John Borthwick, Australian Travel Writer of the Year 2016, regales one of his first great adventures: hitchhiking around Australia in the 1960s. Listen up, kids. This is how it’s done.
Way back then—the late 1960s—I believed, with all the earnestness that only age 20 can summon, that my life in Sydney was dead, karked. I was already too old to succeed, but somehow too young to fail. I borrowed $20 to flee the academic, economic and romantic corpses strewn (I imagined) behind me. I would take to the roads, disappear forever. Or at least hitchhike around Australia, the circumference of my knowable world.
The tourniquets that stifle a city—mortgage belt, industrial belt, car yard wastelands—soon fell away. A ‘rabbitoh’, a rabbit catcher, named Ernie, piloting an old van, stops and we head west over the Blue Mountains and out past Bathurst to where I join him on a three-day rabbit-trapping safari, using nets and a cute but ferocious ferret. Out there on the western plains of the Great Divide, the fields of wheat ripple like ground-swell, and sulphur-crested cockatoos cartwheel down the sky, screeching through the stringy barks. Mobs of galahs. Wallabies. I nearly overdose on rabbit stew. And when I start hitching again, not too many cars.
Somewhere near Cowra, my ride passes a semi-trailer that’s overturned, spilling a cargo of cowboy boots and licorice candies. I ditch the lift and grab a pair of boots and a face-full of Choo-Choo Bars, just before the insurance agents torch the lot. I figure that now, in my boots, no one’s going to spot me as a city boy.
Across the Murrumbidgee plains, dawn and dusk suns flicker like strobes through the windbreak poplars. At Hay, I help a trucker change eight of the 18 tires on his bone-rattling rig. “I’ve been at the wheel for 20 hours,” he says, “And since I was starting to talk to myself, I figured I oughta pick up someone to listen to me.” He lives like a gypsy, criss-crossing the country for weeks on end, at odds with log books, cops and savage schedules. He complains, “The bloody mermaids are after us truckies.” “Mermaids?” I query. “My oath. Mermaids everywhere. Weighbridge inspectors. C$#ts with scales.”
New South Wales becomes Victoria, becomes South Australia, each one vanishing in the infinite regress of the side mirror. The big one, the Nullarbor Plain, soon lies ahead of me. By now there isn’t much left of my 20 bucks and so when a driver says that he’s an abalone diver out of Ceduna and, do I want a job as a ‘shucker’, you bet I do. God knows what a shucker does?
A sign says ‘Last Petrol’. Another warns, ‘Last Water’ and then, ‘Last Beer’. After that, the husks of blown-out tires, shattered beer bottles and dead kangaroos are the only pointers to life before death.
Next morning, I’m racing out to sea in an ‘ab boat’, heading for the Nuyts Archipelago about 40 miles off Ceduna. The head diver Rodney had achieved fame a few years back, when a huge white pointer clamped him in its apocalyptic jaws. He struggled so fiercely that the Noah let him go, but not before leaving the perfect imprint of its dental chart puncturing his torso fore and aft. Hundreds of stitches later—a zipper would have been quicker—plus a brief convalescence, he got straight back on the seahorse and resumed diving for lucrative abalone.
Shucking means you’re up on deck tending the air-compressor, making sure the diver’s air-line doesn’t kink, and shelling (or ‘shucking’) the abalone that you’ve winched to the surface. Oh yes, and watching for sharks. The pay, $15 a day. The one, big chundering drawback, seasickness.
Beyond Ceduna, the Nullarbor Plain stretches to infinity across the bay, the Great Australian Bight. During my gig as a shucker, I notice a glum-looking kid camped near the last roadhouse. Teddy, an Aucklander, is having no luck in hitching to Perth. For a week, he’s stood beside the agricultural inspection from nine to five, waggling his thumb in vain. A thousand miles of desert ahead and he can’t get out of town.
My problem is he’s at the head of the hitching queue—yes, there is etiquette among bums—and I’m ready to hit the road too. Come the morning of my departure, there’s Teddy already out by the inspection gate. At the roadhouse, I fall into conversation with a dog-collared gentleman who is breakfasting beside me. Who announces he is heading to Perth. “Now? I mean, today?” I ask. “That’s right.” “Could I, um… get a ride with you?” I’ve scored a ride across the Nullarbor without even raising my thumb. In jubilation and in shame, I sail through that gate. I cannot look at Teddy.
The Nullarbor, the No Tree Plain, is a ribbon of unreal, unsealed images. So wide and empty, you can almost see the curve of the earth. Like the wake of a ghostly boat, the highway rises and falls, straight as death across the spinifex ocean. Heat miasmas shred the vanishing point and leave it flapping between heaven and the horizon. A sign says ‘Last Petrol’. Another warns, ‘Last Water’ and then, ‘Last Beer’. After that, the husks of blown-out tires, shattered beer bottles, and dead kangaroos are the only pointers to life before death.
Nonchalant Aborigines walk from seemingly nowhere to somewhere else. A mission. A cattle station. Miles from anywhere, two wild-eyed hitchers gesticulate like crazed windmills beside their midnight bonfire. The West Australia border is marked by a bullet-peppered sign: ‘First Beer’. The old telegraph station at Eucla appears then disappears, engulfed in shifting coastal dunes.
It’s almost 1,200 miles to Perth, or more correctly, 2,000 kilometers. Australia’s been ‘metric’ for several years, but we’ll still talk in miles for another decade. Whatever the figure, after 36 hours of mostly pot-holed, bulldusted highway, I bid farewell to the terrifically decent Rev. Trev Brown, London Missionary Society, late of New Guinea. I teeter, sleepless, speechless, stuffed, onto King George’s Terrace, Perth. Wrecked, but there.
A bulldozer driver yells, “What are ya, mate? An armpit with eyes or an ear‘ole with teeth?” and I jump an ore train to the coast.
“In the midst of life, we are in Perth”, said Sydney bohemian writer Harry Hooton. I think I get what he meant. One night in the Salvo’s flophouse and quick look around—and it’s clear that I won’t be making my fortune here. I sign up as a mine laborer at Mount Tom Price, far, far north in the Pilbara’s Hamersley Range. Which means another thousand-mile hitch up the Indian Ocean coast to get to the job on time.
The whole mountain—more like a range—of almost solid iron ore is being shipped chunk by chunk to Japan. My seven-days-a-week job is to run an Air-Track, a compressor-driven drill mounted on crawler tracks, boring holes in giant boulders so they can be blown to smithereens. Work all day, save every cent, sleep in a dorm and eat in the mess. Get up and do it again, amen.
The town has 500 single men and six single women. Extraordinarily, one of the girls kissed me, once. Even more extraordinary—I can’t recall why. Hamersley Mining had sunk $300 million into this open-cut abyss, but for all the state-of-the-art crushers and conveyors, things still kept jamming. After six hours of shovelling overflowed ore that had flooded the train loading bays, Duggy the Drunk bellowed: “Three hundred million bucks worth of alternating oscillators and oscillating alternators, and it still takes a dozen blokes on pick n’ shovel to make the bastard work.” That we were doing it all on emergency, double-time rates eased the pain.
I moved up to offsider on a big mobile drill rig that trundled over the mine site day and night, sinking sixty-foot holes with its heavy tungsten bit. The powder crew followed, filling the drill pattern with nitro explosives and then blasting the hillside to Mitsubishi. On night shifts, while Irish Frank the driller eased the bit down into the earth with the skill of a surgeon—and sutured himself against the desert cold with belts of vodka—I had time aplenty to watch the giant sky and the spokes of its star-wheels turning, and to wonder where, for me, real life lay?
Marooned—OK, voluntarily—in this burning, freezing, boring, mateless doldrum of saltbush and red dirt, was this the horse latitudes of my life? After ten weeks with the outside world leaking in only through two day-old newspapers (over breakfast, I learn that Bobby Kennedy has been assassinated), I’ve saved a thousand dollars and grown a beard. A bulldozer driver yells, “What are ya, mate? An armpit with eyes or an ear‘ole with teeth?” and I jump an ore train to the coast.
Port Hedland is a culture cut-up—old horse hitching rails outside new supermarkets, giant ore carriers offshore from feral camels. The next port, Broome is quieter, with its pearling luggers careened on the tidal flats like elephants drunk in the sun. There’s an exemplary swirl of Japanese-Malay-Chinese-Aboriginal-European genes.
The roads are rough and the rides are few, but they’re long. Up here, a hundred miles is not much more than ‘next door’. Derby. Fitzroy Crossing. Hall’s Creek. The road leaves the ocean, curves east then north. The sky turns turquoise at the edges. Whistling, whip-cracking Aboriginal stockmen dressed like fantastic gauchos in bandanas, cowboy boots and Akubras just let the traffic sit and wait, and wait, while their huge cattle mobs amble by.
One morning, I wake beneath a fat old boab tree outside Kununurra and wish myself ‘Happy Birthday.’ I’m twenty-one. Ignoring homelessness and joblessness as portents of a screwed future, but pissed off at being stuck here for three days, I celebrate with a beer, a can of smoked oysters, and a decision. Stuff Kununurra’s parched mercies. Next morning, I’m on a Fokker plane to Darwin. Having blown $25 on my escape, I compensate by wolfing down three breakfasts before we land.
I turn up my collar and hoof it straight out of town, way past the ‘Welcome’ sign that’s shot-gunned to a colander complexion.
Darwin. The Top-End. The Territory. Everything steeped in sweat and alcohol, and it’s only 10am. I luck out when two flash, high-spirited girls of imprecise occupation—’Don’t ask, darling’—in a big, black, bat-winged Chevvy whisk me down the track to Rum Jungle.
‘The Track’, the Stuart Highway, bisects the continent from north to south. Harry, an old-timer who had spent 30 years working on the Overland Telegraph Line took me all the way from Mataranka to Three Ways, five hundred miles. “I seen you hitchhiking like I used to back in the Depression. I’ve been reading we might be having another one, a Depression, so I thought I better give yer a lift.”
This is about his longest speech during our two-day drive. Come dark, he pulls his old Holden ute off the road, we build a fire and he heats-up dinner—in the middle of a million square miles of Australian beef country, it’s a can of Paraguayan beef. We eat. Harry rolls out his swag and beds down. After 15 minutes, he belches: “Struth. That stuff tasted more like the Paraguayan himself, eh?”
Just north of Tennant Creek is a sand-whipped crossroads known as Three Ways, a dark fork on life’s path where a traveler must choose between deserts to the south, mulga trees and Queensland to the east, or to flee north, to soused, tropical Darwin. The Three Ways signpost is twisted so it points perversely west to Alice, east to Darwin, south to Mountt Isa. A corrugated iron hut calls itself ‘Cafeteria.’ The gimlet-eyed customers, too wise to their own violence, don’t risk much speech with a stranger. Very expensive Mars Bars. “If ya don’t like the price, try the friggin’ shop next door,” drawls the old hard-case harridan behind the counter.
“Welcome to Three Days,” says Bobby, an Aboriginal bloke.
“Three Days?” “Yeah, that’s about the average wait for a ride here.” “Fark.” An hour later, another hitcher arrives. An old hand, heading for Sydney, he’s done time here before. After a warm Coke, a piss, and a stink-eye glare in my direction, he growls that two hitchhikers is one too many, and heads off the other way, south across the desert. And so it is that when a battered Land Rover pulls up after only three hours, I leap in the back with near-jubilation. There are two jackaroos up front. “We’re just going for a Sund’y drive.” “Great, where?” “Camooweal.”
Some Sunday drive. Camooweal is almost 300 miles east, in Queensland. Elated and grateful as I am to arrive, I have no desire to actually be in Camooweal. The town has a reputation born of stories about stir-crazy shearers and boundary riders hitting town to blow their cheques after months of isolation on over-the-horizon cattle stations. Their best joke is supposed to go, “Hey, mate, ‘Blue’s’ lookin’ for you.” ”Huh? ‘Blue’ who?” answers the newly arrived, unwitting, longhaired, bearded stranger. “’Blue Gillette’! Let’s shear him, fellers!”
The boys drop me right outside the Camooweal pub. Shit. Thanks. I turn up my collar and hoof it straight out of town, way past the ‘Welcome’ sign that’s shot-gunned to a colander complexion. I lurk in the mulga, praying that some sane ride, please Jesus, arrives soon. Half an hour later it does—a perfectly sober shearer.
More rear-view highway hypnosis from the back of trucks and utes. The endless Black Soil Plains slip behind on a rhythm of ruts and posts, clouds and curves. Days later, something blue tilts up to fill half the sky. The sea, at last! Townsville dense with palms reeks of blossom and salt tang. Colonial pubs with lace iron balconies face the Coral Sea and the Reef, awaiting either discovery by Nostalgia or demolition by Progress.
If the dust on my boots and stains on my pack are badges of the road, I’ve earned them, I reckon. It’s taken 10,000 miles and three months.
Stuck south of Mackay, I shelter for a night in a road gang’s camp. Most of the crew are in town for the weekend rodeo. As I leave in the morning, one guy asks, “Jack. I see you’re wearin’ cowboy boots. You a dark horse headin’ for the rodeo?” Feeling almost credible, I hit the track for one last haul south.
The highway picks up speed. The gravity rings of Brisbane and Sydney suck everything down the map towards them. The cane fields flare against the night sky as farmers fire their crops before the harvest—the world smells like a giant vat of molasses. At Surfers Paradise, I flop onto the beach and then bodysurf my first waves since forever. If the dust on my boots and stains on my pack are badges of the road, I’ve earned them, I reckon. It’s taken 10,000 miles and three months.
New South Wales again. Almost back, Jack. Shelter from a cyclone near Mullumbimby. Screw the thumb to the track one last time. All the rites and wrongs of passage now done, complete. I’m on the home run to the Big Smoke. Hey, Ma! Hey, Sydney! I’ve actually done something.
One of Australia’s leading travel writers, John Borthwick's work appears in The Weekend Australian, Fairfax Traveller and many others—all of which keeps him too long away from surfing good waves or hiking some gob-smacking coastline.