A Journey of Rediscovery

It began as a delayed mutual promise: to travel around much of Australia by rail. Often we had put the journey off, due to commitments, time pressures and responsibilities. In the end, some years ago, we simply decided to go, frazzled and pressured as we were.

The journey would take us northwards from Adelaide, two days on the Ghan train to Darwin. A car was needed for the next leg, almost 2000 kilometres through the Gulf Country, heading eastward to Mt Isa in far north Queensland. Another train would take us a further 1000 kilometres to the coast, and then we would wind our way some 3000 km southwards on a couple more trains, down the coast to home. It was to be a 9000 kilometre journey in all.

We began wearily, with long months of disrupted sleep behind us and expectations from work weighing upon us, all of it symbolised by the creaking burden of books in our packs. Initially, on the Ghan we plunged into our books and opened our computers to get some headway on the many tasks we hoped to complete on our way. Gradually, we turned less to the books and the computers began to be lie dormant for longer periods. I pulled out my camera and spent long hours walking the train and standing at windows, testing the capabilities of the camera. She slept much and gazed out the window, an open book lying on her lap unread.

In Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge and Darwin we simply walked all day. Still our talk was around projects, plans, grant funds, writing tasks and ways around problems at work. We went over difficult conflicts and frustrated projects, looking for new ways to achieve them.

The talk continued in the car we rented for the next few days. We intended to belt along the main road and get to Mt Isa as soon as possible. Soon enough a turn beckoned, into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Our talk turned to other matters, of life and death and love and the endless, endless land. We stayed a night in a remote community or two, struggling to find accommodation. Until we happened upon an extraordinary road.

Named innocuously the Tableland Highway, it was barely a ribbon of undulating and wavy asphalt across vast spaces and beneath infinite skies. Water was scarce on the way, marked by the regular wind pumps of yesteryear. Now we fell silent as we were absorbed by the land. Occasionally, a native animal would pass our way, especially as dusk drew near. We stopped regularly to soak it all in, simply standing and looking out, aware that we were possibly the only human beings as far as our eyes could see.

On every roll in the road, I felt as though I left behind one more expectation, one more pressure, one more plan, one more struggle. Into the sky and the open plains went my sense of self-importance. I had begun against my best intentions to believe in the hype and to throw my weight around, feeling that I had the gravitas to do so and thereby change the world around me. As the road unwound through the vastness, that whole sense was simply taken away, little by little. By the end of that road, as we drove into Mt Isa, I had rediscovered myself.

I did not realise it at the time. In Mt Isa, I slept deep and long for the first time in months. The sleep would continue all the way home. Her process was more gradual, for she was processing much about identity apart from her work. She spent the 28 hours on the amazing Innlander train, from Mt Isa to Townsville, looking out the window and snoozing. I found this rail journey one of the most fascinating I have done for a long time. I absorbed everything around, thrilled by the experience. The train played only part of the role, for it was the rediscovery of myself now expressing itself.

By the time we left Cairns a few days later (after a short bus ride north from Townsville), we realised what we needed to do. The train helped, with its rail-bed sleepers on the run south to Brisbane. She would disconnect from what frustrated her at work, pursuing her passions in new areas, wherever that took her and wherever that might be in the world. I would resign from the many editorial boards, networks and leadership roles, disconnecting from the identity that had been forced upon me. I too would recover my passions and pursue them, anticipating the opportunity to join her wherever she went.

The return home, after the day-time XPT train from Brisbane, saw an immediate manifestation of all that we had experienced. We had a massive purge of books, thousands of them. Books we would never use again, crap books we had kept, and anything deemed fit to go. Our home opened up and we felt we could breathe again. The resignations and disconnections took another day. We were full of enthusiasm, freed, passionate and rested. The summer that followed was long, quiet and simply glorious. It was perhaps the most important journey we have undertaken for quite some time.

2015 September 247 (640x423)

Travelling the Soviet Union

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov was one of the many anti-communists writers who came to live outside the Soviet Union and direct many of their energies to undermining the Soviet project. Arrested while still a teenager for counter-revolutionary activities (probably in the White Armies, but he does not say), he was given a commuted death sentence in one of the labour camps. After ten years (1926 to 1935), he was rehabilitated – as many were from the camps – and then spent a happy number of years working various parts of the Soviet Union before Hitler invaded in 1941. Voluntarily enlisting in the Red Army, he was captured by the Germans and chose to stay in West Germany after the war. What intrigues me about his memoirs, Bitter Waters, is that he found himself drawn into the socialist offensive, the amazing, chaotic and productive years of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s. Despite his best efforts, he cannot conceal the ingenuity and enthusiasm that characterised most people during that time.

However, I am most drawn to his depictions of travel after he was rehabilitated, one a brief account of living in a small village after his release and of walking, the other a longer account of an early motorcar journey.

Living in the Village and Walking the Steppes

The house had a typical provincial yard, spacious and thickly covered with a shaggy grass – called ‘broomstraw’ by the locals – lilac bushes, and dozens of fruit trees. In the back yard the widow kept a goat and five or six chickens. The animals, the fruit trees, her hand-knitting, and my rent were her livelihood. Constantly busy with her domestic chores, the fussy old woman inaudibly and unhurriedly moved about the house, accompanied by a lazy old cat whom fate also smiled upon. Evenings I went out into the yard, lay down in the grass, and for hours idly gazed upward at the magnificent sky, the brilliant, starry abyss. Alone with the rustling grass, the lilac bushes, and the dark foliage of the trees in the quiet reverie of the southern night.

As a teenager I had been a great wanderer and loved to spend the whole day out in the steppes. Traveling around the district, my former passion was rekindled. Sometimes I would walk ten or fifteen kilometres just to feel again the thrilling closeness to nature that I have fully experienced only in the steppes: the road, weaving in and out among the hills and foothills; the endless hum of wires buzzing overhead; a dung beetle suddenly appearing out of nowhere, droning resonantly; the song of an invisible bird filling the endless sky. Vast expanses, and in my chest the exact same expansiveness, happiness, and light, peaceful calmness. No one is visible for tens of kilometres around. I walked alone, with nothing but the eternal quiet and calm of the steppe surrounding me – no past, no future. Walks like these are like a bath. You are absorbed in them, cleansed; and afterward, you breathe more easily.

The Motorcar Journey

Once I was getting ready to go to Moscow on business. Neposedov, who had no travel plans, suddenly announced that he was going, too. He proposed traveling by car via Rybinsk and Yaroslavl, I was surprised: ‘For pity’s sake, Grigory Petrovich, that’s more than six hundred kilometres away! What do you think we are, champion auto racers? Six hundred kilometres on our roads! We would devour so much gas that it would cost us a fortune. And your tyres couldn’t take it’.

‘That is exactly why I am going – because they cannot take any more’, winked Neposedov. ‘We can swing by Volga Construction in Rybinsk and buy tyres from the chauffeurs there at a good price. Get my drift? The gas is a trifle, and the road from Rybinsk isn’t bad; we can somehow manage up to Rybinsk as well. How about it? I don’t want to go alone’.

It would be easier, of course, to go by train and be in Moscow in three hours. Neposedov’s route would take a minimum of twenty-four. But the weather was marvellous and the thought of more travel to new places was tempting. I agreed.

It was mid-morning, about ten o’clock, when we left. We drove hastily through town, scattering chickens in the dusty streets on the outskirts, then set off down a soft country road. A cool breeze wafted through the open windows. The road wound along a meadow with yellowing birches, set like a picture in the quiet drowsiness of Indian summer.

Twilight was rapidly approaching. The farther we went, the worse the road got. The car tossed about mercilessly on bulges in the pavement, pushed up by tree roots. ‘Let’s hope we don’t wreck the shocks’, worried Neposedov, letting up on the gas.

‘Shouldn’t we stop for the night in the next village?’ I suggested. ‘The road is lousy, and our tyres are no better; if we rip them up, we’ll be stuck’.

‘I’d rather not’, Neposedov said, twisting around in displeasure, ‘but since there’s no hurry, I suppose we can stay over one night’. (61)

The high cottage with four windows also looked uninviting. The walls had been darkened by time, and paint was peeling from the intricately carved window frames, which were rotting in places. The sharp peak of the roof leaned forward, as if the house were frowning morosely. Yet the thick log walls revealed that in its day the house had been built wonderfully well, to last many years.

We rapped on a small, sturdy gate, which also had weathered many a year, but received no answer. We went into the yard – not a soul in sight. There were no carts, sleighs, or harrows leaning against the barn, either. The doors of the wide barn had been thrown open, and one surmised that it was also empty in the darkness behind them. Beyond the barn, a few sheds and coops huddled together. Farther on, behind a picket fence, there appeared to be a kitchen garden. The yard, too, had been converted into a garden. The only footpaths were right next to the house and farther back, near the coops. Cultivated beds, either bare or with the withered remnants of potato plants, occupied the remaining space. There was no movement or sign of life anywhere, A broom leaned against the door on the high porch—evidence that the master of the house was away.

We sat on the little porch for half an hour, awaiting the owner. It was already dark when a tall, spare, sinewy old man of about sixty appeared from the back yard. He greeted us without apparent surprise. We informed him why we were sitting in his yard.

‘You can spend the night, we’ll make room for you’, the owner responded unenthusiastically, stepping up onto the porch. ‘Come on in’.

In the house he lit a little kerosene lamp and we looked around. The room was orderly and clean: a table; a wide bench along the outside wall; several Viennese chairs; a little fireplace; darkening lithographs on the walls. The place looked shabby, but it was evident that at one time its inhabitants had lived well. Neposedov inquired whether we could get some milk, eggs, something to eat.

‘Of course you can, but do you know what they’re charging for milk and eggs these days?’ asked the owner in a dry, unfriendly tone, ‘They really sting you’.

When Neposedov responded that we would pay city prices, the owner softened a little. ‘My wife will be home soon and give us a bite to eat. Till then, why don’t you have a seat?’

We sat down. Our host puttered around the house morosely. Conversing with him was going to be a hopeless task. His wife turned out to be the exact opposite. About ten years younger than her husband, friendly in appearance and efficient in movement, she greeted us cheerfully: ‘Welcome! Be our guests’. She brought us an earthenware jug of fragrant milk, some bread, and a bit of butter. Supper for herself and her husband was bread, milk, and boiled potatoes. ‘Take some potatoes, too; so tasty with milk! And even more so with butter; they will jump right into your mouth!’ the loquacious woman rattled on in a pleasant Yaroslavl accent. Neposedov, who always felt very much at home with simple people, began to joke. By the end of supper the host had also thawed, and he did his part to keep up the conversation.

After supper we sat and rested, offered cigarettes to our host, and chatted about life. The old man had come out of his shell completely and now talked readily.

It had rained a little in the night, and the sun gleamed brightly in the puddles as we drove on. The dust had been dampened down by the rain, the air was intoxicatingly clear, and we cheerfully rolled along the soft country road.

There wasn’t even a whisper of trouble in the air, and we were in a great mood. The weather was perfect, the car was running well, the road was smooth, we had lots of gas – what more could we want? Forgetting that good fortune always goes hand in hand with bad, we would pay dearly for our complacency.

We had gone about ten kilometres when the ear began to weave strangely, as if it were lame on one foot. Neposedov’s face fell. He stopped the car and threw himself out of it as though it were on fire. Following after, I found him already squatting next to the right, rear wheel, sombrely examining the tyre casing.

‘Well, here we are’, growled Neposedov in response to my inquiring look.

The casing had come apart – lengthwise, no less. Not only the rubber, but the inner cloth layer had been abraded, leaving only a swatch about a foot long, riddled with holes, through which the reddish rubber of the tender inner tube shone pitifully. Give it a little more pressure and it would completely disintegrate. We could go no farther; we were finished.

‘Well, here we are’, Neposedov repeated thoughtfully. ‘What should we do?’

What could we do in such a situation, stuck without a spare tyre in a dense forest about fifty kilometres from Rybinsk, on a country road travelled only by a Volga Construction gasoline or other truck once or twice in twenty four hours? There was no way out of this situation.

‘If only we had something to hold the casing together’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Perhaps we could somehow hold out until Rybinsk. But what could we tie it with? We have nothing’.

We dug around in the trunk, in the tool box – sure enough, nothing there.

We looked around: a wide clearing, with forests on both sides. No sign of anything we could use to secure the casing.

Suddenly I detected an amused glimmer in Neposedov’s eyes. Smiling, he flung open his coat and took off his belt.

‘Uncinch yourself!’ proposed Neposedov, laughing. ‘Your trousers won’t fall down, and if they do, you can hold them up with your teeth! We won’t be sitting in the middle of the road, but getting out little by little’.

With absolutely no other way out, I also removed my belt. Fortunately, my trousers stayed up without it. We bound the casing tightly with the two belts and proceeded cautiously. But no matter how soft the road, the belts did not hold very long; they were worn out after a few kilometres. However, we had gotten closer to civilization. A field appeared on the right, surrounded by wire fencing. In it we found good pieces of telephone wire for binding up the casing.

‘Just hope it doesn’t cut the inner tube’, worried Neposedov. So we crept along at the speed of a horse, checking the casing frequently. A farm village came into sight. There Neposedov bought dozens of rawhide thongs – long, thin belts. We substituted the thongs for the wire and crawled along farther at the same pace. The stops, the unwinding and rewinding of the casing took up a lot of time. The hands of the clock passed twelve. It was more than a little wearing on the nerves. At first it was funny; then dealing with the casing became tedious; finally, we were fed up.

After a couple more hours we came to a large village. In its centre stood a rural cooperative retail store. We went in and greedily eyed the shelves. Wouldn’t something be suitable for our casing? Learning what we sought, the saleswoman led us to the harness department. It was a treasure trove of saddle straps and small belts of all kinds. We were dazzled. We picked over strap after strap, testing its durability and elasticity, and stumbled on some thick, soft rawhide strips, as wide as the palm of one’s hand, which could not have been more appropriate for our purpose.

‘What are these things for?’ queried Neposedov.

‘I do not know, myself’, responded the saleswoman phlegmatically. ‘On the invoice they appear as lassoes, but nobody knows what they are for. They are not in demand in our locale, so they have been lying here since they arrived. No one has bought any. Almost all the goods here are defective: either too short, too narrow, or too wide’, the saleswoman explained with the same indifference.

‘Well, we will relieve you of some of your defective items’, remarked Neposedov. ‘Give us five of those lassoes’.

Not to be embarrassed in front of anyone, we drove out of the village and stopped in a field for capital repairs. We wrapped the torn casing so well and firmly with a lasso that all of the holes were covered. We also wrapped another casing that looked to be in danger.

Finishing our work, we stepped back, entranced: The vivid, bright yellow belts looked splendid against the black background of the automobile.

‘They turned out fine’, Neposedov shook his head. ‘We’ll be just like a circus, entertaining the public. Since everyone who sets eyes on us will be amused, we can collect money for providing a diversion’.

At first we drove slowly, frequently checking the patches. The straps held. We quickened the pace – the straps held. Our spirits rose. Perhaps we would get to Rybinsk? We arrived in Rybinsk – the straps were holding and nothing had happened to them.

We could find no tyres either in Rybinsk or in Yaroslavl, so we travelled on the lassoes all the way to Moscow, which we reached only toward evening of the third day. Neposedov had driven the car from Yaroslavl to Moscow at a good clip, because by then we had a strong faith in the durability of the lassoes.

Campers Kitchen

‘Happy hour’, said the hand-written notice on the door of the campers’ kitchen. ‘Relax, meet other travellers, share your adventures, dream of new places to visit: 5:30 to 6:30 pm’.

No-one was there when I arrived, so they were obviously not happy yet. I was sweaty, overheated and busted after riding my loaded bicycle for almost 100 kilometres, having ridden from Tamworth as part of a longer summer ride. Through the seemingly endless Goonoo Goonoo plain I had peddled, with its vast cattle stations and relentless sun. Just when I had almost hit my ‘wall’, the plain came to end and I was faced with an unforgiving and grinding climb to the top of the Liverpool Range. Sure enough, the drop on the other side into the first reaches of the Hunter was glorious, with my speed generating enough wind to drop my body temperature a degree or two below boiling. Murrurundi was as far as I would ride today. It was as far as I felt like riding for a few days.

While waiting for the party animals to arrive, I undertook a familiar ritual: pacing about to choose the best spot for the tent, pitching it, unpacking the bike, wiping it down and locking it, folding out bedding in anticipation of a comatose sleep, and – when all is done – finding a welcome shower. Al last I ambled back, a little stiffly, to the campers’ kitchen. Now the happy people were present: a red-faced man with a gold chain around his neck, a wrinkled and energetic woman, an expanding man with a grey beard and constantly moving mouth, and his chain-smoking partner. They sipped beers, breathed in cigarette smoke (willingly or unwillingly) and seemed to be happy enough, in obedience to the requirements of the hour.

‘We almost stopped to offer you a lift’, said the mouth. ‘We saw you on the climb and thought, “How can anyone pedal up that!” But we were struggling as it was’. I was later to find out why: their ‘campervan’ was a mansion on wheels. I was sure one would need a special escort for such a vehicle, with flashing lights and a sign, ‘Warning, wide load ahead’.

Indeed, much of the talk was over vans, maintenance, prices, good deals and bad. Not a topic one which I had much to say, given that the only thing in common between my steed and their heavy-movers were wheels. So I cooked a meal on the stove, a mix of beans, tuna and instant noodles – keen to build up my store of energy for the day to come. I joined them with my billy full of steaming sustenance, but as I listened to stories of vans and places visited, of plans for further travel should health hold (for they were not at the youthful end of life), my thoughts drifted to other campers’ kitchens.

This one had been recently built: half open-air, half enclosed. Unwittingly, it invited you in, to sit a while and ponder the universe, especially if those present were holding forth on matters of life and death that seemed strangely of great interest. But I have encountered other kitchens with far less appeal. Great caverns of concrete and steel and glass, they are as enticing as a family barbeque with one’s in-laws (or out-laws as the case may be). Function may have its – well – functions; something to be used without further thought. A stove, a kettle, a table, especially if it is raining – all are useful. But if a television is present or even – God forbid – an internet connection, then the place is clearly aware that it has no inherent appeal.

Yet three over long decades of journeying have stood out, for very different reasons. The first was a few lifetimes ago, tucked away on the edge – in Frankston – of Melbourne’s sprawl into the Mornington Peninsula. Perhaps it was more the turmoil of my own life at the time that made it seem like a sanctuary. Amidst the neat rows of tiny cottages, the permanent van dwellers, and the occasional tent, I had the campers’ kitchen to myself. Here I could cook in peace, read a little, shelter beneath the awning, even survey the ancient and empty fridge that stood proudly at the centre. A worn table and a couple of chairs completed the furniture of my home for a night or two.

The second was on the coast road between Sydney and Melbourne. Here it was less the tumult of my life than the unexpected discovery it provided. On the headland of the fishing town of Bermagui stands the council-run camping ground, with terraced areas for tents and vans. Bermagui itself evoked ancient memories, of camping with my father and my two brothers in the bush nearby, of the legendary hills and green slopes of Mount Dromedary and Tilba Tilba, of journeys through on the way to Tasmania. But I had not been in Bermagui itself for three decades. With dusk falling and the tent pitched, I went in search of the kitchen. Eventually I found what seemed to be a kitchen: it boasted a partial roof and a plank or two for sides, a picnic table and a solitary and rusted gas burner that had seen service in at least three centuries. That was it – forget any other unnecessary appurtenances. With the coastal wind cutting straight through, I struggled to keep the gas flame alight under my billy. An eon seemed to pass as I awaited the contents to cook, but the eventual meal was one of the best I have eaten.

Yet the one I recall in almost legendary terms was on the north coast of Tasmania, many, many lives ago. We – for then I was married and two young daughters were with us for a few weeks of exploring Tasmania – happened upon a village called Stanley for our first night. Stanley’s claim to fame was its fishing and The Knot, an outcrop into Bass Straight. We rolled into town, seeking a spot to camp. One appeared, miraculously, right beside the water. Who could refuse? We soon found out why anyone with a tent would refuse: the upper reaches of the roaring forties do their thing in these parts. Included in their thing is the flattening of any tent that foolishly tries to stand up to the gale. By morning we were sleepless, having endured the flapping, banging and popping of wind-blown tents for the long hours of the night.

So we sought sheltered parts. At the back of the camping area was one such part: vast spreading trees provided a wind-break and a timber structure a refuge. It was painted yellow and red, with solid walls, tight-fitting doors and a sign, ‘Campers’ Kitchen’. One would not describe it or its contents as new, but they had endured the times, and I hope they still do. From its walls I strung a washing line, where clothes would dry in an instant in the wind. Inside we cooked, talked, read, played games, enjoyed a cup of tea or, in the evenings, a beer. And since our tents sat tight by the wall in the lee of the wind, we also slept.

Caravan Park

Neatly ordered rows of cabins and vans, small flower beds near the door, camp kitchens and communal bathrooms – caravan parks continue to fascinate me, for they offer a window into another way of living. One of my great pleasures in life may involve being all alone in the remote bush, soon to slip into a sleeping bag inside a small tent at dusk, but I remain intrigued and enticed by caravan parks. From time to time I find myself using them for a night’s stopover. It may be on a long haul bicycle ride, when I need a wash and place to rest for the night. It may have been when my children were small and the play areas, camp kitchens and even entertainment rooms provided more than was needed to occupy them. It may be on a rare car journey, in transit across the country to Perth perhaps, when a van is the simplest and cheapest option for a good rest after a long day of driving. Or it may have been when I was looking for accommodation in a new place, comparing short-term van rentals with other rental options.

Of course, some caravan parks are simply horrors. The beachside park in the summer holidays is full of mini-suburbias, with kids running around screaming and fighting, parents drinking to forget yet another dreadful year in the grind, faux barbeques emitting smoke from the charred carcase of yet another corpse. Some have dubious reputations, such as one in the Canberra area when I was on a weeks-long bicycle tour. ‘You’ll wake up with only the clothes you are wearing’, was the comment concerning this salubrious abode when I inquired about possible accommodation for the night. In these cases, they should probably be avoided. But not most of them.

Whenever I stay in a caravan park, it sets my memory running along alternative tracks. I recall a friend in primary school, who lived at the local caravan park. His father had a job that entailed regular moves and his family had little money. So they would take their van with them and live in whatever town they happened to find work. They were here (Tumbarumba) for a year or so. Often I would go to his place for a few hours, intrigued by the creative use of space, longing to be able to hit the road when they did. To be sure, he and his family were sometimes derided in the small country town, for being who they were. Then again, so were we, for we were recent ‘blow-ins’. In such a place, one’s family had to go back generations to be counted as a local.

Later, one of my friends at high school lived on his own in a caravan. The story was never told, but he needed to move out of home at a young age and he was able to get a government allowance – or rather, a pittance. But this did not faze him, so he considered his options and decided he could afford to live in a caravan. While most of us were still deeply dependent on our parents, even though we pretended not to be, he was by far the most mature and organised of the lot of us.

Later again, one of my first students hailed from the local caravan park. He had recently come out of prison, having been busted for some minor drug trafficking. His earlier life had been spent as a musician, enjoying all night parties, women, booze and few too many drugs. Prison was a wake-up call, although he occasionally missed his former life. But what to do? He decided to study, living off a meagre student allowance. He may have struggled a little with the conventions of writing for university assignments, given his unorthodox preparation for such studies. But when he let himself go, he could write the most amazing essays in his angular scrawl.

Then there was the mother of a baseball player in one of my sons’ teams. Her husband had run off some years with a younger woman and left her with nothing. Given her working class background and limited resources, she bought a permanent van in the local caravan park. The van was hers, but the ground on which it stood was rented. With a couple of bedrooms and small garden, she made it her home and thoroughly enjoyed it.

These lives always touch a desire within me to experience that life, with its search for permanence within impermanence. The neat row of vans in a line along a paved path evokes in miniature a street with its houses. Here too is ordered life; in fact, it is more ordered since the rules of communal living are stricter. That permanence within impermanence is also embodied in the fact that one owns the van but not the ground upon which it is perched. Apart from reminding me of the standard approach to human dwellings in communist countries, it reminds me that the very idea of ‘owning’ a piece of the earth is thoroughly ridiculous. Yet, what intrigues me more is the nature of that impermanence within the show of permanence. A caravan park reminds one that it always easy to move on. The road out is always more present, teasing and inviting. With less of those encumbrances that so many deem ‘necessary’ for life, one has the freedom to take to the road once again.

From St.-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! to Dildo: Newfoundland or Bust

‘The battery’s gone’, I said as I emerged from under the bonnet of the car. ‘And without the battery, the car won’t start’.

‘Shit’, she said, and then sniffed the baby’s nappy. ‘Speaking of which, it’s your turn’. She handed the baby, our young daughter, over to be changed.

What were we to do? The car was a beaten up Plymouth Reliant, bought not long before in the notorious second-hand markets of Montreal, Canada. Now it was full of children – two young boys and a baby girl – and a month’s detritus from being on the road (for some of the journey, even my mother had joined us). That month had been spent travelling through the Canadian Maritime Provinces – Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and then Newfoundland as our outermost point. Now we had a few days to go on our return journey, but the car had run to a halt on some forgotten road in the midst of the forests of New Brunswick.

Thus far, it had been an incident free journey, in the glorious sunshine of a Canadian summer. The children were well-behaved and cooperative, the five-star hotels clean and welcoming. Actually, that would be my idea of a nightmare journey. With little money and a love of back roads, we had explored the quirkier side of eastern Canada. Our preferred option was youth hostels, at a time when they were far from uniform, even in one country.

So in a Quebecois town like Trois Rivières, the hostel evinced the Francophone reality that the combination of style and cleanliness is an oxymoron. Or is that style is able to cover many sins? In Trois-Pistoles, the student accommodation doubled as a holiday hostel. Here the young attendant could make neither head nor tail of my pitiful effort at French, so we ended up paying for one person, not five. Encouraged, I was keen to try my French on all and sundry. At a petrol station, I knowingly asked the attendant directions to the ferry across the St. Lawrence River. He poured forth a stream of French; I nodded, said ‘merci beaucoup’, and promptly drove off in the opposite direction.

Winding down from the Gaspé Peninsula into New Brunswick, we happened upon the seaside town of Campbellton. Lovely clean sheets, a quiet town, with a wonderful view of … a massive pulp and paper mill that stank to high heaven. Further on, we stayed in the student quarters in the university town of Antigonish, where my younger son promptly told a man smoking a cigar that his lungs would turn green (or so he had been told at school). On the Arcadian coast of New Brunswick, we encountered a young Arcadian French man who talked long into the evening about finding his identity. He deepest wish was to practice his English, so we did our best to make sure he picked a few of the more colourful Australian expressions. On we went, swatting our way through the mosquitoes of Cap Pelé, with its creepy holiday house; finding the only strip of white beach sand on Prince Edward Island; occupying a functioning light house, the lower quarters of which had been turned into a hostel; and making our way up the forgotten yet stunning east coast of Nova Scotia.

Yet, we had barely made it this far in one piece, for we had almost been mugged the day before in Halifax. The youth hostel had wisely been placed in the seediest part of town. On our walk back after a day exploring the city, we were followed by three sinister looking types. Closer and closer they edged, seeing that we were vulnerable with three children and my mother (who was with us on this part of the trip). Just in time, the Youth Hostel door appeared and they veered away, having enjoyed the fright they had just visited on us.

Day after day we changed nappies, amused the children, and drove. Or, rather, I drove, since I was the only one with a Canadian driver’s license. I finally had a reprieve on the ferry to Newfoundland. This was an old school ferry, with limited entertainment, a fog horn that made your heart skip a few beats and drop whatever you were carrying, and more tickets sold than beds to sleep in or seats to occupy. Actually, it was quite practical, for much of Newfoundland is unemployed for periods of the year. Few can afford a cabin with a bed, so anywhere on the deck will do. We occupied an inside corner for the 18-hour crossing. The children soon fell asleep on the travelling mattresses we had brought, while we did our best with the two seats. In the end, I too joined the children on the floor.

Rocky, foggy and bleak – Newfoundland in the early light was all these and more. Sparsely populated, much of it is covered by forest. Once the Beothuk made the place their home, but they were wiped out by European settlement. But not before they had despatched the Vikings some centuries earlier. Erik the Red and his seaborne thugs had settled at L’Anse aux Meadows, only to be driven back by the superior technology of the Beothuk.

With its tough but unique history, its endless wilderness, its outports (villages you can reach only by boat), its extraordinary houses built into cliff-sides, its moose that can write off your car should you hit one, its hardy people and travellers (we picked up a hitch-hiker on his way to Labrador), we loved Newfoundland. To be sure, it was full of black flies that ripped out a hunk of flesh on each bite. It was also full of crackpots, like the oceanographer in Trouty whose research consisted in deciphering the language of whales. He paid for this innovative project by running whaling tours in tiny boats that were spectacularly unsuccessful in finding whales. We, of course, were sucked in.

Eventually, by other ferries and new roads we had not travelled before, we made our way back to our home in Montreal. Or did we make it back to Montreal? Towards the end of the journey, the car was showing its age. A front bearing had been making a delightful crunk-crunk-crunk sound for some time. Water leaked inside every time it rained. Now it refused to start. Fortunately, it was a simple machine, so I devised a simple strategy. Given that the battery drained every time the car stood still for a while (such as at lunch or overnight), I removed the leads at each stop, so that there was power enough to start the machine again.

Through it all we couldn’t avoid the local sense of humour. It may have varied from place to place, from the Francophone parts of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, through the Gaelic towns of Nova Scotia, to the deeply Irish heritage of Newfoundland – the only country in the world that had gained independence only to relinquish it soon afterwards and ask to join Canada. One moment where that humour shone forth was as unexpected as it was delightful. Rolling through Quebec, we spied a sign that announced Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! Given that nearly every village in Quebec is named after a saint, this one gave the finger to the lot of them.


But the Newfoundlanders (or Newfies) were not to be outdone. In the midst of the island, we happened upon a town called Dildo. Yes, Dildo! Who wouldn’t kill for an address like that?




Trabants, or Trabies as they are affectionately known: surely they embody the ‘failure’ of communism in Eastern Europe. Were they not smoke-belching, under-powered, papier-mâché cars that signalled the sheer inefficiency of a communist command economy? People would wait years for one, or so the story goes, and then find that they barely lasted a few months before falling to pieces. And did not people happily dump their Trabies on the infamous ‘Traby route’ into the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Imagine my surprise when I encountered my first Traby in Eastern Europe, especially with these remnants of Cold War propaganda running through my mind. On a rather fresh – well, actually, it was seriously icy – morning I was walking through the village of Rennersdorf in the far eastern parts of Germany (the old DDR). I turned a corner and there was a small pale blue car parked by the side of the road.


Surely not! Is that a Traby? A closer look revealed it to be so. Thinking it was a collector’s item, carefully restored and kept running by an enthusiast, I peered closer. Again, I was mistaken. This one had not been altered since first constructed, somewhere between 1963 and 1991 – at least 22 years old, if not much more. A tiny bit of rust around the key holes, the paint a little faded, but otherwise perfectly fine. Obviously, papier-mâché lasts longer than one would expect.


A tap on the bonnet ascertained that that too was a myth, for it made a solid metallic sound. Some mechanic in these parts knew well how to keep these simple, functional machines running, but it gave the distinct impression that it didn’t need much maintenance.


That one turned out to be the popular 601S (Standard) model. Soon enough I was to experience one in action. Pedalling on my bicycle out of the town of Bernstadt, puffing as I crested the steep hill onto the ridge, I heard the high-pitched purr of a two-stroke engine. A motorcycle, I thought to myself. No, soon enough a Traby sped past me, pulling up the hill with ease. With a deft swerve, it overtook the sleek new car in front of it and sped away over the horizon – so much for the myth of its under-powered engine. This one was a grey station wagon, and I was to come across it again two villages down, parked by the side of the road.


Intrigued, I dismounted and inspected it closely. It was a station wagon, of the same model as the pale blue one I had seen earlier. Once again, it showed no signs of being restored, for it had all of its original fittings.

More would soon appear. In Herrnhut, I was sauntering along a lane to a local shop and there before me was an older model, from the late 1950s. It had a rounded nose and tail, with older style windows in a smaller cabin, higher off the road.


This one was a two-tone affair, maroon and grey, with more elaborate chrome fittings. I peered closer and noted once again the tell-tale ‘Trabant’ label on it. Surely this version was a collector’s item, for it was more than 50 years old. Again, it turned out to be an original. It may have had a small ding or two in it, but it obviously had plenty of kilometres left in it, for the occupants fired it up and puttered off. Perhaps these cars were more numerous than I had expected.

By now it was clear that Trabants was tough old machines, built to last from a simple template. However, I was in for one more surprise. Out the back of the only restaurant in town, I spied yet a fourth. This was a late model yellow affair, the 1100 built in the late 1980s, with a four-cylinder engine.


But as I walked around it and studies the bonnet and windscreen, I noticed an oval plate in on the left-hand side. It said ‘DDR’. Perhaps it too is as tough and resilient as these cars, biding its time for its own return.


Olary Pub

‘We are not flash, but we are f’n frienly’.

So is the greeting to the Olary pub, scrawled on a chair by the front door. Olary is a glimpse of a railway station, a house built of eternal desert stone and of dubious occupancy, and the pub. It lies on the edge of the Eyre Basin in central Australia, in one of the driest regions on earth. A couple of carefully watered trees stand out front, beacons in the midst of the saltbush and red earth.

Tentatively we pull up, tentatively we walk in.


The publican – Sam is his name – sports a greying black and curly mullet, a beer gut and limp. His days of motorcycle sidecar racing are well behind him, the fading photos and trophies proudly displayed.

‘Have you got a room?’ I ask.

‘Double?’ he says.

I nod.

He looks me up and down, as if to ascertain how much I would cough up without too much complaint. ‘75 dollars’.

‘OK, sounds good’, I say uncharacteristically. It would be worth every cent and more.

We are led through a door that sticks, past a dog blanket and feed bowl and a sign on a small cupboard full of electrical matters that reads, ‘Leave this f—n alone. Staff only!’ Obviously a theme here, linguistically speaking.

We come into a small courtyard, with drooping, leaking roof and tables festooned with ashtrays. From the courtyard, low doors lead into the rooms. The honeymoon suite is ours, so named due to the rare double bed. Once upon a time the carpet had been vacuumed, the bedside table wiped. At least the sheets are cleanish. And after a long, weary journey, the bed would turn out to be more comfortable than some obnoxious penthouse in a five-star city hotel.

A key? Hardly. Doors remain unlocked, open in fact.

Our fellow lodgers include a miner who emerges from the shower, grasping a towel around his waist and bellowing about the absent hot water. Beside him dwells a German backpacker, a young woman here for three month’s work and experiences away from the usual. She works the bar, assists in the kitchen, bumps and grinds to the music with a very buxom Marge, Sam’s partner.

Out the back are the obligatory dogs who love to bark threateningly.

‘They’ll lick you to death’, says Sam.

And there is Wally the galah.

‘He can swear in Ukrainian, Korean and he’s learning to swear in German’, says Sam. ‘Fell out of a tree out the front 18 months ago’.

Wally also bites, dances and coughs gingerly while turning his head away. We try to teach him a few Danish swear words.

Back at the bar a few locals nurse their drinks. Two wizened bikie types, all grey pony tails and beards and worn leather jackets, talk endlessly and twinkle. A quiet, somewhat solid couple are perched on stools at the end of the bar, she with massive glasses and lipstick, he with some decent stubble and impressive lower lip.

A woman impossible to describe walks – no jingles – her way through the front door. From every conceivable loop of her ‘youthful’ clothes hang all manner of items: chains, keys, lighters, small fluffy toys, satchels, pieces of brightly-coloured cloth, cigarette packets … Framed by red hair plaited in all manner of patterns is a worn face that speaks of impressive devotion to all manner of substances against doctors constantly warn us. Well known to all, she chatters, pokes the wood fire, flits here and there. A perpetual motion machine.

A truck full of young people arrives, three young men and a woman. By now my doubts about how a pub like this makes a living have well and truly dissipated. People are prepared to come from far and wide, although it helps that the pub is about all there is in a wide radius.

A family of half a dozen or more enter. The centre of attention is a baby barely born. Obviously rules about children at the bar are relaxed a little here. They are here to celebrate the birth, with wider family visiting from afar.

Soon the baby goes ‘on the tit’, as his father observes poetically. Everyone is suddenly reminded of hunger. Automatically repressing the urge to follow the baby’s example, the kitchen is suddenly inundated with orders. Over the next while, they produce culinary masterpieces such as fish and chips, massive steaks, veal or chicken schnitzel, surrounded by chips, vegies or even salad.

The father asks us of our journey, whither and whence. Boots planted wide, beer perched on impressive barrel chest, hair slightly greying, he towers above us as we sit on the worn couch. But I am more interested in how they make a living.

‘Sheep’, he says. ‘Won’t make you rich’. It is indeed on the edge of remotely viable agricultural land.

‘Are you born and bred local’, I ask.

‘Nah’, he says. ‘From over Wilcannia way, where I’ve got friends. But I always dreamed of owning my own sheep farm, from when I was a kid. Worked on farms here and there for a few years, doing the same thing’.

‘What about roos?’ I ask.

‘Professional cullers with quotas deal with some of those’, he says. ‘They export a lot of roo meat’.

‘Export?’ I say. ‘Where?’

‘They love it in China’, he says. ‘Can’t figure than one out. But if the orders stop, we get heaps of roos. Buggers’.

‘How do you manage all the goats,’ I ask. ‘Noticed them last time I was through, but not before’.

‘The ferals?’ He says. ‘We round ‘em up, stick ‘em on a ship. Last time we got about 1200. Good prices too. They’re pretty versatile buggers. Can survive on nothin’ much. Not like sheep’.

Assuming he is still speaking of goats and not some right-wing political types, I ask: ‘Who buys feral goats?’

‘Saudi Arabia’, he says. ‘We send shiploads of live goats to Saudi Arabia. They must like them, since it’s not cheap to ship a live goat half way around the world’.

From one desert to another.

But deserts are cold in winter, with decent frosts overnight. A warm bed beckons.