In Praise Of... Road Trips

We headed north instead of south, my daughter and I, driving through the cane fields, listening to Gang Gajang. By the time we reached the coast road with the glare of the sea, Icehouse was praying to the "Great Southern Land". We cruised into Port Douglas to Cold Chisel's "Flame Trees". Road trip joy hit us early. Maybe it was the change of direction, the thrill of ditching the itinerary, the spontaneity. Maybe it was the sun on the sea, or the road winding around the cliffs, or the '80s Oz rock.

After lunch, we drove to Mossman Gorge with Goanna's "Solid Rock". We walked past white water rushing over the boulders. A sign said no swimming today, but the rock pool was full of swimmers anyway. Their wilful disobedience made us laugh. We wandered through the rainforest, staggered like drunks over a suspension bridge, then drove on as Van Morrison sang "Days Like This".

Late sun strobed through the trees.
"Where are we going, Dad?" said Mary Anne.
"I have no idea," I said. "I don't want this day to end."
Another perfect day in a lifetime of great road trips.
    
I love driving on the open road, listening to my music, as the broken white lines spear in from the distance. I have enjoyed road trips in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, England and Wales, with family and friends, and on my own.

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Heading out on the Birdsville Track

A favourite short story is John Updike's The Happiest I've Been, about a young man heading off on a road trip. It comes to mind on the best days of the best road trips when I think, through my haze of joy, that this is the happiest I've been.

Who knows what will trigger that feeling? Even wondering what will trigger it is enough to bring it on.

Or contemplating the mystery of the world beyond the horizon.

Or being in the moment as an amazing landscape opens out in front of you, and the music in the car is perfect for it, as though the moment and the music and the landscape are in harmony just for you.

Or when you change direction on a whim just to see a dry lake or a famous rock.

Or you see something silly. Or a passenger says something funny. Or you meet fascinating strangers.

Or you start thinking about what makes road trips so liberating. Are they an escape from normal life, the routine and stress of daily work, the grind of household tasks, the tears of tired children?

Is the euphoric sense of freedom you get from a road trip just an escape from all that daily living stuff? These are the thoughts I have as I drive across vast plains like a moonscape, or on a twisting track into a mountain range as the light fades and kangaroos stand sentry at the roadside, or sheep scatter into the drizzle of a Connemara hillside, or the toddler in the child seat finds a new way of saying 'are we there yet?'. 

As a family, we have driven all over eastern and southern Australia. Some of us drove up through the desolate beauty of South Australia to Uluru and Alice Springs, shivering in a tent trough the freezing nights of July. And I've enjoyed two hilarious road trips with my number two daughter, Siobhan, from north Queensland to Sydney, and from Melbourne north through the high country, staying only at towns that started with B. We made up wild stories about bears disguised as humans at honey stalls, spotted Ayers Rock every time we passed a large rock, and tried to work out a way that every black bull would have a white bird companion. Crazy.

Sometimes a road trip takes you deeper into the mystery of the soul, or bonds you closer in spirit to someone you love. My late wife, the legendary Mary B, was my travelling companion and soulmate over 40 years of road trips, often with our three daughters when they were young, but in later years on our own. Our last trip together was to Lake Eyre in full flood, and it blew six months of hospital and chemo out of her head.

Flood water had turned the normally dry salt lake into a vast inland sea teeming with marine and bird life. Mary B called it 'the miracle water', equivalent to the healing Lourdes water that she had brought home in small bottles from her mother in Ireland.

We drove for five days, though Cobar, Broken Hill, Wilpena Pound, through long conversations and deep silences, through laughter and tears. As the car took us into Marree we had negotiated some kind of personal path through the great mystery and shock of the past six months. We took a flight over Lake Eyre, decided against the long soggy walk to the lake's edge and set off up the Birdsville Track to accessible Lake Harry, part of the Lake Eyre catchment district. Like the bigger lake, flooding had turned Harry from dry salt into a marine and wildlife nirvana.

The road ran right to the fringes of the lake. Mary B gave me an empty juice bottle and I walked down to the water. A squadron of ducks took off in a flurry of flapping and quacking. I filled the bottle with brackish water and brought it back to the car. Mary B tipped it over her bald head and laughed as it dripped over her face and soaked her tee-shirt. We drove on to Birdsville then through outback Queensland to Cairns and down the east coast to our Sydney home. The road trip joy stayed with us the whole way and it bonded us deeply for the rest of her life.

Three years later, there I was heading south out of Mossman with my youngest, Mary Anne. She had been working in Cairns as a scuba diving instructor and I had driven there to bring her home to Sydney, with all her equipment and belongings in the back of the Santa Fe.

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At the Babinda Boulders, a popular waterhole in Cairns

We watched water spill over the rocks at Babinda Boulders, walked into Carnarvon Gorge with Mary Anne wearing Thai fisherman pants and thongs as her hiking gear, and kept a mental list of exotic roadkill species on the blood-splattered country roads.

The next day, on an outback highway, we stopped for a herd of Brahmin cattle that had decided to rest on the warm bitumen and graze at the roadside. We tried to ease our way through, laughing as bulls stood in front of the car to stare in at us.

Van Morrison was again singing "Days Like This", and the car filled with road trip joy. 'When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they fit,' he sang, 'then I must remember there'll be days like this.'

May there be day after day of days like this... Bring them on.

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