On The Road, 1971

Thor May
Blue Mountains, 2015

Hitchhiking.jpgEach time I step beyond the door of my house, it might begin a journey of a thousand miles. Not that it often does; more likely a few steps to some flashy supermarket which tethers our routines, but just sometimes we keep walking. At the moment, I’m photographing old letters for easy keeping, and came across the memory of how one journey across the world began, from Sydney overland through whole continents to England. It was on an early morning, that first step forty-four years ago, a mere eye-blink past in history, but a fair slice of one man’s life. I was twenty-six. So here is what the faded handwriting records:

7 April, 1971.  Adelaide

I have begun to write this on the platform of Outer Harbour, Adelaide. It is midday, and beyond the line of autumn shade nothing really moves except the chop-swish of a line of ocean spray, and an old rust-red coaster edging almost imperceptibly up the long tunnel of water between parapets of rubble. Outer Harbour is a kind of oasis in the low, flat scrub of reclaimed tidal land. I have come here today, my first full day in Adelaide, partly because I’m a lazy tourist, partly because coastlines and waterways have always been embedded in my memories of towns, one of the points perhaps when they cease to be amorphous streets, come to an end, begin, acquire distinction or even a soul.

But Adelaide, like somewhat similar Christchurch in New Zealand, has turned squarely away from the sea which is so close. One notices the wide, orderly streets, the perimeter of parks, and everywhere lovely old buildings, many restored from original sandstone and skirted by the deep, shady recesses of colonial verandas. Glinting glass skyscrapers don’t seem to have hit the place yet. Maybe the foundation soil is unsuitable, or perhaps some civic administrations are sane after all. Excluding Perth and Hobart, which I haven’t seen yet, this is my pick of Australian cities.

This journey began almost exactly a thousand miles ago. My parent’s house is up-river on a vast waterway, really a winding tidal fiord misnamed the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. Berowra Waters is deep in this system, where the road falls into a gorge, a punt crosses the river, then snakes seven hundred feet up through the bush and sandstone cliffs on the other side.

I left Berowra very early on Sunday morning in Alan Hastings’ dinghy. I had hoped to creep out unnoticed, but the others had set an alarm clock too and they stood there at the door. My sister Penny too shy to kiss, and mum hesitant after her way. Dad crushed my hand, knowing probably for the last time, and me feeling strangely detached from it all. It was dark and a little chilly, the fog so thick that I almost lost my bearing in Alan’s boat. I hiked the gorge, humping a backpack. At last, up on the highway, then to Asquith railway station, I determined to break old laconic habits and talk to anyone. After all, this was supposed to be a new beginning. The past was past. I would live in the moment.

I say g’day to a plump Italian, who complains that his shop-flat is on the freeway and sleep is impossible. He wants to know about charter flights to Europe. The suburban train clatters its way past endless red roofs, then burrows under Sydney’s CBD. I change at Lidcombe, where two brats ask how much the pack weighs. We try to check, but the scales on the platform are jammed. A flick-knife won’t dislodge my two cents in the slot, but one brat has some special tweezers for lifting coins out of slot machines. I donate the two cents: my next connection has arrived.

The end of this suburban rail line should get me to a point for hitch-hiking, but I am dumbfounded to learn that Campbelltown is after all not a hoped-for thin strip of houses on the Hume Highway going south. It’s a sprawling conurbation. There’s nothing for it but to catch a bus out to Camden. “Melbourne’s that way,” says the bus driver soberly. “Some of ‘em I let off here start walking back the other way. They must have a horrible sense of direction.” Thanks.

I am picked up by a grey truck with high sideboards and a standing-height canopy. It is full of little boys, all brushed and washed in neat grey suits. They are orphans going to church in Picton. Why Picton in particular is unclear, but it is obviously the excursion of the week. They have no complaints, everything is honey-sweet, the boss is a great guy. Well, why should they trust a stranger picked up off the highway? I try to explain where I am going, tales of foreign adventure, overland through Asia to Europe. They look suitably wide-eyed. One little boy with pale freckles says a reluctant good-bye when we reach the church. The god-people will never get him.

The next ride is in a Morris 1100. The red haired boy driving thinks that liquid amber trees and jacarandas are fabulous, but otherwise hasn’t much to say. His girl makes up for it. She is a legal secretary with lots of physical presence: big shoulders, big bosoms and a big mouth. She is just dying to tell me about the States. “Hi! Hey, the States are great. You just gotta get a $100 go-anywhere ticket. Women are liberated, and everything is so advanced. There are some pretty funny types around. You’ve gotta’ be there to know what the feel of violence is really like. Now Santa Fe is a great place. I spent five days there and had a ball.” 

They drop me miles outside of Moss Vale, and off the main road as I find out to my chagrin. So I hump the pack, all sixty pounds of the bastard, three miles along a deserted road. There are some cross-roads, and a junk shop. A junk shop for christsake in the middle of deserted fields. I am dying of thirst. Some old codger says this isn’t the way to the highway. You have to go two miles back up the road and turn off to the left. I trudge back half mile before another character confirms my first suspicion. The old codger is nuts.

But I meet the ancient again. He seems to have forgotten sending me on a useless detour, but knows a parched man when he sees one, so we go to his hut for a cuppa’ tea. That means over a fence and through a cow paddock. The hut is on a rise with a vegetable garden outside protected by wire netting. Inside I notice cobwebs, a kerosene lamp, and a big pile of firewood in the corner.

Paddy wanders off for a while, and his mate boils a billy over the fire. His mate is from Maitland, though I never learn his name. He is wearing an old duffle coat, picked with splinters of wood and pieces of fluff, and he badly needs some teeth. When I come in he is busy mashing some potatoes and pumpkin to make bubble-n-squeak. We have a bit of a yarn. He says he’ll stay for a while, and wonders aloud what the fishin’s like at Berowra, but I have to squash that one. The billy tea is good. When Pat comes back, there are two cups between the three of us. Pat talks about the Old Country, where his father lost their little farm in the Troubles and drank himself to ruination. Neither of them will believe that there is a road overland to Europe from India. Pat wants to find me a job in the local sawmill, and says there’s plenty of room in the hut.

I have just stepped back onto the road when a 3.6 litre Jaguar slips up. I am to travel in this cacoon of luxury for the next 400 miles at a flat 70 m.p.h. It sounds and goes like a Mustang fighter plane. My new companion is a crop duster pilot, a mechanic by trade, and into something lucky. He is heavy, dark and taciturn, with … well what’s the Australian equivalent of mid-western American values? Anyway, I’m clean shaven and presumed to have decent vices too. We have a beer and two rubbery hamburgers in Gundagai without much conversation. God, the Australian countryside is as sparse as our discussion. I have asked the sky pilot about cheap hotels to sleep in Albury, but where he lands me looks like big money and tips, so I begin to hike again.

Three blokes in a café say this is three miles from Albury or any more pubs. I am not amused. There are plenty of houses, a few small shops, a church. I wind up sleeping under the church, on the gravel, cold, hard, and cold again. I have no trouble waking up at 4:30 a.m., but it is 7 a.m. before I’ve found a cold water tap, shaved, and crushed all the junk back into my rucksack. It takes better than an hour to reach the Victorian border on foot.

I am just about to declare no fresh fruit, bags or packing cases, as the border sign demands, when a groovy character in a groovy GT Cortina picks me up. We also travel at a flat 70 m.p.h. in this thing, but it’s costing the bearings and the radiator boils chronically. He has come non-stop from Sydney. “Just took my girlfriend up. I’m crazy about driving. The old girl needs a complete overhaul. Gearbox is fucked, got $4,000 worth of extras lined up for her, custom built seats … has to be all ready when I pick my girl up in eight weeks… Want to have a look at her? Here’s a photo … oh that other one comes from Adelaide…”. He’s an electrical technician working on research and development for some government outfit, something to do with spectrum analysis. But right now he needs some sleep and doesn’t know it, being crazy about driving. I am glad of the seat belts. We are at Flinders Street railway station in Melbourne by noon.

I check my bag into the railway left-luggage office and find a cafeteria in the basement. Evidently it is not designed as a fashion statement – green laminex table tops, chrome racks, chrome chairs, cups that you could throw at a concrete wall. I learn that nobody on the Victorian Railways speaks English like me. I am given a green ticket which says the steak will be ready in seven minutes. “Number feafty zeven. Yes love, eez over here … “. Amazing, the steak is thick and juicy. The cook must be imported too.

Now someone has to tell me how to get out of this city. I persist with the porters at Flinders Street, and finally locate an ageing gent, a remnant of earlier railway generations, who can follow my inquiry in English. He directs me to buy a ticket for a station called Albion which is apparently on the Western Highway.

The first lift from Albion is with a gentleman farmer of rather limited views, but with a vast interest in Repatriation Department benefits, and my knowledge therein since I’d once spent a few months as an office bunny adding up travel claims for old soldiers.  The country flashing by is undulating pasture, but very dry as I’ve noticed right across the state. The big event on this stretch of road is seeing a herd of camels (??!?) behind some cyclone wire fencing, and a lion park sensibly sheltered from the through traffic behind a small hill. We make it to Ballarat, largish as country towns go, and passably attractive. Especially the trams. My farmer friend drops me beneath a ghastly “arch of victory” on the western outskirts, and asks my name “for when I see it in the papers”. God bless.

The next pickup is a real farmer with long whiskers and an inquisitive wife. The trouble is, I find he’s just going eight miles. Eight miles from anywhere. By now it is late afternoon and after another hour, lots of lorries, no lifts, I begin to nibble the emergency chocolate ration and cast around for a culvert to sleep in. Eventually rescue comes in the form of a miniscule Japanese car. He’s a prison farm supervisor, together with his wife. They take me into the little town of Beaufort. There are three hotels, but I am recommended to one in particular (“tell her Bert Horst sent you …” ). It has a neat brick exterior, and a very old interior, although everything is clean and workable except the door locks.

I suppose one dresses up for dinner in a hotel. I’m filthy. Yet the hot water works too. Gorgeous. A monster shower rose deluges me. The ridiculous rucksack, loaded down with something for every occasion, definitely needs ruthless trimming, but for now I’m able to drag out a sports coat, a tie, buffed shoes, the complete imitation of a gentleman. I promenade around the block, which means the entire town, and returning, quaff a middy of Carlton draught, then imperiously ask the publican if dinner is ready yet. He is mildly astonished to have another patron, but invites me to the dining room. For dinner I join a group from the Department of the Interior. Chicken Maryland is on the menu. But the publican comes back, perplexed. No, his wife hadn’t booked me in, and anyway the Department of the Interior has “my” room 10. Was I sure this was the right hotel? Well, they all look alike. Sigh.

Established at last in the right hotel, I wind up with pork chops and table talk from a monumental stone mason. Actually there are two stone masons, but one is shy beyond speech. Altogether that makes three guests in the hotel including me, and a quick glance shows that the bars are almost empty. The stone mason is defensive, almost parental about the hotel. I seem to have arrived in the midst of a town feud too deep to plumb tonight. It’s pork chops and apple sauce, then off to bed. What else can you do in a place like Beaufort? The stone mason says that real sleep is the next best thing after pork chops. Tomorrow should get me to Adelaide, and Adelaide is the first planned square on that checker board which leads across the world to London.

On The Road, 1971 © Thor May  1971-2015

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