The Man Who Pays His Way: The high adventure – and theatre – of the great Australian bus trip
Saturday 15 September 2007
Tomorrow morning, make for Embankment station in central London for one of the travel events of the decade: not the day's first Northern Line train for Edgware at 7.28am, but a more ambitious departure scheduled for two minutes later.
On a normal Sunday morning, the journey possibilities from this traffic-haunted location beneath the Charing Cross terminus are limited: a short walk across the Thames on the Golden Jubilee footbridge to the London Eye; the Underground to Richmond, Upminster or High Barnet; or a pleasure boat to Putney or Greenwich. The one exotic option is a quick stroll to Egypt, in the shape of Cleopatra's Needle, just along the river bank. Tomorrow at 7.30am, though, this modest station will be the starting point for the longest bus journey on earth: a 12-week overland expedition to Australia.
OzBus, a Sutton-based company, is organising the logical conclusion of Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday, the film in which the pop star, as a young man, took a bus to Europe. The company sold all 38 seats on its first trip to Sydney within weeks of announcing the venture. The ethnic mix of passengers for the maiden voyage is one-third Australian, taking the scenic route home; one-third British, escaping the onset of autumn; and, intriguingly given the small population of Ireland, one-third Irish. There are evidently plenty of Irish romantics seeking a more fulfilling journey than in-flight films, meals and jet lag can provide.
Two certainties about the trip: "bus-lag" should not be a problem, since the time zone will change by an average of less than one hour per week; and the trip will be a mix of high adventure and utter tedium.
When Tony and Maureen Wheeler first ventured Across Asia on the Cheap (as the original Lonely Planet title was known) in 1972, they travelled overland partly because the air fare was prohibitive. Now, the opposite is true: the OzBus fare of £3,750 is more than seven times the price of a Qantas flight from Heathrow to Sydney tomorrow. But the stopovers will be more interesting than a couple of hours at Bangkok airport.
The first stretch of the journey is easy. The seven-year-old MAN coach (with nine seats taken out to provide more room for people and their luggage) aims for Istanbul, then just before reaching that most glorious city, swerves north to take the bridge across the Bosphorus. A couple of days of hard driving across Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), takes it to the Iranian frontier. Here – as Anne Penketh described in these pages last week – women will be obliged to cover up.
Geo-politics permitting, the charabanc from Charing Cross should rumble right across Pakistan into India. Personally I would pay my weight in rupees for the pleasure of taking the train through India rather than the pain of travelling on a bus across the woefully inadequate road network of the world's second-most populous country.
Then the journey gets tricky. The bus will cross into Nepal, visit Everest Base Camp ("weather permitting", says the company) and continue over the border into Chinese-occupied Tibet. Next is Dali, in the People's Republic, followed by a long journey south through Laos. Thailand and Malaysia should prove plain steering, using the same excellent road network that, in 1941, allowed Japan to overrun the peninsula within days. But then the land runs out.
Singapore is the natural conclusion for many overland journeys through the region, but OzBus plans to cross from the Malaysian port of Malacca to the Indonesian island of Sumatra and then island-hop all the way along the archipelago, though not every ferry in this region meets International Maritime Organisation standards. From Bali, a boat is required to get across to Australia.
That's for the bus; the passengers will fly across to Darwin and spend a few days exploring Australia's Northern Territory while the vehicle catches up. From Darwin, you could drive via Adelaide and Melbourne to Australia's biggest city in three days, but OzBus is allowing 10 days longer to do the land some justice, including a detour to Uluru (Ayers Rock). The final approach to Sydney would normally involve some dreary suburbs, so a jink in the route has been devised to allow the bus to arrive over the Harbour Bridge, ending outside the Opera House at a remarkably precise 5pm on 9 December.
You can make the same basic journey more cheaply by public transport, augmented by the occasional tactical low-cost flight. The expert is Bharat Parmar, who works for a London construction firm: over the past 12 years, has made a series of passages to India using buses and trains.
I first met Bharat in a hostel in Thessaloniki, a few days into his first trip. His latest venture begins on 1 October, when he and a London businessman, Jay Vara, will be taking the scenic route via Moscow and Central Asia, using what is now known as the Borat Manoeuvre through Kazakhstan (see the Warning of the Week, page 11). They are raising money for CAREducation Trust; you can contribute at www.justgiving.com/jaybharat. Or, to sign up for a 12-week trip on the long, slow haul to Australia, visit www.oz-bus.com.
On the other hand, why stop the bus at all?
"A good overland trip is all about the journey: if you are too concerned about the destination you will spoil the journey." Those words of wisdom are from one of the greatest overland travellers, Stanley Moffat, a former New Zealand rugby player who is into his 17th year of continuous travel, as a driver and tour guide.
As the OzBus 38 packed their cases for Sydney, I sought advice from Stanley on what they can expect. Which, I wondered, presented the greater problem: unhelpful border officials – or the passengers?
"The borders? No, they are a break from the tedium of driving, and a challenge and fun," Stanley said. "The greatest challenge of overlanding is keeping a group of people all heading in the same direction with the same goals."
And how do you do that?
"By building a sense of camaraderie, common purpose and fun. Enjoy where you are and what you're doing and get them to appreciate that – don't let them dwell on the small things."
Stanley makes overlanding sound like the original Big Brother: several dozen people shoved together in a vehicle, forced to cohabit in extremely close quarters for weeks on end, with all the stresses and strains of a journey to cope with as well.
"When people go on a two-week holiday, they can hide their true selves; if they have personal issues or problems, they can hide them. Six months stuck on a vehicle, all those problems are open for the world to see, and they can't be hidden. And that is just on the bus, never mind borders, drought, famine and floods."
After 17 years of this, Stanley is in a good position to reveal the best and worst aspects of being the actual driver.
The best? "You're the boss. It is marketed as a democracy, but at the end of the day you are a one-man dictatorship on a transcontinental vehicle."
The worst? "Again, the same answer: being the boss. The demands on you can be non-stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and there is no respite."
One word sums it up: "Freedom. You've got food on board, diesel on board, water on board, and you don't know where you'll be at the end of the day. The key to a good overland, apart from good company, is the joy of a good journey."
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