Oz: Hitchhiking to Gympie

During my six-month East-West Center fellowship Pacific Islands field study in 1971 (which I’ve previously mentioned a couple of times), my wife and I arrived in Sydney, Australia, late one July night: It was freezing cold (especially for Hawaii people), and I remember there was ice in the gutters. In those days many places in Australia did not have central heating, and the small hotel we stayed at only had a little “glow-rod” above the door that didn’t do much to heat up the room. The window in the bathroom was permanently wedged open an inch or two, so that room was like a refrigerator; and the sheets on the bed were so cold that we tried not to move around once settled, hoping at least one spot would soon warm up.

Sydney’s a fascinating place, even in the cold, but I soon made a decision that would stretch our modest, diminishing funds and lead us to a warmer clime for a while: We would take a break from studies and hitchhike to Gympie:

Where? Gympie was in those days (and may still be — I’ve never been back) a little town located in Queensland, about 1,100 km or about 700 miles north of Sydney. We’d heard that anything north of Brisbane that time of year was usually balmy.

Why Gympie? There was an Australian missionary I served with in Samoa, Peter Hardman, who said if I ever got to Oz to come visit him there. I figured why not: Lots of young people hitchhiked all over the world in the 60s and 70s; but unlike the hippies, we were clean-cut in appearance, and it would be an interesting way to see more of “the land down under.”

I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details of our “high adventure,” but some are still vivid in my mind  you might find interesting:

  • We left most of our baggage with a friend and rode the public trolley to the northern outskirts of Sydney. Finding it was impossible to hitch in urban areas, we walked to the main highway leading north, and stuck out our thumbs. That first day, after a lot of short rides and waiting, we only made it as far as Newcastle, which is about a 100 miles north. A kind Mormon bishop we met there and his family offered us dinner and a room for the evening, and the next morning took us to the northern outskirts of Newcastle.
  • The next day we got much luckier when a young man who was moving from Sydney took us over half-way to Brisbane. He dropped us at a small motel that night, where the tariff (fees) included a breakfast of hot chocolate, toast (great bread), real butter, vegamite (sort of like bad-tasting peanut butter) and somewhat-tart marmalade.
  • We got very lucky again that morning when a well-to-do traveling salesman picked us up in a very nice car and gave us the guided tour along the Queensland Gold Coast. He explained, for example, that most dips in the road had depth markers on the side, in case of flooding; and when I spotted something in a tree, we even stopped to watch a wild koala bear. He also took us to a Captain Cook monument, and bought us lunch in Surfer’s Paradise.  The weather was definitely warmer by this point.
  • Frankly, I’ve forgotten the details of traveling the 100 or so miles from Brisbane to Gympie, but we arrived in the afternoon, and tracked down Hardman. I remember, while I was looking for his office, I saw and heard a kookaburra bird in a tree: It really does have a distinctive call. “Elder” Hardman was completely shocked to see us, but recovered nicely and, showing good Samoan hospitality, invited us to spend the evening with him and his wife. Like us, they were relatively newlyweds. The next day we went on a Latter-day Saint youth activity with them, climbing one of the nearby Glass Mountains. On the way back, he dropped us off on the highway. He also called his older brother, who lived in Brisbane, and arranged for us to stay with him when we got there on the way back.
  • We didn’t have much luck thumbing the rest of that day, and by evening found ourselves in a very small town in the middle of some kind of pine forest. We walked a long way south the next morning, with very few cars passing us. In fact, you could hear those that did coming from quite a distance. We were getting worried. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, and similar to highways in the western U.S., we saw quite a bit of road-kill, only in this case the critters were kangaroos — including some big reds. We finally said a prayer, asking for help . . . and about a half-hour later, one of our more amazing experiences happened:
  • An old gray-haired brother-and-sister couple who were on their way home from some kind of Christian retreat had passed us about a half-hour earlier when they felt they should turn around and come back for us. We spent a very pleasant time with them as they took us all the way to Hardman’s brother’s place in Brisbane. I do remember, however, he drove very slowly and kept turning around to talk to us in the back seat: The car would drift left-and-right, and Sally and I kept wondering if we were going to make it. I also remember once we got out of the pine forest they bought us lunch in a small town where the streets were lined with purple-flowering jacaranda trees. This experience brought into focus a blessing that the late Bishop Roger Gull (whom I had served as ward clerk) gave me before we left Laie on our journey: He promised us that we would not have to worry about our finances, and we would find people along the way who would help us. [Bishop Gull, a good friend and religion teacher at CCH, had been a Mormon missionary in Samoa in the mid-1950s, and had the distinction of being one of those accompanying the first groups of Saints from Samoa who attended the dedication of the New Zealand Temple.]
  • We attended Church with the Hardmans the next day. He had graduated in marketing from the University of Utah (where I went my first two years), so we had some things in common. The only other thing I remember about our experience that Synday was a couple of the brethren in our Latter-day Saint priesthood meeting were surprised I had read a newspaper that morning, presumably not a good sabbath activity there in those days.
  • The next morning the Hardmans dropped us on the southern outskirts of Brisbane, and the only other thing I can recall is we got one long ride all the way to northern Sydney with two young men . . . but I know Sally was uncomfortable with them, and we were both glad when they dropped us at a trolley station about 4 the next morning. By the time we got into Sydney proper, we found a small hotel in King’s Cross that gave us a half-day rate, and we flew out that evening for New Zealand.

By that point we only had a few dollars left, but a per diem check was supposed to be waiting for us at the American Express office in Auckland. High adventure, indeed.

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  1. […] at the time as part of my own six-month field East-West Center research in the Pacific islands that I have previously mentioned in several other blog entries. One of my East-West Center classmates — sorry, I’ve […]

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