Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 1997
I’d hitched Europe, I’d hitched Asia, I’d hitched New Zealand but I’d never hitched at home, in the land of Oz. I’d always had transport back home — a car, a motorcycle, friends going my way.
I started hitching in foreign countries where these things weren’t at hand. But I’ve grown to love it, not as a way of merely getting around, but as a source of adventure, contact with the indigenous folk, and a challenge to the growing conservatism in the modern world. So when I had to go to back to Adelaide for a conference I decided to leave my worldly vehicles at home and thumb my way over, and back, from Kiama near Sydney, where I was crashed at the time (while working as a technical consultant to an old boss and friend of mine). I took a month off to colour the trip with a little meandering around the country as well.
Well, that was the plan. My motivation was under siege though. I shared my dreams with friends and colleagues, every one of whom expressed their reservations or questioned my sanity. One friend of mine says to me "Bernd, I’ve got two words for you: Ivan Milat!" That just about summed it up. Ivan Milat was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or so to speak. Into a country already on the road towards paranoid conservatism, comes this sole angel of death who knocks off seven hitch-hikers in a forest not far from my home. Ouch. What power has the small voice of reason against such emotive crimes?
But my hide was saved to speak by an old buddy back in Adelaide. I rang Mark just to let him know I was coming and shared with him my plan to hitch, and my wavering confidence on account of siege on my senses by fearful (though caring) friends. Mark revealed a side to his character I’d never been aware of: he’d hitched all the way around Australia himself, including the Nullarbor, and Western Australia, and swears by it. "Do it man!" he breathes down the phone at me, "just do it!" Adding fuel to the fire, Mark tells me he hitched right past Milat’s forest graveyard at about the same time Milat was active, but got through unscathed. Water off a ducks back to the ardent hitcher. These are the risks we accept before we start, and shit happens . . .
My resolve was strengthened and, not long after, I walked out the front door to the highway not 500 metres from our front door and waved a sign at passing cars: "Heading South." It was a funny feeling — I was at home, people might recognise me, it wasn’t the anonymous adventure of my past. Only fifty cars passed before I got my first ride, and it was the start of a month long adventure that would warm most any heart.
It is much too long to share here and it will form the fourth chapter of my book, once I convert some twenty pages of notes into flowing prose. But it was a strong contender for the most beautiful month I’d passed in Australia as long as I can remember. Waits were short, rides were fast, company diverse. I was picked up by men, by women, families, the young, the old, the lonely, the busy, the unemployed, itinerant workers, doctors, lawyers, diplomats, students, black and white, in cars and vans and trucks. I had never met such a wide range of caring and sharing folk in my home country ever before. Hitching is such a non-discriminatory phenomenon — there no one particular class of person that stops, beyond the obvious traits of a predilection for sharing and a car to share. In a motorised country like Australia the mere fact of car possession is not a strong class discriminator either.
The trip was so euphoric people could read it in my bearing. I got to Melbourne in a day from Canberra, Adelaide in a day from Melbourne. I had time to burn, it was all going so fast, and I carried past Adelaide into Central Australia for a lark to double back for my conference.
I recruited readers for this column on the way, infecting friends with my enthusiasm. In the small mining town of Andamooka, on a mission to track down Pete the Czech, whom word on the street credited with hitching around the world and writing two books about it, I passed a night so surreal and heartwarming as to warrant a chapter of its own, and at least a special mention here. Thanks Pete, Lou, Stefan, Tanya and crew. Who’d have though a dusty town of 600 opal miners at the end of a 120 km track off the main highway from nowhere to nowhere could have written such a strong page in my history.
I’m hooked. I’ll go back home and hitch some more, I promise it. It was such an adventure thumbing its nose at Ivan Milat, and the fear he plants in the hearts of Australians. It was a warm embrace of the enthusiasm my good friend Mark used to bolster my own motivation. Ultimately my very personal proof that hitching Down Under is not dead, as so many would like to believe!