My First Memory of Camping Was About Leaving the Past Behind

I found myself on the side of the road as the sun was setting. I had never pitched a tent or had gone camping before. I don’t know what I was expecting to happen at this point, but I knew I wasn’t prepared for this reality. A few choices came to mind. Start crying like a city boy lost in the woods (almost correct), or man up and pitch this tent in the nearest bush where no one can hear me crying. I took the second option and this started the many years of traveling through Far North Queensland and the rest of the world. How did I end up here and what happened from then on?

This series of articles is the journal I never wrote when I was backpacking (more like hitchhiking) in my youth through the Far North of Australia’s East Coast. I will not say that the timing of events or the description of the characters I met along the way will always be correct or accurate.

What I will say is that I will try to be as precise as possible, while at the same time attempting to tell a story as it should be told. That’s the best I can do. Putting things in chronological order at this stage would be almost impossible as memories merge and timeframes blur.

The best I can hope for is that this story is worth listening to.

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How did I end up here and why did I start the Journey?

I don’t want to dwell on the negative aspects of how I ended up on the side of the road, but I feel that it is necessary to at least set the scene. Everyone ends up where they are because of what happened before.

I didn’t start my travel adventure because of my desire to see the world or because of an angst to explore the unknown. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy the act of exploration. I love traveling to new places and creating opportunities to see more of this big blue world. It just didn’t start that way.

My parents finally divorced after many years of discontent and my mother and youngest brother left for Melbourne where we were originally from. With those 2 gone the light had left our fractured family.

Now only darkness filled the house with the remaining three, my father, my oldest brother, and the middle child…me. We were like 3 men in a boarding house for recovering alcoholics. Ships at sea and not much interaction between us. I was between jobs and was receiving unemployment benefits….more like welfare.

The Dole – Unemployment Benefits

For me, being on the dole is about as low as I’ve ever been. Today, if you asked me, would I take the dole again, I would say that working where I had to pay people, instead of being paid to work, is much better for a person’s self-esteem than being caught in the vortex of hopelessness in a welfare system. Soul destroying to say the least. Enough about that.

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The Birth of an Idea

At the lowest point in my life and regretting the half of the family I ended up with, I decided to leave. Misery by my own design was better than being absorbed into the dystopia of another.

Infused with images from the countless documentaries and Westerns our family watched throughout my childhood, I had the Ill-conceived idea that I would find my place in the great outdoors, the wilderness, and to be a kind of Jeremiah Johnson carving my own path through life on my own terms. This from a Coca Cola kid from the burbs who’s camping experience consisted entirely of a single camping trip (we stayed in well-appointed cabins ) with my school mates and organised by my school. Not what I would call preparation or experience.

So I took what consisted of $168 (Payment for 2 weeks) and bought what I thought would be wilderness worthy equipment. It was really buying what I could afford. Sure, I purchased a backpack a flimsy tent and a sleeping bag that wouldn’t keep a polar bear warm. Oh….and I also brought a duffle bag full of essentials like the trumpet I never had the discipline to learn to play and whatever else wayed 80 pounds or more that I imagined I had the endurance to carry. What a crazy fool, and no one smarter around me to tell me differently. The truth was nobody cared, not even I did. I just wanted out of there and when my dad and brother saw my pack full of flotsam and jetsam, they never said a word. The next day I was gone. There were no goodbyes.

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North – The Direction to Discovery

For some reason unknown to me, the only direction to head was North. Going north in the Southern Hemisphere means you’re heading to warmer climates. You know…..palm trees, endless coconut studded beaches, poisonous snakes, and an assortment of unmentionable critters that will kill you just as painfully. Did I mention Crocodiles? More on them in future articles.

So how did I get to the highway of dreams? This is where I mention that I also had what I loosely call a career (brief as that was at this point) in hospitality. My friend Helga, who was a German matriarch of sorts, offered to put me up for the night and then drop me off on the highway going north.

She and I used to be co-workers in a nightclub and became fast friends after a heated confrontation. Apparently it’s a very German thing to do…..start a friendship after a heated argument. A very cool and beautiful human being that saw me as a wayward son. We exchanged gifts as we talked into the wee hours of that night. Her gift consisted of a $20 bill and a carton of Cigarettes. I smoked back then for a brief while. I remembered what she said of me before we parted, “You always do what you say you are going to do no matter how crazy”, she got the crazy part right.

In the morning with a better sendoff than my own Kin, I was mobile. For the first time, I had no security blanket, no one to fall back on. Armed with only a mission to explore the great north, punctuated with a destination called Cairns. Everyone needs a destination point, even if it’s value or purpose isn’t clear, otherwise, how will you know if you’ve arrived.  Really I was just hitchhiking to nowhere, somewhere, anywhere but here, here being the side of the road just outside of Burpengary QLD, where Helga dropped me off. I never saw her again. I think of her often.

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My First Night Camping

I don’t really remember much of my first-day hitchhiking on the #1 Highway back then. Only that nobody seemed to care. I was a human being that mattered, not roadside garbage to be avoided. That’s how it felt though. The exhaustion of carrying the burden of my pack and my past was weighing on me. To this day when I see someone on the side of the road, I think that this person is somebody’s daughter or son that has lost their way and needs a friend.

I realized I was truly alone. The only company was my thoughts and inner voice that just wouldn’t shut up. What a downer this voice was. I cacophony of insecurities flowing down a river of regret. Somebody shut this guy up. I didn’t know the right way to do this ( if there was one ) so I just walked all day in the direction I thought I wanted to go. North I guess?

One person with a heartbeat picked me up. I can’t remember his name. A middle-aged man with a Grizzly Adams beard. He was a local vet and had animal cages in the back and in the seat beside me. He let me ride in the back seat and we made small talk. He took me as far as he could before he turned off the highway. Not far enough when you have been walking all day carrying a heavy pack & an 80-pound duffle bag hiding the now silent trumpet stowaway.

When he dropped me off the sun was descending quickly and after walking a short distance, realized I had to make plans for what I was going to do during the night. Pitch a tent and go to sleep I guessed. This is where I pick up the story that I started with at the beginning. I had a choice and I made the right one. I walked into what looked like a pine forest and darted off into the darkness, carving my way through the undergrowth until I found a clearing. This is as good as any other place I thought to myself and away I went. I pitched that tent all the while pulling off leaches I had only seen in documentaries. These bloodsuckers where real! Blood suckingly real. Didn’t they know I was vulnerable and needing a friend. I guess not. I found myself shoving everything into my newly erected tent thinking my stuff would be safe from the leaches and every other selfish blood sucking critter that wanted to take advantage of the new boy.

Nested in my sleeping bag as cozy as the trumpet in the duffle bag, I kept telling myself “just survive this night, go to sleep” ” You can do it, just shut your eyes, go to sleep and wake up in the morning, you’ve got this” I believed that if I could survive this night it would all be OK in the morning.

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The Next Day and the Rest of My Life

The morning came and when I realized I had survived my first trek into the wilderness. I felt invincible! Everything changed. Who was that scared little rabbit the night before? Some “Soda Pop Kid” from the city, not this wilderness man that I had tranformed into. Jeremiah Johnson’s got nothing on me. The difference was night and day. In my mind, I believed If I can do this once, I can do this many many times. It was pure logic for me.

From that day onwards I was a walking singing fool on the road to nowhere and I didn’t care. I really didn’t worry about a thing, not for a moment. My own life began on that day and the old me died in the forest with all those blood sucking leaches.

I ditched the duffle bag. Actually I hid it in the long grass under a power pole on the main road so if I was inclined I could find it again. For what reason? I don’t know. I didn’t need anything in that bag, not before and not after.

I slung my much lighter backpack over my shoulder and put my thumb out and just started walking north on highway #1. It didn’t matter if anyone gave me a ride, I was willing to walk to wherever I was going and I will enjoy the good people I meet along the way is what I thought.

That attitude remained with me for all the years of travel since. Not that I kept hitchhiking in my travels but rather I adopted the attitude that no one owes you a thing and that kindness from strangers is real.  There are kind people everywhere, and when you experience someone’s kindness because they have seen you and have actually felt your humanity, then….did you want to meet anyone else?

“Don’t worry about the people that have passed you by”

That was my first memory of backpacking and traveling, and a memory I can’t forget. It symbolized how nothing is worth worrying about, just do the work to get things done and that is the only reality you have to work with. One song at a time and one step at a time. and the two work in tandem.   To be continued…

Next Article in this series →

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