Coast Road

As we near the end of that strange period of history – the era of the automobile – some pleasures will be lost, especially the long-haul road trip. Don’t get me wrong: I long for the day when cars won’t buzz around on our roads, killing and maiming and filling the air with toxic gases. And I love a long distance bicycle ride or journey by train and ship. But the end of the car – in fact, its peak has already passed – will mean the end of the road trip as we have come to know it. And I confess that I do enjoy a good road trip.

A favoured track is the coast road from Newcastle to Melbourne – one I used to do every now and then when I worked in Melbourne. Forget the Hume Highway, a track many do in one day (at 1100 km) with its freeway conditions and drugged-up truckies belting along to meet impossible deadlines. The coast road takes you two days at a push and three if you take your time and enjoy yourself.

It really begins south of Sydney, especially on the winding back road through Kangaroo Valley which eventually gets you to Nowra. We used to camp in Kangaroo Valley as kids, my father taking us on month-long camping trips – part of his never fading passion for open land, bush and mountains. He was from the Netherlands, which felt cramped – in all sorts of ways – to him. We would pile into an old bomb he had bought and tinkered with for ages, four of us on the back seat and the youngest in the middle in the front between my parents. Those trips were fantastic: a dog with uncut claws would run over our bare legs, the heatwaves of summer would blow tepid air through the car windows, dad would fill the car with his pipe smoke, he would yell at us for making noise (usually out of sheer boredom), he would do his best to find some remote spot by a river or on a mountain-side, either in the face of an oncoming bushfire or (as so often happens in Australian extremes) a cyclonic storm, we would arrive hot, sticky, dirty and full of energy, and then dad would fiddle with an old lean-to and a sleeping tent – for all seven of us – single-handedly since there was only one way to pitch a tent and he was the only one who knew how. Dad would puff on his pipe, growl at us for mucking around, and then finally light a fire, boil a billy of tea and settle down in his fold-out chair and ignore the world (especially my mother). We would have the run of the place, a valley often green and quiet and forgotten. We’d flush out the snakes, swat hundreds of march flies, battle mosquitoes, swim in the river, race make-shift boats down it, sit inside the cooking tent, all in a row on the stretcher, while it poured rain as dad cooked rice on a solitary kerosene burner, and make a complete mess of the sleeping tent. For these reasons I would pause in Kangaroo Valley to remember, light my own fire and boil my own billy on my way south.

The Coast Road is a two-way winding track, serving what are still fishing and were once whaling villages down the coast. I am always keen to make Bermagui, but on the way I cut through small towns – Nowra, Ulladulla, Bateman’s Bay, Narooma – and I notice that they have started to go the way of many coastal towns. Holiday apartments, surf shops, cafes and shops-where-you-spend-your-time-buying-crap-on-a-rainy-day-since-we-can’t-go-to-the-beach. Locals grumble about the tourists and the prices, but they know that the economy of the town relies on the swarms that descend in that month of summer.

But what makes a road trip a road trip are the ordinary, everyday experiences. Sure, there are great views from the lookouts or some flash accommodation where you need to sell your children into slavery to pay, but I remember the simple encounters and experiences of each day. Take the bag of lollies. I am still amazed at what people can do with sugar – multicoloured shapes, endless carcinogenic food additives, the most unnatural colours one can imagine. I like the ones with squashy white bits, green and purple bits (squashy as well) and the black ones – any sort, but especially liquorice. I buy a bag ‘for concentration’, partly because I no longer have the big pack of smokes for the same purpose and coffee as thick as tar, but mainly because my kids would always get them as ‘supplies’ for the trip.

Or take the insects that splatter themselves on the windscreen or front grill. If it is a decent grasshopper, then it leaves a yellowish splotch behind and I always think of the incredibly stupid joke: what did the grasshopper say after he crunched into the windscreen? If I had any guts I’d do it again. Each time another yellow-greenish blob with that tell-tale ‘slick’ sound would appear on the windscreen, I would remember long road trips with my father through locust-infested countryside. Inevitably they were connected with the church, for my father was a minster in the Reformed and then Presbyterian churches. He had a liking for country parishes, always hoping for a small and devout group who knew their Bible inside-out. Reality was far from his dream, for he refused to recognise that people in such churches were members for all sorts of reasons and beliefs. But he loved the long country trips, visiting remote parishioners, preaching in school halls and lounge rooms to half a dozen people. And I would go with him. Mum made me cheese sandwiches, which always became yellow and runny on the long drives along back roads in the blazing heat of summer. When we stopped for lunch, teas and a pipe (at least dad had the pipe), the solid wall of grasshopper guts oozing down the front grille had just the same colour and consistency as the cheese sandwiches. No surprise, then, that the other strong memory of those trips was as a small child (in an ancient VW) with my father’s nicotine-stained finger up my throat, inducing me to vomit when I was carsick.

The greatest pleasure was the simplest of all – eating at a quiet found spot. Of course, there are plenty of ways to eat on a road trip, such as spilling sauces in your crotch from a Big Mac, or finding a counter lunch at a country pub, or gnawing on week-old bread, scraping up that road-kill to barbeque for an evening meal, but since I am somewhat of a pyromaniac I prefer to light a fire. Wherever and whenever I can, I gather some sticks and leaves, clear a spot and light a small fire for the billy. A few simple buns with cheese and vegemite, a whole carrot, tomato and cucumber (no knives or plates here) while billy boils and then a quiet drink from a chipped enamel mug.

Bermagui at last, by the camel-back rock, up on the headland with its trees all swept in one direction by the wind – like combed hair, I always thought – I sought out the council caravan park that doesn’t seem to have changed in a century. A simple tent out, airbed blown up (with a light head afterwards from all the puffing), sleeping bag laid. By the gas cooker on a cold night (for some reason I kept on doing the road in winter) I once met a solo traveller like me. He was a builder, rough hands, bit of a beer gut, matter-of-fact way of speaking. But he also had a zeal in his eye, as though he has discovered something astonishing, had finally seen the truth. With long and tangled hair and a fiery look he told me that for years he had built the way he had been taught, with little imagination or thought, looking forward to the end of the day and few beers (nothing wrong with that, I said). Brick veneer houses, cement-block sheds – standard stuff, what everyone expected, no imagination. But now – he leant forward and held my gaze – he had happened upon a treasure: there were better, greener ways to build. With the intensity of man who has found the pearl of great price, he outlined what they did in faraway places, how builders could make a difference to the world, change the way people lived their daily lives and its impact on the environment. He was on his way to learn more, having left behind the old ways and pursuing the new.

Up early, I packed the tent with numb fingers, eager to get inside the car and its heater. But not before I coughed up far more for petrol than in the cities (for some reason that is beyond me, in Australia the further petrol needs to be delivered, the more it costs, yet delivery, I have been told, is a small percentage of the total cost), found a bakery with some fruit scones, refilled my water bottle and bought some more ‘supplies’ for concentration.

Soon I would pass through Eden and into the Wilderness Coast of eastern Victoria. Sometimes I turned inland for a while, along the Snowy Mountains Highway, over Brown Mountain (where we once stayed as children on a pouring night in a log shelter) and down again off the Monaro Tableland through Bombala (motor cycle Mecca of Australia and, incongruously, the middle of platypus country). And sometimes I would drop deep into the south-eastern forests to find a camping spot under ancient gums, light a fire for company and sip on port while puffing on a smoke. Once I stopped in Bombala, searching for the platypus pond behind the showground. Sceptical of ever seeing one at 11 am, I went through the motions and stood beside the billabong. To my utter amazement, my partner (who was with me on that trip) leaped and almost cried out, for there was a platypus, calmly swimming about without a care in the world. She had been in the country a month and I an entire lifetime, yet this was the first time (apart from a momentary glimpse at dusk many years ago) that I had seen one lazily paddling about in broad daylight. On another time – journeys only become journeys when they evoke others – I had pedalled up from the Victorian coast on a cold, rainy day. 90 kilometres of numb feet and soaking clothes sent me straight to an old pub. The publican charged me $25 and I dove into the bed with the electric blanket, thawing out before finding the shop that sold, among many other greasy foods, a massive pizza that would have fed an army.

But on the coast road proper you sink into the long forest of the wilderness coast, occasionally turning to take a bumpy dirt road to a fishing village – Cape Conron with its odd grey nomad, Mallacoota with its treacherous river mouth, or the muddy headwaters of the Snowy River past Orbost. Yet on this run I was pushing for another found spot – Echo Point in the Mitchell Ranges. Some years earlier I had followed the coast road with my two daughters. A trip with dad, books on tape to listen to, bags of ‘supplies’ to keep them happy, to see where he went occasionally for his new job in a distant city. We came out of the forest and into the plains of Gippsland, through the flats of Sale and Bairnsdale. The sign said ‘Mitchell River’, so on a whim I turned and follows the road. Up it wound into the hills. A camping area appeared beside a bridge, full of mouldy caravans and a sagging tent. We paused, the girls looked dismayed, the sun was setting. ‘Here?’ I asked half-heartedly. ‘No’, they said in unison. So we pushed on, turned again onto a dirt track, bumpy and steep, hard by the national park. And there on its edge a farmer had built his life’s dream: a camping area where you could light vast cooking fires, a wood-powered hot water system for the showers, room to run and play and enjoy the space. What a grand spot. The tent came out, the winter gear on. A moment later two dogs bounded over and threatened to tear our throats out. Following them came an ancient man on an equally ancient vehicle, half tractor, half four-wheel drive with its top chain-sawed off. He growled at the dogs, who obviously recognized him as the leader of the pack. ‘Not many come here in winter’, he said. ‘Let me get a fire under that hot water heater so you girls can have a hot shower’. Soon enough my daughters were warm and clean in the spider-webbed showers, we had a large fire going in order to cook rice and sauce and then, the great treat of a night like this – marshmallows on sticks.

After that first moment I sought out Echo Point on any subsequent road trip, enjoyed the space and trees and fire and port and smoke at night at the end of a weary day on the road. The project – with its old caravans hauled in, shelter sheds for rough weather, dam at the bottom, old pieces of farm machinery and amateur wood sculpture from found timber – reminded me of the energy needed to write a book, perhaps more. A sculpture, a creative project to which the owner devoted all his attention when it was not tied up with mundane farm business. On my last stop there was a gravestone in the middle of the small dam. No one came anymore to greet new arrivals, the slovenly man at the farmhouse was not so interested in money for the stay, and the place had the first signs of lack of care. Roly, said the gravestone. He had died a few months ago, from cancer said the younger man at the farmhouse, and he turned away.

I didn’t return to Echo Point, but I thought much about it, especially on the long kilometres of boring freeway that take one into the eastern sprawl of Melbourne (unless you push south and stay by the coast). I remember at least three items that kept my mind active, one concerning politics, another the environment and a third economics.

I met my namesake only once, on that ancient home-made farm vehicle. But his grave set me thinking about rural politics in Australia. I used to think that farmers were by nature conservatives, voting for the National (once Country) Party, hating Greens, Labor, anything that smacked of city-slickers. But I first tweaked to another perspective in Canada: in the middle of the prairies, the province of Saskatchewan is by default social democrat and even further to the left. From Saskatchewan came many of the progressive features of Canadian politics, starting there and then spreading nationally. Roly, I presumed, was a rural conservative, yet he spent his life engaged in a project that can only be called utopian. People came to enjoy what he had created, gathering in makeshift communities before moving on again. It seemed to me that at the heart of what appeared to be a dreadful rural conservatism was a collective utopianism, one that wasn’t merely reactive or looking back to a golden age that never existed.

Secondly, an extraordinary moment on the way into Echo Point made me see the Australian natural environment in a new way. One night I came in late on the dirt track, tired from the day’s driving, cautiously following the poking headlights of the small car I was driving. To the left a dark shape loomed. A roo, I thought, and braked (they have a knack of bounding across your path at the last minute). But it moved like a quadruped. A cow, maybe? Something on its head caught my eye. Antlers! It was a wild deer, making its way back into the national park next door. Suddenly it struck me: the Australian natural environment is no longer populated only by roos and snakes and goannas and quokkas and devils and what have you. We have dogs and horses and camels and buffalo and cats and foxes and deer, to name but a few. Ferals? How long does it take to become part of the fauna? A few thousand, a few hundred? Whatever the sins of our foremothers and forefathers, these animals now seem to be very much part of the natural environment as well.

And economics: whenever I drove the coast road and took deep pleasure in the rituals of a road trip, I felt as though it might be the last one. The brief period of the dominance of the internal combustion engine will eventually be seen as an anomaly in the history of human beings. I was very conscious of the fact that the thick black, viscous source of cheap energy known as oil was coming closer and closer to its peak. As demand exceeds supply and as governments and the military preserve more and more for their own use, the individual road trip will become a thing of the past. I can’t deny that I look forward to it, but will also miss it. But then I always take in places the most when I know I have to leave them – the same could be said for the road trip.