1st March, 2001 // Australia
...so I did
Monday had never felt so good.
I was standing by the side of the Stuart Highway in the middle of Australia, 100 metres
north of the Erldunda roadhouse, hitching my way to Alice Springs and either side of me
the bitumen stretched away for thousands of kilometres, as did land in every other
It was midday, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the warmth of a glorious Central
Australian spring day engulfed me.
The sense of freedom was overwhelming and as cars passed me by at a leisurely rate
any refusal on their part to stop was greeted by the knowledge that I was afforded the
chance to bask some more.
Throughout cities around Australia millions of people were running around in a lunchtime
frenzy and I smiled at the fact that I was the one north of the Erldunda roadhouse
and they weren't.
The expanse of bitumen and the glorious spring day had their origins many years before
and half a world away in Edinburgh, where cobbled streets lay choking between tenements
and the Spring days were less hospitable.
I'd arrived in Scotland in July 1992, armed with my suitcase, camera bag and a will to
survive brought on by the fact I had no money.
About a year later the sight of a gold Telecom payphone in a TV documentary on Australia
struck a small, but noticeable, chord and I found myself wondering what I would do if I ever
I decided that a Combi van, a dog and a drive around Australia was the go, taking photos
along the way, but soon realised that I wasn't the first person to embark on such a journey
and began thinking of novel ways of doing the 'around Australia' idea.
The Combi van and dog idea re-invented itself over a period of months until, finally, I settled
on the idea of hitchhiking all the way around Australia photographing everyone who gave
me a lift and writing about each hitch.
I'd never hitched before, I had no idea where to begin and while the fear of the unknown
was scary enough, the fear of me as an old man looking back on what might have been
scared me even more.
When Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders made headlines around the world soon after,
my thoughts wavered slightly. However the idea had germinated and there was no turning
It had become my Everest and nearly four years after Milat I packed up my life in Scotland,
returned to Australia in March, 1998, and one month later found myself standing roadside
on the outskirts of Devonport (Tas).
My new 'home', by the side of the road, intrigued me and the physicality of this new
environment was overpowering. The ground shook and the wind buffeted me with the
passing of each car and my proximity to these blurred, noisy beasts saw the temptation to
reach out and touch them almost too much to bear.
I arranged my backpack so it was obvious I was a traveller and, taking a deep breath,
I thrust my hand out into the unknown.
Four minutes later Simon and Simon, a couple of young blokes in a Torana, became my
'opening night' and after years of lying in bed at night rehearsing, it felt strange to finally
recite the explanation of who I was, what I was doing and why I was doing it.
This was to become the ritual another 52 times over an eight-and-a-half-month period, in
which time I hitchhiked in excess of 23,000km - the equivalent of over halfway around the
world - and experienced the diverse human tapestry Australia prides itself on.
Simon and Simon laughed at the fact that some hitcher wanted to take their photo but
enjoyed the moment in a zestful, teenage sort of a way. This was one of life's interesting
moments for them and they were happy to oblige. Simon, the driver, had a good
Tasmanian name, too - Nasiukiewicz.
Seeing out my first 11 hitches Tasmania proved an insightful learning ground.
The demeanour of the Apple Isle was like that of a big country town and any fears I might
have had were soon put to rest by this genuinely friendly introduction to the art of hitchhiking.
I didn't even feel threatened when Mick Castle picked me up in his Mack truck and once
inside I looked down to see there was no door handle. After all, the window handle worked!
By the time I parted Tasmania's shores the generosity of my hitches had shone through
and both minties and chocolate had been shared with me, lunch bought for me and I'd
even mustered a couple of offers of a bed for the night when next in town.
The nature of hitching in Tasmania, dictated by the size of the place, meant that quite often
I was left wishing I'd had more time with my hitches as they drove off into the distance.
Sitting in the back of the car with the mother and daughter duo of Dot and Jane was at
times akin to being in the midst of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party as they laughed and chatted
away between themselves while I scribbled notes in their back seat.
Dot even made me write in the notebook she made all 'her' hitchhikers write in and I said
I'd write in her notebook if she let me take their photo. At first she didn't think I was serious!
Despite being in her 50s Dot had been picking up hitchhikers for years and I was less than
happy when, after 45 minutes, we bade farewell at a T-junction and they headed one way
and I the other.
The same applied when Colin and Bill, two American guys, picked my up on the east coast
of Tassie and Colin reliably informed me that he worked for a branch of the US Government
that didn't exist. I had no reason to doubt that he was a secret agent and photographed him
with his back to the camera just in case, but having little more than half an hour with them
meant I wasn't afforded the chance to delve deeper.
With Tasmania's parting a level of confidence had been instilled in me and rather than
dwell on wishing I'd had more time with my hitches, I began looking forward to see who I
would get next in the lottery of life I was experiencing.
A couple of weeks later a cold autumn morning on the outskirts of Melbourne saw my
conquest of the mainland begin.
With my backpack at my feet and hand slung low by my side, in what was becoming a
comfortable pose, I began the next chapter of my journey.
Not sure of the legality of hitchhiking throughout Australia I always tried my best to look as
inconspicuous as possible and the passing of two police cars on that cold Melbourne
morning phased me not, despite the fact that my mere presence there should have
warranted the word HITCHHIKER being emblazoned across my chest.
On my twelfth attempt and subsequent departure from Melbourne I scored my first all day
hitch and this was closer to the exotic image of hitchhiking I'd imagined.
With hitchhiking as my chosen mode of transport, this meant that I couldn't always go
where I wanted and when I wanted, so plans were very much made up as I went along.
Once I discovered the availability of a warm car right through to Sydney any intention of
getting out at Yass and hitching into Canberra went the way of the window.
My decision was re-inforced as ominous black clouds loomed overhead at the Canberra
turn-off and I decided that staying put was the best option.
The comforts the cities brought with them proved difficult when it came time to depart and
after a three week lay-off in Sydney psyching myself back into the hitching regime proved to
be the hardest part of leaving.
Once roadside the familiar bitumen territory brought with it a wonderful sense of freedom
and my presence there was now proving a natural part of life.
As is the case before all journeys I'd spent time thinking about the characters I thought I
would meet along the way, but as my journey progressed these pre-conceived ideas
The written word now added a whole new dimension to what had started out as a
photographic exercise and the character of each of my hitches now came into their own.
The addage that everyone has a story to tell was proven again and again, and in many
cases there was a beautiful sense of Australian-ness in what I heard.
Phil Wilk's father had arrived in Australia from Poland half a century before with the
surname Vvilk, but when Immigration saw it they scratched their collective heads and
declared, "Nah, too bloody hard!"
Some Aussie ingenuity saw them push the two Vs together to make a W and 'hey presto',
Vvilk became Wilk.
Welcome to Australia, mate!
"In 1969 I was travelling through North Africa. I met two Aussies who said that I should go
back to England, buy a ten pound ticket to Australia, get to Brisbane, buy a panel van and
drive to Noosa...so I did!"
Nick Wheatley's 42-word account of his life (up until then) summed up everything my
journey was about and finding myself in his magnificent Valiant Safari, with Byron Bay to
the right of us and dusk descending, everything about the moment seemed appropriate.
Having never been to the Outback, I could feel its presence looming thousands of
kilometres away to my left as I made my way up the east coast.
This was where I felt my hitchhiking was going to begin in earnest, expecting them to
become fewer and farther between, with the distance covered by each hitch increasing
dramatically compared to those already undertaken.
It seemed appropriate that I made my way west with another fellow traveller, my 27th hitch,
on his own journey of discovery. Neither of us had been further west than Queensland
before and an air of anticipation became apparent as the landscape took on a whole new
The sight of small clouds of dust on the horizon that grew and grew into thunderous
roadstrains competing for the same single lane of bitumen became a commonality and
very much added some spice to the daily travel routine.
The Outback was a whole new world and it soon became apparent that the reality of life
there differed greatly to the city existence that I'd grown up with.
Life and death were much closer bedfellows and survival took precedent over everything
else. The outlook on life by the people that lived there reflected this and I revelled in its
In a true, down to earth fashion born out of his upbringing in the Top End, Bruce Whitton
told me how, as a child, he and his friends could only go swimming in the Ord River if there
was someone on each river bank with a .303 rifle to shoot any crocodiles that strayed too
As I sat in the passenger seat of his van scribbling down this amazing story being relayed
to me, I was amused by the fact it was nothing out of the ordinary to him.
There was also a nice irony in the fact that it was Melbourne Cup Day and while Bruce's
tories of the Outback were far removed from Flemington racecourse, he was as keen as
hell to get himself in front of a TV set like everyone else.
The common bond of our greatest national sporting event made sure that for five minutes
on that one Tuesday in November Australia was the same all over.
As expected my hitches were becoming fewer, the distances covered longer and the
Outback character started coming through.
The down to earth nature of those I now met was fantastic...Dale Scharf, who took me
west from Katherine, lost 500 free range chooks in the Katherine floods earlier that year
and reliably informed me that, "...chooks can't swim too bloody good!"
He didn't mourn the fact - it was a part of the life and death the Outback brought with it.
Not to be outdone, when Dale's wife stood at the bedroom window on the first morning
of the floods, inspecting the damage, he asked her how it looked and she simply
eplied, "You better get your arse out of bed, old man!"
The presence of the land was like nothing I'd ever felt before and much of my urban
existence seemed futile.
Sitting atop a hill late one afternoon, surrounded by the sheer beauty of the Outback, I
pondered why we poured so much poison down our sinks all in the name of getting our
shirts as white as possible. It didn't make sense.
After being with my 27th hitch for more than a week, we arrived at Uluru and it blew us away.
Nothing prepared me for the intensity brought on by its appearance and I found myself
seeking it out and staring at it, like a flame.
Having experienced the intensity of this sacred site I could understand why Aboriginal
culture asked visitors to refrain from climbing their Spiritual home (many ignored), as I was
sure the sight of Aborigines with climbing equipment, scaling the Vatican, wouldn't be
While their accents may have been Australian, many of my hitches began life in other parts
of the world and stories of ten pound Poms and war-time Europe became commonplace.
Many had found early hardship greeted them upon arrival in their new home of Australia
and an over-riding sense of achievement arose as a result...Dave Green arrived while in
his 20s, after the toss of a coin decided his destination, and spent his first night in
Fremantle sleeping in a park with his suitcase for a pillow. His introduction to life in
Australia wasn't all milk and honey and he found himself painting the house he was living
in to pay for his rent.
Frank Kramer arrived as a 10 year old from Holland post WWII and spent time in an
immigrant camp, learning English on the run. The plumbing business he now owned with
his brother was so successful they were each able to spend six months holidaying while
the other worked.
The common thread recurring was the fact that my hitches had achieved much in their lives
up to the point where I joined them in the passenger seat of their car.
Before setting out on my journey I'd often wondered what sort of person would stop for a
hitchhiker and it made sense that anyone willing to pick up a stranger would not be phased
by what life threw at them.
Through their stories and demeanour they let slip the fact that, unintentionally, cultural and
demographic differences mattered little when it came to the human character.
Their various stories had proven they were bonded by the challenges life set them and this
brought with it the willingness to be a part of a stranger's dream.
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