Excerpts from 'A Week's Worth of Undies' will be added periodically...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

1. Walking in on Santa Claus

October 1998: 

One minute I was hitchhiking on the outskirts of Port Augusta. The next, I felt like I was in the middle of a Billy Graham revival, as a fellow hitchhiker recited Scripture from the Bible while a missionary shouted ‘Praise Jesus’ and ‘Thank you Lord’ at him. 

           The bizarre thing was that the hitchhiker, the missionary and me were all in a 1978 Kingswood station wagon hurtling through the middle of Australia.

Just as bizarre was the seating arrangement. I was sat in the front passenger seat, the other hitchhiker was driving and the missionary, who owned the car, was sitting in the back seat. I don’t know how this arrangement came to be, it just did.

The day had started out quite normal. I’d awoken early and walked to the edge of Port Augusta to continue hitchhiking north to Darwin. I was adamant I wanted to get a hitch on a roadtrain and only stuck my hand out whenever I saw one, ignoring lesser mortals such as cars and campervans. 

However, after more than two hours waiting, I relented and started looking for a hitch from all comers. Within minutes a 1978 Kingswood station wagon had pulled up beside me. I walked around the back of the car to greet my hitch and casually glanced inside the back window. The car was packed to the gunwales and among the pile of boxes and bags and assorted junk I saw two planks of wood.

‘Bloody hell,’ I thought to myself, ‘he’s moving house piece by piece.’

When I looked up I saw the face of a young man smiling at me through a ginger beard. David Partridge was a missionary on his way to Papua New Guinea to set up a mission, just as his parents had done before him. 

To fit me in David had to rearrange everything in the car. He tried doing this where he was parked but the midday sun was too hot, so he moved the car to the other side of the road where there was a large gum tree. He then began re-arranging everything in the comfort of its shade. The first things removed were the two planks of wood. They were actually a couple of old, weather-beaten fence palings that had been nailed together to make a cross. Mystery solved.

During my two-hour wait I’d noticed the silhouetted figure of another hitchhiker further up the highway. Ten to fifteen seconds after each time a car passed me, he would emerge from the bushes and thrust his hand out. Like me, he too was ignored by every car and truck heading north and would retreat to the shade of his tree…to sulk, perhaps. 

When I told David about the other hitchhiker he promptly dispatched me to retrieve him. David was sure there was room for one more in the already overflowing car.

Tony, the other hitchhiker, was glad to see me. He was on his way back to Roxby Downs where he worked at the mine and had been standing in the sun as long as I had.

Finally, an hour and a quarter after he had initially pulled over, David squeezed us into his car. He said a prayer and we pulled out on to the highway. While it wasn’t a roadtrain it seemed an interesting alternative.

During the course of getting to know one another David and I discovered that Tony had a photographic memory and had studied extensively in his 29 years. Included in his readings Tony had devoured the Bible and could quote freely from it, having read it from cover to cover. Accordingly, he could then quantify any of his arguments and points by referring to other Scripture. 

Tony wasn’t overtly religious like David and his was a more logical and intelligent outlook on the whole entity that was the Bible. For me, a Catholic converted to atheism long before, it was fascinating to listen as someone explained the Bible in such a logical, intelligent and unbiased manner. For David, it was like manna from heaven and prompted the resultant cries of ‘Praise Jesus’ and ‘Thank you Lord’ from the back seat.

David’s excitement resembled that of a child walking in on Santa Claus, only on a far more divine level, and I, too, couldn’t believe what was happening in this tiny capsule in the middle of Australia.

The amazing goings-on lasted for nearly three hours, by which time Pimba loomed. David had originally intended dropping Tony at Pimba, but he now wanted to spend as much time as he could in Tony’s company and insisted that he at least buy him a drink at the roadhouse there.

We stepped over the couple of drunks lying in the dirt beside the front door, bought ourselves a round of drinks and proceeded to engage in an intense discussion about the Bible, what it meant, what it predicted – and more. I’d be amazed if the Pimba Roadhouse, situated in the middle of a desolate plain that stretched forever, had ever heard a conversation like it.

Having promised to write out most of what he’d discussed in the car, Tony then invited us to stay at Roxby Downs that evening if we took him the extra 90km to the mine. David wasn’t going to pass up on the chance to further pick Tony’s brain and distance suddenly meant nothing to him. We were off to Roxby Downs.

This worked out well as Tony was working the night shift and we could have his room to ourselves, the incentive being that he had cable TV and we could watch the cricket from Pakistan. Upon arrival, Tony gave us a quick 10-cent tour of the town and headed off to work.

Just after dawn the next morning Tony returned from his shift. He’d spent most of the night going through the Bible in his head and had come up with a multitude of other Scripture to assist David’s preaching. After breakfast David spent an hour writing down everything Tony had told him. We then packed the car, exchanged addresses and farewelled the angel sent to walk among us.

David’s faith constantly amazed me. While, fundamentally, the two of us approached life in a similar and harmonious way, the level of our beliefs differed vastly. I found David’s unequivocal trust and belief in his God both compelling and intriguing. While I believed the emotional wellbeing of an individual came from their genetic background and other environmental factors, David’s God gave him the inner strength he needed and all things happened as a result of this God.

When we stopped at Coober Pedy for lunch, David realised he had no money and prayed for guidance. He got hold of a phone book and rang the local Assembly of God minister – one man’s guidance was another man’s phone book – looking for some financial assistance on his journey. A few minutes later I watched from the car as David explained his predicament in person to the AoG minister who, at first, appeared to be slightly dubious as to David’s credentials.

However, David’s Faith soon had the minister won over and I couldn’t help but be impressed when the minister emptied the contents of his wallet into David’s hands. David then clasped the minister’s hands in his and together, in the dust bowl that doubled as the church car park, they prayed and gave thanks to their one God.

We continued on up the highway and into the night, eventually setting up camp in an enormous parking bay. David awoke just before dawn and went in search of somewhere to pray. I remained curled up and welcomed in the day by listening to the wondrous sounds of the outback awakening around me.

These same wondrous sounds soon had to compete with faint outbursts of praise, courtesy of one lone missionary, echoing forth from the distant reaches of the scrub. What had been nothing more than excitable outbursts of praise suddenly took on a sense of urgency, followed by several louder than normal takes on the ‘Oh, thank you Lord’ theme.

I sat up in bed and headed off in search of David to find out what had happened to excite him in such a manner. When I finally found him he excitedly told me the Lord had given him a sign to go to Uluru that day. Our every task now brought with it a newfound sense of urgency and we headed back to the campsite to pack. 

My time with David came to an end at Erldunda, where he headed west to Uluru and I continued hitching north to Darwin. Before we said farewell I offered him some money to help him on his way and he gave me a book, The Greatest Love (a paraphrased new testament).

In it he wrote the message: Dear Giulio, Revelation 3:20, May God bless you mate in your search and journey, Love in Jesus, David Partridge. He then said a prayer for me and we parted company. It had been among the most remarkable 48 hours of my life. 

October 1993:

Edinburgh was cold. My living room was even colder. The central heating was hopeless and I watched TV wrapped in two blankets. BBC2 was showing a documentary about the US Navy in Sydney.

It was summer Down Under and Sydney Harbour dazzled. Shots of the opera house and the Sydney Harbour Bridge abound. The cameras followed the sailors through the streets of Sydney; streets like those I had walked through on my visits there. The sailors walked up into The Rocks, my favourite part of the Sydney foreshore.

Aussie accents were everywhere. I looked on, non-plussed by what I saw. Even the distinctly harsh light of an Australian summer did nothing to stir any emotions. Four of the sailors walked into a pub and one of them went to make a phone call. The camera followed him.

In a corner of the pub the sailor found a payphone – a gold Telecom payphone. The flash of gold struck a deep chord and my stomach dropped. For the first time since arriving in Scotland more than a year before, I felt homesick.

I couldn’t believe it. Having sat through nearly an hour of looking at the beauty of Sydney Harbour, it was the sight of a payphone in a pub that had me craving for my homeland. I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling unsettled.

Over the next few days the gold Telecom payphone played on my mind and I began wondering what I would do if I ever returned to Australia. I’d always wanted to buy a Coimbi van, get a dog and see the country, so after not much effort I decided this is what I would do. Along the way I would take photos – of what I wasn’t sure. The more I thought about it the more I liked it.

Life in Scotland went on and my mind became otherwise occupied. When I did think about my Combi van and dog again I realised there was nothing very original about the idea. I wanted my journey to be a unique slant on the ‘around Australia’ theme and began looking at new ways of approaching it.

Over a period of months my various ‘brainchilds’ evolved until, one day, I struck gold; I would hitchhike all the way around Australia photographing everyone who gave me a lift and writing about each hitch. The fact that I’d never hitchhiked before didn’t bother me and, while others had hitchhiked around Australia, I hadn’t heard of anyone else photographing and writing about their hitches. I knew this was the ‘around Australia’ slant I’d been looking for.

It was inevitable the seeds of doubt would infiltrate my thoughts, and they did. However, even though the fear of the unknown was scary enough, my motivation lay in the fact that if I didn’t see out my journey I would grow old wishing I had. I didn’t want to go to my grave looking back on what might have been.

Further motivation came from a good mate and fellow photographer, Ian Waldie, who loved the idea and threatened on numerous occasions that if I didn’t do it, he would. I also made sure I told all my friends about what I planned. This was more of an insurance policy than anything, so they couldn’t corner me at a party in years to come and ask me whatever happened to my hitchhiking idea.

At around this time it was discovered that several British backpackers were among a string of hitchhiking related murders in Australia and many of my friends took pleasure in reminding me of the hitchhiking connection. When Ivan Milat was subsequently arrested, tried and imprisoned for what became known as the ‘backpacker murders’, I knew there was one less madman to worry about.

Not surprisingly, my family and friends were concerned for my safety. It was only when the likes of Milat forced hitchhiking into the news that the world got to hear about it. It didn’t matter that my journey was my ‘Everest’ and carried far less danger than the actual 20-25% chance of death associated with climbing the real thing. There was something far more appealing and honourable about dying at the hands of Nature than being butchered by a madman beside a lonely stretch of highway.

Even though I didn’t want to become an old man looking back on what might have been, I was in no hurry to race back to Australia. Years passed. I took out residency and bought a beautiful flat in an equally beautiful part of Edinburgh. I had a wonderful group of friends, Europe was on my doorstep and the money I was earning kept me in a lifestyle to which I’d grown accustomed. The decision to embark on my journey kept being made harder.

One particular autumn evening I walked through the city on my way home from dinner with friends. All around me the streets were deserted and Edinburgh Castle, lit by floodlights, sat atop its rocky perch high above the city. I stopped and stared up at it. The cold air stabbed at my cheeks and I buried my hands deep into the pockets of my overcoat. It was a very Edinburgh moment and I felt deep emotions welling up inside me. I remained there for several minutes, wondering why I wanted to pack up my life in Scotland – one I’d built out of nothing – and throw myself into the unknown.

Finally, after nearly five years talking myself into it, the time came when I had to face the music. However, moving back to Australia meant undoing the life I’d made for myself in Edinburgh.

When I had first stepped off the bus at St. Andrew’s bus station all those years before, I had with me a backpack, suitcase and camera bag. With time my worldly possessions expanded and a small van was now needed every time I moved.

Not only that, the last time I moved it had been into the flat I’d bought. This now meant I owned furniture and a lot more. When the time came to sell everything, it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. My flat was a reflection of me; wine glasses, crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, furniture, bed…everything. It all had to go.

Selling what was had been a huge part of my being saddened me and the morning I was due to leave I sat in the hall of my now empty flat and cried. I loved my flat and didn’t want to say goodbye. Even though I knew what I was doing was the right thing, the future scared me. 

In February 1998, five-and-a-half years after arriving, my train pulled out of Waverley station and Edinburgh disappeared behind me.