Boarding now... the bus to Sydney

The world's longest regular bus journey was launched yesterday, leaving London on the 15,000-mile, 84-day trip to Australia. Simon Calder and Emily Dugan went to wave it off

For some of the 38 travellers watching their last London sunrise for months, the OzBus offers the long and scenic way home; for others, a spectacular beginning to a career break; and, for 69-year-old Tricia Roach, an opportunity she felt she could not resist. But as the pioneering passengers stood waiting yesterday to board for the world's longest bus ride, one phrase kept being repeated: "The trip of a lifetime".

At 7.24 am, the maiden voyage from London to Sydney began from beside Cleopatra's Needle on the Embankment in central London. Unlike its transportational ancestor – the pink-and-purple psychedelic Magic Bus calling at Istanbul, Kabul and all ashrams to Kathmandu – the Latvian-registered coach looked almost too ordinary. It is a 53-seater that would not seem out of place ferrying parties of pensioners to Paignton. But the bus is attempting a journey that no other commercial undertaking has achieved: a 15,000-mile trip from London WC1 to the Sydney Opera House. The OzBus is scheduled to arrive 12 weeks later almost to the minute, at a precise 5pm local time on 9 December. For each of the intervening 84 days, it will average just 180 miles, allowing plenty of time for sightseeing along the way.

By the time the sun rose over the Thames yesterday, most of the passengers were ready and waiting, and passing the time by sizing up the strangers who would be their travelling companions for almost a quarter of a year. Plenty of parents and lovers, weepers and wailers turned up as well, including an Australian contingent who appeared to have come straight from the pub. The excitement had been heightened by the months of anticipation; since the first ticket was sold in January, some prospective travellers have been keeping online blogs. One, "Andy S from London", wrote "It all seems like some weird daydream that I will wake up from any minute".

The crew of three comprises two drivers and an Aussie tour leader, Janelle Connor, whose duties will include steering the party across some of the toughest borders in the world: Turkey-Iran, Pakistan-India and Nepal-Tibet. Speaking from the bus as it trundled through Belgium, she described it as her dream job. "I heard about it in February and begged them to let me do it. It's a very hands-on group, so it's not like other tour jobs. I know that people are worried about Iran, but it's all part of the adventure."

Day One, though, passed in something of an unbureaucratic blur: if it's Sunday, it must be Britain, France, Belgium and Germany. After successfully negotiating the closure of part of the Old Kent Road in south London and a P&O ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, the bus's first night was due to be spent in the Rhine Valley. None of these locations was on the list of highlights for a group of Australian passengers: Prague, Transylvania, India and Tibet were considered to be the main lures.

The businessman who conceived OzBus is Mark Creasey, from Crawley in West Sussex, who has interests in property and catering. He spent some time backpacking in Australia, but looked for a slow bus home in vain, not least because of geopolitical barriers. "I tried to take the slow route back about 15 years ago, but I got as far as the borders of Thailand and Burma, and they wouldn't let me in. A couple of years back I realised that the trip was now possible from end to end, and in a moment of madness I decided to set it up."

But for Creasey, who has dreamed of doing the journey since his early twenties, the business venture has gone frustratingly well. "I'm a victim of my own success", he said. "I always wanted to go, but it's all taken off so well that I don't think I'll be able to find 12 weeks off now."

Considering the large chunk of time needed for the venture, the passengers are a remarkably eclectic group. This is not your average gap year gang. Apart from one 19-year-old, there are no other post-school gap year students on board, partly because the price of the 12-week adventure puts it beyond the pocket of most school-leavers.

Each of the passengers has paid £3,750 for accommodation, most meals and transportation – though the hop between Bali and Darwin in northern Australia will cost them another £175; the bus is to be shipped by cargo vessel, while the passengers fly.

Several television crews turned up for the departure, though mooted plans for a Big Brother-style reality show – in which travellers would be voted off one by one – have not come to fruition.

Speaking from the bus as it neared its first stop late yesterday afternoon, Danny Lawrence, 19, who has saved for two years to pay for the trip, said the atmosphere was jubilant. "It's been a pretty tiring day, but I still know it's the best decision I've ever made," he said.

The other passengers on the bus are an eclectic mix. For many it is simply a career break, but for one passenger it is a way of marking the occasion of a long-awaited journey home. Bill Fisher, 55, has been living in the UK for 25 years, and will be going home to Adelaide for good when he finally arrives in Australia.

Some of the passengers will have been congratulating themselves on the modest carbon footprint they will leave behind, but the impact of their journey will be almost doubled: the bus is to be driven back to London empty. Mr Creasey's dream is to eventually have one departure a month from London and Sydney. By comparison, today and every other day, 10 wide-bodied aircraft will depart on flights between the two cities.

The trip has proved so popular that a "relief bus" will depart at the same time next Sunday. Among the passengers travelling on this second bus will be another couple who don't fit the usual backpacker mould. Pete Smith, 60, and Anne, his 57-year-old wife, who will be celebrating his retirement from teaching in Sheffield, sound as excited as any teenager at the prospect. "I always wished I had gone to Australia in the Sixties, and I'm really looking forward to it all," Mr Smith said. "My wife is worried about being the grandmother of the coach, but it's all really exciting."

The OzBus appeal is that it offers a "slow-travel" alternative to the fast flight, through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to Australia. "I don't like flying, and I always drive everywhere on holiday," Mr Smith said. "It will be great to see all those countries in succession".

Bus travel, traditionally the mode of transport of last resort, is undergoing something of a resurgence. In Britain, low fares from Megabus have spurred a response from National Express; hundreds of miles of travel are now possible for just £1.

In the US – where the Greyhound bus, born in the 1920s, became the nation's transportation backbone – many 21st-century users are regarded as being on the margins of society. While songs such as "Promised Land" by Chuck Berry and "America" by Simon and Garfunkel celebrate the Greyhound, most travellers have abandoned the bus for cars or planes. Yet the coast-to-coast trip from New York to Los Angeles – a three-day journey involving changes at St Louis, Missouri and Phoenix, Arizona – is priced at an attractive $109, barely £50 for 2,500 miles. The best bus travel can be found south of the border in Latin America – particularly in Mexico and Brazil – where luxury coaches boasting flat sleeper-beds and hostess service can be a transport of sheer delight.

Such creature comforts will not be found on the OzBus, though, with more than a third of their nights spent under canvas, and the remainder in budget accommodation, or seated (very upright) in their coach seats. On one notable day, they will have to drive 350 miles from Iran to Pakistan in one go, to avoid stopping in bandit country.

It is this leg that the crew fear most, but Tony Wheeler, whose original overland trip across Asia led to the creation of the Lonely Planet empire in the 1970s, sees the People's Republic as a potential problem too: " Foreign-registered vehicles I've seen in China all have to be registered in China as well. You see a lot of cars in Hong Kong sporting two licence plates." He also wonders about the sea crossing from Bali in Indonesia to Darwin in northern Australia: "Is there a dependable shipping service?"

By December, the 38 pioneering travellers will have found the answers to these and many other questions.

The route from London to Sydney passes through some unforgettable locations

Prague

The first substantial stop on the route, the party will be given a chance to stretch their legs in the historic Czech capital, before losing them again on the city's famous beer.

Transylvania

Travelling through Austria and Hungary, the landscape takes on a more Eastern European feel. Passing through the dense Transylvanian forest, passengers may spot a bear, a wolf, or even a lynx.

Istanbul

The gateway between Europe and Asia will be a welcome stop for the coach-weary crew, who can sample the local bazaars and explore the city's renowned Ottoman architecture.

Gallipoli

Passengers will stop to pay their respects at the site of a First World War battle of deep significance to Australians and New Zealanders.

Bam

Just before the Pakistani border lies what is left of the Unesco World Heritage Site city of Bam. The ancient mud-walled metropolis is 2000 years old and a breathtaking place to visit.

Taj Mahal

No world adventure is complete without visiting the Taj Mahal, the ultimate architectural expression of love, built by Moghal emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth

Everest

Once they have made it across the Nepal-China border to Tibet (no mean feat in itself), the crew face a dicey journey to the base camp of the tallest mountain in the world.

Sumatra

Passing through Malaysia, the bus stops off at Sumatra, the largest of the 13,000 islands that make up Indonesia, with lush rainforest, indigenous tigers and active volcanoes.

Uluru (Ayers Rock)

This is a photo moment that no trip to Australia ignores. The most recognisable icon of Australia's scenery, this epic russet-coloured sandstone form is almost a kilometre high.

Sydney

Picking its way along the last stretch of undeveloped coastline, the bus takes in Sydney harbour, and the journey is complete.

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