Is this bus going anywhere near Kathmandu, mate?’

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
A Top Deck Travel Lodekka in Red Square, Moscow. Image courtesy of BILL JAMES

In the first instalment of a two-part article, Alan Payling tells the story of one of the UK’s most adventurous bus companies, Top Deck Travel, that was part of the overland bus travel boom of the 1970s. This was a bus operator for whom no distance was too far, any difficulty like civil war could be overcome and which made travelling by bus a fun part of growing up

You may recall that truly hoary old joke about bus travel that used to circulate many years ago. Usually it appeared in cartoon form, but I must admit that I did hear people re-telling it verbally way back when. Comedy wasn’t their day job, it must be said. The cartoon depicted a harassed bus conductor standing on the platform being asked by a prospective passenger if his bus was going to Marble Arch. ‘No’, says the conductor. The passenger says: ‘But it says Marble Arch on the front of the bus!’ The conductor wearily replies: ‘Well, it says India on the tyres and we’re not going there either.’ Ho ho. Sorry to resurrect such a sad old joke, but back in the 1970s, had you asked the crew of some of the buses operating out of London if they were actually going to India, when they replied that they were, they would not have been joking. In fact, the terminus for some of the overland bus operators of the day was a good bit further east, in Kathmandu in Nepal, while for the company featured in this article, it was Sydney – yes, the Australian one.

The bus operator offering a regular service half way round the world was Top Deck Travel, which was based in Earls Court, London. And the buses they used? Bristol Lodekkas. And as for what Top Deck Travel offered, this was not a bus journey or a trip. It wasn’t an excursion, an outing or a tour. What they offered really must be seen as an odyssey that would even have impressed Homer himself; the ancient Greek one, that is, but even his droll Simpson namesake would have been very impressed by the company’s daring do.

Go east young people, go east

Just after the American civil war, one of the famous slogans of the day was: ‘Go west young man, go west.’ As the frontier was opening up and the western part of America was being colonised, there were boundless opportunities for enrichment and adventure. In Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, the watchword for many young people was more like: ‘Go south or east, man, go south or east.’ As the post-war baby boomers were coming of age they were looking for adventure, fun and in some cases, enlightenment.


Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 6 issues/weeks from only £6Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!

There were a number of influences from the popular culture of the day persuading them to hit the road. The popular novel ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac influenced many young people. Pop music also generated a picture of endless fun out on the highway. It wasn’t quite Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ that many people had in mind. It was perhaps more the Beatles going to Rishikesh in northern India in 1968 that drew the attention of young people to the appeal of visiting an Eastern Shangri-La.

The Beatles’ own Magical Mystery Tour TV film of 1967 had suggested that collective coach travel could be fun. The fact that their film of a coach trip steered into the surreal only added to the appeal. A ‘trip’ also had other connotations at the time. The film Easy Rider showed, with it’s opening sequence featuring a backing track of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild,’ what freedom in the late sixties and early seventies might be like. Crosby, Stills and Nash featured on their first album the track ‘The Marrakesh Express’ that suggested that enlightenment might come in North Africa. Also, it was The Who and their record ‘The Magic Bus,’ amongst other influences, that laid the basis for a boom in overland travel in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Some stuck out a thumb and hitch hiked while a lot of people took off in a motley collection of vehicles that included VW camper vans, Commer minibuses, Land-Rovers, Ford Transits and Bedford lorries, but a lot went by bus. For those looking for a bus, there were many operators that sprung up back then. But Top Deck Travel grew rapidly at this time and eventually emerged as the million dollar business Flight Centre. Other companies like Pacesetters, Autotours, Kontiki and Sundowners also catered to the burgeoning demand. And invariably, they were set up and run by young people themselves who could ‘tune into’ the people they were carrying and ‘turn them on’ to a bus trip extraordinaire.

Lodekka, YHT 933, was given a new name that you wouldn’t forget on a dark night. Image courtesy of FRANS ANGEVAARE

It’s better to travel in hope…

One thing it’s wise to understand about the people operating such companies and those driving their buses is that they operated largely on the principle that it was better to travel in hope than to arrive. It was in large part the journey that mattered, not the destination or uncool concepts like timetables. Passengers on such journeys were living for and in the moment, not the future. And on the journey, they wanted not only to see the world, they wanted to have some fun, and if it was non stop all night fun, so much the better.

In 1973, Top Deck Travel, originally known as Argas Persicus Travel Ltd, was set up in London by a trio of Australians; Graham ‘Screw’ Turner, Geoff  ‘Spy’ Lomas and Bill James. They realised that there was going to be a gap in the market for overland travel and so started to invest in good old British double decker buses. The inspiration for their business model had come when Screw and Spy spent a soggy week camping out in the rain at the Munich Beerfest. While working as a locum vet in Yorkshire, Screw had come across an airfield full of used double decker buses, one of which was already kitted out as a mobile dormitory complete with kitchen. The price? £400.00.

When Screw and Spy then saw an old double decker being used as a static bunkhouse at a campsite in Amsterdam, their idea became a mobile reality. The market they were going to cater for was largely the huge number of Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and the then Rhodesians that were arriving in the mother country. The young people from such countries also wanted to see a bit of the world over the course of perhaps a two year stay away from their homeland on what was known as the ‘Grand Working Holiday Tour’, a right of passage for many from down under and the former colonies. And because of their historic British family connections and a common language, in many cases, they ended up first of all in the UK.

Other enterprising individuals such as Max Wilson, a South African, were catering for this wave of temporary immigrants by taking out leases on large properties in central London and converting them to backpacker style hotels and hostels. Max also opened the Overseas Visitors Club on the Earls Court Road which was the first port of call when Aussies, Kiwis and their African cousins got off the boat from down under. Hence, for a period, Earls Court became known as Kangaroo Valley due to the large number of antipodeans looking for accommodation, good tucker, a job, adventure and a lot of amber nectar – and I mean, a lot. While they wanted to see the good old UK, they also wanted to see as much of the world as they could while they were on this side of the globe. This was the location for Top Deck Travel’s offices, right in the middle of Kangaroo Valley.

The Beerfest in Munich was a popular tour and finding your bus was easier if it had a memorable name. Image courtesy of BILL JAMES

Bristol Lodekka

The vehicle that was to form the basis of the Top Deck Travel fleet was the Bristol Lodekka. Why that bus and why a double decker? When the company first started buying them second hand from a dealer near Leeds, W. Norths of Sherburn-in-Elmet, the Lodekkas were cheap with not a lot of people interested in buying them. Costing something in the region of £300.00 each or £400.00 with a Gardner engine, that was not an awful lot of money, even then. I recall that sum amounted to three weeks pay including overtime and night out money when I was an HGV 3 driver in London at that time. So for Top Deck Travel and what they had planned, Lodekkas were an ideal choice and a bargain to boot.

The plan and the basis of the business model was that they would then be converted to provide camper van style sleeping accommodation and cooking facilities in addition to seating for up to 23 people, ‘at a squeeze,’ including the two man crew. Figures for the conversion were not available but this was not a high end luxury conversion even though they claimed to offer ‘luxury foam beds.’ While it was basic, it was a whole lot better than some of the alternatives being offered by the other overland operators at that time. Some overland travel companies would use lorries like the Bedford TK with a flatbed, bench seating and a tarpaulin cover. If you travelled with one of those companies, having been shaken, rattled and rolled all day long, you had to set up camp when you stopped for the night, cook a meal, with the reverse procedure in the morning.

If you travelled on a converted Lodekka, the driver on duty could get up at the crack of dawn in order to have a ‘rolling start’ to the day. This meant that the punters could stay in bed while the bus got moving. When they emerged from their sleeping bags, the punters could then cook breakfast on the fly. In comparison to other overland companies, the Top Deck Travel model was indeed offering a degree of comfort and convenience, particularly after a heavy night, and there were a lot of those in the countries where the booze was cheap.

The bunks on the converted Lodekkas were much better than a tent. Image courtesy of BILL JAMES

Given that the Lodekka’s were so cheap and so many were available, as the company became more successful, when it became apparent that trips were overbooked, someone would be given a wad of cash, despatched to the north of England with the cry of: ‘Go and get another bus mate, and be quick about it!’. The ‘new’ bus would be hastily converted and yet another Lodekka would join the company’s growing fleet. This was very cost effective as the fare for each passenger for a one way trip to Nepal was in the region of £395.00. Well, you can work that one out.

All told, Top Deck Travel eventually operated some 81 Lodekkas plus other PSVs in various parts of the world. Another reason the Lodekka was favoured over other buses was its height. The average double decker was some 14’6” while the Bristol’s were only some 13’6” tall. This meant that they could reduce the likelihood of bridge strikes in the parts of the world they were going to be travelling through. I say ‘reduce,’ because in a world of unmarked bridges and arches, a few of Top Deck Travel’s Lodekkas were converted, inadvertently, to open toppers.

A photo montage put together by one of the company’s former drivers, Trevor Carroll, on YouTube called ‘Top Deck buses’ shows the wisdom of buying the Lodekkas as a taller bus would have seen more of their vehicles decapitated. Also, the Lodekka was a sturdy, well made vehicle even though some of the buses they bought were about 20 years old. It was also simple to work on, there were lots of parts available and some of the buses they bought only had a million miles on the clock.

Given that many also had 5 and 6 litre Gardner engines – one of the finer, sturdier and reliable lumps of metal that were fitted to commercial vehicles at that time – with a little bit of antipodean TLC, sweat and curses, those engines could and did throb along quite nicely while they were crossing continents. It’s likely, though here I am speculating, that given the sales of Gardner engines throughout the Commonwealth that they weren’t an unknown quantity not only to their new owners, but to their new drivers and fitters who were invariably also of colonial stock.

The itinerary for Top Deck Travel’s first tour to Morocco was nothing if not ambitious.
Image courtesy of BILL JAMES

Morocco here we come

In late November 1973, the company’s first trip was to Morocco. Though they later specialised in Lodekkas, the bus that had already been converted and that had caught Screw’s eye was in fact an ex-Bristol Tramway & Carriage Company Bristol KSW6B with an Eastern Coach Works body, registration UHY 357. The route on the Aussie Marrakesh Express took them down through Paris, Barcelona, Benidorm, Torremolinos and Algerciras where they crossed to Morocco with the rear end of the bus hanging off the back of the ferry. After a circular trip of Morocco taking in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Todra and Fez, they crossed back into Europe from Tangiers with the ferry company insisting that as it was a double decker, they should pay for two buses.

The return trip took in Seville, Lisbon, Madrid, Bordeaux with a last look at Paris before heading back over the channel. The fare for the six week trip was £100 per head and they had sold 14 tickets. Punters, as the passengers were affectionately known by the company, also had to pay £3.00 per week into the food kitty. Out of the ticket revenue, they had spent £400 to buy the bus, further modifications cost £150 with operating costs for the tour coming in at £300, leaving them with a profit of £550. Oh, and there was the commission they made on carpet purchases by their punters in the Casbah in Fez of some £450. The model for the future of the company’s operation with punters taking care of the food shopping and the cooking on the bus with overnight stops either at official campsites or wild campsites near a beach or a river had been set. Top Deck Travel was now en route to becoming one of the biggest overland bus tour operators and eventually, a multi million pound company, Flight Centre. It was to be quite a journey.

In 1974, the company ran a number of trips to Morocco. Bill James, in his entertaining book about the company, Top Deck Daze, tells us that everyone on the fourth trip, including himself as courier, the driver, Steve Brown and their 18 punters had the best six weeks any of them could remember. Certainly cheap alcohol oiled everyone’s wheels. I can also well imagine that trundling down through France and Spain and into Morocco would have been really exciting and would have filled my boots when I was in my early twenties. Whether the gender ratio on that particular trip had any bearing on his recollection of how memorable that particular trip was, again, he doesn’t say. But as he mentions that there were only two male punters on the passenger list and 16 women. Perhaps that had some bearing on why the trip is scarred on his memory?

It’s worth pointing out that we’re not talking pensioners here. We’re talking about young women, young single women. That might have made for a very pleasant working environment if you were also a young man, a young single man. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that particular point as to why this well might have been the busman’s holiday of your dreams. And is that why the company never seems to have had any trouble recruiting drivers?

One of their other early and then regular trips would really push the boat out. The destination? Kathmandu in Nepal. You know, the one that you get to by driving down through Europe and then countries like what was then Yugoslavia, on into Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then turn left in India and go up the hill to Nepal. What, the one in the shadow of the Himalayas? That’s the one. And, in a Bristol Lodekka, which I would remind you cost about £300 second hand, was 20 years old and had a million miles on the clock. I kid you not. Find out how they got on in part two. It’s an extraordinary saga.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Bill James for permission to use images from Top Deck Daze – Cheers sport!

Top Deck Travel’s Lodekkas becames tour buses, mobile kitchens, dormitories and a place to party, Aussie style, all in one. Image courtesy of BILL JAMES