by Gregor Stronach
I know a young man who has backpacked through the Gaza Strip, at the height of conflict season (differentiated from the increasingly short 'tourist season' by an influx of armed men, tanks and the excitingly named helicopter gunships), on less than seven cents a day. His diary reads like the battalion logbook; 'Hiked three miles, counted fifteen dead (three friendly, twelve enemy). Dried beef for dinner. Again.'
Even my beautiful partner Renee travels better than I do. She recently dived in the deep end, heading off overseas for the first time ever to backpack around South America for a month. She arrived home tanned, fit and only slightly less wealthy than when she had set out.
But I, on the other hand, have difficulties when I get further than 100km from home. Even a weekend trip to Katoomba is enough to have me packing a good 50kg of clothes, bedding and other sundry accessories into the back of a 4WD, knowing full well that I'm going to spend a minimum of $60 a day that I won't be able to account for. It's lunacy.
The problem, I'm sure, stems from the holidays of my childhood. Yes, I know, it's an 'easy answer' to blame one's parents for an adult's ills, but I'm positive that this is it. There is no other explanation, except the unacceptable option that I am simply a moron - something I shall steadfastly refuse to admit to the day I die.
Having been dragged around the state as a child with all preparations made for me has spoilt me for traveling. Admittedly, the only other alternative for my parents was to staple a train ticket to my clothes and pack me off somewhere to fend for myself - even in the liberal seventies that would have constituted some form of neglect. So instead we did as most other Australian families did - we piled into the family car, heavily laden with beach towels, surfboards and board games and set off north to find a beach that wasn't crawling with other tourists, or sharks.
In order to paint a complete picture here, I should probably introduce my family. They're completely different people now than they were twenty years ago, so I'm sure that they'll forgive me the inevitable unkindnesses that follow. Although, I will preface the following remarks with a disclaimer - my family members are amongst the friendliest, most lovable people you could ever hope to meet, and I love them all dearly...
I'll start with my father, a man that I have looked up to my entire life. As a father, a child could ask for no better. But as a traveling companion, he left a little to be desired. When I was a child, my father smoked incessantly. Nowhere was this more apparent than when we were cooped up in a car. Dad, in the nature of Dads everywhere, was of the 'drive till you drop' school of holiday-making, which meant that 12-hour stints were the norm and the occasional 14-hour gut-buster was always on the cards. When he wasn't smoking, he was whistling. Or tapping the steering wheel with his fingers. Or making popping sounds in time with the music that Mum was playing on the stereo. Or any one of a number of equally infuriating things. Four hours in a car with my Dad would have been enough to have Job screaming 'enough!' at the Lord Almighty.
My mother was as good a traveling companion as a child could ask for. Readily equipped with all manner of diversions, she dealt with two terminally bored, carsick children with the aplomb one would expect of a career nurse. She provided everything from a running commentary on our surroundings - not a kilometre went by without Mum excitedly remarking "Look at that, kids!" - to oversized Lifesaver lollipops that could be sucked for approximately sixty seconds before they irreversibly adhered to the upholstery, rendering them inedible.
Invariably, I would be too late to see the source of Mum's excitement as she saw something cool out the window. I was generally either fighting severe nausea or sucking enthusiastically on the toxic markers I had been provided with to do my colouring in. Thinking back on it now, I realise that the two occurrences were probably linked in some fashion - but the marker ink had such an alluring chemical taste.
It was during this time that I was introduced to The Beatles - the perennial car audiotape that we only ever heard Mum play while we were on holidays. It was generally played at a volume sufficient to drown out Dad's tuneless whistling, saving my sister from an early coronary. My mother was the diplomat at all times, defusing Dad when I vomited in the car and making sure that if I did eventually fall asleep, my sister didn't quietly place her half-sucked lollipops in my hair.
My sister was, bless her, an ogre to travel with. She suffered from a very short attention span and an even shorter temperamental fuse. The slightest indiscretion from me would be enough to cause a tantrum of near biblical proportions. These tantrums were fierce and unpredictable. It was a running battle between her and Dad, whenever Dad lit a cigarette. Stage coughing would ensue from the rear seat, and was always rewarded by a whitening of Dad's knuckles as he gripped the steering wheel harder, accelerating gently to have the speed of the vehicle match his mood. My sister is now happily married and living in the United States. I don't travel anywhere with her anymore.
One episode I remember vividly was the time my family and I were exploring the northwestern regions of New South Wales. We were somewhere near Lightning Ridge, when my sister uttered the phrase that I will never forget.
"I can hear you blinking. Stop it."
Over the din of the Beatles on the stereo, Dad whistling like a randy Warbler in springtime and the roar of the retreads beneath the car, my sister could hear me blinking.
I tried for about seven or eight minutes not to blink, resorting to actually holding my eyes open with my fingers so that the offending noise wouldn't set her off. It had been a good three hours since the last violent outburst from her and I could feel it in my bones that the next one was going to be the highlight of the trip. Like an earthquake prone region, the longer she went without turning feral only made the eventual transformation from toothy child to werewolf all the more drastic.
Eventually, for fear of going blind, I blinked. Once. I'm not sure how, but my sister knew and that was it. In a flurry of obscenities (remarkably similar to those heard whenever Dad was cut off in traffic), the tantrum began. Dad was piloting the family car down an arrow-straight section of Outback highway, sitting comfortably on about 130kph, and attempting to hose down the violence in the back seat as only a speeding father knows how. Right hand on the wheel, left hand flailing blindly behind him as he sought to make some sort of physical contact with the pint-sized combatants in the back seat, swearing mightily and promising a swift and grisly death for all involved if it didn't stop right now.
After a couple of minutes, Dad snapped. With a screech of tyres, he braked suddenly and pulled to the side of the road.
"Get out! Both of you! Out of the car! We're leaving you here," he roared.
My sister and I stopped belting each other for a couple of seconds, but we came to the simultaneous realisation that dad was bluffing, and the fists began to fly again. My sister was nine years old, and I was six. She had both a weight and reach advantage over me and wasn't afraid to use it. I was genuinely fearing for my life until dad got out of the car, opened the door next to me, and dragged my sister and me bodily from the vehicle. Quick as a flash he was back behind the wheel and the car was speeding off in a could of dust.
I stood by the side of what I now know is the Castlereagh Highway, somewhere to the north of Gulargambone. My infantile jaw was sitting heavily on my chest in disbelief and perversely I don't think I could have blinked if I'd tried, I was so shocked. My sister's only remark before the waterworks started was simple enough.
"You shouldn't have blinked."
My relationship with my sister is excellent now. She lives in the United States with her gun-slinging husband and two kids. It's far enough away that my little quirks don't bother her and it means that I'm safe. For the moment, at least.
I hope one day to get better at traveling, but like the old dog faced with the challenge of several new tricks, I'm pretty sure that I will forever be destined to lose my passport, get lost on the way to the airport and discover that the ATMs are all in a foreign language when I arrive at my destination. It could be worse, though. I could still hate my parents for leaving me at the side of a long, dusty highway in Outback New South Wales.
Gregor Stronach pities the fool who tries and gets him on that plane.