Rescue department) and drive home seeing the globe en-route. Then he asked girlfriend Penny to come with him.
“I thought he was crazy,” says the 27-year-old Sydney native. “I’d always wanted to travel but this was too much. And yet the idea grew on me. Slowly I found myself agreeing.”
Yet, if the pair expected the challenges to be hard – not least when packing the car on day one took almost 10 hours – even they perhaps underestimated what lay ahead.
“Obviously, we knew it wasn’t going to be your average trip,” says Penny. “We knew we’d get flat tyres and break down, and that the roads would be terrible. But we never expected a shark attack.”
Ah, yes, that attack.
It was April when the pair arrived in Bali for a week of sun and surfing. They’d spent the previous three months exploring Australia and, while the troopy was transported to Singapore, they took the time to relax.
“I’d been in the water about 90 minutes that day,” recalls Joe, an avid Sheffield United fan. “It was pretty murky because a river had flooded into the sea but the waves were perfect.
“I remember I was slow-paddling when I suddenly felt a huge pull on my arm. I yanked it out of the water and at the same time I saw the back of this bull shark momentarily break the surface.
“I looked at my arm and it was just a mass of blood and flesh.”
It is difficult for him to remember exactly how events unfolded – but, as the water turned red with his own blood, he does recall mentally preparing himself for the shark to come back for the kill.
“It was the most scared I’ve ever been,” he says.
Fortunately, it never did. A fellow surfer, an American called Mike, paddled towards him, straight into the danger, and, as Joe screamed for help, guided him ashore.
“I was struggling to paddle because I was trying to hold my arm together,” he notes.
On the beach a car was organised to take him to a village medical centre where the gaping wound was bandaged but no more could be done. From there, instead, he was directed to a hospital four hours away.
“I lay in the car convinced I’d lost my right arm,” he says. “The physical pain was agony but that mental pain was worse.”
Incredibly, he didn’t lose it – although he has been left with a pretty impressive 120-stitch scar. Thirteen hours after the attack which ripped five tendons, staff at Bali’s BIMC Hospital operated to save his arm. It was a success and, after four days there, he was transferred to Sheffield’s Northern General for physio.
“I walked into reception and said I’d been attacked by a shark,” he laughs. “It’s not something they hear everyday.”
At that point, back in England, it seemed the trip was over before they’d even reached mainland Asia. But both were determined no shark was going to stop them.
After two months treatment it became clear Joe’s right arm and hand would be okay. And so, on June 15, the pair flew back to Singapore to start back where they’d left off.
The first thing Joe did? Get back in the water.
“I knew if I didn’t do it straight away, I never would,” he says. “And I love surfing too much to stop. I did make sure the water was clear, though.”
From there, the pair picked up the troopy again and off they went, Penny doing much of the early driving.
Inevitably, however, there were more adventures – and trouble – ahead.
In Xi’an, China, they left their hostel one morning to find their car had been broken into and all their Sat Nav and video equipment stolen. Perhaps worse still, their iPods had been swiped, meaning the rest of the trip would be spent listening to a Simply Red CD.
And, while they haven’t experienced a single flat tyre all trip, in Kazakhstan they did break down two days from the nearest city.
“We were near this lawless little town when it happened,” says Joe. “ It wasn’t safe there. We spoke to the only guy who could speak English and he told us we wouldn’t find a mechanic until the next city, Aktobe, which was 600 kilometres through the desert.
“We didn’t know what to do. We managed to get the car going but I wasn’t sure how long it would stay running. But we had no option.
“We chanced it and drove through the desert, hoping it would be okay.”
The troopy, spluttering and unable to go above 60 kph, held up. And once in Aktobe that mechanic even gave them a guided tour of the city. “Bonus,” notes Joe.
It wasn’t the only such ‘bonus’ on their trip. Though the problems have come to dominate their tales and documentary, the pair insist the good times were spectacular.
“We’ve had so much fun,” says Joe. “Met so many incredible people and seen so many amazing things. In Kazakhstan, for example, that mechanic actually leant us his Porsche while he fixed our car. There was so much warmth towards us throughout it really made the whole thing. The surfing was incredible in Singapore, and driving through China was mind-blowing.”
For now, though, as they prepare to leave Berlin for Britain via the Czech Republic, Switzerland and France, it’s the slow realisation that real life is once more beckoning.
“Once we hit in Europe it already felt like we were kind of home,” says Penny.
They will be arriving in Bawtry around December 10 where they will celebrate Christmas with Joe’s (relieved) parents before job and house hunting.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Joe. “I’d do it all over again in a second – although perhaps without the shark attack.”
Joe and Penny on their blog in their own words...
On packing the ‘troopy’: “Our first failing was that we never had a dry run of packing the car. This proved to be stressful, and so culling began. We need two knives, forks, plates and cups to travel the world with – we probably don’t need two guitars.”
On China: “Everyone we’ve met wanted to do something for us, take us for a drink, invite us to see the best thing in their town, drink tea until we nearly wet ourselves. We’ve been made to feel like celebrities, even with our two word vocab.”
On Muscovites: “They sport different facial expressions to the ones I’m used to. Someone told us that they don’t care for smiling because they think the more you smile, the more the fool people will think you are.”
On Turkestan hospitality: “These guys were mortified when Joe continued to order beers to wash back their glasses of cognac. One even re-enacted a brain haemorrhage in a warning not to mix drinks.”
On eastern Europe: “I now know where the expression ‘It’s bloody Baltic’ comes from.”
The countries en-route
Australia, Indonesia, UK (physio period), Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, UK.