The Great Australian Road Trip - Then and Now

32w ago


It's Boxing Day kids... so into the car!

Australians, judging from the traffic I saw along the Pacific Highway, still love their summer road trip. Of course the summer road trip is not solely an Australian affair, but pretty much any country that has functional roads, places to go to and cars to package kids like sardines. It's so popular that Hollywood uses the family road trip for satire, such as National Lampoon's Vacation. When I was younger, I connected with the children in the movie. These days, I find myself in an empathic bond with Clark Griswald.

"Well I'll tell you something, this is no longer a vacation...it's a quest. It's a quest for fun! I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun! We're all gonna have so much **** fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our **** smiles!"

national lampoon's vacation

During the Australian summer of 1978-79 my father drove our family from Canberra to Perth in an early 1970s Toyota Crown. He drove in summer heat across the Nullarbor Plain, which is an semi-arid landscape, in a car with no air conditioning. I sat in the back on a sticky, plastic bench seat with my two younger sisters and spent a lot of the time either fighting for territory (pinching, poking and prodding on all sides) or staring out the window in a Zen like stupor that I mistook for deep contemplation.

Fast forward forty years and in August 2018 I took a road trip to Perth to help an old High School friend ride a recumbent trike back from Perth to Canberra (which he accomplished). This recent road trip followed in my father's tyre treads, as one might say, and afforded me the opportunity to compare the two journeys as well as the Great Summer Road Trip in general.

Some thoughts on the Canberra to Perth road trips in 1978 and 2018.

The Roads are Better

Actually, the road across the Nullarbor is pretty much the same between these two dates, but the roads around the country have been improved. For example, when we used to take a trip from Canberra to Brisbane back in the 1970s, the Pacific Highway was, for a large part, a single lane road. It used to take us two days to travel the 1100km or so.

Just this week, early 2019, I drove between Canberra and Brisbane where, for much of it, it's a dual carriageway. The trip could, theoretically, be done in a day, but I prefer to stop and chill out at Coffs Harbour -- famous for the Big Banana.

The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour taken on a 2015 Road Trip.

I've noticed that the downside of better roads is greater impatience. We put our cars into cruise control and expect to drive from place A to B without (and shun this thought) slowing or stopping due to traffic. That's not to say back in the 1970s people didn't perform risky overtaking manoeuvres -- they did. I remember cars pulling out to overtake trucks only to be honked back by oncoming traffic. They were the lucky ones.

These days everyone must be somewhere faster -- much faster -- and this usually results in an overtaking lane lined with cars. Everyone seems obsessed with being somewhere else as quickly as they can and this is a shame because there's often much to look at along the way.

The telegraph station at Eucla - as photogenic as ever

The Cars are better

The cars of today are like mini-motels or homes-away-from-home. The back seat passengers can have multi-zoned air conditioning, cup holders for oversized drinks, video screens hanging from the roof or the front seats, window shades, and -- for some cars -- electronically adjustable seats with lumbar support (some luxury brands even have a massage function). No doubt in the not-too-distant future people will wonder how we "ever got by" driving in such a primitive vehicle.

This is, of course, light years better than the Toyota Crown my father drove us to Perth in during the Summer of 78.

Just like the one my father drove us to Perth in... even the same colour (photo by OSX - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49070640)

Air conditioning was a wet towel hanging somewhere, if we were lucky. The back seat was one large, plastic bench that got sticky with sweat and spilt drinks. Entertainment was either poking, or getting poked, by my sisters; or staring out at the landscape for hours at a time and calculating how long it would be before my father had to stop for fuel.

I had it lucky, though. My youngest sister, being the smallest, had to always sit in the middle with the transmission tunnel taking all her leg room.

That's not to say air conditioning didn't exist in those days. It did. I was told my aunt and uncle did the same trip at the same time whilst driving across the Nullarbor Plain wrapped in furs and scarfs. When I asked them about it they nodded, recalling their air conditioning control switch broke and so the temperature remained, until they had it fixed in Perth, at Arctic cold. So while my sisters and I melted in the back seat across the arid wasteland; my aunt and uncle were blowing warm air on their hands to stop them going numb with cold. The breaks, huh.

Navigation is better

OK. Let's get one thing straight. Across the Nullarbor Plain itself navigation is, for all practical purposes, somewhat useless. There's a single road. You drive on it. Hard to get lost.

... and then you get to a corner

Driving back in 1978 meant having a large map of the country where you were driving that had the major roads, plus little -- often out of date -- maps of smaller regions. Needless to add, one often got lost. I don't remember if my father ever asked for directions since I was often in a vegetative state in the back. If he did it would've been at petrol stations, I suspect.

Today we have satellite navigation that not only tells us the route, but informs us when we should change lanes or even, as my sat-nav did the other day, offer alternative routes to avoid impending congestion. But our reliance on these devices can also be our undoing. There are stories of people who drove into lakes or alleyways too small for their car because a dulcet voice intoned: "Please turn left."

Something in 2018 which certainly did not exist on the way to Perth in 1978 -- the Ettamogah Pub.

On the recent trip to Brisbane I used my sat-nav not for directions, but to check for any congestion ahead and the device's ETA. But this unravelled in places where the newly completed roads were not in the computer's navigational data. Unhappy with my independence, the sat-nav repeatedly asked me to "Please drive to a known road" or words to that effect.

However, the best quote from it came when, driving over a bridge the sat-nav knew nothing about, it seriously intoned: "Caution - Ferry on the Roads" (or something like that) as it saw my car crossing the waters unaided. How or why this was programmed in, I don't understand, but I chuckled all the way to Grafton.

In Car Entertainment is Better

As alluded earlier, watching your own movie on a small screen in front of you beats staring out the window for hours on end.

Or does it?

As a modern child you can stay glued to the screen, but some of the best memories I've got of that road trip to Perth is watching the scenery -- particularly the changes from the east coast to the west coast of Australia. Sure, the Nullarbor can be pretty repetitive, but even then I remember the experience. The landscape was as alien as I'd ever seen.

Like something from Dr Seuss. Vegetation on the Nullarbor which, in this instance, did not live up to its latin name of "No Tree"

Sure, there were stretches of time when I imagined a floating couch next to the car with me stretching my legs on it, but that was not because the landscape was uninteresting; more due to the fact that I continually fought for space in the back seat of the car. Mum often chided me to let my sister have more space because she straddled the transmission tunnel, but my legroom was limited as well. My parents packed bags in the back seat wells and, of all things, my legs were cramped by an esky filled with cold, refreshing drinks.

That esky sung to me like a siren from Jason and the Argonauts. However, it would be the wraith of my parents to have taken a can (pretty much impossible since my two sisters guarded it like the crown jewels!) Nevertheless it sat there, beneath my legs, taunting and tempting.

The big... something. Must find out.

I think the other half of the entertainment happened when my sisters and I were allowed to share one can -- between the three of us. Gulps were counted. Sips were negotiated. Tears and accusations flew. Raised voices followed by sullen silences. We were like a small UN delegation in the back of a Toyota.

My sisters and I still smile when we recall it.

Motels are better

Multi channelled, cable flat screen TVs; spas; saunas; you name it, there is probably a hotel off the highway that has it. Want something? Swipe your credit or debit card and the genie of electronic cash appears to purchase whatever you wish.

But this was not always the case. In 1978 there were very few credit or debit cards in common use. American Express was around, but my father didn't have one and, even if offered, I doubt he would have accepted. So it was carrying cash and estimating how much petrol would be, how much hotels and meals would be, and if you overspent; well, that was that.

The Whale at Eucla photographed in 2018 and unchanged from 1978.

I remember after a long driving stint we stumbled across Eucla. There were hotel rooms. They looked comfortable and I hoped we'd stay there, but we didn't. In the end, we drove well into the night until we arrived at Kambalda. It was dark and my mother was pretty much at wit's end. I knew she was angry because she fell silent. We ended up staying two days.

The hotel at Kambalda where we stayed and the swimming pool, that blessed oasis in 1978, the same as I remember it

Hotels were basic back then. There were televisions, but they showed whatever the local terrestrial channels had. Most had air conditioning, which was great, and a swimming pool so green and full of chlorine that it could make your eyes water in a few seconds.

In this last respect the hotel at Kambalda was exceptional. At the time only a few years' old, the pool was clear and light blue; and I remember floating in the water grinning and, no doubt, destroying my skin's DNA in the UV radiation. Ignorance.

I recall another family stayed there and they had a daughter about my age, which is to say in 1978 she was in her mid teens. I remember we chatted for a bit in the pool, but nothing happened. Whatever I attempted to do to impress her (probably something stupid like holding my breath underwater) didn't and I recall she politely excused herself.

Her family left for Perth the next day. I was somewhat disheartened but, with a day's break still in hand, I floated away in that pool, blissful and content. We headed off the following day.

The modern take on the 1970s motel -- complete with a radio unit between the beds

So Is Everything Better?

It depends by what one means with the term "better". Cars are safer and more comfortable; back seat entertainment is a screen showing videos and not a pinching competition with your sibling; hotels and motels are islands of paradise; and multi carriage motorways link all the destinations complete with your choice of fast food. By this metric the answer must be "yes", things are better."

The telegraph station at Eucla where the sands have won

Yet in 1978 we thought we were travelling better than, say, a similar family in 1968; or 1958. The thing is those road trips that fashioned my love for travelling and showed me a universe beyond the town I grew up in. In every sense, they broadened my horizons. They were many firsts. The first time I saw the Big Galah or salmon gum; the first time I saw parched land. These firsts are something that today's road trips, although I very much enjoy them, cannot provide me.

Finally, of course, there are family or friends. That's what Summer Road Trips are really about. Spending time with our nearest and dearests in close proximity...

... for thousands of kilometres...

... in the hot sun. Whatever can compare?