04 January 2011

Up your thumb

-->This is the story of a hitchhiking journey I made from Sydney to Darwin in November 2010, and of the people I met along the way.
I had been working as an office journalist for a few years, with a phone on my ear and a screen in my eyes five days a week and I wanted to get back on the road (ala Sal Paradise) for some adventures. I wanted to meet some people and hear their stories. There was also a challenge - to make it to Darwin in four weeks, in time to catch a flight home before Christmas, and a few rules - no buses, no trains, no planes, no rendezvous, just the thumb. But could it be done? My parents thought not. The heat if not the psychopaths would kill me. So to reassure them (and myself) I tested the heat one sunny day in Sydney when the mercury swelled above 30 degrees.

As for the psychopaths, it’s better to be in the light than in the dark of dangers one might face, right? So I did a little research on some of the very bad things that have befallen hitchhikers on Australian Roads. It happened that a gruesome murder was committed the very week I set out and police charged a cousin of Australia’s famous serial-killer-come-media-darling, Ivan Milat. The man’s name, David Auchterlonie, was in every news report that week so I wrote this opinion piece for the ABC.

I had never hitchhiked before but I quickly discovered it's not all that difficult: I scored three rides on my first day. The first was with a neighbour who moors his boat to a jetty on the Hawkesbury River at the end of our street. He drove me to the freeway that runs north from Sydney. I waited there for half an hour until a landscape architect named Nicholas Bray picked me up. As he drove me to Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley Nicholas told me about the difference between art and design. Later that afternoon I met Machelle (Ma-ch-ell-a) and Wayne, which is probably a story worth telling:

Shut Up Your Face

Machelle and Wayne didn’t want their photo taken because they were up to no good.

They pulled over near Pokolbin to pick me up. Machelle was already half cut when she told me with a voice that resonated emphysema to jump in the back, and she continued to sink beers the entire trip.

There was just enough room for my bag and me, crammed between boxes, buckets, empty beer cartons, an Esky and a greyhound. Yes, a greyhound. They raced dogs and were on their way home to Scone from Cessnock where they had just bought the latest addition to their stable.

They named him ‘Stranger’ after me.

Wayne didn’t say much. Probably because whenever he did, Machelle told him to "shut up your face". He had sleep apnoea and kept drifting off the road as his eyes sunk. He'd catch himself and suddenly swerve back into the middle of his lane and Machelle would yell out, "Oi fuck-face" if you do that one more time I'm driving".

She kept calling him 'Charlie'. When I asked why she said it was on account of his, erm, “third leg”. Massive, she rasped, like Charlie the horse - although hearing wasn’t quite believing in that car.

Her skin was prematurely wrinkled, his too, because of their work - brick cleaners. They used hydrochloric acid and every job turned their skin to leather. But chain-smoking probably didn't help either.

Once more Wayne drifted towards the kurb and swerved viciously back and Machelle yelled, "Right, that's it, I'm driving." He pulled over and they swapped seats. I thought about getting out but she could hardly drive worse than old Wayne, so I gave her a few minutes to see how she went. I felt much safer with Machelle at the wheel, pissed as she was.

They would have taken me all the way to Scone, where they lived. They even offered me a bed for the night, but by the time we reached Aberdeen, Charlie-or-Wayne-or-whatever-his-face was getting blind drunk too. The conversation was all wind-ups, smart remarks and comebacks.

So I was thankful for the lift but glad to get out.

The following morning I caught a ride with Janet, a cattle farmer from the Western Downs in Queensland who works six thousand acres on her own. She told me there are plenty of women like her - it's an untold story of the bush. From Tamworth I hitched a lift with Joshua, a self-described conservative who liked to talk about politics.

I was making good time so I took a detour towards Coffs Harbour to catch up with some mates. Gavin picked me up and drove almost all the way to the coast, through the beautiful Dorrigo National park. As we circled down from the rocky hills into a deep gorge where thick rainforest fringed the road and waterfalls splashed onto it in places, Gavin told me about the reclusive community he lives in west of Kempsey.

I stayed with Mick and Fee for two days at their home just outside Coffs Harbour. They moved there earlier in the year with their twin daughters Zoe and Yani to find a better life than the one they could afford in Sydney:

After my brief coastal sojourn I pointed my thumb back inland towards Grafton, along the Pacific Highway. If you’ve ever gone that way you'll know there’s a Big Banana as you leave Coffs. That is where this chapter starts.

Living free in a square world

The Big Banana is not the best place to catch a lift. The traffic whizzes downhill around a slight bend – and although there’s a spare lane for cars to pull up in, they have to hit the brakes hard and quick to do it. So I wasn’t surprised it took an hour for someone to stop. That someone turned out to be Shaun and Mandy. I squashed into the back seat of their old station wagon beside their two kids.

Shaun was a young Koori bloke, missing four front teeth and wearing torn tracky dacks and cracked sunnies. Mandy was white, with blonde hair and the sunken eyes of someone who had been into smack at one time or another. They were both pot smokers, on their way home to a few cones after a day of fishing at the wharf in Coffs. Their kids, aged six and two, had beautiful brown skin, big eyes and dark lashes.

Home for them was Sandy Beach, a small strip of houses about 45 minutes north of the city. Most of the houses were set a half a kilometre back from the ocean and separated from it by a small estuary and some bush, which was good for me because it meant I could camp at the beach without being noticed.

They dropped me off at sunset. The estuary looped around in front of the beach, cutting it off from the sand dunes, spinifex grass and overgrown car park where I stood. The beach stretched a few hundred metres towards the ocean where white caps crashed and rolled in the distance, singing their familiar, hypnotic song. I breathed in the salty wet air, glad to be there.

It was the realisation of a childhood fantasy. I recalled the sense of regret I felt as a child at the way the world was, at the state of captivity we all live in, which I knew I was destined for. I recalled watching a documentary at school, aged twelve, about Aboriginal tribes living in remote parts of Australia. They still lived proper tribal life but I noticed with dismay that even they wore western clothes. I recalled an overwhelming feeling that there was beauty in their life, freedom, and that it was dying. I recalled wanting to live like this and regret at knowing I probably never would.

But the synchronicity of events at Sandy Beach made me realise I am living this fantasy in my own manner. Being picked up by a Koori family. Having nothing to eat except some fruit I had scavenged from my friends in Coffs, a muesli bar and some nuts I had carried from Sydney. Exploring the estuary. Wondering around the beach. Setting up my tent and swimming in the ocean. I felt free.

I set out early the following morning and caught a ride the rest of the way to Grafton with Yanti and Bass. They were a hippie couple on their way home to the Byron hinterland. Our conversation was slow and winding. The long silences allowed me to soak up the landscape. Coastal scrub gradually gave way to fields and farmland as we pulled inland. I nodded off in the back, tired from a bad night’s sleep while camping on a sandy slope in the rain.

I knocked back a lift outside Grafton from guy in a clapped-up ute with a barking dog on the front seat and had to wait two hours for a ride to Glen Innes. Karma? Perhaps. But I had a bad feeling about the bloke. Jesse Johansen finally pulled over for me. He worked in the mines last year and now drives trucks for a feed lot in Texas. He has "no fixed abode", sleeps in a swag beside the road and eats home-cooked-meals prepared by an old lady in town. It's helping him save money to buy some acreage. Jesse told about wanting to join the army but not being able to.

The following morning I awoke in a football field on the outskirts of Glen Innes and caught a lift with Damon. Like Jesse, Damon spent 2009 working in the mines. Unlike Jesse, his favourite thing in the world is shooting up ice - or so he said. Damon had been traveling around Australia for a year - a whirlwind tour of amphetamines, all-night benders, drinking and stealing. He told me about being caught shoplifting in Melbourne.

Damon dropped me near Warwick and I spent the night drinking with locals at the Sandy Creek Hotel, a beautiful old pub with big Queensland balconies and views of cockatoos sweeping across the flat grassland between clusters of stringy barks. Back on the highway next morning I caught a ride to Inglewood with a farmer in a well-worn ute. I didn’t catch his name but he told me life is tragic at times. He dropped me in Inglewood where I met an ambulance driver who drove me to Goondiwindi. It was one of my favourite legs of the trip.

You control your mind

She was an enigma. At a glance she looked like a young man, with bright orange hair cut short in a masculine style and a green and red tattoo of a stallion on her forearm. She was wearing a paramedic’s uniform of blue overalls and dark sunglasses, which she slid off to reveal bright blue eyes. She had a thin nose and delicate features, it was hard not to gaze at her and it struck me that she was beautiful.

She called two colleagues to let them know she was about to leave for Goondiwindi, adding loudly that they should expect her there in an hour. Pretty sensible for someone about to offer a lift to a hitchhiker. Meanwhile, I abandoned my usual practice of texting the vehicle's numberplate to my partner back in Sydney. I figured I was pretty safe in an ambulance.

Our conversation began slowly. She was wary of me so we talked about her job. She’d seen horrible things but the best part was being able to help people. Not necessarily saving lives, sometimes just holding someone’s hand and listening was enough - particularly patients with mental illnesses, so many of whom were left stranded by the health system. She didn’t want any photos taken and we agreed not to swap names. But talking was more interesting than staring in silence at the flat monotonous landscape and gradually she began to open up.

Seven years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told her it was probably terminal. They said there was a chance she could survive if they removed her lymph nodes but it would destroy her immune system – she would have to live in a virtual bubble, unable to ride horses as she has done since childhood. So she said no.

We talked about the power of the mind. As a younger woman she had tried to control everything in her life and although she achieved the markers of success, she was inexplicably unhappy. Cancer taught her that you have no control of life’s events – the only thing you can control is your response to them. You can wallow in life’s injustices or you can rise to face them. And it is often your response to events that shapes their resolution.

She survived cancer, has been clear of it for three years. Two years ago her partner gave birth to a baby girl, Georgia, who is now walking, talking, and learning day by day why she has two mummies and no daddy. The ambulance driver told me of her hopes for her daughter. They are not of wealth, prestige or academic success: simply of happiness. She doesn’t want the fact that Georgia has lesbians for parents to become an issue at school.

We pulled in to Goondiwindi and she got out to help me unload my bag from beside the ambulance bed in the back of the van. She wished me well and touched my arm as she shook my hand. “My name is Lina”, she said.

John Scriven picked me up the following day and drove me to Saint George. He's what you'd call a self-made man. He left school at sixteen to become a shearer and over the next sixteen years built himself a profitable business. But it cost him a marriage and forced him to reconsider his priorities. He's since remarried and discovered there's more to life than work and money.

In Saint George I happened to walk past an office with darkly tinted windows and the words "Barnaby Joyce, Federal Senator for Queensland" emblazoned upon them. Had it been any other politician I would probably have kept walking but there's something irresistible about Barnaby. Like a car crash. So I popped in.

If it were not for Barnaby's generous hospitality I would probably have left Saint George before the entire region was flooded. But he spent an entire afternoon with me, took me out for lunch and - four beers later - made arrangements to meet again at 7:30 that evening to introduce me to some locals. So I stayed an extra day.

Big mistake.

By now the water was rising, the roads were closed and there were very few cars on them. I waited for four hours in the rain as an only a dozen cars drove past. None stopped. That evening, tired and frustrated, I headed to the pub and begged for lifts.

But to no avail. The next day I spent another four hours beside the road as the skies began to darken overhead. Just as I losing all hope I received a phone call from the band that had been playing in the pub the previous evening. The road north to Roma was officially closed but they were desperate to get there because their bass player had tickets to see Muse's concert in Brisbane, and was catching a plane from Roma. They knew I was trying to get out of town and offered me a lift - the only question was, would we make it across the flooded roads?

I ended up spending three days with the band. They were from the Byron hinterland and were touring the outback playing at pubs along the way. They comprised a mother and her two sons, a father and his two sons, plus a friend of the boys. They were heading along the same route as me - as far as Winton - and were pretty chilled about me tagging along, so I stayed and camped with them by desert creeks.

My last night with the band was spent in Bladensberg National Park. A wild thunderstorm hit. It split a tree only meters from their bus and filled the creeks with rain. We were worried that if it rained any more we might get trapped by rising creeks, so the following day we packed the bus and left. The road out was covered in deep puddles. We crossed them cautiously, then came to a causeway where the water was running high and strong. With all their gear in the bus the band didn't want to take the chance of getting washed away - so we said our goodbyes and I continued on foot, across the causeway and on through the desert towards Winton, with a little help from Jim.

From Winton it's desert all the way to the Northern Territory. There are a few hills between Cloncurry and Mount Isa, but otherwise it's straight and flat. I caught lifts with two young blokes - Joel and Ben - that took me half way down the Barkley Highway. As they drove I found myself staring into the distance, hypnotized by the geometry of the land. The sky goes on forever and the horizon is cut in half by the road, which disappears into a needle width. Staring down that long gray line towards infinity has a hypnotic effect. It’s a larger space for your mind to dwell in, conducive to larger thoughts, longer sequences of imagination. Joel and Ben weren't into talking much so we sat in silence, my mind wandering, nodding off and occasionally waking to find little change in the landscape.

Ben dropped me at a roadhouse on the Barkley Highway where I was offered a lift by a truckie, a big burly bloke named Barry. In finding a way to stay awake on long haul trips he's become deeply addicted to drugs. Or so he says. Turns out Barry's vice is a little more literary than speedy.

He dropped me at Threeways, where I spent an entire afternoon hitchhiking with no luck. When I hit the road the following morning, Black Betty was sitting at the roadhouse about 30 meters from me, her engine warming up for the day. As he was about to set off, the driver whistled me over. I had a ride in a road train! Terry was a laid back cowboy who had traveled Australia countless times working all sorts of jobs. He liked a story and had plenty to tell. And all the while, Black Betty hummed along at a steady 107kph...

Of all the roadside attractions between Sydney and Darwin the Undies Pub (as it's known) beats all. The place is a collage of Australiana and the strange bits and bobs that travelers have left behind: brassieres, undies, foreign currency, a bunch of hurling sticks which the Irish national team left as souvenirs - you name it they've got it. It's in the middle of nowhere but that hasn't stopped it becoming a major tourist attraction. The publican, Lindsay Carmicle, told me how it all began.

A little further up the road, Mataranka is a town of around 1000 people, most of whom are indigenous Waramungu. I stopped at the pub as usual (the best place for information in any small town) and got chatting to Derek. He was killing time until two o'clock when licensees are allowed to start selling takeaways. He introduced me to his people who were all waiting patiently at the pub, sipping beers until two o'clock when the real drinking would begin. Many of them had featured in the classic 1970s film, We of the Never Never. Derek showed me some of his paintings in the gallery next door and invited me to drink with them that afternoon. When two o'clock arrived a few of us chucked in for a carton of VB and went to sit in the drinking area, a shady field about 500 meters from the road.

In Katherine the next morning I waited as hundreds of cars and three hours cruised past. Nobody stopped. Perhaps they thought I was looking for a ride all the way to Darwin and didn't want to commit to 300km with an odd-looking stranger. So I gathered some sticks and made a sign on the roadside that said:

Eventually, a slowly spoken bloke in an old Land Cruiser picked me up. He was a carpenter on his way from the west coast to the east coast. He had been building houses for an indigenous community in Cunnanurra and was on his way to Brisbane via Darwin. I didn't catch his name. As usual my narcolepsy overtook me.

I stayed the night in Pine Creek and had dinner at a pub that's built of anthills. Pine Creek is the gateway to Kakadu Nation Park. There's a road that branches off the Stuart Highway towards Jabiru, on the far side of the park, but it's deserted this time of year as people head south for the wet season. Folk were saying I'd be lucky to get a lift out there. But I tried anyway. There were still a few days before I needed to be in Darwin. Taking the scenic route through Kakadu was a bit of a risk, but why not?

View Larger Map

I waited at the turnoff to the Kakadu highway for a few hours. It was a peaceful place to sit - under a tree with insects buzzing in my ears and clouds drifting across the horizon for miles. Finally an old sedan turned off the main road and pointed in my direction. It pulled up beside me. Inside was a family heading only as far as the Mary River Roadhouse. They told me it's in the middle of nowhere and hundreds of kilometers from Jabiru, but I jumped in anyway. I was sandwiched in the back seat between Lorraine and her uncle. He had some kind of skin disease. Leprosy perhaps. Every patch of exposed skin was covered in bulbous warts, some the size of golf balls. He told me it didn't hurt. Lorraine was going to see her young son in Mary River. She and her uncle were sipping cans of VB and passing a water bottle filled with white cask wine back and forth. The smell of booze mingled with the smell of sweat. I couldn't tell if it was theirs or mine.

They dropped me at the MR Roadhouse and I waited for hours in the wet heat. Some German girls in a hire-van were going my way but had no room for me. A few blackfellas began trickling in to buy booze and they sat chatting for a while. It turned out they were taking two cars to Jabiru. One was full but other was a Land Cruiser with bench seats in the back. The driver was a young bloke called Josh. The deal was he'd take me if I paid for fuel, but when we arrived at the service station in Cooinda Josh said not to bother. So I bought some cold drinks and we were on our way. There were two girls in the front with him. Nobody talked much so I just sat in the back and soaked up the scenery.

My final lift was with a bloke named Scott, an industrial chemist on his way back from a uranium mine on the edge of Kakadu. He was about my age and we had lots in common so it was a relaxed trip with plenty to talk about, but I didn’t find it particularly captivating. Throughout this journey the people most similar to me have captivated me least.

As we rolled towards Darwin I traced my journey back through the people who had driven me, or helped me in some other way. About 35 of them. That's as great statement about people, that there were so many willing to take me so far, all generous, friendly and mostly interesting. I know many of you have been following the blog since we met, so - you know - thanks heaps for the lift!

About 100km from Darwin the scenery changed. Mango orchards and palm trees began to line the roads, bougainvilleas appeared as red and purple gashes of colour against the green, and huge frangipanis reached into the sky like coral. I spent two days in Darwin. The sky opened up half a dozen times and dropped heavy sheets of water on the place but the temperature never dipped below 30. It was a beautiful redneck town where the people were larger than life and the insects almost as large as the people.

I’m now sitting on the plane back to Sydney, flying more or less over the route I have just traveled. The land is baked red and cracked with huge scars that run for miles. They look like dry riverbeds that have crumbled over centuries and worn grooves into the earth, or like ancient ancient scars shaped by spirits of the dreaming. This year sunlight catches pools of water that have fallen on the dry places. From my window they appear as little drops of light sprinkled across the outback.

The airplane passes over my home on the Hawkesbury River and circles into Sydney, the harbour sparkling below with the bridge and the opera house appearing as miniatures in the distance, little figurines whose iconic symbolism fails to convey the romance that exists outside the cities of Australia, where the wild things are. I am glad that I have visited a few of those places and have met the romantic people who inhabit them, people who love a good story and have plenty of them to tell.


Amrit said...

Hi iam amrit from pokhara nepal hope u remember me u come in our cg harware shop so whats up ???

Really nice website u have !!

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