I’d come a long way since learning how to double the clutch of the Bedford truck on my family farm. Having spent some time planning out my life over a period of seven years, I was ready for the next phase. I had been living in London and had recently been selected to do a five-week working trip around Europe as part of my driver training with Autotours.
Gathering with the other drivers at the departure point on Craven Terrace outside of the Autotours office, I could barely contain my excitement at this opportunity. I wondered who in the group were drivers, who were cooks and who were guides, they were called ‘couriers’ though the other drivers and I soon came up with other names for them. We were led by a guy called ‘Zapper’ to the ferry that would take us across the English Channel to Calais, France. There we were picked up by Rick Harper and taken to our camp just outside of Paris. I’ll admit, we headed straight to the bar, because having a few drinks and a laugh with the passengers was important part of operating a tour.
While out on an excursion the day after our arrival, Rick asked me to drive the bus to collect the group. I had never driven a left-hand drive before. I got in that bus and took off, wiping out the whole right-hand side of the bus on a row of bollards. I was surprised at how calm Rick was after he saw this little setback. The Dutch company that owned the bus needed to bring us another bus, which meant we were held up in Paris for a couple of days. I survived the ordeal though.
When we finally set off from Paris, it was to Andorra and again I was asked to drive the bus. My experience with driving trucks across Australia also meant that I was comfortable driving at night time, so I drove the bus most of the night. I had a navigator and I kept to the motorways, tunnels and only a few bridges. I tell you, it was a piece of cake compared to driving in the Australian outback; there were no kangaroos or cattle to dodge. We arrived safely at our destination and all was forgiven.
Zappa and Rick were great. By the end of our five weeks everyone had a nickname. I was known to all in the group as the Road Runner, which was later shortened to ‘Roadie’. To this day there are some people who only know me by this nickname. According to Zappa, who christened me with this nickname, it was given to me because I took off whenever we pulled up somewhere. I liked to explore, for sure. When we were in the city centre of a place, I would always go one street back in search of the locals and the little cafes, away from the tourists and with cheaper prices.
Never one for academic learning, Zappa informed me that if I didn’t get my notes in order I’d be kicked off the trip. I got friendly with one of the cooks, ‘Slapper’ (though not by nature). We are still good friends today, and whenever I go to Western Australia I’ll call in to see her. She did a fantastic job on my notes.
A lot of the notes involved information around the bar culture and drinking. I realised it was because the company wanted to know how we would handle a situation where I was in charge of proper, paying guests. I was the quiet and sober type from the country. I could have been led astray very easily. It worried me that some of the drivers were trying to learn how to drive on the job, which I didn’t feel was the right place. I also didn’t envy the guides, who were required to learn the history of the places we would visit on the itinerary. The cooks had it much better — all they needed to do was provide the food, and planning really helped with that.
Some nights we would be camping in tents, others were spent in hotels or cabins. There were lots of free drinks at the clubs and bars we went to. I figured this was because we’d be back later in the year with a busload of passengers and it would help us encourage the travellers to stay in the bar and drink. It was a sound investment.
The training is something I remember fondly from my time in Europe. With Slapper’s help on my notes, I scraped through. We returned to London and were awaiting out fate at the Walkabout Club across the road from the Autotours office. I held my breath and waited to see if that dream job would be mine.