By: Ellen Hill, Photography by: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

The responsibility of driving a 20-tonne bus laden with the weight of 57 souls, their luggage and the company reputation; negotiating the steep Victoria Pass in the Blue Mountains or Jenolan Caves Rd; happy international tourists, and the feel of the road through the steering wheel – are just some of the things three retired Fantastic Aussie Tours (FAT) drivers miss after parking their buses for the last time.

Pre-COVID The Retreads, as unofficial ambassadors for the Blue Mountains, engaged with more than 100 people on each of the four Explorer buses every day.

Affectionately dubbed ‘The Retreads’, Garth Taylor, Jon Rickard and Robert Hurren were officially farewelled from the Katoomba-based tourism transport company in December, 2020.

FAT operates the Blue Mountains Explorer Bus fleet of double-decker red buses around Katoomba and Leura and conducts sightseeing tours and charters around Australia.

Hurren, now 78, had been retrenched as an electrical engineer for Phillips Electrical when he joined the company in 2004.

FAT director of operations Darrell Booth said: "I think he is the only bloke we’ve ever given a bus driver’s job to that didn't have a bus driver's license. But attitude is everything and we taught him how to drive a bus - and he went on to drive basically everything in our yard."

Taylor, of Leura, always knew 2020 would be his last year driving commercial buses; he turned 80 on December 19 and must now undergo an expensive heavy vehicle driving test.

Unlike Rickard, whose last driving shift was in February, Taylor had two and a half day's work since Covid pulled the brakes on the tourism transport industry, the company confirms.

He joined FAT in 2004 and drove the Explorer buses for more than 16 years after 21 years with Shell Australia in sales and marketing and then as a V8 supercar contractor.

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FAT managing director Jason Cronshaw says colleagues miss The Retreads who, it seemed, had been part of the team "…since the beginning of time" and all sought a second career after becoming bored in retirement.

Rickard, 77 of Linden, joined FAT in 2003 after a teaching and education administration career, ending as head science teacher at Springwood High School.

No stranger to heavy vehicles, Rickard drove steam trains at Zig Zag Railway between 1983 and 2010.

Booth said: "Anyone can drive a bus in a straight line, but when the chips are down and something happens that's when the skill comes into it."

"The result will either be a bus on its roof with its wheels in the air or everyone's safe.

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"If somebody does something stupid in front of you, you need to react. A professional driver weighs it all up and nails it because the people sitting behind you have got no control over their destiny. It's in your hands."

However, driving the bus was only half the job of a bus driver on sightseeing tours. Rickard said: "The other half is customer relations, keeping everyone happy and well informed."

Taylor says he would miss the Explore Bus customers, advising tourists on where to go, what to do and where to eat.

"They come from all over the world and they're on holidays. They're in a great mood and want to have a good time, so it's easy to have a good day."

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Pre-COVID The Retreads, as unofficial ambassadors for the Blue Mountains, engaged with more than 100 people on each of the four Explorer buses every day.

Without overseas visitors and no big red buses last Christmas or Boxing Day or New Year’s Eve, the 2020 festive season was very different.

"One year it was me and Robert, and we were just packed – tourists were almost literally hanging out the door," Taylor said.

"You'd get around to Echo Point and enough people would get off for more to get on, and you'd get around to Leura Cascades and enough would get off for more to get on.

"It was like that all day and we still look back on it with a smile.

"I'll miss that camaraderie," he said.

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Fantastic Aussie Tours, which had operated sightseeing tours since 1974, had grown and evolved during their time with the company, The Retreads said.

"When I started there was no air conditioning, no power steering," Rickard said.

"It was like a gym workout driving the Explorer buses in summertime."

However, it would be the experience rather than the vehicles they miss.

Taylor said: "When they're fully loaded, you really are driving by the seat of your pants because you can feel the vehicle and the road through the seat."

Rickard added: "When you've got a bus fully laden with passengers and all their luggage they weigh 20 tonnes, and you're going down or climbing Victoria Pass or you’re coming up to some sharp corners, you've got to be aware of all that weight and the performance of the vehicle and the braking."

"You go around a corner and you're aware of the transfer of weight to another wheel or the outside axle as you power out of the corner.

"It's that I will miss."

However, reluctantly, it was time to change the tyres, they both said.

"We both feel responsible for the passengers, but also for the vehicle and the esteem we have for the company," Rickard said.

Taylor planned to become more involved in car clubs during his retirement, while Rickard continues as a volunteer driver trainer at Linden RFS. Hurren had already moved to Russell Island, Queensland.

Meanwhile, Cronshaw assured The Retreads they would be invited to all the FAT parties "for the rest of time".

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The first Explorer Bus pulled out of Katoomba station in April, 1986, carrying just one passenger. Today, the fleet of four red double-decker hop-on/hop-off buses runs 15 times a day, 365 days of the year giving easy access to the most important sights in Katoomba and Leura.

As one of the longest established tourist vehicle operators in NSW, Fantastic Aussie Tours (FAT) has operated since 1974.

As well as the Explorer Bus fleet, FAT operates coaches for conference groups, leads holiday group tours around Australia and to international destinations, and is a fully licensed international travel agency.

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