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Life On The Road

YOU always remember your first.

So they say. I can’t – but then not many can remember where they were at age two, let alone two weeks. Likewise, I only have my parents and some old black-and-white photos showing that at some point in December 1980, we trekked down the old Bruce Highway from our home in Townsville down to Mum’s family in Brisbane. It’s a trip you could never repeat – me wrapped up in a bassinet with a net over it, which in turn was secured to the Mighty Datsun. Dad really had to drive carefully, lest his unsecured newborn pinball between the sides of the bassinet. He somehow managed to do this despite becoming one of the first to drive the coastal stretch between Sarina and Marlborough, missing the turn-off for the old road through the mountains and instead driving down the dirt highway still awaiting its tarmac topping.

That was my first road trip. We had plenty more through childhood – Dad’s military career and my grandmother’s untimely passing from a brain tumour meant we pinballed from Townsville to Canberra to Brisbane to Toowoomba to Queanbeyan to Caboolture back to Brisbane; Dad driving his ever-increasing brood while we did our best to drive him nuts. On top of that, with Mum’s parents living in Morayfield, Caboolture and Nanango, and Dad’s in Mildura, trips to visit relatives were always planned out well in advance.

Thus childhood played out in a succession of cars, vans, cheap motels, service stations, 80s mix tapes and massive arguments between four young boys. The day before would see Dad sound asleep in preparation for the drive ahead – Mum never trusted herself not to fall asleep, and even if she did it’s moot whether Dad would have relinquished the wheel anyway – while we had to pack our bags for the trip ahead. An early dinner, the car packed, and by early evening we were away. Trips south would inevitably find us at 2am in some country service station, simultaneously warming up, stretching out and pestering both parents for some chips or lollies. Daylight hours would involve mass games of “I Spy” and outbreaks of spontaneous karaoke syndrome, when our car alternated between a giant John Williamson jukebox of Australian folk tune and all Dad’s greatest hits, turned up LOUD. So ingrained is the latter on my memory that it wasn’t until I was 15 or so that I realised that Elton John’s falsetto chorus on Crocodile Rock wasn’t just Dad playing silly buggers.

The family settled down a bit after that last move to Brisbane. We spent nearly four years in the one house before heading slightly closer to the city in late 1995. Soon after I began boarding school in Toowoomba, thus getting to know the Warrego Highway rather well as we trekked up and down for school sport, weekends away and holidays. In 1996 I made my first solo trip down to Mildura on the Greyhound; in 1997 a bus took me around New Zealand’s South Island as part of a school trip.

THE next road trip was the biggest though. These days it’s hard to comprehend just how expensive it was to fly around Australia back in the 1990s; my favourite statistic from that time is that for the same price for a return trip from the East Coast across to Perth, you could buy an around-the-world ticket and really make a day of it. Wanting to visit an aunt over in the western capital meant getting imaginative with the travel arrangements, skipping the $1000+ airfare and paying around $800 for an itinerary that read Brisbane-Melbourne-Adelaide-Perth-Adelaide-Mildura-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane. The original plan saw the Melbourne and Sydney legs swapped around, which would have given me daylight hours in the two major cities; unfortunately the family in Mildura I wanted to see would be away those dates.

The whole trip was one of those things you can only do when you’re young and stupid. It took 24 hours to get down to Melbourne; an overnight trip to get across to Adelaide, then another 30 or so to cross the Nullabor to Perth. Despite the trip length it was all relatively comfortable – I managed to sleep most of the time I sat next to someone, including the entire Melbourne-Adelaide stretch where I jagged a seat at the top and front of a double-decker bus, meaning I could fully stretch out onto the raised platform directly in front of me. If ever there was a bonus to topping out at 5’8”…

The sector to Perth was easily the most fascinating. I remember not long after leaving Adelaide looking up to see the world’s bluntest sign:

Northern Territory →
Western Australia ↑

It definitely showed what kind of emptiness we were about to go through. This was only heightened when we stopped off at Ceduna for a meal (the first time I’d ever tried oysters) – I thought we’d crossed most of South Australia, only to look at the map on the wall and realise that not only were we not in Kansas any more, it’d be a very long time before we were anywhere at all.

The Nullabor came and went as we past the Great Australian Bight during the Great Australian Night. The driver woke us as we crossed the state border at some ungodly hour to let us know that we’d be stopping at the local police station in case they wanted to search the bus for drugs.
Drugs? On a Greyhound? You reckon the bus yesterday was found with a whole heap in the toilet? Pull the other one mate, it plays God Save The Queen. After arriving late the next afternoon into Perth it turned out that no, he wasn’t joking – one of the drivers from the day before had found a whole bag of cocaine hidden away in the bathroom. Delayed that bus for a while, which definitely makes the culprit a prime candidate for a lynching in my books.

Then again it had been a long trip.

Once in Perth the sensible thing to do would have been stay put for two weeks, venturing out for supplies and not much else before the 60-odd hour trek back home. Which is why I found myself in a full car at stupid o’clock with my uncle and his mad mate, heading back east to a place called Peak Charles where the pair of them would climb up some sheer rock faces and I’d try not to get hurt. We stopped at Wave Rock along the way, before heading down over 100km of dirt road to our final campsite. It was as remote as I’d ever been – should something happen we were at least 100km as the crow flies from the nearest communities of Norseman and Esperance, a figure all-too-real when I managed to slide down a rock face as I tried to cut a new path across the face of a mountain, rather than going back to the bottom and taking the footpath back up the top. A couple of fortunately-placed saplings impeded my progress but increased my lifespan long enough to get back to Perth ok.

The road trips were a lot shorter once back in Perth; the longest a trip out to Fremantle to see the jail and try Australia’s best fish and chips out on the waterfront. Before too long though it was time to farewell the relatives and jump back on the Greyhound heading east. On boarding the driver said I was sitting next to a little blonde woman, a trip highlight that last as long as it took to find my seat and realise that in WA “little blonde woman” meant “big, fat blonde man”. The whole way from Perth-Port Augusta I found myself with half an arse hanging off the seat in order not to have any kind of physical contact with the man; more than once I found myself looking longingly at the luggage racks and wondering if I was just small and light enough to squeeze in for the night.

Port Augusta brought both physical and comedy relief. The physical relief was that a few disembarked there and I could finally move into a spare double-seat; the comedy from the Chinese man that must have gone exploring and never made it back. After stomping up and down the bus a number of times to confirm he could still count past 10, the driver eventually muttered something about giving this bloke all the time in the world and driving off, while the rest of us looked out the windows for signs of a streak of panic and/or vengeance to come tearing our way.

AFTER more than 10,000km on the road I made it home. While I was 18 and officially an adult at the time, my trek across to Perth was really my adolescent self’s last hurrah. Eighteen months later I headed west out of Brisbane with a full car, a Canberra street directory and no idea what would happen when it came time to actually use it. The Triple M radio signal stayed with me right until Cunningham’s Gap, dropping out along with my childhood and adolescence once over the crest of the pass. Adulthood kicked in along with the CD I had to keep me company.

And just like childhood, adulthood began with a road-trip.

Life On The Road

StuartAJohn

West End, Australia

Artist's Description

As an Army Brat with parents from two different states, we spent a lot of my childhood exploring the Australian highway system.

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