Thursday, 5 June 2008

OzBus – The Lonely Planet Version (well nearly!)

While I was on the road travelling from London to Sydney a little travel guide company called Lonely Planet took an interest in my blog and commissioned me to write an article on the trip for their flightless travel anthology, which is due to be published in August this year.

I worked hard on the article and with the help of the great editing team at Lonely Planet produced a 3,000 word piece on the trip, unfortunately due to the fact that we took a few flights during the trip and some last minute changes to the anthology my article ended up on the cutting room floor.

To say I am disappointed would be an understatement but that is no reason for the article never to see the light of day. So here it is, in all its glory, the article that nearly got me published by Lonely Planet, enjoy!


The OzBus Diaries

I am in Kathmandu. Two months ago I was a PR manager in London, about to get on a bus at Embankment that would take me all the way to Australia. And in five weeks’ time I am supposed to be pulling into Sydney on the maiden voyage of the OzBus, a new overland service that belts through Europe before joining the old hippie trail from Istanbul to Sydney.

In Kathmandu everything changes. The passengers of OzBus 1 take control of the trip in an unexpected way: they quite simply decide not to get back on. Two-thirds of us feel it is time to make our own way for a while and this is when our trip turns into the adventure of a lifetime.


The story begins in September 2007 when a total of 41 people (38 passengers, one tour leader, one driver and one journalist) left London on the first ever OzBus, full of hope and expectation. The build-up to the trip had been a long one and we were willing guinea pigs who were prepared to accept imperfections in exchange for pioneer status. This was just as well since our bus, hired by the firm at the last minute due to a mix up with the paperwork, seemed more like the coach that used to take me to Blackpool every summer as a child than something capable of crossing the globe.

We quickly gelled as a group. Our ages ranged from 19 to 69. Some passengers were travelling with friends, there were two Irish brothers, several couples and a bunch of singles. We had even managed to arrange a few pre-trip get-togethers in London, which enabled some of us to get to know each other before departure.

We sped through Europe at breakneck speed, braving the rain to tour Prague, taking in the picturesque sites of Vienna and climbing through the winding staircases of Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania. We nearly lost our resident journalist in Budapest when she failed to track down the coach, but she eventually found her way back to us. The back window on the bus was smashed while we were reversing, when a cunningly concealed tree branch took us by surprise; and we got lost more times than I ever thought possible. When the bus broke down we discovered the tool kit on board consisted of a broken screwdriver and some rusty bolts; if there had not been a couple of ex-army guys and a multi-tool on board, our journey of a lifetime would have been over very quickly.

By the time we left Europe we were all still happy enough; grumbles about the bus were on the rise and faith in the organisation of the trip was now a little shaky, but after only a week and a half on board we were all willing to cut the OzBus some slack.

In Istanbul we were joined by Andrew, one of the organisers of the trip. He was here to reassure us that the long driving days were over and that the bus was in fine form and would get us to our destination with no problems at all. He also recommended a bar we should visit in Istanbul, the Shah Bar. If you are ever in Istanbul, I can recommend the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Santa Sofia and the underground cisterns but if, after seeing all of these, you fancy a drink, I would not recommend the Shah Bar!

After an hour or so in the bar we all seemed to be going through the drink at an amazing rate; it was almost as if every time we put a drink down it was gone. This, of course, turned out to be true. Every time we turned around, the superhumanly fast bar staff were relieving us of our drinks, topping them up and selling them back to us. When we cottoned on (and, I am sad to say, it did take us a while) the staff were faced with a very unhappy group of punters. The bar manager denied all knowledge. Pete, the Irish OzBuser who had taken on the role of our spokesperson, would not back down and it looked like trouble was brewing, but eventually calm was restored with the management’s offer of free booze.

By the time we left Istanbul we were a little on the defensive so when Andrew presented us with a disclaimer to sign we were justifiably suspicious. One of our fellow travellers with a legal background reviewed this seemingly innocent piece of paper and spotted the implications of signing it (basically absolving the company of any and all responsibility in regard to negligent behaviour). After some discussion we simply refused to sign and Andrew had little option but to back down. At this point we realised that the passengers held the power on this trip, not the organisers.

The problems we faced and the astounding sights and experiences we shared united the group more strongly. In Turkey we went up in hot air balloons over Cappadocia in Göreme National Park: the remarkable sedimentary rock formations were illuminated beneath us as the sun rose. We visited the underground city of Derinkuyu: it was not really designed for the tall or wide but we all managed to squeeze through the various tunnels and caverns. In Turkey, too, I had my first ‘doxy dream’, an incredibly vivid dream brought on by the antimalarial tablets I had been taking. So the good, the bad and the strange all ran hand in hand; it was just a case of trying to keep the balance between the three.

After Turkey came one of our most intriguing destinations, the Islamic Republic of Iran. When I told people about the trip I had booked, this was the point on our route that had been met with the most scepticism, and most of us certainly knew very little about the country before we got there. Girls and women had to wear headscarves at all times; and both sexes had to cover their arms and legs. Alcohol was illegal and public drunkenness would earn you 10 lashes in Public Sq.

In Iran, the rest of the world became much more interested in our little trip. In Tehran the bus finally gave up. Since London it had broken down twice and taken more than its fair share of knocks (including losing a bumper and an exhaust in Turkey, springing a fuel leak in Iran and losing its wing mirror on the way into Tehran). Now it was finally retired. The locally sourced replacement was far from state-of-the-art but it was in one piece and therefore a vast improvement. Losing our original bus did not help the morale of the passengers and there were even late-night talks of mutiny. These were little more than disgruntled conversations but, through emails home and blog entries, the stories seeped back to the UK media and Chinese whispers caused them to be portrayed as more dramatic than they were, with newspaper headlines around the English-speaking world announcing our ‘mutiny’.

All this drama and intrigue unfolded in Esfahan, which (for other reasons) was undoubtedly my favourite stop in Iran. This stunning city is famous for its bazaar and the large many-arched bridge across the river, under which locals are known to indulge in ‘forbidden touching’ while they think no one is looking. I even managed to pick up a hip flask in the bazaar: quite an achievement in a dry country, I thought.

From Iran it was on to Pakistan. The first 12 hours after crossing the border were spent driving to the nearest town, Quetta. We had to leave behind the bus hired locally in Iran and were split onto two smaller buses for this part of the trip. The drive took us through barren desert and when the sun went down there was little to see out of the windows beyond our own reflections. About 40 minutes out from Quetta our driver had a lapse of concentration and the bus ended up half on the road and half in a ditch, at about a 30° angle. Although the crash was over-dramatised in the media with phrases such as ‘lives hung in the balance’, at the time it was still quite a traumatic experience. We managed to tie it on to the other bus, empty it out and then, with the help of a local truck, get it back on the road.

After this exciting beginning, Pakistan continued to intrigue and entertain us. It doesn’t have much of a tourist industry and, with one girl in our group who was nearly 6ft tall and blonde and another with strikingly red hair, our group itself became a major tourist attraction. However, the fact that tourists are thin on the ground here means that the Pakistanis try to look after visitors as well as possible. The police ensured we were safe and friendly locals kept crowds of onlookers at bay. We finished our time in Pakistan in Lahore, where we saw a ceremony for closing of the border that I can only describe as a ‘dance off’ between the Pakistani and Indian border guards, with soldiers from both sides performing complex routines. We also discovered the ever-catchy song ‘Pakistan, Pakistan’, whose title reflects its only lyric: once it is in your head there is no getting rid of it.

We left our Pakistani guide and buses behind and waded through a mass of paperwork into India. Here we ended up on the worst buses of the whole trip; poor quality roads combined with dodgy suspension led to a rollercoaster ride. When not holding on for dear life on the bus, we saw the Golden Temple in Amritsar, toured New Delhi, where we lost our first OzBusers (one decided he needed a break and another went to keep him company in Goa for a week; they rejoined the group before the mass exodus in Nepal), visited the Corbett Tiger Reserve (unfortunately no tigers were spotted), toured the legendary Taj Mahal and cruised down the Ganges seeing the sunrise, funeral fires, sunken bodies and fire juggling.

On our drive through India OzBus hit us with a major change to itinerary. The company had been informed by its local tour operator that the Friendship Hwy, the only way we could continue overland through Tibet, was impassable. This meant a promised visit to Mount Everest Base Camp was out, as was reaching much-anticipated Laos. We would be coming back into India after our trip to Nepal in order to get to Thailand. After receiving this news and having to walk about 2km to cross the border into Nepal, we were not the happiest crew. A hefty drive from the border to Kathmandu did not help to raise spirits and we arrived in the early hours of the morning. OzBus had organised a dawn hike for that day (about three hours after we arrived) so, by the time we returned from this, tempers were fraying.


When the time comes for the bus to leave Kathmandu it is not a happy one. The few who have decided to continue with the trip are sad to be leaving friends behind, and even those of us who have opted out will not be staying together: 16 of us (including me) will stay in Kathmandu for five days and go white-water rafting, trekking and bungee jumping from 160m (which is one of the scariest things I have ever done); three will head to Koh Samui in Thailand for a beach holiday; and eight will prove OzBus wrong and cross the Friendship Hwy to reach Mount Everest Base Camp (perhaps more of us would have attempted this if it hadn’t been for the £1000 price tag). So, with less than a third of its original contingent, the OzBus heads back through India and on to Bangkok while the rest of us take a break and recharge our batteries.

When I first booked on the OzBus, friends and family said I was crazy because, with such a strict timetable, you can’t just hop off and wait for the next bus to come along. But none of us realised then that, because buses are far from the fastest things out there, with a little planning you can easily catch up with the trip further down the track.

With some of us heading to Bangkok after Kathmandu, others already waiting in Koh Samui and the Everest explorers just making it back before we leave Thailand, we are all back on board but with a new sense of freedom, knowing we can get off when we need to and that we will be welcomed back with open arms when we rejoin the group. It costs a bit extra but it’s doable. A new era on the bus has begun: now we are on it because we want to be, not because we have to be in order to get to the other end. An organised tour had given inexperienced backpackers the confidence to be truly independent travellers and now we are ready for anything.

Of course, once you realise you can be independent, the temptation to do just that becomes much stronger. You begin to ask more questions and work out what you want to do and how this fits round the trip. Shortly after entering Malaysia we are told we will only spend three hours in Kuala Lumpur and then once in Indonesia we will be spending most of the time on the road with few stops. At this news, about 10 of us get off again, enough to form our own little group.

We stay in Kuala Lumpur for a night, grab a sleeper train to Singapore then hop on to Jakarta then Bali. While we are taking in Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and the Singapore Night Safari and picking up some surfing tips on the beach, the bus is having its own adventure. The road through Indonesia has been washed out in recent floods and by the time they navigate around this they have dropped behind schedule and eventually catch up with us in Bali a week after we arrived there. Those on the bus have seen some things I am sorry to have missed, like the Bora Bora temple and a live volcano, but I love my time in Bali: we lie on the beach, shop at the stalls, eat in beach-front bars and discover my girlfriend’s favourite drink, the Strawberry Martini.

From Bali it is a short hop to Darwin where we pick up an Australian bus for the final leg of our adventure. As we travel through the Northern Territory we see jumping crocodiles in Kakadu, gaze across the panorama identified as ‘man’s country’ in the classic movie, Crocodile Dundee, visit the Daly Waters pub and cross the Tropic of Capricorn – quite a lot to accomplish in our first three days in Australia! Before the week is over we have seen a camel farm and I have flown over King’s Canyon in a helicopter; next stop Ayers Rock.

Uluru, as Ayers Rock is now know, is a spiritual centre for the indigenous population of Australia. People who have taken bits of this rock away with them as souvenirs are said to be cursed. The ‘sorry book’ certainly testifies to that: it is full of letters from people who have had huge misfortune since taking a piece of Uluru away and are now returning it, along with a heartfelt apology, in the hope that their run of bad luck will come to an end. Climbing the rock, which many tourists still do, is considered a huge offence by the Aboriginal people but they still leave the choice about whether to do the right thing in your hands.

From Uluru we head to Coober Pedy where we see underground houses and working opal mines. We continue on to Adelaide and say farewell to members of the group who call this city home. We camp by the lighthouse from the ’80s show Round the Twist, visit Melbourne, see the south-coast Great Ocean Road and, on our last night, camp in the Snowy Mountains. On our last day we visit Canberra before driving in to Sydney and the end of our journey is upon us.


So, was this the trip I signed up for? No.

If I had the chance to do this exact same trip again would I? Yes.

For me, travelling is not about getting there, it is not about being on time and ticking all the boxes, it is about the journey, the people you meet and the way you deal with it when things go wrong. I had never travelled before this trip; now I find myself watching my bank balance, eager for it to get high enough for me to hit the road again.

1 comment:

Adso said...

Hey there Andy, I'm interested in doing a short first-person piece about your Ozbus trip as part of a travel special The Independent on Sunday is doing. Would you like to take part? Send me an email on


Adam Jacques
Independent on Sunday
020 7005 2520