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Queen of the desert

It isn't often that a 90-year-old gives me a run for my money, but it happened the other day, writes FIONA TARRANT. We were walking up the hill in Chipping Norton, heading from travel writer Barbara Toy's home in Spring Street to the nearby Blue Boar pub, for lunch.

As we got halfway up the steep incline, I realised I was having to add extra steps to keep up with Barbara.

Sharp as a pin and bright as a button, Barbara told me over lunch details of her expeditions. Her recollections are as clear today as they were decades ago.

After the meal, which I'd told her was on me, she sprinted to the bar to pay. I did my best to outdo her at the till but she was adamant and charming that the bill was hers alone.

These qualities - robustness, a ready grin and, by her own admission, a cast-iron stomach - have enabled Barbara to enjoy almost 50 years of adventures across the world.

Originally an actress, Barbara was great chums with Agatha Christie, knew explorer Freya Stark well and was a good friend of Laurens van der Post.

"In the 1940s I was married to a Finnish American and we travelled about a great deal," explained Barbara, herself an Australian. "We were down in Italy when he got a cable from his mother saying she wanted to see him in New York. I didn't want to go and so we, quite amicably, drifted apart. I made a lousy wife anyway.

"I came to England with next to no money or qualifications to do anything, so I decided to go on the stage. I thought all you had to do was walk on and say your lines. "There I was, this redhead with an Australian accent, but I got a lot of parts playing Cockney maids. There was a great fraternity - we all stuck together.

"I went on tour with A Gay Divorcee, a musical comedy. Someone approached me and told me there was a tour on. She asked if I could sing so I said yes, even though I couldn't sing a note, and whether I could dance, which I couldn't but I said yes.

"Anyway, they kept me on."

It was during this time that Barbara first met Agatha Christie. She even adapted one of her books as a play.

"She was amazing. When I was on my travels, I could go into an oasis in Arabia, say Agatha Christie and they all knew who I meant. "She was a darling friend. On my first ever journey I went to visit her and her archaeologist husband on a dig. I don't know if people ever realised she was such great fun. She had a terrific sense of humour," said Barbara.

"The joy of travelling on your own is that you meet people all the time and you travel at your own pace. If you're tired and want to sit on the sand for three days, then you can.

"I travelled for the love of the travelling. All too often these days people say they're going to cross something like the Sahara Desert and all they want to do is get to the other side as fast as they can. That's not me." Barbara gave up her showbiz career when a friend living in north Africa was ill and she wanted to see her. She bought a Land Rover, called it Pollyanna and off she went. Barbara had it in mind to write a book about the trip and, when she did, it was snapped up by a publisher.

That first book was called A Fool on Wheels and all Barbara's subsequent books have been prefixed with A Fool - even though she is anything but. This is a woman who's been around the world more times than she cares to recall - and event been shot at in Timbuktu. Barabara recalled: "He missed but it came through Pollyanna's side door window close to my head. I expect he was pleased with that shot."

She has crossed the Sahara Desert, been through Libya and driven through Saudi Arabia.

When she was in Saudi, Barbara had to hire a young boy to sit in the passenger seat. "Women aren't allowed to drive there but they drive on the other side, so it looked like the boy was driving. I had to get a friend, who is a sheik, to ask the king's permission for me to drive through.

It was Barbara's curiosity about oil and how the sudden wealth would affect the people that took her there and it led to another book, A Fool in Oil.

"Even travelling alone I never encountered any real problems and I never felt frightened. I'd stock up on essentials - teabags, sugar, water, salt - and eat wherever I was. If I couldn't find food, it didn't matter. I'm the kind of person who can survive without the need to eat all the time." REUNITED AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Although Barbara and her car Pollyanna were constant companions for ten years, she was persuaded to trade in the Series 1 Land Rover in 1960 for another model.

The second was more plush but not as reliable as Pollyanna. It gave her hassle and it broke down. Although Barbara carried on writing, travelling and buying Land Rovers, she felt it was never the same without Pollyanna.

Then, in 1989, she heard from the man who owned Pollyanna.

"When I first traded her in, she was used by an engineering school to train mechanics. Later she was owned by a man who used to take her round the shows. Pollyanna was quite famous by then because of my books. "He rang me one day and asked me for some memorabilia and pictures to use alongside her at the shows and I asked if I could buy her back. He said no," said Barbara. Six months later, she got a call from the man's girlfriend saying he had died. "It was very sad, but she knew I'd asked to buy Pollyanna back, so I did.

"It was ironic. She'd cost me £640 in 1950 and it cost me a further £3,500 to get her back in 1989."

The first trip the pair did after being reunited was around the world, in 1990, taking in Australia and the Far East. The most recent was across the Alps, retracing the steps of Hannibal's elephants. "Since then I've taken her on a few runs. I did Land's End to John O'Groats just to keep her going but it was terribly dull," she said.

"I am planning another trip next year. I want to get back to the Yemen but I'm having trouble getting insurance. When I ring up and say I'm 90 and my car's nearly 50, they seem to lose interest."

These days Pollyanna is cared for by Guy Pickford and his family at Guy's Workshop in Beckley. They specialise in old Land Rovers and Pollyanna gets first-class treatment.

In fact, her fame is worldwide - as Guy's son Tom discovered when he took her on a run to Switzerland this summer.

He said: "There were people from lots of different countries who recognised her. One guy from New Zealand was on a round-the-world-trip. He said Pollyanna and Barbara were his inspiration," he said. After gentle persuasion, Barbara entered Pollyanna in a Land Rover competition called Search for a Legend, and won the local and regional prizes.

She now has £250 to spend at Hartwell Banbury and a chance to win a £25,995 Defender V8 50.

"Even if I won, I wouldn't take that car off alone. I'd insist that Tom came with me, driving Pollyanna close behind."

Somehow, if she finishes her ninth book on time and if she's lucky enough to win, that trip - Barbara's tenth book won't be far away.

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.



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