Journey to the Centre: Living in the ’70s

Get your motor runnin’

Head out on the highway

Looking for adventure

In whatever comes our way

Steppenwolf – Born to be Wild 1969

May 1970

When Joanne heard about the Centre Trip she was desperate to go. Camping in tents, they would travel through four states, visit Cooper Pedy, Woomera, Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria, Cairns and Brisbane. The cost was $120. Joanne didn’t have that sort of money but she borrowed it from her mother, Annie, promising to pay it back when she started teaching.

Oh the places she would go!

When the time came for her to leave, she wasn’t quite so keen.  Surprisingly none of her friends had shown any interest in going, so she knew no-one on the trip. Also she had been seeing Leo for only a short time and didn’t want to spend the next three weeks apart from him.  Who knows, he might have found someone else by the time she returned?

He turned up on the day she was to leave, helped her pack by reading out her list and then took her to a Chinese Restaurant for lunch.

Sitting alone in the bus full of chattering students she was relieved when, just before they left, a girl asked if she could sit beside her.  She looked French, with her dark bob and her slight accent. Her name was Michelle and she proved to be an excellent travelling companion for the next three weeks.

They didn’t camp in tents the first night. Arriving at 9.20pm in the decidedly frosty air of Bathurst, they slept in a scout hall and had cold showers that warmed up just as they finished. The next day they drove through Orange and Dubbo, stopping for lunch on the side of the road near Narromine where they made their own sandwiches from an array of fillings, vegemite, peanut butter, tuna, baked beans, tomato, apricot jam.

As they rumbled through Nyngan and then Cobar, Joanne considered each town as a possible location for her teaching position the next year.  Twenty miles past Cobar they set up camp at Springfield Tank where the soil was red and soft and small trees dotted the landscape.  Michelle and Joanne pitched their tent, pumped up their lilos and arranged their sleeping bags.  A short game of wood cricket was followed by a meal of chops, veggies, rice-cream and peaches, prepared by the group on duty.  Joanne practised her trumpet in the bus and then joined the others singing songs around the campfire.

The night was cold, making sleep difficult.  In the morning the tent dripped water wherever it was touched.  Joanne dressed rapidly and rushed off to help prepare the breakfast of onion and tomato on toast.

The bus drove over to the water supply which was as cold as the morning air.  About two thirds of the students were from the Physical Education faculty.  They were noticeably more athletic than the Primary group and wasted no time dumping one of their own in the water tank.

The sighting of three emus and a kangaroo caused great excitement.  Every ten or twelve miles they crossed a cattle grid with fences stretching out each side as far as the eye could see.  Arriving at the caravan park in Broken Hill (population 30,000) the students enjoyed hot showers in the amenities block which put everyone in a good mood.  After the meal Joanne and Michelle decided to wander down to the main street but found a determined gathering of lecturers at the gate. They were told was too dangerous for them to be let loose on the sinful city of Broken Hill.  Furious, but unable to do anything about it, they settled for a sing song around the campfire with a group of other travellers.

Their first excursion was to the North Broken Hill Zinc-Lead-Silver Mine where they observed basic elements being extracted from a muddy conglomerate. Amid the noise and smell, a guide described in great detail the process, which remained a mystery as no-one could hear a word. A similar scenario occurred at the South Broken Hill Mine. The highlight of the day was the free lunch and finally crossing into South Australia.

Bound for South Australia – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

Here they encountered fifty miles of dirt road, with sheep, rabbits and kangaroos slowing their progress. Their camp was set amidst saltbush with a few stunted small trees so finding a “restroom” was difficult. It was a case of girls to the right and boys to the left. This was the first night they decided to risk sleeping in the open without the tents and found they were still comfortably dry in the morning.

Driving through Horrick’s Pass in the Flinder’s Ranges they learnt that an explorer, John Henry Horricks, lost his camels and found the pass. They descended into the city of Port Augusta (Population 11,000) and happily explored the shopping centre, free of the lecturers at last.  At the Town Hall they found a wash room where they freshened up before buying some genuine artifacts at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs including a boomerang and a woomera.

After filling their water bottles the intrepid group set off for the Centre Track.  Joanne dozed until she woke scarcely able to breathe for the heat and the dust, only relieved by a stop at 4.00 pm to set up camp. After the sun set Joanne wandered into the bush and looked back at the camp.  She saw the glow of the fire, heard the muted voices and then there was nothing in any direction for hundreds of miles but desert and stars. She contemplated the passage of time, the people who lived here long ago and stood mesmerised for a while.  Reality hit when she found someone (one of the boys) had let down everyone’s lilo so there was no sleep until they were pumped up again.

Rain woke them all at 3.00am so there was a sudden rush to the bus carrying damp sleeping bags and packs. 

Caught in the rain – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

Out in the middle of all this vastness was Island Lagoon Tracking Station.  Inside were enormous computers filling whole walls.  The saucer was eighty-five feet in diameter and was currently tracking Pioneer 8 and relaying information to America.  One of the workers told the story of a Landrover parked under the telescope. When the dish swung down that was the end of the Landrover.

The demise of the Landrover – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

Driving into Woomera was no simple deal. There was a considerable amount of discussion between the authorities, the lecturers and the bus driver. Joanne and others were told to put away their cameras although they couldn’t imagine what harm there would be in snapping photos of the small shopping centre, swimming pool, cinema and neat houses. The bus stopped at Lake Hart and the students ran half a mile across the dried up salt as if released from prison.

Running across Lake Hart – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

At Cooper Pedy a guide named Helena, who originally hailed from Germany, jumped on board. She regaled them with funny stories which had them all laughing. They were impressed with the underground dugout scooped out of the rock, the only room above ground featuring a swimming pool. It was a show house in the winter while its owner lived in a double decker bus but as soon as the weather warmed up she moved into her underground home. Joanne felt she could have lived in that house while digging for opals but from Helena’s stories gathered that Cooper Pedy could be quite a wild place.

Over the border into the Northern Territory they passed a perfect mesa called Mount Conner.  Everyone was straining to catch their first glimpse of Ayers Rock. It was 5.00pm when they finally arrived and set up camp at the base of the rock.  Again they decided against putting up the tents but it was still 10.00pm before the camp was quiet.

Camped at the base of Ayers Rock – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

The lecturers informed them that the first objective next day was to climb Ayers Rock. There was only one climbable section with some posts and chains to help the climber. Further on there were only broken white lines to follow. At the top a visitors’ book was found which everyone signed as well as posing for photographs.

Ready to climb the rock – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

One of the female lecturers and the girl who was dumped in the Springfield Tank had a mock wedding on top of the rock with confetti sprinkled for the occasion.  After a rapid descent the students travelled in the bus to the Olgas where they only had time for a short walk.  Joanne hoped to come back one day to explore the area further as the tracks disappearing into the red rocks looked enticing.  Michelle, Joanne and a few others chose to walk the five and a half miles around the base of the rock until they reached their campsite.  That night Joanne and Michelle visited the local establishment, the Log Cabin, spent 52 cents each on a vodka and orange drink and listened to an Aboriginal man playing a guitar and then later a didgeridoo.

A long dusty drive deposited the students into Alice Springs.  Here they erected their tents and enjoyed hot showers.  Joanne thought it was a beautiful area, especially after visiting Stanley Chasm as the sun slanted onto the rocks at midday.  She and Michelle explored the main street and slipped into an art shop where they saw paintings for sale by Oscar Namatjira, Albert’s son. Enjoying their first taste of a big town the group were treated to dinner at the Oasis Motel and some even ordered wine. Joanne was running out of money fast so had to stick to water.

Moving north they saw a mobile school at Ti Tree which moved with Aboriginal families.  The next stop was a mission where an experiment was underway concerning Aboriginal housing.  As the bus drove along they passed very basic humpies, then one roomed houses with verandahs all around, then the same in brick and finally three bedroom fibro houses. 

Different styles of Aboriginal housing – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

The guide from the mission explained that when families showed they could look after their house they were promoted to a better one. Joanne and the other students thought this seemed a good idea at the time. In hindsight it could be perceived as protectionism and ignoring Indigenous rights and freedom. While I won’t go into the history of the treatment of Aboriginal Australians in this story (Joanne had very little idea as she only knew what she read in the newspapers) suffice it to say that the ‘60s and ‘70s saw massive changes in the status of Australia’s First Nations people.

At Banka Banka Station the students took photos of the Aboriginal children of the stockmen and their wives. When the students climbed back aboard the bus they were stunned when one of the lecturers told them off for their thoughtless actions.  It hadn’t occurred to anyone that they needed to ask permission or that they were being disrespectful.

Stopping at the Devil’s Marbles they climbed over the strange, round rocks.  Previous visitors had painted their initials in large brush strokes on a few of the rocks which Joanne thought was a terrible thing to do to such remarkable formations.

The strange sight of the Devil’s Marbles – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

Still the bus roared onwards until it arrived in the dark at a Mount Isa caravan park. The hot showers were greeted with moans of delight. The next day (temperature 65 degrees F) they were driven out to Lake Moondarra where Joanne joined the others in the chilly water, swimming out to a platform with a slide and enjoying herself immensely.

Heading steadily north they drove through Normanton with their proposed night stop four miles further on.  Suddenly they heard a loud bang.  Close inspection confirmed their fears.  They had a flat tyre.  The driver continued to the campsite with the tyre making a huge racket.  The next morning the bus was driven into Normanton to get the tyre fixed before they headed off along a sandy track to Karumba, on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

House in Normanton – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

There was great excitement when the students learned they could earn $80 a week working on the prawn conveyor belt if they came up here in the summer. As the ribbon of seafood passed by Joanne had a turn at picking out anything that wasn’t a prawn and throwing it to one side. Initial excitement subsided when they considered the heat, the wet, the insects and the monotony of the job. The pool at the Karumba Lodge was a highlight as the temperature had increased considerably since Mount Isa.

In Georgetown they met a couple of young school teachers in the only pub in town.  The men, originally from Cairns, were friendly and obviously starved of female company.  They said Georgetown had never seen so many girls at once in its history.  The girls told them they would be camping about an hour up the road so they promised to follow.  Camped by the banks of Routh Creek they did see some headlights slowly going past but the lecturers must have scared them off because that was the last they saw of them.

Camped by Routh Creek – from the journal of Joanne Walsh

The bus made its way through the Atherton Tablelands to Cairns, where they set up their tents in a caravan park.  Joanne and Michelle thought they were very daring to hitch a ride into town but they were picked up by a taxi and given a free ride. They met some young men in the pub and were shouted cans of XXXX.  Joanne hated beer but felt she had to finish it in case she offended the buyer.  Their reward for travelling 3,580 miles through deserts and tropical regions was a boat trip to Green Island. The island was small and could be circumnavigated in less than an hour. They swam in the warm clear water, wishing they could check in to the resort and stay for a week.

One of the friends Joanne had made flew home from Cairns as she was missing her boyfriend too much.  The PE students couldn’t believe anyone would let a romance upset a good holiday and thought she was the worst kind of wuss. Travelling the 1500 miles from Cairns to Wollongong was a bit of a blur as they covered long distances with few stops. They planted sugar cane from a tractor, slept in a motel storeroom in Surfers Paradise as the rain poured down, and dropped off several students at their hometowns as they travelled down the NSW coast.

Home at last, Joanne was met by Leo, who was limping and had a cast on his leg.

‘Hockey accident,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Broke my foot.’

Joanne had never been so pleased to see anyone in her life.

15 thoughts on “Journey to the Centre: Living in the ’70s

  1. Quite a whirlwind trip!

    I like the journal sketches. I’ve always been awful about keeping a journal, but I wish that was not the case. Especially as I get older. Because it’s so nice to have notes to look back on and remember.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The 70s I realized were years when people jumped on buses for a trip somewhere and they were willing to do the heat, tents and all of it. Now people want electricity and a/c and a luxury bus.
    Loved the drawings that went with the journey.
    Journal Thanks for stopping by today 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a trip! I remember feeling the way she did at the end when she saw Leo when I returned from a cross country tour after college graduation, taking a bus from Detroit to San francisco, a train back east to DC where my sister was a student and then a fast train to NYC where I worked for a few weeks enjoyed a snow storm and decided to return via airplane to Detroit where I was so happy to see Jim. 1969 that was.

    Liked by 2 people

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