Now and Then: Two Views on Australia

By: Bernd Wechner
© March 1, 1999

Now and Then: Two Views on Australia

Now and Then: Two Views on Australia

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: March 1, 1999

Much as I found two books on hitching the shores of Ireland, I recently dug up two rather contrasting pieces on Australia. Worlds apart, Ireland and Australia still have things in common, not least of which seems to be a predisposition for hitch-hikers with a bent for writing about it. Well that is, if we can think of two books over 50 years as a mark of predisposition I guess (and no matter how you argue it, if you dig around the annals of hitching literature, you won't find many places to top that!).

Well the sojourn through Australia starts way back, with Coralie and Leslie Rees, who documented in their book of 1953 Spinifex Walkabout, one of the remotest hitch-hikes you'll likely encounter. True enough, I've brushed up against tales of very remote hitching in Russia and Alaska this last year, but the Rees' is the first detailed travel journal I've uncovered in country so remote.

They set out from Geraldton, some ways north of Perth in Western Australia (itself known as the remotest major city on earth!) and travelled north and east along the coast of Western Australia, until they made Darwin and headed south to Alice Springs. Theirs was a hitch-hike somewhat removed from the classical images. There were no roads much of the way after all, just beaten tracks that caused so much trouble in the crossing that traffic was not a thought you'd tie to them. Traffic? What traffic? No, people travelling on these routes were so rare, that the only way to traverse them was to ask around town, get to know the locals, until you found someone, usually a truck, a policeman or an engineer of some sort, planning a trip. Even then on the first leg to Cornarvon Coralie had to fly, while Leslie rode on a banana truck, there just wasn't any other realistic option!

Well, the Rees were on a mission, so to speak, to explore life in the outback, and if you'll pardon the pun, on the missions. They weren't especially religious and arrived at the many missions with a sceptical eye. These were outposts of church where an attempt was made at educating and integrating Aboriginals with the ever encroaching pastoral Australian, and proselytising didn't appear to be high on the agenda at all.

The sensible option was of course to fly. In fact that's how most people travelled, as there just weren't any roads to speak of let alone a public transport system. The wanted though to stick to the ground, to experience the outback and to feel it, and while they make not explicit mention of it I suspect hitch-hiking was their way of, at once shirking the responsibility for transport (these "roads" needed serious vehicles, and good emergency gear) and winning exposure to the culture (the people of Western Australia). And hitch-hiking has shirking responsibility and exposure to culture written all over it after all …

Wind the clock forward now, about 34 years to 1987 and the American journalist Tony Horwitz, in One for the Road, decides to relive his childhood dreams of freedom an the open road by hitching the Australian outback! For this one last parley with the road, he leaves his newly wed wife at home, thumbs out west from Sydney, up to Bourke, Mt. Isa and down to Alice Springs. He rents a car to reach Ayers Rock and rolls it on the way back coming within a inch of killing himself. After two months recuperation in Sydney he flys back to Alice to pick up the trail. South and West to Perth, riding a freight train part of the way, he finally makes Geraldton and covers more or less the same route as the Rees decades earlier.

Any what a change! There are roads now. Not all sealed yet, but at least graded, and real traffic … well a little anyhow, enough to thumb by. In fact he came across a veritable crowd of thumbers -- a French couple who'd been waiting for three days at Kununurra, two other thumbers in the same spot and one who gave up started walking to Darwin, man things were moving in Kununurra! Horwitz gets the message and catches a bus. Imagine that, a bus! What would the Rees have thought to see all of that? He thumbs into Darwin from Katherine and flys back to Sydney, much the better for the wear …

Horwitz spent his fair share of nights sleeping in the open by the side of the road, turning later to hotels when the nights got too cold for him. The whole trip 'round Australia, with a two month break in the middle, took him only six weeks! This man was moving, he didn't stick around for long, he was after all engaged with the road, and had a job back in Sydney with limits to holiday time! But it does say something, about how quickly you can thumb around a content like Australia, some 10,000 kilometres or more even when you have to catch a bus at a dead end like Kununurra!

The Rees elegantly avoid any mention of time, and short of counting the days while reading (much like some Biblical studies I've known) it's hard to say how long they took to get around. They started in Sydney, trained to Geraldton, hitched to the Alice and then public transport back to Sydney, all at a pace much more relaxed than Horwitz.

Spinifex Walkabout is an old book, and will be hard to find. It's written prosaically essentially documentary and a little speculative though it has its own slightly archaic and proper humour. It's littered with wildly interesting pictures of the times that reveal not only the country but the fashion of the times, the dress, the hair, the cars … all rather romantic almost 50 years on. There's no map included and a good atlas on hand makes the reading that much more vivid somehow.

One of the Road is a much more recent work, somewhat easier to find in libraries and used book stores. Not least of all because it's an American publication where Spinifex Walkabout is an Australian publication. It's got just the one rather rustic picture of a barefooted Horwitz sitting by the side of highway with a Bourke sign. It's a nice and easy read, light text, not wallowing in details and with much more flowing humour than Spinifex Walkabout, a sign of its times, and its author. For all that Horwitz is well read in Australian history and reflects often upon the paths of his predecessors, the early Australian explorers. It includes a very good map to help follow the voyage, marking every little waterhole Horwitz spent more than a half hour in …

I could recommend One for the Road for a bit of entertainment without reservation. Spinifex Walkabout, would only be worth the chase I expect if you had a serious interest in Western Australia and its history, for which it is a really beautiful source.

Full tracing details for the ardent reader:

Spinifex Walkabout: Hitch-hiking in Remote North Australia
Coralie and Leslie Rees
The Australian Publishing Company, Sydney, 1953
Predates ISBN Numbers

One for the Road: Hitchhiking Through the Australian outback
Tony Horwitz
Harper and Row (Australasia), Sydney, 1987
Vintage Departures, New York, 1988
ISBN: 0-394-75817-X

Footnote: The Spinifex is a type of prickly grass bush growing in much of Northern Australia, and characteristic of the region. Walkabout is used in Australia to describe the predisposed wanderings of Aboriginal folk. The title conjures immediate images in the Australian mind that it may not do in others.

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