“We gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”
– Jack Kerouac, On The Road.
I really can’t remember how we came to the decision that traveling overland to India was a good idea. It was a natural progression from the life I had been living since I jumped from the straight and narrow of Beat The Boys Grammar School and a probable future of forty years of wage slavery (‘twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day-shift’), into the exciting acid-fueled anarchy of the late sixties and early seventies. For a few, all too short, years we were psychedelic warriors in our own brave new world. But by 1973 the colours were beginning to fade. The radical transformation of society was not showing any sign of coming anytime soon and the counter-culture was slowly crumbling under the pressure of repressive authoritarianism, crass commercialism and our own inability to sustain what was, in reality, a dream. Barbiturates and smack were as easy to score as acid and dope. The tripped out were becoming the strung out and the casualties were on the increase. To quote Charlie Bukowski: “we carried the chairs back upstairs, the revolution was over.”
In underground publications such as International Times, Oz and Frendz we were reading reports of far off, exotic lands where hash was cheap, strong and readily available and where one could exist on as little as a pound a day. On the classifieds pages were ads for overland buses that would take you all the way from Europe to Nepal in just four weeks. The overland route was becoming an increasingly popular rite of passage amongst disillusioned western freaks and was dubbed ‘The Hippie Trail’ by the tabloid press.
At that time there was no internet, no Rough Guides or Lonely Planets. Once you left Europe you were outside the tourist zone. It was the early dawn of the package holiday era but destinations like Iran and Afghanistan were not on your average tourist’s itinerary. Information was passed on from traveler to fellow traveler en route and on return to the UK. Some of this was collected by a freak-run organisation called BIT (initially funded by John Lennon, or so I’m told, as a kind of underground free advice centre) that worked out of a tiny, paper-strewn office in Notting Hill. This regularly updated document was made available in a wad of A4, typed and mimeographed sheets, roughly stapled together. It contained reports of good and bad hotels, places to eat, rip-offs, best places to change money on the black-market, border-crossing hassles etc. It was the closest thing to an overlander’s travel guide that there was at the time. But it was also a document that gradually self destructed with use and I doubt if many copies remain even partially intact these days.
(The story of BIT’s Overland Guide as told to me by Terry Phelps
“In 1970. I walked into the BIT offices with a piece of paper. On it was written the details of how to get from Istanbul to Delhi overland using public transport (buses and trains) for only £9.70. This information had been given to me in Athens, at the then well-known YHA Hostel no.2, by an American deserter – a sergeant, I recall, – from the Vietnam war. The late Nick Albery was, at that time, attempting to compile the first overland to India guide for freaks, and was delighted to receive this information, which was duly incorporated. According to Nick, he later gave/sold it to Richard Branson (who then ran a seedy organic restaurant in Bishops Bridge Road) who in turn gave/sold it on to Tony Wheeler, and the rest is history, save for the fact that Wheeler made a mint and we didn’t! The BIT Overland Guide started out at 50p, and the only thing that I can recall from it was the opening words on India : ‘A mindblowing place : chaos, filth, beauty, insanity’, a judgment borne out by my own subsequent visits to the place. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive…ah, those dear, dead days : where are they now?….).”
For me, the true overland bible was a book written ten years earlier in 1963 by a fearless, young Irish woman from County Waterford, entitled, ‘Full Tilt – Ireland to India with a Bicycle’. Dervla Murphy had laid out the route we would follow, not, as she did, on two wheels, or even on one of the freak buses, but by using local public transport. That way we hoped to have closer contact with the people and cultures of the different countries. Our plan was to get through expensive Europe in as short a time as possible and get down to the serious traveling when we hit Turkey.
At a distance of around 4000 miles from Europe to the Indian Subcontinent, this was the furthest we could travel without taking to the air or the sea. Flights were prohibitively expensive and we were aiming to travel the longest distance for the least cost. Money was easy to acquire in the early seventies. There were plenty of jobs. One summer season of sweaty kitchen work at Mad Fred and Crazy Maisie’s ‘Meyrick Cliffs Hotel’, on Shanklin Esplanade, gave Janette and I enough cash to migrate for the winter, or at least for the worst of it. Between us we managed to scrape together £500 and planned to travel for as long as we could eke it out.
This was the first of two overland trips we took. In 1975 along with three friends we traveled the same route in a one-ton van but that, as they say, is a another story.
The recollections here are taken from dog-eared diaries that we somehow managed to write and which, amazingly, are still pretty much intact after all these years. The photographs were taken on a plastic Kodak Instamatic camera and the rolls of film periodically posted back to Janette’s parents for developing, (none of your 21st century, digi-smart-phone malarky in the 1970s!) Some pictures have mysteriously disappeared and some of the negatives have deteriorated with age. Now, in a new century, being somewhat older and more nostalgic, I wish we had taken more, but in those psychonautical times it was all about ‘being here now’ and living as much in the moment as we could.