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Baltic reflections on a Dunedin bus

Dunedin's number 19 transports passengers down a Belleknowes hill, overlooking the beautiful Otago Harbour

With public transport and reducing carbon emissions much in the limelight, I wanted to provide a Baltic reflection on bus travel in the city of Dunedin where I now live.

I enjoy catching Dunedin buses.

Perhaps it’s because I’m accustomed to passengers either wearing a fierce glare or ignoring others, absorbed in their own world and worries.

No, I didn’t live in London, I lived almost 15 years in a Baltic state where public transport was cheap, frequent and popular.

One well-below-freezing winter, my husband and I were talking excitedly with my visiting dad and niece in our beautiful, snow-coated Old Town.

A bus arrived but we weren’t quick enough to board and the driver closed the door on my 11-year-old niece. He reluctantly re-opened the door only after we foreigners thumped on it.

In this Baltic state, bus drivers didn’t wait for anyone to sit, instead hurtling into action so incoming passengers lurched down the aisle, only to be thrown back up the aisle as the bus stopped abruptly again.

This even happened to old ladies manoeuvring through often-crowded aisles. That said, they were often most able to defend themselves, having been brought up in tough Soviet times.

They’d shoulder-barge fellow passengers out of the way, then demand a seat, feigning feebleness and seemingly forgetting their rugby-like prowess.

Come the gorgeous summers, the cold glares melted a bit, but buses carried an almost-suffocating squeeze of salami and garlic sweat stench.

Perhaps these are reasons I like Dunedin buses.

Ice freezes on the inside of a Baltic bus during yet another winter

Now to Dunedin 

Last summer in Dunedin, I’d sometimes travel the same route at the same time. The bus wound down one of the city’s many hills and the blue harbour view was stunning.

Passengers settled in for what seemed to be their regular catch-up regarding children, grandchildren and current affairs.

The driver was usually an amiable man in his thirties or forties. Each time, an also-agreeable North American woman sat in the same spot, close enough to chat.

They talked about his love of trains and planned holiday rail trip, they talked about her family back home and how her work was going

And how do I know? Well, this isn’t a Baltic state with quiet public spaces, this is New Zealand. I wasn’t trying to listen, actually I was trying to read or think, however their pleasant conversation floated down the aisle.

Most people on this number 19 route seem to enjoy both the scenic journey and the chit-chat, however there are exceptions.

The other day, I overheard a dialogue between two strangers who’d met while waiting for the bus. One was from Invercargill, so was well up for the vigour of Otago public transport. In my experience, Invercargill is even friendlier than Dunedin.

These two younger men discussed alcohol, drugs and music, and the Invercargill one spoke about the detrimental effects these may have on your mind.

The other guy seemed to agree, however before he exited, said something like,

I wait for the bus to get people out of my head, not get on the bus to get people in my head.


Quite poetic really.

Again, I didn’t intend overhearing: I’d wanted to reflect upon my day.

The interactive Invercargill visitor then remarked about drunks. I hadn’t realised the other guy was drunk, I’d thought he was just Dunedin-friendly.

From my stop, I walked home, musing about what they’d discussed.

Camaraderie and kindness

Whenever possible, I walk or take buses as an economic, health and environmental choice. However, I’ve come to enjoy the camaraderie onboard.

I’ve been touched by the drivers’ kindness, whether exchanging a wave as they faithfully drove mostly empty vehicles during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown, or observing their patience with people whose first language isn’t English.

A few years ago, soon after returning from our precious Baltic life, we were living in another suburb, using the 37/38 bus.

The cheerful driver got to know me and during a downpour, stopped right outside my driveway because she’d noticed that’s the one I walk down. She didn’t need to, she just did.

I was newly back in New Zealand and new at a part-time job, so cultural adjustments mingled with uncertainty.

As a different bus driver daily dropped me off near work, he’d say “Have a good day, love”.

I did. And I think that’s another reason I not only like Dunedin buses, but bus drivers.

The number 15 bus travels through a Dunedin suburb one misty night, its faithful driver at the wheel. Photo: Kel Fowler

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