One day my mother announced that ‘this year we will do something different for our annual holidays’. ‘Yeah, Yeah’, the family scoffed. We didn’t believe it would be possible to break the family tradition of an annual pilgrimage to the Florida Car-O-Tel on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Imagine the shock and awe around the Formica dinner table when Mum announced she had booked us on a bus trip to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs via Coober Pedy in South Australia, calling into Mt Isa in the middle of Queensland on the way home. A round trip of around 6070km and not a beach in sight. Now that’s different!
As one we were all excited about our first big bus adventure and the fact that we were going to camp EVERY night. Little did we know that our excitement was seriously misplaced.
The departure day arrived and we were packed, organised and waiting impatiently on the forecourt of a large service station in Dubbo to be collected by the Trans Tours coach. We waited, and waited, and waited. An inauspicious start, which must have been a nightmare for my parents with two children just about jumping out their skin with excitement and yet we were going nowhere, fast!
Five hours later, the ‘coach’ chugged into the service station, revealing itself to be a BUS that had seen better days. ‘Engine trouble’ was the excuse and even then in the fog of excitement, we should have seen the writing on the wall.
As the tour was now way behind schedule, it was decided that Dubbo would be the overnight stop. Still running on adrenalin, we convinced our parents that we should camp for the night too rather than return home to the farm. Yes, it was the coldest night in living memory and I was dreaming of my very own warm bed waiting for me at home. Oh well, the price you pay for adventure.
The next day dawned bright and clear and we were soon on the road west, getting to know our fellow travellers. Poor Dad was one of only two men on board amongst a gaggle of divorced women, blue rinse set ladies and noisy children. He was kept busy though, as it seemed that every time the bus reached its destination, it would refuse to start again. The bus driver and Dad would gather up the tools and bury themselves in the engine. Dad must have been wondering whether he had even left the farm and what sort of ‘holiday’ this was going to be.
By this stage of the trip, the concept of the ‘swear jar’ had been introduced. If you called the bus a ‘bus’ and not a ‘coach’, it was considered swearing and it was compulsory to put 20c in the swear jar. This bus was so far removed from a coach it wasn’t funny. Bench seats with aluminium hand rails (á la school bus), no air conditioning except for old sliding windows, and a hand-wound sign on the front of the bus that said ‘Dominican Convent, Moss Vale’. Angels we were not, but as it was all new and exciting, you can overlook such details as a child.
We bounced our way out of NSW, trundled through South Australia and finally made it to the highlight of the trip – the centre of the Northern Territory. Ayers Rock, now called Uluru, did not disappoint and we were silenced by its majesty, by the sheer scale of it. Similarly, the Olgas were stunning and remain fixed in my memory – even after all these years.
The night before our departure from the campground, the bus (coach?) driver asked the group – ‘who would like to go to the Camel Cup in Alice Springs tomorrow?’ It was a resounding ‘YES’ from the group even after we learned that it would mean a 2.00 am departure to get there on time.
Of course, it rained overnight but that didn’t stop us dismantling our wet tents – well, our wet everything – and bundling onto the bus. At least the damn thing started this time. We all promptly went back to sleep and awoke to a brilliant blue sky day about 300 km south of Alice Springs.
The bus gave an almighty bump, swerved a little and we looked out the window to see a set of bus dual wheels bouncing high and disappearing into the Northern Territory scrub. There was a delayed reaction – ‘there goes a set of bus wheels…..pause…….they’re OUR bus wheels!’ And the bus wobbled, lurched to the left and came to a stop on its axle.
We kids thought this was all part of the excitement of touring by bus in the 1970s and tumbled off the bus to chase the wheels through the scrub. No doubt the adults could more rightly see that this was no laughing matter. This was 1977. No mobile phones and in the middle of nowhere.
We waited and waited and waved down the first car to appear on the horizon. The car had no choice but to stop, as we kids had made an immovable picket line across the road, including half of us laying down to form human speed humps. A message was duly relayed and we were collected about five hours later and transported to Alice Springs. Yes, we had well and truly missed the Camel Cup.
The rest of the so-called holiday was spent trying to make contact with Trans Tours, them promising a replacement bus and no vehicle materialising. Alice Springs is a nice place but not after 10 days straight.
The bus ‘adventure’ finally came to an end, with us bus-less but possessing an intimate knowledge of Alice Springs. We did get our first ever trip on an aeroplane back to Dubbo…and Trans Tours declared bankruptcy not long after!
From that time on, whenever Mum suggested we ‘do something different for our next holiday’, a knowing look from us all made her quickly change the subject and start work on her beach holiday packing list.
So long ago – 1977?? and apologies for the quality of the 1977 photography!