Chapter 4: Australia '97
After New Zealand I was a bit stuck for something to do. I really wanted to go back to Europe, where my girlfriend was, and maybe settle down for a while, learn some more French, hey earn some more money! But there were only ten weeks left before the Universal Esperanto Congress in Adelaide.
I'd lived in Adelaide for almost two years and I'd left mere months before this congress was scheduled. I mean this is a big thing, that draws many thousands of participants the world over, and to be frank, although I'd picked up Esperanto on the road a few years back ('93/'94) I'd never been to one of these Universal Congresses. A part of me wasn't so keen really, I'm just not a great conference lover I guess. But another part of me knew this was its first appearance in Australia, probably its last in my life-time, that I'd meet a lot of old friends there, and that my help would be well appreciated. So with only ten weeks left before it would all happen, it was easy to postpone my plan to return to Europe a little.
But what to do with those 10 weeks? To be frank I was a little tired of the road and wanted to stop and catch up on some work, writing among other things. So I went in to my old boss (of three years earlier) at the Port Kembla steel works and asked him if there wasn't any work on. Sure thing. Signed me up for eight weeks on a consulting contract. Just what I needed.
So I was back home for eight weeks. I caught up with old friends, and the changes ... somehow of course it wasn't home anymore ... people move, things change, families come on the scene, and so on. It was home but it wasn't. Either way I used the eight weeks well to refamiliarise myself, catch up with the gossip, do a good job, earn some good money and compile a lot of hitching notes and resources. I bought a ticket from Sydney to Europe with Eypt Air and then I hit the road ... though it wasn't quite that simple.
Though I'd paid for the ticket I didn't in fact have it yet, nor a visa for Egypt, and I left my papers with a travel agent to sort it all out before I got back from the congress in Adelaide. I was living with my parents in Kiama about 100 km south of Sydney, and had to get to Adelaide, some 1500 km west of where I was.
I had a motorbike, but it was winter and I'd ridden this stretch two winters running. It wasn't much fun really. 1500 km of long straight road and frosty winter air on a motorbike isn't the stuff of dreams really. I'd hitched Europe, Asia and New Zealand, and it was time I gave it a shot at home. But the landscape wasn't very encouraging.
Enter Ivan Milat. A crazed lunatic living not far from where I was. After a manhunt that dragged on for years, he was finally in jail, convicted of having killed 7 hitch-hikers on the Sydney-Canberra run. This was one of the major news events of the time, and fresh in everyone's memory. It didn't as you can imagine boost the safety-image of hitch-hiking any. Well that's understating the matter anyhow.
I'd shared the idea of hitching this run with a lot of friends over the months leading up to it. Not a single one of them understood, the unanimous response was to question what little intelligence I seemed to have. One good friend said to me, "Bernd, I have two words for you: Ivan Milat".
Believe me, when everyone you know rejects your enthusiasm, questions your intelligence and wants to pray for you, this is not a very encouraging situation. It works well to boost any hint of insecurity you may have harboured to begin with. You have to be one stubborn son of a bitch to clench your teeth and go ahead with it anyhow, and even then it eats into the joy of the event rather like acid.
But to say I set out on a bad foot foot would be lying. No, I was saved, by an angel I'd never been aware of, in the guise of an old friend in Adelaide. I rang Mark just prior to leaving, had every intention of catching up with him in Adelaide and thought I'd warn him of the fact. Mainly because he'd expressed a strong interest in Esperanto, and asked me to let him know when the congress was on.
Now Mark was different (Marie, his wife, knows that of course). Asking me how I was coming, I told him of my intention to hitch, and my low spirits on account of the bad vibes being thrust at me. "Don't worry 'bout it man", came the first words of support I'd heard, "I've hitched all 'round Australia and it was the time of my life, wouldn't do it any other way ...". Hell, he'd even hitched by the Belangalo State Forest, at the very time Ivan Milat was dumping corpses there! Water off a duck's back to this boy though. Those are the risk I guess, but hey, driving a car's risky but everyone does it.
I think it fair to say that Mark was a life-saver. With his enthusiasm, and passion for the deed, he provided that hinnt of fraternity that we need to bolster our spirits when we stand against the crowd. I was recharged somehow and I hit the road with smile inside which may never have been the case if Mark hadn't entered the scene ... and so opens the story of my trip to Adelaide and back in the July of 1997.
It was a trip so full of highs, that it stands out as one of my most treasured months in Australia. An icon, and a mystery to me somehow. Many of the episodes which follow are so far-fetched as to challenge even my ability to believe them in reflection. But so they stand, and so they passed ... and the denizens of the road have little trouble believing it. All that follows really did happen, can and does, if only you throw yourself open to the world and let it walk on in -- and that is just what some of the characters below are doing. That is the magic of wandering ...
I'd hitched for years and years, in a lot of places, but never at home, always elsewhere. It was like another life somehow, the home life and the life of the road had never come so close. Now I was standing on the highway not 100 metres from my old home, where my parents still lived and with whom I'd just been staying with. I held a sign: "Heading South". I couldn't help but wonder if anyone I knew would drive past, and if so what they'd think. Few if any would have known me as a hitch-hiker, and no one ever saw a hitch-hiker in these parts anymore. Would they rub their eyes in disbelief? Would they stop? Would rumours spread? My parents were only vaguely aware of what I was doing I think, I mean they knew it, I had no secrets, but it wasn't a theme often discussed, they clearly didn't approve much, and kind of left it in the background of their minds.
I eyed the traffic a little nervously somehow. This was not the time and place to be stuck for 6 hours and walk back home to my folks in dismal failure. There was a little pressure to succeed somehow. I'd felt similar apprehension in years gone by, hitching from out front of a friends' or relatives' houses, knowing they were curious how long I'd be there, and if I'd get away or not. Inevitably they're sceptical, I mean people don't hitch anymore after all ...
As it turns out traffic was light and I was counting cars. The 50th car stopped for me. Not bad really. "If one in 50 cars stops for me in the coming months I'll not be waiting around much" I thought. It was a couple from Sydney on their way down the coast with their baby in the back. He doesn't usually stop to pick up hitchers, it's just too damned dangerous nowadays. But then my guess is he doesn't get much chance to stop for hitchers, they're just too damned scarce nowadays! Either way, I looked trustworthy enough to throw me in the back with the baby, and Ivan Milat wasn't a hitcher after all!
He used to hitch a lot in his youth, knew the ropes well. A lot of walking. Shared lots of yarns, a shame the ride was so short, maybe a half hour. I love hearing hitchers tales, and it got me to thinking about collecting them properly for a change, with a note book, or a dictaphone or something. It wasn't to eventuate on this trip, but the thought wasn't to let me go.
After my first ride ever in Australia, I fund myself on a junction south of Nowra, the Huskisson turn-off, where a lot of witches hats and barriers were making things a little unattractive for the hitcher. A construction zone is kind of a mixed blessing at times, often it will slow the traffic right down of course, but then again often not, and it does distract the drivers somewhat and often deprive them of any shoulder to stop on. So it was at the Huskisson turn-off.
Still, thumbing her nose at the odds, lady luck delivered me a car inside of a few minutes. He's on his way to Bega, and can leave me at the turn-off to Canberra on the way. He's an insurance detective it turns out, on his way to check out a claim. His job is to spy on people who have insurance claims, to uncover any fraud on the claimants part. He travels a lot on the job, and can't share too many details for reasons of discretion alas, I'm mighty curious as you can imagine. You know, if you have an accident and claim to have a limp or something, this is the guy that hangs around your house after dark taking videos of you walking just fine! That sort of thing. You meet all kinds on the road all right!
At the Canberra turn off just north of Batemans Bay I didn't wait long before I got a short ride with a quiet old guy just a few k inland. He leaves me on a kind of dumb turn off alas, with not much of a shoulder to stop on, and I was better off at the roundabout where he picked me up. That's life I guess.
Still it wasn't long before a car pulled up. I hadn't waited a whole half hour anywhere on the trip yet, and was beginning to think I should have hitched Oz before. I was flattered by a lady and her two daughters on their way to Canberra. Fist thing I'm told as I get in is how respectable I look! Guess it helps to look respectable when hitching. She's a diplomat, or was in any case, and thinks much of the hoo ha about hitching is probably a little exaggerated and looking for an insiders point of view. She'd travelled a lot and seen a lot and felt much as I do, that there are those who dream of adventure, worrying about the risks and never experiencing any, and there those that just do it! Well we had a lot of stories to share anyhow, and had a wonderful ride.
It turns out they live in Canberra, and are building a holiday house on the coast. They'd been staying on the coast for a while, building, and today the daughters insisted they drive back to Canberra. You see tonight Pauline Hanson was launching her One Nation party in Canberra, and the girls just had to go along and march in protest. This was happening a lot to Pauline Hanson and she'd turn out to be a common theme during my hitch around Oz.
Pauline Hanson was an independent member of parliament, originally a fish and chip shop proprietor, who was evicted from the Liberal party for reasons I won't speculate on. She ran for parliament alone on a "stop immigration, and aboriginal funding" banner and won the seat of Ipswich. She raised some very sore points along the way, and hampered by a complete lack of talent in presenting her views amicably managed to insult a lot of people, and inflame a lot of tension. She was generating headlines in and out of Australia, particularly in Asia, whose people she wasn't quite flattering, and it was only right that we should go and protest.
So if I have nothing more to thank Pauline Hanson for, I have at least this one lift to thank her for! I was even dropped off directly at the National Library of Australia, where I could check my emails, and delve some more into the archives for hitching related material, before dropping in on my friends Spike and Maria, where I spent the night.
The morning was a big rush, everyone was running late for work. So it was just a few quick goodbyes and I set off alone. I walked into Belconnen and caught a bus to Cockington Green on the Barton Highway, where I waited thumb extended. It was cold, July in Canberra is cold, there was a frost, and it almost snowed the night before. Traffic was light and I counted cars again, to pass the time. It was so cold though I decided I'd count 100 cars, and if I still didn't have a ride I'd start walking, just to keep warm. Well I got as far as 75 and decided to quit then and there and start walking, I was freezing my little butt off. So I turn around and start walking, and immediately this great big lumber passes me from behind, and comes to a rattly halt before my very nose. Scared me silly at first, had trouble believing he'd stopped for me. Would be great of course, but somehow not so flattering, that the first thing to drive by that couldn't see my face should stop for me!
The truckie was quiet at first, but he opened up on the way to Yass. He had lots of stories of hitchers he'd picked up on his runs between Melbourne and Brisbane. One woman he picked up was a bit of a vagabond, stuck with him for three weeks, sharing his cabin with him along the way. She got out after three weeks at this schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere, nothing there, just a schoolhouse somewhere up near Grafton. She never told him why, and it seems he never asked.
I got to thinking of collecting stories again, there is just so much that goes on out there on the road, that suburban lives never touch on, and there's a certain guff romance to it all that's worth sharing.
I got out at the huge services near Yass on the Hume Highway. There was only a trickle of traffic, but the sun had shown its face and it was a relatively pleasant place to wait out in the country. I still had my old "Heading South" sign which I held up again (it wasn't much use on the way up the coast to Canberra and then Yass, as I was heading west).
It was only a short while before and old man pulls over and offers me a ride. Turns out he's only going some 12 km down the road, so I turn him down. Much better off here at this Services than 12 km further on a motorway entry ramp. Thanking him for the kind offer all the same, I stand up turn around, sign still in hand, and another car pulls up immediately behind this old man, before he even has a chance to pull out! I've been in lines of hitchers before, but I've never had the cars lining up to take me along. This was a new one on me.
This second car carried a camping gear salesman from Sydney, on his way to Shepparton to see a client. It was a nice long ride, most of the way to Melbourne, and we talked camping gear and hitching and the other subtleties of life along the way ...
I got to Shepparton around 4 pm with not much daylight left. The camping gear salesman dropped me off on the road out of Shepparton in the direction of Melbourne. I'd taken a gamble in coming off the Hume Highway to Shepparton, but thought it looked like a large enough town to provide some traffic headed for Melbourne, only an hours drive or so away.
I was standing right out front of the local airport, and light planes were coming and going as I waited. It was a small fairly informal looking airport, and I couldn't help but think that some of these planes might be flying to Melbourne. The possibility presented itself to go into the airport and ask around if anyone was going to Melbourne and wouldn't mind taking me. I'd heard of its happening before, and the idea really grabbed. Still it was late in the day, with not much daylight left, and the chances were slim at best, most of this traffic was likely to be local joy flights not traffic to Melbourne, and it would cost me at least a half hour to walk in and chat the pilots up, which if unsuccessful, would leave me standing in the dark out here with no street lights and the winter chill to contend with. I thought it more prudent to wait for a car until sundown, and then play the airport card for what it was worth, there was always a cheap hotel somewhere in Shepparton as a fall back.
As it turns out I got to a lift tï Melbourne before it got dark and the issue dissolved, with a small hint of regret on my part as I watched the airport disappear behind me.
My ride to Melbourne was interesting. We had a lot to talk about, me and the driver. We touched on the Hanson phenomenon at one stage and that got things cooking. Turns out he's a fairly passionate Hanson Sympathiser. Me, on the other hand, I'm a little irked by the woman's lack of tact, and education to be frank, certainly no sympathiser, what you'd probably call a Hanson opponent. But the drivers passion is burning, and it needs expression, he's more than a little pissed off at the whole thing. He has some good points mind you, yes things have been a little screwy in Australia, our relationship with the indigenous folk is one littered with mistakes and corruption. And yes, Hanson has raised some issues that probably needed raising. But there was steam coming out of this guys ears at one stage, he started driving a like a crazed man, fast, recklessly, abusing other motorists ...
Wow, this was one hot ride, an almost perfect picture of the kind of emotions Pauline Hanson provokes in people ... Years of tension and frustration with the Australian government were surfacing here, and I was there to absorb it.
Here I was, a Hanson hater in disguise as a sympathiser. Well not exactly, but when you're in a car with someone who's threatening to turn into a crazed axe murderer at any moment, you don't exactly raise your views in a confronting manner. No, much rather you look for the common ground, I mean I can't really act or lie (very well) either, but I am capable of adding my voice to those few parts of the Hanson agenda that are on track, and phrasing any disagreement in mild "well, kind of, but it's not always that simple" terms.
It highlighted one of the less well known sides to hitching: that it's a great exercise in communication, and public relations. Provides free lessons so to speak, in how to get on with people. This was certainly one tense ride, there was blood flowing in this guys veins and of course my nerves were a little on edge too.
I'd hitched all the way from Canberra to Melbourne in one day. I wasn't certain before I set out from Canberra that I'd make it, it's a long way, some 800 km, and the days were short, but here I was, in one of the northern suburbs of Melbourne, my last driver for the day dropping me at a tram stop headed into town. I put my bag on the bench at the tram stop, pulled on a skivvy to ward off the winter cold, and turned around to find a car had just pulled up at the tram stop and was winding down its passenger side window. An arm reached out with a scrap of paper, and a voice cried out "You need a tram ticket?". A little surprised I bent over to look at the young guy at the drivers seat and he explained that he had a tram ticket he didn't need anymore that was still valid for an hour, and if I needed it I was welcome to have it. I thanked him, took the tram ticket, and let him drive off.
Looking the tram ticket over I couldn't help but laugh out loud, I laughed and laughed, I hadn't laughed so much in a while. Here I was, hitched all the way from Canberra to Melbourne in a day, a feat few would consider likely, and for the last leg of the trip, the tram ride to my friend Dave's place, some stranger drives up out of the blue and hands me a ticket! I still can't work out why he had a tram ticket if he had a car ...
Wiping the tears from my eyes I boarded the tram and asked the conductor how I was going to reach Number 1, St. Kilda Road ... I felt blessed by the angels somehow, and the back of my mind wondered why on earth hitching had ever become so unpopular.
I spent the weekend at Dave's place on St. Kilda Road. It was a busy weekend his sister and fiancee were staying at the same time, and we all had a "get to know Melbourne" weekend, visiting a bad restaurant and the casino along the way. We talked a lot about this book and how it was growing, and Dave wanted to be in it, so this is it, officially Dave's bit in Bernd's hitching book.
Escaping a city the size of Melbourne is a bit tricky really. I checked the maps and picked a place that seemed right to me (Albion on the Western Highway), but you can never really be sure about the condition of the road, if there's a shoulder or not, and it pays to have some experience or advice. So I thought of the Lonely Planet guide books, they'd often had a little advice in the New Zealand edition for hitching out of towns so I figured they may do for the Australian edition as well. Problem was I wasn't carrying one and no-one around me had one, so I had to check the book stores out. I checked on Saturday and they were all out of Australia and Victoria guides for some reason, I checked another on Sunday, and finally before heading off I quickly checked another on Monday with no luck. All big shops with lots and lots of Lonely Planet guides but always out of stock when it came to the Australian edition.
I conjured pictures in my mind of a million guide-hungry backpackers flying into Melbourne and buying up the whole stock on arrival so that I was left without a reference. Of course I checked all the other guide books on offer too, but none had any hitching information, beyond the mandatory mention in the intro that added up to "Don't do it, but if you really insist, be very careful and good luck", which translates in the old language to "If you get robbed, raped or murdered on the way, you can't sue us, we warned you". Isn't our litigation happy culture fun?
So on the Monday morning I went out to Albion, a suburban railway station near Western Highway out to Adelaide and hitched from there ... Days later in Adelaide I found a copy of the Lonely Planet guides to Australia and Victoria, and they didn't have any advice on hitching out of Melbourne anyway, which it seems the angels of fortune were trying to tell me all along anyhow. But the trip to Adelaide was a gas all the same ...
As I left Melbourne I had Sharon in the back of my mind. I knew she'd be in Adelaide that night and only that night, and I left her a number to reach me on. It was 800 km from here to Adelaide, with every chance of reaching it in time to meet up with her. So I headed out to Albion from where I'd start the hitch, with high hopes.
At Albion, the Western Highway had no shoulder at all alas, but there was a traffic light up ahead that looked promising. If not I'd have to walk till I found a shoulder I guess. The lights were a fair way down the road, and as I was walking a car pulled into a bus bay a hundred metres ahead of me. Lady luck sure plays some winners sometimes. There was just this one bus bay to park in for as far as I could see in any direction, and just as I walk up to it, a driver spots me, the bay, and pulls in. Good start to the day, I'd say.
The young doctor at the wheel was headed out to Donald for a praktikum of a month or so, and offered me a ride as far as Ballarat where his road splits from the Western Highway. A little before Ballarat the Western Highway turned into a tangle of roads splitting in all directions and we were thrust off in the direction of Donald before we really had any chance to consider the options. Well, to be honest we'd discussed them on the way, and I'd decided it was probably better to get out at Ballarat and stay on the main highway if I wanted to reach Adelaide tonight. As it turns out I was going to Donald instead. Oh well, I'd never seen this pat of the country and it wasn't much of a detour. The country road to Donald kind of runs parallel to the Western Highway anyhow, in the direction of Adelaide, and it would leave m in Donald a mere 100 km off the Western Highway. I figured I'd probably get a ride in good time back onto the mai drag.
Dream on young man. As we drove out towards Donald, cars were decidedly scarce, I don't thinnk we ever found one in our direction and would pass an oncoming car ever few minutes or so. So it was that I ended up in Donald, aiming for the Western Highway, with plenty of time between cars to think up a strategy for stopping one. I practiced my harmless, wanton look mixed with a friendly smile and the impression I was going to freeze if someone didn't stop soon ... quite a challenge to mix all of that into the way you stand and stare at passing drivers. Well it was a wasted game I thought after a long wait, and to stop myself from freezing I started to walk in the direction I was headed. A pointless exercise really as the highway was 100 km away and Adelaide another 400 after that, but it does keep you warm and up the stakes a little, adding to that needy look so to speak. Worse come to worse after some hours of walking I'd have to turn around and walk some hours back into town. There was definitely no chance to sleep outside in sub zero temperatures with what I was carrying, not a vry healthy move anyhow.
It was aleady past midday and I wasn't even half way to Adelaide and a long long way from the main road that carried any traffic in that direction. With that thought in my mind, I put some melancholy music on my walkman, and trudge off. Well it worked, the fifth or sixth car thereafter pulled over, I wasn't even a long way out of town yet.
It was a guy from the railways, who's not allowed to take hitchers, against the company rules so to speak, but hey, this is Australia, rules don't matter so much, he picks up hitchers all the same. Alas he's going to Ouyen, which is not exctly on my way, a bloody long way off it in fact. Ouyen is way up on the Mallee Highway between Sydney and Adelaide in fact. Which meant of course that I could pick up some traffic there again, even if it was a long way away. Problem was he wasn't going to get there till rather late, he had some business on the way, and was planning to crash the night there in the Ouyen hotel. We shared some memories in fact, I'd crashed there myself on an earlier trip, not bad little place in my memory.
So I decided instead to aim for the Western Highway again where there was still a slim chance of making Adelaide that night. I got out a mere 14 km down the road at Litchfield, where he turned off in the direction of Ouyen. Well, matter of fact he wasn't turning off, he was carrying on straight through, I was turning off. Much to my dismay, as it meant that what little traffic did pass me at that junction was all carrying straight on through as well, and there wasn't much of that. Still, one or two cars did turn off, and ignore me, so someone was going my way.
After a long wait, it was time to up the stakes again and start walking in my direction. It would keep warm and maybe someone would see the depth of my commitment and save my butt from the cold, because now I was literally heading into the country, even at Litchfield there was nothing, just a junction and a barn I think (you don't need much to make it onto the map in Australia!).
Well walking sure does the trick, I'll tell you. I got warm, and just as before, the fifth car pulled over. When there's only one car ever few minutes it's pretty easy to count them ... It was about a half hour of walking before the fifth car came along! Actually this car didn't pull over at all, they stopped in the middle of the road a little way down and backed up to pick me up. You can do that when there's no traffic.
It was a farm couple. Their farm was halfway from here to Warracknabeal, the next town down the road. Mind you if Litchfield made it on the map, I wasn't expecting much from Warracknabeal. But they assured me Warracknabeal was a litle bigger and actually had a hotel. From their turn-off it was only another 10 or 20 km into tow, and I could walk it at a stretch. It was getting on, the sun was getting low in the sky, Waracknabeal was looking like a likely crash for the night all things considered. This was no place to be hitching at night, it was freezing, no street lights and no traffic ...
Fortunately it wasn't long before a man stopped to take me into Waracknabeal. Because there was still some daylight left I thought I'd try for the next town down the road, Dimboola, with the aim of crashing there for the night if I made it. Dimboola was back on the Western Highway in any case, spelling the end of my detour at least, if I could reach it before sundown.
I waited some time before a man pulls up. He's from Dimboola and on his way home. When we get to Dimboola there's still a quarter or half hour of sunlight left in the sky. The sun is nudging the horizon already but I figure to use what daylight I have left to try and lure a ride to Adelaide, before I call it a day and walk into town for the night.
In fact I'd just got out of the car, and the very nect car to pass pulls right over! Turns out to be David, a student in architecture, on his way home to Adelaide after a convention in Melbourne. He'd passed a hitcher earlier on the trip from Melbourne (Dimboola is half way between Melbourne and Adelaide) and felt a twinge of guilt, promising himself he'd stop for the next one if he sees one. And there I was ready for the picking and keen to make Adelaide for the night. We were made for one another somehow, I had to laugh.
On the way we encountered a fresh road accident. A half dozen cars were parked around the place, another car was standing side on in the middle of the road, with two young guys in it that couldn't move, but were still talking pretty well. It looked bad, but not life threatening somehow, and there wasn't much to be done anyhow. One of the people already there had already called the ambulance on a mobile phone (thank the lord for mobile phones!) and these guys didn't really need any more spectators so we pulled on through.
I got on real well with David, we had a good rave all the way into Adelaide. It was raining when we arrived so he took me right to Jeannette's front door. Jeannette was a beloved old housemate of mine, from a bygone era, when I was living in Adelaide (actually, the year before). I invited David in for a coffee or a beer, but he declined, and went on home.
Well, there I was, in Adelaide at a respectable hour after all (it was about 9 pm), though I was only half way by sundown. Sharon never did ring, it turns out she lost my number (I caught up with her in Sydney later on).
I got to Adelaide five days earlier than I needed to, and was still on such a high (from the trip thus far) after a days rest that I decided to hitch right on. I had a good friend in Alice Springs, and thought maybe I could hitch up to the Alice in two days and back in two days. It was Tuesday night and I had to be back on Sunday because I was commited as a tour guide for the Universal Esperanto Congress which was to start then. That left me with four days spare. Well Jeannette was quite excited about the idea as well, and keen to come, but we pulled the maps out and it turns out the Alice was some 2000 km away. There and back is a good four day drive, to hitch it in four days is really tempting fate.
So we shrunk the plan to Coober Pedy and back, that was about 2000 km round trip. Coober Pedy is roughly half way from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Problem was, Jeannette had work commitments on the Saturday, and thus on three days to spare, and that was cutting it a bit fine, so she opted out. I had four days though, and was keen to do it. If I got really really stuck, I figured I could catch a bus or something. Hitching is always a little more tense when you have a deadline alas. But given the track record thus far I was confident of reaching Coober Pedy in one day, and getting back in one day, which left me two days to explore the area, and it wouldn't hurt if I was back a day early to prepare for the congress either. At this stage I didn't even know for sure which tours I was guiding, or what they'd cover -- though I had some idea. There was room for preparation I guess.
Wednesday morning I took the bus to Gepps Cross, in the north of Adelaide, and started walking. Soon after I score a ride with Christian guy, who shares with me his wisdom. Apparently if I don't accept Jesus I'll be in eternal hell. He asked me if that didn't bother me. I replied "nope, not really". Nice chap all the same. The ride was short though, I was still in Adelaide!
It wasn't long though before I got a ride with a man and his kid, all the way to Dublin (not in Ireland). He used to hitch a lot himself and was most interested in writing, this book and my web work altogether. From Dublin I got a ride to Port Wakefield with an old man, and it was there that Lou picked my up.
Lou was a builder, headed for Andamooka, a tiny opal mining town in the middle of nowhere, where he was building a house for the policeman there. Lou was the classic Aussie, the real thing, a little opinionated, very down to earth, knows what he wants and likes, and a good mate as they say. And of course, he's ready to help a hitcher in need. Though he's got his limits. He picked up a young bloke heading south the week before, and the lad had no money on him at all, not enough to buy a sandwich. Well Lou wasn't exactly big on the sympathy, just thought the kid was a dolt, and should have stayed home where he belonged. I mean you go out on the road without a dollar to your name, and expect to get something for it? Lou wasn't real impressed.
Heading north we got to talking about the trip, the book, the stories and so on. It turns out that Lou had a friend in Andamooka, a Czech guy by the name of Pete, who'd hitched all 'round the world and written a couple of books about it. Pete was now painting the hotel in Andamooka which was owned by another Czech guy aparently. I had to meet Pete of course, and Andamooka was suddenly on my agenda. Only problem was, I wanted to make Coober Pedy that night, not Andamooka, if only to show it could be done.
Much of my talk with Jeannette earlier had centred around how likely it was that you could hitch to Coober Pedy in a day, or Alice Springs in two days and so on. So there was something there I wanted to test, and Pete wasn't going keep me from it. No, much rather when our paths separated at Pimba, I left Lou my details and told him, all going well, I'd be in Andamooka on the morrow and track down Pete, but failing that, he was to give me details to Pete, explain who I was and that I wanted to hear from him and see his books.
So it was that I was standing at Pimba around sundown, only half way from Adelaide to Coober Pedy, in spite of fairly good progress along the way. It didn't look good. The sun was on the horizon, directly behind me seen from the oncoming driver's point of view, making of me a silhouette against the red disc of the sun, against whose glare one looked the other way. That would have been the case if there were any cars driving that way, which there weren't so it wasn't really a problem I guess. Still it didn't look good from my point of view, the country was flat all around, nothing to see from here to the horizon except for little Pimba: a service station a couple of houses, and (Lou assured me) a $10 crash for the night should I need it, which was shaping up to be the case, even before I let Lou drive on to Andamooka without me.
I tried to stand in front of great big road sign so as not to have the sun right behind me, but it made little difference with no traffic, so I just threw stones at the sign to pass the time. In time a car did come along, and pass me, and minutes late another. Then with just a sliver of sun still showing on the horizon behind me this VW combi slows down on ist approach. Still moving slowly by, a guy shouts out the passenger side window at me "Where ya headed?".
"Coober!" I shout back.
"You're in luck," comes the reply
Barely stopping long enough to complete the manouevre the passenge hops out opens the van door, and dives into the back shouting "You can sit in front, get in", and we're on the road rolling towards Coober Pedy another 400 km or so down the road.
Roy was driving, and in the back now was Paul and his girl Zara. They were lying on an old mattress among a pile a asparagus crowns, that they were planning to sell on the way. Written in the dust on the side of the van was "Asparagus crowns for sale". Asparagus crowns are the roots of the plant, they fan out like a crown, and you can plant them to produce asparagus. They're worth quite a bit apparently, and here was half a van full of them.
Roy had ben dealing in opals for the past few years in and around Adelaide but business wasn't real good and he was driving up to Darwin, intending to sell the van there, hitch across to Indonesia on a yacht, and then up to China and Japan, picking up a child of his on the way. He had about $50 on him and these Asparagus crowns. He was plannig to meet a friend in Coober Pedy and do an opal deal, but he was running late and his friend was already heading south on the bus. So he was expecting to meet him in Glendambo on the way, which would mean a three hour wait on our part for the bus there.
Paul was in school and had dropped out to tag along to the Alice and Darwin, Roy was his part time guardian, and Zara, Paul's girlfriend had finished school and was studying hairdressing. She had family in the Alice they were planning to visit. Paul and Zara were planning to hitch back to Adelaide from Darwin when Roy sold the van.
Roy tells me there's a yacht race about to happen from Darwin to Indonesia, which is full of yachts looking for crew. Apparently it's a bureacratic nightmare getting a yacht into Indonesia, but to partcipate in this race is easy, so a lot of yachts are in it just to get their boats into Indonesia without going through all the red tape. They weren't in it to win, and often looking for crew to make the trip possible.
In Glendambo Roy rings his friend (who has a mobile on the bus), only to find the guy hasn't got any opals anyway, so there's no point in hanging around. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and was famished, so I ordered a burger to quell the hunger pangs. Paul and Zara were famished too, but Roy wouldn't give them any money to buy somethig, they had potatoes and things in the van they'd make for dinner when they got to Coober. But I couldn't eat i front of these kids, so I bought the dinner. Told them to order what they want, as long as they don't break me in the process, just fill up. They were embarassed and refused to take more than a single burger between the two of them. I insisted they take another at least, if not some thing else as well, you can't fill up on half a burger. But they refused adamantly, they weren't about to take charity for some reason.
Funny thing is, I had to pay when I ordered the food. When Paul ordered noone asked for any money. We ate up and hung around a bit for the bill, but it never came. We did our best to look like we wanted to pay, but noone caught on. We took the plates back and stood around a little waiting for a bill, but nooneshowed the least bit of interest. We left, and drove off, and still noone asked for any money. Cheapest meal I ever bought anyone! Funny thing is Paul and Zara thought I'd payed right at the start and weren't even aware of what had happened. When we talked about it in the van they felt guilty somehow for it. Not something I could easily understand. I mean they had no money at all, not even enough for the petrol to Darwin to be frank, and if noone's going to ask us for what little money we have, I'm not about to go up and force it on them. I mean why look a gift horse in the mouth. I see it as fate, these kids were treated to a meal by fate. Good on them, they needed it. It wouldn't have broken my bank to pay of course, and it didn't break the shops bank that we didn't, I'm more interested in the game that our fortunes play with us, than a few dollars here or there.
Roy and me had a great rave on the way. We talked philosophy and books we'd read. He was a Wing Chun advocat, a martial art I'd never heard of that dealt with passive strokes and fluid motions somehow. He wanted to find a good Wing Chun master in Asia if he could, and follow it up more. Paul and Zara cuddled in the back among the asparagus crowns.
We reached Coober Pedy around midnight. I'd made it! Adelaide to Coober pedy in a day. It can be done. By a whisker mind you, but here I was. It was cold though, damned cold. Roy had a camp site he often used passing this way, in creek bed out on the road to Oodnatta. He poked around a while trying to find it, but it was dark, and they'd changed the roads on him. I mean the roads out here are just dirt tracks anyhow, and not so easy to find in the dark in flat desert country. But by the same token it's not all that important the combi was doing pretty fine cross country from time to time when he missed it. We did eventually find the creek bed, and piled out of the van to scrounge up some firewood. Priority one, was a fire. It was cold, biting cold.
We built a fire and warmed up a bit, and then made our beds. There was one double mattress between the four of us, and a few sheets and sleepig bags. I had a sleeping bag on me but little else, and it was only a thin one. Roy, Paul and Zara took the matress as a threesome, but the put it uncomfortable far away from the fir for my likes. I laid some sheets out on the sand, almost on top of the fire, as close as I dared be anyhow without fear of catchig light. Then we stocked up the fire some in the hop of keeping it glowing all night at least. I repeat, it was cold, very cold.
It was so cold in fact that I couldn't sleep. I had all the clothes on that I had, and my sleeping bag and it was still cold. At some stage Roy got up and started pacing and working around on the fire, shivering. Paul and Zara seemed comfortable cuddling up close and soundly asleep. Roy asked me if I was asleep, and I said "no." I think we were both a little too proud to cuddle up like Paul and Zara somehow, so instead, we got up, and buried the fired under sand, then laid the sheets on the sand and slept on that. That worked. Roy was unhappy that he'd underestimatd the cold. He would have built a longer fire otherwise. As it was we could slep on the old fire bed, but it was round, so out feet got colder than comfortable during the night, but we did catch a little sleep finally.
I learned later that a few days earlier, it had snowed on Uluru (Ayers Rock). It doesn't snow on Uluru, it just doesn't, it's in the middle of a bloody desert. But now it snowed on Uluru, and we were camped in a creek bed by Coober Pedy without even a decent groundsheet to lie on, let alone a tent or a warm sleeping bag. It was below zero that night, and an experience that engenders one with a lot of respect for the aboriginals that lived (and still live) here. They had no clothes, no shelter, just fire, and one another, and a few skins if they were lucky. Respect them I do, envy them I don't. But then Paul and Zara were sleeping like babies, ah, the power of cuddling! The aboriginals must have been pretty good cuddlers I'd say.
We survived the night anyhow, barely, but we survived. They were headed on to the Alice the next day, and offered me a ride. Man was I tempted. Adelaide to the Alice in two days, that would leave me two days to get back. Now that would have said something. But I couldn't do it, I just couldn't. Firstly to hitch up in two days would have a stroke of luck, to hitch back in two days would be to depend on it, and invite our old friend Murphy to step in and miss my tour in Adelaide on Sunday (and what would a tour be without a guide?). To add to the trouble I didn't even have the number or address of my friend in the Alice, just a post office box number, and we'd probably arrive late with little time to track him down. Finally, it would leave no time to double up to Andamooka and catch up with Pete the Czech, which was definitely on the agenda.
Anyhow Roy was riddling me with horror stories about hitching this stretch. He'd done it a few times and taken as much as a week to get from Darwin to Adelaide. It was a hard stretch of road to hitch and I'd had a stroke of luck when they Roy and crew rolled up at sundown the night before. It seemed a month ago somehow, so much had happened since. The graffiti scratched onto road signs around Coober Pedy attest to the difficulty too. Catch phrases like "Mother Fucking Cunts won't stop" don't express a great deal of joy on the hitchers part. On the other hand, the hitchers that get off the mark in a hurry don't hang around to write their good luck stories on the road signs, and the kind of pessimism that Roy was expressing is challenge I love to be honest. It reminded me of the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. They all said that couldn't be done, but we did it, and in good time. Put frankly I'd have done this too if I didn't have responsibilities in Adelaide on the Sunday. "Hah!" you say, "a hitch-hiker with responsibilities -- a contradiction of terms". Well, you may be right, but there I was, a hitch-hiker with responsibilities all the same.
So it was that I left Roy, Paul and Zara in Coober Pedy, in the morning, took a shower at the camp ground, and headed out to the road (and the not so encouraging graffiti) for the trip to Andamooka ....
I was standing just outside of Coober Pedy, in front of a big road sign, with lots of negative expletives scrathed into it over the years by the hitchers in these part. "Mother Fucking Cunts won't stop" reads one of them. Not exactly enouraging. I was headed for Andamooka, which meant I'd have to double back the way I'd come the day before, to Pimba, where Roy had found me, and then out towards Roxby Downs and Andamooka, 100 km from Pimba at the end of a dead end road. No-one passes through Andamooka, absolutely no-one, the road stops there. You can only come back. And that was my goal for the day. "Mother Fucking Cunts won't stop" wasn't an encouraging place to start.
Ah, but lady luck is always there to step in when she's needed. Murphy isn't nearly as powerful as some think he is. There I was, looking at the blank road before me, flat desert country, no cars to speak of, the occasion solitary vehicle passing me by, and in no time at all Ian rolls up and picks me up. Like I was saying, the hitchers that don't spend hours and hours waiting at this road sign outside of Coober Pedy never get a chance to write "Mother Fucking Cunts do stop" ... they're too busy travelling south.
Ian was travelling south with his half aboriginal son Isaac (Ian wasn't the aboriginal half). Isaac was sitting in the front, and the back seat was folded down, but Ian got out and moved a lot of junk around and folded up the back seat for me, and of we drove. He's going all the way to Port Augusta, but of course I'm only headed as far as Pimba where I turn off for Andamooka. Still, that's most of the way to Andamooka from here, in one ride, so I was pretty happy.
Ian was Christian. A good Christian by my standards, a pleasant fellow to get along with, very understanding and tolerant of other people beliefs and views, notably those of the aboriginals. He won a place in my heart somehow with his caring and tolerant nature, seemed to be what most every Christian should be, at least a very good role model. But all the same his thinking wasn't always down the straight and narrow.
Consider this: Ian was quite convinced that he'd solved the age old problem of the chicken and the egg. For the life of him he couldn't see why all the worlds philosopher hadn't come up with answer yet, and here was Ian to save the day. I love this kind of bold thinking somehow, it always brings a smile to my face. Isn't it the case that we're all sometimes tempted to believe that the way we se something is not only right, but so obvious we can't imagine why noone else has seen it like this?
Well, which came first? The chicken or the egg? So goes the problem. I mean the chicken lays the egg right? But the chicken hatches from the egg too? It's the classic loop with no entry problem, what we might call a viscious circle or a catch 22. The point of course is that there isn't an answer, that the answer lies outside of the problem. Neither the chicken nor the egg came first, they came together.
But here's Ian's version. The chicken came first. It's obvious really. I mean if the egg came first, it would have been cold, without a chicken to sit on it and keep it warm. And we all know that a cold egg doesn't survive, so it'll never hatch. So for the egg to hatch, there must have been a chicken to brood on it. So the chicken must have come first. Obvious really.
So I ask Ian: Where did the chicken come from, if not from an egg? And if from an egg, didn't the egg come first?
No, No, No, not at all. You see the chicken is the beginning, there was nothing before the chicken.
But there is no beginning, that's the whole point.
Oh yes there is, there must be a beginning, the question is asking, "what came first?". For something to come first, there must be a beginning, so the question itself insists that there's a beginning and the chicken is it or the egg wouldn't hatch.
And so on .... Interesting line of reasoning, but I think I can see why all the worlds philosophers never came up with it, and only Ian has thus far. Ian's apriori definition of a beginning is of course quite fine, but escapes the very heart of the paradox which attempts to illustrate that without such an apriori definition there is not solution. But this isn't the place for a philosophical treatise, nor am I the philosopher to offer one on the chicken and the egg, but Ian's adamant conviction of rightness and depth of vision, still brings a smile to my face.
At one stage Isaac asked me if I believed in Jesus. I told him I'm not sure what he means. So he repeated the question "Do you believe in Jesus?", and I repeated the answer "What do you mean?". Now Isaac was young and we bounced this question-question pair between us a few times, and I tried to elaborate my question, to ask him what he means by "believe" but would always receive the same question in reply "Do you believe in Jesus?", with an intonation on believe as though that would help me to understand what it meant.
Ian got a little irate with me at this point and asked me if I couldn't just give the boy a straight answer. So I explained to Ian what I was tryig to get at, that I'm ot sure what he means by "believe". Does it mean for example: Do I believe that there was a man called Jesus? In which case I'd have to say yes, I do believe there was amna called Jesus. At which point Ian cut in and insisted "O.K. So you believe in Jesus! You're a Christian".
Well, I've never become a Christian quite that easily before. It doesn't feel so bad now that I'm a Christian I guess. Don't know what was keeping me from it for so long.
Of course I don't believe that Jesus was anything other than a man, but then that's not so important, I believe in him, he was a carpenter about 2000 years ago with a very good message, and certain charm to his character. What more do you need to be a Christian?
Well, I guess if the rest of Christian world thought as Ian did, I'd be more commonly accepted as a Christian, but as it stands I'd still consider my self a little insincere to say "Yes, I believe in Jesus", because I have this funny feeling that it generally means not "Do you believe there was a man called Jesus", but "Do you believe the man called Jesus was the son of God", implying an implicit belief in God, and so on and so on, lots of strings attached basically, that don't interest me much. But then I do take Jesus' message to heart in a great many ways, and wouldn't hasten to dismiss him or his words as nonsense.
But then you may be right in thinking that on occasion I could just assume what someone means by "Do you believe in Jesus" and answer as I have here with a qualified yes or no, rather than playing word games. This was out of the ordinary somehow, Ian and Isaac were just fun to talk with basically, and we had time to kill on the road. I really liked Isaac too somehow, he was such a pleasant kid, and full of ideas and talk. Having been christened so suddenly, I was tempted somehow to take it further all the same, and open some of these themes with Ian, but somehow it wasn't appropriate. They'd won basically, I was a Christian, and I wore my newfound hat with pride, if a little bemused.
So the conversation went on between us, from this theme to that one, and generally with a similar conclusion. Ian had already made up his mind about something and was happy to lay down the definitions to justify it, seemingly unaware that I wasn't even sure what his definitions were at times. The worst of his stances perhaps was that women are subservient to men, because of some message to that effect in the Bible ... and as a feminist I had to take issue with his references somehow. That was a theme that kept us ocupied for a while. Ian associated the decay of society somehow with feminism, and the neglect of family structure by women on career paths. He may have a subtle point there, but still his solutions were a little over simple and uncompromisingly traditional. I'm not a great fan of tradition needless to say.
It was wildly entertaining ride somehow and heart warming too. Ian demonstrated for me somehow, something that is very dear to me, and very close to my own Buddhist tendencies. Namely that you can be a caring and loving soul, which he was (even with a slightly skewed view of gender roles), without a degree in Aristotlian logic, or any great power to reason, or analyse and reduce problems. Much rather just live, with and for the people around you, giving what you can, and sharing what you have.
I was back in Pimba, this time heading north east, not north west. The sun wasn't behind me, it was high in the sky, and I had all day left to reach Andamooka at the end of this road, past Woomera, the American military base and Roxby Downs the uranium mining town out near Lake Torrens (which never has any water in it). The day was beautiful, not nearly as cold as days gone by, confortably warm, clear blue sky, and I enjoyed the walk as I started off in the direction of Woomera some 10 km down the road.
I had walked about half way before a local lady picked me up and dropped me off in Woomera on the through road. She doesn't usuall pick up hitch-hikers (a very common thing I hear from drivers who've picked me up) but today was the exception. And what a joy it is to be the exception. I looked to respectable after all and this stretch of road doesn't carry many wastrels or vagrants, anyone travelling here has good reason to go to Roxby or Andamooka. Or she reasoned it anyhow.
I love the way we try to convince ourselves that we're minimising our risks. We pull over as pull over we must, social supportive beings that we are in the deepest darkest corners of our souls. But we convince ourselves that we do it only then when the risks are minimal. All the while I tell myself the most successful mass murderers are precisely people like me, who don't look much like mass murderers, and pass all the tests. The less successful mass murderers don't get picked up after all because they look too risky.
Anhow, I got out and the first car to come by pulls over and aks where I'm headed.
"Andamooka," I say.
"Guess what?" comes the reply.
"You're headed to Andamooka?"
A Telecom worker headed up to Andamooka to fix the exchange. Well at least they have phones there, that's a good sign. It's a village of some 600 people in the middle of nowhere, with not much infrastructure to speak. There's not much out there, just opals, miners, a few houses and huts, and telephones it seems.
So it was that I got to Andamooka with a few hours of daylight to exploit.
I arrived in Andamooka in the middle of a sunny winterŽs afternoon, with but one goal in mind: to find Pete the Czech. My ride into town left me in the middle of town, a collection of makeshift fibro houses in a dustbowl in the Australian outback (read desert). To my surprise there was a tourist information office next to the hotel, so I walked in thinking to orient myself and maybe sort out a bed for the night. I asked them what my options were. They quoted some figure well beyond my budget for a hotel room, and told me there wasnŽt really anywhere else in town to stay at, except for a caravan park, though she didnŽt know if the rented cabins and if so at what cost - I had not tent with me in any case, nor were the cold winter nights particularly inviting for camping. I did get a rather cryptic map from of town from them though. Town was a chaotic tangle of dirt tracks between sheds basically, and this was an old speckled photocopy of an attempted 3-D rendition of the the place, that wasnŽt very easy to gain any orientation from.
Oh well, I figured I knew Lou was building a house here somewhere, Pete was painting the hotel and the hotel manager was Czech. Between all of that, I might just find a bed for the night, so I headed into the hotel next door. It was pretty full, and strangers in these parts arenŽt all that common, so when I put my bag down and went over to the bar to order a beer, I could feel everyoneŽs eyes on me. I was full of energy myself, tripping on life so to speak. It had been such a beautiful day, and such an incredible trip that had brought me here. I still had no idea where to crash and the challenge of sorting that out gives me a strange kind of a buzz sometimes. I had a kind of missione before me. ItŽs kind of like dancing with fate somehow, not knowing what will come of the day, yet feeling sure it will be good.
A lot of pleasant smiles came my way and some pretty faces were around, but I didnŽt know where to begin, they were all deeply involved in their own conversations. So I asked the barman if he knew Pete the Czech. He did know Pete of course, but he was so busy running around serving people, that it took a while before I could get more than this snippet of infor from him. In time he brought the manager of the hotel, Stephan, out to see me. Stephan you see was Czech as well and knew where Pete was. We had a yarn about how I came to be here, about Lou, and Czechs, painting hotels, books, and hitching. Stephan took me into his office, took a look at my map, couldnŽt make any more sense of it than I could, shook his head and pulled out an aerial photgraph of town. He showed me where Pete was and where Lou was. Just my luck they were at opposite ends of town - at least town was small.
I scribbled some notes on my map trying to see the similarities between it and the photo I was looking at, but Stephan decided it was hopeless and was worried IŽd get lost, so he offered to drive me up to PeteŽs. He was staying only a kilometere or so away, easy walking distance, but the tangle of dirt tracks between haphazard houses and shacks was difficult to direct people through without showing them yourself -- which is what Stephan was going to do.
Pete was staying in the house of another Czech who was in hospital for a while. He looked to be about 60, had grey hari, a grey beard and a friendly smile and very jovial attitude somehow. He was having a drink with George, yet another Czech, when Stephan and I arrived. There are some words of Czech exchanged after which Pete looks at me and asks in broken English "Where you stay tonight?". I shrug my shoulders, "I donŽt know yet." Pete points back over his shoulder into the door of house and says "You stay here."
So my lodging problem was solved. I was struck somehow at the bond that lay between us somehow. Here we were, very different cultures, backgrounds, languages, didnŽt know one another from a bar of soap, yet something was there, that Pete should know exactly what my first concern might be, and be keen to address it, even if all he could offer was a dusty old sofa in a house that wasnŽt his. I hadnŽt mentioned a word to Stephan that I needed a place for the night, he was the manager of a hotel I was too cheap for after all. Well, Pete was pretty busy fixing an old Combi, and there was good daylight left for working so he didnŽt have much time to talk just now and we put it off until the night comes. I left him to look for Lou, promising IŽd be back some time soon.
I found Lou all right, though Stephan was right in worrying about directions, I got a little lost on the way and had to poke around a bit. The streets have no names and the houses have no numbers, so navigationŽs all based on landmarks. Lou was pelased to see me. He was just knocking off work with another builder and we all agreed to head back down to the pub for a drink and some dinner.
Back at the hotel Lou promptly bought us all our beers, and got me drunk pretty fast. Drinking is something of a past-time in a town like Andamooka, and my tolerance for beer just wasnŽt up to theirs. He reassures me not worry about the tab, and I feel a tad guilty but he keeps buying beers and IŽm pressed into keeping up with these guys. What the heck, IŽm not complaining. So we drank.
I got to talking with more and more of the locals, with the bar tender I first talked to, and his wife, whoŽd recently moved up to Andamooka. We shared stories of Andamooka, of hitching and anything else that came up. Friendly people that knew how to talk.
We were expecting Pete to come down to the pub for dinner as he always does, but he wasnŽt showing up, and I was begining to worry because IŽd told him IŽd be back. DidnŽt like to think he was at home waiting for me. So we rang him from the hotel and told him to get his butt down there with the rest of us, we still had things to talk about. Pete usually works in the kitchen here, but suddenly everyone realised it was his night off, and heŽd eaten at home. Well noone else was talking food and I was famished and all this beer on an empty stomach wasnŽt doing me the world of good, so I ordered a counter meal and had my fill before I fell over starved to death.
Some time after, everyone else starts talking dinner, and they want to move next door to the restaurant, where you get the same food for more money (with table service of course) . I decline, telling them IŽd already eaten, which no-one seemed to have noticed or wanted to believe. I mean I at right in front of them. I guess theyŽd had a few beers by that stage too. Still, I find myself in the restaurant raving on with the diners, turning down repeated invitations to eat, waiting for Pete to show. The waitress is cute, gregarious and well humoured. She starts to chat me up. Saw me earlier in the bar.
Pete finally shows up and we get to talking about his trips, my trips, his books and so on. HeŽd written two books so far, one published the other to be published. Both in Czech and not translated to English yet. Still I wanted to see this book of his. It was about his hitching from Europe through Africa and on to Australia. He didnŽt have a copy in Andamooka, but knew Stephan did. Stephan had misplaced it though so together they go fof on a wild goose chase to track it down while I keep talking with the waitress, Tanya.
In time he comes back, no book, but a map heŽs sketched of his African journey, and we go out to the pub for drink and talk about his trip. His English is broken, but heŽs a great man, with good humour, and stories to tell. Finally we were sitting down and really talking. Thus far weŽd only had brief and hurried exchanges, now we were sitting over a beer (my shout at last, though I had to press him for it)
HeŽd hitched Africa, north to south, through the Sahara, no problems, got malaria twice but survived. IŽm making mental notes as I go, IŽd love to see his books, when they come out in English. He was headed back to Czech Republic later in the year to launch his second book. Had to scrape together the funds for the air fare first.
After a while the waitress comes out and sits down with us. Her shift is over, the diners have left. The three of us talk for a while, she and he both Czech, and on account of PeteŽs English she translates for me from time to time. A lot of Czechs here in Andamooka. I cast my mind back to my own wild adventures hitching through what was Czechoslovakia at the time, a mission I had in Prag to find someone IŽd only heard of, and the lovely lady I gave a little of my heart to while I was there.
Well, Pete is getting tired and would like to retire. I want to go with him because itŽs dark and cold and IŽm not sure of finding his place again in the dark. But no, he insists I stay and enjoy the night with Tanya, so he draws me a map, reiterates the landmarks on the way, and tells me to come whenever I like and crash on the couch.
We stay in the pub until they throw us out. All the time weŽre talking and drinking. Mineral water now, in an effort to sober up. Tanya tells me of my arrival in the pub earlier in the day. She saw me then, and I seemed so happy to her, she thought I was high on something. I was of course. High on life.
Though she was tempted to come with me on this trip, I'd left my good friend Jeannette behind in Adelaide, but Tanya's words reminded me so strongly of her, and the way she described her lover (and my friend) Rod as she saw him in the Exceter Hotel where they first met. To Jeannette, Rod too seemed so happy, as if he were on a high -- which he was, on life. It's a theme I've run into over and over in my life. That many of us tend describe radiant happiness in terms of the effects that alcohol, marijuana and other drugs have on us. Saddens me sometimes to think that our measure of radiant happiness is in terms of drugs and their effects on us. Seems to suggest that most people that seem overly happy are on drugs, which may even be the case, sad as it sounds.
Back in the Andamooka Hotel, TanyaŽs consistently harrassed by this drunk. He comes and goes, imposing himself on the both of us. SheŽs laughing, quite used to it I imagine, there arenŽt many pretty young ladies in Andamooka after all, and a lot of drunk old opal miners. He kisses her on the hands, on the forehead. Teases me: "YouŽve not got this close have you?". Tanya smiles, and looking her in the eye I gamble to add "Oh, I will ...", smiling myself.
SheŽd been working three weeks at the bar and restaurant here, during the semester break, and had another week to go before going back to Adelaide and university. SheŽd come to Andamooka to visit her mother (who works in the kitchen) and to escape the boyfriend she was trying to lose back in Adelaide.
Well, they threw us out in time, the night was fun, I was almost sober again, and we walked together a short way towards PeteŽs till our paths diverged. Some very warm and solid hugs and a gentle kiss served to test the loyalties I had for PeteŽs couch. But IŽm no philanderer - a simple romantic maybe, and I had a girlfriend in Europe in the back of my mind whom I cared very much for. I didnŽt need to complicate things any. Besides IŽd be in Adelaide in a week as well ... steady as she goes.
I found PeteŽs place without any trouble. Sure enough he was still up. He couldnŽt sleep he said, had a cold. But then again, he might have been just a little curious as to if and when IŽd turn up, as well. Who am I to say?
Next morning I packed my things, said my goodbyes to Pete, went down to the hotel, arriving just in time to find Tanya waking and fared her well, with a hug and a kiss, promised to call her next Saturday in Adelaide. I headed off to LouŽs and a quick goodbye there, before hitting the road, thumb outstretched, and warm thoughts and thanks for my one night in Andamooka ... I was a hitch-hiker and glad of it.
The Andamookans were all sure I'd get a ride back out to the Stuart Highway (linking Adelaide and Darwin) without any trouble. We were at the end of a 113 km road away from the highway, and there were two towns between us an it, Roxby Downs (the uranium mine) and Woomera (the U.S. military base -- like we really needed one in Australia) and there was nothing behind us, we were at the end of the road in Andamooka (the opal field).
Well it didn't work out quite that simple in the end. Sure enough I got a ride quick smart into Roxby Downs on a small truck. But the driver took me into the heart of Roxby, a good few kilometers off the main road to the Stuart Highway. Didn't seem to bother him any, but I wasn't too thrilled. A good thing the weather was fine -- I put on some music and strolled the few kilometers out to the main road again.
When I got there, it wasn't long before a courier van headed for Port Augusta (half way back to Adelaide from here) stopped to pick me up. I was thrilled. Two months of hitching New Zealand earlier that year with my girlfriend, we were consistently passed by couriers, and always wished one would stop for us, but they never did. Now finally I'd snagged a courier.
But my luck didn't hold out any. We overheated some 10-20 km out of Woomera. The driver wasn't very happy. He was supposed to have several bottle of water in the van to cover these situations, but all he could find today was a half empty bottle of water. He was cursing the driver before him. Here we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with a van that wouldn't drive and no water. I added my meager half litre of drinking water to the cause, and we gave it a try again. But sure enough inside of a minute we overheated again, and the engine was whistling away, blowing steam in the process.
We wait for the engine to cool, and lacking any water at all to add to the radiator this time, we just drive on a bit. Sure enough inside of minute it's whistling steam again, so we stop and let it cool. This goes on, drive, overheat, stop and wait, drive, overheat, stop and wait, drive overheat, stop and wait. Step by step we got closer to Woomera. It was only a few kilometers away after all not hundreds.
In time another truck came by and pulled up behind us. Had water to offer, and we topped up the radiator properly, which brought us into Woomera just fine. But the truck wasn't going any further without some repairs, and certainly not to Port Augusta today.
So here I was in the middle of Woomera, just like Roxby Downs earlier. Time for a walk again ...
I walked the few kilometres out of Woomera, only to find there wasn't any traffic to speak of on the main road anyhow. Pimba was only 7 km away and it was back on the Stuart Highway, so I figured I'd walk it if need be. Cars did pass, one every few minutes or so, so few that I was counting them. I'd made it about half way to Pimba by the time I'd counted 12 cars that passed. When I heard the 13th car approaching I told myself "this is my ride, this is going to be, lucky 13 is going to make the day". Catching myself with these thoughts I got paranoid, thinking that now that I'd thunk them number 13 wouldn't stop. Had I not thunk them it probably would have stopped, but now that I'd thunk them it probably wouldn't of course. I was wrestling with Murphy in the back of my mind, in endless spirals, wishing I'd just stop thunking altogether, when true enough, lucky 13 did pull over!
Well, it wasn't the ride into Adelaide that it might have been. I mean even lucky 13 had its limits. But it was ride the remaining few kilometers into Pimba anyhow, and the driver was quite taken by my lucky 13 story.
It was already early afternoon and I'd only covered the 113 km from Andamooka back to the Stuart Highway with another 480 km ahead of me. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, I had great music on my walkman, so I started to walk the 480 km back to Adelaide. I figured I could always walk back to Pimba if nothing turned up on the way before it got too late. I wasn't keen on sleeping out again after that night in a creek bed by Coober Pedy.
It wasn't long though before a woman and two daughters stopped. They were headed into Adelaide to take one of the daughters back to boarding school. She was mighty keen to go too. Life in Roxby Downs didn't quite cut for a teenage somehow. They were going to stop the night at a friends place in the Flinders Ranges though and would leave the main highway just after Port Augusta.
They'd just come from Roxby Downs in fact. I might just have well waited there I guess. Though my driver told me that walking along that desolate stretch of highway in the middle of the desert struck a chord of sympathy somehow. She wouldn't ordinarily pick up hitchers, so I guess if I was waiting at Roxby she'd just have driven me by. It happens.
At their turn-off after Port Augusta I got a ride in short time all the way into Adelaide with a businessman who'd just come down from Roxby Downs as well. Heck, it looks like I may just as well have waited there after all!
He got a call on the mobile from his wife who wasn't at all happy at his stopping to pick up hitchers. He was going to get a good talking to when he got home. We had a good ride all the same, talking the pros and cons of hitching much of the time, after his wife had opened the topic so critically. I probably helped to bolster his view that hitchers on the whole are interesting people, not mass murderers. Wonder if he ever convinced his wife?
I got into Adelaide at Gepps Cross where I'd departed two days earlier, caught a bus back to Jeannette's, and was pleased to report the three day round trip to Coober Pedy and back was a roaring success ... and then some!
The reason I'd come to Adelaide again was that the Universal Esperanto Congress was taking place there. It had never been in Australia, would probably never be in Australia again in my lifetime and I'd never been to one, so I made the effort to check it out. The congress moves around the world from year to year, attracts several thousand delegates, and of course concerns itself with the international language, Esperanto, which I picked up on the road a few years back. I'd lived in Adelaide for two years, and knew the organising committee pretty well, so I'd volunteered my time as a tour guide among other things to help make the Congress a reality. A small part, but a part nonetheless. Well tour guide is probably an over statement, there were in fact professional English speaking tour guides employed, but given that the theme of the event was Esperanto, and that a good many of the delegate didn't speak much or any English in any case, the tour guides commentary was always delivered through a translator, of which I was one.
Esperanto had given me a lot over the years. I'd visited Esperantists all over Europe and Asia, partied with them, sang with them, danced with them, slept with them. With Esperantists I'd crossed the Siberian, I'd worked on a rice paddy, I'd climbed a mountain, I'd met a TV manager, was on first name terms with a supreme court judge. I'd travelled a lot, knew the ropes, even published information on how best to make contact with local people and culture, but over the years one tool stood out above all the rest. That was Esperanto. A language you can learn in a few weeks if you're adept, a few months if you're keen, a few years if you're lazy. Easy, elegant, and complete. One of the most misunderstood phenomena I'd ever encountered, and very much a living phenomenon more that a hundred years after its inception. Now I was finally going to see my first Universal Congress, and had a chance to give back to the movement a little of what I'd received over time.
The congress ran a week, and I was immediately roped into more work than I'd bargained for on account of my volunteers badge. I translated on four tours, a half day tour of Adelaide, an evening tour of the Warrawang wildlife sanctuary, a half day bush tucker walk through the botanic gardens, and a full day excursion to the Coorong south of Adelaide. It was fun, I like people work, and they often like my work. I'm not an overly serious or precise translator, rather relaxed and joviual, at times my vocabular way put the test, and improvisation was on call.
Because I'd returned from Coober Pedy with a day to spare I dropped in on the Adelaide convention centre the day before the comgress was to start, just to orient myself, and try to find my old friend Max who had helped to bring the congress to Adelaide in the first place. Much to my surpirse the venue was abuzz already and I was immediately conscripted into as many tasks as I could fit into my timetable and then some. I wouldn't in the end see much of the congress being too busy running around trying to make sure the silly jobs I'd had thrust on me were at least carried out by someone else if I couldn't do it. There were books to sell, signs to post, tours to guide, and a youth group to keep up with.
It was nice to see a small youth group there -- a dozen or so Esperantists in their 20's, of which I was (almost) one. There was even a professional magician, Michael, among them, who'd keep us entertained from time to time, and had a show on the Thursday night. With a budget up our sleeve from the Congress committee, we treated ourselves to a lot of food, some drinks, a movie and whatever else we could afford. We got very little sleep, none at all on occasion, and as the congress drew on eyes were beginning to look red and spirits where getting weary.
There was a little flirting of course, there always is among Esperanto youth in my experience and this was no exception. I had the pleasure of a massage one night, and was invited to deliver one later. It got a little warm, a little heated, a little out of control, or in control if you prefer. There I was on Friday night towards the end of the congress, a little more involved with the lovely Miranda than I'd expected, hoped for or really wanted, though it was a beautiful experience all the same. I'd not experienced let alone delivered such a wild massage in years. We got no sleep on Friday night, went straight to the closiong ceremony on Saturday, and then found a place to sleep for one and half hours before the whole youth group were to meet for one last night on the town.
And here I was, having promised Tanya from Andamooka that I'd ring that Saturday. We ended up in a Jazz bar, drinking beer and enjoying the mood, and at some stage I ducked out to ring Tanya and let her know what was up, arranging to meet on Sunday afternoon at a pub in town where an old favourite band of mine, Just aBout Everything, or JBE as they're known, were playing. It was something I didn't want to miss before leaving Adelaide again.
We all split up on the Saturday night, said our goodbyes, collected a list of addresses, promised to get in touch again some time and went home bleary eyed for some much needed sleep. On the Sunday I went out with Tanya, some old friends of mine to see JBE. Four of us went home for pizza which we ate on the floor of Jeannette and Rod's living room, where I was sleeping on the sofa bed. Tanya stayed the night, sharing the sofa bed with me, and I gave a lot of thought to the nights just passed, and the girl I loved back in Germany. Life presents us with some dilemmas on occasion, and as a good friend of mine said -- neniam pluvas, sed inundas (it never rains but it pours).
On the Monday morning I packed my things and hit the road again. It was a long and eventful week, and the whole trip had left me with a jumble of emotions and feelings. My thoughts were running wild, I was fired up, in love with life, and yet dead dead tired. Well, not tired as such any more, I'd slept well, and enough on the Sunday night, but that hollow kind of drained feeling one has after a week with little or no sleep, lots of beer, lots of work to do and a multitude of emotions and hormones to reconcile. I had a very dry throat. It was definitely time to move on, though I was sad in a way it was over. I'd made some good friends, caught up with some (even better) old friends, and never really saw much of the congress I was working for.
The road was calling ...
Monday morning after a week long party/congress and I was heading home. It was some 1500 km from Adelaide to Kiama, and I wasn't going to make it in a day, so I thought I'd try for Wagga Wagga on the first day, where I had a good friend. It was after all only about 1000 km away from Adelaide, I'd covered that much distance in a day without fail thus far on my Australian hitch.
I took the bus to Gepps Cross again, on the northern outskirts of Adelaide, from where I'd hitched to Coober Pedy a week before -- this time I was taking another highway though. I got off the bus, and had to wait for the lights to change before I could cross the road. The bus pulled out, and was waiting for the same set of lights to change. The driver opened the door and shouted some advice at me, suggesting I'd be better off catching another bus past Elizabeth and hitching form there. That's where he always used to hitch from. I guess he noticed I was hitching -- the pieces of carboard for sign writing that I carry strapped to my pack, often with something already or still written on them are a bit of a give-away.
Still I got a ride pretty quickly as far as Salisbury, still this side of Elizabeth, with two guys. Then a guy in a van took me on to Elizabeth, or more rightly to the road into Elizabeth. He put me off on the side road he left from. Back on the highway there was no shoulder at all, and bushes right up to the curb side. The speed limit was high and the cars were screaming by. This wasn't a real good place to be. So I started walking, between the bushes and the cars towards Elizabeth. Before I got there I came across a bus stop and a lady waiting at it. That was a good sign, implying that bus was due any minute. The bus would have to stop in the middle of the outside lane of course as there wasn't any bay for it to pull over into. I got to chatting with this lady about busses and hitching, remembered the words of the bus driver about catching a bus past Elizabeth and thought this as good a sign as any that it was good advice.
Still, no hitcher waits for a bus without petitioning the passing traffic with a well displayed thumb -- which is just what I did, while chatting with this lady. Sure enough, before the bus arrived someone stopped, where it was impossible to stop, in the middle of the road. An Englishman was at the wheel and his and his daughter in the passenger seat. They took me a short way up the road to an area with a shoulder again, where people could stop.
There I got an immediate ride to Gawler, the next major town on the road, with two guys that gave me a stash of dope as they had too much of the stuff. It was raw weed, not packed or wrapped in anything, and I carried it aroud in my shirt pocket smelling rather conspicuous, and a little concerned about the border crossing into New South Wales ahead of me. Not very concerned, I mean there were no border checks, excepting the odd check for fruit on account of the fruit-fly problem. Still I knew the laws were considerably tighter back home and what was just a small stash here in South Australia might just be a criminal quantity back in New South Wales. My shirt of course, smelled of dope all the way home too, long after I'd consumed the stuff later in the trip.
I was let out on the Gawler by-pass, as these guys were going into Gawler, and figured I walk around Gawler to the other side, to improve my chances of a lift. The vast majority of the traffic where I was standing was going into Gawler and not around it. On the other side, I'd catch all the cars coming out of Gawler.
I'd walked almost all the way around Gawler before a guy stopped and took me on to Nurootpa. He was going to Sedan actually, which reminded of the last time I was in Sedan, and my friend in Mannum nearby whom I'd not seen in years. I was tempted to drop in and surprise her, but I was feeling a bit rushed somehow, the day was dragging on, and I wasn't so sure how she'd receive an unannounced surprise visit after all this time without a peep out of me.
So I got out at the Sedan turn-off at Nuriootpa and continued my walking. In time a self confessed neurotic lady stopped and took me to Waikerie. Soon as I got in she noticed she'd lost her purse somewhere on the way and went on to demonstrate the depth of here neurosis, getting all panicky and stressed, temperamental, moody, downright upset. She rang the friends she left in Adelaide to see if she'd left it by them, but no-one was home, so the wondering and stressing went on for a while. I left the problem behind me when we got to Waikerie and never did find out if she got her purse back or not.
It took quite a while now to get a ride away from Waikerie. This place was a bad omen for me it seems. I lost the bags off my motorcylce here almost a year ago, and got them back again only on account of a friendly truckie who picked them up for me. Now I was stuck here to dwell on it again. Eventually I did get a ride, but it was getting noticably late in the day. It was a mother, her mother and her son, all off to Berri. They enjoyed my company so much though that they dropped the kid in Berri and drove me 14 km further into Renmark, where they thought they might order a pizza for dinner. It was that time of the day.
I walked out of Renmark and was beginning to feel all this walking in my feet. I got a short ride on to the next small town, Paringa, just 4 km down the road. There I walked up the hill about 2 km for a spectacular view of the River Murrey and the sun setting. It was beautiful and well worth the walk, but wasn't helping me get a ride at all. I wasn't even i Nw South Wales yet, not even half as far as I'd hoped to get in the day, only some 400 km out of Adelaide. It was a slow day all right.
It was getting dark now, and the traffic was very thin and uninviting. It got darker and darker, it was very dark in fact, and cold and the insects were bothering the hell out of me. I don't hitch much at night, and it doesn't work too well anyway, but I thought I'd give it a try for a few hours anyhow, in the hope of that last long lift to Wagga Wagga. I put on a 2 hour tape with some good music on it, and waited it out. Nothing happened. The few cars that passed weren't radiating any interest, even if they could see me.
So I needed a crash for the night. There was a shed on my side of the road that might do in a pinch, but it didn't look too inviting. It was really cold out and I'd have to get under cover some how, at least off the ground. Paringa was 2 km back down the hill I'd climed, and I wasn't sure what the options were down there. A $50 hotel wasn't what I had in mind anyhow. I also had the SERVAS host list on me and there was a Renmark (6 km back down the road) host available with No Prior Notice Required for would be guests. Finally there was a house across the road, with a light burning.
Well I figured I'd try the house. I mean I could hope for some advice, and maybe the use of a phone to ring these SERVAS hosts if need be, or a hotel in Paringa if need be. I walked over and knocked on the door. It was a glass door, and a lady came to it, asking me who I was and what I wanted through the unopened door. I explained my situation, that I was looking for some advice on options in Paringa before walking back, and maybe the use of a phone. Not much sympathy on her part, she seemed convinced I was axe wielding mass murderer trying the sly approach rather than breaking my way through the door. Oh well. She explained there was a hotel and a caravan park in Paringa and I should go there. She explained, feeling a tad guilty perhaps, that she was abit wary of opening the door for strangers and apologised for it. I in turn apologised for bothering her, and left with a strange sense of pity for the people that need to fear those around them, and live in shells, and on islands of their own, safe from the ourtside world of the stranger. Perhaps they are the wise ones, perhaps they have good reasons, but still I pity them for what it costs them. I'm a people person, not a shell or island person I guess, and I love the people around me.
The house mission a dismal failure, with a hollow feeling of having bothered someone who'd rather not have been bothered, I walked back into Paringa. I had a much needed counter meal at the pub and asked about a room. $32 was the price. Not a good price, I expect about $20 from a country pub, so I went over the road to the caravan park. They agreed to squeeze me into a caravan for $20 after a little friendly haggling. Most pleasant proprieters, we had a nice long chat about what I was doing and how I came to be there that night. We might have talked on if I wasn't so stone dead tired and needing of sleep. Still, for the record, anyone heading into Paringa is well advised to check the caravan park out, lovely genuine people there, and steer clear of the house on the hill.
Such was the end of a long slow day. The slowest least succesful day of my month on the road. I'd covered some 400 km of the 1000 km I'd hoped for, and had a face to face (through glass door) encounter with the paranoids. My faith in people was brought down to earth a little. A most therapeutic day.
My hardest day's hitch in Oz was behind me, the new day had to better. And it turned out that way somehow, one of the most interesting days in my whole month on the road. I didn't bother to walk back up the hill for that view of the Murray, I hitched straight out of Paringa. It wasn't long before an aboriginal fruit picker picked me up. He was a tramp of sorts moving around from place to place looking for work. In Australia nowadays, the tramps are motorised! Well at least some of them are. He was headed for Loxton, and I got out at the turn-off.
It wasn't long before a truckie picked me up and took me into Mildura. He had an interesting tale to tell, having recently witnessed a car accident. The car in front of him was forced to swerve off the road by a truck that pulled out in front of the driver. The car clipped the truck's rear end before swerving off the road into the bushes. The offending truckie, apparently unaware of the incident drove right on as if nothing had happened. This truckie though, behind the car, seeing the whole thing, pulled over to check the scene out. The lady at the wheel was shook up, crying, but not injured in any way. They got her back on the road and continued on their ways a little shaken by the experience.
Later in the day the truckie stopped for a coffee at one of the truck stops on his way, and who should be there but this same young lady. They exchanged some words and he made sure she was feeling fine, but again they parted company and went their ways.
Some days later, arriving at the office, his boss told him he had a parcel. Two bottles of wine, that the young lady of some days before had sent out of gratitude. She's noted the guys plates and company when they had a coffee together, and sent him a parcel. He was kind of touched, it was a nice gesture.
Not long after that he heard from a friend back in Adelaide taht he's scored a mention in the Women's Weekly. The young lady's mother had apparently written the magazine in praise of our chivalrous truckie, mentioned the company, and his namee, and the letter had won an award -- "Letter of the Week". "Hang on", thought our truckie, "this is going a little too far". All he'd done was the right thing, lent a hand when he could hardly have looked the other way and they were blowing his chivalry a little out of proportion here. But the letter in the Women's Weekly was signed by a Mrs. Miranda, and the prenny dropped ... The two bottlles he'd received were Miranda wines, form one of South Australias larger wineries. This young lady was the daughter of a wine magnate so to speak, which helped explain the flashy sports car she was driving.
Well, the story was nice to hear, I was glad of it, but it hit a very special chord with me somehow. Miranda was the name of another young lady with whom I'd shared a very warm and special experience only days earlier, back in Adelaide. Synchronicity at work.
I was left on the far side of Mildura by this truckie with the tale of Miranda. He was making a delivery there anyhow. I waited a while quite patiently at a reasonable junction, but started walking in the end, just for a change of scenery. Wasn't long before a small truck took me a few kilometres further, thinking it was a better spot he was leaving me at. He used to hitch a lot in his youth and really regretted he wasn't going any further, as he'd liked to have taken me somewhere useful. The new spot wasn't decidedly better than the old mind you, but all the same an engineer picked my up soon after. He was on a job and strictly not allowed to take hitchers along in the company car (the standard insurance problem), but he used to hitch a lot himself, and who needs rules anyway. Bless the hearts of those who refuse to pander to the system and lend a hand where it's needed. He was on his way to Robinvale, and I got out at the junction where the Robinvale road split from the main highway.
Well I waited quite a while at this junction some 6 km out of Robinvale. I was thinking if the sun went down here, at least I could walk into Robinvale for a crash, but the sun was still high, it was only early afternoon, and I didn't see much risk of that happening. Still, it was a bad junction, on a stretch of straight fast road without much incentive to pull over, so I waited a while before ...
This old car pulled up at the junction, coming out of Robinvale, and stood their blinking to turn right, and waiting for a chance to turn onto the highway. But there was no traffic on the highway, I don't know what they were waiting for. I watched them intently, thinking they were looking me over. The driver's window winds down and this guy shouts out "Do you drink beer?". I wasn't sure I'd heard right, I was standing on the highway some twenty or thirty metres away, but I shouted back "Yes!", qualifying it with a "What?" thinking I'd misunderstood the question. He shouted back "Do you drink beer?". "Yes!? What?", I shouted back. He pulls around the corner, turning right onto the highway and pulling to a stop in front of me, where he leans over his passenger and says rather unabiguously now "Do you drink beer?". "Sure, who doesn't?", I retorted, and he thrusts a beer into my hand and throws the back door open, saying "Good, 'cause if you don't drink beer, you're not getting a ride ...".
The passenger is quiet, a wry smile on his face. He knew what was going on, I had yet to work it out, but now I sat in the back with a beer in my hand, and two salty old bearded tramps in the front, heading down the highway towards Balranald.
Well they weren't actually going to Balranald. They had a camp some kilometres off the main highway, and about 25 km down the road from here. They invited me to stay the night at the camp, they'd have a fire going, and some music, and would take me into Balranald the next morning if I liked (some 50 km further down the road from the camp). I wasn't keen. It was still mid afternoon, I was running a day later than I'd expected already, and could cover much ground on the way to Wagga Wagga today, which is where I was in fact aiming to spend the night if I could only get there. Besides, these two characters didn't radiate "trust me" somehow.
Bill was at the wheel, a Maori who'd settled here some four years ago. He had nothing at the time, and started collecting Mallee, burning it for charcoal which he sold to restaurants, to win enough money for the car he now had, the caravan he had, the meat he eats, and the beer he drinks. He was middle aged, and had a relaxed way of speaking, calling me Bro' all the time as is the wont of the Maoris in fact. He had long unkempt grey hair, and long grey beard, which he kept tied in a knot to keep it out of his way.
His passenger was Joe, a middle aged swaggie, who had been standing at the very junction I was, two months ago, and had been with Bill since, collecting Mallee in the bush. I didn't think we still had any swagmen in Australia, something of our romantic past, a character from Waltzing Matilda. But here was the genuine thing in the car with me. He never had more than $50 to his name, travelled from place to place with his swag (a bed roll, change of clothes and a few meagre belongings), hitch-hiking, salvation army shelters, working for a dollar when he could, and he'd been doing this since he left school, a long time ago now. A very mellow soul he was, quiet, considered and gentle. He didn't smoke, or drink though and this was getting to bother Bill, who did of course.
The two of them drove into Robinvale only once every three or four days to buy water, meat and beer basically. The rest of their days they spent in the Mallee, collecting wood, burning charcoal, and just passing the days and just thinking about and feeling life. They had plent of time to think and feel out there.
So it was, that when Bill and Joe saw me at that same junction, exactly two months to the day after Joe was there, it seems, that the situation was deemed to be auspicious. It was clear that Bill had won hisself a drinkin' partner ... "Do you drink beer?"
I had to laugh, what characters! The could read my hesitance though, and offered to take me into Balranald right now if I liked, (hell it was only a 100 km round tip for them). Of course I did go back to their camp, how could I let these guys slip through my net. This was something to behold. We turned off the highway, went through a locked gate onto a property (where Bill had an agreement with the owner, to collect the Mallee), drove some kilometres down a not so clear track among many that seemed to go here and there, and arrived at the camp. The sentinel so to speak, that greets us on arrival is a mountain of empty beer bottles a metre or more high, and some two or three round. There was a caravan, a lot of carpet laid out, a sofa and seats around a pile of glowing coals. All of this was in a dustpan, dust was everywhere, and everything was dusty. The carpet made it possible to walk around the camp and keep off the dust in a way, though the dust was of course on the carpet.
We stocked up the fire, it was cool even during the day, and got to talking, about them about me, what we were doing, where we we'd been and where we were going. We drank and we smoked (well me and Bill that is). Bill in smoking all my hash away (that I'd picked up on a ride the day before) told me how much better mine was than his. Of course I was glad to be rid of it to be frank, it wasn't too comfortable a feeling crossing the border into New South Wales with a pocket full of hash.
Now Bill has a two names for Joe in the time I was there, neither of which was Joe. The first was Hannon. Both of them had a thing about the police, and about being photographed and/or identified. Neither was good. I can imagine why. Bill had had so much trouble with the locals on account of his appearance and manner. He claimed all kinds of mindless discrimination on the part of the local police. Joe no doubt had his fair share of ill experiences too, a swaggie somehow doesn't engender the conservative fold with as much respect as a doctor or a lawyer after all. So it was that Joe preferred in many ways to remain anonymous, the idea of being identified didn't gel well with him, and as a mark of respect for that Bill would call him Hannon (Anon. -- Anonymous)
Bill said to me once "Don't trust anyone, bro'". Which kind of irked me a little as I practice trust very openly. Trust is something you give after all, it isn't something you can take, nor expect. Those who do inevitably run into grief I find. So we begin by giving it, to find it generally engenders more trust and reaps more rewards than the occasional breach of it costs us. I said to Bill, "But that's odd isn't Bill, you trusted me".
"Yeah, but that's different Bro', you're a stranger. You can trust a stranger, just never trust no-one you know, specialy not the locals".
I had to smile. Bill was saying things, which while they weren't reflecting my own heart in all their depth, captured some of it all the same. Of course he had a point. Hadn't I read again and again, that if you were going to be raped or killed, odds were it was going to be someone you already knew, friends or family that perpetrate the crime. Put flatly, stangers might wll be safer than the people we know. Strangers apparently rape and kill fewer people than do friends and family after all. Those I'm led to belief are consistent truths in this modern world of ours. And wasn't Bill saying just that somehow?
Sure his angle was different. He'd just had a hell of time with locals and with people he knew. He'd been let down time and time again, misunderstood, mistrusted and blamed for things well out of proportion to what he'd done. All things that will happen to you if you live out in the bush, have dark skin, long grey unkempt hair and wear a beard tied up in a knot, speaking the language of the homeless, bro' ... The establishment and the middle class just can't cope somehow. If something goes missing or broken, who will they suspect?
So Bill and Joe had good seeds for the mistrust they held. They knew what they were on about. They knew what trust was too, and friendship. Joe was here two months already after all. These guys were mates. In their opposition to the established culture, they were Bro's. The second name that Bill had for Joe was Two Moons ... for Joe had been there two months now and Bill measured the time by moons. On my arrival Joe was christened Two Moons ... Hannon was a thing of the past, and an identity, however transient, had been won.
As the night drew in on us, the cold began to bite. It bit hard. We stood close to the fire, we stocked it with Mallee roots, and it burned well. We cooked and ate, we drank and talked and smoked. We sang along to rock from the 50's to the 70's, and the cold began to bite. Our faces were sweating from the radiant heat of the fire, and our backs were icy cold. I'd rarely felt such a sharp gradient of temperature in my life.
There weren't many options for a bed. Bill had a caravan, and Joe had a sofa and that was it. The dust wasn't too inviting somehow. Joe though had built a hut recently, and felt my arrival was a sign that he should break it in. He'd never slept in it yet. He ofered me the sofa for the night, and a tarp to throw over me, to keep the frost off. But I looked at his hut, all of ten or so metres away from the fire, way out there in the middle of that cold that biting at our backs, I shook my head. It was all gaps. He'd built it by laying to long sticks on the ground, then two across those, and two across those and so on, building a pyramid in the process which was half sticks and half gaps between the sticks. It certainly wasn't going to keep any draft out, let alone a frost. "You sure there, Joe?", I asked. He was sure ... I asked again, I told him I couldn't see him sleeping in there, only shivering. But he was sure. It was a sign. It was time to break his hut in.
Well, I pushed the sofa as near the fire as I dared without setting light to it. I went and fetched another few mallee roots to have on hand should the fire grow small, and threw a couple on right now to work the coals up a bit. I put on every piece of clothes I had (that night in a creekbed by Coober Pedy, with Roy taught me my lesson) and got into my sleeping bag and threw this heavy tarp oveer me, before trying to sleep. Even so I wasn't real warm.
Some time early in the morning, Joe got up, paced around the fire, worked at it with a shovel, threw those extra mallee roots onto it, and sat quietly by the fire making and drinking tea, in lieu of sleeping, which he'd evidently found impossible so far from the fire in that hut of his. His moving around, and slight pangs of guilt kept me half awake of course until the sun finally came up.
There was a frost out when I got up, and me and joe had some tea for breakfast, before we packed our things, and bright and early he got ready to drive me out to Balranald. I almost missed my chance to fare Bill well, but he emerged from his van just as we were ready to leave, and we said our goodbyes. We were both better men for the encounter, it was in our eyes, and in our hearts as we left one another there. We knew full well we were from two very different worlds, but we found a bond of kinds all the same.
I was sad to go so soon. Alas I was running late and had a lot to do in the coming week, or I might wel have stuck around for another night or two. Of course the thought of a shower was appealing too ... the dust was everywhere. Joe drove me out to Balranald ...
I was standing on the road out of Balranald, where Joe had left me, hoping for a ride to Wagga Wagga at last. I mean it was my third day since Adelaide, and I'd hoped to make it in one day. I was two days late already. Such is hitching I guess, though granted I lost the second day on a voluntary diversion into the Mallee scrub.
This local fellow walks past me as I'm waiting and tells me there's a truck stop down the road a few kilometres where I'd have a hundred times better chance of getting a ride. The thought of a shower was appealing too after my night at the camp, so I started the walk down the road.
For better or worse I was robbed of my shower, as this old couple with a camper trailer gave a short beep and pulled over in front of me before I'd even reached the truck stop. They were headed for West Wyalong, and I was headed for Wagga Wagga where I'd hoped finally to catch up with my old friend Bill. Our paths would split at a town called Hay, which kind of marked the half-way point from Adelaide to Sydney at last and was beyond any doubt the most isolated town on this highway. It was nice to be with them, they were real treasures somehow, the kind of people you'd never expect to stop for a hitcher. In all my time on the road in Australia I had been passed by masses of similar cars, middle-aged and/or middle-class couples with caravans or campers, but none thus far had stopped. Here was the exception, people with hearts and a sense of community.
At Hay there were two service stations, or truck stops if you prefer. I took a shower at one, and then attacked the problem of getting a ride to Wagga Wagga, which would prove a little more difficult than I'd hoped. The truck stops in Hay are particularly porrly situated for hitching east alas. As you drive east through Hay you pass first these two truck stops, then a big roundabout, where the highway from Melbourne and the road to Hay centre and on to West Wyalong meet this road to Sydney. After the roundabout is nothing much of interest, just houses for a kilometre or so and then nothing but Mallee again.
This meant that standing at the truck stop I'd miss all the cars coming out of Hay, or up from Melbourne, and many of the cars passing me would be headed into Hay or down to Melbourne. Ideally I'd want to be behind this roundabout. I waited all the same, with a sign for a possible ride. But the traffic was very thin, and I had no luck with it. So I walked passed the roundabout and out of town a little and tried there. Still no luck after a long wait. I walked back to the truck stops and started to ask around, it was time to get proactive here.
Still, most everyone I asked was turning off at the roundabout, not going straight through. There were two truck stops about a hundred metres apart, and traffic was so<light I had time to walk back and forth between them to approach cars the drove in. I found two trucks going my way, but neither would take me on account of company rule forbidding it. I found a further five cars going my way as the hours passed, but none of them would take me.
I'm not a very imposing hitcher, and certainly no beggar. Let's face it, I don't like being bugged by strangers, so I don't like bugging strangers either. A polite question is within my limits, but if there's any hesitance or a no in the making, I'm happy, wish the driver a safe journey and good day, and move on to the next one that might appear.
It's interesting though how visibly most people feel uncomfortable with their rejections. I guess they have a right to, I mean we are in the middle of nowhere with a trickle of traffic and a long, long way to get back to the coast. I need a ride, they know it, could provide and choose not to. They'll often dig around for some excuse, some of them quite cute, bringing me to smile. The real reason is generaly caution, a fear of strangers and hitch-hikers, which is fair enough, who am I to impose upon anyone a revision of their safety standards. Yet only the very fewest of people will admit these reasons to themselves let alone openly to me. They'll say the car's full (when you can see it's not), they'll say they've loaned the car and the owner doesn't approve, that it's acompany car and they're not allowed, that they're only going another 100 km, or that the car's dodgy and might break down on the way and you'd be better off with someone else. Some will say nothing issuing only a general expression of discomfort and a desire to be left alone. No problem, all if granted, at the merest gesture. I do exaggerate of course. As time goes, as the hours pass and the night approaches, I like anyone else would, become a little more pushy, will have the audacity to add "But that's be fine with me, if it's fine with you ...", I'll go a few kilometres, I go with my bag on my knees, I'll go in the boot if I have to ... Of course even then some answers leave no room for ifs and buts. Two particularly solid guys turned me down flatly saying they don't take hitchers because it was too dangerous. They were going my way, all the way, had plenty of room and were both much bigger than I, but still afraid of a tall slim fellow with a small pack, afraid perhaps of the butcher's knife in my sock maybe, or the gun under my arm, who knows, but afraid all the same. And ultimately it's their right to be so. I've every reason to believe of course, that they just wanted to be alone and were fishing for excuses to turn me down. Which is fine as well, in fact it's probably better than if they were really afraid of me ...
Well, finally, around 4 in the afternoon, after 5 hours of fishing for a ride out of Hay, I found a truckie headed for Wagga that was prepared to take me. The affirmative response was so out of the blue, and unexpected somehow that it shook me. After 5 hours of no, I guess you approach people not wondering any more if they'll say yes, so much as how they'll say no -- and then a yes hits you in the face.
Well this truckie was tired and needed a sleep, and said he'd leave at 6, in another two hours. But if I was still here then he'd take me, and we were both willing to bet that I would be. But nothing of course is that simple ... After a half a day's waiting in Hay, now that I had a ride lined up, the offers began to flow in thick and fast, or so it seemed.
I went back to passive petitioning, I just stood in front of this truck basically, as teh truckie slept and held my sign "Wagga Wagga". A man pulled over and offered me a ride to Griffith, which was not exactly my way but would take as far as Darlinton Point which was half way to Wagga. If I hadn't a guaranteed ride to Wagga with this truckie, I'd have snapped it up, but as it was, it was already dark, and my chances of getting a ride out of Darlington Point to Wagga were not good, so I turned it down with a note of thanks. Five hours earlier, I'd have snapped this ride up.
A yound lady was parked, and waved me over. She was headed south, to Deniliquin on the Melbourne road. It was completely the wrong direction. But again, if I'd not had a sure ride into Wagga I'd have snapped it up too. It would have been sign I guess, that I should head back to Melbourne and catch up with Dave again before plying the Hume back home (near Sydney). There might always have been chance that she'd have helped me find a crash on the way, in Deniliquin, to tide me over for the night. But as it was, I couldn't use it, and as much as it pains a man to turn down the offer of a pretty lady, that's what I did.
Well, I figured it unlikely I'd better this truckies offer now that it had gotten dark, so I rang Bill in Wagga to warn him of my impending approach, and settled in the restaurant for a meal of sorts. The waitress from whom I'd bouth some lunch earlier in the day asked "You still here?", reminding me of my pitiful day's performance.
By the time this truckie woke and we got out of town, I'd been in Hay all of seven hours. Long and away my slowest hitch in all my time on the road in Australia. I was well and truly stuck in Hay ...
I could feel the effects of the days weather on me as I finally rode out of Hay. Seven hours of standing around in the wind and the sun talking to strangers walking back and forth from one end of town to the other, from service station to sevice station really takes it out of you. Still, this truckie finally did take me into Wagga, only two days later than I'd planned in the end (having lost one day on account of bad luck and another on account of good). He was talker, which I like. A lot of truckies I ride with are rather used to the solitude, have good souls, share their mobility, but aren't real good company, and I do like a story.
He told me of his dope gowing exploits back in Adelaide. Apparently in South Australia you can grow up to 8 dope plants and it's not a criminal offense. I mean technically it's still illegal, just a civil offense, kind of like a speedinng ticket, or jay walking, an on the spot fine, no court appearance and no criminal record.
Well you can use this to you benefit it turns out. This truckie had 9 crops of 8 plants each, scattered around Adleiade in vairous unrelated places, peoples backyards and garden sheds I guess. When I lived in Adelaide we had a little dope factory in the garden shed after all, though we never did put it to use. The neighbour once brought over a few plants he was trying to rid himmself of and made a gift of them. I got a pocket full of good hash on the hitch out of Adelaide too, just about the only consolation of that day. On the whole it's not hard to come across little crops of a few plants here and there. Such is the state of the state I guess, if not the nation.
Now my truckie was quite open and proud of the fact that he was bringing in over $20,000 a month selling these dope plants. Now there's an angle I'd never considered! He's not running much risk, particularly because up to 8 plants is a civil offense, and he gets a find and done with it, on the rare occasion that one of his crops is found. But I guess because it is rather common, and already dealt with when he's paid the fine, there's no grand investigation that ever ties his 9 crops together into a small (large) business.
I'd never considered the economics of dope before, and I've no idea alas how long it takes a plant to grow. But let's assume it takes 3 months. That would imply that nine times eight, being 72 plants, bring in at least $60,000 (he probably gives some away to friends providing him with garden space I guess), that's almost $1,000 a plant. I wonder if anyone with a better feel for the economics of dope is reading this and could judge it to be plausible or not. I've no choice but to believe it I guess.
Either way this truckie was only driving trucks he tells me, for something to do. He'd always driven trucks and he likes it basically. He doesn't drive as much as he did, but the odd trip here and there is good. But isn't that the disease of the secure, and the well-off, what to do with time? Now that security was won. And believe me at $20,000 a month security comes fast, many Australians spend a year earning that!
Of course, I'm not encouraging dope plantations in South Australia as a line of business. No way, I'd never do that ... it's illegal after all.
This dope farming truckie I was riding with into Wagga told me this most unusual and somewhat hard to believe story about kangaroos on the road. I've grown up with kangaroos on the road, but this was a twist I'd never heard before.
Apparently he was driving down the Sturt Highway one night when he noticed a car was tailing him. Drivers do that out there, it keps them in the slip stream of the truck, saves petrol, and minimises the risk of hitting any wildlife on the road, because the truck will hit it first. Or so they think. This truckie thought differently. He hailed this guy on the CB, which the driver apparently was in posession of. He warned this driver not to stick so close on his tail because if the truck hit a roo, as it was wont to do from time to time, it's come flying out the back at 110 km/hr. Apparently the trucks are high enough and large enough that the roo just succumbs to the pressure and slides under the truck, is tangled up among the many axles and the resulting still solid if somewhat reddened corpse is ultimately thrust at high speed out the rear ...
Well, havin heard this story, the driver, like me and you no doubt was thinking "riiight, pull the other one mate", which of course he was too polite to say, and simply stuck on the truckies tail. So where is this story going? You guessed it, in time, the truckie hits a roo. It went under as promised, and truck carried on unhindered by the small blip on its path, but the roo shot out the back of the truck like a cannonball and smashed into the windscreen of the casr behind. The windscreen smashed, the drive was doubly disoriented by the amazing fact of the matter and the unbelievable fact that this truckie wasn't bullshitting him, and swerved off the road into the shoulder. Ouch.
Our nice truckie of course juist looked through his mirrors, smiled that "I told you so, you silly bugger!" smile and went on his merry way. What a guy! Wow, heart of gold, or what?
Well, if I wasn't so sure it was a tall tale, I'd have to be a bit worried about this truckies not having pulled over to check this driver out ... but then I guess we'd prefer to think the guy driving us down the Sturt at 110 km/hr of a Wednesday night was a bit of story teller than a heartless prick, wouldn't we.
Well we survived without any kangaroos succumbing to our prescence on the road, and I arrived in Wagga at around 9:30, walked over to Bill's place and over a beer, caught up on the months passed since our last encounter.
Ready to leave Wagga, Bill gave me a lift out to the highway headed home, at Gumly Gumly. He was working out there coincidentally, at an iron foundry, and started at some God-forbidden hour of the morning, so I tagged along and was standing there with the daybreak. Well, it was a perfect spot, the likes of which you rarely encounter, a single lane, with aborad shoulder, just behind a service station, in a 60 km/hr zone on a long straight stretch where people can see you from a mile down the road.
Still, I took to counting cars again and it was 150 before someone pulled over. It had made up it's mind a long way away, approaching me slowly already on the shoulder, stopping in front of me. A small van, driven by an Indonesian felow and his Vietnamese buddy, who'd just come from Darwin (now that's a looong drive, where were they when I needed them back in Adelaide three days ago!) and had picked up a load of oranges on the way, which were everywhere, over the floow, the seats and in every corner. Took us a while to make a little space among them all for me to sit in without fear of making juice in the process.
They'd not seen many hitchers on the way from Darwin, but would take them along when they did. Left me thinking of the news of the moment, of Pauline Hanson, the right and the anti-Asian sentiments that were being openly expressed in this broad open country of ours. If only Pauline were standing at the side of the road in need of a lift and these two fellows were there to show her what community was. But then Pauline didn't hitch, and these guys were rather the exception than the rule. Still, their stopping the way they did, and the time they took to make a place for me among their load of oranges, was worth something. It was worth a lot to me, and always will I think.
The van I was in, oranges and all, was heading for Sydney and my date was with Canberra, so our paths diverged at the Yass services. I'd made full circle at last. I was standing hear headed for Melbourne some three weeks ago, and would now retrace my steps to reach home on the coast. Last time I was here I had cars queueing up to take me south. This time I had to settle for one car, but it came pretty quick. A kindly lady from Yass, just down the road.
I was quite used to hearing this by now, but "I don't usualy pick up hitchers" was what she told me. "Well, what makes today and exception?" is my rather standard response -- "You looked all right" or some variant thereof is always the answer. And why not? I mean it's nice to be looking al right I guess, but then the people who think I look like an ugly dog never pull over to tell me, so I guess I oughtn't let it get to my head any.
I am grateful though that people do, on the spur of the moment, go against their instinct not to trust people, and reach out and trust someone all the same. The world runs on trust after all ...
She took me a little past Yass to a spot of road with a bit of shoulder.
It was July near Canberra, and the midday sun had become glorious. The kind of warmth that just makes you glow. The sky was blue, the winter air was fresh, but the radiant sun made it warm, and comfortable. So much better than the stagnant sun of summer, or miserable cold and rain of winter. The best of all worlds was out today, and my heart was singing. Hey so was I, what was the point in waiting around for a lift, Canberra was only 50 km away, and I guessed I'd need a lift at some stage, but no rush, I didn't really want to get there before eêvening anyhow, as Spike and Maria both worked and wouldn't be home till then anyhow. I put on my walkman, and started walking (ever wonder why those crazy Japanese at Sony Corp. called it walkman?), singing along, enjoyong the beautiful contryside. The road wound through gentle hills, greener now than at any time of the year (the Australian summer makes it brown, the winter rain brings the green).
But it wasn't to be. Mid-song, mid-sun, mid-walk, a truck pulls over and takes me out to the Barton highway heading into Canberra. This wasn't nearly as pleasant as the road I was on, a broad motorway by comparison, but still, the shoulder was good, as it is on motorways, and the traffic was spartan, and the day was still what it was mere minutes ago, so I kept on singing and kept on walking. All of 50 metres anyhow ... A car puller over and took me into Canberra.
I was there hours early, with time to kill, in the big city, until the end of the working day. It had been a conspiracy against the sun ... I had my regrets and in my mind was still walking the winding hills out of Yass. Where are all these rides when you want them, when it's cold, and wet, and miserable? Or perhaps just as the beauty of the day works so well on the mood of the hitcher, it works too on the mood of the driver ... So just when the hitcher is least keen to move on, he's also most likely to move on ... Now that would be a conspiracy against the sun!
It was a funny night in the end. Spike and Maria were moving house, it was in fact their last night in the old house, boxes everywhere and last minute packing going on all around me. Reminded me of my youth somehow, we moved rather a lot when I was young, and it held that air of excitement somehow coupled with that strange kind of lethargy of something you've done an awful lot before.
That last ride into Canberra was with a white man and his aboriginal wife. They'd hitched a lot themselves, and had only recently moved to Canberra from up north, finding the people around Canberra a little rotten, never stopping. They had of course tried hitching around Canberra in the past, and had horror strories to share. Well, they'd travelled a lot and had a lot of beautiful stories to tell as well,
She'd hitched a lot when she was younger, but had given it up now. She'd had persistent trouble with truckies that got the wrong idea she said. "Fork it or walk it" is what they'd say, or at least that's how she put it, and of course she'd always walk it.
I guess that's teh darker side of hitching somehow. Though there is a bright side even to the drark side. Over many years of hitching, she'd been veerbally accosted regularly, but never physically, or at least not so's that she cared to share it. Verbal propositions are not uncommon wherever a woman goes if she's travelling. They come out of that part of men, that knows rejection is easy to cope with if the woman in question doesn't belong to their social circle, if they've no need ever to face up to her again. Rejection is much easier to cope with under those circumstances and as a result much more often ventured. There are certainly many many more lecherous men out there than there are rapists, millionfold more I'd hazard to guess. I am after all a man ... :-).
I'd arrived in Canberra on the Thursday night, having planned to be there two days earlier. It was Friday morning now and I was keeen to reach home early. It was only a three hour drive away and I was flying out of Sydney on Wednesday morning and hadn't even picked up the ticket let, let alone a visa for Egypt. I could do with a little time to get my act together, and the weekend was a big blot on the landscape when it came to organising things so I was keen to be home before it hit. This damned flight I'd organised before heading off looked a bit bothersome now from this perspective -- I'd already paid for it and it had pinned me down a lot this last week, as the Universal Esperanto Congress had the week before. Always there'd be something that grabbed me and demanded more of my time by way of participation. If it wasn't driving to Darwin with Roy, Paul and Zara, then it was collecting Mallee roots with Bill and Joe. If it wasn't catching up with old friends in the Alice, it was catching up with old friends in Wagga. If it wasn't this, it was that. Always my commitments seemed to cut me down when I most wanted to fly ...
Of course when I set out, I was apprehensive, and unsure somehow of how it would go. Hitching had acquired such a bad reputation since Ivan Milat knocked off seven hitchers in the woods not far from home. All my friends had questioned my intelligence if I shared my plans, so that I'd got tired of mentioning it. I remembered well how Mark had rescued my spirit with tales of joy and hitching all 'round Oz. The small last minute voice of the one who'd tried, and won against the mass of those who'd never tried and already lost.
And wasn't Mark's voice the truest? Hadn't the last month been one of the most glorious months I'd ever passed in my own back yard. I'd hitched in all manner of exotic places, but never at home in all these years, and looking back I'm not sure why. Once I was among the voices that doubted, and feared, later I just didn't need it, I'd always had a car, a motorbike, whatever. Even now I'd left my motorbike at home with intention leading to the common question from friends "Why wasn't I riding?".
Well I'd done this part of the country on my bike time and time again. I knew it well, and it was winter and cold, and besides I had this mission on my hands -- to hitch the land of Ivan Milat.
Well, I had no regrets, not even the commitments that hemmed me in filled me with much regret. I'd grown used to it I guess, life was full of conflicts of interest somehow, primarily because it was full, which is a good thing really.
Anyhow, with these thoughts on my mind, I caught a bus out to Queanbeyan where I promptly got a lift in a shiny red Merc! My mind went back 6 years to the last ride I got in a shiny red Merc in the far north of Finland. What a ride that was! Well, this time it wasn't a beautiful young gal that pulled over, but all the same a friendly Englishman judging by the accent. He was headed out to Bungendore, not far from Canberra, but a good start to the day. The day had proved as beautiful as the one before it, and it was a pleasure to be on the road. I was destined to be home before the afternoon arrived ... or so it seemed, till fate stepped in once again ...
I had just got out at Bungendore, and on account of the wonderful weather and a desire to leave the village ehind me, I started walking towards the coast. I hadn't walked far, was still in the village, which wasn't a kilometre long, when a car passed me by and pulled up some 100 metres ahead of me.
Now this might be a ride, and it might not, and I'd seen too many naive hitchers rush up to the parked car thrilled to bits about the ride they'd won, only to find some driver looking at them like they'd came from another planet, because driver'd only pulled over to read a map or some such thing and hadn't even noticed this freaky hitcher. That I daresay, is one of hitching's most embarrrassing moments, and if Candid Camera ever found enough hitchers to poke fun at, that's just what they'd do, drive past them and pull up a little ahead with the indicator on, and wait for them rush up gushing with energy and joy only to turn them away and catch the shift of mood on film as they realised their error.
And true enough the car ahead of me indicates and pulls out well before I get much closer. Though, hold on, it was doing a U-ie. I guess they'd gone the wrong way, just realised, pulled over and were now doubling back. It drove past me again, and behind me threw another U-turn, to pull up just behind me! The young lady at the wheel get's out and waves me over! It is, it's a ride! Now that's personal attention for you.
She's going to Mogo down on the coast, so she can get me down to the coast road anyway. I'd get out at the junction to the Prices Highway, where she'd head south to Mogo and I'd head north. She didn't usually pick up hitchers, but then I look O.K. it seems, at least from behind. She'd grown up with hitching culture mind you, on the south coast of New South Wales, where if you don't have a car, you hitch. So the family had always taken hitchers along and she'd hitched around a bit herself.
We got to talking. She was studying in Canberra and went back home to Mogo every weekend. I used to live with a guy from down that way, Broulee in fact. He was studying at Wollgonong Uni, where I'd studied too. She'd studied at Wollong for a while too before moving to Canberra. She moved because she couldn't afford the rent up in the 'Gong and had relo's down in Canberra where she stayed rent-free. Well it was around the same time that we were both last living in the 'Gong, and we weren't living far from one another, just behind the hospital there. "Hey", she says "that guy from Broulee you lived wasn't living there with you was he?". "Sure was ... Andrew was the name".
She laughed. Of all the things. She had an old childhood friend, Andrew, who was living there at the same time. The same Andrew! Small world! Small Australia!
It was auspicous. I'd meant to drop in on Andrew on the way south a month ago. Had just got his address from a mutual friend in Sydney a few days before hitting the road. But it turns out he was away in Perth on a job, where he was spending every three weeks out of four lately. This time I'd not planned a visit at all, I was just running critically low on time, having taken so long to cross the western plains of New South Wales. But here I was, picked up by a close friend of his, who now tells me he's home for the weekend, and we'd just have to drop in.
So she takes me round to Andrews, and true enough he's home, and get's the surprise of his life, to see who Michelle had picked up by the side of the road, hitching out of Bungendore!
We got to talking about the trip, and the machinations of life. I'd ridden into Bungendore in a red Merc from Queanbeyan. She'd been overtaken by a red Merc with two people in it coming out of Queenbeyan! She rememebred it well, she was just driving up the hill out of town, and this red Merc came racing past. But hey, if she was ahead of the Merc, she must have driven me by as I stood in Queenbeyan, why then did she pull over in Bundgendore with such intent. We'd passed her not 500 metres from where I was standing it seems. Turns out she'd just pulled out of a side road behind me as I was getting into this red Merc, and then we pulled out and raced past her, I was put off in Bungendore, and started walking out of town, by which time she'd caught up again in time to see me ...
The machinery of life is amazing at times and we let the clockwork tick by tempting the fates, throwing ourselves into the maelstrom of the unknown, in my case courting the road for all she's worth. When I think of how Michelle found me, how she picked me up, who Michelle was, where she took me, that I'd never known or heard of her beforehand and the hundreds of thousands of cars buzzing around Canberra, I have to confess a certain awe.
A most auspicious lift ...
I'd crashed the Friday night at my old mate Andrew's. It'd been two years since we last crossed paths, and things had changed a lot in that time. He had a wife and child and a house among other things. But now it was really time to head north and see if I could reach the 'Gong before the end of Saturday trading. I had some business to see to with my travel agent after all.
It was about a 3 hour drive north of here, and 4 O'Clock was when things would close, so I wasn't in a killing rush to set off. Besides, it's hard to leave a friend in a hurry, and the morning drew out a bit, so it wasn't till 10:30 or that I was on the road again. Andrew dropped me at Bateman's Bay where Michelle would have left me the day before, if things hadn't turned out as they did.
It wasn't long before I got a ride in to Ulludulla, with a lovely old man who runs a 4WD tour company. He, like me, regretted that there weren't so many hitchers around any more. He'd made some nice friends at the road-side, and generally picks them up whenever he can.
We went off the road a little at one point to look at the largest trees in this region. It was odd situation really, the sort that might leave an insecure hitcher a little on edge. I mean here you are sitting in a small truck with a man you never met before and he drives off the highway down a rough and desolate bush track, then invites you for a walk through the bush a ways in the promise of finding a big tree. For all we know that's just what Ivan Milat did!
But I wasn't the insecure hitcher of course, and this was an excursion I quite treasured to be honest. Here was a man with local knowledge, and willing to share it and show me around a little. I mean he ran professional tours to this tree among other places. He even took me past Uladulla a little so as to find me a good spot for the hitch onwards. He had to double back into town himself.
Too our suprise and joy I guess, there was another hitcher there! And we'd just berued the lack of them. He expressed the genuine regret that he wasn't heading further up north, or he'd have taken us both along. Well, I parked myself up the road a little (a hundred metres or two) from this hitcher and waited for a ride. Much as I like to see other hitchers a little distance doesn't hurt, two grown men just don't attract lifts very fast, or so the theory goes -- to be frank, in all my years on the road I'd never tried it. Still, I didn't have much time to dwell on it, because he came over to me.
He was right, it was a bit dry here, it was a good while before I got my ride. First an offer to the Bendalong turn-off, which we both decided wasn't very useful. Then a second offer to the same turn-off, which I took as a sign -- I guess it was meant to be, so I got in. Besides this driver was convinced it was a better spot than here.
Dumped at the Bendalong turn-off I knew what that first driver was talking about. A worse spot was hard to picture. A high speed, blind corner, with no shoulder to the road, the only consolation being a bus stop in the form of a parking bay, where you could stop, if you really wanted to, reacted fast enough or knew it was there before you sped around this blind corner. They'd built this bus bay to stop people running into the rear of the bus as they rounded this corner after all. I tried a while, and threw the towel in, and started walking.
So much for getting home before 4pm I thought. I walked and walked, up hill, down hill, up hill, down hill, five hills all told before I found a spot that offered enough visibility and shoulder to make it likely that someone might stop. There was a junction with a dirt track leading out to a ranch as well, which added that air of credibility somehow.
If people are wondering what the hell you're doing hithing in the middle of the bush, no junction, no house, no nothing, by the time they've stopped wondering they've driven by, most especially in a 100 km/hr zone like this one. On the other hand at a junction like this, the first thought is that you just stayed on a property down there and were in need of a ride home.
Well it wasn't long before I got a ride in fact, so the strategy was good. It took me all the way to Nowra, though sadly to the southern outskirts of Nowra (I was heading north and keen to pass over the town, not linger at its approach). But any ride is a good ride when you're standing where I was, so in I leapt.
At south Nowra I got a quick ride into central Nowra with a very practical kind of guy ... who wasn't going to offer a detour out of town for me. So I walked from central Nowra the kilometre or so to the northern junction, from where I got a ride in no time, with a Real Estate agent on his way to Sydney. This was my ride home!
On the way we talked vigorously about hitching and risks. I was the first hitcher he'd picked up in five years, he'd given it up, too risky. A friend of his was once killed by a hitcher! First story I'd heard yet of a driver suffering at the hands of a hitcher, and what a way to hear it. I've yet to compile any objective research, but anecdotal and subjective experience suggests that hitchers are generally the victims not the offenders. Richard, my driver was convinced of precisely the reverse, that drivers were generally the victims not the offenders. The irony of our situation didn't escape me, he being the driver and me the hitcher, each convinced that they were the most likely victim of the two. Still it was interesting to hear his views, and both our positions were essentially subjective and anecdotal, neither of us had any hint of evidence so to speak.
It is of course interesting feedback to hear of peoples fear of hitch-hikers, after they'd picked you up. Here I was the first hitcher Richard had picked up in five years. Why? Because I looked all right ... well that's what they tell me. But then I'm always thinking "don't all the best killers look all right too?". I mean how many people can you knock off, if you stand by the roadside looking like you want to knock people off? Let's just say I lost it, and started knocking people off, would I look any different? I hope so, or I'd be pretty successful alas.
Richard put me almost in front of my house in Minnamurra in any case, and in spite of all the delays, and all the walking it was only 3:30 pm. Imagine my disappointment to find my travel agent was not open on Saturdays at all when I'd expected they'd be open till 4:00!