Travels with Bertha
Two Years Exploring Australia
In a 1978 Ford Stationwagon
Paul Martin traveled through Australia 1997 - 1998 in a whale ... an ugly, ancient Ford stationwagon. Her name is Bertha, and she is big and fat and old and probably very comfortable if you can get through the detritus. Between her and him we find an ever-changing stream of guests from Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Scotland and Paul's own Ireland. And a few Aussies on the side. We get to go about with Paul for a couple of years and what seems to be hundreds of thousands of miles through mostly coastal Australia in a rather smelly old station-wagon.
We start in Sydney, go down to Tasmania, then up the eastern coast all the way to Queensland, then back down and across to the far west, up to Darwin and back to Sydney. It is a long, hot journey (except when it is cold and wet). It also takes a bit too much time, I think. Two days reading this, at times, can come to seem like at least ten years.
Just being in Australia is a problem, at least for us. Despite all the glories of "the Cradle Barrier Reef, King's Canyon, Uluru, the Great Ocean Road, the Nullarbor and the Pinnacles," what one remembers from Bertha is the heat, the blowflies ("food had to be quickly gulped down to minimise the unwelcome garnish of sticky desert insect"), the heat, the duststorms, the heat, the marchflies, the heat, and the prejudice.
When Bertha had yet another breakdown, Paul and his friends tried to hitch a ride and found themselves bypassed. Later they found out why. One of Paul's companions was described by a local as that "dark bloke." He was thought to be "an Abo."
You see those old Holdens [which looked like their Ford] ... that's what those guys usually drive. She must have thought you were Abos.
Abos. Aborigines. Generally despised by the colonials ... and their offspring. The feeling was mutual.
From the first British/Dutch arrivals in the 18th Century until the mid-1950s, the population of the indigenous peoples declined from 500,000 (possibly 1,000,000) to around 50,000 through disease, alcoholism, disruption of social patterns, deprivation of land, and official governmental hostility and neglect. With one exception, Martin's meetings with the aboriginal people were sour and uneasy; his attempt to humanize the one 'abo' he spent time with takes on the overtones of burlesque.
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There are a few fascinating revelations in Travels. One gets the feeling of the sheer massiveness of the country; one learns much about the roots of the hostility between Aborigines and the whites; and one ends up feeling that the arrogance of the colonialists persists to this day. There is, too, a virulent anti-Japanese feeling, understandable because of the bombings and the attacks during WWII.
There is also a serious drinking problem here. Bertha offers endless observations on pubs, beer, wine --- drink, drank and drunk. By the time we get to the Northern Territory, I was severely hung over. In one chapter I counted over four dozen references to being loaded, spiffed, looped, blitzed, or whatever they call it over there. I also noted the many encounters with other young men who were about to start drinking, had already started and were drunk, or, finally, managed to pass out. On one page I found six references to getting sloshed at a nearby pub: "You won't have far to stagger tonight, now will ya?" shouts a matey.
The problem with these drunks is that they are not much fun, especially for those of us who are retired alcoholics (now I know what my friends had to put up with). Paul and his buddies are obviously having a ball boozing it up. No other vices, though. No whoring or bestiality or drugs. As thoroughly as I searched, I could find neither pot nor acid nor anything heavier than a good dose of aspirin for the hangovers. It made me suspect that the author was working on his sainthood; or that maybe he had already achieved it and wanted us to share in it. Or, possibly, that he didn't want to be caught with his pants down if suddenly the world's attitude towards what we so fondly used to call "recreational drugs" suddenly takes a turn for the worse.
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Overall, Paul comes across as gentle, easy, fun, easily led on ... and a bit of a sluggard. His writing can be a bit sluggardly, too, viz, this on a sunset:
We stared around as if we were among the ruins of a civilization lost to the world like Atlantis or Easter Island. For the first time in an age, utter silence caressed our eardrums, broken only by the occasional melodic twitter of unseen birds.
"Utter silence," I believe, doesn't caress anything, much less eardrums, unless these eardrums were broken by the twitter of unseen birds.
If I think of him as a bit of a sluggard, I am only reflecting his own words. During these two years on the road, Bertha ran out of gas quite a few times (he forgot to fix the gas gauge). She comes up with twenty or so blow-outs (he kept meaning to get some new tires), which are not helped by a jack that can only raise the car if four muscular young men are lifting up on the bumpers at the same time.
Also there is the matter of a mirror falling off, two light bulbs going dead, the points clogging up, and, finally, the engine catching on fire. You may have been there before: where a great friendly driver in a great friendly trash-filled car offers you a ride and when you get to the middle of the desert the head gasket goes and you and your new friends get to spend a fair amount of time hungry, sweating, trying vainly tlo hitch a ride all the while being eaten alive by mosquitoes --- or, worse, marchflies, which, according to the writer, "don't just thirstily drink up human sweat like normal, decent flies. No, marchflies are carnivores and they ... take lumps out of our flesh." The author reports that one of his fellow travelers "cracked" as they were "walking through this black pea soup" of meat-eating flies. Thanks for the ride, Paul.
At one point the author reveals he "wanted to soak up the pleasure and affection of long friendship --- without uttering a solitary word." He says that these sentiments might be considered "extreme," at which time he compares himself to Captain Joshua Slocum who wrote the incomparable Sailing Alone around the World. This parallel might exist, for Slocum traveled a long way in a boat, and put up with a fair number of travails --- but his boat had sails and went alone across vast oceans. Martin's journey is a bit more humble: his boat has four worn-out tires, a boat-load of garbage, and a dying radiator.
All is not lost, however. Paul is mellow, is generous with his fellow-travelers (and with the reader), and one of the unexpected pleasures of Bertha lies in the names. Who would ever guess that a country as dry and forbidding and arrogant as Australia could encompass such a treasure trove of place names --- Kununurra, Broome, Torn Price, Mount Nameless (named "Nameless"), Kalgoorlie, Ningaloo Reef, Monkey Mia (Mama mia!), Rottenest Island, Cocklebiddy, Uluru, Wagga Wagga, and my favorite, because of its resonance in Spanish, Coober Pedy. And, as always, at the end, Cape Tribulation.
Australia's workforce in the 18th and 19th centuries came mainly from something called "transportation" --- where 150,000 - 200,000 convicts were plucked from their cells in England and set loose on the wilds of Terra Australis, thus cleaning out the prisons and giving this faraway land some of the characteristics it specialized in: robbing, thieving, pillaging, and kidnapping. This latter was mostly aimed at the Aboriginals, whose children were taken from their families, given the chance to enslave themselves to the whites, thus being freed from paganism to follow the new, enlightened ways of Christianity. One historian has opined that because of the transport that brought in so many convicts, Australia could well be thought of as "a nation of small shoplifters."
Be that so or not, Bertha gives us pause: whether Australia is really the paradise visualized by so many in the English-speaking world (including the author). Or is it, possibly, a vast desert of the soul? Some say it should be called "Oz," but it is our belief that L. Frank Baum might take strong exception to that.
The country is huge? Yes. Varied? Of course. Spectacular? Maybe. Divine?
We suspect not.--- Robert S. Sinclair