My Life Story - On The Road Again
My Personal Pages

Alice Springs,
 a Hitch-Hiking Epic, and a
Career Decision



Alice Springs


I left Adelaide with a backpack, a guitar and a five dollar note and some change in my pocket. This was many years before the invention of ATMs, so I had no idea how long that five dollar note would have to last.


There was one other thing I had acquired in Adelaide, and this is the part of my story where I confess to what is probably the only crime I have ever knowingly committed. I shoplifted a Bob Dylan song book from a music store in Adelaide. My memory tells me the store was Allen's. If that is right, then I apologize to its proprietors. That song book became a valued companion on what was quite an epic hitch-hiking journey. 


When Coffie told me about the job opportunity near Darwin, he also passed on some advice from our mates up there. He told me to make sure that I stop at the Shell service station near the bridge at Port Augusta, and buy a Shell road map of the Northern Territory. That turned out to be good advice.



Cattle Grids and Liquorice Allsorts


I got a lift to Port Augusta, and bought a Shell road map. Then another lift took me through Port Augusta to an intersection on the western end of town. This was where the road north to Alice Springs and Darwin turned off, while the highway continued westward to Perth. I remember this intersection well, because in those days there was a signpost there, and all of the distances on the signpost were in excess of a thousand miles.


I walked a short distance in the direction of Alice Springs until I was past the edge of town. What I saw in front of me was not a particularly promising sight. It wasn’t a road; it was just a pair of wheel tracks, stretching off into the distance, as far as the eye could see.


By this time it was late afternoon, and the state of the track did not give me much confidence about the amount of traffic I could expect, so I took out my sleeping bag and settled down to spend the night there by the roadside.


The first car that came by next morning took me to Woomera. At the time this was Australia's space base. I was dropped near the front gate of the base which, as I recall, had a Jindivik on a plinth marking the entrance. The Jindivik was a pilotless aircraft developed in Australia after the Second World War.


A hitch-hiker needs luck, and I had already had more than my share on this journey. My good fortune continued when I got another lift the same day with a man who was going to Alice Springs. This part of Australia was so remote in 1970 that I had arrived at Woomera with no expectation that I would even see another car that day.


My lift was with a man in a Holden station wagon, with a dog in the back. I remember using some of the change in my pocket to buy a packet of liquorice allsorts at the roadhouse at Kingoonya. This is one of those small details, like the Shell roadmap, that become important later.


The road still consisted of a couple of wheel tracks in the dirt, still stretching on to infinity. The terrain was arid and often featureless desert. There were no towns, no rivers, no lakes, no mountains. In fact, the only landmarks a traveller could use to keep track of his progress were cattle grids, hence the importance of the Shell roadmap. It included a strip map of the road from Port Augusta to Alice Springs, with every cattle grid marked. The importance of the liquorice allsorts was the fact that I had not brought any food with me, and there would not be many opportunities to buy any, even if I could afford to, and that was questionable. So I decided that I would take one liquorice allsort from the pack every two hours and suck on it. This helped to deal with hunger pangs, and also helped to mark the passing of time. So I had cattle grids to mark the miles, and liquorice allsorts to mark the hours.


This trip turned into one of the most spiritual experiences of my life up to that point. I was born and raised in a part of Australia that coastal dwellers would call the Outback. I soon found out that Central Australia was different though. This really was the Outback. Just being there gives a person a new appreciation and love for this magnificent, majestic and desolate landscape, and a new appreciation for whatever transcendent being was responsible for creating it. The nights were particularly awe-inspiring. The air was crystal clear, with nothing between us and the stars, and no city lights or atmospheric pollution to interfere with the view.


At one stage we were driving at night and we saw a light in the far distance, away off to the west. As far as I was aware, there was nothing but desert in that direction. The light seemed to stay on the same course as us, though still an indeterminate distance away, for several hours. I had been aware since childhood of the Aboriginal legend of the min min light, a strange light of unknown origin that follows outback travellers at night. On this particular night it was easier to believe the min min legend than to believe that any other traveller could have been sharing the lonely outback night with us.


Topping up the petrol tank was an interesting exercise, with no towns other than Coober Pedy, and no roadhouses after Kingoonya. The road passed through several private properties, and some of these had petrol pumps. They were working cattle stations first and foremost, and selling petrol was not a prime concern for them. They might see no more than a single car in a day, so they can’t have a worker sitting beside the pump waiting for customers. Road travellers had to pull up at the pump, find some way to make their presence known, and wait patiently for someone to leave their other duties and come over and work the pump.



The Alice


We reached Alice Springs on the afternoon of the third day. The southern approach to Alice Springs is through Heavitree Gap, a gap in a rocky range, just wide enough for the road, the railway track, and the dry, sandy bed of the Todd River. It could be one of the most dramatic approaches to any town anywhere, if only there had been no development south of the gap. Unfortunately, even in 1970, before a vehicle reached the gap it would have passed the American base at Pine Gap, followed by a rubbish dump on the left of the road, and a caravan park by the river bed on the right. I’m sure that when Alice Springs was built, the intention was that travelers from the south would pass through the narrow gap, and the town would be right there in front of them, as a welcome surprise after days of trekking through the desert. Sadly, development south of the gap spoils that effect.


I was dropped in the middle of town, and started walking towards the northern outskirts, which I thought would be the logical place to get a lift to Darwin. A car came out of a side street, driven by a man, with a woman in the other front seat. The man asked where I was going, and when I told him he said it was too late to get a lift, because anybody who was headed for Darwin in the late afternoon would be more likely to spend the night in the Alice and start out in the morning. He introduced himself as the deputy principal of St Phillips College, and the woman as his wife. They told me they had some furniture that needed shifting the following day, and that if I was willing to do the job, they would give me food and accommodation.   



St Phillips College


St Phillips is a residential college, run by the Australian Inland Mission (AIM). The catchment area for schools in Alice Springs is truly vast, some children coming in from a thousand miles away. They need somewhere to stay during the school term while they attend various schools in the Alice, and that is where St Phillips comes in. I grew up in a Presbyterian family in the Australian bush, and the AIM, and its founder John Flynn, were legendary names from my childhood. I accepted the offer without hesitation.


I had arrived in Alice Springs on the Thursday of the last week before the start of a new school term, and St Phillips had only a few days to get the place ready for the influx of students. I had dinner with the staff, slept in one of the dormitory rooms, had breakfast the next morning, and got to work. The job for which I was hired took only half a day, but they kept finding more for me to do. Then the cook turned out to be a fellow Vietnam veteran, and he decided he needed some help in the kitchen. So I stayed for the weekend. Then the kids arrived, and there was more work to do. Before I knew it, I had a job and a home in Alice Springs, and my reasons for going on to Darwin were fading from my mind.


That makes 16 jobs and 14 changes of address since leaving school five and a half years earlier.


On my second night at St Phillips, a young Aboriginal boy arrived. His family lived a traditional life out in the bush. They had no calendars and no clocks. But somehow they brought this boy in to St Phillips in time for the new school term. He was a few days early, and there were no other children there yet, so the staff put him in the dormitory with me. His name was Joe, and he was ten years old. He was deaf, he was mute, and he had sandy blight (glaucoma) in one eye. He loved to dance while I played my guitar. He couldn’t hear it, but he would touch the guitar with one hand and dance to the vibrations. I later saw him doing the same thing with a piano.


St Phillips had some excellent new facilities, including a swimming pool and a basketball court, generously provided by the Americans from Pine Gap. They also had a sports oval, the only patch of green in the neighbourhood. Keeping an eye on the kids in the pool became another of my jobs, and by the time I had been there for a few weeks I was also coaching the Little Athletics League team.


Because Joe, being deaf, was such a fan of my guitar playing, when he moved into the 6-10 year old boys’ dormitory, he kept inviting me in to play guitar for the boys. Being unable to speak, his method of invitation was to drag me by the arm. One day, the housemother of the 6-10 year old boys  told me that the boys were becoming insistent that I come in and play before they would go to sleep, so that became part of my routine too. I had the aforementioned Bob Dylan songbook, and a Creedence Clearwater Revival songbook. Because of my limited ability, my repertoire consisted of some of the simpler songs from those two books, plus a few of the songs every guitar novice learns, such as Apache, Pipeline and the Peter Gunn theme. Somehow the boys didn’t seem to mind that I was rubbish.


I was fortunate to be in the Alice at the time of the Henley-on-Todd Regatta. This is an aquatic festival held each year on the dry, sandy bed of the Todd River. I took part in the eights, an event that mimicked the eights team event held at rowing regattas around the world, including most famously the Olympic Games and the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in London. The difference with Henley-on-Todd is that the “boat” is a hollowed-out model, made of cardboard or some similar lightweight material. The crew stands in the middle of the boat, picks it up and runs with it. My team took about three paces and fell down laughing. I believe that was far more in keeping with the spirit of the event than actually winning.


Another of my duties at St Phillips was driving the kids to various outings, including some of the scenic locations around the Alice, and other places such as Hermannsburg Mission. On one occasion I also took some of the senior kids to the drive-in, where we saw Easy Rider. The kids rode in the back of a 4WD ute, which would be against the law today. It was on one of these trips that I first laid eyes on Uluru, or Ayers Rock, as it was then known. This was another spiritual experience for me. I know most people who see the rock rave about its beauty at sunset, when it changes colour so spectacularly, but for me the time to see it is at dawn. It glows such a bright red that it seems impossible to believe the light source is not inside the rock itself. I can certainly understand how the local people, seeing it for the first time, would make the rock the centre of their religious beliefs.


The most relaxing part of my job was cutting the grass on the oval with a ride-on mower. All I had to do was sit there and steer, while the machine did the work, which took several hours. The only down side was the fact that every time I looked up I would see hawks circling above my head, and sometimes eagles above them. The oval was the largest patch of green for miles around, and must have been a major food source for small birds, which in turn became a food source for larger birds. I just had to hope that I didn’t look like a worm or a small rodent from way up there.


St Phillips held a fete while I was there, and some of the American brass were invited. This being 1970, they all seemed to be wearing Vietnam campaign ribbons, and consequently I had an instant rapport with them. The Americans reciprocated the invitation, by asking the Principal of St Phillips to bring some of the kids to Pine Gap. I went along on that visit as the driver. I didn’t see the significance of this at the time, but some years later an Australian government minister was denied permission to visit Pine Gap, and the base became a hot political issue. As far as I am aware, that ban on official Australian government visits may still be in place, and Australian government ministers may still be unable to get inside Pine Gap. But I did.



Darwin and Back


No matter how much I enjoyed being at St Phillips, and undoubtedly I had fallen in love with Alice Springs and Central Australia, I had never regarded my employment there as anything other than temporary. The longer I stayed the more responsibility the people at St Phillips were giving me. Some were even talking about me as a future housefather. To me it seemed that the longer I stayed, the greater would be the disappointment when I eventually let them down, as inevitably I would, by leaving and heading back to Sydney.


I had two main reasons for leaving. First, I had not yet reached Darwin, so my epic hitch-hiking trip was incomplete. But more importantly, The Baroness was still back in Sydney, and she was still my girlfriend. My relationship with The Baroness, and my reason for using this nickname for her, are explained in the previous chapter of my story. With the benefit of hindsight, it may be difficult to understand how I could regard The Baroness as my girlfriend, and still feel entitled to leave her for months at a time and expect her to be waiting for me when I eventually found my way back to Sydney. But such was the way my thought processes worked in 1970.


At St Phillips I had access to the Adelaide newspaper, The Advertiser, in which I would peruse the classified ads and ponder my next career move. I couldn’t help noticing an ever increasing number of ads for something called computer programmers. I had only a vague idea of what a computer programmer might be, but it sounded interesting, it clearly paid well, and it seemed like something I ought to be. So I decided when I got back to Sydney I would find out what I had to do to get one of these well paid jobs. Before that, however, there was the small matter of something in excess of three thousand miles of hitch-hiking ahead of me.


Unlike the Port Augusta to Alice Springs road, the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Darwin was a sealed highway. Alice Springs is on the Tropic of Capricorn, and the terrain becomes more tropical and green as you travel further north. There were roadhouses at reasonable intervals, and hitching was far less difficult. Consequently, compared with the earlier part of my travels through the centre, I have few significant memories of the road to Darwin. I no longer had any reason to go to Darwin, having given up my original idea of working there. I was only going there to say I’d been there. When I arrived in Darwin, I camped overnight and started hitch-hiking back down the Stuart Highway the next morning.


The Stuart Highway was the only sealed north-south road in the Northern Territory, and the only major intersection with a road of similar quality was a place called the Three Ways, near Tennant Creek. This was the intersection with the eastbound road to Queensland. There was a roadhouse on the corner. I remember having lunch there, but the thing I remember most about the roadhouse is its jukebox. It had a choice of 100 records, and it seemed like 90 of them were by Slim Dusty.


I settled down on the side of the road and waited, hoping for a lift in the general direction of Mt Isa, in western Queensland. I noticed that I was sitting close to a post on which many hitch-hikers before me had written their names. One particularly desperate one had written his name and the date. Under that was the same name, but the date was one day later. Then there was the same name with a third date. On the fourth date this poor bloke had written “I think I’ll die here.” This did not look promising. My luck was better than his though, and I had to wait a mere six hours at the Three Ways, and my first lift took me all the way to Mt Isa. Another lift took me to Cloncurry, and this is where things got really interesting.



Three Days in Cloncurry


I sat beside the road, outside a caravan park on the eastern outskirts of Cloncurry, but no cars came. I slept there, woke up the next morning, and continued my wait. On the second day, two cars went by, but neither of them stopped. During this second day another hitch-hiker was dropped on the other side of the road. He was going in the opposite direction from me, heading for Kununurra in Western Australia, where he intended to find a job in the diamond mining industry. Since cars were few and far between and we had a good view of any oncoming cars in both directions, he decided to sit with me until a car came in his direction. We were still sitting there at sunset, at which time the caravan park people took pity on us and offered us a camp site and the use of their facilities in the morning. We sat there, on the same spot, throughout the next day, and had to avail ourselves of the generosity of the caravan park people for a second night.


Finally, three days after I had arrived in Cloncurry, a car stopped and offered me a lift to Winton. The other hitcher by this time had a look of desperation in his eye and decided that the offer of a lift to Winton after three days was better than waiting for the possibility of a lift in the general direction of Kununurra. So he decided to get in the car with me and go to Winton. Three days might seem like a long time to wait for lift. But, in hitch-hiking terms, believe it or not, only three cars had failed to stop. I had obtained a lift with the fourth car, and by any standards that is good hitch-hiking luck.



A Ride with a Texan Cowboy


Our lift was with an American geologist from Texas, who hoped to find oil or gas in western Queensland. He was going to set himself up in Winton, and offered us both a job as his assistants. I turned down the offer, because I wanted to get back to Sydney, but my colleague, who had set off looking for a diamond mining job in Western Australia, decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, and took the oil prospecting job in Queensland instead.


The drive from Cloncurry to Winton was quite memorable. The terrain was unbelievably flat and featureless. In some places there was literally not a single feature to be seen as far as the horizon. If you stood on an anthill you could see another 50 miles. The road was unsealed, and in some places it was clear that the quality of the road had deteriorated sufficiently for the road trains that were the main traffic on this road to make their own detours. In those places the prudent thing to do was to forget about the road and follow the road train tracks.


Occasionally we would see a flock of sheep, sparsely populating the land beside the road. Our Texan driver would yell “Yee-Har,” drive the car off the road, and go chasing sheep across the flat countryside. On another occasion, we saw a post beside the road with numbers marked on it. Our American friend asked what it was, and when I told him it was a flood marker, he slammed on the brakes, stopped the car in a cloud of dust, and grabbed his camera. “The folks back home will never believe this,” he said. So, still shaking his head in disbelief, he took a picture of this flood marker in the middle of a dry, dusty desert in the Australian outback. Of course the irony of this is that a couple of days after we arrived in Winton there was a flood in western Queensland, and this whole area became an inland sea.


For such a small town, there is a lot of history in Winton. It is the source of two Australian icons; Qantas and Waltzing Matilda. My main memory of it, however, is of water coming out of the tap brown and smelling of rotten egg gas. My next lift took me to Longreach, where I was visited on the side of the road by a police car. It was late afternoon, and the cops told me about the floods that were approaching from the north. They were likely to make it difficult to get a lift the next day. I could be stranded in Longreach as I had been in Cloncurry. So I decided to break my epic hitch-hiking trip and take a Greyhound bus to Brisbane.


Brisbane to Sydney was a road I had hitched many times, and I did it again this time without incident. By the time I reached Sydney, I believe I had hitch-hiked about 7,500 miles, or 12,000 kilometres, over a period of about 5 months.



Back in Sydney, What’s Next?


In Sydney I reunited with The Baroness, and went looking for a job as a computer programmer. The first place I looked was IBM. I simply approached them and asked for a job. I told them I wanted to be a computer programmer, but they offered me a job as a sales representative. I might have considered the offer if they hadn’t told me about their dress rules. In those days it was not unusual for a tie to be compulsory, but at IBM the tie could only be worn with a white shirt. I thought that was taking dress rules a bit too far. I suspected that IBM and I might not be compatible.


I soon began to understand that computer programmers needed either external qualifications or on-the-job training. I decided to try to find another way into the EDP industry, as it was called in those days, preferably with a company that would later train me to be a programmer. The first job I found was as an EDP control clerk with Commonwealth Industrial Gases, in Alexandria. My job was to prepare data for input to the computer, and to sort and distribute the output. Yet again I got lucky. I was put on permanent night shift, working with a computer operator who was a first-time father with a young baby at home. When he came to work each night, all he really wanted to do was sleep. He was more than happy to teach me to operate the computer, an IBM 360/30, so that I could do his job as well as mine. It wasn’t programming, but it could get me a step closer.


I found myself a small bedsit in Kings Cross. It was the spring of 1970, and I was settling into my 17th job and 15th change of address since leaving school at the end of 1964.




This page is a work in progress. I will add more as time allows. The next installment will include a positive career move, a terrible personal setback, a new hobby, rock-climbing in the Blue Mountains, and finally a decision to go to England.




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