Love is all you need

Forgot your mobile phone charger? Who cares? 50 years ago a generation of travellers made it across Europe on flower power alone. Andy Hill meets some of the far-out men and women who blazed the original ‘hippie trail'

Featured July 17 Words by Andy Hill / Styling By Clare Piper / Illustrations By Matt Murphy
Love is all you need

In the late 60s and early 70s, many people set off on journeys that would change their lives...

Thousands of mostly young, mostly long-haired dreamers from western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and beyond left home - some for the very first time. They hitchhiked, bussed, motorbiked and walked across the rolling farmlands of France, Germany and Austria, and through the ex-Soviet enclave of the now-former Yugoslavia. Beyond lay the pristine beaches of Greece, the aromatic bazaars of the Middle East and the promise of enlightenment in holy India. The route they followed became known as ‘the hippie trail'.

These adventurers - so-called ‘overlanders' - were living through a golden era in the history of travel. In the window between WWII and the Iranian revolution, they enjoyed open borders, cheap, safe transport and the feeling that just about anything was possible, spiritually, artistically and politically.

“Jack Kerouac in particular was massively influential,” says Sharif Gemie, PhD, from the University of South Wales. Gemie has studied the trail extensively, and also cites The Beatles and Bob Dylan as being spurs for a generation of free-wheeling travellers. Kerouac's novel On the Road was published in 1957, the dawn of the beatnik era. “It suggested a new approach to travel,” says Gemie. “Kerouac wasn't interested in a swift journey from A to B, nor in an organised tourist-style itinerary, along preselected points of interest. On the Road suggested that travel was, in itself, an interesting, worthwhile and liberating experience.”

One Brit who embraced the pure joy of travel was Richard Snelling (pictured above, on the right) who left England on his BSA Chopper motorbike in 1969, heading towards Greece. “It wasn't about arriving at a destination,” says the 67-year-old, who was 19 when he set off, “and it certainly wasn't about sightseeing. ‘For the journey' was a living, breathing, philosophy.”

Richard soon realised he wouldn't need the £3 spending money he took with him. “Everywhere I went, people would flag me over on my motorbike and offer to buy me petrol. Guys and girls in Italy or France would insist I join them for a beer, then stuff my panniers with bread and cheese.” He ended up in the bay of Matala on Crete - an important stop-off point on the hippie trail, where travellers slept in caves along the coastline - and earned his keep fixing generators and other machinery for the locals. “Many of the kids passing through were from Canada - you could tell by the red maple-leaf patches stitched to their bags - although I soon learned 80% were peace-and-love Americans in disguise, dodging the Vietnam draft.

“It was a comfortable life, sleeping in a cave, fiddling with machines,” he continues. “There was a bar that sold retsina and plenty of dope floating about. We didn't need money. There was always a campfire and always musicians."

Musicians who, at one point, included Joni Mitchell. “We slept in the same cave for a couple of nights,” Richard remembers. “She wrote a hit song, Carey, about her time under the beautiful Matala moon. Joni, at least, was a genuine Canadian.”

Richard's charm and mechanical know-how took him much further than he'd hoped, through Europe and Asia. Today, he's settled in southern Portugal, where he repairs motorbikes and cherishes the memories he made 50 years ago. “I'm a family man now, but the philosophy still applies: be bold, love everyone and do what you can to help others.”

Hawaiian Lynne Oyama hit the trail as a newlywed

in 1973, with her husband Coddy Nickols, an ex-Navy man from California. “Growing up in Hawaii, miles from anywhere, European travel was always just a pipe dream,” she says. “I'd always wanted to visit France. For us, the hippie trail was a chance to get out and see the world, as well as a belated, cheap honeymoon.”

Lynne and Coddy's story is about young love, new friends and a rendezvous planned months in advance - one they were able to keep without the help of emails, GPS maps or mobile phones. “We met an archaeologist in York who had plans to dig in Greece and the Middle East,” says Coddy. “He invited us to meet up with him on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens three months later. So, for want of anything more concrete, that became our plan.”

Husband and wife hitchhiked as far as Munich, where Coddy had a stroke of luck. At the hostel bar one night, he got chatting with Eric, another traveller. “Eric had just bought a Volkswagen Beetle and was driving to India via Athens, so he offered us a lift.”

“That was just one of so many beautiful coincidences,” adds Lynne. “So hippie trail. You'd meet people, chat, hit it off and before you knew it, be off on some other crazy adventure. And when we actually saw our archaeologist friend again - there in the flesh - it was genuinely exciting.”

Coddy was smitten with immaculate, sun-blanched Athens. “So pristine, so neat. I'd read ancient history about the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC and many of these buildings had stood all that time. Amazing. We'd exchange information and books with fellow travellers - the place was always buzzing. Eventually, we made it as far as India.”

Lynne never did get to see France on that trip, but now lives happily in Collioure, a French village by the Spanish border. Coddy retired and spends his days playing guitar and singing in his native California. They parted amicably some years after the trip. “The trail was definitely one of the high points of our marriage,” remembers Lynne. “We were so close. Best friends, really. Each other's common denominator.”

Along with the love of their friends and the kindness of strangers, many trail followers relied upon the Magic Bus - a now-mythical coach service, which drove from London or Amsterdam direct to India. “The Magic Bus itself was a very stripped-down affair,” says Sharif Gemie. “It whisked people as fast as possible to India from western Europe and attracted a far more - how to put it? - ‘out-there' clientele.” There was another, arguably even more 'out-there' option: you could do what Richard King did and buy your own bus. “Travelling the hippie trail on a double-decker wasn't exactly conventional,” says King, “but what choice did we have? You can't exactly hitchhike when you're a nine-piece folk band.”

Richard's astonishing journey began in 1968. His band, The Fabulous Procal Turdum (pictured on their trip, right), had just returned from a decidedly un-hippyish lads fortnight in Spain and were drinking at the Deers Hut pub in Liphook, Hampshire. “For the Spanish trip, we'd bought an old Portsmouth double-decker on the cheap,” he says. “We loved the freedom it gave us. We were all yearning to get away from England anyway, and reckoned we could quit our jobs and make it to Asia next time - tour the world, even. The landlord shook his head and bet us a pint of bitter each we wouldn't do it. Well, what more incentive do you need?

“Having the bus meant we could carry our instruments and were never stuck for a lift,” he continues, “but we were all nonetheless skint, camping on the same sites as the backpackers on the trail. Australians, Americans - they were all fascinated to see us, and a great laugh after a few beers. None of us had any cash and we were all in the same boat. Music became a way to make friends.”

Richard's journey had its highs and lows - quite literally. “Almost immediately after we crossed the Channel, the bus got wedged under a low bridge. One of the lads was asleep upstairs and had a proper fright. All we could do was let the tyres down, roll our sleeves up and push it to a nearby garage forecourt.”

A bit of busking and creative money-making - selling ad space on the bus to a whisky distiller - got them as far as Austria. “It was British Week in Vienna, as luck would have it, so the city was all decked out in Union Jacks.” The band played a few tunes on the sunny cobbled streets and attracted a keen following. “Busking, like backpacking, is the art of responding sensibly to any situation that turns up,” says Richard, who to this day is an active part of the band. And yes, after successfully negotiating the hippie trail, the boys made it to India, Australia and crossed the USA. Eventually, their journeying became so famous they were invited to meet British Prime Minister Edward Heath outside 10 Downing Street. Most important of all, they made it back to Liphook for that well-earned pint.

Sadly, in the closing years of the 70s, the trail to India became unfeasible, with turmoil in Iran and the expanding Soviet bloc closing all safe overland routes east. The rise of affordable air travel in turn made jumping on a plane a cheaper and more attractive proposition than waiting in a lay-by for a sympathetic passing driver, but most who took to the trail remember it as the best part of their lives. 

“We were all so young, at such a magical time,” says Lynne Oyama wistfully. “And all of us, however we travelled, had something special in common: that spirit of adventure.”

Sharif Gemie and Brian Ireland's The Hippie Trail - A History is available from Manchester University Press. Richard King's memoir, Band on the Bus, is available from the History Press.

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