Pure Joy and fun

Dear Sas

Despite the down times in our early marriage, there were many times of joy.

Joan Baez at the Sydney showgrounds was night to be treasured; we sat in the stands and listened to this pure voice, at times completely unaccompanied, as it echoed around the vastness of the arena.

The weather was miserable, we were wet and cold and at one point; we were plunged into darkness. Joan sang on, in the light of candles and cigarette lighters.

After a truly magical night, we returned to the San Pedro motel in Redfern. The building is still there. Now it has been converted into apartments, but every time I drive past it, I remember that night as if it were yesterday.

In late June 1974, we set off for the adventure of a lifetime, we had sold the house and bought a second hand VW Kombi converted to a Camper van, this would become our home for the next 3 months.

We both had jobs to come back to in Wagga when we got home, but at least, for this short time we were free.

This letter is a very long trip down memory lane, but I can’t tell you the joy I have had reliving our time on the road, I hope if you ever read this, you too; will smile and laugh at the memories.

We ventured out, heading North; within five hours we were skirting the outer suburbs of Sydney and wending our way up the North Coast of NSW.

Once we got past Newcastle, we were in places neither of us had ever been to; two young people without a care in the world, in love with each other and in love with the sense of the adventure we were embarking on.

Family arguments, demons and normal life were put on hold for these three months as we explored each other and the continent.

Byron Bay was our first major stop; we caught up with friends from Wagga who were escaping the conservative and cloistered atmosphere of the Rural City we had left behind.

The joy of camping beside the beach, consuming books and discovering each other was just beginning to sink in.

We followed the coastline North, through the cane farms; spending a day or two to look at Brisbane and then detouring into the Sunshine Coast, before striking out for the beaches and the unknown delights of far North Queensland.

Towns we had known only romantically, through books, Newspapers and television were to become real as we explored.

Maryborough, with its old classic Queenslander homes; Hervey Bay, looking out to Fraser Island; the Sugar mills of Bundaberg; the mining and Mill town of Gladstone and then on to the rocky dryness of Rockhampton before going back to the coast and looking at the fledgling development off the coast of Yeppoon.

McKay; at the time. a sleepy coastal town was next, and then we were in the Whitsundays; glorious coastal beaches and hideaway spots, exploring the gateway to the islands at Airlie Beach before heading to the food bowl of Bowen and then the dryness of Townsville with Magnetic island just off the coast.

Away from the rain shadow area of Townsville, we headed towards the wet and tropical deep north, stopping for more than a week at Mission Beach as we rested, explored romantic Dunk Island and were seduced by this beautiful spot; at one time idly contemplating just hiding away here for the next three months and scrapping our grand travel plans.

Cairns was next; then a small country town, only just finding its tourism legs as the gateway to the reef. We spent a magical day snorkeling the reef before heading to Port Douglas for the day and then heading up the mountains to Kuranda and then westward to the the outback.

I think it was on our way to Normanton on a very long stretch of deserted highway where we pulled into a roadside truck bay for the night and shared an evening with a group of truckies; drinking tea and swapping stories.

You made a cup of tea for one of them, only to be told “you call that a mug!”, as he scoffed at the flimsy plastic cup you presented.

The miles piled up before we rolled into Normanton and found a dusty caravan park where we shared the shower with a family of frogs before tackling the dry gravel road to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Bulldust holes, hidden below the surface of the road were almost to bring us undone on this detour, but somehow; the poor old Kombi survived and we limped into Karumba to spend a couple of days watching the outback at play as the prawn trawlers came in, after weeks at sea.

Flotillas of Barramundi, swimming beneath the pier had their peaceful existence shattered when some of the “boys” armed with shotguns, fired into the water to stun the fish before a guy in a small boat scooped “the catch”.

Our Kombi was still functioning but there was something very wrong as we headed back to Normanton and then south to Cloncurry before limping into Mt Isa,

At least we were back on bitumen! Miles and miles of red dirt and desert intermittently interrupted by clumps of hills, kept watch as our poor old van spluttered towards its much needed mechanical salvation. We lived on our nerves for this trip, praying things would stay together until we could reach Mt Isa.

We counted down the miles from Cloncurry, nervously making jokes about our rapidly fading engine and patting the old girl on the side in encouragement, every small hill became a challenge but still she kept going.

We crawled into Mt Isa just on dusk and found a caravan park, fully expecting that when we turned the engine off that would be the end.

We sought a telephone book and found a Volkswagen repair man, next morning I gingerly turned the key and a feeble engine came to life.

Our VW man had a tin shed in an industrial area but he was obviously German and all the signs said he was a licensed and fit person to operate on our “home”. There was one slight catch; his shed was guarded by two ferocious German Shepherd dogs so we vainly hoped whatever was wrong could be fixed by the end of the day, neither of us were keen on sleeping in that shed, the thought of getting up in the middle of the night was enough to scare the bejesus out of us.

I think we toured the mines that morning and we agreed to meet our mechanic at a café at lunchtime, he arrived not looking at all happy and asked us to drive back to the shed with him. Our engine was sitting on a bench and he explained, we had actually broken it in half!

I didn’t think this was possible but he showed us a crack across the block as straight as a ruler, only solution; a new Engine would have to be flown up from Brisbane. I think from memory the cost of this was going to be about $700.00; a fortune in 1975.

We were stuck in this godforsaken town for at least three days and a large part of our cash was needed to get us out!

You never faltered when I asked if you wanted to go on or go home, we packed up a few clothes and our toothbrushes and he drove us to a small motel.

We didn’t see a lot of Mt Isa but the break was great, we couldn’t go anywhere, so we sat by the pool   waiting for our new best friend to bring us back our home.

He was good and he kept his word, two days later he arrived and we drove him back to his workshop before setting off to Alice Springs

There is an immense beauty about the outback, but a trip of almost 1,200 kms in a vehicle where we could not go over 80 KMH as we ran the new engine in, made this beauty seem like an endless ordeal.

Alice Springs was a welcome sight, we organised the service for the new engine and hired a Moke so we could explore the spectacular countryside. A trip to Mt Helen after swimming nude in deserted water holes, nearly ended in disaster, as we were to discover the petrol supply at the end of the track was closed.

We barely made it back but then enjoyed a couple of days catching up with old friends who had moved up here, before we were back in the van and heading for Uluru (Ayres Rock as it was then)

It started to rain as we approached the Rock and it did not stop for three days. For much of the time we could not do anything other than to sit in the bar and watch the rain cascade off this giant monolith. It was wonderful and a sight few people ever see, the famed reds of the Rock became deep blues and purple as the clouds hovered ominously and the water teemed down its many crevasses.

There were a few times when the rain had eased and we could walk around the base, even managing to get some time to head across to the Olgas.

We were allowed out finally, but the gravel roads were slippery and wet. At one stage we almost rolled on our side in the middle of a muddy stretch, we looked at each other and laughed as the Kombi teetered on the edge of a graded embankment. Neither of us was game to move; our position was that unstable and at any minute we could have plopped sideways into the mud, but there was a lot of traffic on the road with all the buses making a rush to escape, and we were soon rescued from our perch.

Back in Alice Springs, we tried several times to clean the mud caked Kombi before a weary service station operator finally gave in to our pleas as long as we cleaned out his drain afterwards.

We headed North again back along the Stuart Highway, Tennant Creek is 500Kms away but the road is good and we planned to stop at Renner Springs to see an old friend of Dads, we finished up staying the night there, getting drunk and picking up an unwanted hitchhiker who slept at the door of the Kombi so we would not leave without him.

You drove this stretch with our “passenger” sitting beside you, and me in the back; nursing a hangover and secretly fingering the old rifle Dad had forced us to take.

My “headache” got much worse after the Devils Marbles, and as Tennant Creek approached, so we pulled into the hospital and hopefully bade our guest good bye. He was still standing by the side of the road when we left but we decided he was not our problem anymore.

We aimed for Daly Waters but decided to push on to the Mataranka Hot Springs where we spent the afternoon soaking away the tensions and the hangover of the last couple of days.

Next stop was Darwin and we whistled through Katherine, knowing we had to come back this way. Darwin was fun, we ate, swam, camped illegally on Fanny Bay and enjoyed being back in civilization for a day or two. We were not to know that just months later, this sleepy, but funky city would be destroyed by Cyclone Tracy.

After Darwin we headed south to Katherine again and a night at Katherine Gorge, the Kombi was being temperamental again at times the starter motor refused to turn over, you did some washing at the camp ground as I, with my immense mechanical experience tried to see what was wrong, I didn’t realize you had tied to the washing line to the roof racks and my “test drive” resulted in all your hard work lying in the inches of red dust. I was not popular!

We tied the roof rack back together with some copper wire and set off west again, aiming for Kunnunurrra and the mighty Ord River, this would be another 500 kms of flat straight road but we hardly stopped for fear of not being able to start again.

You decided to get some sun on your boobs on this leg and we tootled along, with you; naked to the waist, there was not much traffic but, there was nowhere to hide in the front of the Kombi so several road train drivers, copped an eyeful.

Kunnunurra reminded me of the irrigation townships in the Riverina, sort of new and temporary, but we stocked up, went for a cruise on Lake Argyle and then headed off again, following the Ord westward and aiming to get to a spot where you could go fishing before nightfall.

The river had run out of water by the time we got to our planned stop, but we camped by a waterhole and seemingly had the whole world to ourselves. It wasn’t till early the next morning when I walked stark naked to the top of a rise nearby that I realized we had been sharing our haven with about five car loads of Aborigines. They hooted and laughed at the gangly white boy trying to hide his manhood as I scrambled back down the rocks.

The Kombi was by now, only starting if we parked on a rise and got a run up, so we missed some places we had planned to see, and then decided to detour into Derby to see if we could find a mechanic.

There are many places which could be described as the arsehole of the world, Derby is just one of them, but; it did have a mechanic. He identified we needed a new solenoid, we were stuck in the campground while we waited a couple of days for our solenoid to be flown from Perth. We got to know the massive tidal beaches, mudflats and strange  Boab trees of Derby very well over these days, as well as sharing many drinks with the group of aged and opinionated Grey Nomads from Melbourne, who; for some reason had decided to stay here for a while.

We had seen Kevin and Yvonne and their kids several times over the past weeks, our paths had crossed at different camp grounds, we were both overjoyed to see their old Land Cruiser and caravan come into camp on our second day of “motionless travel”

They were a great couple from Perth who had taken the kids out of school for a year to wander around Australia, we shared many drinks and many BBQ’s with these lovely people.

Finally; we were free of Derby and our home was mobile again, albeit parts of it, held together by copper wire and hope.

The cost of our repair, although expensive, did not seem to matter too much. We were just glad to be back on the road again and heading for Broome. A town and beaches we had heard so much about. This was only a half day drive, we rolled into Broome late in the afternoon, found a caravan park and had shower before heading out for a special meal. There was something mystical about this town then; Cable Beach was an expanse of white sand, the funny little pearl shops and the crazy mix of colors and people which gave the place its cosmopolitan character, seemed to be from a different world to where we had just been.

We set off from Broome, fearful of what we were to face on the road to Port Hedland. We had been warned about this this stretch of over 600km, at the time colloquially known as the Corrugated Highway, it was dirty, dusty and slow going.

Several hours into the trip, the Kombi developed a very noisy rattle under our feet. We straggled into Sandfire Flat roadhouse late in the afternoon, we were tired and cranky from the frustrations of the last five hours of noisy, rough travel across this dreadful stretch of road, on top of this we were desperately short of ready cash.

We were not hopeful of any sort of salvation at Sandfire, but the owner took me out to row upon row of wrecks behind the roadhouse, we found a beach buggy based on a Kombi from which we could salvage two front shock absorbers and spent the early part of the evening working to replace the ones on our Kombi.

We managed to pay for these lifesavers from the coin bin I had secreted before we left home and still had enough cash left for a night at the roadhouse, what a night it was.

Herbert W. Wilkinson who liked a drink; had come to Sandfire several years ago to paint a mural on the bar wall. He had stayed after falling in love and continued as resident guru even after his beloved, had moved back to her former lover.

Somehow, they all managed to coexist in this tiny isolated outpost and we spent one of the least forgettable of nights, listening to the yarns of the outback and drinking to forget the horrors of the last hundred or so, kilometers.

We feared setting off again in the morning, hoping the makeshift shockers would hold together and the road would be at least, a little better.

The memories of a great night, a sunny cool morning and a slightly better version of the same road; saw us singing along to Kristofferson and a variety of country singers as we forged towards Port Hedland.

We spent a couple of days in Hedland, catching up with Kevin and Yvonne, swapping stories of the horror road, before heading inland to see your Aunt and Uncle in Mount Tom Price. This journey into the dusty bowels of WA saw us driving past spectacular scenery and skirting the town of Wittenoom, closed down because of the awareness of the dangers of Asbestos.

We spent a couple of days in Tom Price, a fully-fledged town specifically set up for the mining industry before we traveled west again to rejoin the highway north east of Exmouth. We were tired now, so we headed straight to Carnarvon, vowing to return and explore this interesting and arresting place in greater depth at some time in the future.

It was over 600kms from Tom Price to Carnarvon but we covered this distance quickly, before hitting the road again and heading towards Geraldton; almost another 500kms down the road.

We loved the town of Geraldton and spent a couple of days wandering the ocean front, and finding a decent cup of coffee.

The 400 kms from Geraldton to Perth felt like a casual Sunday drive, we wandered freely between the farming communities of the east and the beaches of the west.

We were enjoying the slow transition back to civilization, taking our time before heading into Perth where we were staying with Kevin and Yvonne who had headed straight home from Port Hedland.

The Kombi was holding together pretty well but every morning we would check the makeshift wire and screws holding the roof rack together and out thoughts would turn to the time when we would say goodbye to our shell.

Perth was fun, even if the dinner with my extremely civilized cousins turned into an embarrassing lesson in dining manners from their precocious six-year-old. I think we had been on the road for far too long.

Kevin and Yvonne took some time to show us over their City and we would take ourselves to many of the landmarks, armed with maps and hope.

After a very pleasant stay in Perth we headed south to Bunbury where a chance passing of the local Fiat dealer, advertising the new Lancia Beta saw us say goodbye to our faithful shell and ready ourselves for a quick trip across the Nulllarbor, it was sad to say goodbye to the Kombi but we reveled in the luxury of our new car. We headed down through Margaret River and onto Cape Leeuwin, the weather was horrific but we braved it to walk out along the pier almost being blown sideways.

Margaret River and surrounds was just lovely, especially after the dust and dryness which had been our constant companion for the last two months, we wandered through the tall timber country before spending some uneasy time with uncle Clarrie and then it was a sprint home across the Nullarbor.

Ceduna was our stopping off point for the 500 km trek across the desert, never has a luxury Italian car had such an introduction!

Instead of dust, we had mud and driving rain, the old dirt road showed us its worst but we came out the other end for a sprint across the beloved Barossa and then the Western Plains of NSW before arriving back at the farm.

Our Journey had ended, but the memories of more than 10,000 km in three months, the lush east Coast, the spectacle of the Red centre, the ruggedness of North Western Australia, the trials and tribulations and; the arguments and fun we had would stay with us forever.

A trip that had started with a simple quest to see Australia had forced us into close quarters for three months and cemented a friendship which would survive all the challenges we would face.

Thank you Sas for this precious time




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