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Remembering the first bite of the travel bug


Remembering the first bite of the travel bug

There was a time when European travel wasn’t a rite of passage for young Australians. ALLISON WHITE reminisces about taking the plunge for her first overseas trip in the 1970s when it was still a big deal to head to the opposite end of the Earth.

When I was a kid in the early 1960s, my big brother was given a game called Heads and Tails for Christmas which, as the name suggests, involved matching the pictures of people in national costumes from around the world.

There was a little Dutch girl in clogs holding a tulip, a German boy clad in lederhosen, a Zulu warrior, an Aladdin-style Arabian in harem pants and vest, an Eskimo beside his igloo, and so on – you get the picture.

Although my brother wasn’t wildly excited by the cards, he did resent the fact that I took them from his drawer and played with them endlessly.  I believe that’s where my fascination with the world and travel began.

It continued at high school, where I was fortunate to have a well-travelled French teacher who was Armenian-born, English-raised, and Sorbonne-educated, and who happily sprinkled entertaining stories of her life’s adventures into the lessons.

When she gave me a well-worn copy of the Paris Match with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the front cover, I thought all my Christmases had come at once. I pored over that magazine for months, dreaming of far-away places.

Finally, in 1978, it all seemed possible. Rather than investing in the great Australian dream of home ownership, we booked one-way tickets to London.  As one wise, old friend put it, “why buy a castle when you have a world of castles to visit?”.

Strangely, the cost of that one-way ticket which seemed an enormous amount at the time, is about the same as we pay today – or were paying pre-2020.

It was an exciting rare moment to see a jumbo take off from Heathrow,

The Qantas jumbo dwarfed the Brisbane airport terminal – the first had flown into Brisbane only seven years earlier.

First stop was Darwin. When the overhead lockers flew open spilling contents into the aisle, we just accepted that this was landing procedure – until it was announced there would be a delay as the rough touchdown had caused some damage.

Finally, Australia disappeared into the slipstream and after a stopover in Bahrain, we landed at Heathrow on a freezing March morning.

There were four of us and, clinging to suitcases fresh off the baggage retrieval system at Heathrow – a description that came courtesy of Monty Python, we stood in the terminal looking numbly at each other while wondering what to do next.

The dream had been to fly to London, buy a van and go to Europe, and hadn’t really been developed much beyond that. Finally, someone had the bright idea that we should find a hotel and be free of the luggage.

But where? Memories of the 1972 comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, were still fresh: “Let’s try Earl’s Court. It’s Kangaroo Corner.”

We found a phone box with massive phone directories inside, chose a hotel at random and booked before moving on to how we were going to find it. The London A-Z would become a most valuable tool, along with the Tube map.

I knew it would be cold, so I had packed my Queensland winter sweaters, blissfully ignorant of the true meaning of freezing. Nothing in my 21 years had prepared me for the bone-chilling winds biting London.

There was still a day ahead of us after finding the dodgy hotel in Earls Court and dropping off the bags, so we immediately set off in search of overcoats and luckily, with the English smelling Spring in the chill air, there were plenty of sales.

That our jackets were identical wasn’t a concern. They were warm and nobody knew us in this huge city that, at the time, had the same population as the whole of Australia.

Next stop was finding wheels for the grand European adventure, so it seemed as good a time as any to check out the campervans parked around Australia House in the Strand. We hadn’t wandered for long when we got chatting to a Western Australian couple in a white Volkswagen Kombi.

The Kombi van and a tent became a home for four for six months.

It had Dutch registration and the steering wheel was on the left which, we decided, would work well as it was destined to spend the summer on the Continent. It did mean, however, that the driver who drew the short straw would have to come to grips with changing gears with the right hand while negotiating the frantic left-hand drive streets of central London.

An hour later, after working out how to turn the first of our prized American Express traveller’s cheques into cash, the Kombi was ours.

Despite the crazy daze of it all, we were optimistic, and stopped to buy the tent and sleeping bags that would see the van become a home for four for the next six months. Not a bad effort.

It was late afternoon and dark when we returned to the hotel and flopped on to the dubious, but warm, bunk beds. One by one we dropped out of the self-congratulatory conversation into a deep sleep.

And so ended the first day of a lifetime of being torn between the comforts of home and exploring the globe.

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