Hidden in the pages of the past, a fascinating journey is unknown to many. It’s a bus service from London to Calcutta (Kolkata), considered the longest bus route in the world. The double-decker bus service was operated by UK-based Albert Travel and named after it, the trip was called Albert Tours.
The maiden journey set out from London on April 15, 1957. The first service arrived in Kolkata on June 5, 50 days later.
The route taken was from Victoria Coach Station UK to Belgium, through Europe via (then) Yugoslavia, Türkiye, Iran, Afghanistan, and West Pakistan.
After entering India, it reached its final destination Calcutta (Kolkata) via New Delhi, Agra, Allahabad (Prayagraj), and Banaras (Varanasi).
The trip was advertised as “the world’s longest bus route” and “your complete home while you travel”.
The Hippie Route
This route later became known as the ‘Hippie Route’. Ironically Hippie Route was supposed to be a cheap travel but this trip wasn’t cheap.
The whole journey which took 50 days for the bus to reach Calcutta from London, was 32,669 km long and the bus remained in service until 1976.
The journey cost a whopping £145( ₹ 14665), including food, travel, and accommodation. Adjusted for inflation it would cost nearly £ 6000 (₹ 6,07,159) today.
Numerous United Kingdom–India bus routes ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. The first of these was “The Indiaman”, a service from London to Calcutta that was inaugurated on 15 April 1957.
At least 32 other operators ran services, including Albert Travel which ran 15-round journeys from London to India
It had crossed nearly 150 country borders without the many security hurdles that you would expect by today’s standards. It had even earned the title of a ‘friendly ambassador’ in all the nations it passed through.
Amenities on the bus, a luxury ride
The bus was owned and also driven by a spirited 40-year-old called Oswald-Joseph Garrow-Fisher and it had ‘London to Calcutta’ emblazoned right across it.
The bus had all the amenities that were available during the time to make the long journey enjoyable and relaxing. This experience felt more like a guided tour rather than just a long trip.
The bus was equipped with reading facilities, separate sleeping bunks for every individual, and fan-operated heaters. There was even a fully equipped kitchen on board to take care of the food and drinks for the passengers.
There was a forward observation lounge on the upper deck in the later version of the bus. The bus provided a radio and a music system for onboard parties.
The itinerary allowed for extended time at major tourist spots en route, including Banaras and the iconic Taj Mahal situated along the banks of the Yamuna River. The journey also had shopping opportunities in other major cities such as Tehran, Salzburg, Kabul, Istanbul, and Vienna.
Once in a Lifetime Journey
In a New York Times newspaper report on the journey, Garrow-Fisher said he was not as bothered by the cliffs and hairpin bends of Mount Ararat region in Turkey as by the ‘narrow roads with soft shoulders and wandering cyclists’ in India.
In Iran, plans had to be placed under the wheels to prevent the bus from sinking into the desert sands. There were sandstorms and torrential rains, dust, and energy-sapping heat which must have made progress nightmarish.
On the return trip, they had to make a huge 1200-mile diversion because the Pakistan-Iranian border was closed due to an outbreak of Asian influenza.
A rumor spread during one of the trips that everyone on the bus had been murdered by bandits in Iran. The staff at the British embassy in Teheran were so relieved when they discovered that it was just a rumor that they threw a cocktail party for the passengers.
One of the passengers, Peter Moss, 22, did not return to London but continued his journey eastwards, by sea, to Malaya.
He wrote a diary which he later turned into a book called ‘The Indiaman – When the Going was Good by Land and Sea’ which is a colorful description of his once-in-a-lifetime bus journey.
The end of the iconic Calcutta to London bus service
The bus operated successfully for many years. The operation took a downward turn when the bus had an accident, which made it almost unusable to operate.
But the saga didn’t end there. A British traveler named Andy Stewart came to the rescue and transformed it into a double-decker mobile home. This marked the start of the bus’s next incredible journey.
The double-decker affectionately retained the name Albert and, on October 8, 1968, it set out on yet another remarkable experience. This time from Sydney to London, it was still passing through India.
The new trip took a total of about 132 days, with the bus covering extensive distances and beating even the earlier journey record.
Operating under the banner of Albert Tours, the company was based in England and Australia. It offered routes from London to Calcutta and back to London, as well as from London to Calcutta and onward to Sydney.
The bus’s new route to India included a path through Iran, followed by an incredible journey through Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia before reaching Singapore. From there, the bus was transported by ship to Perth, Australia, and then continued its road journey to Sydney.
Overland routes became more challenging due to the political unrest in the Middle East during the 1970s that ended with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Soviet–Afghan War.
Sadly, the bus service came to an end in 1976 due to complications in Iran and escalating tensions between Pakistan and India. It’s worth noting that Albert Tours successfully completed approximately 15 trips from Kolkata to London and back to Sydney before the service concluded permanently.
The Albert bus was refurbished in 2009 and made a one-off return trip from the UK to Australia in 2012. No new bus journeys between the two countries are currently planned.
The bus remains in Australia making appearances at car shows.