The West

Omnibus, all together now
Illustration: Joanne Cornish

Gazing out of windows was an art I learnt at school in Sussex. Whenever theorems or Latin declensions palled, beyond the railings there were vapour trails, trees shorn of leaves by autumn, and the delectable rarity of chocolate- uniformed girls from a neighbouring school.

From buses and trains there was likewise constant opportunity to spy and spot. Romantic titles like The King and I adorned a theatre entrance. Psycho on a cinema led me to the sexy Americanism "motel".

Half a century on, the habit endures, particularly while listening to a corporate personage urge us to "utilise service providers and culturally relevant resources to maximise best-practice outcomes".

A recent return journey to WA's south-western tip puts me in mind of those lazy gaze-y days. Noting the name of our first stop en route, I wonder: "However did Cockburn come to be pronounced 'Coe-burn'?" Later: "Ah, how gorgeous and green, those paddocks . . . June is such a sensible season to travel in the South West." Near Mandurah, a Mandjoogoordap Drive: "Must put that name on a postcard to England."

"For this holiday in Augusta, the bus, shall we?" I had proposed riskily to my wife, Jo. She's American. Texan, actually. People of her ilk, brought up in a small town in the largest State of the Union (except for Alaska, which Texans barely recognise) simply don't do buses. However, I persevered and we did.

At East Perth terminal, Greg of TransWA is an antidote to every macho, cyclist-hating coach driver you ever met. As well as steering us south, he has something extra. He knows every passenger's name, without checking his list. "Here's your bag, Nicola." "Yes, Phil, you do have time to buy a coffee before we press on to Capel." Impressive.

Greg has other qualities. He does not tell awful jokes and actually likes the customers.

Looking out of the window after Busselton , I wonder if Nicola, sitting behind me, may want to know that the word "bus" is an abbreviation of "omnibus". Probably not. I discover instead that she lives in Canada.

The only reason she is bussing it today is that, though her father was willing to lend his car, "it is such a bomb that I'd rather get to Margaret River in one piece".

And the loudspeaker music? Enya at mid-volume. "Will ye go, lassie, go," she sings. I'm in an excellent mood. The term omnibus, meaning "for all", was once applied widely to road carriages that nearly a century ago offered a mass-transport alternative to trains.

Nowadays it survives in such phrases as "omnibus edition" of books or DVDs, but in the transport sense its use is merely quaint. On our trip back from Augusta to Perth, however, the heavens send good reason to recall the "all-in-this-together" sense.

It is a Sunday of such wind and rainstorms as to please only movie directors seeking a suitable backdrop for dastardly deeds in a rickety mansion on a hill. Driver Ron is telling base in Bunbury that it "is like a war zone down here". As we turn into Cowaramup Road, a pile of timber and leaves is proof of a battle that trees have lost.

Ron pulls up and draws a long breath. At least a dozen passengers get out and join him inspecting branches. Some grab a handful and attempt a shove. "Never going to get the bus around this" is the verdict. Phones go to ears. Within 10 minutes a local hero arrives with his front-end loader.

Arriving a little late at East Perth, I reflect that mobile mateship - driver and passengers in common purpose - has carried the turbulent day. It's been a true omnibus journey, bonhomie for all and everyone getting home safe.

The West Australian

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