History: Escaping the ratrace

Here’s an account that I’ve copied across from elsewhere on my websites. It describes how my family found ourselves leaving Melbourne and living in Queensland.

I was nine and a half when we packed up our bags and left Melbourne to explore Australia early in 1984. According to my parents, their intention was to leave the ratrace of the city behind them and live a life much closer to nature. In other words, they had read plenty of Simply Living and Grass Roots magazines as well as watching The Simple Life on the tv.

No doubt their story of our departure would be different to mine. I shall tell this tale from the perspective of someone not yet a decade old. Distances are longer and time is slower when you are that young.

Our parents had pulled us out of school the year before and begun teaching us at home. There were both positive and negative aspects of home schooling, but I was to learn much over the next six months that many fail to see during their lifetimes.

The house was sold, along with most of the furniture and in February of 1984 the five of us packed into the caravan and the children among us said goodbye to the home we had lived in all our brief lives.

Each of us kids had our own bunk at the back of the van, whose interior was decorated with fake brown woodpanelling and orange fabrics and vinyl – it matched our bright orange Holden Kingswood sedan. Mum and Dad could either sleep on the double bed at the front or on an airbed in the annex. The caravan was equipped with a gas stove and oven and small gas/electric fridge. For showers and toilets we needed to use the shared campground facilities. There was no television either. About the only program I really recall missing was Dr Who.

The Victorian Coastline

We didn’t go very far at all for our first leg of the trip: just a couple of hours south of Melbourne. Point Lonsdale was a favourite holiday destination of ours. We used the time to get used to the caravan and big khaki canvas annex. At the small Ocean Grove Zoo we met their Zeedonk, a bipolar cross between a zebra and a donkey. Later on I had an opportunity to fall off a donkey at a nearby farm – right after being told that they were perfectly placid beasts. My recompense was being allowed to stroke a newborn foal. The rest of the family were envious of that.

From Point Lonsdale we drove along the Great Ocean Road to Port Campbell, gateway to the famous natural rock formations of the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge (now collapsed). The final stop before leaving Victoria at a glacial pace was Nelson, memorable only for the wallabies around the caravan park.

The Coorong

Our escape from society really began when we pulled into a secluded caravan park along South Australia’s Coorong. We were far from any town, making necessities like fresh milk difficult to get. However the solitude of the long sandy beaches, the pink salt pans and bushwalks through scrub made up for any missing luxuries. It’s a lovely, quiet part of Australia, known mainly as a backdrop for the book and film Storm Boy, seen many times at school.


We returned to civilisation by staying in Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. Mum harked from Adelaide and we had many relatives there. Hahndorf is, as its name suggests, a German town which has attempted to preserve much of its heritage. Our caravan park included a dam with kayaks, which I learned to paddle, and a plague of millipedes. They were everywhere and they stank when you accidently squashed their curled up bodies.

Our time in Hahndorf was spent visiting relatives, exploring the Adelaide Hills and in school studies. We even drove down to the Yorke Peninsula and around the remains of the Cornish mines. I think my parents felt constricted by family, as if they had not escaped from the city life and so, after a couple of weeks, we moved on.

The Flinders Ranges

Driving northwest of Adelaide we stopped at Crystal Springs, camping amongst peppercorm trees and pink galahs. From there we drove on to my favourite location on the entire tripL the Flinders Ranges.

We stayed at the Rawnsley Caravan Park, a working sheep station north along a gravel road from the town of Hawker. The town once lay on the old railway line to Alice Springs, The railway sheds remained, but the tracks were long gone, diverted to the other side of the range. I regreted never having travelled on that train, but the town’s school was kind enough to let us use their piano and library.

Our caravan overlooked Rawnsley Bluff, the side profile shaped like the face of a bearded man. The caravan park was wonderful fun for a young kid. The red earth gave way to easily flaked purple shale, the hitherto dry creek behind us flowed during Easter rains and we played with our plastic boats. We practiced compass navigation and bush walking. The only bad bit were the shower and toilet blocks, dirty and often full of scary giant moths attracted the lights.

We went bushwalking all over the place, from the relatively wet bush of Wilpenda Pound to the red dry cypress and pepper tree plains. Brachinia Gorge was especially interesting as we found quite a few fossils in the rocks. The Flinders Ranges were an uplifted seabed and contained some of the first multicellular fossils found on Earth.

Coal is another fossil product and we were taken on a tour of the Leigh Creek coalmine. The scale of the operations was incredible with huge draglines dumping rock into dump trucks with wheels taller than a standing adult. When I cracked open a lump of coal sitting a pile I discovered that it contained the imprint of a fossil fern. It seemed a pity that it was all destined to go up in smoke.

We did see the destination of the coal, driving through Port Augusta, the lead smelter of Port Pirie and the westernmost point of Australia that I have visited, the iron city of Whyalla.

Elsewhere in the Flinders we stayed at Wilmington, caught the Pichi Richi steam train on the last remaining old Ghan track, and tore a hole in my pants sliding down rocks. A classroom could never have taught the millions of years of history, biology and geology that we experienced at the Flinders Ranges. I hope to return someday.

Inland NSW

We now turned northeast, driving up through desert country to the South Australian border and Broken Hill. It wasn’t entirely barren, there was spinifex grass and the red and black flowers of the sturt desert pea. At Broken Hill we went digging for wine red garnet crystals, bringing bag loads back with us. The caravan park adjoined a park with a squash coated disused steam engine that formed the centre of make-believe games.

From Broken Hill we drove on to Cobar, then Nyngan, ummemorable except for the mouse that crept into the two man tent I was staying in for some peace and quiet from the rest of the family. I knew a mouse had been around by the stench of its urine.

At Dubbo we fed peanuts to the elephants at the Western Plains Zoo. We had a longer stay in the Warrumbungles National Park outside of Coonabarabran. The facilities at the caravan park were pretty basic and the water-saving showers cold and miserly. The countryside was in the grip of a mouse plague, rendering the external caravan annex unilvable.

However, there were plenty of attractions in the area, volcanic plugs forming an interesting landscape with many bushwalks. Atop one hill was the Anglo Australian Observatory which housed the largest optical telescope in Australia and an excellent visitors centre. Closer into town was Miniworld, an amusement park with full size dinosaur sculptures including a spouting diplodocus and paddle boats in an artificial lagoon.

The area around Coonabarabran provided Mum and Dad with their first opportunity to explore alternative life when they visited a self-made mudbrick cottage on one of the farms. I can’t say that I recal being impressed by this tiny house for four, but my parents came away determined to build their own house.

We had another astronomical experience further north at Narrabri, where a kind astronomer gave us a personal tour of the CSIRO Culgoora Radioheliograph, a spider web array of wire radiotelescopes for observing the Sun. Later on I would find myself employed by that same division of the CSIRO, although the a radioheliograph was, by then, replaced with an array of six radiotelescopes for observing more distant objects.


I had never been to Queensland before and had a vision of the state as being a tropical paradise full of palm trees. The reality was definitely not a paradise, although there was the odd cabbage palm or livingstonia here and there.

Goondiwindi was an opportunity to catch up on some neglected schooling. We stayed at the showgrounds where the toilets were simply disgusting. There wasn’t much to see around the rest of the town either. However, Goondiwindi will always, to me, be the place I learned my timestables, Dad drilling me on daily walks around the showring.

In Queensland we started searching for a place to live. We visited one property out in the middle of nowhere, no electricity, doubtful water supply, the only house a small wooden, possibly rat-infested, cabin. It did have a kind of charm, but I hate to think what would have become of us if we had lived in that isolated place.

Travelling north we explored a fossilised forest near Roma and discovered that Banana was named for a legendary yellow cow and not for the fruit. Mount Morgan proved to be a more interesting location. The big gold mine has closed, leaving a water filled crater, but one company was sorting through the tailings for traces of gold. We went on a guided tour of the mine. I was remprimanded for picking up an interesting stone on the ground, warned that it could contain cyanide from the gold extraction process.

The steep ride down the hills from Mount Morgan to Rockhampton was nerve-wracking. The caravan’s brakes were overheating and threatened to fail, with potentially devastating consequences. Through slow and careful driving we made it down safely to Rockhampton, the largest city we had seen since Adelaide. There we stopped in a caravan bark on the banks of the crocodile infested Fitzroy River. The park was lined with poinsettia trees, their long black seed pods useful as play swords to bored kids. On the doors of the mens toliet cubicles some wag had grafittied an ongoing tale, which made for amusing reading.

After about a week we sought other accommodation, though the wanderlust was rapidly draining out of us and there was a sense that we should settle down. We got as far as the Uniting Church run Cool Waters camping resort beside the Causeway on the Capricorn Coast, less than sixty kilometres from Rocky.

Cool Waters was a pleasant place besides a lagoon and across from the beach. It had an emu infestation, the huge birds entering annexes and tents in search of food, leaving behind large circular wads of dung, sometimes containing multicoloured pebbles used to aid in digestion.

Dad had started to search for a plot of land for us to settle down on. Perhaps the experience of being back in a city had reignited a desire for some of the more materialistic aspects of life. Certainly the area that we were in was beautiful in comparison with the bleakness of inland NSW and Queensland.

A New Home

On my tenth birthday I got a Meccano-like construction set and a first look at the land that would be our new home. It was a one hectare block on the western side of a bush covered hill, with spectacular views of the Berseker Ranges. We all agreed, it looked fantastic.

As the saying goes, looks can be deceiving and dreams only exist in the mind. We never built our on mudbrick home powered by the sun and never lived self-suffiently off the land. Instead we connected to the main power grid, paid someone else to build (poorly) a three bedroom pinewood building, not enough rooms as the family grew to six members and decided that communual living wasn’t for us (I moved out into the no leaky caravan). Despite extending the leaky dam and building twin tanks we frequently ran out of water. There was rarely enough for more than two quick showers a week. Boring into the ground yielded nothing.

It wasn’t all bad. We did have good crops of paw paw, mangoes, water melons and bananas. There was plenty of wildlife too, from the comical brush turkeys and frogs in the toilet. And every summer we would watch the massive fireworks shows of electrical storms over the range.

But for me the journey did not end in Queensland. It was not my home and I never stopped dreaming of an escape.

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