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On The Buses - A Travelling Story

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to drive. I learned to do it as soon as I was sufficiently long enough to reach clutch and brake and peer over a steering wheel simultaneously, and as far as I was concerned, it was not before time either. Raised on a farm, roving by one mode of enhanced transport or another was both a necessity and an enjoyable way to see the countryside, and while a farm kid will mostly utilize any means at their disposal to get around, I am nominally reluctant to entrust my destiny to the hearts and minds of others; hence, I haven’t ridden a horse since the day I got my provisional licence, nor lacked for a vehicle of my own for any longer than I could manage.

Recently though, I found myself car-deficient for only the second time in twenty-two years. I wasn’t panicked, but somewhat uneasy. Rescue wasn’t far away: my olds found themselves with a surplus vehicle in the carport and a need to clear that space, and hey presto, there was a favour I was happy to do for them if only I could get there … the “not far away” standing between me and the proffered automobilic freedom was 300km, give or take …

Faced with the necessity of interstate travel, and some measure of time constraint, I resolved to embark on the sort of trek that among my recent experiences – say the last fifteen years – could be counted on one finger.

Today, I caught the bus.

Many moons ago, I caught my first interstate coach. Periodically, I would seize upon a long weekend to board one of these unwieldy people-carrying boxes, to be transported through the night, from the NSW South Coast, to the NSW North Coast. I would be moderately scared for just about the entire 14 hour haul, reeling and lurching to the soundtrack of the semi-isolated GM two-stroke diesel V8 and the graunch of the 15-speed RoadRanger. For a mode of transport that is – now as then – so ubiquitous and accessible, it’s been (at least, in my experience) almost completely and utterly bereft of any semblance of adventure or frivolity; cramped and confining, and slow.

Still, I was determined that today’s experience would be a positive one. At least, I told myself that when the alarm sounded 0415. My loving girlfriend dropped me in front of Brisbane Transit Centre, and I weaved between the assorted bagmen and shell-shocked early morning commuters, seeking the Greyhound desk.

The Transit Centre is age-yellowed, like pensioners’ teeth; the only signs of life – aside from the handful of hired helpers, coffee grinders and coppers – are a motley assortment of stubbly, lumpy, overstuffed and rumpled travellers, blending effectively into the patina of the similarly threadbare and patchy seating.

Ticket collected, I stick my head out the back door, where I spy a gathering of bus drivers, all barrel-chests and skinny legs, reminiscent of flocking plovers. Whilst they remain as unmistakable as I remembered, the modern-day bus driver’s uniform is a much more casual affair than it was in the halcyon days of road travel, before Virgin was anything more than a bird you hadn’t met, and $49 flights were the ravings of a madman.

The starched, light/white shirts with impressive gold and royal blue epaulettes that I recalled from my last bus trips are gone, supplanted by gaudy, corporate-hued polo shirts. At least they’re more dignified than the hi-vis orange cotton drills seen in other forms of modern livestock transport …

At the appointed hour, my fellow travellers and I swarm towards our designated coach. Our steed has his own nametag, a fancier digital one than the old endless roll with which this bus’ forebears made do. His name appears to be SYDNEY, and Syd’s resting next to his sibling, Mel. I mooch at the end of the queue, and peer at those ahead of me; they are unanimous in their sartorial choice of backpacker fatigues – drab olives, for both singlets and cargo shorts, are the order of the day – and resplendent in my Hawaiian shirt, a jaunty hat, and Cons, I stand out like alpaca’s knackers.

We file aboard, those ahead of me staring straight through our designated driver. I sneak a look at his nametag – he’s Barry – and offer him an insanely cheery good morning. His response falls somewhere between a groan and a sigh of gratitude that someone has realised that he’s not a cardboard cutout. I grab a seat and look around: bus décor hasn’t changed appreciably in 20-something years. The dash still has a thousand switches, there’s a cassette deck, and a Sanyo tube-type TV sunk into the front bulkhead. Then again, it doesn’t smell like smoke anymore, the seats are marginally more comfy than your average cattle-class aircraft … and there are lap/sash seatbelts these days.

Barry hefts himself into the saddle and grabs the microphone, his dulcet tones explaining to all and sundry that wearing the seatbelts is not mandatory, but if the constabulary pulls us up for a sticky-beak and we’re not wearing them, we’ll get a thorough walloping with a rusty bicycle chain. The ensuing chorus of belt latches evokes a mental picture of something akin to starting the New York Marathon with everybody in the first half of the field shod with tap shoes.

Barry continues with the script; a litany of southbound stops, his waning enthusiasm palpable. I am fully expecting him to sob by the time his list reaches Nambucca Heads. As we’re pulling away from the Transit Centre, I note that the digital time/date display is showing tomorrow’s date – Baz obviously longs for Friday.

My fellow travellers begin trading war stories in a great big melting pot of me-yousical Euro accents; Oktoberfest hangovers, diabetic comas from oversweet mixers, an array of tales that I experienced for a whole lot less money in my youth, a whole lot closer to home. I lose myself briefly in contemplation of what they’ve gained from their journeys, other than a prodigious collection of destinations on their passports.

I shift my focus to Syd again. Buses have changed; the day of the old GM Bird Scarers with whining dog boxes has truly passed, I discover with a surprising pang of regret. Those old, snarling beasts, capable of feats of speed and endurance that belied their bulk and blocky awkwardness, have been put to pasture in favour of smooth Mercedes sixes and synchro six-speeds.

That said, the view is much as I recalled; whilst the road we travel is one I have travelled a thousand times or more, the opportunity to ponder the sights flashing past Syd’s flanks – those things you gloss over when preoccupied with avoiding the rest of the travelling crazies – from my elevated perch, is a pleasant and engaging pastime. Certainly, by the time we stumble into the snarl of stop-start Gold Coast peak hour, I’m looking down my nose at the surrounding traffic with an air of smug superiority. Sure, we’re all stuck in the same gridlock, going nowhere … but they’re down there, floundering through the commuter undercurrents on their way to the office or school drop-off – and I’m adventuring, and someone else is doing all the work.

The thought’s a cheery one, and I suppress the urge to gesture rudely at commuter buses, the common, docile, dirty kin to my thoroughbred steed. Syd glides into the Southport Transit Centre, to find nothing but tumbleweeds. Barry shrugs, and spurs him on, back into the Surfers thrust.

The Strip’s currently in the grip of Supercar fever, the volume of concrete structure on the Gold Coast highway seemingly doubled overnight. Big, shiny race transporters are disgorging their similarly shiny cargo along the pit straight, ten feet from my seat, but the World Travellers show no interest in this, or apparently anything else along the way. I attempt to snap a thousand pics on my iPhone, and marvel at how the Chevron Renaissance Centre looks so very different when you’re not driving yourself and concentrating on not getting killed.

As we approach the Surfers Paradise Transit Centre, I giggle at the multitude of school kids and their mothers perched on the concrete gardens at a red light, all apparently texting each other furiously. When Syd nestles into his bay at the Surfers stop, we disgorge a handful of the Great Unwashed, exchanging them for similar quantities of more just like them. I am amazed that a collection of people from so many obviously diverse places and cultures all pretty much look the same when they get here. Barry urges Syd out of the stall with all the grace of an organ grinder helming the Queen Mary – that is, until one of the Scandinavian survivors of the Clone Wars alerts Bazza (in perfect Muppet English) that the side bin door is still ajar. Crash stop, flying dismount, crisis averted with a resounding slam, and we ease back into the Gold Coast madness.

I return to marveling at the glorious sunny day, The Coast’s endless palm trees painted in scored of vivid greens against the flawless sky. I note mentally that Jupiter’s Casino could use a damn good hosing, I chuckle at the chintz of Pacific Fair, and how well it fits its environment.

The alleged glamour of Surfers is replaced by a bleaker landscape as we move away from swivelisation. Vacant, sandy blocks, with sparse, weedy brown lawns dot the side of the road with increasing frequency. The run across the bridge at the Currumbin River offers a modicum of visual stimulation; the sight of sparkling sunlight dancing across wind-rippled water at the river mouth would be more than worth lifting one’s head out of The Backpacker’s Guide To The Galaxy for a squiz … but, as I discover when I look around me, I’m the only one to bother with it.

Similarly, Tugun yields a number of burly locals in black singlets on Vespa scooters amongst the traffic, and the remaining charismatic fibro beach shacks - stubborn and silent in their refusal to cede ground to the encroaching soulless and gauche landscape vandalism of multi-story concrete stucco lumps - retain a heartwarming speck of the Lost Aussie Coastal Lifestyle still championed by Northern NSW’s smattering of beachside hamlets. A lone surfer at Kirra patiently awaits the arrival of the Perfect Curl, and the Norfolk Island Pines wave merrily … but of the twenty-odd heads here in this tin box, mine’s the only one aside from Barry’s that is lifted far enough to take it in.

Another sign of our increasing separation from the Big Smoke is the Coolangatta Transit Centre, which looks like a brick public loo and a half-dozen park benches. This part of the world always feels, to my mind, exponentially more laid-back than the concrete forest behind us. Still, it’s a stop that yields no departures, and one more traveller joins our trek.

The first real stirrings now begin: a row behind me, there’s a Pomgolian on her mobile phone, interrogating somebody about the accommodation awaiting them at their as-yet-undisclosed location. The post-call debrief with her compatriot and travelling buddy indicates a high level of dissatisfaction in the levels of appointment, and the inclusions in their package. The buddy laments that it’s merely “how they get you in” – after all, for AU$17/night, one might expect Kensington Palace, mightn’t one?

As soon as it seems that Syd’s having his legs stretched, we veer off, into the Chinderah Service Centre. It prompts a chuckle at how many Some Sort Of Centres I have visited so far today. We’re not here to water the horses though: it’s more about walking the ferals. Chinderah’s the halfway point for me today, as it has been on many trips through here, be it on holidays or during a past business life, I’ve swung in here for a cuppa, or a feed, or refueling. Our AEDST 1100 arrival time disappointingly doesn’t offer the best of tourist viewing. Having seen this place at other times of day or night, I nominate 2200-2350 on a Friday night as well worth a look: the industrial estate behind the servo contains two um, Gentlemen’s Clubs, and the sights at the aforementioned hours, be it roving locals in between pubs and stopping to buy smokes, or the change of shift around the corner, offers the sight of all kinds of wildlife that you just don’t see every day.

In any case, today’s visit prompts nothing wilder than a thunderous stampede inside for McDonald’s, the universal manna from heaven. Appetites slaked thusly, many from the road crew gather in the garden around a pouch of Drum and Tally-Ho’s, and engage in conversation over where they’ve been, where they’re headed on their whistle-stop world tour, when they’re due home – and all without even a hint of animation or enthusiasm.

When Syd hits the highway once more, I reflect on the road that was replaced by this multi-lane, cable-lined wonder. The “new” road (it’s been there for a good ten years now) is certainly a faster and safer way to get from Ballina to Burleigh. That said, armed as it is, with just enough gentle curves to keep a driver semi-conscious, and equipped with amenities along its length for you to stretch your legs, spend a penny or change a nappy, it’s hardly one of the Great Drives.

Rather than taking in the Friesian telegraph poles of Mooball, or stopping at the Caltex at Wooyung for a spot of braised roo in a red wine jus, we scythe through so many farmyards, peering over Old McDonald’s back fence in a manner that feels slightly intrusive. A quick and safe trip, albeit stultifying.

With points of visual interest waning with a repetition of cane land … road tunnel … koala fencing … for a solid forty minutes to come, I turn once again to Syd’s inhabitants. All fed, they have universally shed their thongs – despite the last sign you see before boarding the coach being a request to retain one’s footwear on one’s feet. Peering down the aisle from the back seat, the view is a sea of well-travelled toenails peeking beneath, beside and atop the seating.

The sky is greying as Syd turns for Byron Bay. Culturally, Byron retains its North Coast spirit; the free-and-easy beachiness is still very evident to the east of the carpark opposite the Beach Hotel, the host of little boutique-like shops still move scores of hippy beads and batik sarongs. Syd lopes past seven dress shops, four bookstores, and three hostels, halting across the road from the bank. Baz announces the Byron stop, and the bus empties as though it’s been vented to deep space.

I am suddenly alone.

I peer out the window, and discover that the Byron Transit Centre is just as dunny-like as Coolangatta’s, except this one’s made entirely of wood. The European contingent has vanished, and Syd is boarded by a similar number of what seem to be Californians and Canadians. While the dress code is as before, the newcomers’ gregariousness is a marked difference to the ones who just left.

We rattle out along the undulating ribbon of the old Byron Road, past ancient churches and farmhouses, past Lennox Head, staring out from the escarpment to the edge of the World to the east. Brief snatches of sunlight set the landscape awash in rich colour. Syd’s still at a steady trot, and larger and larger clusters of houses at decreasing intervals herald Ballina.

A decade ago, I lived in Ballina for a number of years, and while it’s not an unpleasant place by any stretch, it holds no special place in my memory. I muse on this as we pass a block of units laughably christened The Sheraton, past the multitude of concrete-rendered postwar cottages, along a main road so flat, it makes a billiard table look like one of the greens at Royal Brisbane Golf Club.

Today, it looks like the Ballina bypass might’ve taken some of whatever colour there was in this town, another lamentable side-effect of the prioritisation of destination over journey. We weave through the rabbit warren of back streets, stopping in front of a more conventional bus stop. Unsurprisingly, nobody alights.

Deep in home territory as we now are, I’m well aware of the lack of roadside interest between here and the end of my line. With the exceptions of Broadwater and Woodburn to provide some visual stimulation, the drive from here south is excruciating, and on far too many occasions, treacherous. One of the few Far North Coast black spots whose danger has not been mitigated by road and infrastructure development, this section of highway cuts and winds through the bushlands between the Richmond and Clarence River Valleys, bursting out of the scrub at Harwood, and winding through an idyllic rural setting to Grafton, before retreating back into the trees for the run further south.

Syd will travel this road without me now, as we halt in Maclean. I alight and surreptitiously pat his big square flank as I thank Barry for his services rendered, and step onto the River Street kerbing. I give a fleeting moment to wonder who will share Syd’s journey from here down, through Grafton, Woolgoolga, Coffs, Nambucca Heads, and further south; as for me, I’m grabbing a cup of coffee, commandeering my mum’s Corolla, and haring north again, more or less retracing the path along which Syd and I have travelled today.

The only difference will be is that this time, instead of making the effort to take in a journey, I will be focusing on arriving safely at my destination.

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