Magic Bus, by Rory MacLean

Dark side of the hippie moon
Click to follow

With its smiley bumper and headlights as wide as a dope smoker's eyes, the VW Camper is as much an icon of the 1960s as the peace signs that adorned its coachwork. Its friendly robustness made it the transport of choice for travellers seeking enlightenment on the overland trail to the East. Nowadays, these rust-prone vehicles burdened with the weight of a generation's ideals wouldn't pass an MOT and anyone attempting the hippie route to Kathmandu could well end up DOA.

The original Magic Bus set off from a cockroach-infested office on Amsterdam's Dam Square and almost levitated across border posts on a cloud of hashish smoke. Travel was a state of mind, an inner journey fuelled by narcotics, an escape from suburbia and the emptiness of unexamined lives. Its travellers were stimulated by writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac, Beats who invented the "now life" in reaction to the deferred pleasures of their parents' world.

It was an age of innocence, of stoned romantics travelling without money, rejecting materialism and severing relationships with careers and governments. Rock music articulated the new consciousness, and the Beatles went on the road to Rishikesh in India, where they wrote some of their best songs.

It all seems so naive now, a hallucinogenic freak-show. Yet Rory MacLean encounters a group of Americans taking the overland route in a yellow Camper and, in this book, joins them "on the hippie trail" from Istanbul to India. They are texting friends, one carries a Blackberry, but Rory's guide Hetty, an ex-flower child, is a "tie-dyed dinosaur".

A few months after MacLean leaves Istanbul, a suicide bomber destroys the British Consulate, killing 27 people. Iran is a chaos of contradictions and an Iranian girl denounces the West: "you lost your way, forgot your God and now belong nowhere." Afghanistan is no longer a place to wander freely; it's a land of ten million landmines. The Minister for Tourism is unavailable for interview because he was recently assassinated. In Nepal the infamous Charles Sobhraj, a ruthless con artist who brought terror to the hippie trail, is finally convicted. Geoff Crowther, who wrote the original Lonely Planet Overland to India guide, is now holed up in Goa. He is a wreck of a man, his moments of clarity giving way to despair. "Some of the lost souls of Kathmandu committed suicide," MacLean writes. "Others turned to heroin, most simply let go of their disappointed dreams".

The wheels of the Magic Bus are no longer turning, its carcass is a burnt-out hulk. Yet MacLean's account of his 6000-mile trip is an excellent account of this long and winding road. He is a perceptive and entertaining guide, with a poet's eye for sensual lands of strange beauty: an Eastern paradise, full of promise, that turned into the dark side of the moon.