20 February 2009

Rock Taxi


A new city, a new destination, and the first thing I look for outside the airport is the taxi rank. Professional interest, I guess. What sort of cabs do they have here? What’s different about them? What nifty little feature does the cabbie have that I can blog about?

There is a free bus service from the airport to Yulara resort, and we loaded our bags aboard. “Ayers Rock has no taxis,” the driver advised us, with just a touch of smugness.

Rental cars are available, but are limited to 150 kilometres per day, just in case tourists decide to drive out to Alice Springs, a good four or five hours away.

Apart from the large buses running the airport transfer, there is a smaller shuttlebus looping around the various resort options every twenty minutes.

And that’s it. Of course, you can walk between places, and nothing is more than ten minutes brisk pacing in the desert sun, but it’s not the same as jumping into a cab for the local commentary, the personalised service and Radio Al-Jazeera playing in the background.

Happy people

I picked my passenger up from the Kingston rank. She gave her friend a hug and smiled into the cab beside me, giving an address in a nearby suburb in a bright American accent.

It was a quick and pleasant late afternoon trip. The weather is mild after some weeks of extreme heat, and Canberra’s older suburbs are looking delightful in their summer foliage. In a few months, the leaves will turn to red and gold and all will be glorious autumn.

She paid the fare, adding “I know you don’t tip over here. It always makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“I don’t need a tip,” I replied. “Just a smile.”

She reacted in the nicest possible way, face crinkling into happiness. “Well, you’ve got that!”

I love making people smile. It makes my day.

That was the start of a good shift for me, and at midnight, I was once again at the Kingston rank, one more fare to make my night before knocking off early to get a few hours sleep before my morning flight to Ayers Rock.

Two cheerful young men approached, getting into the cab as I packed away the Air.

They were even more cheerful on seeing Dire Straits playing on the iPhone, and they bopped their way to destinations nearby.

“Let’s just ride around until the album finishes,” I suggested.

“I could do that!”

But of course we didn’t, and went home by the best route. They were full of laughter and smiles and good wishes. And I the same.

Some days, driving a cab is the best job in the world!

16 February 2009


A report in last week’s paper:

A taxi driver signing off for the night was robbed at gunpoint in Lyneham on Tuesday night. The victim was in the car park of a unit complex on Goodchild Street about 10pm when he was bailed up by a man with a handgun wearing a black balaclava. The gunman demanded the taxi driver hand over his takings, and then fled into bushland. (Canberra Times, 12 Feb 2009)

I’ve often dropped passengers off in this complex and noted that several cabs “live” there. The carpark is enclosed and not visible from the street, so my guess is that one of the residents noted the habits of the cabbie and either did the deed himself or told a mate. This is actually one of the things we’re warned about in taxi school. Don’t count your money in a secluded location, especially at night. All too often cabbies get into a predictable pattern and make themselves into targets.

Looking at my takings for that night, and it was a pretty good one for a Tuesday, well over half was through plastic cards or vouchers. I would have had maybe a hundred dollars in cash at that time of the night, and that’s including my float.

Very likely the gun was a fake. It is extremely rare for a gun to be used in a crime here, and when they are used, it’s for things like gangland murders or bank robberies. Far more common is for a passenger to pull a knife on a cabbie.

Even so, with the number of security cameras and devices in a cab nowadays, there’s going to be photographic evidence of a crime, and if it’s serious enough, the cops will track down the criminal.

I’ve occasionally felt uneasy about a passenger, but for the most part, people in Canberra are very good, and I’m far more likely to be swapping yarns with a late night passenger, or smiling as they sing along to Abba or play air guitar to Dire Straits.

I had a passenger pull a knife on me a few nights ago. He was canoodling with his girlfriend on the main rank in Civic, and when they eventually grew tired of this and wanted to get home, mine was the cab they jumped into.

He wanted to talk, and it was the usual opening step of “You must get some scary passengers.” He wanted to talk about the possibility of getting stabbed, but I deflected him onto the kangaroo track. Kangaroos scare me far more than passengers. His advice to me, based on sound physics, was to brake as hard as I could, and just before impact to accelerate suddenly, thereby raising the nose of the car and increasing the chance that the beast would go underneath, rather than over the bonnet and through the windscreen. Good advice if you’ve got several seconds to think about it, but in that time I can slow to a crawl and avoid hitting them entirely. The two times I’ve run into kangaroos, I’ve had maybe half a second to react, so I’ve never gotten past the stomp-on-the-brakes-as-hard-as-you-can part of the plan.

He was on something. Just a little bit odd in his manners. I didn’t think he was any danger, especially not with a young lady companion, so I was surprised when we pulled up at the destination and he produced a knife.

A sort of Swiss Army knife, except it had a box-cutter blade inside it, neatly folded up. He handed it to me and I took a look. I suppose the message was that he could have stuck it into my ribs.

Instead, he gave me a credit card for the $32 fare. Unfortunately, my card reader chose this moment to decide that it was out of radio range of the bank network, so the transaction was declined. He and his girlfriend scraped around and came up with twenty dollars, which was better than nothing.

The real danger to a cabbie in Canberra is runners. I’ve had a few, like maybe one every six months or so. Not a major threat to my income, and I make more in tips than I lose to runners, so I tend not to worry about them too much.

Still, it’s irritating when it happens. Not only do I lose my half of the fare, I’ve also got to take cash out of my own pocket to pay the owner’s half, meaning I’ve got to work another hour or so to make that money. So I usually end up having worked a couple of late night hours for no gain.

Worse is that the runners get rewarded for their actions and tend to become repeat offenders, ripping off cabbie after cabbie on a regular basis. For me, it’s no big deal, but for a cabbie depending on the long hours and poor income to support a family, it’s gotta hurt. And it’s always the long fares. Nobody ever runs on a ten dollar fare to the next suburb, but when it’s a forty or fifty dollar fare, and the passengers are young men trying to evade the security camera by sitting in the back seat, cabbie beware!

The excellent Sydney cabbie blogger Adrian Neylan made a recent entry about a runner. He was able to find a police car, and policemen who gave a stuff, which is rare on both counts.

One cabbie advised me to keep the car in reverse gear when stopping, and if a passenger runs, hit the gas, knock him down with the open door and run over him with the front wheels. A little extreme for the crime, but I can understand why a cabbie might do such a thing.

My last runners were a group of three young men, about the same age as my teenage son. Would I run over my own son? No. So why would I run over anybody else’s son?

But I’m seriously thinking of installing a webcam in the cab, so I have footage I can put up on Facebook and YouTube. I reckon anyone scum enough to rob a cabbie is also going to have a fair number of enemies in regular life.

Better yet, the cabs in Melbourne all advertise that advance payment is required during late night hours. I consider it rude to ask for money up front, but I might start doing it for high-risk fares. The argument against is that restaurants don’t ask you to pay for a meal before consuming it, but my response is that the average cab is more the equivalent of Macdonalds than The Golden Fingerbowl, and you just try to get a Big Mac without reaching into your wallet.

14 February 2009

My funny valentine

I picked up Kerri in the taxi this evening for a work related dinner. The sun was still high in the western sky at six thirty as we headed down past Russell Offices to go over the lake to the Brassey Hotel. She leaned over and gave me an affectionate squeeze. What a sweetie!

Better yet, Taxi 22 was passing by in the opposite lane, and the expression on the driver’s face was priceless!

Happy Valentines Day to all my friends and all the lovers reading my blog. So many of you have pieces of my heart. May love and romance sweeten your day, your weekend, your life.

12 February 2009

All that jazz

If there’s one thing cabdriving has given me, it’s a love of jazz. Experimenting with music in the cab, I soon gave up on commercial radio stations. The ads were too intrusive and the chatter too distracting.

Public radio was better, but even the classical radio station with its minimal human presence was sometimes unsatisfactory. The tracks they selected rarely matched my needs: some pieces were too quiet for easy listening in the ambient noise of a car, some were too raucous, and opera is an acquired taste.

But the jazz segments of a Saturday evening hit the spot. I soon learnt the big names and the best albums, and before too long I was building up a CD library of favorites.

“They made the mistake of putting the cab rank in Manuka outside Abel’s record store,” I’d tell the customers, “and I’m blowing all the profits in there.”

Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane and all the rest. I loved them, and every now and then I’d meet a fellow devotee amongst my passengers. Not everyone likes jazz, but few people dislike it, and it’s pleasant listening, with enough interest to keep the brain stimulated.

I picked up a couple of senior bureaucrats the other day, driving them back across the lake to Department of Foreign Affairs. They picked up on Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue, and reminisced to each other about jazz clubs in exotic locations. Little hole in the wall locations where you’d have to sneak a bottle in from the convenience store around the corner, but the last member of some famous band swung a mean saxophone.

“Let’s just stay in here for another hour until this finishes,” one said to the other. I smiled. My kind of people.

But they got out at the office. “Thanks for that, driver,” one said as he signed the chit. “I love My Funny Valentine.”

10 February 2009


We’ve had a cool southerly change after the scorching heat of the past couple of weeks. A welcome treat for we night drivers, trying to get our sleep in before it gets too hot.

But the winds have brought in just a hint of haze from the devastating bushfires in Victoria. I stopped on Adelaide Avenue to take a picture of the declining sun slanting through the brown smoke coming up from a thousand kilometres away.

Nobody talks of anything but the bushfires. The memories of Canberrans stretch back to 2003, when we lost five hundred houses in the suburbs between lunch and afternoon tea. Five hundred houses but only four lives.

The news from Victoria is far worse. They have a death toll of well over a hundred now. And counting.

It’s quite rare to lose houses in a bushfire. Generally the rural fire brigades do a great job of protecting property. The bush burns, resprouts in the next rains, and two years later there’s nothing to see. The burnt bark falls off the trees and fresh treestuff grows.

It’s even more rare to lose lives. People stay to save their homes, but they have the car packed and ready to go. If things get too hot, they run for safety.

But every now and then we have a period of intense heat, drying out the fresh spring growth, hot winds from the desert interior, lightning storms to spark fires in remote areas, and if the hot windy conditions persist and worsen, the blazes become firestorms, speeding along valleys like a formation of jet fighters on afterburner, unstoppable, melting roads and vehicles, boiling swimming pools dry, racing through the tinder-dry forests to hit houses with a rain of embers before an explosion of flame.

The wind brought down trees onto roads, trapping people escaping the fires. It’s not something I want to think about too much.

But everyone had a thought for Victoria. One passenger said that the Commonwealth Government should divert some of the latest stimulus package toward rebuilding houses and infrastructure. Another, a journalist, read me out a piece he had written about his childhood holidays in one of the destroyed towns, learning to play piano and billiards in a quaint guest house.

And I thought about that town, where I’ve spent a few weekends on computer programmer conferences. The church camp we hired was spartan but comfortable, surrounded by green ridges, where “the tallest trees in the British Empire” had been drawing tourists since the 1800s. It was a delightful, restful retreat, and the small town of Marysville was a few tree-lined streets, old wooden houses and the sort of rural general stores and pubs that you don’t get in the slick cities any more. A community.

Now it’s gone. The black streets remain, but the rubble and ash of the buildings mark out from the air where people lived and worked. One or two lucky homes remain, but the rest, the houses, hotels and guesthouses are gone. Piano and billiard table just a few twisted remnants amongst the fallen walls.

Word is that my birthplace, up in the Ovens Valley, might be under threat. It’s been years since I was there, but I hate to think of that little community looking anxiously to the south as they tidy away their yards, piling garden rubbish away from houses, seeking out photographs and family treasures for the car, listening to the radio for warnings.

But they are also lining up to give blood for the burns victims pouring into the hospitals, taking boxes of canned goods and can-openers to the charity collection points, going through their wardrobes for those with just the clothes they stand up in.

Canberra, where the smell of smoke freshens memories of 2003, is collecting containerloads to send south. We might be an urban society, but in our hearts, we are out in the bush, standing firm to defend the family farm, packing into the shire hall to help out our neighbours, offering a place at the table and a bed in the spare room for those who need it.

Not much that I can do directly. Any bushfire survivors find their way to Canberra, they’ll get a ride for free from me. And for this week, I’m making a donation each night to send south. I don’t make a great deal as a cabbie, but I can certainly help those who have nothing but the ash-blackened shirts on their backs.

06 February 2009

Six in a cab

You get all sorts of bad behaviour at the airport cab rank. We’re not supposed to pick up except from the rank, and then after paying two dollars to go through the boomgate from the cabyard. But sometimes cabbies will slipstream through the boom on the tail of another, or swing in from the airport circuit without going through the yard at all.

One of my mates was livid the other day. He was third on the rank, there were three passengers coming out from the arrivals gate, and he was expecting to get the third one. The first two passengers got into the first two cabs, but just as the first cab in line pulled away, an arriving cab swung onto the cab rank, dropped off his fare, and scored the final passenger. My mate was furious. What’s the point of going around the terminal circuit - five minutes at the best of times, several times that at peak periods - lining up in the cabyard, paying the boomgate fee and waiting on the rank, if some opportunist can swing in, drop off, pick up and move away again in one fluid movement?

And then there’s the blatantly illegal behaviour in the photograph above. Cabs used to have bench seats and a column shift in the old days, so you could squeeze in five passengers. Two in front beside the driver, and three in the back. But they haven’t made special cab models for years, and all the cabs in the fleet have two bucket seats in the front, with the gear lever on the floor in the middle. If a group of five or more want to share a cab, they get into one of the increasingly numerous people-movers or minibuses. Some cabs can seat eleven.

But a normal cab is licenced for four passengers. There’s a sticker on the window to show this, but it doesn’t stop some folk from trying it on, so as to avoid paying for a second cab. Drivers of station wagon cabs get sick of people asking if they can sit or lie in the rear compartment, and sometimes a party of drunks will cram in four abreast in the back seat.

I don’t bother listening to their stories. If there’s four in the back, my cab stays put. I once had five burly soldiers get into my cab at the Royal Military College Sergeants Mess. Big blokes, used to getting their own way, but they weren’t going anywhere with me. Eventually a couple got out and I called another cab for them.

Apart from being illegal to carry five passengers, it’s unsafe, because my cab is fitted with five seatbelts - one for me and four for passengers - and if six people are aboard, then one of them is obviously unrestrained.

Five o’clock on Friday on the airport rank, and I notice that the driver of the cab ahead is having trouble fitting all the luggage into his boot. Then I realise why: there’s five passengers in the party, and they are all squeezing into the cab.

If I hadn’t immediately got a passenger, I’d be upset at having another cabbie steal my fare, but even so, I was angry enough to take a photograph.

Check it out. I’ve tweaked the exposure and contrast a bit to bring out what’s going on. Reading left to right, we have:

1. Silver-haired gent in the back seat.
2. Tallish man in the front passenger seat.
3. Dark-haired lady in the front. She must be sitting on the centre console.
4. Blonde with a ponytail in the centre position in the back seat.
5. Driver. Obviously a driver in this moving cab, but you can see his ear in silhouette.
6. You can just make out the head of the sixth passenger sitting directly behind the driver, partially obscuring the inside of the B-pillar. If you look carefully, you can see that there are two distinct head profiles:

Tweaked heads

The blue-green object on the rear parcel shelf is the first-aid kit, by the way.

Five of the six occupants are correctly positioned and presumably safely belted in, but the young lady sitting on the centre console is not just having an uncomfortable time of it, there is no seatbelt for her, and if the cabbie has to brake suddenly, she will go full-face into the windscreen. Possibly straight through it. That’s when that sun-bleached first aid kit might come in useful.

Later. Time to eat my words. A fellow cabbie doing his Monday morning shift has taken a look at TX 88 and informs me that it is a vintage cab, one of the last few genuine cabbie models on the road, and is, in fact equipped for five passengers. Given the limitations on how old cabs can be, it can't have too long left on the road, but for the time being it's legal.

02 February 2009


Australians don’t do tips. That’s a pernicious American habit, and any good Aussie will make a point of paying exactly what’s on the meter and no more.

And that’s in America. We Aussies do our best to stamp out tipping by not doing it. Usually this lasts until we find out that waiters, cabbies, doormen and so on aren’t paid a decent wage and depend on tips to make ends meet.

So, when I’m travelling, I’ll happily add fifteen percent to the total, scatter a few dollar bills around the hotel, etc.

And nowadays I’ll do it at home. If there’s an element of service involved, and I’ve enjoyed myself, I’ll add a good tip. I always tip cabbies. And it guarantees a smile.

I’ve got more to say in future on the subject of tips. Strategies to maximise tips. The best tips I’ve ever gotten. And the biggest tip I’ve ever given. Worth every Welsh penny for a job well done!