Rupert Grey is making a good run at the world’s most interesting man. After graduating Wellington College in the UK in 1965, he moved to Canada and worked as a lumberjack, cowboy, and roughneck. He came home, got a law degree, then became a paratrooper. Between 1969 and 1972 he prospected for copper in the South Pacific, hunted oil in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert, dredged oysters in the Tasman Sea, and dug fence-post holes in the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand. He came home to work as a lawyer, found it dull, accepted a job as a photographer, ended up in Fiji helping build schools, acted in a Hollywood feature film, and navigated a river in Papua New Guinea “in a dugout canoe counting saltwater crocodiles with an Alaskan smokejumper, three lance corporals and a radio presenter.”
You could just stop right there, but this incredible life goes on. In 1977, he married his sweetheart, Jan, and they traveled through Asia. His photographs of the Himalaya ended up in National Geographic. And now? He and Jan have been traveling across India in a 1936 Rolls Royce.
In his first post from the road, last November, he wrote, “The Rolls, being made of English ash, shrank as we crossed the Gujerat Plains. So did Jan and I. It was quite hot. Further north, in Rajasthan, the rough rural roads of the Thar desert rattled the screws out of their sockets and the nuts off their bolts. Parts fell off. Staying here, in a fort from the battlements of which we look down on the Thar desert through the haze characteristic of northern India, both we and the Rolls have recuperated.”
If you’re feeling like you’ve stumbled upon an inveterate, unflappable, and eminently British traveler from days of yore, you aren’t alone. Filmmaker Oliver McGarvey has just wrapped the shooting of Grey’s trip and has begun piecing together Grand Trunk Road. AJ caught up with him for a few quick questions:
How did you come upon Rupert?
Rup and I have known each other for years. He has been sort of a mentor to me. The Yoda of how to live in big cities.
Why make this film?
Before this “film” existed the journey was being planned and mapped out. The original plan was to drive from Dhaka, Bangladesh, back to London via Iran and Turkey. When Rup first told me about the trip he had already been approached by the BBC to shoot a mini series. He declined because he felt they would mess with his style and was adament about making a radio log/show thing. I visualized him and his car in the most remote places running out of gas in colorful jungles and thought to myself. There is no way you are going to do this trip and NOT film it. In order to make that happen we had to fund the shooting of the film through grants and out-of-pocket. Alas, two years later we returned back from India with 200 hours of footage and some unreal stories.
What was shooting like?
Shooting the film was the most fun ever. I personally lost close to 30 pounds. Hanging out of old helicopters in the Himalayas within Nepal, hanging on to the camera rig and many a tuk-tuk for dear life, getting the shot in the middle of the night in a jungle and running to catch up to the leaving cars…the stories go on and on and on and the filming of the adventure was about as much fun as the trip itself. Sometimes it was incredibly exhausting, though, as it was a six-month journey. On, say, day 120 you are knackered and just want to have a glass of wine by the beach rather than wait for the DI data transfer of the daily rushes to be done. It was a mammoth undertaking and was the most testing film shoot I have ever worked on hands down.
200 hours of footage to be edited? Oi. When do you anticipate releasing the film?
Yes, we have rather a lot of footage (not to mention we just finished shooting a ton in the UK and have some upcoming interviews with some amazing adventurers to come).
We are working hard to A) find the right people to work with regarding the producers and the distributers and B) scour through the masses of footage to find the golden moments that reflect the story we have now written. This will be a key stage in the film’s life. Sink or swim, and we are dedicated to getting this film out to people, as it is less a film than it is a message about a philosophy of life. One that Rup passed down to me and I hope to pass down to others.
Grey does have an extraordinary eye and lands in extraordinary places. Here are some of his photos from the India journey, along with his comments.
“India is another country. They do things differently there. Long cars get taken cross-wise on narrow boats. The rock wedges by the wheels are India’s nod to health and safety.”
“The view from the battlements of Mahansar Castle just after dawn. During this stage of the journey we started early to avoid the midday heat. Later, as winter settled over northern India, we covered our knees with blankets to keep warm. 1936 Rollses don’t have heaters.”
“One of the advantages an old Rolls has over a modern car is real ventilation. Not so good in winter, but in the heat of southern India you can open the bonnet vent and raise the windscreen. This was taken on the west coat of India near Mumbai, and the smell of the sea was borne on the wind as it flew through the car.”
“This was a bad move. I drove across without bothering to check how deep the river was. It was over two feet. The Rolls stalled as she emerged the other side. Jan laughed, as did a number of onlookers. I felt like an idiot. She came back to life after I dried the distributor. The chap in the background taking photographs turned out to be a monk doubling as a journalist. By the time they appeared in the local papers of Assam we were long gone.”
“Kids loved the Rolls, mainly because they could jump on the running boards. We anticipated this, and strengthened them before we left home. We also put steel catches inside the doors, so when they hung onto the door-handles the doors wouldn’t fly open. The background is a rock mine. Rocks in Bangladesh are rare as diamonds in Britain. 20,000 men women and children work here in the dry season. The pay is good. The mine, at the foot of the steep Megalayan Hills by the border with India, is under water during the monsoons. When the water recedes there is a fresh harvest of Indian rocks to build Bangladeshi roads: the ultimate in renewable resources.”
“Few boats ply the Bramaputra these days. Finding one wide enough for the Rolls was not easy. Eventually we met a film director who needed an English actor for a feature film about Assam’s colonial history. I did a day’s filming in exchange for getting his fixer to find a boat. He did, and we set off the next morning.”
“We were refused entry into into Bangladesh. We had to go to Dhaka to get permission from the Minister of Finance. We covered the Rolls in canvas and left it on the road in front of the Customs house. We also hired six guards to watch it day & night. 3 weeks later, armed with a letter from the Minister, we returned to find it still there along with 6 smiling guards and the head of Customs. We tipped the guards well and drove on.”
You can find lots more of Rupert Grey’s photos and stories at rupertgrey.co.uk. More photos from India are here and his letters from India are here. And keep tabs on the upcoming film at grandtrunkfilm.com.