London to Calcutta on a hippie bus: Around (part of) the world in £85 - Hindustan Times

London to Calcutta on a hippie bus: Around (part of) the world in £85

Jun 20, 2024 05:53 PM IST

In 1956, the first such bus set out from London with about two dozen passengers. The bus tour left London on April 15, 1957, and reached Calcutta on June 5.

Do you seek merely what you find or do you set out with a clear idea of what you are seeking? This conundrum has been a constant companion of adventurers and hodophiles.

In 1956, the first bus set out from London (Getty Images) PREMIUM
In 1956, the first bus set out from London (Getty Images)

For most people today, travel is about spending as little time travelling as possible, what matters is reaching their destinations as soon as possible. The journey has become a necessary bother, one that can now be used to even work remotely thanks to technology letting us stay connected to the grid at most if not all times.

But that wasn’t the case for the thousands of overlanders who travelled to India and Nepal in the back of trucks or buses across Europe, Turkey, Syria Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and after crossing through the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan. This was the ancient silk route, also the one that Marco Polo (1254-1324 AD), the Venetian trader took to reach the court of Kublai Khan (1260-1294), the Mongol emperor.

In 1956, the first such bus set out from London with about two dozen passengers. Driven and organised by Irishman Oswald Joseph 'Paddy' Garrow-Fisher, the bus tour aptly called Indiaman, left London on April 15, 1957, and reached Calcutta (now Kolkata) on June 5. Starting from London, and at several stops on the way, a sort of media frenzy accompanied the intrepid adventurers. In Calcutta, they were mobbed by the press and made headlines with a large photo of the bus in the next day’s papers.

And it wasn’t just young people who took this first bus trip, among them was 76-year-old Janet Seatter, who always sat on the first seat, drank a lot of tea and ate very little, said: “I enjoyed the trip thoroughly, the only thing I didn’t like was the barrage of questions newspapermen put to me at every important town on the way!”.

Seatter took the same Indiaman bus driven by the pioneer, ‘Paddy’, and returned safely to London on August 2. For the London-Calcutta leg, each passenger paid a grand sum of 85 pounds (roughly 2,000 pounds today according to –

The overland route was a draw for landlubbers, many of whom continued to Australia and New Zealand after reaching India. The Indiaman continued its operations through the sixties, with Paddy at the helm. Much later this land route to India and beyond to Nepal, Thailand and other places in East Asia would be called the Hippie Trail.

Richard Gregory, a blogger who describes himself as “always a freak but never a hippie, writes: “On the early Indiaman trips Paddy was accompanied by his wife Moti, but on the new bus her sister Rattan Chabildas acted as hostess, serving coffee to passengers from the on-board espresso machine.

Rattan was certainly a hit with journalists, as the editor of the ACV Gazette reported in November 1958: "The crew consists of driver, co-driver and a hostess who is so duskily attractive that, at the Press party given to wish the Indiaman god-speed, several tough, travel-sated Fleet Street men took one look at the sari-clad charmer and rushed off to try to sell their Foreign Editors the idea of accompanying the coach to Calcutta".

After the Indiaman’s success, other tour operators quickly emerged on the scene, notable among them was the Waltzing Matilda tour company which later became Swagman Tours. Interestingly, during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Swagman lost its solo bus, later they expanded and continued until 1978.

Penn Overland, known for offering luxury with air-conditioning and onboard toilets, started off with a trip to Sri Lanka in 1959.

This overland route was like a journey back in time witnessing some of the most ancient monuments, grandiose ones like the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the Bamiyan Buddhas (destroyed by the Taliban in 2001) in Afghanistan, or the numerous ancient and abandoned Caravanserais that still dot the path. In India, the hot sun was too much for some, but getaways in the Himalayas beckoned and were soon rediscovered by this first of the post-colonial generation of adventurers.

It was inevitable that the counterculture hippies would be drawn to the overland route, and from the mid-1960s onwards they became the bulk of the traffic. While previous generations of travellers were following a long colonial tradition of travel to India, the hippies were drawn to India’s sadhus, spirituality, its temple towns and, let’s face it, to the attraction of being in medieval times, as India was still a bullock-cart driven economy.

For the Anglo-Saxon hippe, it was a time-warp, where the exotic could be experienced while pulling on ‘chillums’ full of hashish.

The England to Calcutta overland route had its first double-decker bus in 1968. Started by Albert Tours, besides the view from the top deck, it had bunk beds, a kitchen and extra fuel tanks. The waves of hippies wishing to go to India led to the founding of a no-frills, low-cost bus service, aptly titled the Budget Bus in 1969. This service became the go-to option for the London to Delhi route and later expanded to cover Lebanon, Kashmir and Nepal.

The hippies and non-hippies alike ventured off to Goa, Benaras, Rishikesh, and even places like Khajuraho, and many of them just stayed back in India.

Tantalisingly named Magic Bus, it was a tour operator that operated like a platform for booking tickets and didn’t run buses itself. Interestingly it became the most well-known company on the ‘hippie trail’, as this London-to-India route came to be called.

However, as Gregory reminds us, “the Overland not only pre-dated the Hippie Trail by ten years, it continued to exist alongside it until both came to an end in 1980. The 'overlanders' and the 'hippies' shared the road, but they had different purposes”.

The overland boom lasted barely three decades (1957-1980s), it thrived till at least this stretch of the world was without wars, tribal conflicts, and acts of terrorism. By the 1980s, airline prices too became much more affordable than ever before, and given the risks, particularly to Western travellers in certain countries, the overland died a slow but sure death.

Valay Singh is the author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord. The views expressed are personal

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