I MADE it to Cairns. It’s a long way to hitch hike. For six weeks, in every lift or chance encounter, I had this exchange:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m heading to Cairns for a friend’s wedding.”
It became a kind of pilgrimage, and Cairns – in my imagination – a lush, secret village in the clouds. I’d never been further north than Fraser Island. What would life hold after Cairns?
With just over a week to go, I was loafing on the Sunshine Coast. I had a closer look at the map of Queensland, and observed that I still had 1700 kilometres to travel. The next day I put out my shingle again. My first lift was from Australia Zoo’s wildlife rescue team. I shared the backseat with kookaburra with a broken wing, sheltering in a cardboard box. The rescuers were on their way to pick up a python from a construction site.
As I got further north, people spoke more and more about the weather. “It’s some strange kind of year, this year,” they’d say. “An early wet – we never even had the dry. The weather’s all mixed up nowadays.” The radio reported predictions of a ferocious storm season coming. Climate change is bringing more intense, variable weather.
One sunny afternoon I waited for hours on the highway at the Bundaberg turn off, just north of Childers. Eventually, I gave up, crossed the road and hitched back into town. The next morning I got an early lift, but my heart sank when I was dropped at the same turnoff.
Hitch hiking is a slow way to travel, but you can’t beat it for the people you meet: beautiful, heavily pregnant Spanish women, South American spiritual drug-takers, travelling salesmen, miners, police. Most of my lifts have been from people who hitched when they were younger, or from lonely middle-aged men.
I waited another hour at the turnoff. Finally, an aging sports car pulled up. It looked like the car from Back to the Future. When I got in, Rodney, the driver, told me at length about the engine, and I tried to rev my approval at all the right moments. He had a chubby face and a curly mullet hairdo, and his eyes had long since parted ways. When I asked where he’d come from, he told me he’d been on suicide watch overnight at the Hervey Bay hospital. “They’re probably still looking for me,” he said. “I’m in a bad way these days.”
Rodney said he didn’t have anyone to talk to about his troubles. We spoke about cars and motorbikes and road maintenance, well past my capacity. He drove to Gin Gin, toured me through the town to the free camping area and returned me to the centre. He showed me great care.
Further north, as I passed through Proserpine – in a little red Mitsubishi driven by a man named Matt – no smoke billowed from the sugar mill. Matt was a plumber-turned-mineworker who grew up in Mount Waverley, the same suburb as I did. He split for the north a decade ago and now lives at Midge Point, near the Laguna Quays resort. “I’d come up here in my twenties, working,” he said. “Everything was a grind in the city, my marriage ended, so I came back – I wanted to find that feeling I had when I was younger, that sweet way of life.”
He told me that so much rain was a curse for the cane farmers. Right now, the earth was too soft and the big harvesters would bog. If the rain keeps up until the wet season proper, the farmers will lose their crop. The mills close in December.
For my friends’ wedding on the beach, at least, the weather held out. And it was, as forecast, a damn good knees-up of a wedding.
The Sunshine Coast Highway near Brisbane. A long way to go.