"We were on our first day of a trip around Australia with our two sons, Oscar, eight, and Dylan, six. We had quit our jobs, rented out our house, enro"We were on our first day of a trip around Australia with our two sons, Oscar, eight, and Dylan, six. We had quit our jobs, rented out our house, enrolled the kids in Distance Education and left home to have an adventure."
What begins as an ambitious, year-long road trip through and around the heart of Australia for Lorna Hendry, her husband James and their two young sons from Fitzroy, Melbourne, turns into a three year long experience that completely changes their outlook on life and living in the 21st century. After three years of planning and saving, they think they are prepared for life on the road, but they learn the hard way that you can never plan for everything. Even their first night away tests them when Lorna discovers that all their kitchen supplies are infested with tiny black ants. It's easy enough to say you'll home school the kids - how hard can it be? - but the reality is: very hard. And it's months before they realise they've been erecting the camper trailer all wrong.
Alongside the interesting details of life on the road in a harsh, hot and sparsely populated environment - and anyone planning a road trip in Australia should make this compulsory reading, I'm sure - is the landscape itself, and their interactions with it and the people. The one that really sticks with you is their experience at Lake Eyre, the lowest point of Australia. A rough track, barely navigable by 4WD, leads to a salty plain that fills with water about four times every hundred years, but when it does it is the largest - and saltiest - lake in Australia. Hendry's description foreshadows the night to come:
Around us, the landscape was a wasteland of black rock. Giant slabs sloped away, colliding with each other and shearing off, leaving edges as clean as a knife blade. There were no trees in sight and, even in April, it was hot. I couldn't imagine what it would be like in December. ... When we arrived, there was one elevated toilet block, a few information signs and no sign of life. We were the only people there. We might have been the only people in the world. (pp.48-9)
There is nothing at Lake Eyre to support life, and the lack of birdsong, flies, ants - anything that moves, eats, breathes - is eery beyond anything Hendry has experienced. She hallucinates and sees mirages,and navigational equipment goes "haywire". At night, both Lorna and her husband James lie awake, imagining axe-murderers and serial killers, unable to sleep, trying not to vomit, unable even to tell when morning has come because there are no animal sounds to herald it: no birdsong.
Compared with that experience - made no less scarier by the cross marking the death of an Austrian tourist who tried to walk out, after her boyfriend became ill and their car got stuck. Hendry gets across the eeriness of this death when she mentions that the woman, Caroline, "was still carrying more than six litres of water." (p.52) Hendry ends the account with this insight:
I think now that what I felt that night at Halligan Bay was not just about being alone. It was also that, after forty years of city life, I was surrounded for the very first time by a landscape that made no concessions at all to the requirements of human life. I had spent my entire life priding myself on my independence, when only a few days' drive from home there were places where my urban resourcefulness was totally inadequate. (p.53)
There are many experiences, incidents and moments in Wrong Way Round that make this book both entertaining and educational. There is a lot of Australia that I have never seen, and while I don't envisage us ever doing anything quite like this - I would want one of us to know more about cars before taking on a journey like this, for a start - it would be a regret of mine if I didn't ever see the rest of my country. Lorna Hendry doesn't hide the difficulties or downplay the hard moments, the trials and the expense (and it IS an expensive road trip!), but she also makes clear the positive effects this experience had on them, especially her young sons. Other parents who had done similar journeys were in agreement: the travelling and being without luxuries and "stuff", spending time with white and Aboriginal peoples in small communities - sometimes staying for months to work and raise more money - has cause the boys to be more resourceful and flexible, able to hold adult conversations and a greater appreciation for things. For Lorna and her husband, they found out just how well they can survive without constantly spending money and acquiring stuff, two things that we do so much of in an urban environment, often without even realising it.
For a while I was a bit worried at the casual and brief treatment of Aboriginals in this travel memoir - mostly that Hendry seemed so awkward and self-conscious about being 'white' in a landscape that so clearly - more clearly than a city - does not really welcome you and yet you 'own' it, by dint of being white. Yet, towards the end of their travels, when they find themselves working in Aboriginal communities - running the shop, doing the school bus route - Hendry's greater understanding comes across. (Her boys don't hold back, but freely play and mingle with the local Aboriginal children, learning their dialect and stories.) There is a humorous moment (one among many), when, in Lombadina, WA, a couple arrive "in a shiny black Hummer." They pay for three nights in one of the new motel-style units, but return to the office looking sad. When Lorna asks what's wrong, the woman says, "Well, dear, it doesn't even have a TV!" "I managed not to laugh. 'Most people come here for the outdoor stuff. It is kind of remote.' 'But What doe you expect us to do at night? Sit and look at each other?' 'Play cards?' I suggested. She glared at me." (p.211) It's funny but also sad to think of people who don't know what to do with themselves and need the distraction of a television, rather than talk to each other or simply sit and relax. (There are also people, couples - you've seen them, or maybe you are one of them - who go out to a restaurant and spend the entire dinner looking at their mobile phones and never speak to each other. When did this become the new 'normal'?)
At the beginning of the book is a big, 2-page map of Australia, neatly labelled and covered with arrowed lines so that you can follow their journey in a visual-spatial way: this I loved. At the back are some photos, an example of their fuel consumption, and a page from a language lesson. Throughout her memoir, Hendry recounts the highs and lows, the small details and big concerns with an engaging, personable style that makes you feel like you've got to know her and can visualise it all. (There were a couple of spots that I had trouble following, but overall she writes with clarity and humour.) Most of all, you can vicariously travel around Australia with Wrong Way Round, and Hendry doesn't entirely put you off doing it for real, one day. ...more