Long-time Gunnedah school bus drivers Des O’Callaghan and Hope Phillips love their jobs but it seems they admire their passengers more.

The familiar faces behind the wheel have been ferrying children to school for decades and both have nothing but praise for our country’s leaders of tomorrow.

“A lot of people whinge about the ‘feral kids’ but I always put a stop to it,” Des said.

“I’m doing the Carroll school run and every kid on that bus has respect for me and themselves. 

“The boys take their hats off on the bus and they step back to allow the girls to get on the bus first.

“We have a lot to look forward to as parents and adults when your kids are like that.

“I think they will look after Australia.”

Des is a former bricklayer, driving instructor, long-haul truck and tour coach driver. He is also a qualified pilot and recently became a licensed motorcycle rider at the ripe age of 78.

Des only started driving buses about 10 years ago but each school run since has left an endearing mark on the professional driver.

It was a sentiment was echoed by his bus driving colleague, Hope.

After nearly 40 years driving buses, Hope has seen generations of families pass through the bus doors.

“It’s the people, parents and children – you get attached to them,” she said. 

“They have grown on me.”

Hope recalled her first school bus run from Coonabarabran in the mid-1980s and the many routes undertaken since.

“I know all the [bus] runs – Boggabri, Kelvin, Emerald Hill, Wandobah, Booloocooroo, Piallaway, Carroll, Keepit Dam, Curlewis, Breeza, Wean …” she said.

Both Hope and Des are veterans of the transport industry, having started their careers in freight and stock before moving on to passenger transports.

Hope recalled her early driving days well.

“When I first had my licence I was driving stock trucks,” she said. 

“It was nothing for me to go from Coonabarabran to Mudgee and bring them back here to the abattoir. Then I might take a load of horses from Coona’ to the Dubbo sale.”

A self-described “bush person” who has been around farms most of her life, Hope said it was the “out of town” school bus runs that she found most fulfilling.

Des’ entry into bus driving preceded several careers in a range of occupations – one of the first was as a driving instructor for the Victorian police force.

“My cousin was a police officer setting up the highway patrol and he asked me if I would teach the young police officers to drive,” Des recalled.

“In Victoria they had to be 18 years old before getting their licence then. So they would finish school and some guys were still behind a desk in Victorian police stations without a licence. 

“I taught them the way the police wanted them to drive which meant I had to go through the test as well, going over skid pans, that sort of thing.”

Other jobs would follow including as a registered builder in Queensland, then as an interstate truck driver taking freight to Melbourne, and later passenger coaches.

“During those trips I came through Gunnedah and that’s where I was introduced to my wife, she was a ticketing agent for the company I worked for,” Des said.

It was not his first visit to Gunnedah, having travelled through the area in the 1960s soon after his apprenticeship as a bricklayer, but the community and its people left a lasting impression on Des.

He would later join Keatings Coaches in Gunnedah as a driver on 28-day bus tours pulling a kitchen, safari trailer and camping gear around Australia.

Eventually the lure of home saw him trade the bus tours for shorter trips driving stock and grain trucks in the local region. 

Those driving stints were tough going and sometimes exceptionally long days, especially during harvest. But he said it was the coach driving that really sharpened his driving proficiency because cattle don’t talk back but people will.  

“You learn to drive on the highway carrying people because they are the judge and jury,” he said. 

“If something goes wrong you have 40 people behind who will let you know.”

In other pursuits, Des is also a keen aviator – he even purchased his own four-seater Cessna.

“I have flown most of the east coast with it,” he said.

“You have either enough time and no money or no money and plenty of time.

“My wife and I have flown pretty much everywhere with it.”

In 2016, Des also acquired his motorcycle licence and has ridden in charity rides across the country alongside a few mates who are also part a local coffee club.

“We use call ourselves the ‘no bike bike club’,” he said. 

“But we all ended up buying bikes and now ride together.” 

Both Des and Hope have no plans on retiring any time soon and plan to continue their bus runs for as long as they are able.

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