23 January 2024

My parents gave me a gift that lasted for six months and created a lifetime of memories

| Jen White
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A 4WD and trailer

The fully loaded 4WD, nicknamed Matilda, and trailer that was home for six months. Photo: Supplied.

Fifty years ago, my country parents made a momentous decision to take their two young daughters and a labrador puppy prone to car sickness on a six-month trip around Australia.

They were hardly adventurous souls; although Sydney-born Mum tended to be impulsive, Dad was the opposite, a cautious country man who wanted to provide for and protect his family.

Looking back, it’s probably the best gift they ever gave my sister and me – a chance like no other to discover and explore our broad and beautiful country and create family memories.

My sister was only four when we set out, so she relies on our stories, photos, Super 8 films and memories of the trip. Thankfully, Mum kept a comprehensive journal of their preparations for the trip and recorded our daily experiences. And in this 50th anniversary year, our 80-year-old matriarch is in the process of turning that diary into a book, complete with her own cartoons.

These days it’s common for families to pack up their kids and belongings and think little of taking to the road for months at a time in a well-equipped RV or converted bus.

But it just wasn’t a done thing back in 1974. Mum and Dad had not long sold the family home and were in the throes of building another, so they had no mortgage to worry about. The rent on our small farmhouse was negligible and they figured they’d rather travel with us girls than wait till they retired to make the trip.

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They also firmly believed that we should know something about our own country before visiting others, and to broaden our outlook to realise there was a world beyond our country town.

“We weren’t ‘dropping out’, just taking ‘time out’, for an experience together that we would remember all our lives,” Mum wrote in her journal.

They were initially concerned about taking me out of school for that length of time, but the educational and life experiences on the trip more than made up for missing lessons (at my one-teacher, 12-student school).

For six months my “classroom” was our vast country; I saw first-hand its natural beauty from the coasts to the deserts, I learned about our history and people and stepped on parts of the country that are no longer accessible. I saw the massive cattle farms, the gold, copper and coalmines and could rattle off the names of the state’s floral and fauna emblems.

My maths lessons were often provided by Dad, who took advantage of the conversion to metric that year. He would put me to the test to convert the “old” speed limit signs into the “new” speed limit – or vice versa where they had already been changed. I still remember 60 miles per hour is roughly 100km/h – just don’t ask me to explain why.

Obviously the trip was back in the dark ages before mobile phones or the internet, so there was no easy way to keep in communication with family and friends, or to quickly reach out for help.

The only “protection” we had – Penny the puppy was no guard dog, like most labs she would lick someone to death before attacking them – was an old rifle that had belonged to Dad’s father and hadn’t been fired in decades. It was stored under four backpacks, a toolbox and the dog, plus the bullets were loose in Mum’s make-up bag, so heaven help us if we had ever actually needed to use the gun.

Given that Mum and Dad were no great experts when it came to camping life, and Dad was definitely no mechanic, there was a lot of trial and error along the way.

Just one week in, they realised that intrepid travellers they were not. Pitching and breaking the camp was taking so long they could only spend three or four hours driving each day – a six-month trip was looking more like six years.

But to their credit they persisted, streamlined the camp set-up and were soon able to avoid caravan parks and instead make up camp beside a creek or river and enjoy the solitude of the Australian bush.

Today’s travellers will never experience the Australia that we did. We drove on a dirt track (mud bath actually) to camp close to the base of Uluru when it was still Ayers Rock and visited Darwin only months before Cyclone Tracy destroyed the town.

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We camped on the dunes next to 80 Mile Beach, the longest uninterrupted beach in Western Australia. There wasn’t another soul in sight and that night mum wrote: “We’d found a campsite completely away from everything: there were no cans or bottles lying around, no indication that anyone had been there before.” Today it’s a Marine Park and no camping is allowed.

The 1200km Nullabor Plain was still mostly a dirt road in 1974. With dad unable to drive due to a boil in his armpit, mum was at the wheel of the 4WD towing a trailer. Heavy rain made the trip a nightmare and for a 200km stretch, we could travel no faster than 40km/h across the corrugated, potholed mud.

Best of all, I experienced an Australia that I never would have known about sitting in a classroom.

It’s only fitting that mum gets the last word: “History, geography and many other subjects pertaining to this wide country, hitherto merely words or pictures in books, gained new dimensions as we passed where the first explorers trod, when dots on the maps became reality and when we saw evidence of the nation’s wealth being won from her soil”.

Thanks mum and dad, for the gift that will stay with me for a lifetime.

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