I don’t think I really expected to gain anything from the Better Conversations Bus Tour. I am very familiar with the North Coast 500 route, and have been to all of the towns and villages several times. As a tour guide I know their histories, I know the local landscape and geology, and I know the locations of every free toilet and good café. Whilst on the Better Conversations tour, however, I very quickly realised that my knowledge of these communities was based on tourism. By visiting these communities as a tour guide, and by experiencing these villages and towns with a tour in tow, I was only really experiencing them on a superficial level. I was very much of the belief that if a town had good cafes, good toilets, and a couple of souvenir shops thrown in, then it was doing well. What more would you need?
The first thing that struck me was just how many problems these communities faced. It wasn’t just one or two grumbles about the roads or the lack of broadband – there was a real multitude of problems, some of which were incredibly serious and these communities were facing them on a daily basis. Alcoholism, aging populations, lack of affordable housing, hospital and school closures, deteriorating facilities, unemployment etc. The list seemed endless. The meetings we had with these communities lasted anywhere between 45 minutes to over two hours, and yet it felt like we were only scraping the surface. And while it would be easy to see this whole tour as all doom and gloom, the thing which struck me most, and which, for me, will be the overriding aspect to take away from this tour, is the abundance of truly inspiring people committed to doing something about it. People of incredible intelligence, optimism, determination, and innovation.
The Better Conversations tour was able to give these people a voice, and perhaps instill in them the feeling that they’re not alone or forgotten. While the problems raised will not simply go away, or be easily solved, the commitment to addressing these issues and coming together as a community to solve them, was evident at every meeting. And on a personal level, this tour allowed me to come into contact with people I otherwise would have never met. And most importantly, through meeting these individuals, it has given me hope that the future of these communities will be a positive one.