Summary: 1972 – The Grand Tour 1.5.2011
After four years of a rather boring undergraduate medical course following the drudgery of later year school studies, I was tired of the student grind and my good friend Martin Haskett was too. We thought we’d vary things a bit by applying for a three month elective at the Christian Medical College at Vellore in India. It was disappointing when that fell through, and pretty quickly the idea surfaced of taking a whole year off studies to travel – so after fourth year exams we laboured on a big pipeline job to pull some cash together. To keep the medical faculty onside we had to arrange three month student electives at Guy’s Hospital in east London; then in late January we flew to KL and then by charter flight to the UK.
It was a wonderful year and had a fairly profound effect on the rest of my life. It was a year of much ‘colour and movement’, rich in diverse experiences, and cemented my generalist tendencies firmly in place. Reading over my letters home for the first time in more than forty years, I think they are worth preserving even if a bit quaint in parts, and I am alarmed at the amount of detail I have forgotten – some of the people and events I have no memory of at all, others are very clear in my mind. I suspect that is in part because we returned to the two very pressured later years of the medical course, followed by even busier hospital residencies, early career years and marriage; that wonderful year quickly became ‘history’.
I met enough rather sad ‘travel bums’ to inspire me to return to Oz and finish my degree, but exposed to a smattering of the richness of life I would never then decide to spend several additional years closeted away studying for a narrow specialism. The trip also gave me a certain confidence – having successfully negotiated our way through many ‘situations’, some of them risky, at twenty-one I felt ‘as good as the next man’, able to cope with whatever life might serve up. The force of experience leading to these states of mind, especially the first, was a powerful one – so much so that I didn’t spend much time questioning my decision not to specialize, or considering what it might mean for my professional life. Yes, this was another big impulse that pushed me towards generalism – it’s a decision I’ve more than once thought wistfully about, but overall it was the right ‘fit’ for my personality.
Sharing all those experiences and spending much of the year with Martin was the basis for a strong friendship. I regret that in later years we’ve seen less of each other, partly because of pressures of time and distance, partly because of my tendency to place ‘doing stuff’ over the work and joy of maintaining old friendships. Martin currently has a huge family crisis – his beautiful daughter Caitlyn has an inoperable malignant brain tumour at twenty-nine. I hope that I can be a better friend to him throughout this crisis and into the future.
In essence we spent about three months as ‘junior dressers’ at Guys – then I went to live in France, later travelling around southern Europe before meeting up with Martin again in Munich during the ill-fated Olympics. From there we headed north into Scandinavia, then south through eastern Europe into Greece. On a beach near Thessalonika we prepared for the long haul across Asia to southern India, eventually flying from Madras to Singapore – from where I took a boat to Melbourne. Almost all of the year we had motorcycles, riding them along the ‘hippy trail’ back across Asia. Fearing the heartache this would cause my parents I told a big lie – so the letters home make it seem that all our travels were by car, but only to that extent are the letters inaccurate. I was only twenty-one and as I read these letters now some of the language is rather quaint; clearly at that age I was still much influenced by my father, even in my choice of words. Nevertheless these letters are a fair reflection of a magic year of travelling.
A Memory of 1972 20.10.2012
Forty years on, and I’ve thought of Martin and Kristin Haskett a lot in the past year, with the unbearably sad loss of their beautiful daughter Caitlyn to Glioblastoma Multiforme in February this year. It was 1971; I was 21 and had recently lost my 17 year old brother Peter to Goodpasture’s Syndrome. Martin and I were good friends, toiling through the escalating boredom of the fourth preclinical year of medical studies at Melbourne Uni. We’d planned to add a bit of spice with an elective term at Vellore Medical College in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Disappointed when that fell through, we decided to take a year off studies and head for Europe. ‘Electives’ were almost unheard of back then, but to keep the medical faculty happy we agreed to a 3 month term at Guys Hospital, where our clinical dean Prof Maurice Ewing knew their dean Sir Hedley Atkins.
To finance this year away, we worked for the last months of 1971 as labourers on a big gas pipeline project – being built to pipe natural gas from the rigs off Sale to Melbourne. I was a ‘TA’, a trade assistant, and my job was to grind down the weld each time a one metre diameter metal pipe was added to the line. Each circular weld had to be ground twice between three welds, I seem to remember. What I in fact most easily remember is the oft-repeated ‘I want to give that girl a hot banana’, followed by much mirth from my two Lebanese welders as they ogled some young woman waking past. I also remember our very unpleasant foreman who suspected I was a student and often threatened me with the sack for minor transgressions; it was a time of high unemployment, and there were often men at the gate of the compound looking for work. The TA was the lowest in the site pecking order, thus the easiest to abuse. I used to fantasize that he’d appear in my surgery as a patient at some future date, and would have a large blunt needle ready and waiting. Martin was driving a truck and was at a worksite on the south bank of the Yarra when the Westgate Bridge construction collapse occurred, killing thirty men, a few hundred metres from where he was sitting at smoko.
UK: In early 1972 we flew to Kuala Lumpur to catch a ‘charter flight’ to London; in the days before budget airlines that was the cheap way to fly. There was a big storm in KL, and our charter flight was delayed, so we had a free night in that interesting city – the first Asian city we’d seen, though I think the heavy rain curtailed our activities. Then on to a refuelling stop in Dubai where we couldn’t leave the transit lounge and looked uneasily at the military thugs brandishing submachine guns with air-cooled ‘holey’ barrels. Arriving at Gatwick Airport, we went our separate ways – Martin to stay with Aunt Gladys at Ruislip on the A40 (on the way to Oxford), and me to ‘Kangaroo Valley’. Simon Potter, brother of old school mate Drew, was sharing a flat with several other Aussies, and I was kindly offered a few nights on the couch
of their small Earl’s Court abode. Some of the Australians had motorbikes, and told funny ‘biker stories’ (more, later), and passed on a valuable tip for getting an international bike license. Martin and I had decided to buy motorbikes, knowledge I was to conceal from mum and dad for the rest of this ‘boys’ own adventure’ year. The Earl’s Court accom was crowded and uncomfortable, so I quickly found a room advertised on the Union notice board at London Uni. I remember walking around the lovely green grounds searching for the Union; it was a weekend and there were few people about. I approached a very black man in a tweed sports jacket, and said very slowly ‘Hello. Can you help me? Where is Union?’ He replied with crisp directions in perfect English with an Oxbridge accent, ‘old chap’.
I took the room in a house at Golders Green, on the ?north side of Hampstead Heath, right on the tube line that took me to Guys in South London. In fact the house was built into the side of the railway overpass adjoining Golders Green Station, so it shook dramatically with every passing train. I shared the house with three very nice British girls, each of whom had boyfriends. Ann Moss, of ?Irish background, was the character, and Leslie, with an Indian boyfriend, the beauty. We lived and cooked independently. Mum had handwritten a little book of recipes for me; I think I alternated between my two favourites, tomato/bacon macaroni, and béchamel cauliflower macaroni, persisting with each large pot until the macaroni developed a greenish tinge. Tube trips to and from Guys were crowded, but it was a bonus living close to lovely Hampstead Heath. Within that vast park stood Kenwood House, an old mansion open to the public. Along with period furniture it held one Rembrandt self-portrait which rather captivated me – I went back to gaze at it many times and would later seek out several others at Jeu-de-Paumes beside the Tuileries gardens in Paris.
Early in our stay in London, Martin and I travelled to the Isle of Jersey to buy motorcycles; there, in pre-EEC times, they could be purchased free of import duty and sales tax. So we acquired two matching new shiny blue and silver Honda CD175s for the sum of $350 each – less than the cost of an average quality helmet nowadays. They were our first bikes – I had certainly never been on a motorbike before. (Perhaps not such a brilliant idea to buy a brand new bike for one’s first, given the inevitable spills.) I can attest to having covered every kilometer of every road on Jersey (there weren’t many), with no memory of that island at all – my eyes were fixed on the road just ahead of the bike, as I held the handlebars in a vice-like grip. Then it was a cautious ride back from the south coast to London.
We both did a three-month term at Guys as ‘surgical dressers’, though in different student groups I think. A year as a dresser was the equivalent of a student year at an Australian teaching hospital – ‘clerking’ patients ie history and examination, making a diagnosis, then presenting your findings and plan of management to the group. Dr Stirzacker, the young trainee surgeon who lead our group, would berate us for our slackness. He’d just done a year at a US hospital, and said that American med students arose early each day and practiced with their stethoscopes on their dogs chests! Who knows if this was true, but he wanted us to believe it. One of the consultant surgeons on ward rounds was Mr Frank Ellis, a Harley St surgeon who was doing some of the first renal transplants in Britain. He was a pleasant man and when he heard I needed to make some money offered me a job in his rooms; so for a month after completing my term at Guys, I rocked up to his fine suite in Harley St and collated/graphed statistical data from his series of transplants, and he paid me ‘under the counter’. This was in the days before computers, and it was straightforward work for an honours student from matriculation General Maths! One bleak winter’s day Mr Ellis asked me if I’d like a fresh mango. I said something to the effect of ‘Pull the other one!’ , whereupon he unveiled a sizeable crate of perfect Indian mangoes – a gift from a grateful patient and air-freighted from the subcontinent. Many of his private patients were wealthy Indians and Arabs; groups of men in togas and dark glasses came and went. When this work dried up I was ready to leave for the continent. Martin elected to remain at Guys with a porter’s job for another few months.
By the time I left Britain I’d had a fair amount of practice riding the moto. I was still a learner, having failed my license test – according to other bikers the license testers tried to fail you the first time. My indiscretion had been not turning my head far enough when making a turn – you had to indicate then ‘get a visual’, not just use the side mirror. This presented a tedious impediment to leaving the country, but I was aware of a ‘good lurk’ for getting an international driving permit. You just fronted up at the first floor counter of the Automobile Association on Leicester Square, filled in a form and paid a fee. A bored clerk then directed me to ride around the block – “That’s your driving test” – while he filled in my permit. The rationale seemed to be “You don’t have a license for our roads, but we don’t care how much mayhem you cause overseas .” Another apocryphal bike license story had been related to me at Earl’s Court. The driving test involves following the instructions of the tester, who is your pillion passenger. At one point he hops off and says “I’ll hide behind a tree; off you go and keep turning left around the big block. When you return I’ll jump out and you have to do and emergency stop, safely. No slower than 30 mph!” So off goes our friend, and the tester hides. A few minutes later, what seems to be the same bike and candidate appears. The tester jumps out and is mown down by a different and very surprised biker. The unconscious tester is quickly pulled from the roadway and taken into a house awaiting an ambulance while our friend continues to chug around the block wondering what the tester is up to. Memory of this tale gave me some comfort, assuaging my anger towards license testers generally.
Now seems a good time to expiate some guilt associated with the bike. I’d spent all my spare money on it, and didn’t have anything left to buy English leathers, which were expensive – but the London weather could be grim. So I mailed home to mum and dad a significant ‘porky pie’. I invented a job delivering newspapers from a truck – was getting cold and wet – so could they please send to me that heavy yellow plastic mac and overpants I’d kept from the pipeline job. Said yellow plastics duly arrived speedily by airfreight about ten days later, at great expense. I was guilty but dry, and they lasted pretty much to the Covered Bazaar in Istanbul, where I bought a real leather jacket. Oh yes, I also told them that Martin and I had acquired a little old Austin to drive across Asia with. My reasoning was that Mum would have many sleepless nights if she knew about the bikes. But a lie is a lie of course, and that was a big’n.
There were some advantages to not having instant communication by email.
I’d done one big ride up to Scotland, where I managed to find (with Aunt Helen’s knowledge of the family tree) clan relations – the Muirs, who lived in Glasgow. I was expecting a castle with moat and drawbridge at least but pretty nurse Sandy Muir and her mum and dad lived in a modest council house in a working class suburb. They were fine, hospitable folk (especially so given that this biker claiming lineage had turned up without warning), and Sandy was an attractive, DISTANT relative. A few years later we were to live together for a few months while I was an RMO in Wangaratta, Vic. I rode north to the highlands around Ben Nevis, and was at one point crawling along through a thick mist when I began to hear the sound of bagpipes over the put-put of my 175cc’s (clearly my hearing was a lot better back then). Presently I came upon a lone piper standing in the fog beside the road, blowing and squeezing for all he was worth. I like the pipes – must be in the blood – and this seemed heaven-sent, so I dismounted and listened with rapt attention. Within a few minutes an enormous bus pulled up, disgorging a squad of Americans on tour, ready with their coins; it was a little tourist trap!
Other high and low-lights of my stay in the UK included the great coal-miners’ strike of the winter of ’72. They had had enough of Thatcherism, so what better time to switch off the power? The pipes froze and burst in our little Golders Green share-house, and the cold was truly grim. Showers and baths were unthinkable – rapid light sponging had to suffice, and I think I had a few warm showers with the emergency power at Guys. I can remember the four of us huddled over candles in the loungeroom, trying to keep warm. I met Martin’s dear old Aunt Gladys at Ruislip, and stayed for a few days I think. Gladys drank a glass of Guinness stout every day of her life, and had done so since her twenties after a diagnosis of iron deficiency. We calculated that she’d consumed an enormous volume, thousands of gallons, and decided to write to Guinness; thought it was worth at least a free case. A Guinness tea towel duly arrived by mail. Out the A40 past Ruislip was the wonderful All Saints Cathedral at Cambridge Uni – an exquisite piece of Gothic architecture. Out that way too lived the Jamiesons, cousins of the Allens who were family friends of my parents in the same street in Brighton. John Jamieson was head of Aspro UK, and they had a fine country property on the way to Oxford. They had three sons, two of whom were in business in Europe. I met Peter, the youngest, who was completing theology at Oxford, and about to take his vows for the Catholic priesthood – in a Capucin order. I remember partying with him at his Oxford college, and wondering how such a gregarious ‘normal’ man of my own age could want to make those vows of chastity and obedience. He explained the rationalization to me: he would be ‘married’ to his church and his flock; such commitment could not coexist with an exclusive relationship to just one person – that’s how he put it. Many years later, he later became a ‘celebrity’ when as the Abbott of an old monastery he opened it up to a kind of ‘reality’ TV series looking at the life of monks.
I also did adult ed art classes in London as part of a need to try something other that medicine; art seemed about as distant as one could get. I’d read Gombrich’s wonderful ‘History of Art’ before leaving Oz, along with Fisher’s three vol highly readable ‘History of Europe’. Music and theatre were of course ‘beyond compare’. We hung out a few times at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, a smoky basement full of ‘atmosphere’; I think we heard the legendary Thelonius Monk playing his sax, or was it Acker Bilk, or both?? The theatres of the West End were easy to access – I remember seeing the longest-ever-running play ‘Matchbox’ – as was Covent Garden and the fabulous, relatively new south bank arts complex. There we saw many wonderful performances by the great British orchestras, with Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Jaqueline du Pres, among other luminaries.
It came time to leave UK, so I said goodbye to Martin and pointed the little moto towards Dover. It was the Whitsunday holiday weekend, in pre-‘Chunnel’ days of course, and stationary lines of cars extended about twelve miles back from the channel ferries. With disdainful biker cheek I zipped past them and got onto a ferry, very pleased with myself. That pleasure soon evaporated as a storm made the crossing to Calais very rough. The hatches to the deck were closed and the isles between the seats sloshed with vomit as the boat was tossed around. Could it get any worse than this. Yes indeedy, for Calais was closed – too rough to enter the tight little harbour, and we were diverted to Boulogne. Uh oh, too rough to get in there too, so we cast anchor outside the harbor and waited for the storm to pass. Anybody who hadn’t already lost their breakfast by then certainly did soon after that. The stench was appalling; this has to be Purgatory, I thought between heaves. Death by drowning would have been just fine.
FRANCE: When we finally disembarked I was weak and vertiginous, could hardly hold the bike up, and to make matters worse the Europeans of course drive on the wrong side of the road. That’s no small matter on a moto, as you have to lean the other way into turns – takes a bit of getting used to, along with staying on the right of the road. Making for Paris rather slowly, I thought that nothing else could go wrong that day, and promptly suffered a rear wheel puncture – not something I’d had to deal with on a motorbike before. My love affair with most things French began in earnest when a gallant middle-aged Frenchman stopped and helped me to change the wheel. I think he was impressed by my efforts to communicate in French – ‘grace a Dieu’ for my school French teacher Alan Shugg, a fine teacher of several languages. There’s another ‘romantic’ digression in this I’m afraid. Before leaving Australia I’d been in a year-long relationship with Pam Thomas, the junior librarian at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It didn’t survive my departure – I don’t think she answered my few letters. Then when I returned she’d left for overseas and became a serious francophile – I looked her up a few years later and it was just too much to bear. It’s probably more correct to say that I fell in love with the cute accents of French women speaking to me in English after my French inevitably gave out. Returning to fifth year med at RMH I joined the Alliance Francaise just across Flemington Rd, hoping to get a bit closer to a ‘sympa’ French accent. It’s a small irony that there I struck up a lifelong friendship with my artist pal Marcel Sejour, who some years later came out of the closet.
Reaching Paris I found digs in the College Franco-Brittanique of the Cite Internationale de l’Universite de Paris, in the 18th arondissement on the left bank. There I shared rooms with a somewhat dour engineering student – pleasant enough, but in a different headspace I guess. Engineers often seem nerdish and other-worldly – the world of maths I guess; and when I was in the antinuclear movement of all the professions they alone gave majority support to the nuclear industry. I put that down to too narrow a focus. I struck up a friendship with Jean-Luc Bersou, a young architecture student who had diabetes. I had happy dinners with his family out in the suburbs a few times, and loved the French laissez-faire approach to table manners. Dad had attempted to drum fine English table manners into my rather unappreciative head, as a child. Jean-Luc had a tall sister with Marfanne Syndrome, a genetic deficiency that causes generally weak connective tissues. Sadly I heard that she died a few years later with simultaneous bilateral collapsed lungs. I ‘did Art’ in Paris too, and not just visits to the Louvre, Rodin’s studio, Jeu de Paumes and other landmarks. I enrolled in life drawing at the Academie des Beaux Arts, a fine old art school on the left bank amid the ateliers of the French Impressionists. I think most of the models were old drunks and retired prostitutes, but one beautiful ‘jeune femme’ with a blond gamin cut seemed to my appreciative gaze the epitome of French womanhood. Walking along Rue St Germaine one day just short of Beaux Arts I saw her, clothed, walking towards me in the street. I gathered my courage and said ‘Bonjour’ with my best accent and a devil-may-care, insouciant trace of a smile. She answered me in broad, heavily accented American English, and my lust was crushed. Perhaps it was a metaphor for my future as an artist. I also had a contact, thanks to Uncle Bill Jamieson, with a nice family – the Masselins – who lived in Brittany, so went to see them and stayed a night. One of the young sons rode pillion and directed me to Mont St Michel, a fabulous structure just off the Bretagne coast. Accessed by a one kilometre causeway, it’s an extraordinary old monastery that seems to grow out of a massive rock, it’s near perfect symmetry selling millions of postcards each year. Other rides through the provincial countryside, stopping for little meals of lovely bread, sausage and cheese and at times weak supermarket wine, were rather special too.
After two months in France, I had to hit the road if I was going to complete a quick ride around other parts of Europe before meeting up with Martin in Munich. The weekend before I was to ride to Spain, Alan Jamieson asked if I’d mind his apartment on the Ile de Paris, in the Rue des Cloitres de Notre Dame, the street of the cloisters of Notre Dame ie right next door. I happily agreed and moved out of college, but had a final meal there of mussels in a tasty tomato broth. This proved to be a mistake, or rather three mistakes – eating mussels in a university cafe, in Paris, in the summer. Waving goodbye to Alan as he headed off to the Henley-on-Thames regatta, I had my first intimation of the severe colic that was to follow. After several hours of fulminating gastroenteritis, weak and dehydrated, I staggered up the little street to Hotel Dieu (‘House of God’!!!), the ancient hospital facing Notre Dame. In the Casualty, a young resident thought my spleen was enlarged, and exclaimed ‘Aha, le typhoid!’. That meant a mandatory week in hospital, waiting for test results, even though the unpleasant symptoms had abated by next day. So I learned something of Gallic medicine in this truly mediaeval establishment – the bathrooms were disgusting, and little sparrows from Notre Dame flew through the wards crapping everywhere. There were no curtains between the beds of my public ward, so whatever was done to you was done in full view of everyone else, who showed a keen interest. Whatever shred of Anglo-Saxon prudery / dignity remained to me soon evaporated. My nearest neighbour was an old man who farted often and loudly. I thought things were looking up when I scored a pretty female resident with, you remember, that gloriously accented Franglish; but I hadn’t reckoned on French medicine’s rectal fixation. After a few days of twice-a -day public rectal thermometers and a daily digital examination (for teaching purposes I suspect), my ardour had cooled somewhat. After a week I was told ‘Ca ce nest pas le typhoid. On peut partir’ (It’s not typhoid. Piss off.) I left in haste, making for Spain ‘a tout vitesse’. Standing in a slow bank queue to get some foreign exchange, I chatted with Sirpa Wilkmann, a nice Fin who lived mostly in Stockholm. She said to call in if I was passing, so Stockholm was added to the itinerary. There was another strong reason for doing this, a reason Martin and I shared – more to come.
ITALY, SPAIN & GERMANY: The memory of much of the rest of Europe is blurred now, seen as it was from a speeding moto. I had a quick ride through Switzerland down to Rome, and really enjoyed that city, also beautiful Florence and the lovely walled mountain towns of Tuscany. The mighty ‘autostrada’ were really incredible on a motorbike. Some of the tunnels cut through the mountains were 20km long, and I remember one where the tunnel lights failed about half way in. With only the small beam from the moto, batting along in pitch darkness was surreal, and frighteningly disorienting when caught in the headlights of a massive oncoming truck; the tunnels were two-way, without barriers.
I vaguely remember some flamenco and the great fortress of the Alhambra ? in southern Spain. The central plateau of Spain was infernally hot, like riding through a furnace. With unbelievable stupidity I rode topless for most of it; God knows I’d have been skinned if I’d taken a tumble. By the time that happened I had my jacket on again, approaching Barcelona. With my youthful biker confidence and ten minutes experience, I passed a tiny Citroen Deux-Cheveux on a curve, just as an oncoming lorry came into view. I was committed, couldn’t pull back, so aimed for the gap between the two vehicles; thought I was through, but clipped the back of the truck and found myself sliding up the bitumen on hands and knees, watching the bike rolling over and over ahead of me, striking sparks from the road metal. It seemed to be in slow motion, and I was at first oblivious to the pain of lacerated hands and knees; gloves and trousers shredded. When I came to a stop I could see that my panniers had burst open – all my documents and clothing were scattered across the road, so I leapt up and started gathering them. The truck driver just kept going, but the Spaniard driving the Deux-Cheveux had had a box seat view of the action, braking to avoid going over me. He was more shocked and upset than me, and tried to make me sit down. I spent half a day getting patched up at the main hospital, and the bike was OK, if no longer quite so new looking. Live and learn, fortunately.
The Germans seemed a lot less friendly than the French, but that may well be because I could speak no German to impress them. I distinctly remember a checkout woman muttering ” **** Englandter” as I fumbled with the unfamiliar currency ; there didn’t seem much point in protesting that I was an Australian. Martin and I met up again at last in the main youth hostel in Munich, at the time of the ill-fated Olympics; it was very good to see him again – I think he had been to the Netherlands. We had thoughts of getting tickets to a few events, but that proved to be a pipe dream, so we didn’t stay long – probably no bad thing, with the ensuing massacre. And the big hostel was being run like a concentration camp; you were checked in and out through heavy, iron-barred gates. There was a perpetually crowded lawn out front, where I remember a really vicious brawl between groups of blonde and dark youths; it didn’t seem a good place to hang out. We rode up through Denmark to its northern tip (?Kristiansund) and caught a ferry to Norway, where my best contact of the year awaited. I do remember tasting my first haggis in a Danish youth hostel; it was canned, and it wasn’t great. Inexplicably, I hadn’t been able to find one in Scotland, though my search was brief.
NORWAY & SWEDEN: Arriving in southern Norway we made for Stavanger on the coast not
far away. In 1972, before it became the centre for North Sea oil, one of the big employers was Bjelland’s cannery, for which Dad was the Australian agent. King Oscar sardines was one of the best lines in his importing business, and he’d travelled to Norway several times. He enjoyed a close business relationship with the Bjelland family, and a good friendship with Kjell Overland, their exports manager. So we were put up very generously in a good motel – the best accommodation of our year away. We met Kjell and his lovely wife Sigrun, and their three young sons; I remember putting the youngest, little blond Dag (pronounced Darg) on the pillion and taking him for a very brief slow ride. Years later Dag and his young family would come and stay with me in Melbourne. Near Stavanger was a wonderful natural feature, Prekestolen (the Pulpit Rock), which Martin and I hiked to – it was a great, sharply cut square ledge, maybe fifty metres each side, hanging over a beautiful fjord. There was a sheer drop of two thousand feet to the water, so crawling to the edge (unfenced) and peeping over was a bit of a blast. Our meals were paid for at the motel, and we ate very well – especially at those wonderful smorgasbord breakfasts with fish, breads and volkmilk, buttermilk I think, like thin yoghurt. We ate too well, in fact, and were probably running up a big bill, so after a week Bjellands dropped a broad hint that it was time for us to move on. From Stavanger we did some exciting riding north around the southern fjords then up onto the central plateau and south again to Oslo, famous in my memory for the extraordinary Gustav Vigeland Sculpture Park. Here was the life work of one prodigious sculptor, hundreds of life-size bronze figures portraying humans from gestation to death and set out amid lovely lakes and gardens. From there we made for Stockholm, with some anticipation. The year before, at Trinity College in Melbourne, Martin and I had met two rather beautiful Swedish sisters on a visit to ‘the Coll’, one blonde and one brunette. It was at a ‘dorm party’; we enjoyed their company, and felt chuffed when they gave us their Stockholm address, should we be visiting. We were enthusiastic visitors but rocking up to the cherished suburban address were aghast to find a vacant block. Damn! I looked up Sirpa Wilkmann and went out once; she was friendly but not inclined to be any more than friendly. I reflected (or perhaps rationalized) that being so obviously ‘on the road’ didn’t make us more attractive – less, if anything, to any ‘nice’ girls. We were young ‘travel bums’, not great prospects really. (So where were the not nice ones?) Stockholm was an expensive place to stay, so we headed south through Eastern Europe towards Greece.
EASTERN EUROPE & GREECE: The ferry from Sweden to north-western Poland brought us to a quite different world. The western corridor of the country seemed very poor, and the cities we passed through heading south – Szczecin, Wielko Polska, Jelena Gora – still had many unrepaired buildings damaged by the Allied bombing in World War 2 ! The only light meal on offer at roadside cafes was tripe soup; it looked unappetizing – pieces of grey sheep intestine floating in hot water, so we were hungry for much of our ride through eastern Poland. Border crossings were uncertain – you were expected to offer a bribe, or wait a very long time for your papers to be stamped. Young Polish women in those parts seemed tall, blond and good-looking; compensatory eye candy. Crossing into Czechoslovakia we reached Prague and rode straight up onto the battlements of Hradny Castle for a view of the lovely old city. The main cathedral stands within the castle walls, and as we took off our helmets were surrounded by the strains of Purcell’s ‘Trumpets Voluntary’ resounding across the battlements from a concert inside. What a welcome! It was just after the ’72 Russian invasion – red flags hung from all the houses, Russian soldiers and tanks were thick on the ground. Somehow we hooked up with a young man named Zhdiswaf Tchevsky – that’s phonetic – can’t remember how it was spelled, but not at all like that. He had a very fine apartment, and we later surmised that he was probably a communist party official. One night he took us partying to a beer cellar full of young Czechs. I may have had one too many and was flirting with a pretty waitress – a lot of these young people understood English. I said rather too loudly “Come to Australia with me on my moto and say bye-bye to the Ruskis! “, making a thumb to nose gesture. She looked mortified, the whole noisy place went quiet, and we were quickly ushered out. Sensitive times, and /or insensitive yobbo!
We rode south into Yugoslavia (Russians not in pursuit), and winter had arrived – snow and ice made the roads slippery, so we didn’t hang about, heading further south for the warmer climes of Greece. I remember a wonderful gallery in Belgrade at the junction of its two great rivers, the Danube and the Sava. It contained some original Klimt’s including The Kiss, a large and breathtakingly beautiful work, shining with gold leaf. Crossing into Greece we stopped briefly in Salonika, then made for a little village on the northeast coast called ?Asprovalta (white cliffs) where we camped on the beach. Sadly we were starting to feel pressed for time, contemplating the big ride home across Asia, so were unable to make the trip south to Athens. We shared a small tent and serviced our bikes in preparation for the long haul. I felt close to Martin; we were good mates, and sharing ‘la grande aventure’ seemed to cement the friendship . That friendship has continued, but when we got back to Oz the years ahead would be busy – finishing our degrees, starting careers, marriage, family. We largely went our separate ways, as you do, individuals running each his own race. Looking back I think I could have put more effort into our friendship, perhaps took it for granted; all relationships need care and attention. On the other hand, having shared much in 1972, and in our student years, our friendship has always been there, able to be resurrected without too much difficulty.
ASIA MINOR: As we headed into Turkey and beyond, the ‘hippy trail’ became a much rougher road – no longer a highway, at times a gravel goat-track, with big potholes ready to swallow a small motorbike. Crossing the mighty Bosporus with our bikes on the ferry, leaving Europe in the wake, was to enter a truly different world. Istanbul’s wonderful bazaars, the great mosques and the muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer, the sounds and the smells – all were new to us. What I most remember now is the size and splendour of the great Blue Mosque, the bazaar porters with spines permanently curved or collapsed from carrying huge crates on their backs like human pack animals, and the wonderful old covered bazaar where I haggled inexpertly for my first leather jacket. The leather was too soft and I think it tore the next time I came off the bike. We tried out an ancient Turkish bath where a large man with the obligatory large moustache, walked on my back as I lay on a warm marble slab. At some point we tasted halva for the first time, in my case starting a lifelong love affair with that sweet concoction. Riding up to the Black Sea coast, we stopped in a town and were immediately surrounded by hundreds of people admiring our shiny Jap motos ( had probably only seen dull old Jawa’s, BSA’s and Indians before). Some tried to get our addresses, and one young man began a correspondence, seeking sponsorship for migration. Heading into the mountains of Eastern Turkey, the unsealed road was very rough; coming into a village, we noticed a crowd of children leaving their school, all dressed in traditional black smocks with white collars, looking very cute. We slowed and waved to them, only to have to accelerate sharply, for they picked up stones and threw them at us. We didn’t hang about to find out why.
The road was bumpy but fortunately petrol was cheap, though often dodgy – sometimes the bikes farted a lot. This was in the time before the arab oil embargo hiked up the price of fuel, so one of our big costs was much less than it could have been. There were other bikers on the trail and we camped and chatted with them at times; we learned there were advantages to having quite small bikes. The bigger ones couldn’t go much faster, as the road surface was often poor; and if you dropped your fully loaded bike, you could with some straining pick it up again. A big heavy bike would have to be unpacked. I remember pulling up at some lights next to a police motorcyclist, losing my balance and falling against him, whereupon we both went down. I helped him up very quickly and apologized profusely – he took it quite well. We became aware of real travel bums, mostly young people who seemed to be permanently on the move, ever seeking new experiences. It made me reflect on the value of having a base, a home, a place where you might create something – not easily achieved while rootless and wandering, unless of course you were a writer. These thoughts added to a growing feeling that I most definitely had to return home and complete the training I’d started. At times we slept in cheap bazaar hotels, pulling our light bikes indoors at night and putting them under the stairs so that they wouldn’t be swiped or have shiny bits pulled off. Next came Iran, in the days of the Shah, long before the Islamic Revolution toppled him and installed the ayatollahs. Approaching the border we came upon a line of empty cars stretching back some distance from the checkpoint. Someone told us that these were the cars of people caught with drugs; they had been taken off and summarily executed, it was claimed. The traffic in Tehran was the worst of anywhere we’d been. It was dangerous for bikers as there seemed to be no rules; cars would speed unpredictably in any direction. This was primarily a road trip with a goal and a time limit, and sadly I don’t remember much more about Iran.
AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN: In these years before the failed Russian invasion, Afghanistan was thought to be wild and bandit-ridden, but relatively safe if you kept to the main roads and didn’t head off into the hills, especially at night. It was certainly poor, and smoking hashish seemed to be the national pastime. Even the police seemed very relaxed, with tatty, dusty uniforms. The trail went from Herat in the west, south to Kandehar and then northeast to the capital Kabul. It was all desert scenery interrupted by jagged mountains rising straight out of the flatness, with camel teams offering some relief from the monotonous vistas. We were staying in a seedy hotel in Kandehar where Martin, fledgling entrepreneur, was trying to negotiate a deal to import Afghani “hippy” shirts to Australia. We were sitting on beds in a back room with the manager, and hash cigarettes were being passed around. There was a young Chinese man dozing on another bed; he seemed to be right out of it. I thought ‘Why not?’ – it seemed as safe a place as any to sample pot for the first time. However I’d never been a smoker, so smoking anything wasn’t going to be easy. The inhalation seemed to excoriate the back of my throat, so a few puffs was quite enough for me; the only significant effect it had on me was quite a sore throat for a few days.
Riding up onto the high, cold desert plateau for the long ride to Kabul next day, it became obvious that we were both feverish. The air was cold but not that cold; soon we were really shaking and had to stop every fifty kilometres, jump up and down and hug each other to get warm. I felt certain that this was divine retribution for sampling pot, but we later reasoned that the inscrutable young Chinese man in our small room was probably sick with the self-same virus. By the time we reached Kabul we were quite ill, and the bug had declared itself as a severe gastro. We checked into another dive, which seemed to be full of hippies with the same sickness. The toilets were an abomination. Getting weaker we dragged ourselves off to the main hospital. Now the Kabul General Hospital looked impressive enough on the outside, but inside it was a nightmare. Everyone was loudly hawking and spitting; the foyer was almost running with saliva. We later learned that it was Ramadan – the month of holy fasting, and devout Muslims must not even swallow their saliva; it was important that others knew you were devout. To make matters worse a male orderly was making eyes at Martin, and more or less chasing him around the foyer. Young Afghani women were off-limits before marriage, so the young men were supercharged with unrequited male hormones, and Martin was quite cute in those days! We quickly decided it would be better to go back and die at the hotel, but on the way back decided to check in to a good, clean hotel, and die in dignity. As if by magic once there installed we began to improve, and within a few days were on the road again, still fairly weak, heading for Pakistan via the Khyber Pass.
Before reaching this famous mountain pass, you have to negotiate the Kabul Gorge. The narrow but sealed road climbed steadily through steep stone crags and little vegetation, often with a rock wall on one side and a steep drop on the other. There were low concrete dividers in the middle of the road at irregular intervals, exactly the same colour as the road surface, and not always easy to see. I hit one of them and was too weak to hold the bike up, came off and hit the bitumen with a crunch, flat on my chest – not broken ribs but crushed camera, which had been strung around my neck. It was quite a good Petri, ruined, the lens pushed back into the film case, leaving a square bruise on by chest and losing a roll of film of much of Afghanistan. The Honda suffered a buckled front mudguard and a scratched and dented petrol tank; other than that we were still serviceable, and the damage to the bike would soon work to my advantage. The Khyber Pass was reputedly a lawless area and it looked so, with tribesmen carrying Kalashnikovs, and stalls of arms dealers lining the road. So we kept up a steady pace and descended into Pakistan.
The trail crossed Pakistan quite quickly and directly, and soon we were approaching Lahore, just before the border with India. At one point I was in the lead, chugging along at about 70-80 kph on a straight section of road after a village, with thickets on either side. Without warning a goat-herd and his large flock came out of the trees onto the road, and I was suddenly dodging goats. I hit one but stayed upright and kept going, as did Martin; we’d been warned not to stop if we hit anything – animal or human – because of the risk of being murdered. About 20 km further along, a young policeman flagged us down; apparently the villagers had phoned ahead. He spoke English , and said we had to return to ‘the scene of the crime’, so he hopped on and rode pillion with me. When we reached the spot, a grim-looking crowd of villagers had gathered. There was a puddle of blood on the roadway, but no goat – clearly it had been butchered already. I think both Martin and I were feeling quite anxious as the lone policeman asserted his authority and conducted a hearing by the roadway. The villagers were asking for a large number of rupees to compensate their loss, but I was able to point to my damaged front mudguard, asserting that the cost of repairs would be more than the goat was worth. The policeman translated while angry mutterings arose from the crowd; eventually he ruled that I had nothing to pay. Justice was done, he climbed back onto the pillion and we left without delay.
At Lahore we had a contact, which turned out to be fortunate. While camping at Asprovalta, we’d met a sixtyish Catholic priest who ran a seminary in Lahore – in the old bishop’s palace in fact, and he had kindly offered to put us up on the way through. Christians were a small, abused minority in that country, but they were hanging in there; we called in and were given beds for the night. Said night turned into a week; it was just after the 1972 India/Pakistan
war, and the border had just re-opened, but only for one day each week, and we’d arrived the day after! The palace was a gracious old building, and we asked some of the young seminarians about life in Lahore. They said it was uncomfortable – each day when the muezzin sounded from the mosque closeby, a stream of threats and invective towards Christians would blare out from loudspeakers, but so far there’d been no overt violence. When border-crossing day arrived, we rocked up to the checkpoint early, and found that the queues were already lengthy. We were patiently waiting in line to get our passports checked, when a tall, bearded, sunglassed hippy tapped me on the shoulder. Well, I guess I was relatively thin with a full beard too. “Rod Anderson?” he asked. I was gobsmacked – it was Marvin Sievers, a boy from my class in secondary school. I hadn’t known him well, but we greeted each other like old friends. What were the odds against such a coincidence?
INDIA: We eventually got past the border and entered India, riding first across the Punjab, home state of the Sikhs. We saw the capital Chandigarrh, a modern city completely constructed with concrete and designed by Le Corbusier, the French architectural apostle of concrete construction. Not very old, it was beginning to look forlorn, with grass and weeds sprouting through big cracks in the concrete paving, and cows quietly feeding. This image would come to me a few years later in the antinuclear movement when I pondered India’s ability to safely maintain nuclear reactors. At some point we’d stopped in a town and were standing by our bikes when two young turbanned men approached us, smiling broadly. I think we’d just been looking at a snake charmer, playing to his cobra. In good English, they invited us to attend their sister’s wedding. We thought ‘Why not?’ and followed their car to a field with marquees and a milling crowd. Apparently having foreigners attend added prestige; any foreigners would do, it seems, as we must have looked rather travel-worn. The bride’s family were wealthy wine merchants, so this was quite an affair. There was an impressive gold dowry – a marquee floor covered with gold objects, and a brass band dressed in worn, old red British army uniforms. It was a noisy, joyful gathering. Our game plan had been to travel fairly quickly across Asia, and then spend some time in India, but this was not to be. At ‘poste restante’ in the main Delhi post office there was a cable waiting for us with the unwelcome news that we were in the early intake of medical students entering fifth year. Bugger! That meant a direct ride south to Madras (now Chenni), where we imagined we’d catch a ship to Australia, bringing our motos. Burma was closed in 1972, so the only ways home from India were by sea or air.
On reaching the northern border of the big central state of Madya Pradesh, we learned that it was in the throes of secessionist rioting – many of its people wanted to secede from the Indian federation. There’d been significant violence; stationmasters locked in their stations and burned alive (the railways were of course a national institution) – but we didn’t hear about this until we read an English language newspaper in Madras. So we blithely elected to proceed, and at some distance beyond the border found a rebel roadblock across our path. Big rocks had been carted onto the road, and behind them a few ranks of men standing with linked arms. It was clear that they were levying a toll – quite a lot of rupees – to finance their secessionist efforts. As we were running out of money at this end of our year away, we had started trying to negotiate a smaller fee but they were intransigent and looking threatening. We were saved by the timely arrival of a large tourist bus. The rebels at once left us alone and approached the bus; obviously better pickings to be had there, than from two dusty bikers. We looked at each other and took off in haste, stopping a few km later to plan a strategy. We decided not to stop if we met another roadblock, but would slow down as if in compliance but then pick a gap and accelerate through, or around. We did this successfully on at least two occasions; the illegal toll-men would try to grab us but couldn’t – I think I lost an umbrella that was pulled from the back of my bike.
After that it was an uneventful ride to Madras, where we learned to our dismay that a long-running strike had shut down the docks; no ships could get in or out. We spent several days in that city working out what to do, and had to deal with a bureaucracy that expected ex gratia payments, but cash we were very short of. It’s said that the curry gets hotter in India as you travel south, with Madras curries among the spiciest, and we definitely, and of necessity, learned to eat a hot biriani, though it was a modest amount of curried meat and vege under a small mountain of rice. We managed to get air tickets to Singapore and mournfully abandoned our trusty bikes to a shipping agent, fully expecting never to see them again. Proceeding through Customs at Madras airport, we suffered an eleventh hour crisis. My reserves of money were much reduced; Martin had none at all. We were informed that you could not enter Singapore without a certain minimum per person in cash or traveller’s cheques, and what I had wasn’t enough to cover us both, so ‘no can go’. This very Singaporean regulation was clearly aimed at keeping penniless travel bums out of their nice little country – undesirables who might have to be repatriated at government expense. At this rather precarious juncture, I remembered a document that Dad had given me a year before, sitting unused in the bottom of my pack. It was an official ‘State Accreditation’, signed by Sir Henry Bolte, Premier of Victoria, with a colourful coat of arms; it said that I was a representative of that state, and should be offered every courtesy and consideration. I doubt if the airport officials knew what to make of it, but it got us onto the flight and to Singapore without further incident – thanks Dad.
SINGAPORE & HOME: In Lee Kuan Yew’s city state I stayed a few days in the fine old bungalow of my nice, well-to-do British relations John and Ann Evans. John ran a shipping company and was well connected in the Chinese business community. He took me to a sumptuous businessmens’ lunch of many small courses – a yum cha I guess, at a great round table in the Singapore Mandarin – then a wondrous tall new building with a rotating restaurant on top. It’s still there forty years on but looks a bit dowdy these days. Martin stayed with the parents of his (prior to the trip) girlfriend Bev, but she was away. He decided to hang about for a while until she returned. I was keen to get home, so after spending much of this extraordinary (in the true sense) year together, we parted company, and I got onto an old Greek liner, the Patris, sailing for Perth and Melbourne. It was to blow up and burn somewhere in the Pacific a few years later. On that voyage I met John and Katy Woodroffe, and heard their amazing story. They are a Tasmanian couple, both teachers, though Katy was to become a successful artist; their passion was visiting London, which they did quite often. One lunchtime they were strolling along crowded Oxford St, when a suicidal woman leapt from a fourth floor window and landed on them. Apparently from that height a human body has reached its maximum speed, and John took most of the impact; Katy was knocked out and recovered quickly without serious injury. The depressed woman had her fall cushioned by John and merely sprained an ankle. She must have seen this as divine intervention and decided to live; didn’t visit John in hospital but sent a letter saying ‘please don’t sue me’. John’s injuries were horrific – he sort of telescoped, his stomach pushed up into his chest. He survived after months of intensive care and surgery, and when I met them on the Patris he was walking with two sticks. They were good company on the voyage, and were greeted as celebrities when they reached Tasmania. John is a fairly serious man of dry wit, Katy vivacious and hyperactive with piles of red hair.
The Patris docked in Melbourne at about 4am as I slept in a tiny single cabin somewhere down near the bilge. At about 5am the lights suddenly came on and there to my genuine surprise were Dad and Mum. He had made use of his position as a Commissioner of the Harbour Trust to get on board not long after the ship arrived in port. Several hugs and kisses later, I thought this might be a good time to come clean, to confess that Martin and I hadn’t actually crossed Asia in a little old Austin. There was a brief shocked silence, but my transgression wasn’t referred to again – it seemed to get lost in the happiness of the prodigal son’s return. I think they’d forgotten about the yellow mackintosh. Our motorbikes made it safely back to Melbourne a few months later. Martin and I went down to the docks one day, collected them after the mandatory spraying for bugs and beasties, and rode them away; and that was the coda for the ‘grande aventure’ of 1972.