Top Deck Tour - from Rags to Gulag?
DIY travel in Europe
The plan was simple. With the money I got from selling my trusty Datsun 120Y ($3200!) I was to buy a one-way ticket to Europe ($700), travel around a bit for 3 months ($1500), then go on a 6 week Top Deck bus tour ($1000) and then I would be savvy enough to earn some dollars and somehow find my way back to Australia. For a 17 year old in the 1980s this seemed plausible.
It all started when I arrived in Frankfurt and placed my backpack in a locker. When my distant S.African relatives who currently lived in Frankfurt, came to pick me up I discovered the locker I had chosen was full of shit! Oohps. My first lesson learnt.
The next three months were exciting, traveling on under $20 a day in Europe! Traveling from Innsbruck to Salzburg, to Vienna, Budapest, Yugoslavia in its original pre-war glory. En-route I had a mini adventure with an Aussie soldier on leave in Garmish Partenkirchen when we got stuck in a blizzard climbing the German alps with totally inadequate gear.
Adventure got me as far East as the underground cities of Capedocia in Turkey and as far South as Crete, where I spend 4 weeks living in a cave. I visited monasteries in Meteora in Greece, where the James Bond movies were shot, saw highlights of Athens, bought outdated Greek currency on the Plaka below the Acropolis.
Other highlights included traveling through Italy by train, getting caught for traveling the public Venetian boat without a valid ticket (on recommendation of the ‘Hitchhikers guide to Europe’), had lunch on the leaning tower of Pisa, checked out the Vatican the nearby catacombs, tried their square pizza and freezing beers. Fought off robbing gypsy kids in Rome and hitch-hiked back to Holland. Loads of fun on a small budget in relatively little time!
A bad start...
The biggest challenge came when I went to Holland, where I am originally from. I had a few days of visiting relatives before going on to London where I had to be a minimum of 7 days before the TopDeck tour started. This was the minimum time required to get the Eastern European and Russian visas arranged.
As luck would have it I was robbed of my precious money belt in the heart of Amsterdam. It was a canny trick by some pick pocketing drug dealers. The police told me, tongue in check, that I should go beat some junkies up and check their pockets for my passport as that was the only way to get my travel documents back in time for tomorrow’s trip to London!
My cousin Mike watched from a safe distance as I proceeded with the kind advice the police gave me and miraculously managed to get my entire money belt back. Not a bad effort for an 18 year old novice in Amsterdam!
The next day I safely made it to London. And so I arrived at the hostel in Earls Court where any respectable Aussie company would base their HQ. Surrounded by Australian travelers I felt at ease. Fosters beer was bigger then Ben Hur in the mid 1980s, thanks to Paul Hogan I believe!
Anyway, the visas were obtained smoothly. The other young people booked on the tour had all arrived and we had all met in ‘the hotel’. We were also introduced to the driver, the cook and the guide, were briefed on procedures and after handing in the frame of my backpack for safe keeping (it was not allowed on the bus) we were ready to Rock and Roll with TOP DECK!
Young and Innocent
Being actually below the 18-35 age range of the group I was obviously the youngest on the bus. My 18th birthday was to be celebrated on the trip! Not only was I the youngest, I was also a late bloomer, or rather, I had not bloomed at all. Being pretty well pre-pubescent I was as innocent as they came. And on my last cent!
First stop was Amsterdam. My first regret was that I missed the sex-show in the red-light district. It was an optional ‘side-trip’, I had very little spare cash and I was not that interested in sex! I still had visions of the 16 year olds trying to win bets who could give me the first French kiss. It was all too gross for me! A few years later I kicked myself at the thought of that school dance memory; oh how I wished I had a second chance!
Anyway, the majority of the bus went to the sex show and came back with amazing stories. I vowed not to miss the next opportunity!
Next memorable stop was the Raper bahn in Hamburg. Hamburg. This was a street exclusively designated for red-light district related activities. In Amsterdam the red light district is open to anyone, but this street was cordoned off by police, letting in only men over 18 years old. Apparently women who entered were not safe, both from men as from the pimps and prostitute who dominated (or owned, leased, whatever) the female population here.
In preparation of our little excursion the bus had put the names of all males in a hat. Each male had donated $5 to ‘the fund, and the women blindly drew the names out of the hat. Lucky last was to spend the cash in a brothel.
The shy red-headed guy who was unlucky enough to be the lucky guy was escorted by the men of our group, and myself trailing behind. With my recent travel experience I was more up to date with travel and geography then many on the tour. But being as young as I was, I think people thought I was just a rich know-it-all brat or something. They could probably not believe that I could not afford to party with them in every town! I don’t recall any people from the trip, so whatever friendship I had there must have been pretty shallow. I discovered later in life that socializing over a beer is instrumental in forming bonds and relationships, and making friends in general.
Losing something big...
Anyway, there we were in the most 'prostitutious' place I had ever seen. My young virgin eyes were open wide. Every doorway seemed to lead into pubs and brothels. Their were numerous underground car-parks where women were en masse trying to get your business. All trying hard to seduce you.
I showed them my wallet to fight them off. One prostitute insisted that she would accept my Greek (fake) note. She took me up the lifts to her ‘apartment’. Cleared the transaction with her boss, and came back. With medical precision she covered my little stiffie with antiseptic anti-spermic lotion or whatever it was, put on several good layers of condoms and gave me a blow-job. And it was with this pathetic effort that I lost my virginity if you could call it losing it. Misplacing was probably a better word.
Well, Bluey the red-head and I came back to the bus with meek smiles. No one knew of my little effort, I was too embarrassed to boast about that one!
Me winning the 'Technicolor Color' award for my 'Tuborg Chuck' chundering experience in the bus after a legendary Tuborg Brewery tour in Denmark did not help my standing in the group either...
Heading into the Midnight Sun
The trip was a camping trip, so we had to set up tents in many places on the way. They were all two-men tents, and I was the odd-one out I seemed to remember. Considering I do have Cystic Fibrosis and digestion to match this was a healthy choice for whoever was not sharing my tent!
The bus headed North into Denmark, then Sweden, and through the Fjordlands into Norway. The country was spectacular up here! We drove through a town called ‘Hell’ where we could get our passports stamped. Scared to carry my money belt on me I had mine packed below deck, so I missed out on the passport stamp. The rest of the group could not understand I did not have my passport on me. They had not had attempted attacks on their money belt from gypsies and junkies in the past 3 months!
The first incident with the bus was here in Norway when we somehow managed to T-bone a car. The lady was OK but the car was a huge mess. It was a miracle she was unhurt and a miracle we could continue on our way as it was clearly the lady’s fault.
As we headed up towards the arctic the days got longer and longer until we no longer had nights. I remember well the morning we had to get up early and get in the bus for an 8am departure. I had my tent pitched just over the crest of the hill out of sight of the others, and woke up to find the time was 9am. With the sun shining brightly I jumped out of the tent in a panic, just about ripped the tent of the grass and hurried over the crest to where the bus was expected to be waiting for me!
Instead of seeing a bus full of anxious people wondering where that Wally was I was greeted by all the tents standing erect, the bus empty and parked. I checked my watch. I had it on upside down for some reason, and it was a trendy watch without numbers on the dial… It was only 3am. I had a false start.
The bus made it all the way to Hammerfest where we watched the midnight sun circle overhead. We went on a fishing expedition on a boat, using lines that would bring up multiple fish each time you pulled them up despite the fact no bait was on the hooks. It provided fish for the entire week! Needless to say I was too whimp-ish to pull up my line, and the few times I cautiously pulled it up no fish would be on the hook as I was too gentle. When I was 3 years old I witnessed some bigger kids getting a carp out of a pond and stamping on it to kill it. Blood was everywhere and the fish would not die. It heralded the end of my non-existing fishing career!
We headed to Northcape before heading South again into Lapland. The bus got stuck in mud good and proper once and we all had to help push it free.
Rubles and Barnies
As we were heading for Russia the guide starting telling us about the procedures and technicalities there. We had to learn a few extra words for our vocabulary! This was only the beginning!
As we were taught the difference between Rubles and Barneys (one was the legally obtained Russian currency from the bank, the other was from the black-market), and subtle terms like ‘Covent Garden’, which we would use instead of the much harsher sounding word ‘Black Market’. It was made clear to us that going to a dinner show which costs 200 Barneys was considerably cheaper then a picnic at the river Moskva for 20 rubles. And that if we wanted to tell each other about how we sold old T-shirts, chewing gum or cigarettes on the Black Market the Inturist guides who would be traveling with us would get upset, but if you say you sold it at Covent Garden they would not mind at all.
The plot thickened as we approached the Russian border, which made for interesting times in the bus as we drove the huge distances from the Arctic Circle to Helsinki. One night near Rovanimi we arrived late at night an had to continue early in the morning. Smart as I was I figured I would not set up the tent and make myself comfortable on a picnic table instead. The next morning I woke up with a hugely swollen face from the mosquito bites I got that night as the man-eating mozzies ate that part of me that they could get to in the night.
Before we entered Russia we were all given a few politically (and ethically) immoral magazines to distribute around the bus, we were all fitted out with nice new jeans. The way it worked was that the merchandise hidden on board was safe as long as the guards found some of these Magazines; Times Magazine and Playboys... These would be confiscated and the officers would disappear with their catch into the custom’s offices.
The loot that we smuggled in was to provide lots of Barney for luxuries in Russia. This included some hotels, dinners, shows and other excursions. Some organizations in Russia could only accept Rubles; we needed hard currency to the correct value, or a bank receipt showing we exchanged the money legitimately.
Of course the guide did all the dealings for us, he had contacts. We were free to trade on Covent Garden if we wanted to as well, as long as we were out of sight of the Inturist guides who were traveling with us through Russia. This is where I slipped up.
From Rags to Gulag?
In London I was about to discard some old jeans and T-shirts when I was told by others I should take it to Russia and sell it there! So I found someone who wanted to give me $50 for my bag of goodies. I got ripped off on the deal, the bandits tricked me and I ended up with $5 somehow by some slight of hand trick. I made a valiant attempt at chasing the baddies, but it led me to some desolate place in Leningrad where I no longer felt safe.
The tour-guide advised me that I had been seen trading my stuff and that he was notified that I was under surveillance and hence in possibly deep trouble. Another one of us got too inebriated on the Sovietski Champanski (served with caviar) and Vodka and ended up getting arrested! After losing his flash watch in the local jail he promptly got his freedom back.
The bus stopped at the Hermitage museum in Leningrad, and whilst the majority of the bus preferred to stay in the bus for 20 minutes, I got out to see this world famous museum... in twenty minutes... This was not a cultured tour! Maybe the museum wasn't licensed to sell alcohol. Will have to come back one day!
We were not the only bus doing the rounds. Occasionally we would meet another tour bus with young people, and we would occasionally get a chance to party together. Partying in Russia was within my budget, and so it happened that on my 18th birthday I ended up with some lovely red-headed English girl at a campground near Moscow! I shall officially remember that as my ‘first’. That was a sleepless night not only because of this particular present, but also because we were to head out of Russia the next day and I might be arrested on the border for illegally selling my merchandise! The girl’s bus was to be at the same camp ground as our bus the next night, but that was not to be. I never got her name, other then ‘Harriet’, and contact details! Or maybe I forgot in the haze of Vodka and Fear.
The haze continued throughout the following day when we hit the Polish border. Despite my shaking knees and half drawn eye lids, pale and sweaty skin, I pulled through nicely. Nobody arrested me and no one interrogated me. We all looked beaten by vodka and the Inturist guides, who also enjoyed their drink the night before, were in no mood for complications.
Just when we thought we were safe there was a large commotion. Officers running and screaming in Russian, our guide running to the bus with the last two of our passengers. The Aussie bus driver got the bus going quickly. Turns out the last lot of us they checked were found to be in possession of a large amount of Russian propaganda posters! These were a popular item with all of us, anti-American anti-capitalist posters and books that we all bought for ridiculously cheap prices in the various bookstores on our way.
Turns out the officers decided that it was contraband and they had to be left in Russia! Our guide decided that this was not serious enough and worth risking a quick getaway. This is exactly what happened. We all waved at the yelling officers as we raced off towards Poland with all of us barely on board. I was safe!
Back to the West
Russia was eventful in many ways. The bus lost its mirror as a truck in Moscow raced past us too close when we were parked along a road somewhere when we were all inside. Could have been worse! This particular trip had about 10 bus incidences, most of which I have forgotten, but the driver was highly embarrassed about them all and was likely not to be driving for TopDeck after this trip! To his credit the incidents were not really his fault. My biggest regret of the trip was that we only spend one hour in the Summer Palace in Leningrad. On my own travels I felt I spend too little time checking out the world of art, but a mere hour for a world class art exhibition was outrageous!
The rest of the trip went smoothly; we saw Milla 13 in Poland, the town of Pilsner (a bit of a Mecca for beer drinkers), had a mushroom hot-dog in the old town square of Warsaw (as meat was scarce as hens teeth). We visited Prague, the city our family name came from, saw its famous sculptured bridge. Berlin was wonderful; we saw the zoo and the night clubs. Took the tube through East Berlin where the train would go slowly past east German military guards under low light conditions. We saw checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and went for a walk into East Berlin. Of course the wall is down now, but Berlin was a hugely impressive place because of its division of East/West.
The strangest in Berlin was the public toilet in the zoo! They had a range of fees for its use. Did you need toilet paper, are you going for a shit or a wee,… We were almost surprised they did not weigh our turts! No less stupid are the coin operated toilets in many German towns. I was inclined to pee against the walls when finding myself without the correct change!
Before we knew it we were back in London! Top Deck had misplaced my back pack frame at the HQ. When I went into the HQ they told me to see if one of their backpack frames would fit. Surely not I thought. But I was proven wrong. They had a collection of at least a dozen brand new frames identical to the old one of mine they had lost!
My next challenge was to earn enough dollars to get me home! The first job was one day in a coffee factory of sorts in London which earned me enough money for a ticket to Holland. Yes, I was very broke!
Just on a side note; Top Deck Tours was a direct competitor with Kontiki Tours. It was started and run by two Australian brothers. Top Deck is no longer around these days, but the brothers’ new venture is doing really well in Australia; The Flight Centre!