Celebrating 90 years of Unforgettable

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In 2017, APT (Australia’s most awarded touring and cruising provider) celebrates 90 trailblazing years of taking Aussies on adventures across the world. It’s a hell-of-a-story. Read on.

As a successful family business for 90 years, the McGeary story has been told many times. But there are stories that even the most avid APT advocate have not read. The ones that were shared around the family table. So, to mark this milestone, we sat with Geoff, Rob and Lou. What came out wasn’t just a trip down memory lane, but a voyage of epic proportions. 

Bill McGeary was driven to succeed. No doubt about it.  In the early 1920s, he transformed a truck into a means of public transport when the trams went on strike. His bus business was started overnight and it just grew from there.

Of course, when his father first took bus passengers 90 years ago, Geoff McGeary wasn’t yet born. But he will never forget the day he inherited the fleet of five vehicles.

“When I came into the business I was only 19,” Geoff recalled. “By then my dad had Parkinson Disease and was deteriorating fairly quickly. I wrote to the transport authorities saying that my father was ill and he’d been in the business a lifetime and the only way we could carry on was if I could get an underage driving license. You had to be 21 to drive a bus at that time,” he explained. 

The powers that be agreed and in no time Geoff was driving groups to the country for picnics. Once there you had to hang around until they were ready to return home. So the back of the bus became his office. With a board placed over the armrests, Geoff had a desk. There he would dream up tour itineraries.

“I was reading maps and looking at articles in magazines,” Geoff added. “Sometimes I’d talk to the people on the picnics, asking where they wanted to go.”

When a young girl named Anne appeared on the scene, she not only caught Geoff’s eye, but also his travel bug. Their courtship would be spent coming up with interesting tours. “Yes, we’d go out together and research places to visit,” Geoff reminisced. “It was a bit of fun and so that was where it all started.”

It was clear from the outset that Geoff shared his father’s get up and go. “I needed vehicles that were of a higher standard than the ones we had and I got onto this idea that it would be great if they had rest rooms,” Geoff explained. “So one of the first vehicles I had built included a rest room and I promoted this ‘exclusive’.”

The innovations didn’t stop there. “We moved into air conditioning for going into hot areas,” Geoff elaborated. “A lot of people wanted to go to the outback which was a long way of course. And they started running camping trips. I had tents made and we took them along. I called them 60-second tents as that was how long it took to put them up.’

The first coaches were roof loaded. All the supplies and luggage went on top with a canvas cover. Then Geoff brought in what he called an expedition wagon. “It was a trailer and it had a shower onboard. It converted into a kitchen.” 

“I would drive the bus and give a commentary,” Geoff said. “But later on I split the role so I had a driver on board and I had what became a tour manager.” 

When asked about their childhood, growing up as McGearys, Rob recalled that “the dinner conversation was never about football. 

It was all about a new destination that we were exploring somewhere, or a coach that was bogged in a river bed and the chat was all about great places and interesting things.” Lou and Geoff smiled at the memory. 

“Because a lot of roads were unmade back then, they’d turn into a quagmire,” Geoff added. “Sometimes we’d get passengers to help push the coach out of the bog. I remember one time we could not go forward as the road was closed. We couldn’t go back because it was closed behind us. We ended up organising helicopters to drop supplies as we were running out of food. Some American tourists onboard were shocked that the choppers were not going to airlift them.” But instead everyone just had to sit it out. No one was going anywhere.

In those early days, there were also breakdowns.                 

“There were two coaches travelling together,” Geoff recalled. “I was driving one and we came across a third coach that was stuck on the side of the road. The problem was the spring on the rear axle.”

As Geoff is handy with mechanics, he crawled underneath with a torch to see if he could fix it.

“All of a sudden the vehicle gave way and fell, wedging me between the wheel arch and the tyre, pushing all the air from my lungs,” Geoff explained mimicking the sound he would have made. “But then the people did an amazing thing,” he said referring to the crowd that were standing around from the three buses. “Someone yelled out for them to get hold of the bus and they lifted it up.” By his own admission, Geoff didn’t know whether he was a paraplegic, dead or about to die. “So they put me on the other bus and rushed me to Coober Pedy where there was a hospital. It took quite a few hours to get there and by the time I arrived I had kind of recovered,” Geoff added. “So we turned around and I continued with the tour.”

Of course, coach travel has come a long way. Rather than prepare dishes roadside, Geoff was by now arranging for guests to dine at restaurants and hotels.

“I remember going into the Birdsville pub. There was a sign behind the bar that said something like ‘seven course meals for $15’. Thinking that was exceptional value for our guests, I asked the barman what that entailed. ‘Oh that’s one six pack and a pie’ he replied.” Geoff still laughs about that.

“Nowadays a lot of the roads are made. We have 4WD 20-seater vehicles that are especially built for that sort of thing. And we’ve built lodges to stay at,” Geoff added. The Kimberley Wilderness Lodges are a favourite with the family. But there are fond memories of every destination

“On family holidays Dad would know where the coaches were going to be. He’d catch up with them, jump onboard, say hello to the driver, talk to the guests and sometimes we’d have lunch with them.” Rob mentioned. “What I didn’t realise at the time was that dad was interacting with the people and understanding them, doing live market research. He was seeing his drivers, how they were performing and probably keeping them on their toes as well. They didn’t know where he’d turn up next.”

By then Australian Pacific Tours, as the business was now known, was venturing overseas. First to New Zealand, then Canada and Alaska. The choice was easy, “They speak English,” Geoff explained. However, in time guests would be taken to all corners of the globe. 

“Growing up we were lucky to always travel widely. In saying that, my Mum did have a fear of flying,” Lou reflected. 

This could explain perhaps why, under the new name of APT, the business expanded into river cruises, then sea travel and small ships.

“The introduction of the jumbo jet was great for the travel industry. But river ships have certainly been the biggest thing I’ve come across since coach touring. There’s a growth in river and expedition ships. There’s a move away from crowds to smaller vessels, to more independent experiences.” 

In the beginning Geoff says it was all about the numbers. When APT first went to North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere guests were very much about how many countries they’d see. These days the emphasis is on collective experiences – exploring the culture, learning and also dining. “People will often take photos of food. Because they’re recording the experience,” Geoff said.

Now that Geoff and Anne are the proud grandparents of six, the McGeary family business will down the track include a fourth generation. 

“I think my parents fostered in us a sense of curiosity for the world. And I enjoy passing on that same sense of discovery to my children,” Lou summarised and Rob agreed.

So Geoff to finish up, “what’s next on the horizon?” we asked him.

“Well I’m going to The Antarctic on an Expedition Ship” he said, without so much as a blink.

This story first appeared in APT’s Summer 2017 edition of Voyage magazine. For more information about APT’s 90th celebrations or one of their Unforgettable tours and cruises, visit aptouring.com.au.