At the time I left the apartment in rue St. Jacques, I was just turned 21, and I knew very very little about the world, had little money, and few words of any language other than English. Unlike most young Australians of my age, I had had no illusions about the Vietnam War and when my birthday was drawn in the first draft ballot, I took a plane to Paris instead. Here I was given temporary refuge by my aunt Maria. Maria had been the centre of the Trotskyist movement in the ‘40s, and ‘50s, and my uncle Geoff wrote historical novels about colonial Australia and disappeared into a kind of time warp every day until supper time. They were very kind, but it was only temporary refuge.
It is hard to begin a journey when you don’t have a destination. And I didn’t have a destination. I never expected to be able to return to Australia. It was 1967, and the political situation actually changed very dramatically over the next 12 months, but the 1950s hadn’t seemed to have come to an end Australia and I saw no prospect of ever being able to go back. I had just finished that track which takes us from grade one to grade two and so on up to university and out the other end. But I was no more suited to becoming an engineer than I was suited to becoming a soldier. I was free now, but I had no particular ambition or career, no home, no friends and I had no destination. So I had to make one up.
The only name I had in my address book was Barry Sloan who was attending an international drama course in Nancy in the east of France, along with Kerry Dwyer. I hardly knew either of them, and they were theatre types and in a league of coolness that was out of my reach, so I was under no illusion that I would be welcomed as a buddy, but it was somewhere to go. So in early January 1967 I headed off through the eastern suburbs of Paris with a travel bag, my guitar and very few words of French. I always carried my guitar on the road in those days. The image of the young man with long hair, carrying his guitar generally served me well hitchhiking in those days.
The going was quite slow and the weather began to deteriorate as night fell. I walked past the Christmassy glow emanating from the windows of the last house in Metz as snow began to fall steadily. The road was soon covered and vehicles stopped coming. I did as I always do in these situations, just the same as when I am at a bus stop and there is no bus in sight; I just kept walking. I walked the whole night through a blizzard. This is the only situation when I sing. I sing “Morton Bay.” No-one has ever heard me sing this or any other song, but it is only when I am utterly alone in the middle of nowhere, that I sing the old convict song about the convict who hopes to die so that his spirit may fly back to his native Ireland and the arms of his sweetheart.
In the morning, the snow had stopped, everything was white, and a fast modern car with two French businessmen aboard came along and carried me away. It had a very powerful central heating system; the windows fogged up and the two men happily talked to each other the whole way, while I dozed.
So there I was in Nancy. I looked around for some kind of backpacker hostel, spent as long a time as I could over one cup of coffee in a café, and eventually I was directed to a vast church hall a cold snow-laden kilometre out of town, where I was the only resident. But the next night, a cute young French student called Danielle allowed me to sleep on the floor in her college room. Danielle had straight black hair, cropped short and wore a duffle coat. She had noticed me struggling to stay awake over my empty coffee cup and asked why I was so tired. But I never saw Danielle again after she kindly introduced me to a landlord – a stern French gentleman with a picture of Napoleon on the mantelpiece and half a dozen rooms in his attic. My room overlooked a church square on rue Victor Hugo where church bells chimed the hours day and night and the gargoyles kept watch.
I spent a month in that little attic room. An insane month, of writing letters, drafting the plan of my first novel (it was going to be like “Dr. Zhivago” but pro- rather than anti- revolutionary), sleeping only every second night, not eating for a day and then gorging myself in a patisserie, practising “Recuerdos de al Alhambra” on my guitar, reading “Steppenwolf.” I kept my mind occupied with frenetic intellectual activity. It was at this point that I realised that my fantasy of dropping out and roaming the world like the David Carradine character in “Kung Fu,” had a fatal flaw: without intellectual stimulation I got bored very quickly. I found myself scribbling mathematical formulae on the back of an envelope, continuing my final year engineering research project. So even the fantasy which had begun with the infamous cattle boat to Kuwait had fallen through.
Mostly I was very much on my own, but I did see Barry from time to time, and when he heard that our mutual friend Robin Laurie was coming to Europe, we hatched a plan to surprise her by meeting her boat in Genoa. Now Barry was very much not a hitchhiker. He was like the dandy son of a British aristocrat, who wore Carnaby Street clothes before I knew such a thing existed. He liked comfort not adventure. But I persuaded Barry that hitchhiking was a great exercise in theatre: when a car came into view you had a few seconds to perform a vignette which would persuade the driver to stop. This idea appealed to him, so he with his silver-topped cane and bespoke burgundy jacket, and me with my guitar tested out theories of the drama art as we headed southwards from Nancy. This was fun for a few hours; Barry spoke good French, so he did the talking – probably Barry’s first interactions with the proletariat. Night found us walking past a shanty town on the southern outskirts of Lyons and along a motorway which was under construction at the time. Construction works are really bad news for hitchhikers; the drivers are tense and all their attention is on the road and they can’t stop. Eventually the cops came along and told us that we can’t stand there and dropped us back in the centre of Lyons. I have been to Lyons several times. Situated halfway between Paris and the South, it has always been in the middle of the night. I have never warmed to the place. On this occasion, the novelty of the theatrical experiment had well and truly worn off for Barry, so we decided to abandon the trip and go back. As is often the case, as soon as we turned back, a car stopped and we made good speed back to Nancy.
News arrived that Jane, my girlfriend in Melbourne, was to join me and that we should meet in Athens. As it happens, Barry had an Australian friend, Terry Jacklin, who had gone to Athens leaving his suitcase behind in Nancy, so with my guitar and a travel bag of my possessions, I dragged this great lump of a suitcase with me, as my introduction to Athens. I was able to persuade the landlord to let me hand over my attic room to Kerry Dwyer on the promise that Kerry was ‘virtuous’; though why he thought Kerry wanted a room in the town when she had a perfectly good room at the college dormitory, I don’t know.
On 21 February I arrived at the German border near Strasbourg. Walking towards the border I struggled to summon up something from the 5 years I had spent learning German at school by reciting the conjugations of the verb ‘to be’. And then the beefy German border guard in his green uniform popped his head out of the little box and started talking and the entire product of 5 years of language teaching in Australia disappeared forever without a trace. Over the years while I remained a monoglot I learnt to understand and be understood in that wonderful mixture of words and phrases from various European languages which everyone seems to know: mangiare, kaput, belle, ok, padded out with the basics of one or another European language.
So I kept going, right through the night, the next day taking me along the German autobahn system through the fairytale forests of southern Germany and over the Austrian border at Salzburg, sprinkled with a light covering of snow like icing sugar, through busy Vienna and on through Graz to the border with Yugoslavia. The following morning I found myself on the side of a road outside Zagreb. Up to this point, I had not managed the simple task of finding somewhere to sleep at night. Young men do not so often get invited home. I had slept rough many times in Australia and would sleep in all sorts of places in the future, but then I didn’t know how things worked in Europe. There were so many people here. Every patch of land seemed to have an owner. You felt that if you threw a pebble over a bush, someone would leap out and yell at you. Very strange for a young person who had been used to the wide open spaces of outback Australia. Scarey. And it was cold.
And here I was in Yugoslavia. I knew nothing about Yugoslavia. I thought probably it was on the other side of the “iron curtain” but I wasn’t sure. I saw myself as a Communist, but that did not at all mean that I knew anything about world politics. As the black of night gradually gave way to a grey dusk, people appeared out of bleak side roads on their bicycles, or walking, beginning their working day when any human being should have been in bed. I think that never before or since have I felt so alone. And I was tired; I itched, and I was beginning to hallucinate. I had no map and I wasn’t even entirely sure where I was. I decided that I had to complete my journey by train. I walked into the centre of town, found the station and took the train to Athens.
The train journey was a hoot. I shared a carriage with a gang of Greek workers returning home after working in Germany, and also, I met three young men, a South African called Michael, am Englishman called Tom and a 19-year-old German boy called Hendrick. Tom had got into trouble in Greece on a previous occasion and they were thrown off the train. Tom went back to Trieste where he got a job on a ship to the US. But I met up again with Michael and Hendrick in Constitution Square in Athens. Meantime, the Greek guys made me very welcome on the train: I played my guitar while they plied me with rollmops and yoghurt and enlisted my support to smuggle their contraband German electronics into Greece.
I got a room with Hendrick and Michael in the Plaka. Jane arrived and joined us. There was also a Canadian guy called Bill – a rugged fellow with short brown hair under his Stetson hat. Bill sang and played his guitar and told yarns and we happily brought him into our room too. Bill never paid for anything, and everyone was very happy with that arrangement. He just brought joy and music with him. Someone had a record player and that Leonard Cohen LP which begins with “Suzanne” will always be the score for my memories of that month. Our landlady put us in touch with a couple of Austrian guys who kept us supplied with some very good quality hash.
Hendrick befriended a deaf-mute prostitute, and when he brought the girl home we were all afraid he was due for a big let down. Hendrick was short-sighted, and his glasses magnified his eyes so they filled the entire lens. This made him look even more childish than he was. As it turned out, it was Hendrick who had the last laugh; the girl stayed with us there in that room the whole time and Hendrick had a fine time every night, while the rest of us pretended to be asleep. Hendrick had a way with girls in fact. Michael on the other hand, drove us mad by repeatedly falling asleep smoking and nearly getting us all killed.
Hendrick and Michael were en route to Australia. So I gave him my mother’s address in Melbourne. They left Athens on 21 April, the day the colonels took over and imposed a brutal regime of torture, putting an end to those happy days. Hendrick and Michael hitched as far as Delhi and then took a plane to Perth, where they parted company. One cold evening that September, tired and dirty, Hendrick rolled up to the door at Royal Parade and said: “I’m a friend of Andy’s ...” and my father responded simply: “You’re just in time for dinner.” That is another story, but ever since that time, the lives of Hendricks’s family and mine have been intertwined. He currently lives with his wife and children in Gippsland and is a very successful silversmith.
The suitcase proved its worth too. Barry’s friend Terry had a house in the suburbs of Athens with his girlfriend and the ouzo flowed continuously and halva and a variety of Lebanese gold which was almost pure laughter. The Greeks were great. It was fairly early in the hippie days and they hadn’t got tired of us yet, and always made us welcome.
Jane and I had been living together for a year before I disappeared. She had been put under great moral pressure to join me in Europe and get married. She had formed a new relationship, but felt a moral duty to tell me in person. She was to return to Australia, overland, but I would accompany her as far as India, so on 24 March we headed out of Athens up the coast road through Thessaloniki towards Istanbul.
By night time we had passed Xanthi and I started to have pains on the left side, in that depression on the top of the shoulder. It got so bad that Jane had to carry the luggage. We slept together by the side of the road that night – maybe it’s easier to sleep rough when you have company – and continued in the morning. The pain came in waves.
On March 25 the Greeks celebrate their liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and this made the last lift we had in Greece particularly memorable. It was in an empty tourist coach which took us up parallel to the border towards the extreme north-west corner of Greece near the border at Edirne. The radio was playing loud patriotic music, and all the villagers were preparing for their Liberation Day celebrations. As we left Orestiada, we had to pass between rows of armoured cars and tanks lined up on either side of the narrow road preparing to parade through the town. To let us through the soldiers had to stand back against their vehicles. Driving through, us sitting up front with the patriotic music blaring in our ears, this gave the appearance of a kind of guard of honour, a truly memorable experience for a young draft dodger like me.
We walked across the border into Turkey and I was in desperate pain. We more or less threw ourselves at the feet of a German family who took us to Istanbul.
And there we were. I’m lying on the pavement doubled up in pain. Not a word of Turkish, not a cent of the local currency, whatever it was. No contacts. I had publicly burnt my draft card a year earlier, the first conscript in Melbourne to do so in fact, and I had slipped out on the eve of the November 1966 election in which the ALP had been given a beating for opposing conscription. On the Monday after the election the Commonwealth police had come knocking on my door, so we never even thought of looking for official help.
I was in pain, but I was utterly dependent on Jane. Jane, 21 years old and three weeks out of Melbourne, with I think even less knowledge relevant to our situation than I had, if that were possible. What took place over the next few days is in a haze for me. Jane got a taxi and the taxi took us to a hotel where we got a room, a little basement room where I could see the snow falling down on a skylight above. I spent several days lying on my back in that room with my tummy swelling up as if I were pregnant. A couple of times I was taken to a public hospital where I had an enema and pain killers, but things only got worse. Of course, everyone assumed it was the result of drugs and this dampened people’s enthusiasm to help.
But in the meantime, Jane managed to make friends. This is the main thing you know, when you are in trouble, you have to make friends. I remember that we were waiting for attention in the emergency department of a public hospital when a man was carried in on a stretcher. It was one of our new friends. He had just fainted at the sight and smell of that emergency department.
Whenever you have a problem in Turkey, what happens is that a crowd develops, and everyone discusses the problem and offers their suggestions and a kind of spontaneous street meeting ensues. It will be the same if you just ask for directions. In no time you will have several conflicting suggestions. Public life in Turkey at that time, despite the efforts of the great Kemal Ataturk, was an exclusively male domain. No mullahs, but no women either. So for Jane to operate in this environment with her man lying helplessly on his back, was extremely ‘challenging’ as we say these days. But she did brilliantly.
Jane befriended a young medical student called Sinan. Sinan was a serious, quite good-looking and kind young man. He consulted his textbooks and diagnosed peritonitis. This explained the pain in my shoulder which was due to the phrenic nerve which is connected to the diaphragm. But peritonitis is supposed to kill in 48 hours. Sinan had an uncle who owned the Laleli Tesis private hospital on the main drag from the bazaar down to the Bosphorus. It was just around the corner from our little room, and eventually he persuaded his uncle to admit me and two men came with a stretcher and bore me off to the hospital. That night Sinan and his uncle operated on me, emptying my intestines out on the table, sewing up a perforation in the colon, removing several litres of pus, injecting antibiotics and stuffing everything back inside.
In Turkey at that time, they were very proud of the standard of their surgery, but the standard of support staff was poor. So Jane was given a stretcher in the room with me and she was responsible for caring for me in the hospital. I had a big wound down my abdomen, roughly stitched up – the doctor was very proud of how he had cut around my navel. But with all the infection, the skin had become very weak, and one night the stitching broke and when daylight came I found myself looking down into my own gizzards. The doctor came in and declared that this was “not impossible.” His English was not too good; he meant to say it was “not important.” How many nights did I lie there listening to the lads drag racing down the main road, honking their horns until those bloody mullahs started blaring out from their minarets about 5 a.m., and I could look forward to the sun coming up.
In any case, the infection did start to clear up. In the meantime, I had written to my poor dear mother, who had contacted her sister June, then stationed with diplomatic service in Geneva and June arranged to have us flown out. We left Istanbul on 9th April.
In Geneva, I had a further operation and came very close to death, with the infection getting to my liver, and then my lungs, but thanks to the invention of ampicillin, and the intervention of an Australian doctor visiting Geneva for a WHO conference, the infection was finally defeated. By the time I was strong enough to leave my bed and get to the scales, I weighed 56 kg. I am 185 cm tall. My brother Peter had moved to London to work, and with his help, I enrolled for a PhD in Engineering at University College London. On 2nd July we caught the train to London.
So it will be evident to you the reader by this time that I was in fact far from alone in Europe. That is true. But that wasn’t my state of mind when I headed off from Paris. I felt very, very alone and I had no thought of going back in any meaning of that phrase.
Everything was fixed up ready for me to start at University College London in October, so on 23rd August Jane and I packed up what we needed, dumped what we didn’t need, and left behind our leaky little upstairs room in South Ken. We could find somewhere else when we got back. But there was one thing we had to attend to before heading off to Dover. The wound in my abdomen from the surgery in Istanbul had healed up ok, but a stitch had now poked its way up through the skin and I didn’t know what to do with it. So we dropped in to the local GP on our way to the bus stop and had our first experience of the British National Health Service. I understand it’s much better these days, but everyone, first of all the doctors themselves, treated the NHS pretty much with contempt at that time. So the GP looks at this little stitch and scratches his head. GPs didn’t do things, they wrote prescriptions and signed sick notes. So he gave me a prescription for a bandage which I would have to wrap right around my body and some horrible sticky ointment. Forget that.
We took the tube to Elephant and Castle and began hitching in heavy traffic in the New Kent Road heading for Shooters Hill and out through SE London to Dover. From Dover to Oostende where we disembarked in the early morning. The plan was that we would go to the Arctic Circle via Sweden and Finland, and then from Leningrad we would travel down through the Soviet Union and via Eastern Europe to Istanbul. Although I had spent all of my time in Istanbul lying on my back, we had both formed an affection for the Turks and we wanted to thank Sinan, who had saved my life, and see Istanbul together.
Following the northern seaboard of Europe, through Belgium, then Rotterdam, Holland and across the northern seaboard of Germany and at last, late at night, the ferry at Rødbyhavn to Copenhagen. This was a very slow journey because although this area was densely populated and the people were reasonably friendly, we were not following any main national route. We would wait hours for a lift and then only go 10 or 20 kms.
Travelling into Amsterdam in the early morning we saw the milkman delivering the milk in two flavours: plain or chocolate – this was better than streets paved with gold! that chocolate milk was just what the tired and hungry hitchhiker needs. Holland was like two different countries: the people of Amsterdam were the most laid back, progressive, welcoming people on Earth, but once you got into the countryside (which is more like suburbia by Australian standards), the people were extremely conservative and did not welcome hitchhikers, so progress was slow.
Four days passed before we reached Copenhagen, nights spent curled up in the bushes to the side of the road, many hours spent standing on the road side. We hitched northwards from Copenhagen up to the Helsingborg ferry. The traffic was very light, but we figured that it was better to go this way to pick up to the main highway through Sweden up to Stockholm. The first lift, a jolly young country boy in his pick-up, left us in the middle of a forest only about 100 km or so into Sweden. And that was it. Cars came by from time to time, but no-one stopped. We didn’t know until later, but on the following Sunday morning, 1st September, Sweden was due to change over to driving on the right hand side of the road. All the road signs had been replaced and covered with temporary stick-on signs which were to be ripped off at the last moment. No problems really, but all the drivers were really nervous about the whole thing and trying to get a lift was just hopeless.
We walked a little way off the road into the forest, lay a log over the fork in a tree and built a kind of hut by leaning branches and greenery up against this. We had brought a sheet of black plastic with us and this provided a little protection against the steady, gentle rain. We made a fire and the smoke made our eyes run but we felt much warmer than heat alone could explain. Jane went in search of food and found a nearby farm. Jane had been brought up in the country and she recognised a potatoe field. She dug up a skirtful and we had baked potatoes for dinner and breakfast. On the Thursday we decided to abandon Sweden and head south, so we crossed to the other side of the road and true to form the first car, a couple of businessmen, stopped and took us to Malmö.
Here we stood on a little jetty while all the passengers filed off and turned around and trooped back on again, arms laden with cartons of Marlboro and Kinder Chocolate. Apparently this was simply a bit of duty-free shopping for people from Copenhagen. In this part of the world people didn’t get worked up all that much about borders. Borders were just an excuse for good shopping. Off we went, and back through Rødbyhavn to Germany.
Travelling down parallel to the eastern border of the Federal Republic we again found ourselves cutting across the flow of traffic. It was mostly a quiet rural area with green fields and cute little houses. At one point while we were waiting for a car, a chimney sweep road by on his bicycle – black from top hat to toe with his brush clipped to the cross bar of the bicycle. Eventually we made it to Braunschweig and slept behind the pavilion at a sports ground before turning up to the notorious Marienborn border crossing in the morning.
Berlin was an island in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany and there was a lot of resentment of all kinds around the border crossings. Marienborn was the one and only crossing from West Germany to the DDR and the only place where West Berlin was accessible form West Germany of which it was supposed to be a part. The border guards deliberately put everyone through the greatest possible inconvenience, even though they were travelling directly to Berlin without stopping, so anything that people had in their cars was absolutely irrelevant to the DDR border guards. Everyone was tense because any excuse would be used to inconvenience people, but there was as a result, a certain solidarity amongst the drivers. There was a mile-long queue of waiting cars as the guards mounted pointless searches and endlessly checked documents. People were happy to give you a lift, so long as you made it clear that you were not carrying anything that was going to cause problems. Once you crossed the border it was like riding a bob sled – you just shot down the autobahn without stopping till you reached the border crossing into West Berlin for more pointless searches and questioning.
West Berlin in 1967 was a really great place to be. Walking down Unter den Linden the atmosphere was reminiscent of Boulevard St. Michel in the Latin Quarter of Paris. We stopped for a coffee and very soon we were engaged in conversation by a group of young people and we were invited home by Wolf, a young doctor. It is not hard to understand why the West Berliners were so incredibly friendly, living in a heavily subsidized, capitalist pressure cooker island in the midst of a hostile Stalinist country. But it was more than that. Only a few months later, the Berlin students showed themselves to be the most radical in Europe, providing I think the most intellectually sophisticated current of the student radicalism which exploded in 1968.
I showed Wolf the problem which had so perplexed the GP in London. Wolf simply took a pair of nail scissors from the bathroom and snipped and removed the stitch, End of problem. German technology proved its superiority to the British public health service.
Next day we took the underground train through the only crossing into East Berlin under the famous Brandenburg Gate. Putting the border crossing in an underground tunnel certainly contributed to the atmosphere of this troubled crossing.
What a contrast! It was like stepping into a different universe. The first and dominant impression was that there was no advertising. The constant and ubiquitous propaganda that we are subject to in the West, with consumerism rammed down our throats on every blank space, every sound wave, suddenly faded away and the quiet, not just audio quiet, but visual and intellectual quiet, was deafening. But then the second impression came along close behind. We had to change money. That meant standing in a queue. While standing in the queue we were subtly contacted by a shady character (there’s no other way of describing him) who drew me to the side, around a corner, and offered to change money for me at a more realistic rate. It was an awful feeling. Straight away I was forced into a position of doing an illegal trade or denying someone who obviously needed some foreign currency more than I did. I accepted his offer, but I regretted it and felt guilty about it ever after. The DDR insisted on a one-to-one exchange rate for their Mark against the West German Deutschmark, but on the international money markets it was getting only about a quarter of that. It wasn’t an economic question for East Germany, it was a question of national pride: their dollar was just as good as anybody else’s. But of course, it left door wide open for this kind of corruption.
Hitchhiking in East Germany was really easy. People craved the opportunity to talk to people from the West. And there were no gender problems in the DDR: there was no religion so far as you could see and there was as much sexual freedom as anywhere in the world. Our first lift was in a green Traby with a middle aged academic woman who spoke fluent English and told us everything we wanted to know about their country. Women had access to jobs and education and control over their own bodies. And the standard of living was fine. The one big problem was that they couldn’t travel to the West. They would never see the Eiffel Tower or the Mediterranean as long as they lived, and knowing that made it like living in a big prison. It was quite easy to talk to people and the drivers spoke openly to us about their feelings. One fellow said he was a factory owner. “How can this be?” we asked, everything is supposed to be owned by the state here, isn’t it?” He had inherited it from his father and everything was entirely regulated, so his ownership didn’t really amount to very much, and the percentage of state ownership was just gradually increased year by year until he would be pensioned off. You can see that this kind of thing was quite demoralizing. An old guy who took us to Dresden told us the horror story of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War Two, something I had never heard about before.
The other striking thing about the DDR was that the street trees were fruit, you had apples and pears growing in the street. In a capitalist country, free food freely is anathema; it just seemed so obviously sensible to do it this way – and very useful for hitchhikers.
We had a glass of Wernesgrüner in a pub as the sun went down and then walked to the border crossing into Czechoslovakia at Schmilka, where the guard was very surprised to see us. He claimed that the visa we had been given at Marienborn required us to leave the DDR by the same way we had entered, and that this border crossing was for local people only. The idea of turning round and going back to Berlin and Marienborn was inconceivable. He just wouldn’t have it, we argued and made it clear that we weren’t going away. Thankfully, in the end, just to get rid of us, he gave in and let us through. After all, he was getting rid of a problem, not letting one in.
So then we walked several kilometers to the Czech side of the border. Here we were met with even greater surprise, and this guy was even more adamant than the good German who had eventually let us through. He wouldn’t budge. So reluctantly we tramped back to the East German border. Now letting a problem leave the country was one thing, letting a problem in to the country was something else. No way. Begone! So back we went to the Czechoslovakian side. Again, the Czech guy was adamant. We demanded to speak to his boss, but that could not happen till morning, so we said fine, we’ll wait here. Yeek! No, no, no! You can’t stay here! That’s ok, we’ll go back down the road a little way and sleep there. That was even more scarey for the poor man. That was a military area; it was his job to keep people out of that area. He’d let us through. But we had to change US$300 into Czechoslovakian money. We had nothing like that of course and then it turned out that the cash register was locked and wouldn’t be open again till morning. That was too much for him. He stamped our passports and sent us packing. We walked half a mile down the road and slept in the usual way behind a bush to the side of the road.
First thing in the morning we were picked up by a jolly group of engineers. In the Eastern bloc countries “engineer” was an honourable title, and it was also a title which women as well as men could adopt. Coming into Prague we saw further evidence of the different gender relations with big women in boiler suits working in road repair gangs. The driver, a young man by the name of Karel, showed us the sights of Prague, which unlike Dresden, to all appearances had survived the war with all its historic buildings intact and it was indeed a beautiful city. Karel took us home to the tiny little apartment which he shared with his mother and then took us out to a 14th century pub, with rows of benches and long tables and everyone downing one litre pots of the local, very powerful, black beer. We just couldn’t take it, and whenever no-one was looking, we slopped some of our beer into a nearby pot plant. There was certainly no saying “No.” Karel gave us a nice bed to sleep on, I suspect putting someone else on the floor in our favour and swapped addresses with us as we left in the morning. This was the point of course. The only way a Czechoslovak person could visit the West was if they had a letter inviting them.
So then off Eastwards to Brno and Bratislava. A strange contrast. The towns were picturesque because they had escaped the ravages of both the war and 1960s modernism which had destroyed so many cities in the West, but correlated to that was the fact that their vehicles had also missed out on emission standards. Hitchhiking involved breathing the foulest mixture of lead and carbon monoxide imaginable. Lack of the minimal democracy provided by a market meant that the standard of consumer goods was terrible. We thought that some drinking chocolate would be nice so we bought a packet of cocoa in Brno, but damned if we could ever get the stuff to dissolve in milk!
It was only a few weeks after this that Alexander Dubcek challenged Novotný and opened became known as the “Prague Spring.”
The road from Bratislava across the border to Vienna was quite a short trip and we rode in a commercial van driven by an energetic and amusing young man who demonstrated to us the differences between the Austrian dialect and high German. It seemed to my ears that they spoke German a little like New York Jews speak English. It was great fun.
We slept the night in a park outside the railway station in Graz. We were woken in the middle of the night by cops shining their torch in our eyes. After that I made a practice of sleeping with a torch of my own, so when a copper shined his torch in my eyes, I just shone my torch back into his eyes. This instantly produces the desired result with both parties politely pointing their torch to the ground.
This time we were in much better condition to appreciate Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs could travel. Like anyone else, they preferred to live in their own country, and although it was obvious that there were limitations on political freedoms, like in East Germany, life for ordinary people was pretty free and easy. Tito had put a lid on the ethnic conflict and these were probably the best of times for ordinary people in that part of the world. We traveled through Zagreb and Beograd on to Nis where we turned off on to the road to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.
The driver who took us to the border, a Yugoslavian guy visiting Sofia on business, did not want us in the car when he got to the border and asked us to walk across. There was a long queue and we walked past the cars up to the border station. Here the official said that we could enter Bulgaria on condition that I cut my hair. It is amusing that these people thought that a young westerner with long hair was more threatening to their regime than capitalist businessmen and spies. In any case it was no deal so we agreed to go and see the boss whose office was right next to the border crossing itself. As we walked towards the office, by coincidence and as if by magic, everyone happened to be looking the other way as came up, so we just kept walking straight through the border crossing and up the road into Bulgaria. A couple of hundred yards further on we were met by a young soldier with a rifle over his shoulder whose job surely was to stop people like us. “Pass!” We gave him our passports. He inspected them and then waved us on. If they were going to use young boys like this to protect their borders, then they should take the trouble to explain to them what a visa looks like. Anyway, we knew we had crossed a line here and we did not wait around. One lift into Sofia, and one more lift on to the Turkish border near Edirne. Bulgaria differed from East Germany and Czechoslovakia in two ways. Firstly, there was no attempt to make conversation. Perhaps that was because we were tense, or maybe they were tense. I don’t know. Second, was the red banners and portraits of the Great Leader everywhere. You really knew you were in a Stalinist country here.
We arrived at the border post in the late afternoon and the shit hit the fan. To be fair, there was no aggression, far less violence. Suppressed anger, but one feels that the officials were mostly upset because we had created a problem for them, rather than because we meant any harm to their country. We told them exactly what had happened and the telephones buzzed and serious faces moved back and forth. We had no local money. We hadn’t need money in Czechoslovakia – our host had given us enough to travel on. And we had gone through Austria and Yugoslavia without using any money so all the money we had was Mark from the DDR. My final lesson in the importance of currency came when a big Skøda came through driven by a fellow who was obviously an official of some kind from the DDR. It is important to remember that the DDR was run not only by bureaucrats, but also by many people who really believed in the socialist ideal and were proud of what had been achieved despite everything. The imposing and dignified man insisted on changing my DDR Mark for D-West German Mark on a 1 to 1 basis.
Eventually our story was verified and with a severe expression on his face but no more sanction than this, an official stamped our passport and we were sent through into Turkey. I regret of course the trouble that the people back at the Yugoslavian border probably got into for letting us through without border control.
Getting lifts to Istanbul was so easy, that some hitchers actually refused lifts until they got a nice modern car. I always thought that that was arrogant, and we made it a principle to always accept the first offer. This came, as did most lifts in Turkey from a truck driver, who was very appreciative of the smattering of Turkish that we had picked up from the previous time.
People can’t understand how it is that I’ve been to Istanbul three times and I’ve never been into the Hagia Sofia. But hitchhiking just wasn’t like that. It’s not sightseeing. We lived on almost nothing so most of the time we were just struggling for survival. What time wasn’t taken up with getting food, finding somewhere to stay, getting to the next place was spent either interacting with other people or doing a few things which took no money and no energy, such sleeping on the beach. Sometimes it was drugs. We did see the Hagia Sofia, but only from the nearby side street going to and from the hotel near the waterfront. I don’t think you could really call it a hotel though they did have rooms in the normal way too, but most of us stayed in one large open space where people slept side by side on the floor. Or more often sat around on the floor in small groups chatting, passing joints, and laughing, lots of laughing. The air was thick with smoke and everyone was spaced out on something. Mostly it was hash, but there was also a fad at the time for some kind of amphetamine which was on sale at the local pharmacy as a diet pill. I don’t remember what it was called, but the guy did very good business selling this stuff. It created a kind of manic busyness and the ability to get joyfully engrossed in the most trivial things, so it passed the time.
So we’d see the Hagia Sofia from time to time as we went in and out of the hotel en route to the bazaar or other meeting points around Istanbul. We linked up with Sinan again and enjoyed chai on the waterfront with him and his young friends. We had a good laugh about how Greeks and Turks hated each other. It was hard to take it seriously. It was like two groups of people arguing with their own image in a mirror! We also met a young Turkish boy who posed as a German hitchhiker in order to enjoy the benefits of Turkish hospitality towards foreigners.
After a few days drinking tea at the Pudding Shop and catching up with people around Istanbul, we headed back again. We decided to go via Izmir on the Western coast of Anatolia by boat to Athens and then via the ferry to Italy and through France to Dover.
We crossed the Dardenelles on a little punt which ferried vehicles across the narrow passage of water where the countryside is very reminiscent of Australia – rolling hils covered with parched grass and occasional trees. En route to Izmir we had a memorable ride in the back of a truck. As we went along, the truck picked up groups of peasants waiting as if for a bus, with their produce for sale at the market. On one occasion the passengers had a bull. This did not faze our driver at all. They backed the truck up against a bank and the bull was walked on to the truck without any difficulty.
Izmir was a beautiful town, with ancient marble buildings in the busy city centre and an old Mediterranean port in a craggy inlet lined with white rocks. We had a funny experience while having a gazos at a street café in the city centre. Gazos is a type of cheap lemonade sold on the street in Turkey, which is wonderfully thirst-quenching. We got talking to a young English couple who were hitching around the Anatolian coast. I mentioned that I was Australian, and he responded that he had heard of an Australian who had left the country without a passport to avoid the draft and being sent to Vietnam. I pressed him for more details because I said I couldn’t see how you could manage to travel without a passport. At this point, he hummed and hahed a bit, and eventually said he didn’t know, it was actually the person’s brother he had spoken to, a guy he worked with in London, Peter Blunden. Peter is my brother of course, and he had got the story mixed up. I had indeed left the country to avoid conscription, but I had a passport. Very few 19-year-olds in Australia would have had a passport in those days. Where would you go? But I formed the idea that I would drop out of University and catch the cattle-boat to Kuwait – this was a kind of fashionable fantasy at the time. But being only 18, I had to get my parents’ permission to get a passport, and my mother made me promise that I would not use it until I had finished my university course. There was no conscription at that time. Menzies brought it in just in time for me to be caught in the draft, and blocked escape routes like this, but I already had my passport.
We took the ‘ferry’ to Chios from Izmir. The ‘ferry’ was a little wooden fishing boat with a putt-putt engine which crossed the small strait separating Chios from the Turkish mainland. Most of those on board were local people and we quickly discovered that the stupid animosity between Turks and Greeks which we found among Sinan’s friends in Istanbul was not shared by these people who lived on the coast line and islands where Greeks and Turks had interacted for many generations. From Chios we caught the relatively luxurious ferry to Athens, which provided a great opportunity for a bath and a sleep in a real bed.
We did not hang around in Athens; we were in a bit of a hurry to get back and the plan was to catch the ferry to Brindisi from Igoumenitsa, in the north west corner of Greece near Korfu. The ferry left at 9 am in the morning and we figured we could make it. The first lift out of Athens though was in the back of a truck driven by a couple of building workers who assured us that they were going the right way. I’ve looked at the map since, and it looks like they were quite genuine, but at the time we didn’t believe them. They headed up Highway 1 towards the north east. They assured us that they would be going towards Igoumenitsa later on. Then they left us sitting in the back of the truck parked in some building materials depot for hours. We were sure we were being given the run around and we jumped out and started hitching in what we hoped was the direction of Igoumenitsa. But now instead of taking one of the three or four main roads radiating out from Athens we had to cut across the middle of Greece through the mountains. There was very little traffic that way. We made it ok to Ioaninna where there is an airforce base.
Sometimes if you’re an Australian hitching somewhere in Europe you meet people in a way that can be very surprising. One of the nicest of this type of experiences was one Saturday morning when we were passing through a very isolated rural village in Montenegro near the Albania border; it was market day and as we were leaving the village a flat car drawn by a horse filled with old men squatting cross-legged in rows came by. From the middle of them an American voice called out “Hey! You from Brooklyn?” Like so many, he’d made his fortune and raised a family in the New World, and now he had come back home to spend his old age with his mates. On this occasion, we took a break at a little white-washed café by the river in Ioannina and we were served by a 10-year-old who had gone to school in Melbourne. His family had not taken to Australia and had come back home to Ioannina. He was not so happy about this. He had liked Australia.
After Ioaninna the traffic really began to thin out, and our chances of making it in time to catch the morning ferry were beginning to look slim. I remember us stopping in the mountains that night, seeing an eerie church perched on the top of a crag, visible through the mists in the light of a full moon. We were getting desperate. And then an old guy came by in a little earthmover, and invited us to ride in the scoop. There was nothing else going so we agreed. The pneumatic fluid was leaking, and every few minutes the scoop would start scraping on the road, and he would have to pump it up again. That was ok, but what we hadn’t figured on was that this vehicle was incredibly slow. Even if he took us all the way to Igoumenitsa, we would not make it. So we waved him down and thanked him and got out and found a haystack to sleep in for the night.
In the morning we didn’t have to wait long before a nice modern car came along and we were in Igoumenitsa in good time. Too late for the ferry though. And not only that, it turned out that the next ferry was not until the day after tomorrow. But there was a nice forest overlooking Igoumenitsa which was infested – would you believe it, not with snakes, or fleas, or rabbits, but cute little terrapins! So we spread out our trusty sheet of black plastic and picnicked and relaxed and played with the terrapins for a couple of days before catching the ferry.
When you’re travelling in Southern and Central Italy, it becomes obvious why all roads lead to Rome. The narrowness of the isthmus means that roads are only shorter or longer routes to Rome. We struck it lucky that night, heading towards Genoa we were picked up by a guy who was the spitting image of Tony Quinn. We couldn’t help mentioning it to him and he said that he had served as a cavalry officer during the War and as an expert horseman he had acted as Tony Quinn’s double for horse-riding scenes. In order to prove all this, he took us home with him for the night, and showed us a photograph of himself with Benito Mussolini, with their arms around each other’s shoulders. So if you hear of any accusations that Tony Quinn was a fascist, don’t believe it.
I haven’t mentioned this, but one of the negative things about travelling in Turkey is that people were always making offers for Jane. Guys seemed to think that offering me 500 Lire or something was a fair price, not just for sex, but sale! On top of that there was constant groping and ogling. So it was nice to get back to a more sexually liberated part of the world. Italian men loved making eyes and flirting, but they never propositioned or groped, in our experience. But our lift to the French border gave us a surprising disappointment. We were picked up by a truck driver who suggested that Jane sit on the engine cover between the passenger seat and driver. As always of course we politely declined and I took the engine seat. Later he suggested we stop of a picnic and pulled up by the side of road and duly laid out a picnic blanket. There was an orchard there and the driver pointed out that it might be a good idea if I went and picked some apples. So Jane leapt up and went off to pick the apples, leaving me alone with the Italian driver, thinking that we had thwarted another attempted grope. To my surprise and consternation, he took the opportunity to grope me instead! As soon as Jane got back with the apples, we thanked him and took our leave.
On 27th August we arrived back at Dover, and arrived back in London that afternoon. Jane’s sister Pru was probably surprised when we knocked on her door in Notting Hill.