COWPER: The crash that still haunts

Whether you were living in the Clarence Valley at the time or not, the 1989 Cowper bus crash went beyond our backyard. It was an event of national significance, not only because of the tragic outcome, where 21 people were killed, but also the gravity of how something like this could happen on our national highway.

On the 30th anniversary of one of our darkest days, a special podcast and report goes back to the incident that changed the lives of so many people, and the Clarence Valley.


Until October 20, 1989 few people outside of our region had heard of Cowper, the tiny village that sits on the banks of the Clarence in northern New South Wales. At the time, getting there meant a 11-hour drive from Sydney, add another five to six if you are continuing through to Brisbane.

This was the route of the Sunliner coach on this beckoning spring day. Packed with quiet travellers, adults and children, most were probably asleep or in that dreamy state, as dawn prepared to crack the rural horizon they unknowingly traversed.

Plane travel was expensive business in those days, before budget carriers ruled the airwaves, buses and trains the standard, economical mode to get from A to B. The country was also in the midst of a plane strike when Cowper happened, increasing the demand for road travel by those who might otherwise have flown to their destination. But here they were, just another bus load of typical passengers with travel plans, making the popular 790/km odyssey from one state capital to another, their Queensland destination still a few hours away when their journey, and world, was stopped in the most catastrophic of ways.

Cowper is a place where weatherboard farmhouses peer out from behind giant fig trees planted generations ago, deep alluvial soils lending itself to generational farming that continues today.

Grazing land to the east and breathtaking views of the river to the west is something its inhabitants rarely take for granted.

Like many sleepy towns situated along the east coast of Australia of that era, the national highway connected them to the rest of the country, reminded daily by the distant line of major traffic that rarely stopped in their neck of the woods.

Until it did, on this ordinary day, just before 4am, in the field Alan Bowling still calls his backyard. The place he was preparing to tend to for another day, when unfathomable horror permeated his average working day, his family's life, in the blink of a bleary eye.