Saturday, 24 May 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Brisbane)

Roy Markwell was something of a celebrity in Brisbane, particularly in the world of yachting, which enjoys tremendous popularity in this sub-tropical coastal city; he was also the NSU agent for Queensland, having one of the most modern motor-cycle and scooter showrooms and offices I had yet seen.

While the Prima was undergoing a routine check-over, Nita and I were given the run of Markwell's luxury sea-going yacht. We lived in it for a week-at least, when we had time, for during those seven days we were indoctrinated-high-pressure transatlantic style-with Brisbane. We saw the city both by daylight and at night from the famous One-Tree Hill, a fantastically high viewpoint, laid out on the summit of this near-mountain with flower gardens, bursting with exotic tropical blooms and built-in palm-studded vantage points, from which visitors could see, on a clear day, almost every building in the city. Queen Elizabeth on her visit had apparently been very impressed with the panorama which is, from One-Tree Hill, virtually an aerial view.

Brisbane is really a beautiful city, and if ever Nita and I decided to live permanently in Australia, Brisbane would become our home. It is modern, with a sophistication that is not brittle, and the pace is fast but free and easy. The people are very Anglo-Saxon, but the balmy, sub-tropical warmth has successfully eliminated all the traditional Anglo-Saxon reserve. The inhabitants work hard and play hard under almost continuously blue skies and starry, cloudness nights. People sleep on their verandas, or in the gardens, or on the boat-decks of their launches. There are also a great number of pubs in the city centre, and everyone appreciates the ice-cold beer. My wife and I have visited a good many cities, and we decided that Brisbane offered a little of everything, including one unique feature-trams designed so that they are actually pleasing to the eye. Never before or since have we seen anything to approach the sleek, streamlined public transport of Brisbane.

We took a number of pictures: of the University; the gigantic new hospital (almost completed); the daily parade of policemen in their smart uniforms as they marched past a quite historic (for Australia) town hall; the main street of dazzling white and pastel-shaded near-skyscrapers; the modern bridges spanning the river; as well as that little sidecar of ours, which had just had two more names added in gold letters to the rest of the list. I told the manager of Messrs. Wakefield's that perhaps their signwriter had been jeopardizing our good luck in adding Darwin prematurely, but he laughed and replied that so long as I stuck to the right oil, Darwin was a piece of cake!

Once again the Press became interested in our venture and we made two radio broadcasts and received several write-ups in the daily and evening newspapers. These were included mainly on account of our unorthodox mode of transport, but one of the newspapers (the reporter who interviewed us having at one time travelled the world on a shoe-string) gave an intelligent and an interesting account of our reasons for travelling as we did, with all its fascination of uncertainty, and an explanatory note on our aspirations. It is extremely difficult for some people to understand the motivating power which drives us and others like us to go voyaging to the ends of the earth, away from the comforts and security of home. It was nice to come across one reporter who did.

On the latter part of our journey from Sydney, I realized that there was one modification that simply had to be made to our sidecar, namely, the fitting of a stronger wheel spring. This overloaded part had gradually sagged with the miles and had thrown the steering all out of track, so that it was necessary for me to exert tremendous pressure on the left handlebar, particularly on steep cambers and, in consequence, had made Nita's ride for the last hundred miles or so virtually suspensionless.

Roy Markwell went to a great deal of trouble to rectify this uncomfortable fault and, not satisfied with his first efforts, had a special heavyweight spring forged in his modem workshops, where, he told me, they could produce any part of a vehicle except the chromium-plate or the tyres. He certainly proved this with a robust spring for our sidecar.
There was also the problem of extra fuel and water supplies which our friends told us would be imperative if we were to reach Darwin safely. That we had traversed the Middle East solo, with less water than we carried in the new water bag, made no difference. The Australian bush, they said, was a lot lonelier than any other part of Asia, including Afghanistan. Two more one-gallon cans, therefore, were fitted into a metal rack which was slung between the sidecar and the scooter in the convenient space behind my legs. We filled one with ready-mixed petrol and the other with fresh water. According to my calculations, we could now say goodbye to civilization for a week and four hundred miles at a time.

Our brief stay in Brisbane had been something of a social whirl, with the sight-seeing, broadcasts, lunch-time club talks, and parties. We had also fitted in a prolonged visit to a nearby animal sanctuary, treading in the footsteps of Armand and Michaela Denis and
Walt Disney, to take pictures of most of the native fauna of Australia, including some delightful koala bears-one of which rode with obvious pleasure on the back of a long-suffering Alsatian.

Nita went into a rhapsody when the owner of the sanctuary permitted her to hold one of these' cuddliest' of all furred animals. In :Melbourne she had raved over a semi-tame platypus-that weird hybrid of the animal world with furred body, duck bill, and webbed feet. She had loved its sleek, velvet-like coat, but was wary of the two dew-claws on the back feet which held poison ducts. But the koalas were totally devoid of any self-defence mechanism and were, in fact, made to be cuddled.

When we left Brisbane we said goodbye to what I had come to regard as the Australia of Cities: Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, all lying in that narrow fertile collar which hugged the coast, where there were water and life. Ahead lay the inland, the bush. A few more towns of moderate size, then, at last, the silent empty land of the spinifex and the mulga. At last we were on the doorstep.

Monday, 19 May 2008

The Going gets Tougher (Chapter 11 - Sydney to Brisbane)

At first it was easy: absurdly easy, with our newly fixed sidecar carrying Nita and all our belongings (including the weighty film) with perfect ease. The bitumen was smooth, the weather glorious, and the coastal road north running through green, fertile country: Wyong, Swansea, Newcastle. And we made our first night stop just outside Newcastle under a cluster of friendly gum trees.

In the south they had warned us of the mosquitoes, but we had taken the warnings lightly-too lightly-and in consequence were both severely bitten, although we stayed awake most of the night trying to swat the' Giant Greys'. I should think that the mosquitoes around Newcastle, New South \Vales, hold the record for size. Indeed, they are not called' Giant Greys' without good reason, and their intake is proportionate to the large banded body, the size of a house fly's. Voracious hordes invaded our tent ceaselessly throughout the night and we swatted and smote each attacker with vicious satisfaction, and endured streaming eyes from a smoke fire just outside the entrance that seemed to attract rather than discourage our tormentors. And in the chill grey light of dawn, haggard from lack of sleep, we reviewed our tent which almost resembled a battlefield, with dark bodies and blood smears (our blood) liberally spattered over the tent walls and our sleepingbags.

With the first warm rays of the sun, the night raiders-more like vampires than mosquitoes-droned away, heavy and replete. Grateful at least that they were not as yet malarial, we drank tea, broke camp and got on to the road again, determined to stop at the first hardware store for a length of netting to sew into the tent opening. There should be no repetition of such torture. For the rest of the seven hundred miles run from Sydney to Brisbane, our nights were blissful and uninterrupted. Indeed, outside the net the angry frustrated whine, which in concert sounded rather like a smooth turbine engine, actually lulled us to sleep.

The days were warm and gradually, noticeably, getting hotter. The scooter, with its new lease on life from the hands of Jack Crawford in Sydney, ran perfectly. And the country became more vast. In Australia it is necessary to drive much farther than anywhere else before something happens; before there is a change of scenery and one of those clean, low wooden stereotyped townships appears on the horizon and another fleeting glimpse is seen of canopied shops, angle-parked cars, and glittering silver rainwater butts. As a rule one drives straight through, knowing the sequence will be roughly the same. Farming country to either side, full and blooming, yet rarely does one see signs of human interference. I wondered how or when they tend the vast acres. Then the square signboards: Tarree, Kempsey, Macksville (or whatever the name happens to be), and the highway widens momentarily to become a high street which shimmers in steep perspective as one automatically peers ahead through the heat-haze to see where the straight line of this latest human community ends.

In two or three minutes the last weatherboard bungalow is left behind, the reverse side of the name-board is there (as one knows it will be) on the opposite side of the road, and once more the silent pastures take over and the traveller is alone again with the infinite, sweeping arable plains. If the average focal length of an Englishman's view is fifty
feet, an Australian's is two hundred yards. In England we speak of 'a mile up the road'. In Australia it is ten miles. Nita and I caught on very quickly and would talk quite seriously of a place being only three hundred and eighty miles up the road.

We were following the Pacific Highway and although the sea was only a few miles east of us, we saw nothing of it until we reached a delightful and decidedly unstereotyped township called Coff's Harbour. Here was a town with a difference. The streets twisted a bit, there was variety in the shops, including one or two bookshops, gunsmiths, and an espresso coffee bar, together with throngs of people in holiday mood who had obviously chosen this colourful and pretty harbour as a holiday resort.

The sea was only a stone's throwaway and many of the inhabitants and visitors were strolling about in beach-suits or shorts. We met a holiday-maker from Perth who had driven right across the continent just to spend a week in this, his former home. I agreed it was nice, but I didn't think it was that attractive.

Another potpourri of nationalities in names: Grafton, Casino, Coolangatta, and we purred on over the border into Queensland. After Brisbane, we were told, the going would get tougher, but it is better on a journey such as ours to live for the day and we did not worry about what might lie ahead, enjoying the quiet, uneventful run from the capital of New South Wales to the capital of Queensland in much of a holiday spirit. For after our working spell in Sydney, those seven hundred miles with good roads and frequent towns through fertile, coastal country were very much in the nature of a holiday. It was therefore in a buoyant mood that we arrived in Brisbane. Buoyant, but without any sense of achievement, because what we had just done was, comparatively, routine. Had we known what lay ahead on the next lap we would have undoubtedly felt more grateful for such a comfortable stretch of our marathon journey.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Sydney (Chapter 10 - Sydney)

Someone who knew Jack Crawford knew someone else who ran a transport business, and who might want a truck driver for a short spell. I hounded after this slender lead and with a great deal of luck ran the boss to ground while he was short-handed. And thus began three months of truck driving, in and around the capital. I learnt more about Sydney in that three months than I ever would have done had we won that £500. It was an education, hard work, but fun, and I was getting paid at the rate of £ I 8 per week. Nita, who industriously read all the small ad. pages in the newspapers, found comfortable lodgings at Brighton-Le Sands, about five miles from the centre of the city, where Kingsford Smith Airport flanked us on one side and Botany Bay on the other. From our window, we could look across the bay to the spot where Captain Cook landed so many years ago.

By the end of the first week, Nita had also found a niche in a fruit-canning factory and, apart from having to stand in running water all day long, found the work congenial and the pay very useful.

We used to cook in secret in our lodgings. Being frugal for a purpose, we had only arranged for bed and breakfast, and we cooked our evening meal camp style, over a tiny methylated stove. What my wife achieved on that midget was truly remarkable. We had fried meals, roasted meals (with the aid of an empty biscuit tin), toasted and boiled meals, and after the first month we began to wonder whether one ever needed more than a half¬
crown stove and a bottle of methylated spirit to produce all but the most complex dishes.

Every Friday night we stowed our earnings carefully away in the wardrobe, along with all the illicit cooking utensils and food stores. At week-ends we did nothing more than read books from the public library, write, or spend the day on Bondi or Manly Beach.

One gets the finest surf-bathing in the world in Bondi breakers, and provided a sharp ear is kept for the shark-warning bell, and a keen eye for the dangers of a 'rip' (a tremendously strong undertow that defies the strongest swimmers at times), water sport at its finest is there for the asking, in a warm sea of white-crested form, where one can laze all day long without feeling cold.

All the citizens of Sydney-Sydneysiders-make a pilgrimage to the coastal bays and inlets during the week-ends. Some to fish (fishing being one of the most popular sports down under; even the women angle); others to race motor-boats or yachts, but most to do the odd bit of surf-riding or simply laze on the golden sands, sun-worshipping. Their evenings are spent energetically on the whole: dancing, playing tennis by floodlight (there are tennis courts in the most lonely corners of the land), barbecueing, or just throwing parties.

The open-air cinemas are very popular. One merely drives in, parks the car, selects a microphone which hooks on to the inside of the window, and provided it is not raining one gets a good view of the giant screen with controllable sound inside the car.

Although very good for comedy films (the dialogue not being drowned in audience reaction), we found these cinemas to be unsuccessful in putting across a film of any depth; the link between viewer and medium is lost. For the managements, however, they are a gimmick that pays off, being particularly popular with courting couples.

About the middle of the second month in Sydney, when we had almost forgotten we were on an expedition, having fallen into the working routine so thoroughly, Jack Crawford 'phoned to say that the Mayor would like to see us. We were given a nice reception, welcomed officially (if somewhat belatedly) to the city and presented with The Book of Sydney, a large imposing volume of high quality which told briefly the life of the city.

The book is presented only to non-Australian visitors who, in the opinion of the authorities, might do something, however small, for the good of Australia. We were both pleased and not a little flattered to receive this exceptional gift. The last man associated with two wheels who had been presented with a copy had been Geoff Duke. I told the Mayor I was hardly likely to make a similar impact, but what we lacked in miles per hour we would make up for by distance covered.

It was during the second month, too, that Nita raised the subject of a sidecar. At first I was dead against the idea. Our one and a half horses had enough work to do without having to drag a chassis and third wheel. But my wife kept prodding, and eventually I was coaxed to 'just make a few enquiries'. Her argument, a very sound one, was that once more we should have to tackle long stretches of desolation-rather like those of the Middle East -and now we should not be able to carry all our equipment (including a whole new batch of cine-film which we were buying piecemeal), and still stay upright in the rough. But how could the little scooter haul a sidecar? On our arrival Jack Crawford had said bluntly that it wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding, but that had all been remedied long since. I decided in the Australian vernacular to 'give it a go'.

Jack was receptive to the idea and told us he could fit a chassis and wheel. For the body, which had to be lightweight, yet strong enough to take a constant beating, C. C. Wakefield Ltd. came to our aid and had one hand-built to our specification.

They presented it to us with their compliments, complete with a list of gold-lettered names of the cities we had passed through and a big winged Castrol sign on the front. A seat was fashioned for Nita, who wedged herself in and packed all the gear around her.

We made several test runs out to the Blue Mountains, climbing some of the steepest gradients we could find in this glorious beauty spot, about forty miles from the capital. Nothing seemed amiss and we found that we could churn over the roughest ground without fear of turning turtle. Our midget machine seemed unperturbed by the extra weight and, if anything, steadier with a third wheel than when grossly overloaded on two. Two wheels or three, New South Wales was perfect for motor-cycling. Good roads, beautiful weather, with a minimum of rain. Despite these attributes, the nucleus of two-wheeled enthusiasts is a very small one. I told Jack Crawford that, given their Australian conditions, our own million-strong army of ardent riders would almost certainly expand, and that in spite of the unfavourable British climate a large percentage of this number would not exchange their two wheels for four-even if motor-bikes were dearer than cars. Why, then, should Australian men-most of whom had the right amount of ginger in their blood-by-pass this zestful, essentially outdoor sport and exhilarating method of personal transport?

'The women get at 'em. That's the trouble,' said Jack in reflective mood. 'Just before the war the motor-cycling movement was developing wonderfully. Plenty of road racing, scrambles, trials, and a great deal of men who rode for the pleasure of it. Nowadays the women are all car-minded and they've forced the men to think the same way. But,' qualified Jack, 'things are gradually improving and there are an increasing number of chaps who are rediscovering the thrill of being on a saddle rather than sitting on a car seat. We do have our enthusiasts, y'know, especially on the sporting side, and the ranks aren't getting any smaller. Boundary riders on some of the Outback stations find that the motor-cycle is just about the perfect replacement for the horse; for the modern machine can go anywhere the horse can, and in a fraction of the time. You'll see plenty of riders in the north who'd put some of our expert scramblers in the shade. Fellows who ride on the rough each and every day, sometimes for a month at a time. But,' concluded our host with a smile, 'I don't think the wives get at the cattle men as much as the city women do.'

We were almost ready to start for the bush. After three months in Sydney our financial state had become satisfactorily stabilized; three months of the bustle of the city, with its free and easy life, its humour, absence of red-tape, modern outlook, and gay atmosphere. We had stayed long enough to think automatically of Hyde Park, Sydney, when anyone mentioned Hyde Park. We began to call dockers 'wharfies' and Teddy Boys and their feminine counterparts' Bodgies and Widgies'. The bright yellow number plates, prefaced with N.S.W., no longer looked faintly strange; neither did the pubs, filled to overflowing; nor the rattling trams that one had to overtake only on the inside. Nita became used to the bright, almost flamboyant fashions of the women, with their preference for vivid colour and enormous bright hats. At the end of those three months we felt that we knew Sydney pretty well. And, as always, when something has become familiar and cosy at the same time, it was difficult to leave. We did stop and look back at the great bridge on the way out of the city, but with a feeling of sadness rather than elation.

Once more we had burnt our boats. There would be no more pay packets for a while, no more comfortable routine. Once again the long black ribbon stretched ahead, and tomorrow we would relish the challenge. On the day we left Sydney we were silent, and just a little depressed.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Sydney (Chapter 10 - Arriving in Sydney)

The pace in Sydney is faster than in Melbourne, or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Commonwealth. The traffic, and there's plenty of it, really moves. Although the city is not new and the streets were initially designed for horse-drawn traffic, there is little of the frustration that confronts the motorist in the centre of London. The pace is fast but not furious as it is, say, in Paris, and in no time at all we had whisked through at a steady forty-five miles an hour, to pull up at our destination, the NSU agents Hazell & Moore, just a stone's throw from the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was a glorious Monday evening, with a cloudless blue sky over the city, and Nita and I, once more carried on the crest of a wave of modest achievement, were in the highest spirits. We had exactly £9 15s. (Australian) left.

Jack Crawford, manager of Hazell & Moore Ltd., was a tall, iron-grey-haired man of some sixty years, with an inexhaustible enthusiasm for two-wheeled travel, and, through experience, he knew the first requirements to make two hot, dusty travellers feel right at home. In his modern showrooms, we sat down in the pleasant coolness and just enjoyed the iced beer in the tall glasses, with the condensation running down the sides. No one said much until the glasses were empty. Then, under the shrewd guidance of Jack and his assistant, Arthur Knutt (a one-time Birmingham lad), we formed a battle plan.

'I bet,' said Jack, 'you've precious little cash left.'

'That's right,' I answered, not surprised; for our host seemed to know all the answers.

'Well, that doesn't matter. No man has experienced life until he's been broke in a strange place, but the first thing you'll have to do is to remedy that fault.' I mumbled agreement, regretting that our aboriginal interlude would have to be postponed yet again. 'So it's up to you to find your fortune in this big city of ours. While for our part' (here he glanced at a report on our scooter handed to him by a white-coated mechanic) 'we'll put that Prima of yours into apple-pie order. Not that it isn't basically sound, but from the first report the motor sounds a bit sick.' I said that having lived with it for so long we had not really noticed any deterioration in performance, although she was a bit reluctant on hills and sounded far noisier than we felt she should.

For our first night in the big city we were given the address of a cheap and cheerful (and somewhat doubtful) hotel off Pitt Street. It served us well for one night, however, and after a bath we slept like the dead, ready to tackle the job-hunting first thing next morning. It was obvious that at least another two months' stay was ahead of us, although I am glad now that it was-as it happened, we nearly got away with one week's stay and five hundred pounds, nearly, but not quite.

Returning to the agents in the morning we found a small Press reception waiting, and the next hour was taken up with interviews and a series of photographs of Nita and me, looking suitably rugged, adorning the scooter. We made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and the sequel was an invitation to appear on a television' quiz' programme and be grilled by one of Australia's greatest comedians, Jack Davey. A master of spontaneous wit, he had us and the rest of the audience chuckling over our forerunners' efforts. His humour, though slightly sadistic, was none the less extremely funny. The dialogue, completely unscripted, went something like this.

Davey (to intense, humourless rural woman): 'So you work on the farm, huh! Out there in all weathers in gum-boots and things?'

'That's right, Jack.'

'And you don't mind being out there in all the mud and everything? '

'Oh no, I love my work.'

'Uh, huh, any children?'

Woman (with suitably hushed voice): 'No, Jack, I haven't any children.'

'Well, just goes to show, you should never have worn gumboots. . . .'

We had a choice of subject and chose Geography, in the desperate hope that we had gleaned something of the subject on our various travels. Between us we managed to scramble through the preliminary questions: where is Mount HekIa, the Midway Islands, and why is the sea salt, etc.-when suddenly the bell rang and we were in line for the jackpot.

'How much in the kitty this week?' asked Jack Davey.

'Four hundred and eighty-five pounds,' replied a sweet young thing, wreathed in little more than smiles.

Nita and I glanced quickly at one another; we were already on our way to the north, and I was visualizing my last glance at Sydney Harbour Bridge.

A fanfare of music and the usual build-up. Then, 'Here comes the five~hundred-pound-jackpot question. Which is the nearest foreign capital to London? You have thirty seconds to answer.'

Neither of us said Brussels. We went all round from Dublin to The Hague, from Copenhagen to Oslo, and rather hopelessly as a last resort, Paris. Ironically for us at that moment, Brussels was the one European capital to which neither of us had been. So, with hopes of a quick cut to the open road again dashed to the ground, we left the studio in a black mood, with ten pounds consolation and two packets of soap-flakes.

There was no alternative, therefore, but another spell of work. We made another television appearance in Sydney's 'In Town Tonight', but there were no get-rich-quick opportunities on that one. Perhaps in the final analysis it had turned out for the best. 'Easy come, etc.', being a hackneyed but profound cliché.