“Hold on! Hold on!” I am shouting at the conductor, running behind the bus, that was just pulling out of Victoria Memorial, Calcutta. The driver applies the brake and bus screeches to a halt, and I hop in.
I sit next to a window and watch as the city passes by. Soon we are at the border crossing at Wagah. The driver gets down, comes back a few moments later and declares, the bus won’t go any further as all borders are closed because of the pandemic and we will be halting here till the border reopens.
I wake up at this moment and realize that I am safely tucked in my bed in Chennai, wipe the sweat on my forehead and heave a sigh of relief.
You don’t have to be a Freud to give an interpretation to this dream. Since last month, half a dozen photos have been doing rounds in WhatsApp with a title ‘London – Calcutta – London bus service. When it first came in my school group, I just dismissed it as fake as I do for most of the messages in WhatsApp. But it kept coming and Mohan asked me could this be true. I told him if there ever was a bus service till the seventies, Paul Theroux would have mentioned about it, in his epic tome, ‘The Great Railway Bazaar.’ That travelogue was about a train a journey through Europe and Asia. I also mentioned, while travel by road from Europe to India is definitely possible, after all, Alexander the Great came to India by road in third century BCE, but how could you come from London as the English Channel separates UK from mainland Europe. I told him I would check this out anyway.
So that was the reason behind the dream, and I got Victoria Bus Terminus in London and Victoria Memorial in Kolkata mixed up in my dream.
Few days later, I remembered the conversation and got on to the web. There were lot of articles which said London – Calcutta – London and London – Sydney – London buses were definitely plying and the bus was called Prince Albert. The articles did not sound very authentic till I landed on a page which talked about an article in New York Times datelined August 3rd 1957. I searched the NYT archives, but I was informed that I need to be a subscriber to download a PDF of the news. Not the one to give up easily, I subscribed to NYT, and hit gold dust. There indeed was an article dated 3rd August 1957 which talks about the first successful completion of London – Calcutta – London bus drive titled, London – Calcutta – London is Back in London; Owner Drove Passengers 20,300 miles penned by Mr. Leonard Ingalls. 20,300 miles is 32,480 Kilo Meters. Mr. Ingalls writes:
The bus which arrived at Victoria Station bus terminus on 2nd August had come all the way from Calcutta. In 110 days, Oswald Joseph Garrow-Fisher, the 40 year old owner and driver of the bus known as Indiaman, had piloted it from London to Calcutta and back. Twenty men and women passengers were in the party going out. Seven – five men and two women made the round trip. The fare was 85 £ for London – Calcutta and the return costed another 65 £.
That is 2062 £ pounds for one way in today’s money or 200,000 Rupees roughly, a princely sum in those days.
Bus service ran from London to Calcutta. In this picture, passengers at Victoria Coach Station, London, board the first run of the world’s longest coach route, between London and Calcutta, on 15 April 1957. The journey to Calcutta took five days and the single fare was GBP 85. Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Another thing which stuck me immediately was, how the roads in India were (in)famous even in 1957. I quote Mr. Ingalls who quotes Mr. Fisher. The real dangers, according to Mr. Fisher, were not the cliffs and hairpin turns in Mount Ararat Country in Turkey. The narrow roads with soft shoulders and wandering cyclists in India caused him greater alarm.
Poor Mr. Fisher. He would not know, even after seventy years most of the roads in India still have soft shoulders and you hardly see hard shoulders. For the uninitiated, a hard shoulder is a paved road at the edge of the road, so you won’t skid, if for any reason you need to get off the main road (for e.g. an overloaded lorry coming dangerously at you) and a soft shoulder is an unpaved edge, with pebbles and sand filling up the shoulder.
What amazes me about the bus drive is, how ordinary folks dared to make this arduous journey. Of course, people have been travelling by road for trade for many centuries. Remember the ancient silk route. Or soldiers travelled seven thousand miles to conquer a country as Alexander’s soldiers did. But they were just obeying their King’s commands. It did not matter whether they were interested in doing the road trip or not. But these were ordinary folks who just hopped into a bus for 110 days, 20,000 mile trip.
And the passengers knew nothing about the perils or they knew but dismissed it, with a typical British understatement, who utter these words, when a gale strikes and removes the house from its bearings, ‘bit windy isn’t it?’
Consider this: Neither the passengers nor the families knew if they were going to make it safe, nor could the passengers communicate their well being back home. It’s not like Rachna, who calls her mom a dozen times during a flight. The first things she does, on landing at an airport anywhere in the world, is to search for free Wi-Fi and call her mom. And of course her mom would be awake through out the night to get a message or call from her daughter when she lands in Heathrow or Schiphol or Dubai.
On the return trip of the first bus drive, the Pakistan – Iranian border was closed because of an epidemic influenza. So Mr. Fisher drove the bus to Karachi and planned to take the bus on a ship from Karachi port to Iran. On arriving at Karachi, he learns that the border is opened, so he turns back and drives another 630 miles to Lahore to continue the road trip westwards.
This bus service later became the Prince Albert or Albert bus service and made trips from London to Calcutta and Sydney. I believe the bus was transported on ship from Calcutta to Perth and then the driver rode it from Perth to Sydney, a small distance of 3,933.4 KMs.
And so the road trip continued till the late sixties and early seventies. This WhatsApp message also solved one more mystery for me. In the early seventies we used to see Volkswagen vans with strange registration numbers driven by foreigners in Mahabalipuram. They were in the shape and size of our Mahindra Matador vans, only looked better. JK and I did not give much thought about it those days. When we grew up we thought they must have shipped the vans to drive around in India.
Now it makes perfect sense. The tourists actually drove these vans from Europe to India. An article from Conde Nest Traveler has this information.
According to Rory MacLean, travel writer and author of Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, the first known bus tour brought a French group from Paris to Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1956. “[Their] Chausson coach left Paris under police escort with two well-known French actresses and 14 others for a two-month, 14,000km journey,” he says.
MacLean’s research shows that the overland route to Asia really opened up in the late 1960s. “Tens of thousands of Westerners boarded war-surplus Jeeps, fried-out Volkswagen Campers and rainbow-coloured London double-deckers,” he says, summing it up as “the weirdest procession of un-roadworthy vehicles ever to roll and rock across the face of the Earth.”
So tourists took old army surplus jeeps and beat-up Volkswagens camp vans and travelled across the continent. The hippies followed suit and travelled all the way to Bombay and then to Goa.
When I mentioned about this Volkswagen vans, JK immediately replied saying now these vans are used in exhibitions and sent a picture he captured in Hanover, Germany exhibition hall. It definitely pays to have like minded brothers and a sister.
(L) The Volkswagen vans we used to see in Mahabalipuram (not this good looking though) and (R) the vans retired to museum duty now.
The advent of Jumbo Jets in 1970, changed air travel for ever. Before the Jumbos started flying across the world, air travel used to be very expensive. In the 1950s a plane ride from London to Sydney would cost as much as it costed to buy a big house in a Sydney and it took 4-5 days to cover the distance. The earliest flights had some fifty odd refueling stops. The jumbo jet and the cattle class where people were packed like sardines and transported from one corner to another in less than 15 hours changed all that.
It took years for Australian explorers and many lives before they found a way connecting Adelaide and Darwin through Alice Springs. Uluru is another 300 odd kilometers from Alice Springs. So it took months of planning to make a trip. Today you can fly to Alice Springs from any part of the world and reach Uluru, one of the most sacred sites for the aboriginals in about four hours. There is no thrill in travel anymore. I can just fly to any place on earth and tick my bucket list of places to see before I die.
You can actually fly to Uluru from any place on earth in less than two days. A rock formation with unparalleled beauty at the dead center of Australia.
It is the same with Machu Picchu as well. A Tamil film duet starring Rajnikanth and Aishwarya Rai was actually filmed in Machu Picchu few years back.
One fine evening, as the sun was setting in, I was watching the river Kaveri joining Bay of Bengal. This was during my bike trip in 2013, “I Thought It was a Youth!” – Notes from the Coastal Ride. Poompuhar, also known as Kaveri Poompattinam lies about 300 KMs south of Chennai. The history of the city goes back to 4th Century BCE. As the sun was going down, I started to wonder, what would have driven traders from Rome to travel to a little known place in a faraway continent, a million nautical miles away? And here I was congratulating myself for getting a bike to ride from Kanyakumari to Chennai, on a 900 mile ride. The answer is probably the same whether it was a boat ride in 4th century BCE or a bus ride in 1957, ‘a thrill of adventure.’ Let’s raise a toast to that travel quest.
Featured Image Credit: Conde Nest Traveler, India. Hippies en route to India photographed in Afghanistan.