The BBC recently broadcast a series of one or two hour films on #slowtravel, one was a canal journey, another a reindeer sleigh trip in north Norway and another entitled ‘The Country Bus’ featuring a local bus journey through the narrow lanes and wide landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. They recalled a time not long past when travel wasn’t really about timetables, or at times, even specific destinations ! The early forerunners of modern adventure travel almost all operated on the basis that the traveller was not guaranteed to get to, or to see all the sights along the way, but they would do their best to attain a final objective. Thus, London to Kathmandu, Cairo to Cape Town became ‘routes’ followed by a steady stream of buses, converted trucks filled with hopeful wayfarers happy just to take things as they came.
Out in the sticks, the neat upholstery, air conditioning and predictable activity of vehicles in our modern world is still a far remove from the way most of the world travels. The vehicles in these pictures are from rural Morocco, Pakistan and India; I have travelled on all of them, with the medals to prove it, but I also have deeply embedded memories of apprehension, near-misses, yawning chasms so near that I could no longer see the road surface beneath the wheels. There were many punctures of treadbare tyres – even rags stuffed in the sidewall to stop the inner tube from ballooning out. There were breakdowns where the only option was to begin taking the engine / driveshaft / fuel system apart, and on one occasion a spectacular electrical catastrophe. A broken fan belt whipped around the engine compartment, pulling out the yard long dipstick and scything through all the wiring in reach. This had to be painstakingly cleaned up, repaired and reassembled with what we had to hand. It was also a rainy night.
The longevity of these workhorses may not match the mammoth mileages clocked up by modern coaches (a million miles easily done), but the country bus easily outlives them, with vehicles still in service many decades after any showroom gloss has been worn away. Of course, it may not be strictly accurate to say it is the same bus, as many parts of it will have been replaced as exigencies demanded, cutting, welding and shaping anything from a truly dead bus to (more or less) fit as required. I love this endless recycling that is the norm in poorer parts of the world (I have even seen a broken prized china cup carefully drilled on each side of a break to secure a repair with fine wire !) Necessity is truly the mother of invention !
To travel by the country bus is not without its hazards, not merely in timekeeping or reaching a destination, but in bodily risk. Invariably a large amount of luggage (most of it inanimate) is piled on the roof-rack; sacks and trunks the size of the owner are commonplace (our love of miniaturisation has not reached here), you also find nets full of chickens, crates of produce, a goat’s head looking around indignantly, and always daredevil youths clinging nonchalantly to the rooftop or ladder. Things inevitably fall off; sometimes the sheer weight up top can tipple a bus on its side on an unexpected dip or sharp bend.
In many areas local authorities have attempted to run transport services, but private owners work hard to gain their passengers. A helper hangs from the doorway spotting potential customers and yelling destinations until the bus could not hold any more, but ‘full’ is a very elastic term in these parts. I imagine that the press of bodies could reduce the effect of any accident.
The drivers of these sturdy chariots may not have passed a driving test – the examiners often earn meagre salaries . . – but make no mistake, they are masters of their craft and often exhibit a breathtaking grasp of human nature. I sat alongside a doughty older Sikh man as we closed on a distant oncoming truck who was overtaking for far too long. “Stupid stupid !” I cried, foreseeing calamity; our man looked across at me, gesticulating with both hands and said “Sahib ! He is not stupid, HE IS BLOODY MENTAL !! “