Two days before Christmas in 1993, I found myself stuck in Brisbane, Australia during a transit workers strike. I had been traveling around the country for the past month by train and bus, visiting friends up and down the eastern coast; but suddenly, I needed to find another way to Sydney or I’d miss my return flight back to L.A. Having spent most of my money on boozing, gambling and simply squandering the rest, the only viable option was hitch-hiking 900km. No problem.
I eventually got a ride from a stranger, who said he was heading south but would need to stop half way to grab some shuteye. It would be the longest, stress-filled night of my life.
First, some backstory: like many carefree adventurers, backpacking “Down Under” held tremendous appeal, conjuring up exotic images of koalas, white-sandy beaches and oil cans of strong ale. Unfortunately, the cost of a round-trip fare greatly exceeded my meager budget at the time. But when I heard about an opportunity to fly as a courier in exchange for a cheap ticket, I jumped at the chance.
The stipulation involved delivering a packet of documents as well as having some flexibility on travel dates — but getting a seat on a commercial airline for under $300 proved to be irresistible. Keep in mind, this was pre 9/11 and the long-gone era of turning up less than an hour before your flight, bringing unlimited fluids on board and once airborne, smoking ‘em if you got ‘em. So after accepting the shipping company’s terms and being sardined 17 hours in the air, my soon-to-be epic adventure had begun.
I spent my first few days engaging in typical touristy stuff, including a cruise around Sydney’s Darling Harbor aboard a replica of the HMS Bounty — albeit without the floggings and screaming insults by sadistic officers. Later, my must-see-and-do-list included visiting the Anzac War Memorial and watching the endless waves roll in at Bondi Beach. I had hoped to catch a game of Australian Rules Football, but unfortunately “footy” season was still another three months away. Crikey! By this time I’d heard snippets on the news about as the string of murdered tourists, but I was far more concerned about Australia’s well-documented non-human, creepy, crawly creatures. Of all the lethal things in the land of plenty — great white sharks, spiders, snakes, crocodiles, Crocodile Dundee part 3, etc., I reassured myself that the odds of being mauled to death by a Tasmanian Devil were exponentially greater than encountering an actual serial killer. Whew.
I eventually moseyed my way south to Melbourne and then onto Adelaide to see some old college friends. By mid-December, I found myself back in Sydney, where I spent a full afternoon exploring the Hyde Park Barracks, the largest penal colony facility ever built. There, I discovered prison records of several inmates possessing the same surname as mine, rendering crass jokes about my Aussie pals’ convict heritage much less amusing.
For my final week of the trip, I took another pleasant and affordable train ride towards Brisbane — replete with stunning ocean views and jagged cliffs along the legendary Gold Coast. After arriving in “Brizzy,” I met up with Simon Shirley, a former decathlon competitor-turned-friend, who had competed at Washington State and later for Australia at the 1988 Olympics. Simon also enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a world-class vagabond and someone with whom I’ve watched the sun come up on more than one occasion. A few years earlier, we had been tossed out of Magic Mountain amusement park in California and told never to return. But that, as they say, is another story.
The scorching Queensland sun dictated our daily routine of sleeping late, hanging out with Stanley (the tabby family cat), and watching cricket on the telly before going down to the local watering hole and/or casino. After the third or fourth day, Simon’s father, a distinguished and proper Englishman, uttered the perfect sarcastic response after being told of our unwavering schedule: “How bloody unusual.”
One day, however, we decided to deviate (slightly) by taking a tour of the Castlemaine XXXX Brewery in the nearby suburb of Milton. The large brick building, featuring an enormous XXXX red neon sign on the roof should have served as an ominous warning. It didn’t. Nor did the four, boldface X’s on the label or the brand’s catchy jingle, “I can feel a 4X coming on” which I soon learned was code for “massive hangover.”
After three weeks of soaking up the sun and sights of Oz, it was finally time to go home. During my stay with the Shirleys, a nation-wide transit strike had been launched — a crisis I foolishly chose to ignore until it was too late. I adopted an equally cavalier attitude towards the manhunt underway for the “Backpack Killer,” who for the past five years had been on a blood-thirsty, homicidal spree. A recent discovery of one his victims involved an especially gruesome murder of a British tourist who had been used as target practice and shot 10 times in the head. Although my size (6’3”/200) and being fit usually helped defuse most threatening situations, I would be armed only with my youthful vigor and a false sense of invincibility. Nonetheless, I held out my cardboard sign spelling SYDNEY and set out for the final leg of my journey.
Around three o’clock, a middle-aged driver in a weathered, forest green Land Rover stopped and offered me a ride. He introduced himself as “Jimmy” and we continued heading south on the A-1 motorway, the primary north/south artery running along the coast. He told me he’d been working at a golf tournament as a caddie but was now on his way home to Sydney. We talked sports and other random chit chat and I gradually grew more comfortable, settling in for the long road trip ahead. A few hours later, he asked me to take over driving duties as he had grown weary from a long weekend of caddying. Despite having never driven on right-hand side roads before, I agreed to get behind the wheel, where for the next 200km, my fertile, paranoid mind raced at warp speed. What if he pulled a gun? How do I call the police? What if I hit a kangaroo?!
We stopped at a restaurant near the town of Port Macquarie for a quick, cheap meal. It was now dark and getting late, and Jimmy the Caddie (or whatever his name was) suggested we grab a few hours of sleep at a rest stop near the Hastings River. The location, to be fair, was as good a place as any to stop (or dump a body), and we were now less than 400km north of Sydney, providing ample time to catch my late afternoon flight the next day. I would just need to survive the night. Following an uncomfortable, sleepless siesta, I watched my travel mate awaken at daybreak and resume driving duties the remainder of the way. I made it to the airport on time and gratefully thanked Jimmy for all of his help. Ironically, L.A. (then and now) remains the serial killer capital of the world by a long measure — and to paraphrase noir god, Raymond Chandler, Los Angeles is a city where the angels left a long time ago. Agreed.
On May 22, 1994, Australian police arrested a 49 year-old road worker named Ivan Milat, and charged him with the murders of seven people. He was given seven consecutive life sentences and is currently locked up at a “super maximum” prison in Goulburn, NSW. As far as I know, he’s never been a caddy nor plays much golf these days.
Nearly 25 years later, I often look back on that trip and the invaluable lessons learned. Namely, paying attention and never taking for granted the luxury of speaking the same language (kinda) in a foreign country. Additionally, on subsequent globetrotting adventures from Iceland to Tahiti, I’ve experienced countless acts of random kindness from complete strangers, and whenever possible I try to reciprocate with fellow travelers on my own turf.
Trust your instincts. Walking alone down a dark alley late at night is never a good idea. Ever. And yes, there will always be con artists, scammers and un-savory types who wish you ill will— but fortunately, American politicians are easily identified by their bloated, orange skin and ridiculous red hats.
Finally, (I mean it this time), I returned to Australia a few years ago with my wife — but not as a courier and happily not in steerage. Although I still don’t know what the Hell “fair dinkum” means or how to pronounce “Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya” this fascinating country begs to be explored time and time again, and I’ll always look forward to going back.