The Long East Coast from Sydney to Cairns

Escape is back!  October has been an epic adventure through immense landscapes on the world’s most iconic routes. 

  • The great Australian escape will be divided in 5 posts:
  1. The Long East Coast from Sydney to Cairns (yes, this post)
  2. Hitting West to Darwin
  3. The Never Ending Road through the Red Middle
  4. To the Big Red Rock: Uluru
  5. The Final Stretch back to Sydney
  • Google Maps tells me that I hitchhiked more than 11,000 km! A personal record.
  • I will follow the structure of my notebooks: the number of the lift is preceded by a number sign (#) and followed by the name of the driver, a slash (/)  and the travelled route.

This escape has been cold and hot, dry and wet, hungry and thirsty, long and short, fast and slow. It has been everything. And nothing. But let’s rewind to where it all began: Sydney.

I left Sydney on a sad drizzly Sunday night.  On my back a small backpack with only the bare essential. Most people tend to pack a lot more than they really need. I do the opposite. In the end, the things you own end up owning you.

The last thing I did in the civilized world was listening to the album Highway 61 Revisited. I put Like a Rolling Stone on repeat. I was ready to escape.

Since it is very hard to hitchhike out of a big city as Sydney, I decided to catch a train to Thornleigh. I reasoned Thornleigh was a strategic start because this suburb is close to the major ramp to the M1 Pacific Motorway going north. Additionally, there is a BP, Caltex, Shell and 24/7 McDonald’s. And a 24/7 McDo always attracts traffic. If all these options were not going to work out, I’d try a different suburb called Turramurra.

Both the BP and McDo seemed pretty dead at 10 pm. A 24/7 McDo doesn’t always attract traffic.

I switched to the Caltex petrol station. I thought about the conversations that I had had with colleagues about hitchhiking in Australia. They all had assured me that it was either impossible or dangerous.

I found a lift in 5 minutes.

#1 Train driver / Thornleigh -> Beresfield BP truck  stop

A man returning from a camping trip is happy to offer me a lift to the Beresfield BP truckstop, just above Newcastle. He’s an ex-truckie (truck driver) and now drives coal trains for QR National. “I drive very, very big trains,” he tells me, “this country runs on coal and whatever is left goes to Asia.”

The conversation turns to trucks and we shortly arrive at the BP truck stop. It was cold at night and under the motto “sleep is overrated” I decided to continue my journey.

#2 Truckie / Beresfield BP truck stop -> Elanora

A B-Double (a truck consisting of 2 trailers) stops and is heading north. I quickly jump in.

After the usual chitchat, my eyes start to get blurry and I shift to the spacious cabin’s sleeper. Travelling and sleeping at the same time, this is a great combination!

When I wake up we are already approaching Gold Coast and the New South Wales – Queensland border. This is going smoothly.

“A young bloke as you should definitely go to Palm Beach. It’s on the way, I’ll drop you off at Elanora and it’s only a short walk to Palm Beach. You have to see Palm Beach,” the truckie assures me.

There seems to be little room for discussion so he drops me off at Elanora and I walk to Palm Beach as instructed.

I didn’t get what all the fuss about Palm Beach was. Not only wasn’t it particularly beautiful with a large pipeline running over the beach, but is was probably the rain that let me decide to move on. More to the North should be warmer, right?

#3 Lady with two children / Palm Beach -> gas station on the Pacific Highway

I ask a lady for directions to the closest gas station and she spontaneously offers me a lift to the closest gas station. She just has to convince her two children to get in the car first. Not an easy exercise. Our conversation was brief but interesting.

“I’m an anaesthetist in a hospital. Had a very rough week. People in Australia are getting fatter and fatter, and it doesn’t make my job easier,” she complains.

“What is the connection between obesity and the problems you face as an anaesthetist,” I ask.

She explains “I’m presented with obese patients in the operating room almost everyday now. These patients provide specific complications as respiratory problems during anaesthesia.”

She drops me off at the a large gas station on the Pacific Highway and gives me the final advice  “to eat enough fruit and veggies, do sport, and avoid fast food.”

Thank you.

#4 German-Aussie couple / gas station on the Pacific Highway -> Brisbane

No particularly interesting lift. We arrive in Brisbane in the afternoon. About 1000 km so far.

     

#5 Gardener / Hamilton BP station on the Kingsford Smith Drive -> BP gas station on the M1

After two days in Brisbane, I wanted to continue north to the tropical Cairns. Hamilton, a suburb northeast of Brisbane, seemed as the ideal start to find someone driving to the the M1.

At the BP gas station I find one very timid man who refuses to give me a lift (“We don’t pick up strangers these days, you know, in Australia it’s a little dangerous these days, you know.”). The rest of the cars stopping for gas are all local.

Luckily, a young man wants to drive me to the first BP gas station. He is a gardener, hates his boss and isn’t particularly inclined to work today. The latter is interesting for me and I accept the lift to the BP gas station.

#6 Felipe from Brazil / BP gas station on the M1 -> BP truck stop Caboolture

A BP with 24/7 McDo always attracts traffic. At least this time.

I find Felipe who’s working on a hemp farm and will drop me off at the BP truck stop in Caboolture. He explains me the whole hemp business and concludes by saying “We do everything with hemp except smoking it.”

#7 Truckie called Birdy/ BP truck stop Caboolture -> Gin Gin

Australia’s British roots are revealed by the omnipresence of the huge network of BP gas stations. But they attract a lot of traffic. And that’s a good thing.

A Western Star truck is stopping and I ask the truckie where he’s heading to.

“Rockhampton,” he answers, “you can join if you want.”

No need to ask twice. Let’s go!

The truckie is transporting plastic pipes and introduces himself with a very long name adding that I should call him Birdy. When I ask him why people call him Birdy, he shrugs his shoulders.

Birdy is a very talkative truckie and giggles after every sentence. We cover a range of topics while playing Dire Straits through the truck’s speaker system.

“You have to find a balance between what the boss wants and what the government allows. The boss always wants to deliver asap. The truth is that the boss will let you down when you get caught for speeding or not taking the compulsory breaks. And the chances are high to get caught. The police patrols are here to stay.”

And Birdy is correct: a police patrol is already driving in front of us for twenty minutes, closely monitoring our speed.

We cross the Mary River and are often surrounded by large sugarcane fields. Australia is the main producer and exporter of sugar after Brazil. Up to 5 Mt are produced each year and 80% is exported.

We finally lost the police patrol and Birdy cracks open a can of beer saying “Now the bitch is hitting the gas.”

There is not much time to celebrate because we hear the engine making an unhealthy sound.

We stop.

Birdy opens the truck hood and inspects the engine. The sound of dripping water catches our attention. Indeed, the cooling is leaking. And a lot.

We refill with water and gently drive 5 km.

We stop.

All the water is gone. We refill and continue this exercise every 5 km. At Gin Gin, Birdy pulls over and advises me to look out for a different truck. He will search for spare parts and it is unclear how much time that will take.

We say goodbye and the last thing I hear him say, while forming a gun with his fingers and aiming at the truck, is “This piece of crap of Detroit.”

Birdy wasn’t giggling any longer.

     

#8 Truckie called Fabian / Gin Gin -> Townsville

Luckily, Gin Gin is on the Bruce Highway and is a hotspot for truckers. I mingle with the truckies and a truckie called Fabian is heading to MacKay where he will pass the wheel to his colleague Greg who will continue up to Townsville. That’s a lift of 1000 km.

Fabian is 66 years old and has been driving trucks for the last 44 years. He owns the Freightliner truck that he’s driving and has seen the roads evolving from hardly accessible unpaved roads to the asphalt jungle today.

We cover a wide variety of topics. A few quotes below.

“Everything is going more slowly in Australia, we are a bit retarded compared with Europe. I don’t think this country would have been able to develop without the mining boom. That’s really huge. I mean, really, really huge. A young bloke as you should go into mining. Can make $100k easily, no degree asked. It’s hard work.”

“Ah politics. It’s all bad. They need more truckies in the government.”

“So we have this demerit point system in Australia. You start with 12 points and gradually lose points when breaking the law. Truckies should get more points than regular car drivers! You know how many kilometres I drive every single year? About 300! Damn, we need more truckies in the government.”

Fabian goes on about his time in Vietnam and then he starts calling up people. It seems that he randomly selects contacts out of his address book and gives them a ring. The conversations are hilarious. He speaks about:

– The focal point in his conversations was his Jelly and Custard that was sitting on the dashboard. “Got a damn good-looking Jelly and Custard for later. Yeah, looking forward to that Jelly and Custard.”

– About an autopsy. “I heard they moved the body. Why would they move the body?”

– Some very nice chicken in the fridge. “Don’t forget that we have some nice chicken in the fridge.”

You really hear it all when hitchhiking.

We also hit a lot of animals during the drive. A road train is survival of the fittest with a dark twist. These road trains weigh up to 200 tons and can exceed 50 m. Typically, wildlife looks for the greenest grass, which can be found next the highway due to water runoff. At night, the truck’s lights attracts kangaroos and other wildlife resulting in a massacre.

Around 3 am we stop in MacKay and change drivers. Fabian is staying at a motel and Greg takes over the wheel.

The first thing that Greg tells me when jumping in the driver’s seat is that this truck is only a toy.

“I drive trucks in the mines of up to 8 trailers. This truck is for kids. Anyway, I’m on leave and a buddy asked me take up this job.”

Greg seems a little confused and isn’t very talkative. I decide to take a nap in the cabin’s sleeper.

When I wake up at 8 am it is already light and we are just entering Townsville. Greg tells me he will bring me to a good BP truck stop after having dropped off the goods.

Since Greg has no GPS, no map or whatsoever, he has to continuously pull over and ask for directions. Greg takes the cake for the most disorganized truckie.

We lost around 4 hours driving around Townsville and Greg even dropped off goods at the wrong address because he wasn’t able to find the Casino. Finally, around 1 pm, Greg drops me off at the BP/Caltex.

I want to continue North on the A1 to Cairns but quickly notice that most of the traffic is going West or is very local. Thanks Greg.

Moreover, the BP and Caltex staff are very hostile and don’t allow hitchhikers on their gas station. They assure me that it is illegal (theoretically, this is true) and very dangerous to hitchhike in Australia.

“You won’t get anywhere. Take the bus. It is impossible and you are likely going to die. People don’t hitchhike in this country. That time is over.”

As very often, you have to walk your own truth. Nothing is impossible. It might only be a little more difficult.

I decide to make a clear sign with CAIRNS on and stand next to the road. I try for 4 hours, but nothing stops and it is incredibly hot in the sun. Moreover, most drivers appear to be very unfriendly towards hitchhikers and I almost start believing what the Caltex staff previously told me.

Often, drivers pretend to be stopping, I run to the car, the driver flips the bird at me, and quickly drives away. Just when I feel that I need to take a break because I’m getting sunburned, a truckie comes to me and informs me that he will be leaving for Cairns around 6.30 pm. He is now taking up his long break and explains me the concept.

“Truckies can drive for maximum 12 hours before they need to rest for at least 6 hours. In a time span of 24 hours, the driver must have a rest period of at least 10 hours with 6 hours continuous rest. Additionally, the maximum time a truckie can continuously drive before having a compulsory break of 30 minutes is 5 hours.”

I happily accept the lift and wait in the shade.

#9 Truckie / Townsville -> Cairns BP gas station

The truckie is driving a Kenworth truck and is transporting beef to Cairns. He is glad to have a companion for the final 350 km stretch.

We discuss hitchhiking in Australia. He tells me “Hitching is pretty much dead in Australia. Used to be popular but it silently stopped after Ivan Milat killed backpackers in the nineties. ”

When asking him about advice to cross the desert by thumb he says that it is pretty much impossible. “You know, the truckies that go West depart in the beginning of the week and can do up to 3500 km without refuelling. We prefer not to stop for anything or anyone. There are some dangerous places out there, mate. You also don’t want to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Make sure that, but I strongly discommend you to try crossing the dessert, you only are dropped off at major truck stops or cities as Mt Isa. Don’t catch the mining trucks because you don’t want to get stuck at some kind of mine. Again, there are some dangerous places out there.”

“You are talking about snakes, spiders and the like,” I ask him?

He nods and mumbles “You will see a lot more coons over there. Watch out for them.”

“Ah, really,” I answer. I honestly have no clue what coons are, but I assume it is slang for kangaroos.

“Yeah, it’s full of them there. Never trust them. They’re always playing games with the truckies, standing on the road, messing with the truck and so on. But I don’t stop for anything, mate. When I hit one, I just report it in the next town.”

“So they can clean up the mess?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Wouldn’t want to get in trouble you know.”

“So is your bull bar sufficient to absorb the shock?”

“Well, yes, the bump can be pretty heavy. You see, the coons can be pretty big. They used to collect berries in the forest and now they switched to fast food and soft drinks. And they are lazy, very lazy. Don’t hunt anymore, just sit on their lazy ass drinking. God dammit.”

At this point I figure out that we have a serious misunderstanding. So I ask “Just to clarify, coons is slang for kangaroos right?”

He laughs and turns his head to me saying “Coons! You know, blacks, or more politically correct: aborigines. Mate, you are a funny bloke!”

It is apparently very hard not to become racist in Australia.

I’m dropped off at the BP in Cairns and camp next to some warehouses.

#10 Aircraft mechanic / Cairns BP gas station -> Cairns city centre

A short lift in the morning brings me to the city centre. It’s warm and the sun shines. I realize that I travelled almost 3000 km in 1 week.

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