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