The drive where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong

"Nowadays, thinking back to the ‘safety’ aspect, I shake my head!"

It was July 1966. We lived in Wooloowin, an inner northern suburb of Brisbane back then. We worked hard and, as reward for effort, decided to shout ourselves a three-week trip of a lifetime.

We owned a 1965 Holden HD X-2 Premier wagon, Sea Mist Jade with large, comfy leather bucket seats. We fitted it with optional seat belts and it had disc brakes for greater safety. The only changes from standard were a 2” Lukey exhaust and slightly larger 14” Vauxhall wheels fitted with Pirelli Cinturato tyres.

We installed a rear lap-sash seat belt to hold a child seat for a four-year-old, a device made of aluminium tubing and plastic padding. Nowadays, thinking back to the ‘safety’ aspect, I shake my head!

We set off on the first leg to Hay. With both of us driving, it was a nice start to the trip. We stayed overnight in a cabin at the caravan park, awaking to the heaviest frost we’d ever seen. Using lots of water, we eventually managed to remove the wiper blades before scraping the windscreen clear.

Later, well beyond Balranald, we ran into rain. I set the wipers working, only to find nothing moved across the windscreen. The wipers were way back where I’d left them, in the caravan park at Hay! Fortunately, because we hoped to save on some of our travel costs, we carried a little spirit stove and fresh veggies. I grabbed a spud, cut it in two and used that to wipe the screen to help improve vision.

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Eventually we stopped at the Mildura Holden dealer but, being Sunday, he was shut. A passing policeman asked if we had a problem. He said he’d call the dealer and get him to help. He did and, fifty years on, I remain thankful to both the copper and the dealer!

We drove on into South Australia and heard on the radio that Peterborough, our next stop, was cut off due to the worst flooding that century. Thankfully, we located a room at Yunta.

Avoiding places where floodwaters cut roads, we made our way across to Port Augusta. There we learned they had just launched one of the world’s largest bulk carriers. Off once more, beyond Iron Knob, Kimba, Kyancutta, then North-West towards Ceduna, into near-desert mulga, saltbush and mallee country.

The next morning, we looked out over Murat Bay, where Matthew Flinders had anchored a century and a half earlier. We checked out the neat, pretty town that was the starting point of the cross-country trek (which does not, as so many believe, cross the Nullarbor but essentially parallels the Great Australian Bight).

The Eyre Highway, with the exception of some bitumised sections, was a bull dust and gravel surface, heavily corrugated. Graders could do little more than scrape off the top and fill the hollows. That lasted until the next truck came along! The corollary was, when it rained, the bull dust turned into a boggy slush.

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Dust sucked in through the wagon’s tailgate, covering everything with a fine patina. But there was worse: Cattle grids and spoon drains were a constant problem, heavily corrugated and potholed and capable of wrecking a tyre or an exhaust. We met many vehicles in trouble, underprepared for the trip.

An elderly German couple were travelling from Perth to visit family in the Barossa. The starter on their VW Beetle wouldn’t work. Unable to shut it down, they’d driven non-stop for 23 hours. I knew the fix and convinced them to turn it off. When I crawled under, the wire from ignition switch to starter solenoid was hanging loose. Its screw was long gone but I wedged the wire in with a sliver of wood, and showed old Helmut just in case it needed doing again. The car started with the turn of the key and, with many a hug and ‘vielen dank’, they set off to find a bed for a well-earned rest.

 

We had lunch one day at Chick’s Roadhouse at Nundroo and remembered it for three reasons: An enormous meal, three china ducks flying up the dining room wall, and two timber and corrugated iron dunnies. Each of these had a timber seat with an appropriately sized hole mounted over a hollow tree stump! Mr Chick (well, I think it was Mr Chick) explained that because they couldn’t be drained, every few weeks he pushed the dunnies over and dropped half a stick of gelignite down each hole. “Mate, that’s the only time you’ll see people here walkin’ ’round under umbrellas!”

Driving was steady and careful. Corrugations can be taken too fast… and too slow. With the Premier, the best speed seemed to be about 52 to 55 mph. Below this and eye teeth would almost chatter out; too much above and the car would bounce badly. At least, there was never any likelihood of falling asleep at the wheel!

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The trip so far had been on a high escarpment, the land horizon a straight line, almost as if levelled at some time by a vast sea, which, of course, it had. We now came down onto a coastal plain, approaching sand-buried Eucla, only 900 miles left to Perth.

Mundrabilla, Madura, Cocklebiddy, Caiguna, Balladonia – romantic names all – on the way to Norseman. We were tired, despite sharing driving duties, but taking frequent rest stops. North to Coolgardie, and then west again, heading towards Southern Cross.

Just beyond Victoria Rock, the sky became a black so intense day almost turned into night; there were incredible flashes of lightning at an intensity we had never before seen – even in sub-tropical Brisbane – that left images of trees burnt in silhouette on our retinas. With the first enormous drops of rain came the heady pungency of petrichor (which we then mistakenly called ozone).

It rained so hard we had to pull off the road for safety. Unseen in such poor visibility, I ran over a rock. Even at barely five miles per hour, it was enough to split the exhaust pipe. Once the rain stopped – and it happened in an instant – we opened all windows (to ensure no build-up of exhaust gas in the car) and drove noisily to the dealership in Southern Cross. Our exhaust was non-standard (a 2” Lukey) but the dealer was good enough to bend some thin sheeting around the damage, wiring it on and using a bit of gun gum, allowing us to continue with a little less noise. He would accept no payment.

Merredin: the repair had loosened. The Holden dealer removed the bandage and applied a layer of  asbestos sheet before wiring it all together again. He phoned ahead to the dealer at Northam and, by the time we arrived, he’d ordered and received a Lukey engine pipe to suit. The help of everyone we met, especially four very obliging dealers, remains a happy memory.

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Happy, too, was our first sighting of the Indian Ocean as we crested the Stirling Range. Six days on and, other than seeing the ocean before us, we were tired enough to know we’d travelled a huge distance in only a few days across a huge land… and needed rest!

We loved the fresh, friendly atmosphere of Perth and did as many of the touristy things as we could manage: Cottesloe Beach, Rottnest Island, Kings Park, the majestic Ambassadors Theatre, football at Subiaco, then visited friends at Mill Point and went with them on a day trip into the Stirlings. Time flew.

We’d taken a week to get there, spent five days looking around, and now needed to start driving all over again! Work called, so off we went. It seems we did a lot of driving – two weeks – for barely a week there, but Perth and a glimpse of Western Australia was only a part of it all. We sought and found adventure on a trip we always remembered, but never managed to repeat.

The most impressive part was the fact everyone else we met was on a great adventure. Including all those helpful dealers, we met a lot of very nice people – and isn’t that what life’s meant to be all about?

Have you ever been on a holiday where everything seemed to go wrong, but it was enjoyable regardless?