Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Brisbane to Cairns - 6 June 2021

When I first went to Australia as a teenager I hitchhiked from Melbourne to Cairns, about 3000kms (roughly 1800 miles) by road. You get a sense of the size of Australia when you realise that as far as north as Cairns (pronounced by the locals as “Cans”) is from Melbourne, there is still another 1100kms before you reach Cape York at the Torres Strait across from which is Papua New Guinea. I went for the journey, for what I would see along the way and who I would meet. Eventually I planned on finding some work but did not know where. In the end I wound up back in Melbourne where I got work but before then, I did the trip all the way up and back down again.


As a young bloke just out of school there was something very appealing about all those white lines flicking past the window, the sun over the endless horizon on what is the flattest continent on Earth. There were few hills, nothing like what I would call mountains, and the roads were often straight for miles at a time. I did most of that trip in stages with stops in between including a weekend in Eden at Lakes Entrance, and a few days in Sydney. I also stayed albeit briefly in Canberra and in Brisbane but didn’t find much to recommend either. Later, in that same trip, I went from Brisbane to Cairns about 1678kms along the Bruce Highway which runs between the two. You aren’t supposed to do that in one go without stopping but I did just that, by accident.


I left Brisbane in the morning walking from the northern most suburban train station along the main road. This wasn’t a motorway but a busy stretch of road lined with houses that was the start of the Bruce Highway. The highway is part of Highway 1, the coastal network of highways around mainland Australia 14,500kms or 9,500 miles long and the longest national highway in the world (by comparison the Trans-Siberian Highway is a mere 11,000kms). It was named for a popular politician and former bush worker, Harry Bruce, first of Queensland where he was, aptly enough, Secretary of Public Works. These days the road is a dual carriageway as far as Kybong 152kms away, and around parts of Gympie, but back then was much more rudimentary.


One of the risks in Queensland back then was the local police force who had a reputation for being much like Mississippi sheriffs from the 1960s. Queensland was then virtually a byword for backwardness and thought of as a police state, given that Special Branch (once the Bureau) detectives in particular, were widely used for political purposes. The state was run by a peanut farmer with his coterie of male, pale and stale cronies. Corruption, the abuse of power, and racism were endemic, and some might say they still are. Later, an official inquiry into illegal activities resulted in three former government ministers and the police commissioner being jailed (he served 10-and-a-half-years), and other senior officials being forced to resign. The commissioner had earlier been the bagman for another corrupt police commissioner, qualities that saw him handpicked by the premier from more than 120 equal or more senior officers for the role, largely to do the premier’s bidding, for all kinds of things. The only reason that the premier wasn’t tried and jailed along with the rest was, being in his eighties, he was thought too old. The whistle-blower who sparked the inquiry died in mysterious circumstances, a death the Queensland police never properly investigated, leading to accusations they had been murdered.


I had been forewarned hitchhiking was illegal in the self-styled Sunshine State. This is technically true if you walked on the bitumen but was supposedly permissible from the grass verge. I set out remembering a recent story of a bloke, presentable and well-spoken, a friend of a friend, having been strip-searched on the roadside by the same police twice in the same morning, just for fun. So, when a police car passed slowly by with a cursory look over their shoulder, I was somewhat wary of what would happen next, but luckily nothing did.


North of the tourist town and surfer hangout of Noosa Heads is the town of Gympie, once called Nashville after James Nash, a gold prospector whose discovery of alluvial gold in the 1860s was credited with saving Queensland from bankruptcy. Two guys in a utility vehicle (or “ute” in local parlance) and their dog, picked me up. I jumped on the back with the dog. After a few minutes, the passenger knocked on the back window and offered me a banana followed by a whole range of tropical fruit. It was breakfast and lunch rolled into one. They dropped me off somewhere near Bundaberg, a town built on logging, cattle, sugar, and famous for the eponymous rum, a by-product of the sugar. In the whole exchange I cannot recall a single word being spoken, and none were needed.


Queenslanders are known affectionately, depending on where you’re from, as “Banana-benders” and much of the 675,000 tonnes of fruit exported annually from Australia is grown there. To mark the state as a horticultural producer, various giant fibreglass replicas of fruit and other things have been erected at towns along the highway. There is an apple, pineapple, watermelon, mango, orange, seafood such as shrimp, birdlife, marsupials, and a gumboot. There is so much fruit they even have their own pests, namely the native Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryoni) which they also export, though no one wants it. The fly costs growers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in damage and pest control and has spread around neighbouring Pacific countries where the eggs it lays produce maggots that eat and will rot 200 different types of fruit and vegetables, ruining livelihoods and destroying economies.


On one side or other of that ride, I recall standing on a straight stretch of road watching and listening for approaching vehicles, as you do when hitchhiking, my ear tuned to detect any engine faintly off in the distance. On Queensland roads these can be few and far between at times, but eventually they do come along as hitchhiking is good at teaching patience and perseverance. As it approached, I realised it was large motorbike ridden at speed. The rider was shirtless, flat on the tank in the high-speed tuck position. As he drew almost level he was momentarily in full view and raised the fingers of his left hand in acknowledgement. Motorcyclists often do that, or did, with hitchhikers, the kindred spirit of solitary travellers. And then in a roar and a flash, he was gone, off into the distance as fast as he had come.


By late afternoon I had reached Rockhampton, about 614kms from Brisbane, and just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Outside Rockhampton (“Rockie” - Australians try and abbreviate everything) is a marker, known as The Spire, on the line of latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn itself, which these days has its own visitor centre. The European settlement of Queensland is one marked by brutality and murder, which could stand for much of Australia. The first Europeans in the state were convicts housed at Moreton Bay; a penal facility run by a sadist up the Brisbane River. A vivid description of the early years of British colonisation of Australia can be had in Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. Early settlers and the colonial authorities, usually in the guise of the native police, perpetrated massacres of the indigenous population, who these days exist in the margins of society sometimes findings themselves in the professions of the marginalised, sport and entertainment. Australia now deports residents who are deemed to be of poor character and dubbed “501s” after the relevant section in the country’s immigration legislation. The irony of a country founded on exported convicts to penal colonies, the precursor of the Gulag, now exporting convicts is not lost on anyone.


Rockhampton is a big town but barely a city and sits on the Fitzroy River near the coast of the Coral Sea. It has been nicknamed the “City of the Three S’s”, namely “Sin, Sweat, and Sorrow” on account of the boom-bust industries the town has experienced. I had a meal at a services. Nearby a family entered and sat down. The father asked where I’d come from that day. I told him Brisbane and he said so had they. Hitchhiking, I had got there before them. He seemed rather surprised but then almost envious. He asked if I was going any further and I said no, thinking that was it for the day, but later at nightfall, just as I was pitching my tent, a “semi” rolled up nearby. A semi is what Aussies call an articulated truck with a cab and trailer.


Trucks in Australia are mainly US makes and this was a Mack, with the engine out the front and the ubiquitous “bull bars”—heavy metal alloy bars welded to the chassis to protect the radiator and engine from wandering stock. The bars can survive impact with kangaroos but not with cows or camels, these being large enough to disable vehicles travelling at speed, even ones as big as a Mack truck. The driver told me he was going to Townsville which incorrectly, I thought was before Mackay, when in fact it is 386kms further on. He agreed to take me, so I quickly packed up and climbed in.


The cab was small and rather cramped. The seats were not that comfortable. It was hot, mainly from the engine. Without air-conditioning or at least any that functioned, the windows were fully down. Later in the early hours it started to get cold. It was also very noisy. We had to raise our voices just to hear what the other was saying. There was a bunk in the back. We set off along the main road north. The main highway is only one lane in each direction and still is today for much of the way. There is no hard shoulder. Sugar cane, the main crop for miles, is planted right to the road’s edge. When the sugar cane reaches a certain height, the plant cannot support its own weight and starts bending towards the ground and out over the road, making the highway seem even narrower.


Perhaps for that reason the driver drove the truck with his foot flat to the floor and right down the middle of the road the wheels astride the centreline. Or perhaps it was because there were hardly any other vehicles. The few other vehicles could be usually seen for miles by their headlights, which prompted the driver to dip the truck’s lights, which was lit up like spaceship attracting a deluge of animal nightlife; moths, insects, and the ground-based animals, caught in the proverbial. At one point we pulled up behind a Holden Statesman (Holden was an Australian brand, an icon, founded in 1856 but bought out by General Motors in 1931 and folded in 2020), dawdling along which raised the truckie’s ire. That was until the Mack appeared in the rear-view mirror which caused the startled Holden driver to speed off accompanied by a few choice words from the truckie.


The driver, I can’t remember his name, didn’t even stop to urinate. He simply put the truck in a low gear and stood out on the running board while the truck idled along down the highway all the while he carried on talking to me over his shoulder and when finished, got back inside. He swore all the time. Every second word he said seemed to be “fuck”. After a couple of hours, he stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere. He wanted me to buy a large bottle of Coke while he waited behind the wheel. Without thinking I got out of the cab and walked across the forecourt. It was only when I got in the shop, I realised there wasn’t much I could do if he drove off. The idling of the engine was reassuring as I turned around and walked back, drink bottle in hand.


Back in the cab he asked me to pass him a small bag from on top of the bunk where kept his pills. He then took two “uppers” and without a word we headed off into the night while the pharmaceuticals took effect. There being few towns and little other traffic the countryside was pitch black. Occasionally, there was a light from what I assumed to be a farmhouse. The driver said the Mack was a bit of a “heap” as he barely squeezed 60mph out of it. In the Outback he said he drove road trains (trucks with up to three trailers) that could easily handle going 80mph and on roads so flat and so straight, drivers have been known to read a book. He drove for hours without stopping. I got hungry, I got tired and I got cold.

Tropic of Capricorn


You come to understand why Queensland roads become unpassable in the wet season as all the bridges are low-level crossings. That’s bad planning you’d have to say but from an infrastructural perspective, much cheaper. Approaching from a speeding truck the road seemed to disappear completely as the bridges weren’t visible until you were right on top of them, and at night not visible at all. The road descends straight down one riverbank and back up the other – the truck never slowed at all – giving the unsuspecting passenger, me, a white-knuckle ride.


We drove through Mackay, 970kms north of Brisbane, and today a town of 80,000. Originally, they wanted to call it Alexandra after the princess of Denmark but settled on Mackay after John. Mackay was a Scot, who dabbled in gold prospecting before leading an expedition up through Queensland to mark out farmland, mainly for himself before later becoming a mariner where he was involved in Blackbirding, sometimes called kidnapping. Mackay is on the coast, most places in Australia are. When you’ve seen inland Australia, you will know why most of the country’s population lives within 15kms of the sea. Mackay is neither central Queensland (Rockhampton) or north Queensland, which is Townsville, but squeezed in between. The economy is based on mining and is known as the sugar cane capital of Australia.


Sugar cane arrived in Australia with the convicts. The first plantation was established near Brisbane is 1862. The Queensland Government, desperate for income, set the whole state up as one giant plantation often using white squatters. The industry was built on the backs of indentured labour mainly from the Pacific islands, especially after convict labour dried up, as it was thought Europeans didn’t have the stamina for back-breaking work in tropical heat. After all, European settlers knew how profitable it was to use black labour in other parts of the world, so why not in Queensland.  It was strongly believed that, just like those countries of the New World, Queensland could not possibly be developed to its true potential without the benefit of cheap, hopefully even free, black labour. In all, some 62,000 Pacific Islanders arrived between 1863 and 1904 usually contracted or “indentured” for three years. Some came voluntarily, but some by coercion, force, or deception - so-called “Blackbirding”.


In the early hours I fought the fatigue to stay awake. By first light as we reached Townsville, I got my second wind. The Mack driver dropped me off on the main road and turned off to an industrial park to offload the truck. There I was in the early morning 717kms away from where I had got in the cab and 1331kms from where I started yesterday in Brisbane. I headed to a campground for a shower, my mind racing too tired to sleep. I decided to keep going and headed back out along the main road. That morning I got other rides, including one from an empty tourist bus driving to collect passengers. As we drove along the bus driver gave me the guided tour with all the usual facts reserved for the customers.


Somewhere near the small northern Queensland town of Innisfail or maybe it was Tully (where you can find the giant gumboot) I got a ride in another truck. From recollection it was an old Dodge and driven by a grizzled bloke in a singlet and shorts, the wardrobe of choice in these parts. We bounced along the road while he happily talked away about this and that. The sky was overcast near all the river crossings where the sugar cane had been flattened by recent flood waters. There was no air conditioning, so all the windows were wound down. His thoughts on the local Aborigines were made clear when we passed a group walking along the roadside whereby, he invited them to step onto the road so he could run the “black bastards” over. A view of indigenous people some white Australians hold and seemed only too fond of sharing.


The Dodge driver offered me a bed for the night. By the time I got to Cairns I was so tired the thought of finding accommodation was beyond me, so I had dinner with his family and spent the night in his house, a classic Queenslander with verandas on all sides built for the tropics. In the morning I said goodbye and headed off to find the youth hostel, which back in those days was where most backpackers stayed and was about as far as the budget would stretch. It was in a grand old villa right on the beach, which I guess now has been bowled for apartments or the like.
Cairns these days has grown to over 150,000 but back then it had a sleepy small town feel to it, probably still does today. Cairns started out European life as Trinity Bay but had for thousands of years been home to local Aborigines who still claim their native title rights.


The town is squeezed between the Atherton Tablelands, Queensland’s geographic dividing range, and is a major tourist destination as the jumping off point to the Great Barrier Reef, and the nearby resorts like Green Island. Cairns, like other parts of Queensland, experiences gentrification, as retirees move north is search of warmer weather. Landing a job working on Green Island as a gardener was an opportunity that narrowly eluded me. As well as tourism there’s sugar cane and fishing with many of the boats fishing the Gulf of Carpentaria for prawns mainly, based at the port. That was another job that I missed but looking back, was probably just as well with tales of poor conditions, long hours and low pay widely circulated.


I spent many hours wandering around Cairns and mixing with the other guests at the hostel. I went to the pub with two guys from South Australia, who were even further form home than I was. At the pub, I can’t remember which one, I recall all the Europeans being at one end of the bar, and the Aborigines at the other end with a kind of no man’s land in between where the band was. Unlike the drinks there was no mixing going on and one group seemed to eye the other suspiciously. It is noticeable to anyone spending time just about anywhere in Australia there are “two Australias”; one based on the European but becoming more Asian. The other is Aborigine and the two don’t mix that much. One is mainstream while the other is marginalised or in some cases ostracised. You pass from white dreams into black realities. Here, for the darker skinned people that have it, employment is synonymous with toil and police are often the enemy. The is patently obvious in Queensland and where, like the rest of the country, demographers identify the gap, summarised in official reports by detached authors with letters after their names as the vast health and life-expectation inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. From where Aborigines come from, he’s dead is as common a phrase as he’s sick or he’s saved. People die in their world with appalling regularity.


The tipple in Queensland is Castlemaine “Four X” in the distinctive yellow can. Beer is often sold over the bar in cans or bottles “stubbies” rather than by the glass. This is so you can put a polystyrene sleeve around it, called a stubbie holder, to help keep beer colder for longer. Australians can be rather parochial. Advertising would have it “Australians wouldn't give a XXXX for anything else” but it was said Victorians (that is those from the state of Victoria) would only drink this if their local brewery was on strike, though historically, the brand name originated from Castlemaine in Victoria. The four x was a throwback to the days of using an “x” to indicate the strength of the ale, but you would have to drink of lot for it to have any effect.


One of the reasons to go to Cairns isn’t the town itself but it is the closest point to the Great Barrier Reef on the entire East Coast of Australia and has more reef operators than you can poke a stick at. From Cairns to the Outer Barrier Reef is about 63kms. This is where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Continental Shelf of Australia after which there is a 1000m drop into the Coral Sea. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system and the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms. Stretching over 2300kms and made up of over hundreds of islands and almost 3000 individual reefs it can be seen from space.


There’s also Green Island, home to the world’s first underwater observatory opened in 1954, and these days a luxury resort but also has restaurants and cafes as well as the inevitable scuba diving shop. Green Island is 27kms from Cairns, about 40 minutes away by high-speed boat on the inside edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Green Island, or Dabuukj to local Aborigines who generally avoided the island as “a place haunted by spirits”, is 6000 years old. In the 1870s Europeans based there fished for sea cucumbers using press-ganged Aboriginal labour. When the locals escaped resenting their treatment, the native police (Aboriginal paramilitaries led by white officers; seen as cost effective as they were cheap and deployed miles from their home) launched a punitive hunting expedition against them hoping, in the words of their commander, for “their extermination”.


After a few days in the old villa that was the youth hostel I decided the far north wasn’t for me. The trip back to Melbourne had its moments too including a van with a shattered windshield which picked up several hitchhikers and arrived in Townsville to the tunes of AC/DC and a single ride from there to Gladstone, 833kms. Gladstone is home to barely 40,000 but has the world’s fourth largest coal-exporting terminal – all those greenhouse gases helping global warming which in turn are ruining the Great Barrier Reef – and one of the world’s biggest aluminium smelters. On the way to Gladstone passed one of Queensland’s finest sat a school desk by the roadside, speed gun in hand, in the middle of nowhere. Years later and after many more hitchhiking adventures, I returned to Queensland for a brief stint in Brisbane and wandered about the Sunshine Coast. I found Brisbane modern and lively, but like many Australian cities, largely a suburban sprawl of bland housing developments and shopping malls, very Americanised. By this time, I was no longer a hitchhiker but travelling by plane; much faster but not nearly as interesting and where you see nothing of the country up close and meet few of the locals. More of a chore really as opposed to a road trip.

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