Take a ride on Australia's longest urban bus route - 115 kilometres and 232 stops from Tullamarine to Frankston.
I'm standing at the airport waiting for a bus. Midday. Friday. Tullamarine. An axis through which 30 million people pass each year, barely any of them on a public bus.
Until recently this was by design. The airport's bus stop was situated one kilometre south of the main terminals, an unsheltered signpost opposite a freight building. Getting there meant taking a walk, beyond the spartan Tiger terminal with its shipping container coffee shop and across the mouth of the ''snake pit'', the taxi holding yard that disgorges an endless convoy of cabs.
It made for an inauspicious starting point for Melbourne's most epic public transport trip - a 115-kilometre odyssey across the urban periphery to Frankston.
But these days route 901 begins in a manner more befitting its status as not only the city's, but Australia's longest urban bus route, as well as one of Melbourne's most well-used. Now it starts within sight of anyone who steps out of the Qantas domestic terminal and who might want to catch it to any one of its 232 stops.
I'm here to ride it all the way to Frankston, to see who catches it and why. My driver Eril, who enters this story later, tells me this is the quiet end of the route, before the mega mall crowds jam the aisles, before the Friday bourbon-and-Coke set, the multicultural mums and the street where a rock smashed his window.
I board the 901 and ask the driver how long it'll take to reach Frankston. Four hours, 23 minutes, he tells me. Longer if traffic is bad.
Buses are the ugly ducklings of Melbourne's public transport system, eternally rejected by those who have other options on which to get around. They hold none of the romance of trams or the people-moving heft of trains.
Melbourne's rail network is predictable. It runs into the city and back out again. Buses, by contrast, zigzag along obscure routes, running every three quarters of an hour or so from some place you don't know to somewhere you don't want to be. But what if they ran in straight lines, to frequent timetables that connected with train and tram services? What if people knew how long the wait was for the next one?
I board the 901 and ask the driver how long it'll take to reach Frankston. Four hours, 23 minutes, he tells me. Longer if traffic is bad. I'm glad the seats are padded.
There was mirth and head scratching about route 901 when it was launched in 2010. Who would catch a bus from Tullamarine to Frankston, via Ringwood, even at a bargain cost of $4.84 for an all-day zone 2 fare? Only the idle and the curious. But the 901 wasn't introduced so people could take half-day sightseeing tours of bloated urban fringe.
It is one of three orbital ''SmartBus'' routes that ring Melbourne's mortgage belt (a belt that has been loosened many times), plugging car-dependent communities into the city's rail network and hubs of commerce and activity. Running roughly every 15 minutes from 6am to 9pm, and half-hourly until midnight, they are an attempt to provide good cross-town public transport - something Melbourne has lacked more or less since the Outer Circle Rail Line was ripped out early in the 1900s.
I take the seat behind the rear door. There are five other passengers on board. I turn to a young woman sitting behind me. Her name is Rukmi Wepola, she tells me. She's going home after working an early shift at McDonald's. Rukmi tells me she catches the bus because it's cheaper than the $8 fee for airport staff parking, and because she can catch a power nap on the way to work.
''Lots of people at work catch the bus,'' she says.
The 901 has given the airport's 12,500 staff their first viable alternative to driving to work. Public Transport Victoria surveyed passengers last year and found one in four travelling between the airport and Broadmeadows railway station worked there. But most airport staff remain wedded to driving - the airport's own survey also found that about 95 per cent still drive.
With a population of 4 million and rising, Melbourne's need for better public transport in the outer suburbs is desperate. Victorian Auditor-General John Doyle noted in a report in August that congestion in the outer suburbs was damaging lives, by limiting people's access to jobs and services and stealing family time.
It would cost an impossible $18 billion to build every road and rail line planned to fix the problem, he found, but buses could meet identified service gaps for a comparatively meagre $197 million a year.
Outside the airport grounds, the bus collects its first new passenger on Mickleham Road - a young pregnant woman, absorbed in her mobile phone. She and Rukmi get off at Broadmeadows station. It is the first of 10 zone 2 railway stations on six lines the 901 connects with.
Two teenage girls get on and head for the back row, but the bus is still mostly empty as it turns north towards Roxburgh Park, accelerating past a long row of modest brick-veneer houses on Pascoe Vale Road. Next to me sit Marcus Hartmann and Silke Momberger, a German couple riding to Epping to visit a brother.
''In Germany we don't have these long bus routes, we have trains,'' Marcus says, almost incredulous.
Together we stare out the window at Roxburgh Park Shopping Centre, so big it has its own streets, roundabouts and even a set of traffic lights.
The stores are plus-sized too, with names that scream for your attention: World of Kaos Bar and Grill (''with massive indoor playground''), The Biggest Lollie Shop In The World, HIYC Islamic Superstore.
At the back end of the sprawling retail centre is Roxburgh Park Railway Station, on the fringe of yet another car park. Grey and alienating, backing onto a bleak paddock. It seems to say: you should be driving.
We glide past the empty bus stop. Turning onto Somerton Road, the bus ascends a railway overpass decorated with a half-finished patchwork of colourful tiles. Taggers have decorated the blank spaces with their own territorial scrawlings.
The bus hits high speed, hurtling past a dozen empty stops as we motor through the vast Somerton Logistics Centre. No one gets on or off. This area feels empty of people and too industrial for a suburban bus route. It was near here that the 901 was diverted for several weeks last year because of a spate of rock attacks on buses. Men in a muscle car, hurtling stones out of windows.
Professor Graham Currie, a Monash University transport academic who plotted route 901, tells me he designed it to take the most direct path between railway stations, shopping centres and suburban hubs. There would be no detours down residential streets.
It was an attempt to give Melbourne its own ''bus rapid transit network'', a low-cost substitute for rail in which high-frequency buses had their own, car-free lanes on the road. At almost 400 kilometres in length, this so called ''SmartBus'' network is longer than Melbourne's tram network, something Currie considers a huge achievement.
''When we started this we were in a city where two-thirds of all residents had no public transport,'' Currie says. But with scarce road space and money, the government compromised, he says. Many of the 901's bus lanes are only part-time, or part there, so the orbital buses still get stuck in traffic.
We stop at Epping Plaza, another mega shopping complex. I go and talk to the girls who got on at Broadmeadows station. They are Jessie Barbas, 18, and Kristy Velja, 17. Jessie tells me she likes the 901 because it takes her to all the places she loves to hang out - mainly shopping centres.
''It gets me to all of them,'' she says.
They get off at Westfield Plenty Valley, where the bus does a loop of the shopping centre car park before stopping at South Morang Railway Station. It is an impressive new local landmark, opened last year. Age architecture critic Joe Rollo said it put Melbourne's ''humdrum unmanned shelter-shed-style stations'' to shame.
A clutch of people get on, their concession myki cards giving a telltale double-beep as each touches on.
There is a small triangular paddock opposite the station, between the railway line and two main roads. It is full of sheep. These livestock could hardly look more incongruous if they were grazing on the median of Alexandra Parade.
South Morang: Australia's fastest-growing suburb. It exploded from a hamlet of 6667 people in 2001 to 38,895 by 2011, adding the entire populations of Carlton, Fitzroy and Collingwood in 10 years. As the roads quickly maxed out, the community pushed for the revival of the old Whittlesea rail line, which had been ripped up as far south as Epping decades before.
The state government offered to pave over the rail reserve and build Melbourne's first ''express busway'' instead. The community snubbed the idea. They just wanted the railway line back, and it was finally extended to South Morang at a cost of half a billion dollars - $498 million for a 3½-kilometre extension. But the sprawl stretches on further, and the former rural backwater of Mernda is now a bulging suburb, its residents crying out for a rail line.
Melbourne's buses are unloved. Even the Public Transport Users Association, the state's leading lobbyists for better public transport, flayed them in a report last year for their indirect routes and infrequent timetables.
''The way forward is more direct, more understandable bus routes such as SmartBus,'' the report argued.
Currie agrees. People shun buses because it's often a mystery where they're headed, he says.
''People know where trams go because of the tracks, but they wouldn't have a clue where the buses go and that affects whether they will use them.''
East of South Morang the journey feels less like a suburban bus trip than a coach tour through the countryside. The bus winds through Yarrambat and Plenty Gorge, past lovely gum trees, vineyards draped in white fabric and fields filled with horses, dams and hay bales. A recorded female voice announces stop after stop but no one gets on or off and the driver doesn't slow.
We turn right onto Diamond Creek Road and wind south through Greensborough, back in suburbia. I meet Robert Braid, an architect from Sydney who, to my amazement, is also riding the bus all the way to Frankston. He is revelling in the diverse range of buildings. Prefab halls, boxy shops. He sees beauty where others see blah.
''I haven't seen many interesting houses, but I suspect it's because I'm driving through lower socio-economic areas,'' he tells me.
He is only half right. The 901 serves some of Melbourne's most materially deprived suburbs. Broadmeadows, Meadow Heights and Coolaroo in the north, Dandenong and Frankston North in the south.
But as Braid and I talk the bus travels through the green, hilly streets of Templestowe and Doncaster East, affluent postcodes where the only glaring disadvantage is the lack of a railway line.
The bus pulls up at Blackburn station. I count more than 10 people on board now for the first time.
I've been sitting for two hours and my brain feels foggy so I get out to stretch my legs, grab a coffee and some fresh air before catching the next bus. An electronic display counts down the minutes until its arrival. It's a small thing, but it takes the anxiety out of waiting.
The bus squats at the kerb with a hydraulic hiss. Its myki reader is out of order and the driver waves me past. We head east along Whitehorse Road to Ringwood. The driver calls out thank you to each person who gets off; one school boy says, ''Thanks, man,'' in return, another gives him a sort of ''V'' sign while slouching out the back door.
It occurs to me that buses are the only sociable mode of public transport Melbourne has now that tram conductors are gone. The only one where passengers and staff still speak, excluding the predatory patrols of ticket inspectors.
We loop into the car park at Ringwood station, a place so grim the government is spending $66 million to fix it. There are at least two dozen people waiting to get on the bus. They flood in and fill every seat. The rest stand in the aisle. It is jarring after my quiet ride so far. I haven't been on a bus this crowded since I finished high school.
The three orbital routes are the most heavily used bus services in Melbourne. On an average weekday, 15,000 people catch the 901. In 2011-12, the first full financial year in which it operated, it carried 4.3 million people. The only route that had higher patronage was the route 903 orbital, from Altona to Mordialloc.
It is here in Ringwood, with this full load filling the aisles, that I first get a sense of the demand. The bus empties out again at Knox City shopping centre, and fills up with a new load of passengers.
We drive south down Stud Road to Stud Park Shopping Centre in Rowville, proposed terminus for a rail line that has been planned since the 1960s.
In downtown Dandenong it is as though the recent history of Australian migration has occurred in microcosm at one bus stop. Middle Eastern schoolgirls in patterned headscarves step aboard and take the back seat, followed by lanky Sudanese schoolboys in shorts clutching Coke cans, Indian and Afghan men, and an African woman with tightly braided hair who struggles to get a giant pram up the step. The driver lends a hand.
I turn to the two young men sitting behind me. The eldest tells me his name is Ali Gul. He fled Kabul and sought asylum in Australia five years ago. They are Hazara.
His brother, Rohullah, has been in Australia three months and speaks no English, he tells me. I don't know if they really are brothers or if it is just an expression of fraternity. They live at Chisholm TAFE in Dandenong, and catch the 901 just about every day.
''It's good, it comes every 15 minutes. You miss one, you don't have to wait too long,'' Gul says.
I want to keep talking but it's their stop. Gul tells me he has an appointment at VicRoads' licensing depot.
We are in industrial Dandenong South now. It's almost 4pm and the factory workers are knocking off, sweaty and clad in high-vis gear.
Cans of pre-mixed bourbon and coke hiss as they pop open. It's Friday afternoon.
One worker butts out his cigarette before he steps on board, exhaling his final drag inside the bus. The driver gives him a short lecture. The next worker gets one too for ignoring the driver's cheery hello.
It's standing room only now. As the bus approaches Carrum Downs it gets stuck in traffic. It is the first time this has happened in four hours.
We pass Kananook station, then we are in Frankston. The bus empties out. I walk up to the driver.
Eril Mitchell tells me he has been driving the 901 since it started. It's the only route he works. ''I've been doing Ringwood to Frankston for five years and almost from day one it was flat chat,'' he says. ''But from Ringwood to the airport it's much quieter. It is steadily getting a lot busier but initially the first 12 months was extremely quiet.''
I ask him about the light-hearted reprimand he gave the worker who ignored his greeting. ''If people aren't warm sometimes I have a bit of a dig, it's not against the Australian culture,'' he says. ''If you say it with a laugh and a smile most people love it.''
Flare-ups, such as the day his driver's side window was shattered into a glass fountain by an unidentified projectile, are rare, Eril says. But he can't say enough good things about the Protective Services Officers the state government has brought in. All the railway stations on route 901 feel much safer now. ''Please put that in your story,'' he says.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people get on Eril's bus, and he remembers most of them, he says. Route 901 is 115 kilometres long but it is still a local bus - for a woman going to work, tourists visiting family, teenage girls shopping, an immigrant going for his licence, school kids, factory workers. I could go on, like the bus.
Frankston station feels seedy in the afternoon, but its heroin-tinged grit is leavened by a sea breeze and a large flock of seagulls, a reminder the bay is close by. I walk to Frankston Beach. Its sand has been freshly swept. A westerly pushes knee-high breakers to shore. Fifty metres out, two men are swimming.
After almost five hours' travel, I feel rather like a tourist. A traveller could get to Cairns, Perth, even New Zealand, in the time it has taken me to get here. But it's good to be in Frankston.
I walk back to the station and take the next train, riding it in an almost straight line to Flinders Street.