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Friday, June 8, 2018

People we haven't met yet: South to Perth

When I was very small, the story goes, we saw a man with his thumb out on the side of the road. I asked what he was doing and my mom said he wanted a ride. I asked why we didn’t give him one.

She said, “Well, we don’t know him, honey” and I said that I did.

I don’t know if thumbing a ride is still a thing in North America, but it’s common enough in Australia. Nevertheless I was surprised, as we began our road trip back to Perth from Exmouth when we saw someone on the side of the road and T. asked, “Shall we give him a ride?”

It wasn't a question. She was already backing up. And as soon as we got there I could see that our hitchhiker was, in fact, a young woman.
You could see the resemblance more clearly if she weren't wearing a cap--or if I were.
She reminded us of me, if I were fifteen years younger and French. I wonder if I reminded her of her. Delphine had been living at home in Brittany until a few years ago, when she decided being an ambulance driver wasn’t exciting enough. So she started walking, and sometimes hitchhiking, around Australia 22 months ago. 

I thought we were traveling light, but D. knocked “minimal” into a cocked hat. She was carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking stove, all in a backpack that weighed less than mine. I asked if she ever felt unsafe but she said no, never. She added that although it is considered safer for a girl and guy to hitchhike together, compared with a girl hitching alone, she thought having a guy along would make it “too easy.”

She rode with us all that first day back to Carnarvon, and I was glad, because it had been by far the dullest part of our road trip north. Nothing to stop for at all. There are a few picnic areas and we shared our sandwiches with D. at one—a rickety table and desperate toilet. Also trash cans. Western Australians cannot use a shortage of trash cans as an excuse for not throwing trash in them.
This was underneath our picnic table!
Finally, we got back to Carnarvon. We needed some groceries so said au revoir to our passenger in the parking lot. It felt a bit abrupt—I was sure she had more stories—but we were going back to the Coral Coast Caravan Park, with its lavish ablutions, and she was pitching her “swag” someplace free. I don’t know if there’s an etiquette for picking up hitchhikers but I felt vaguely concerned about her, even though she’d been fine for nearly two years before we met.

As we were pulling out of Carnarvon the next morning, we were still talking about D., wondering if she’d stay in Carnarvon an extra night or move on to Shark Bay. Not entirely surprisingly, T. spotted her again on the side of the highway. She had walked back out of the town centre and was as pleased to see us as we were to see her: “I know you!” Which only goes to show that, as T. says, a stranger is just somebody we haven't met yet. And I needn’t have worried about D.; while we were having beans on toast for supper at our campsite, she'd treated herself to fish and chips! 

We knew she wanted to go to Shark Bay so she rode with us as far as the bleak Overlander Roadhouse, the turnoff where we’d stopped on the way north. There we shared another lunch and said bon voyage. That’s where she consented to have her picture taken with this curly-haired, glasses-wearing stranger who was not a stranger after all.

The Discreet Traveler cannot recommend hitchhiking anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t do it, nor would I advise the girls in my life (or boys, for that matter) to do it. But part of becoming an adult is recognizing that there are things I personally would never do, which doesn’t necessarily make them bad choices for everyone. In fact, I admired D. In all the months she’d been hitching, she said Australians had picked her up tons of times, but only twice did fellow travelers stop. Us and a German woman. T. thought that was disgraceful. I said it had been impressed upon me that picking up hitchhikers was dangerous and D. replied, not unreasonably, that she was the one taking the risk.

I am sharing her story because there is something so pure and Zen-like about the way she is traveling. No Facebook, no Instagram, not even a journal. She has a phone and takes a few pictures, but a camera was just extra weight. She’s just experiencing, and yet she’s doing it the right way. She talked in detail about her visa options, here and in the next countries she’ll be visiting. She took the time and got proper work permits. She’s pretty much traveling by foot and thumb everywhere (although she did “cheat” with one flight). I thought I was brave at 27, emigrating to a new country; but I wasn’t in a tent or on my own. 

D. is an extreme embodiment of what we’re always learning: The world is not full of monsters. The news is. I don’t mean by this, as some do, to malign the media or suggest the news is “fake.” Rather, it’s the man-bites-dog truth of journalism: The news, by definition, reports what is exceptional. If goodness and kindness were exceptional, they would be news. When D. fell off a motorbike somewhere in Vietnam (don’t ask when), people just came out of the woodwork to help; she didn’t know where they came from but they were there before she could get off the ground.

So look out for Delphine on the road. Though she's perfectly able to look after herself.

We were glad to have company that day too, because it was the longest drive of our trip. After our lunch stop T. and I took turns driving all the way back to Geraldton. The Sunset Beach Caravan Park didn’t afford the sunset we had seen on our way up, but at least we were finally by the ocean again.

I couldn’t get over how people in these campgrounds just start friendly conversations, in a kind of communal living. If our neighbors hadn’t come over at Shark Bay, we might have stayed in Coral Bay instead of at the Ningaloo Lighthouse. If our neighbors hadn’t come over in Carnarvon we might not have seen Coral Bay at all. I was checking out of the campground at Geraldton when I heard one camper ask his partner, in German, if she wanted a copy of the such-and-such Times. “I don’t want any Times,” she said in English. “I am on vacation.”

Compared with Highway 1 further north, “Indian Ocean Drive” now seemed quite scenic. We’d missed Lesueur National Park on our trip north because there are no signs for it anywhere from the main highway. You have to detour as far as Cockleshell Gully Road, which is unpaved, and only then are there signs for the national park. T. drove some miles before she reached the (paved) scenic drive. A little bird swooped and bounced before us much of the way, “like a bird in a Disney movie,” taking advantage of our slow speed on the dirt road.
We decided to hike up to the flat top of Mt. Lesueur.
As with some Dutch place names (Vlamingh), French names in this part of WA reflect the origins of some early sailor-explorers. In springtime this park is supposed to be exceptional for its wildflowers.

It wasn’t springtime, but the view over to the ocean was pretty good. And we saw a wedge-tailed eagle drifting overhead, although I didn’t have the lens to capture it.

Our last night of camping was at our old haunt in Cervantes, with one last Indian Ocean sunset. Even T. remarked on the moon, suddenly full through the trees.

We’d gotten more than our money’s worth out of the national parks pass, but there was still one more we’d missed just north of Perth: Yanchep. On our last morning before returning the camper van, we stopped there to check out its Koala Boardwalk.
The first koalas came to Yanchep from Perth Zoo in 1938. They are native to eastern Australia and I was sure I’d seen one up a tree somewhere in Queensland, but as we were driving by, I couldn’t prove it to myself or anyone else. While the Yanchep koalas can’t be classed as wild, a sanctuary is better than the zoo, or one of those tourist photo ops. And we were glad to see this threatened species in a safe natural environment.

And so to Perth, where we had a couple of days downtown to check out the city. Although Perth doesn’t seem very big, or to have a great many tall buildings, it felt very urban after two weeks on a camping trip. A historical marker revealed that we were staying in the neighbourhood of Edith Dircksey Cowan, the first woman to serve in Australia’s parliament.

We were just down the street from Kings Park, so decided to check out this green hill that is the heart of Perth. Indeed, it’s more than that. The combination of botanic garden and natural bushland on Mount Eliza is, to the local Noongar people, the home of the creator of the Swan River, and a hunting ground for thousands of years. It was from a lookout here that the Noongar first glimpsed the Europeans who were coming to join them. Much, much too late, Australia is finally recognizing the contributions made by its original people, the traditional custodians of the land.

There are a lot of memorials in and around Kings Park. One of the most recent is this one, to the memory of Western Australians killed in Bali in 2002. The Indonesian island of Bali is a popular tourist destination for Australians (it’s cheaper to fly there from Perth than to Sydney or Melbourne), and of the hundreds killed and injured in that terrorist attack, the majority were foreign visitors.

It was sunny that day, so we also took time to check out Elizabeth Quay and walk around town a bit. The modern skyline contrasted with lovely old buildings including His Majesty’s Theatre, the only Edwardian theatre still standing in Australia.

The best part of our travels—or the part we miss most when we’re away—is the people. Before leaving Perth on a rainy last day, we had a chance to meet someone else whom, it turned out, we already knew. Neither T. nor I had ever met Teresa, who is the sister of T’s aunt by marriage and emigrated to Australia nearly five decades ago. But by the end of the afternoon (and a bottle of wine), we both knew and loved her. I kept trying to thank Teresa for lunch but she only said, “Just thank God.”

As T. says: "We're all on the same journey."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A fascinating collection here: intrepid hitchhiker Delphine, sunsets, moon-rises, national parks, Indian Ocean views, koalas, the city of Perth, and new-friend/almost-relative Teresa: "Just thank God." G & P