Dog of a trip on the Greyhound to Tennant Creek
They reckon the world is shrinking. It’s not. Far-places are still far-flung, no matter how fast your laptop starts up.
The Greyhound Bus trip from Darwin to Tennant Creek takes 13 hours and 50 minutes. You can get from Sydney to Dubai in the same time.
It’s a drag, but the options are limited. The plane used to fly daily; now it’s twice a week. There’s a train, the one John Howard built back at the turn of the century, but it’s slower than the bus. It doesn’t even stop at Tennant unless you slip the driver a carton.
I haven’t caught a Greyhound for 25 years, when I was busted-arse broke and needed to cross the country from east to west in a slow hurry. I remember the bus driver back then. He was very clear on one point. He was not a bus driver. He was a Coach Captain.
He even played a rollicking song of the same name by the Territory’s own Ted Egan. The mandatory sing-a-long broke my heart. Like the woman I was chasing.
Time is kind to bad memories. This Greyhound would be loaded with female backpackers. I will play the role of an unreadable brute heading south on a mysterious mission, just like the French singer-actor, Johnny Hallyday, in the fabulous “Man on the Train”.
It doesn’t matter that it is a bus; I can adapt.
An attractive woman with whom I’ve been having an extended fling takes me to the Greyhound station in Darwin, wishing me luck with the backpackers.
The passengers are a couple of old Aboriginal men and some distracted young Aboriginal mums nursing squalling babies. I kiss my wife goodbye.
I’ve arrived 30 minutes early, expecting pre-travel formalities. There are none. The Greyhound office isn’t even open. You either have a ticket or you don’t. An escapee Afghan asylum-seeker turns up. He looks slightly interesting. He turns out to be from Delaware.
The bus arrives at 11.56am. Our names are ticked off in blue ink; we are underway, on schedule, at noon.
The first stop is just out of Darwin, at the satellite town of Palmerston. Another old Aboriginal fella climbs on. A large young island woman (I’m thinking Samoa) is the only other pick up. She is engaged in a heavy love-war with a brick-shaped Caucasian woman.
They are variously clutching, crying, kissing and saying nasty things to each other. Both are wearing oversized sports clothes, the kind with big breathing-hole vents. The island woman climbs on clutching a bucket of KFC, wiping tears. Her friend walks away, not looking back.
We are now on the road. The driver makes his first major public announcement. The gist of it is that there will be no tolerance of alcohol or drugs. I’m clean.
There is a dunny parked in the back corner of the vehicle, definitely an advance on the last bus I’d taken all those years before.
The toilet is the topic of the driver’s next proclamation: water is in short supply in flooded Australia. It may only be used as a urinal. All “heavy artillery” must be stored for roadside stops.
Johnny Hallyday carried two pistols on his train ride. In a well-planned coincidence, I’m carrying two sandwiches. That leads to the first event of any significance on my journey. I eat them both not even 70km south of Darwin, despite promises to myself I would not even think about the second until we’d at least done 600km.
The second major event occurs at the 100km mark, being our arrival at the township of Adelaide River. The island girl approaches the driver saying she has an emergency. I am privy to this because I am sitting up the front.
She needs to get back to Darwin. The driver tells her there’ll be a northbound Greyhound in just an hour or so; and she can get on it. She’s going back to her girlfriend. They’re going to patch it up and make it work, at least until the next punch-up.
She bins the KFC. She’s done the whole bucket in less than 100kms.
Our long-socked leader says we’ll be stopping in Katherine for our designated hour-long dinner break, at 4pm. Four pm? That’s when they feed Supermax prisoners in Goulburn jail. I notice a dead television screen, staring at us from the front of the cockpit.
“Does your DVD player work?” I ask. “It certainly does,” our leader says. And then he explains that Greyhound has a policy of not showing films. He tells how some woman ruined it for everyone. She complained to Greyhound after a driver screened the film “Australia”.
The lady objected to the scene whereby The Drover gets into a fight in a Darwin bar because they won’t serve alcohol to his Aboriginal mate.
“But that was supposed to an anti-racist statement,” I say. The Aborigines behind me lean forward ever so slightly.
“Times have changed,” he says.
What does he mean? That Aborigines are now allowed to drink in bars? Of course they are. But that’s not exactly news; nor does it throw light on Greyhound’s policy of boring passengers to death.
The driver interrupts these thoughts. “Personally, mate, I don’t care if you watch a DVD. As long as it’s not x-rated, who cares?”
“Mate,” I say. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to chuck on a porno.”
“I just mean the film can’t have x-rated language.”
We are going watch a movie. But I don’t have one. Nor does anyone else. In Katherine, I check the remainder bin cheapies at the DVD store. They are early William Shatner masterpieces. Woollies has an array of princess and fairy films. Then I find “Snatch”, for $10.95, It’s got Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro and Dennis Farina. It looks good.
Our leader says we must wait until Mataranka to screen it. It will be dark by then. It is fortunate the bus driver has earphones on, because the film is one long constant barrage of “fucks”.
As the film approaches its climax, we pull into Dunmurra Roadhouse, where there is to be a change of driver—and another pointless hour-long break. The exiting driver says we can finish the film with the new driver.
My heart sinks when I spot the new bus driver. He is not a bus driver. He is a Coach Captain. A different species to the driver we’re saying goodbye to, who wore old-school knee-high socks. The new guy wears razor-sharp permanent-press drill trousers and shirt, with polished ankle-high boots. He fits his epaulettes with a spirit level.
His head is bare and wears a Chopper Read moustache. He was once a biker-type, full of rebel blood. He’s been converted. He’s a company guy. The worst kind.
An Aboriginal bloke tries to get back on the bus to get his wallet. He wants to buy a sandwich. The new driver bars his way. He has seized control of the vessel. He says something about “company policy” forbidding passengers back on board during designated stops.
We leave Dunmurra. The driver asks us to buckle up because he might have to “drop the anchors” if we see a “mobile t-bone”. My senses are red-lining. I know he’s not going to let us see the end of the DVD. I pipe up, in my friendliest voice, explaining how we’ve been playing a DVD and it’s nearly over. Would he mind putting it on?
“Is this your DVD?” he asks, staring straight head.
He presses eject. “It is against company policy to play DVDs. We are not permitted to broadcast unlicensed DVDs on this service. There’s a $10,000 fine. Some might do it. I refuse. Here’s your DVD.”
I take the DVD, clip it back in its case. Best to play this like Johnny Hallyday; say nothing.
I watch the speedometer. It never varies; 100kph all the way. He stops on the highway by Newcastle Waters station to drop mail. He pulls the microphone to his mouth and gives a short spiel about how Kerry Packer sold the station to the English.
I cannot let this pass. “It wasn’t Kerry,” I say.
He stares ahead. I know he is listening. “It was James.”
He keeps staring ahead, his mind flipping through the Greyhound operations manual, trying to find if it’s against regulations for a passenger to correct a driver.
We pull into Tennant Creek at 1.50am, exact to the timetable, to the minute, if not the second. He tells the people there’ll be another hour-long break: “And then we’ll lift anchors and sail through to Alice.”
“You don’t lift anchors; you weigh anchor,” I think blackly.
I wheel my noisy suitcase down the otherwise silent main road to my motel. There’s a scene just like it in “Man on the Train,” when Johnny arrives in town.
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