Sunday, 27 April 2008

Sydney (Chapter 10 - Canberra to Sydney)

Being water conscious-even in the fertile south--compels nearly all motorists to carry a canvas water bag slung from the front bumper of their vehicles. The water keeps cool by evaporation and the loss is negligible. Heartily sick of drinking tepid water, we threw out our standard water bottles and bought a water bag in Canberra. Of course I should have known that a water bag is no good until it has mellowed. For the first two days the thing leaked like a sieve, and as the only practical place to hang it was from the scooter bulkhead between my knees, I rode the next forty-eight hours with saturated feet. We carried our drinking water in a beer bottle while the canvas bag was being broken in, but after three days the bag magically sealed itself and from then on we had deliciously cool, completely untainted water; and a gallon of it to boot. Thus our water supply was assured when the time came to tackle the vast, arid north.

Out of the Federal State and into New South Wales, we ran into another problem: fire. On either side of the road, still-smouldering patches made their grey-black scars on the landscape and filled the air with ash particles and the acrid smell of smoke. We passed not acres of burnt fields but square miles of ruined cattle fodder, gutted gum trees, and burnt fences. Once we ran through a two-mile stretch with flames, dense smoke, and an ominously loud crackling on either side of the bitumen. It wasn't exactly dangerous, but it was almighty hot.

I pulled into a little wayside garage to fill up and give our overheated tyres a rest. From the lubritorium (Australian/ American word for grease-bay) ambled a well-built character wearing a huge straw hat, jeans, and a look of mild surprise at his customers.

'What'll it be, mate?'

We got into the usual confusion regarding the amount of oil to put into the two petrol tanks, which became more complex whenever there was any fuel left in the reserve tank, as there was then.

'Just over half a pint of oil in the tank, please, because it holds one and a half gallons of petrol, and just under a pint in the reserve can because it holds two gallons of petrol, but there is still some left in the bottom.'

The rural garage owner paused with the oil bottle and turned his head slowly towards me.

'Y'mean to say you came all the way from Britain goin' through this palaver every time you wanted to tank up?'

'S'right,' I replied, watching anxiously lest he pour too little or too much lubricant into the fuel, 'but I only have to do it once every three hundred miles.'

'That's not much mileage here in Aussie though, is it?' he grinned.

'No, but at least we speak the same language which makes life easier,' explained Nita.

'Well,' said the bronzed garage man, 'you must be a couple of battlers and no mistake.' His gaze wandered incredulously over the travel-stained and somewhat sunbleached Prima. 'You stopping in Sydney?'

'No, we're heading for the Northern Territory and the aborigines. '

'The Territory! On that! Heck, the bull dust is a foot thick up there, you'll be drowned in dust. And how are you goin' to carry fuel and water supplies? There's hundreds of.miles of nothing but mulga and spinifex.'

'It can't be any worse than Persia, or Afghanistan,' I said lightly, 'we'll make out well enough.'

'Best of luck, sports, anyway,' said the garage owner, as we pulled out from the shade of a giant Coca-Cola hoarding. And as a parting shot, 'Why don't you put a little sidecar on it? Three wheels'll be better'n two in the bull dust. . . .'

We had reason to bless that fellow, later on, for sowing the seeds of an idea.

Joining the Hume Highway at a biggish town called Goulburn, we found that, outside the cities, Australia is very much like Britain on Sundays. Everything stops at midnight on Saturday and the only signs of life in the townships were around milk bars and paper shops, most of which were run by enterprising Greeks or Italians, or other European migrants, known throughout the length and breadth of the land as 'New Australians'.

But if the town of Goulburn was deserted on that somewhat chilly and overcast Sunday, the highway was teeming with life. All Australians are extremely car conscious. Motoring, in fact, forms one of the major pastimes of the nation, and the Hume Highway between Goulburn and Sydney resembled the Brighton road on August Bank Holiday.

The only difference was in the great number of semi-articulated trucks, grinding their way backwards and forwards between capitals. Enormous land trains, crewed by a driver and an 'offsider', they carry all kinds of merchandise from Brisbane to Sydney and from Sydney to Adelaide; some of them even make the marathon journey between Melbourne and Darwin-a journey of something like two months on the road (or track) for the driver and his mate. We gave these monsters-driven hard to keep within time schedules-a wide berth. Long-distance road haulage is one of the most arduous jobs in Australia, and the men who drive along the endless roads are tough; tough, but friendly, devil-may-care fellows, as are lorry drivers the world over.

There are frequent accidents, particularly at night, when an overtired' truckie' dosed with' wideawake' pills relaxes vigilance for a moment. Once out of control, the diesel giants can be lethal. We passed a smash-up just outside Goulburn. A sixty-foot trailer hauling refrigerators had taken its double-banked load straight through the side of a house and knocked the brick-and-wood structure down like a pack of cards. Miraculously no one was killed although a whole family had been sleeping in the bungalow.

As it was, the police, who swarmed on the scene and kept the usual crowd of onlookers at a respectful distance, told us that the cost of the demolished house and the whole load of refrigerators (not to mention the ten-thousand-pound truck itself) was somewhere in the region of a hundred thousand pounds. One of the police officers said that the Government were trying to enforce compulsory rest stops for drivers on the interstate runs, but of course the sooner they got to their destinations the quicker they could take on another load, and the more money they made. I don't know how true that may be, but it seemed a bitter twist of fate for the driver, who had come from Adelaide and was heading for Sydney, to write off his load-and probably his livelihood-so near home.

The last hundred-odd miles into the capital went very quickly, with more and more townships breaking the vast agricultural plains. We saw far less sheep and cattle than we had expected. I had visualized this part of Australia as teeming with sheep. There were flocks grazing here and there, of course, but not on the scale one would expect from the amount of Australian labels one sees in the British butchers' shops.

Still there was the mixture of strange and familiar place names: Moss Vale, Mittagong, Camden, Liverpool, Parramatta; all new, clean, and modem, although Parramatta has certain historical connections for it was, at one time in the early days of settlement, a prison town for so-called wrongdoers. Its history (as a prison) is black indeed and sometimes when I read the books of Australia's early life I am almost ashamed of my nationality. The tortures and privations we inflicted on our own people, when Australia was the dumping ground for banished Britons, were almost unbelievable. Britain should be extremely proud of these cousins who could so easily (and at one time almost did) break away into complete independence.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Sydney (Chapter 10 - Melbourne to Canberra)

Two months and one week after arriving in Melbourne, we were ready and eager to leave again on the next lap-the penultimate one-towards that elusive goal, the Northern Territory. For these two months we had lived among the Dandenongs, the blue-black range of hills that encircle the outskirts of the big city, and they welcomed us back after each long day's work in the heart of Melbourne.

We had become very attached to the Dandenongs and the people who lived among them-generous, hospitable folk who had made our Christmas such a happy one, and who guided us with advice on some of the pitfalls which might face us on the long haul north. Dick Bush (manager of our publishers' Melbourne office) and his wife, Joan, smiled encouragingly and brushed aside our thanks for their hospitality during our stay. There should, he said, be plenty to write about when we reached the Never-Never Land. But first things first. Sydney was the next stop, just on six hundred miles distant. With a good road ahead, we were not expecting any misadventures on the way.

We had accumulated something like fifty Australian pounds to carry us towards the north. Optimistic though we were, it was obvious that this comparatively trifling sum would not take us all the way. We felt, however, that it would be quite enough to get us to Sydney, but after the second day I began to have serious doubts; the cash was disappearing at an alarming rate.

The scooter seemed to drink petrol, and food and other provisions we bought at the little townships cost infinitely more than the same commodities in the cities. At one of the roadside stops, we left behind the ground-sheet which had been our camping companion since leaving England, and a new one, smaller and of inferior quality, cost five pounds. Whereas in Melbourne, we had been talking blithely about a couple of days' stay in Sydney before pressing on into the bush, we now began to realize that another working spell was imminent.

The recognized route from Melbourne to Sydney is along the Hume Highway, but this trunk road (which has really been outgrown in the last decade by the tremendous volume of freight trucks which ply back and forth between the two state capitals) offers only overcrowding and a surface which has been punished unmercifully by these huge articulated vehicles. So we decided to take the more leisurely and less frequented coastal route and go up the dirt-surfaced Orbost Highway to Canberra, eventually joining the Hume Highway for the last few miles into Sydney. And we chose well.

One hundred and sixty miles from the Dandenongs on the south coast is a delightful, expensive resort called Lakes Entrance. Picturesque in a modern manner, with brightly painted ice-cream parlours along the promenade and the natural bay filled with equally colourful little boats bobbing about on their moorings, it is a heavily populated Mecca during the holiday season for the outdoor-loving Australian. Lakes Entrance was the last we saw of such partly Americanized communities until we reached Canberra.

Although the Orbost Highway is a dirt road, the scenery is magnificent. For two days we rode through the cathedral-like silence between the forest giants, gums and ghost gums, stretching their smooth trunks for anything up to a hundred and fifty feet into the air. We camped, slightly apprehensive of the almost solid silence of the forest, grateful for the glow of the camp-fire and lulled to sleep by restless kookaburras; their strange, haunting cries are quite startling until one gets used to them.

After the cool, dark forest came the cattle country and sheep land, treeless, save for the occasional twisted stump, where the sun blazed and the road always disappeared into infinity. Unbelievably, on the last part of the road to Canberra, we found it almost impossible to locate a camping spot for the night. High wire fences ran flush with the road, discouraging the use of woods and valleys as overnight stopping places.

'Wait till you get north,' said the few people to whom we spoke on this lonely highway. 'You'll have all the space you need and then some; and don't forget to watch for the snakes.' Thus we heard our first mention of the enormous reptile population of the north. Not that the south is entirely devoid of natural menaces. Melbourne has her tiger snake; Sydney, her trapdoor and funnel-web spiders; not to mention the sharks in the waters around both capitals. Farther north in Brisbane and beyond there is the dreaded taipan snake and the death adder, together with the equally horrific sea-wasp which leaves its victims to die writhing in agony. The land of Waltzing Matilda may not boast any dangerous big game, but their little pests make up in potency for their lack in size.

Fortunately, however, we had no brushes with any of these unpleasant fauna during our journey from Melbourne to Sydney. Our pests were flies; flies, and the gigantic bull ants which bit ferociously whenever they could during our camping spells. The flies were with us all during the day, except in the depths of the forests. We never really became used to them, they were so pestiferous, especially when they tried to crawl into our mouths and noses. The only way to gain relief was to whirl our handkerchiefs constantly around our heads and pray for dusk, when our tormentors would magically disappear. As yet there had been no mosquitoes, but we were positively assured by our casual acquaintances that they would come.

Canberra must be the most dispersed city in all Australia; its very modern buildings and groups of buildings are scattered over a wide area. The shopping centre is quite cosmopolitan-for of course Canberra is the home of all the foreign Embassies as well as the seat of Australian Government-and it is quite a separate community from that of the Government offices or the residential area. All parts are connected by wide avenues, where young trees had been planted to bring shade to this originally barren site in the centre of a plain. We spent only one day in the federal capital, being so alarmed at the rapid disappearance of our cash that our only thought was to reach Sydney quickly and put an end to the financial rot.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Down Under (Chapter 9 - Melbourne, Australia)

Publicity can be very deceptive. We had pictured South Australia and Victoria as being sun-drenched states, particularly in November, which of course is almost midsummer. Yet there we were, shivering in the saddle and realizing the folly of jettisoning warm clothes, including a perfectly good pair of gauntlet gloves. Trying to operate the clutch, change gear, and front brake with one's hands swathed in several pairs of spare socks required some effort. But driving without hand covering in that icy, cutting wind, which blew direct from Antarctica, was sheer agony.

Fortunately, half-way through the journey, the sun came through the thick cloud and we reached the capital of Victoria only partially frozen. We made straight for the NSU agent in the city centre, determined first to thaw out and then to start the ball rolling in the rather hazy direction of replenishing our slender financial resources.

In Melbourne, we hit the jackpot. Within three days, with the kindly assistance of Frank, the agent, I was selling motor-scooters in the city's motoring quarter-another Elizabeth Street. And while I explained how the longest journey could be undertaken quite confidently on one of these little machines, Nita was selling books for Christmas in one of the largest department stores in the world, Myers Emporium.

There was a wonderfully festive atmosphere in Melbourne during our two months' stay; partly from the approach of Christmas but due mainly to the Olympic Games which were just finishing when we arrived. The weather was kind, and although Nita and I worked like Trojans we enjoyed every minute of our enforced stay. Another 'dinkum' Aussie befriended us and threw open his house, later finding a vacant bungalow for us about nine miles outside the city in the suburb of Doncaster.

For the next two months we settled down into a routine and the scooter was used daily as a work horse. We lived very quietly, spending only what was strictly necessary and saving the rest. Gradually the kitty mounted, mostly from our wages and from payment for articles I wrote for the local papers, and fortune smiled on us once again.
Melbourne offers a lot of opportunity for the English migrant. The city is vibrant, young, and fresh. Built symmetrically on a square, all the main roads run directly from north to south or from east to west: within a short time it is quite easy to find one's way around without becoming bogged in a maze of twisting streets.

The driving is of a fast and competent standard, and the only hand signal is the abrupt raising of the right hand as a stop sign. There is no (often misleading) arm flapping which we at home delight in using. Parking meters are in evidence everywhere, although of course we never needed them. The two most striking differences in the world of motoring in Melbourne were the use of U-turnings to branch either left or right, and the enormous number of outside sunshades which were fitted to nearly every vehicle, and are extremely restful under the hot Australian sun.

Working in a city is the best way to learn about the community and its people, as Nita and I did. The essential problem was how to get along with these near-relations. It was not difficult, but there are a few rules to be observed, minor ones perhaps, which if followed can make one's stay exceedingly happy. Not observing them, in this country of essentially outdoor Anglo-Saxons, can bring about real misery, as many people from Britain-particularly emigrants-have found to their cost.

We discussed this problem with both Britons and Australians while we were there, and began to realize the causes of past friction. Ask the average Englishman to name the country with the closest ties with Great Britain and he often replies 'Australia'; he may well have some personal link with Down Under. 'My young brother is in Adelaide-been there since '48-doing very well, too. . . .' Many families in the British Isles seem to have some connection with this twelve-thousand-mile-distant land, and on reflection recall that 'young Johnny is getting on well. . . .' Why, then, are the emigrant ships, when the cost of passage is so attractively assisted, not loaded to capacity with good British stock? And why has it become necessary for an uneasy Australian Government, concerned at the constant influx of southern Europeans, to launch a 'Bring out a Briton' scheme? Why, also, do numbers of emigrants return to Britain every week? To find the answer one must go deeper than the reasons usually given, that 'the cost of living was too high', 'we couldn't find a house', or 'I wouldn't have minded if my mother had come out', etc.

Australia resembles England in so many respects that when the new arrival steps off the gang-plank he is almost immediately open to what may possibly be the greatest single cause of ill-feeling between our two countries-comparison. He gazes around at the familiar advertisements of his favourite cigarettes, dodges between the latest-model British cars, and armed with a district map to guide him, gapes with amazement at an Alice-in- Wonderland version of his homeland: Brighton, Preston, Kew, and Derby. Familiar names, yet alien in their jumbled setting. 'Come on, mate-get a move on!' cries a voice almost like his own, and he jumps aside to avoid the hurrying throngs in King's Cross; at every turn he is reminded of his homeland. Maybe their pubs are not so cosy as ours, he thinks, and they have private cars with checkered paint-work and not proper taxies, and they're a bit behind with all these trams. . . . Small enough criticisms in themselves, but if he is foolish enough to voice these thoughts and continue to make unfavourable comparisons it is not long before he is labelling the Australians as dour and unfriendly.

He will not lose an opportunity to tell everyone he meets that Sydney Harbour Bridge was designed by an Englishman, that Nevil Shute is not an Australian, and how much better the road surfaces are in England. He doesn't like all the radio advertising, and the boy who throws the daily paper over the garden wall instead of putting it through the letter-box, and so on. But by restraint of speech and a tactful approach at the outset, the newcomer can avoid much unhappiness and frustration that might lead to his joining the crowd disembarking once more at Southampton.

All this does not mean that a migrant, or visitor, must necessarily become a mute, spiritless imitation of an Australian in order to enjoy his stay. But it is as well to remember that his colonial brother (although tough on the outside) is sensitive regarding his growing country and does not want to hear anything disparaging about the land under the Southern Cross. My wife and I met a good cross-section in Australia during our year of wandering, and found them to be a proud, commendably nationalistic people. They will not thank you to tell them that their country is a bit of England in another hemisphere. It is not 'just like England' (or Scotland, or Ireland, or W ales), although of course in some respects there has been a very big influence from the' Old Country'; but first and last it is indisputably Australia.

The Englishwoman's reactions to the cost of housekeeping in Australia are not always favourable at first. One housewife who worked alongside Nita in the department store, although in a comfortable position, held very strong views on this: 'It's impossible for me to glide over the practical aspects of comparison,' she said. 'Naturally, as a housewife, my chief concern is money and whether there will be enough to keep us reasonably happy. When we first arrived in Melbourne I was shocked at the price of everything-and am still.' The thrifty housewife is baffled to find that the familiar two-shilling pieces (with kangaroo on one side) will only buy half the amount of chocolate it would have in England and, psychologically, would feel better about it if the coins were quite different. On the credit side, however, I was more than happy to pay only 4s. 10d. for two ounces of tobacco and 3s. 10d. for each gallon of petrol; and then remember that those prices were not sterling.

Because of Australia's similarities to Britain, people often fail to judge her for herself. They expect too much of her and cannot understand why they should sometimes receive less value for their money than at home. Being a nation of grumblers, and not averse to self-criticism, the Britisher can jeopardize his own position in Australia by a stream of complaints against the system which he would criticize in just the same way in England. Having chosen to try his arm in Australia, the emigrant can find (as one sandy-haired little man from Manchester did) that' the missus and I were miles apart and I had to line up every day for two months before I landed this packing¬department job. And this Melbourne weather! Talk about a land of sunshine. Been colder here than I ever was in Manchester. Four-and-six for a haircut! No National Health here, chum. You could drop dead in the street and no one would worry. . . .' Harmless and humorous, born to grumble, with consequent damage to his own chances, the little man already had visions of returning to Manchester. I remember his parting shot: 'I'm taking the wife and kids back home and you don't find us shifting again, not for atom bombs, credit squeezes, or our lousy weather. At least we'll be looked after.' So much for the product of a welfare state; too much emphasis, perhaps, on welfare and not enough on self-reliance.

'As game as Ned Kelly' is one of the highest compliments paid by Australians to a man who won't give up. Ned Kelly was a battler and a notorious bush ranger, but so great is their admiration for the tenacious Ned that he has been forgiven all his crimes (including murder) and as the years have passed and legends grown he has been elevated to a position of first national hero. As I see it the newcomer to Australia has to measure up, in some degree, to the great Ned for tenacity in wresting a living from the land of the gum and the mulga.

For the man who is determined, therefore, to overcome many difficulties, and who is constantly on the look-out for somewhere decent to house his family and who is willing to work all day and half through the night, the chances are that soon everything will-in the vernacular-'come good'. He will not mind being called a 'Pommy'. Someone gives him the tip and he discovers that not all the modem bungalows command a fabulous rent. His colleagues begin calling him by his Christian name and he hears offers, casually voiced, to give him a hand with the new house he is building at week-ends. And so the new arrival comes of age. No longer is he a 'Pommy', but 'Out from the Old Country', a Cobber. Once this stage is reached and the images of England have receded a little, then he will probably cease to make those twelve-thousand-mile mental journeys and find that Australian friends are among the most open-hearted and loyal that a man could wish for.

The disillusioned man in the packing department had said, 'They don't look after us.' And I think I understand what he meant. In England he had known the social security of feeling that the Welfare State had his life neatly tabulated, and that the machinery behind it would deal with any contingency which might affect him. Perhaps he had just forgotten how to stand on his own feet. This, of course, is not so important in Britain today. A pioneer spirit is not a necessity. But in a young country, gingerly feeling its way to adulthood, self-reliance is essential, even in the cities.

One must have the ability to see Australia, not as a replica, but as the home of a proud younger brother, and the capacity to accept an exciting challenge as an independent person. I do not for one moment think these qualities are non-existent in the average Briton. So why, then, are not more of them sailing out there?