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‘They grow up and time just flies’: Meet the woman driving generations of country kids to school

Liz Copping has been dropping children at school for more than 40 years.

The first four were hers, and there’s been another 120 others from along her Dorodong bus route.

“I’ve treated every child like I treated my own,” Mrs Copping, 69, says.

A healthy mixture of care and discipline.

Liz and her husband Peter, who she now shares the route with, ferry a handful of children back-and-forth across the border between their homes in Victoria and school in Penola, south-east South Australia.

They have seen a lot on that stretch of road in 38 years — endless roadkill, child tantrums, bushfires, blackouts, fallen trees, flat tyres.

And help is never too far away.

An aerial photo of a white mini bus travelling along a country road.

The commute from Penola takes around an hour return, the first stop is 26 kilometres from the Coppings’ home.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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“You really do get to know [the student] and most of the parents, especially the ones that are on the land.”

The Coppings were dairy farmers themselves.

The promise of a stable income and four-hour workday lured Mrs Copping to bus driving in 1985.

The couple never expected to enjoy the bus run so much or to stay in it as long.

A man and woman stand next to a white mini bus in a suburban street on a foggy morning.

Since Peter Copping, 70, retired he has shared the route with his wife, usually taking the morning shift.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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Getting to know the families

Mrs Copping knows every family in every house on her 63-kilometre return run through Dorodong and Dergholm.

She’s stopped at some houses for decades, taking two generations of students. Sometimes large gaps between siblings also keeps stops on the roll call for years.

“We had a little four-year-old boy in 1985 and I dropped off his youngest sibling in 2018.

“Oh, you love it when you hear [someone is] pregnant. And I tell you those four years… go fast.

“They grow up and time just flies.”

Liz Copping and Wilsons

Liz Copping with two generations of the Wilson family. She first drove Scott (centre) to school and is now driving his three kids. (

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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Bit of discipline

Like many road trips, there have been some intense moments on the bus.

“You have to be aware [when you’re driving], you’re not looking at the kids so you’re presuming they’re behaving themselves.

“Oh heavens, we [have] had really naughty little kids,” Mrs Copping says.

But given it is a small bus and she knows everyone’s parents, issues are quickly resolved.

A woman with dark hair wearing a yellow jumper is reflected in a rear view mirror of a mini bus.

Mrs Copping says she presumes the children as behaving themselves because her eyes are on the road.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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And there are rules like passengers must sit down with their seatbelts on.

Mrs Copping recalls one girl who insisted on sitting on the floor.

“I stopped the bus one day … said ‘you sit in the seat and put your belt or I’m not moving’. She got off the bus howling her eyes out,” Mrs Copping says.

When the girl’s father questioned her about it later she relayed the message to him.

“I said ‘it doesn’t work on my bus, she’s not going to get away with that. It might in your house but not on my bus’.

school kids, school bus, kids, victoria, south australia, border

Many of the kids will take the Coppings’ bus every day for 13 years.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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“We’ve just had a few funny instances over the years but generally they were a happy lot.

“I’m sure they like Mr Copping much better than Mrs Copping,” she laughs.

Sketchy rides

Before mobile phones, Mrs Copping used UHF radio to contact parents for help during emergencies like the bus getting bogged.

School bus sign forest

Most of the route is on dirt roads through forested areas.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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“Some of the roads were horrific.”

There was one infamous red clay hill that wreaked havoc on a wet day.

“The kids loved it … you’re hanging on for dear life,” Mrs Copping says.

“In one of the buses [we used to use], water would come in the boot and it would run all the way down the bus and everyone’s legs were up.”

Mrs Copping says the scariest experience was being caught in a blackout one morning run.

An aerial photo of a white mini bus travelling along a country road.

If it’s not safe to drop off kids or parents aren’t there, Liz Copping takes them back to Penola.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

)

“It all worked out. As long as you get the kids to school, that’s the policy. If they can get there.”

A policy that saw them through the height of COVID-19 restrictions last year and 14 weeks of testing.

“The police and the army guys were terrific.”

They would come onboard, give out patch badges and chat to the children, in return the students would give them drawings to hang up at their base.

fort, lockdown, check point, coronavirus

Fort Courage, the fort Australian Army members built at the SA-VIC border checkpoint at Dorodong.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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Numbers are down

The couple say it’s hard to say goodbye when someone leaves the bus roll because their family is moving or they are changing schools.

The dynamics change in an instant.

“We [recently] lost seven [students] in a very short time. We had a family of four and then the family of two who sold the farm. And then the young boys went off to agricultural college. You’re losing almost half.”

Numbers have dwindled significantly over the years.

The 20-seater bus used to run at capacity. Now there are nine or so children onboard.

“I can’t count how many houses have gone,” Mrs Copping says.

Some houses were removed to make way for forestry. Mrs Copping believes others have moved into Penola to be closer to sport and other commitments.

“I don’t think young families want to live out there now.”

Forest trees by the side of the road.

Liz Copping says a lot of families moved away when the forests were planted.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

)

Hoping to keep it in the family

The Coppings are two years into a 10-year contract with the Victorian Education Department to run the service. The couple, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, hope to serve it out.

“It’s only numbers now that we’re worried about and that’s just taking its course,” Mrs Copping says.

“But next year we’ll have two more little ones on if they stay there.

“You just don’t know. And you don’t know that anyone else is going to move in.”

When the time comes to retire completely, their son John and his wife Anna have expressed their desire to buy the bus.

An older man and woman stand for a photo in a foggy street with their arms around each other.

Peter Copping says he’s loved having something to do since moving from the dairy farm.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

)

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