A PEREGRINE falcon witnessed Stan Jones’ last journey on the 296 bus. A black cockatoo and a butcherbird were there, too; providing a fitting and appropriate send-off for a man who flew with them in his thoughts daily, at least until today.
Stan Jones was retiring after a life on the road. It had been a good life because most days he drove theOpossumBaybus out ofHobart.
For 40 years the bus driver had told his passengers they were on the greatest, most beautiful, most special route in the world. He’d seen the green trams ofMelbourneand the blue and white buses ofSydneybut none had a route like the 296.
River, bay, sandy beaches, shiny mudflats and a moving, deep-blue ocean that stretched as far asAntarctica, this was the meander of the bus. For those who cared to listen, it was a geography and history lesson, too, but most of all it was about wildlife, and especially birds.
Stan Jones loved birds and for 40 years they, like his passengers, had been companions of sorts. For all this time he had kept one eye on the road and one eye on the birds. He could tell his passengers the month of the year, and even the time, by the birds he saw in woodland or on mudflat. This was Stan Jones’ window on the world of nature, and it could be the passengers’ too.
And today was his last run.
The No 296 bus travels 40 km to the far south ofHobart’s reach, on a journey that takes just over an hour. When Stan Jones drove the 296 it took a little longer. At the start of its journey, the bus turned north out of the Hobart bus mall, and moved upstream of the Derwent River before crossing the Tasman Bridge and changing direction to the south, taking in the eastern suburbs. The driver would list a dozen bird habitats on the way, and maybe four dozen birds and his passengers would always be impressed.
It was a good day to be making the last run. It was summer, the sun was strong and a slight breeze would whip up the waves in both the Derwent Estuary and out in the ocean. Stan Jones never liked a flat, glassy sea. He would say a sea had to have the curl of a white wave because that was how seas were meant to be.
He had noticed the peregrine atop the AMP insurance building as he munched a bacon-and-egg-roll at Bus Stop Number 1 outside the Hobart Post Office. A big female, bloated and full after snacking on a pigeon, and she would rest there for half the day before taking flight again, and killing after Driver Jones had finished his last run.
The Scania bus Stan Jones drove wheezed, groaned and lurched in an unsteady motion when it was slipped into gear, a bit like the busman in the last years of his working life and he knew in his heart that it was time to hang up his driver’s hat, pack away his blue Metro tickets, and tuck his cashbox under his arm, or do whatever bus drivers do when it is time to call it a day. The last run would be painful, nonetheless.
Vista burst into life
As soon as the large, black hands of the post office clock rolled round to 8.35 am, Driver Jones closed the bus’s electric doors and eased his vehicle from the bus mall, turning left intoMacquarie Streetfor its journey out of town.
Out of the cutting of the Domain on the edge of the central business district, theHobartvista burst into life, like a holiday wish-you-were-here postcard dropping through the letterbox. To the left of the windscreen, beyond the “Say no to bullying” poster and the ticket machine,MountWellingtonloomed high above the city. To the right, out of the driver’s side window, could be seen the slipways running down to the Derwent where small ferries and fishing boats, police vessels and sometimes tugs were serviced.
Not so long ago a bull fur seal had taken up residence on one of the slipways. Stan Jones had seen it some mornings, as it angrily eyed the fishermen trying to get to their under-repair boats. Once, just once this close to town, he had seen a pod of dolphins in the bay off the slipways, rustling the gentle, early-morning Derwent with their fins, one jumping clear of the water in a playful gesture and the busman shouted to his passengers, loudly so the people at the very back could hear, that there were dolphins in the bay.
Stan Jones had not wanted to retire, had reluctantly counted down the days over the past six months when he would retreat to his one-bedroomed apartment on a leafless street in South Hobart, and today there was a sadness about him and he felt that if the dolphins came back on this very morning, he might not be able to bring himself to look, or to shout to the people at the back of the bus, loudly, that dolphins had come to town.
The bus climbed now on its way to theTasmanBridgeand, driving in the slow lane, the busman could glance down and identify black-faced cormorants standing upright on the rocks below, like scarecrows with their wings outstretched to dry in the sun. There was a silver gull colony here, home to the birds that had mugged Stan Jones for his fish-and-chip lunch on theHobartwharves, and in spring the southbound lane would often be littered with gull carcasses, young birds coming to grief on the tarmac above their rookery as they learned to fly.
Driver Jones, being a bus driving bird-watcher, had a checklist of road-kill birds together with his daily live ones and the number of bird carcasses and those of animals seen on Tasmanian roads worried him deeply. Nationwide it ran into millions each year and it was yet another assault on the world of birds the busman loved so much. He would not dwell on it today. He would switch off to roadkill and try to concentrate on living birds and good things and try to be happy.
The climb over theTasmanBridgewas a steep one, and now the green and white Scania bus let out a groan and Stan Jones could hear in its protests the strained call of the yellow wattlebird because the wattlebird made a mechanical sound that always reminded him of an engine in need of oil.
TheTasmanBridge, with its strict speed limit and narrow lanes, was not supposed to be a place to birdwatch but this was irresistible in winter when peregrine falcons arrived to hunt roosting starlings. Thousands of starlings found a home out of the breeding season under the bridge’s spans and birds of prey – not only peregrines, but brown falcons and brown goshawks – engaged in aerial dogfights with their fast-flying prey as the starlings left the roost in the early morning and arrived back in the late afternoon when a woodsmoke-weighted dusk was descending over the river.
The timing of the 296 route put it out of reach of the main peregrine spectacle. However, on one or two mornings during the winter months, Stan Jones could see peregrines breezing by, practising their skills for the late afternoon hunting session. Approaching the bridge, peregrines flew either up or down the Derwent at great speed, their anchor silhouette whistling above and below the bridge’s spans, the birds sometimes travelling at 300 kilometres an hour.
Driver Jones always wanted to tell his passengers about the peregrines, the fastest living thing on earth, to be seen here at the Tasman Bridge and not on a BBC wildlife program or the Discovery Channel, but he always felt it would be pointless; in the blink of an eye the peregrines would be gone, and peregrines were not like dolphins, whales or fur seals, or even roosting tawny frogmouths at Bus Stop 72, creatures a bus driver could point out and make it a journey to remember.
Driver Jones would remember all his journeys, all the buses he had driven and all the companies that had one time or another operated the service toOpossumBay. And he had his bird checklist, as trusty and well-maintained as the mileage and service record for the bus. The idea for the list came to him one day while he was completing a time sheet, shortly after taking over theOpossumBayrun, and at the end of each return trip, at the end of the day in the canteen at the Glenorchy bus depot, he would fill it in.
Now that he was retiring, with no more regular runs on the Opossum Bay bus except, say, for an occasional one, perhaps once a year when he fancied a trip down memory lane, he could open it up, turning the pages to the time he saw a red-tailed tropic bird at South Arm, or a wandering albatross, far off, in Frederick Henry Bay.
Driver Jones watched his speed now aware of the 70 kilometre an hour limit on theTasmanBridge. It was easy for the bus to run away down the steep descent to theEastern Shoreand a speeding ticket would take some explaining to the inspector.
The first important stop over the bridge, important for Stan Jones that is, was the one at the Rosny Golf Course. Here he would linger with engine idling after he had taken the fares, scanning the trees across the fairways and along the road, looking for swift parrots because in summer he often found them there.
The scarcity of swift parrots some years worried him but he did not want to dwell on it today. The numbers of the parrots were declining rapidly inTasmaniabecause of the loss of their blue gum habitat, something the busman had noted and recorded in his logbook over 40 years.
Driver Jones, in the simple way he explained his job, his interests and his life – plain and simple like a bus timetable that was easily understood — would say he had had his ups and downs, but they were mainly ups. Among the downs had been the morning back in 1976 when a flock of swift parrots, all shimmering green plumage and fiery red wings, had come flashing through the blue gums on each side of the road, and had been hit by an articulated truck. The flight of swift parrots had ploughed into the side of the truck one by one and the road was littered with limp parrot bodies, before the balls of feathers were crushed into the tarmac by the relentless parade of traffic heading to the city.
Black swans and chestnut teals bobbed onKangarooBayas the bus turned due south and through the scattered red-brick, plasterboard and green-painted wooden homes of the eastern suburban sprawl. Squeezed between a low range of hills and the wide Derwent bay, the eastern suburbs were dry and sandy and the woodland eucalypts nearer the bridge gave way to casuarina — spindly, straggly, needle-leafed trees — which Driver Jones always said, as he described the changing environment on his route, looked as though they needed a good watering.
This was the land of magpie, butcherbird and noisy miner. Of all songs and calls, Stan Jones enjoyed the magpies’ best. It was an Australian sound, the true sound of the bush. On his last run, Driver Jones let his bus idle again, just for a moment so the passengers might not notice, or they might think he was merely running ahead of schedule and had to kill time, and he lingered so he could hear the call of the magpie. He had seen two on the grounds of a school and another called from an adjoining garden fence, flute-like.
New holland honeyeaters flitting through the grevilleas surrounding gardens and car parks, brush wattlebirds chasing eastern spinebills from the bottlebrushes lining the road, this was the world of Driver Jones any day of the year he cared to choose.
The sight of sea, ocean and bay was lost for a time as the bus turned inland and over a slight rise, and then the water burst into sight again as the busman braked for Bus Stop 48. Driver Jones took flight himself, soaring in mind and spirit like a splayed-wing pelican over patchwork fields and rolling hills, and the glistening ocean. The bell for the stop further down the rise would bring him back to earth, to the route going south which ran through the hills and along the bays, almost touching the ocean in places, so the Metro bus was kissed with salt spray and wind-blown fine sand.
It was here, on the stretch descending to sea level at Lauderdale, a hamlet about mid-way on the route, that passengers would come forward down the bus’s aisle, the passengers who had not ridden Driver Jones’ bus before, and they would ask how he came about this passion for birds, and this knowledge about their ways, and their comings and goings.
“It’s just something since I was a boy,” he would always say, not giving any detail to the skeleton of his reply, as brief and concise as the bus timetable. If pressed, he might add that birds were not just interesting to look at, but they were vital for our survival; they ate insect pests, pollinated trees and flowers and spread seeds. He might even say “We need birds more than they need us” but Driver Jones would not mention the web of life, biodiversity, ecosystems: the driver of the 296 was not one for green speak.
The bus travelled a narrow plain beside the estuary now, a plain where Tasmanian emus had once roamed. One day, when his bus had broken down, Driver Jones had heard about the extinct emu from an historian marooned with the rest of the passengers on the bus between stops 68 and 72. The historian, a retired teacher, had been making the bus journey to photograph historic cottages along the route toOpossumBayand had enjoyed the driver’s running commentary on the birds and thought he had information to add. The emu had been shot on this very plain, by hunting parties setting out fromHobart. It had filled the pots of the first soldiers and convicts to the island in the early 1800s and now, like the Tasmanian tiger, it was gone.
Some people use pop songs as markers for their lives, milestones from childhood though to adulthood and old age. When Driver Jones first drove the No 296 bus the Beatles were in the driver’s seat of a pop music revolution and although he joked at the time to his passengers that they had a “ticket to ride”, the busman had little interest in music, and certainly not on his bus. If he was assigned one of the modern busses, with stereo radio and speakers, he kept it turned off and Driver Jones’ passengers didn’t mind. Besides the gentle groan and downhill purr of his Scania, and the chatter of his passengers, only birdsong was allowed into the moving space of the 296 bus.
The bus route gave Driver Jones the opportunity to not only see but hear the birds on his leisurely stops along the way. The trouble with the city routes was that everyone was always in such a hurry. Just one pause, even at traffic lights, would have passengers looking at their watches, and the busman would see them in his rear-view mirror and he’d feel compelled to press the button to close the electric doors and ease his foot on to the accelerator as soon as it was safe to move off.
On the run out toOpossumBayand on the way back to town no one appeared to be in a hurry. The sandy bays, the gently rolling hills — bone dry in summer, lush in winter — and the yellow sandstone cliffs that cut into the Derwent like slices of freshly-made cake on a plate, did not lend themselves to the rat-race.
The 296 route was divided into two sections, reflecting both the fare structure for the journey and its geography. The trip to Lauderdale struggled to escapeHobart’s suburbia but Bus Stop 80 near the Lauderdale canal marked the point where the bus crossed onto the South Arm peninsula, an island of sorts, and all of a sudden the pace of the journey, and the chatter of the passengers, attained a rural air. The distance toHobartbeyond Lauderdale made it a hard commuting drive, and put the city at arms length. People chose a life on the South Arm that did not have to conform with the timetable of the city, and the city was a place to visit just once in a while, or once a week, and the city did not set the pace.
The sweet descending call of a grey fantail cascaded through the open windows of Driver Jones’ bus at the stop before Lauderdale and its mudflats, and for once he did not let the bus idle, to listen.
Today the tide was just right for a highlight of the run, a day when the shorebirds flocked in their thousands close to shore. Summer on the Lauderdale mudflats, those of Ralphs Bay that run to the east and are fed and nourished by the cool waters of the Derwent, was an event not to be missed by any self-respecting birdwatcher, bus driver or otherwise.
On these days, when the tide was just right, neither too far out or too far in, Driver Jones would scan the mudflats and quickly identify maybe 10 species of wading birds that had started the summer in Asia, some travelling from breeding grounds within theArctic Circle. They now sought refuge in Lauderdale, within the sound of the groan and purr of the 296 bus and the Holdens, and Fords, and Nissans and Land Rovers and all the other cars that plied the highway along the Lauderdale foreshore.
The sun was strong and hard on the busman’s last day and as his bus idled at the stop beside the Lauderdale Foreshore Tavern, the sun was reflected by the pools of water trapped in the mud and sand corrugations. Sometimes the mudflats sparkled, especially in winter when the sun moved in a lower, weaker arc; now its rays shot out from the reflective pools, like laser beams and they drove hard into Driver Jones’ face, burning his eyes.
For the first time on the run he put on his sunglasses and he could make out darting plover shapes, the stitching motion of sandpipers’ beaks, the thoughtful waddle of the oystercatcher.
Driver Jones lingered a little longer than usual at the stop and he glanced back in the rear-view mirror at the handful of passengers still on the bus but they didn’t seem to mind. The rising sun had caught the face ofMountWellingtonfull on and the vertical rock formation called the Organ Pipes was etched in shadow. A thick cloud spread over the summit of the mountain, cutting across it horizontally, so it looked like a tablecloth tumbling over a wooden table.
Everyone on the bus gazed across the Derwent to the mountain, and no one was in a hurry to move on.
For once Driver Jones was not compiling a checklist of the birds seen on the journey. He didn’t know why, because he had done it after every run for 40 years, but this time there would be no sitting in the bus depot canteen with notebook and pen, and no jokes about his bird-watching in Lauderdale, and Rokeby and Rosny. He’d deliver his paperwork and his cashbox and he’d be out of there heading for a drink of Cascade with the Tasmanian tiger label. Not at the regular bus drivers’ watering hole. Driver Jones would choose a bar on the waterfront in town where he would look out over the bay, his eyes following the route of the No 296 in contemplation of what had been: the coming and goings of the birds on migration, the coming and goings of his passengers, the arrival of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the tides, the flotsam and jetsam of experiences and emotions of the man who had driven the 296 bus for 40 years. Driver Jones would say to himself that some people have children as evidence they once lived, writers have novels or collections of short stories or poems. He had his checklist of birds spotted over 40 years. It was there for him to mull over during the long days he would not be driving the 296 bus, comparing years for particular species seen and not seen, comparing weather because 40 years of rain, sleet, hail and sunshine were mentioned, too.
Although it was basically a list of birds seen on a particular day, unscientific because the requirement to keep eyes on the road and to put the safety and interests of the public first could not give it any shape for serious research purposes, the log nonetheless was a record of staggering bird decline. Where birds like the swift parrot and scarlet robin had once been seen frequently along the bus route, they were now less common. Driver Jones had read that 20 per cent of Australian birds were decreasing in number, principally because of human thirst for land, and he was glad that he had driven the 296 bus when he did.
People might be the enemy, reading between the lines of Stan Jones’ log, but there was room for reference to passengers in the busman’s daily account of the road. These passengers included farmer’s wives and retirees, surfers and fishermen, and children going to the dentist inHobart. There were simple acts of kindness or eccentric behaviour, quirks in the human condition, that were worthy of mention. How could Driver Jones forget the female backpacker who sent one of his passengers a bouquet of flowers from Melbourne after she had found the student’s wallet, or the elderly woman from Sydney who had made the bus journey carrying an urn so that she could scatter the ashes of her husband at Cape Contrariety just because he liked the name.
Driver Jones never married, had children, produced a work of art for posterity but his log book of birds spotted from the 296 bus, to be handed when the time came to the archive of Birds Tasmania for anyone who would want to read it in future years, was evidence indeed that he had lived.
After Lauderdale, the town’s rubbish dump had once marred the vista but the bus driver was happy now that it had been closed and the tip covered in topsoil, which was being planted with native vegetation.
Another blot on the landscape had vanished — there were enough of them to spoil what Driver Jones considered to be the most beautiful place on earth. He was concerned, however, for the future, how the great Derwent estuary could stay as it was because it had been changed more than enough in 40 years, let alone over 200 years from the time southernTasmaniawas first settled by Europeans. Stan Jones in his time had observed the houses creeping up the distant hills, and shacks creeping along foreshores of bay and beach, squeezing birds and particularly shorebirds from house and home. And now there was a mega-development on the horizon, a proposed marina called Lauderdale Quay comprising 500 homes in the mudflats themselves.
Driver Jones often wondered what the Aborigines would have made of it all, a people displaced like the hooded plover from the beach.
In sight of the now disused rubbish tip, the tarmac sneaked between saltmarsh instead of mudflat, the sedge and reed and tussock grasses trying to reclaim the road. In the winter months, the saltmarsh was alive with shelducks and black swans. Was this where Driver Jones had once seen a black-winged stilt, 20 years previously? For once he couldn’t remember, and this would be one to look up on the long mornings and afternoons during his retirement.
Climbing now, in dry woodland, Driver Jones knew he would see kookaburras, butcherbirds, black cockatoos and black-faced cuckoo shrikes. The latter were known to passengers on his bus who knew about nature as summerbirds, and he would not be disappointed on his last run. The summerbirds had a lazy, undulating flight and the diligent, conscientious driver did not have to take his eyes off the road to identify them.
Soon the narrow lane leading to Cremorne, a quiet hamlet of shacks on the east of the peninsula, loomed to the left but the bus would give it a miss. Cremorne was a request stop and no passengers had asked to be dropped off. The driver was disappointed. It was at Cremorne that the busman had witnessed one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet, the gathering of short-tailed shearwaters after their sojourn to the other side of the world, where 18 million Tasmanian-bred birds wintered in Alaskan seas.
On the South Arm peninsula extensive, protected muttonbird colonies were located, and although usually the muttonbirds were far off at sea feeding during daylight hours, before coming home to roost in the early evening and out of bus timetable hours, Driver Jones and his Scania bus had once happened on a vast flock close to shore on a late-summer morning.
The sea was a rolling brown carpet of thousands of birds, rising and leapfrogging over each other to feast on a vast shoal of fish..
The stop at Cremorne, situated on a tight turning circle in front of a general store, offered no view of the open ocean, this being obscured by high sand dunes, but as the bus drew to a halt one morning an excited shack owner waiting for his wife to arrive from town had told of the muttonbird carpet and had urged the driver to take the short walk over the dunes to see
“Anyone want to see the greatest wildlife show on earth?,” the busman had shouted back down the bus, and he was pleased his handful of passengers had responded positively. So Driver Jones took out his cashbox, tucked it under his arm and trooped with the passengers over a sandy path through the dunes to the beach and the muttonbird spectacle which would give a descriptive account fashioned with adjectives to his often dry, figure-laden narrative of a life on the wildlife road.
The wildest and least spoilt stretch of the route was traversed in the final 15 minutes allowed for theOpossumBayrun. Stan Jones liked this piece of highway best, even if roadkill carcasses were more common here, indicating its abundance of wildlife. For about five kilometres, the road wound though scattered black peppermint and white gums, with occasional glimpses of ocean between the trees, before hitting the wide arc of sand that forms the South Arm. A male superb fairy-wren, its iridescent blue feathers catching the sunlight, drifted across the road, and the busman took his foot off the accelerator and touched the brake gently, slowing in the hope the fairy-wren would alter its course. It continued to fly directly into the bus’s path and now Driver Jones pushed his foot harder on the brake pedal and the vehicle lurched to one side, the startled wren turning on tiny outstretched wings to head back in the direction from which it had come.
The busman looked in the rear-view mirror and the two passengers left on the bus had not noticed the manoeuvre. He thought it would be ironic to be the subject of a complaint to Metro headquarters about erratic driving, his first in 40 years, on his last day in charge of the 296 bus.
The milestones of a life on the road were all but passed at the end of the South Arm spit and into thevillageofSouth Armitself. Memories of times good and bad were triggered by the sight of landmarks, the landmarks themselves telling Driver Jones his exact position on the route so he did not need bus stop numbers to measure progress. The wildlife warning signs, with black potoroo on a yellow triangle; the seat at a South Arm bus stop fashioned from a tree truck; and the information panel at the South Arm Nature Reserve riddled with bullet holes — these were the constant markers that always drew Driver Jones’ eye. Others, less constant and seasonal, might be a sign for cut flowers outside a sandstone cottage, or a cardboard sign nailed to a gum offering firewood by the tonne, the fleece of sheep, or pink-eyed potatoes.
Driver Jones glanced back over the Derwent, at the direction from which he had travelled, and he could just make out the slender shape of theTasmanBridgein the far distance, the bridge appearing to float on a heat-haze rising from land and water. A swamp harrier on lazy, upturned-winged flight cruised by as the bus negotiated the last bend through the South Arm hamlet and Driver Jones was pleased he had a second bird of prey for the day, because raptors were becoming increasingly scarce, even the white-bellied sea eagle, a species once commonly seen along the route but one that in recent years had been listed as a threatened species.
The timing of the 296 route allows no time for a rest. A quick turn-around and Driver Jones would be Hobart-bound. Five minutes was allowed atOpossumBay, just enough time to take in a flight of gannets venturing into sheltered waters from open sea or, with a bit of luck, a shy albatross far down the estuary where the Iron Pot lighthouse marks the boundary of the Derwent and the vast Southern Ocean beyond.
In the 1700s James Cook, William Bligh and Bruni d’Entrecasteaux travelled half way around the world to marvel at these shores and to write of them in their logs and diaries, and now a busman had done the same with his observations from the cab of a Number 296 Metro bus.
Somewhere from a cluster of shacks surrounding the dirt road, where the bus was turned for the return journey, the sound of a Beatles song drifted through the air. “… when I’m 64” rang out and the irony of the song, on the last day of Driver Jones’ active working life, was lost on him, if he was listening at all. The wind was getting up and the busman sat on the tree stump he always sat on for the five-minute break that didn’t even allow enough time for a cup of tea.
He looked across the water and focused on a single wave. It emerged from the deep-blue ocean — rising, curling and breaking in a plume of spray — and in an instant it died. All that remained was a small patch of water, foaming and frosty-white, and Driver Jones looked at where the wave had been, and he thought about it, and knew that in the great span of time that is the existence of the planet, that had been his life.