I have been going to write about my years spent driving from London to Kathmandu for a long time. Now that I am about to begin, its hard to know where to start. They always say "start at the beginning" but it's not always easy to know where the beginning is. My desire was to travel and do something different, the only fly in that ointment was lack of money. The only way I could travel was to get a job that paid me to travel. I had plenty of experience driving buses, so that seemed the most likely way I was going to get some adventure. I applied to all the Coach Companies that operated European & Overland tours and received replies, but no firm offers of work. One Saturday I noticed an ad for "drivers to go to India, mechanical experience would be an advantage. Please ring Asian Greyhound 15 Kings Road Windsor and ask for Norm Harris". Until that time I don't think I'd ever spoken to an Australian before, let alone met one. Norm turned out to be likeable guy, if a little on the unconventional side, well to my English sensibilities anyway.

MW Bristol Kings Road Windsor

I came back from the interview convinced I'd get the job, but Norm said he'd write, so I eagerly awaited the letter. When it arrived I was a little shell shocked. Not only did I have the job, but I was due to leave England for India driving a Swagman Tour Bus in little more than two months. I had to sell my possessions, vacate my flat and move to the drivers accommodation two weeks before the trip. The company had a house in Guildford not far from its workshops, which both turned out to be a little primitive. When I arrived at the house a week early, I was introduced to all the crews including my traveling companions - Fred Fisher (from Orange in NSW) & Geoff Lawrence (a Pomme like me). There was to be two trainee drivers and a trainee courier. Well Fred had done the trip from Kathmandu to London as a passenger, so he was trainee in charge. We had exactly three weeks to overhaul our 1950's LS Bristol bus, ready for the 25,000 kilometer round trip to Kathmandu. OTT 81 or Otto as she was affectionately known, had been to India twice already and was in need of some TLC. We removed the engine, gearbox, axles, radiator & seats before a major cleaning job. The electrician, from Adelaide "Gordon Hammond" (an electrician on his mothers side if you ask me), set about repairing all the electrics and installing a new tape player & speakers, while we started pulling all the rest to pieces. As I had the most mechanical know how, I was given the engine, a "LHW Gardiner 6 cylinder horizontal throw".

Ian & Gordon at work

The workshop at Slough

LS Bristol circa 1950

Although I had heard of Gardner engines before, I'd never seen one. They are huge for the amount of power they put out. Engines are all basically the same, so it was no big sweat to pull it apart. Today's engines are not the same, if you need a new part you buy it and put it in, not with a Gardner. The parts need to be hand fitted. All the piston rings have to be individually checked for expansion gap and adjusted manually. The engines bearings are made of white metal and need hand scraping to give them a snug fit, just doing that is a whole days work. Norm had been running these buses for about 4 years and although the engines are supposed to be good for 500,000 miles, he was not getting much more than 2 trips about 50,000 miles. They are a good engine, but they were set up for use on sealed roads, not for crashing along dirt tracks. The air intake was beside the front wheel and the inlet manifolds were not well sealed, resulting in dust entering the engine and turning the oil into grinding paste, that shortened the life of the motor. I worked all this out on my first trip, but for this first journey I set out unaware of what lay ahead.

Ian checking his Gardner engine

As the days turned into weeks, the bus slowly came together. Norm did not hold back when it came to spending, we got new tyres all round, a nice piped sound system & a great re-paint job done by Norm himself. He was always ribbing us about how easy we were getting it. He would love to take off to India but "she who must be obeyed" had put her foot down, "you've got kids now, no more roaming the globe". We took the bus for a test run to pick up some bearings for another vehicle and would you believe, it broke down in the middle of nowhere. Back at the workshop Norm was getting really worried, where are they, they should have been back 2 hours ago. Dave tried to lighten the mood by suggesting tongue in cheek that "maybe we had lost our bearings", it went down like a lead balloon. It was only air in the fuel, but as we hadn't taken any tools with us, it took ages to fix. This was my first drive of the vehicle and it seemed OK, took a while to get going and I wondered what it would be like with a full load!

Brighton bus rally

Above - Gordon Hammond the electrician

Left - Dave copying his music

With a week to go, there seemed to be more left to do each day. The more things we fixed, the longer the list of things to do was becoming. We decided to do an overnighter to catch up, after 36 hours we were still going and that list just seem to hold its own. By the 48 hour mark we had it licked, so decided to get some beers and head home. There was still lots to do, this tour was part camping with some hotels and rest houses for accommodation. The roof rack was to carry our food supply, the camping equipment and passenger's luggage. We went to the cash and carry and stocked up on dehydrated food, tinned meat, baked beans, tinned fruit, cereals, porridge & a few luxuries that we would keep for a special day or when spirts were low. All the tents had to be checked out, the petrol cooking stoves tested, plates, cups & cutlery counted. Finally we had to pack everything on board and do a final check. We had been making up cassette tapes in our spare time so we would have music for the trip, but at the last moment Norm decided we needed more and disappeared up the shops only to come back with jems like "Donny Osman & The Seekers"!

The boys arrive for work

Fred & Dave after a long day

English plumbing only 1 bath of water

We were ready, the day had come. The trip was to depart from our office in Kensington High St about 12.30 pm, in time to catch the 7.00pm ferry from Dover to Zeebrugge. If the passengers had known how little the crew knew about the 12,500 kilometer trip they were about to start, I'm sure they would have asked for a refund. The bus had gone OK on its run up to London, which was a relief, as it was only the second time it had been driven and the first time it hadn't broken down. As I was the only driver with a PSV (Public Service Vehicle) licence, I was to drive down to Dover, which would be the first trip to have a driver with the correct licence. Once over the channel, it didn't seem to matter. As long as you had a licence of some sort, all was OK. We got all the luggage stowed away, sorted out all the ticketing, everyone had last minute photo's taken, final farewells then climbed aboard and found a seat. We were ready to depart. I have to admit being very nervous, I was heading into the unknown, I didn't have a clue where we would be this time tomorrow, let alone a week from now. I put on the indicator and pulled out into the London traffic. There was no going back now.

Departure day Kensington High St

We head for Europe

The Swagman Workshop Stories

An overland journey to India following the India overland trail through Belgium, Germany, Austria Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, & Nepal. Visting sites of Dubrovnic, Split, Kotor, Athens, Kerimoti, Istanbul, Galipolli, Troy, Delphi, Efes, Goreme, Nemrut, Tehran, Esphan, Persepolis, Shiraz, Kerman, Bam, Quetta, Kandahar, Kabul, Bamian Valley, Kyhber Pass, Indus river, Lahore, Punjab, Amritsar, Kashmir, Delhi, Agra, Taj Mahal, Vanaris, Patna, Raj Path, Kathmandu, Himalyas. All this undertaken in a 20 year old Asian Greyhound, Swagman Tours, LS Bristol bus. This Indiaoverland company was held together by Norm Harris an expatriate Aussie living in Windsor. With drivers like Bob Ashford, Geoff Lawrence, Clive Parker, Dave Watt, Ronnie Martin, John Witchard, Ken Mcdonald, Derek Amey & couriers Fred Fisher, Jos Livingstone, Peter Swift, Kieren Smith & mechanics Gordon Hammond, Graham Libby, Pomme John & Rastas just to name a few.