Let me tell you about a bus trip I made to Melbourne way back in 2016 to attend the Marathi Sammelan.
For long, I wanted to arrange a bus trip. So when Melbourne announced the Sammelan, on the spur-of-the-moment, I grabbed the opportunity. Why, you ask? Well, um, you see… I had decided to act as driver!
It was no easy task, mind you. But if the task is easy, what’s the fun in organising it?
My first step was enlisting a second driver to join me on the 10-hour trip to Melbourne.
Much to my relief, a friend Nitin Samudra who worked for Sydney Buses, came to the rescue.
Next, and perhaps more importantly, I had to procure a bus driver’s license. My closest encounter with heavy vehicles before this had been occasionally driving a friend’s Leyland truck back in India many years ago.
After researching online about rules and requirements to drive a bus in Australia, I decided to get a Medium Rigid (MR) license. This would allow me to drive a bus with up to 45 passengers, but I would have to do my test on a truck.
With the holidays just around the corner then, I decided I would get this license after returning from our annual pilgrimage to India.
As I brought up the idea of the bus trip at a get-together with friends, my mate Rasik Kulkarni declared he would be the “conductor” on the trip. Suddenly, I had a full team!
We decided to take the plan a step further by dressing up like Indian state transport (ST) bus drivers and conductors, complete with the khaki pants, shirts and badges.
Upon arriving in India, I made tons of inquiries on where to get the ST badges for my drivers and conductors with seemingly no luck, until one person mentioned a shop in Pune’s Paanghanti.
After visiting shop after shop to find these precious ST badges, I eventually found one store that did have them on offer but, the shopkeeper refused to sell them to me, saying it was unethical to sell to an unauthorised person.
We went back and forth for about two hours till he eventually demanded, “What do you need the badges for anyway?”
“Oh, for a drama in Australia!” I replied.
That did the trick. His tough exterior softened, and he began to show signs of friendliness. After checking my Australian driving license as proof of identity, and even making me sign a piece of paper promising we wouldn’t use them in India, he gave me the badges, engraved numbers and all.
After this, our next hurdle was buying some ST bus tickets for my conductor. I approached a bus stand, feeling particularly optimistic, only to realise that the Indian public transport from my youth had changed drastically. The bus conductor now carries an electronic machine! (Adding insult to injury, the young conductor I spoke to didn’t even know what a bus ticket looked like.)
Thankfully, my wife Manjusha had preserved an old ticket and I made photocopies of it.
Later in our India trip, while walking down the street one day, she asked me, “Why don’t you get a special number plate?”
It was an excellent idea. We decided to get a plate made for display on the dashboard of the bus. The decision of what to write on the plate was easy – QH for Quakers Hill (our suburb), and 2763 for its post code.
Equipped with uniforms for my crew, the badges and number plate for my bus, I returned to Australia and booked myself in for driver knowledge test at a local RTA. I passed.
Next, my MR license. The first thing the instructor told me was that he wouldn’t teach me how to drive. You can imagine, I was confused, but I figured, ‘Fair enough.’
He quickly showed me different types of knots and tied the load. Then he undid all that he had done and threw the rope in the air.
“Go get the rope and tie the load nice and tight with all the knots I just taught you,” he barked at me.
That’s when I realised that the quick demonstration earlier was the ‘teaching’ part. I followed his instructions, gathering the rope while I wracked my brain to remember the knots.
This was only the beginning. All day he grilled me in the hot January sun, but it was certainly a day well spent. I passed this hurdle too!
There was now nothing standing in the way of this much-anticipated bus trip. I began to look for a self-drive bus on hire and quickly learned that all the for-hire companies had only 25-seat buses on hire. Grudgingly, I had to accept a limit on the number of passengers on the ride.
We began collecting expressions of interest from would-be passengers and received a good response. It certainly appeared the bus was going to be packed… so packed, in fact, that there might not be space to keep the baggage! Pre-emptively, we finalised a bus for hire with a baggage trailer.
On the day, the car park of a local reserve in Quakers Hill became our ST stand. A crowd of passengers gathered while my friend Nitin and I went to fetch the bus. When we returned with the bus and baggage trailer, a raucous welcome awaited us. Some enthusiastic participants even mimicked newspaper vendors and peanut vendors reminiscent of actual Indian bus stands.
All that was left was for our conductor Rasik to make the announcement that the bus was already on the platform and mimic issuing bus tickets.
Nitin took the honours to take the wheel while I took the co-drivers seat. Rasik whistled twice, signalling the departure. There was a loud uproar of “Ganapati Bappa, Morya” and off we went!