The Hippy Trail
Draft-dodging Vietnam, sleeping rough in Europe, bus rides through Iran & Afghanistan - not your average surf trip
Phil Grace is 67 years old and lives in Guethary, France and Australia. He shapes custom surfboards daily at Euroglass, Hossegor.
In 1969 I’d seen The Endless Summer and was just mesmerised by Bruce’s Beauties, and I knew I had to go.
I was drafted to fight in the Vietnam war, but I told them my arm was paralysed and got away with it; after one day in the army I was discharged, with a day’s pay.
Originally I was booked on a boat passage, but Qantas brought out a discounted under 26’s fare, and I took that. There were just 8 surfers at J-Bay including me, I was riding a 5’10" single-fin.
We didn’t have leashes or long arm full suits then, that stuff just didn’t exist. I was there with a guy named Jim Pike, the brother of Bob Pike, one of the first guys ever to ride outside Pipeline.
There were no houses, no buildings along the point at J-Bay, just the point, the beach, and the most beautiful, perfect waves I’d ever seen.
I had some friends booked on a boat from Cape Town to the Canary Islands, so I gave them my board and gear and flew to London with the intention of hitching down to the Canaries. I was in London for several weeks, and it was in full swing. It would have been one of the most happening places anywhere at the time, and you could feel it being there. I went to see John Mayall play at The Olympia. There was music everywhere, London was really happening.
(below: This is actual gig Gracey went to)
I got the train and channel ferry and got to Paris. From Paris I hitched to Madrid, stopping over for a day in Biarritz. There were good waves that day but I didn’t have my board. I didn’t see anybody surfing.
It was October, a fresh autumn day and I walked up to the Cote des Basques and the Rock of the Virgin, stretched my legs and breathed the sweet salt air. The next night I slept on the beach in San Sebastian, underneath a scaffold and this brass band came on at 3am and started playing, which struck me as odd. It would be a while before I saw the ocean again.
Once I got to Madrid I realised I wasn’t going to make the Canaries, I was short on funds. So I just kind of turned left.
I hitched to Valencia, then Barcelona, and then I just figured ‘Keep going east, and eventually you’ll end up back home.’
I hitched through to Genova, Italy and slept in the railway station. From there I got picked up by some guys in an Alfa Romeo Giulia GT, just an unbelievable car for the time. I can remember just flying down the Autostrada in this beautiful red Alfa and thinking, ‘Wow. So this is Italy.’
Some more hitching and buses and trains and I was in Belgrade, capital of then Yugoslavia. I was behind the Iron Curtain. In the train station in Belgrade a guy with an impressive moustache came up to me and was staring at my face because I now had a beard. He just couldn’t believe how young I was to have such a beard.
I kept moving down through the Balkans, across the top of Greece, to Bulgaria and eventually across the Bosphorous into Turkey. I stayed a few weeks in Istanbul, where I discovered that you could get a train/bus ticket to New Delhi, India for just $US 26.
While I was there I also met two Swedish guys who had an Opel Reckord and said they were going to India overland and wanted someone to share gas and driving. Those Swedish guys ended up losing of all their money in a scam when a local guy jumped out of a toilet window in a restaurant, I’d been sceptical and luckily still had all mine in a money belt around my waist. I didn’t know it at the time but I was there in Istanbul the very same month that Billy Hayes got arrested, him of Midnight Express fame.
I travelled from Instanbul to Ankara by bus, and then on to Ezerum, near the Turkey - Armenia - Iran border.
From there I took another bus through the mountains to Tehran, Iran’s capital city. On that mountain road I remember seeing wrecked cars and trucks everywhere by the side of the road. I wasn’t in Europe anymore.
I spent a couple of days in Tehran, it was a few years before the Islamic revolution and things were pretty quiet. I rode the bus all the way through to Afghan border. Once in Afghanistan, the ticket guy asked me if I wanted hash almost immediately.
Back then there was only one finished road, which ran right through the middle of Afghanistan. The first half was made by the Russians and was sections of concrete. Each time you’d go between the joins and feel it, boom, a non-stop, repetitive, hitting these concrete sections endlessly.
Then the half between Kandahar and Kabul was built by the Americans, and it’s smooth tarmac. That felt good. The bus only went 30mph, and I was the only westerner on it.
In Kabul a guy in full local regalia came up to me and asked if I wanted hash in an American accent.
Turns out he was a Canadian who’d been there years, I think he’d also fled the draft. He had a bag full of biros around his neck. He’d ask tourists for biros, which I guess weren’t available there then and live off selling them, well that and the hash. One night we went to a hotel in Kabul and it was 40 cents for a bed, but he kicked up a huge fuss and only wanted to pay 20 cents, he wanted to sleep on the floor. In the end they gave in. Something tells me that guy is long dead now.
I left Kabul headed for Peshawar, Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, which has seen a few invading armies in its time. Someone once wrote, ‘Every stone in the Khyber has been soaked in blood.’ From there I made it to Islamabad, and then crossed into Amritsar, India, the centre of the Sikh religion, and from there by train through to New Delhi, and then Calcutta.
India was a big contrast to anything I’d seen en route. It seemed like looking out the window there was someone behind every tree, every rock. Even in the middle of nowhere there were people all about. India is full of people.
At that time there was no way of travelling through Burmah, all foreigners were banned, and so finally my dad bought me a plane ticket to Singapore, and then another home to Melbourne, and I was home just in time for Christmas.
I walked in the front door and my mum said, ‘You look thin.’
I was, from all the walking and drinking tea and not eating much for a few months. I don’t recall my first surf or how it felt to paddle out again, but it must have been at Gunnamatta Beach, where I lived.
Of course I felt different when I got back home, after a journey like that aged 21.
Before I left I was a little bit restless, used to get into a bit of trouble. There were always fights between the rockers, the sharpies (Australian mods) and the surfers.
Sometimes you’d be walking along and a car would pull up and three rockers would get out and just beat the shit out of you.
Some of our surf crew I guess were kind of semi-sharpies, and I’d been a little bit caught up in all that, too. After seeing how people lived, particularly
Seeing 4 year-old starving kids running after trains in Calcutta just begging for cents, kids who hadn’t eaten for days
after seeing that, what type of jacket you wore or what music your gang listened to just didn’t really seem that important any more.
In my mind, travelling is the best education you could ever wish for.