60 in 60 #17 Hitch-hiking
I am reflecting on the last 60 years, and writing 60 blog posts in 60 days. 30 about people and 30 about events, places, experiences and entities.
I grew up in the sixties and was a teenager in the seventies. Hitch-hiking was common, accepted, safe and a cheap way to get around. The first time I remember doing it was on Sunday afternoons from Moolap to go and watch Geelong West play in the old VFA.
When we moved to Western Australia I regularly hitch-hiked along West Coast Highway to get to and from the beach at Scarborough or to my mate Graham’s place in Duncraig.
He had a pool table so many Friday and Saturday nights were spent in the pool room with Rod Stewart or Status Quo on the stereo and him smoking rollies. We were both East Perth supporters so Saturday arvos meant going to the footy to watch the Royals play in the WAFL.
I got my licence on my 17th birthday, my first car was a 1964 Wolseley 24/80 bought for $100 which became our mode of transport but before that I still depended on thumbing lifts.
I discovered that people were far more likely to pick me up if they felt sorry for me and the best way to garner that sympathy was to carry a 5L petrol tin, creating the impression that I had run out of petrol and was trying to get to a servo. While this invariably worked I then had to decide whether to continue with the ruse or to reveal that it was just a tactic. Sometimes it seemed better to carry on the pretence but a couple of times I admitted the truth. I remember one bloke laughing and saying it certainly worked on him.
I finished school in 1979 and after a brief but failed attempt to go to uni I got a job in a menswear store in the Hay St Mall, followed by a job as a storeman. Sometime around mid 1980 I decided to go travelling and so began my long distance hitch-hiking adventures. I headed out to the Great Eastern Highway at Midland and stuck out my thumb with the goal of getting to Melbourne, 3,400 kilometres away on the other side of the country, with the Nullarbor in between. My first ride took me to Northam. The next one to Merredin. The third one was with a guy going to Kalgoorlie and the fourth one got me to Norseman which is the last "town" of any size before leaping off into the desert. Over the years I spent many hours waiting for a ride from Norseman. I knew that anyone heading east from there was going a long way, almost certainly to Adelaide or beyond so I knew I would be ignored by most, evaluated by some and eventually picked up by someone willing to offer a ride and share their car for the next couple of days! It was a big ask but I always got a lift, having hitched back and forth across the Nullarbor about eight times. It’s a bloody long way, it’s straight most of the way, it’s hot and dry and dull so sometimes people were glad of a bit of company to relieve the boredom. There is a roadhouse at the T junction in Norseman so there was somewhere to get a drink or some food or go to the dunny during the long waits.
I found that some things either helped or hindered me from getting rides. I always looked drivers in the eyes as they approached and never wore sunnies, sure that they were assessing me and trusted me more if they could see my eyes. Similarly I wore clean clothes and kept myself looking neat and tidy, nobody wants to spend two days in a car with someone they think smells bad. I usually found a suitable spot and stood facing the oncoming cars rather than walking with my back to the traffic. I never gesticulated or abused anyone if they didn’t stop for me, and occasionally someone who didn’t pull up immediately would stop a hundred metres down the road and wait for me. Many times drivers said “I don’t usually pick up hitch-hikers”, inferring that they had made an exception for me. I’m certain my strategies had a lot to do with that.
People often asked if I got many lifts with truckies. The reality is I almost never got picked up by truck drivers. The only time I can remember was with a young bloke delivering a truck, minus the trailer, from Adelaide to Perth. I spent a day and a half with him, he was a decent bloke, but by the time we got to Merredin I’d have gladly gotten out and walked the last 400km, I had been bounced and shaken around so much that my whole body was aching. Truck seats are built for drivers not passengers.
Another time a bloke picked me up at the bottom of Greenmount hill and took me all the way to the Kalgoorlie turn-off in a hotted up Monaro. He really cranked it most of the way and actually blew the speedo up with the needle sitting on 150. He seemed unconcerned which amazed me because he had told me it wasn’t his car, he was just delivering it to someone in Kal! I always wondered what the new owner thought when he saw the busted speedo. Another time I got picked by a bloke in a Mustang who asked me if I had a licence and would I mind driving some of the way? Is the Pope Catholic?
There’s a counterpoint to Norseman when you’re hitching west; just out of Port Augusta at the Whyalla turn-off where the Eyre Highway leads west. I’ve spent many hours waiting at that turn-off, including one uncomfortable night sleeping on the side of the road and rousing myself to get up whenever a vehicle approached. It was invariably stinking hot and there was no roadhouse to offer any sort of relief. I added my name to the many others graffitied on the sign saying it was 443km to Ceduna, the last town of any size in South Australia before heading into the Nullarbor.
I was fortunate that in all of my hitched journeys across Australia I had an oasis in the form of my sister Vicki’s farm at Wudinna. It always provided a welcome sojourn and some respite from the heat and the boredom. It was always good to see Vicki, especially in the early days when she was happily married and raising a young family. I even played a game of footy for the Wudinna Magpies on one of my stopovers.
After spending a few months in Melbourne I headed north to Sydney, staying with a friend in Woollahra and working for a few weeks at the Waterworks waterslide park at Mt Druitt. If you know Sydney you know you can’t get a much starker contrast than those two suburbs.
I headed further north, taking the train to Newcastle as it follows the beautiful Hawkesbury River. I got a ride with a bloke called Peter in a Holden ute who was heading to Cairns. My intended destination was my old home town of Toowoomba but Peter and I hit it off so well that I decided to join him and keep going all the way to far north Queensland. We had a great trip until we got to Townsville and the car broke down. He decided it was too expensive to fix and abandoned the car and his holiday and flew back to Newcastle.
Having made it that far I decided to continue hitching to Cairns. This proved to be one of the best decisions of my life but I’ll save that story for another chapter of 60 in 60.
After a few months in Cairns I headed south again to Adelaide for Christmas with my girlfriend and then back to Perth.
I wrote about some of my hitch-hiking travels in the chapter about America so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that on my first trip I hitched 9,900 km from Miami to San Diego, up to San Francisco then back east via the Grand canyon, Denver, St Louis and back to New York in 6 weeks on the road. On my second trip I took Trailways buses from New York to Seattle and then hitched the 2020 km south to San Diego, travelling through 31 of the 50 states of America over the two journeys. I met a lot of interesting people and a few strange ones but most of the time felt safe and welcomed by very hospitable people across the country. More than once sympathetic drivers gave me a bed for the night or a meal. One guy who picked me up in Texas took me to a buffet restaurant and shouted me dinner saying eat as much as you want. Another lady in Washington gave me a huge steak dinner and a place to stay before driving me back out to the highway the next morning. When I was trying to get to Rhode Island for the finale of the 1983 America's Cup I got a ride with a guy in Colorado one night. After a couple of hours he pulled up and parked the car and said "There's a really pretty lake out there" pointing off into the darkness. I couldn't see anything but when I looked over I saw that he had set out a line of coke and was just about to snort it. He offered me a line. I declined. The guy I got a ride with to the Grand Canyon looked out for me when I staggered back to the top and gave me a place to camp the night in his tent. Hitching in America was a little more difficult because it was illegal on the interstate highways but they were the place you had to be for travelling long distances. I never got busted by any cops and nor did I ever have to wait very long for a lift.
My other big hitching trip was from Amsterdam to Madrid for the 1982 World Cup Finals. Hitching through France was more challenging because I didn’t speak any French so the scenery was beautiful but the conversation was extremely limited.
When I arrived back in Australia after a couple of years overseas and had no money, I took the train to Liverpool and hitch-hiked south from Sydney back to Dad and Julie’s place at Maryborough. It chills me a little now to know that around that time serial killer Ivan Milat was picking up hitch-hikers in the same region and murdering them in the Belanglo Forest! I was always fortunate to get rides with good people and to feel safe and relaxed on my many rides.
These days hitch-hiking has almost disappeared. I understand why but it still saddens me a little. Having said that, my youngest son Paul has done quite a lot of hitch-hiking around the country the last couple of years, often with a companion and carrying a guitar, busking as he went.
I very occasionally see someone thumbing a lift on the Bellarine Hwy and I always stop and pick them up. What goes around comes around.