I thought nobody smoked anymore – the 13-hour leg of my bus ride through Freizeitland | Brigid Delaney

WWhy are most bus stations designed like concrete guts? They have a distinctive colon-like appearance and are hidden in the center of a city, covered by the skin of a run-down mall or just an ugly brick wall. You’ll find the terminal’s mouth after a lot of circling and confusing, entering through a concrete pipe that goes around and around – deep into the middle of something until you finally find your cove. Everything’s going fine, you come out the other end transformed!as a bus driver.

I have a lot of time to think about such things because I spend so many hours on the bus.

The journey from Sydney to Cairns takes 47 hours non-stop, but I break it up into hopefully manageable 9-14 hour chunks, hopping on and off over a two-week period.

After resting in a Brisbane hotel (three stars, no ventilation, and waking up to find someone – not me! – tossed a partially eaten beef kebab onto the 14-story roof next to my window), is it time to move on.

On the way to the bus, I think about the word “terminal”: It means death, no hope, no cure. It also means “bus station”.

This leg is long. Infinitely long. I will spend almost 13 hours arriving in Miriam Vale in central Queensland around 1:10am where my friend Brendan will be waiting to pick me up.

When we leave Brisbane there are only six passengers on the bus. As if by tacit agreement, we all spread out on the bus and give each other maximum space.

The driver warns us this won’t last: “I have 25 boarding in Airlie Beach.” So the backpackers are back.

As we leave town, the driver introduces himself: “I’ll take you all the way to Hervey Bay, then Barry will take over.”

Without exception, the bus drivers on my trip are older, male and nice. You call all passengers “dude”, but without the sharpness you sometimes hear when a stranger calls you “dude”. They talk about masks (“I don’t see anyone wearing one back there, but the law is you have to wear them”), seat belts, toilets, rest stops and meal breaks. It’s the long-distance bus driver’s script and I’ll hear it on every stage. But every driver has a different attitude, their own emphasis. Some will talk a lot about masks (“The police could go ahead and fine you all if you don’t wear masks!”), others will buckle up hard (“Kangaroos will jump all over the street and if we dodge and you don’t if you buckle up , you get into a fight”), while others, I think, exaggerate the term toilets (“You might think the door is closed, but you have to check because it can swing open at any time!”).

As the journey progresses, I’ll get angry at the Spaniard who FaceTimes everyone in his village for four hours, I’ll get angry with the girl who listens to TikTok at a louder volume, I’ll get angry with the man who has a bag of Dim Sims on the bus – but I won’t mind if the bus driver makes an announcement. Listening to them makes the difference between being stranded in a ampole on the outskirts of Hervey Bay and arriving at your destination.

It’s still daylight after Brisbane, which means there’s something to see out the bus window. This is the land of leisure – where Australians retire or take a break. It’s nice; the clouds over Maroochydore looking like a doona explode in perfect white puffs, kitesurfers on Marcus beach – keeping up with the bus for a while – while being blown along the coast, sun showers before nightfall as we in Enter Noosa as the mountain nearby glows gold and purple, towering like an Aztec temple. My phone is 43% on and we have eight hours left.

We pick up a few more people at these stops – and the other people on the bus are all young backpackers. At the “rest stops” many passengers disembark to smoke and I hear the cautious first words of smokers making friends: “Got a light?” “Where are you going?” “Oh me too!” “Where are you staying? The nomads? Yes.” Ciggies – bringing people together since the 16th century!

I thought nobody smoked anymore. But the bus passengers do. They don’t even bother with vaping – they’re going full on old school, filtered dirty ziggies. I stand behind them at BP and they complain in Irish and English accents about paying $50 a pack. Welcome to Australia! Wait until you see the packaging. I wonder if they get the bloated eyeball, the dying man, the sick lungs, or the blackened tombstone teeth?

The sun sets. We continue a little further until we reach the roadhouse south of Gympie – the Golden Nugget. Built like a log cabin, it’s a delight and feels like it’s from another era.

I brought my own dinner. My friend Sarah had cycled to the Brisbane farmers’ market early that morning – and had packed me a brown bag full of healthy snacks and fruit. But how can it compete with lamb chops and puree? Or fried chicken with gravy and fries, or a full roast dinner?

I love this rest house immediately – perhaps for its contrast to the other “rest stops”. They’re big, ugly boxes – brightly lit and made of plastic, roadside with a cluster of food counters and toilets that you “rate” that have frighteningly loud Dyson hand dryers. Nobody looks good under the lights. No one feels rested after stopping at these places, eating fast food out of a box with a bamboo fork, and sitting on plastic shapes that look like leftovers from a children’s indoor play center.

But the Golden Nugget — dimly lit, wood-paneled, warm, and cozy — is designed for comfort and genuine relaxation. The news is playing softly on a TV in the corner, the food is served on real china, and the cutlery is reassuringly solid stainless steel. The man behind the counter, who looks like Harry Dean Stanton, greets all the truckies by name, calling the women he doesn’t know “Love” and the men “mate.”

Outside the rest house, the sunset is purple and pink. Young people drink up their ziggies. I look at my uneaten bag of organic fruit. We all linger outside a little longer to watch the colors burn and then fade.

Then it’s time to get back on the bus.