Author Gordon Bass on his new book The Last Great Australian Adventurer

Last Updated: 31 Jul 2017
Jen Bowden
Little is known of the West Australian adventurer Ben Carlin, but a new book by writer Gordon Bass looks set to change that. Scoop caught up with the author to learn more about Ben's fascinating story.
In 1950, West Australian adventurer Ben Carlin – born and raised in West Leederville – set out from Canada to circumnavigate the globe in an amphibious jeep.

Over 60 years later, American writer and journalist Gordon Bass unearthed a copy of an old book in his parents’ home. That book was Half-Safe, a detailed account written by Ben of his journey across the Atlantic. As he investigated further, Gordon found he had an unexpected connection to the adventurer.

‘My grandfather’s name is in the book and it’s inscribed to my father,’ Gordon says. ‘Realising that my family had a connection to this guy sparked my interest. Even more so when I found out that in 1969, when I was two years old, Ben came to give my Dad that book. I can’t remember that day, but knowing that I’d met Ben ignited my need to know more.’

Digging deeper, Gordon found out that when his father was 14 years old, he’d actually helped Ben Carlin to prepare Half-Safe for the journey. ‘It had a massive influence on him,’ says Gordon. ‘Here was this exotic Australian adventurer with a scar slashing across one cheek, a man who was larger than life. My father loved listening to his stories, and Ben certainly had an influence in teaching him to believe that you can do anything you set your mind to.’

Ben’s story is incredible. His plan was to drive and sail right around the world in nothing but that old jeep, modified with everything he and his wife, Elinore, might need. It took ten years and numerous attempts for him to finally achieve his goal, but by then the media interest had waned. The result is that Ben’s story, according to Gordon, has never fully been told.

‘One thing that really piqued my interest was what happened to him, why doesn’t anybody remember him today?’ he says. ‘We remember the names of people who sail around the world, who climb mountains, but here is a man who circled the world in a vehicle about the size of a Toyota Corolla. He went through storms and hurricanes, and drove through desert heat that melted plastic, he faced death many times. So the book is about trying to understand why he isn’t remembered the way other adventurers are.’

To bring Ben’s story to life Gordon set about trying to find everyone who was named in the book, Half-Safe. ‘I did dozens and dozens of phone interviews with people all around the world and I was fortunate to talk to a lot of people who knew him. I talked to Heath Ledger’s father because Heath had been very interested in Ben’s story and thought it would make a good movie one day.’

As the pieces came together, the story became more interesting. ‘I wondered for years – why did Ben do this?’ says Gordon. ‘What would drive a man to get into something like an army jeep and spend a decade trying to circle the globe? When you’d lost the support of family and friends, what would drive you to do it? I realised that his experiences early in life had made him a very insecure person. So when he said he was going to do something then he was going to do it or die trying.’

In The Last Great Australian Adventurer, Gordon paints a much bigger picture of Ben, and his life before and after that amazing feat, than has previously been seen. ‘The deeper I dug into it, the more I realised what an absolutely insane thing it was to do. But I also found out how rich Ben’s life was, not just on the journey but before and after.’

Despite reading like an adventure story, perhaps due to its incredible subject matter, The Last Great Australian Adventurer is definitely non-fiction. But the authenticity of it is astounding, and it's all down to Gordon’s meticulous research. ‘Every single sentence, every quote is from a letter, journal, book or newspaper article; it’s all pulled from real life. I didn’t have to create Ben as a character because everything he did and said and loved created him.’

‘Ben sailed with really nothing more than a compass and a wristwatch or sextant; he didn’t have GPS, he didn’t have satellite radio, so it forced him to rely on himself and his talents. That’s what makes this story so extraordinary – all he had was this absolute conviction that he would make it and he did.’

The Last Great Australian Adventurer by Gordon Bass is published on July 31 by Penguin.

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