Heading west in a Ford Cortina
It’s school holidays and every morning, straight after the hugs and did-you-sleep-well courtesies have been exchanged, I am asked “What are we doing today?” by my darling granddaughter.
Full of youthful expectation and exuberance, she has come to stay for a fun-filled week with grandma and pop. I hope we don’t disappoint!
We’ve been looking forward to her visit for months as the vagaries of distance mean we see little of her during school term.
And so the fun begins. Monday is the zoo where the meerkats are a hit. Tuesday is the aquatic centre and we swim until we are both wrinkly, which in my case represents only marginal change from the status quo.
On Wednesday we shop until grandma almost drops, and yet we still only scratch the surface of the ludicrously large shopping centre we visit.
On Thursday, we hit the beach, eat fish and chips in the park and finish off with cartwheels and ice cream. With so many varieties on offer, a double cone is mandatory.
In between, we cook Anzac biscuits, gem scones, savoury muffins, sausage rolls, tacos and Bolognese sauce. We groom the ponies, plait their manes, and treat them to carrots and biscuits of lucerne.
We select fabric from the local craft store, practise straight stitching and zigzag on the sewing machine, draft a pattern and make mummy a reversible apron with pockets.
We play Yahtzee, dominoes and I-Spy. We talk endlessly about Harry Potter and the minutiae of J.K. Rowling’s characters. If only she were this devoted to her times table, I muse.
In a stroke of grandmaternal genius, I introduce her to my girlhood favourites, The Chronicles of Narnia, and am rewarded for my brilliance with a restorative afternoon nap while the youngster devours The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in her room.
It’s now sun-up on Friday morning. The house is still quiet, so I settle my head back on the pillow, pull up the covers and contemplate the day ahead. I berate myself for exhausting my tool kit of school holiday entertainment before the week is out. Perhaps I peaked too soon. Maybe I should’ve left the zoo for today. The critical inner voice is very active this morning.
My thoughts turn, as if for consolation and inspiration, to my own childhood and I wonder how my hard-working, dairy-farming parents coped in the school holidays. The answer is obvious: they carried on regardless.
Milking cows do not respect school holidays. They expect to be milked twice a day, every day, unless they’ve been “dried off” and “turned out” for a well-deserved rest.
In 1967, after working the farm for seven years non-stop, Mum and Dad turned out the cows and announced to the delight of my two brothers and myself that it was time for a holiday. Destination – the station property in north-western Queensland we had left seven years before.
It was two days’ drive away and was still run by my beloved bachelor uncle, who offered free board and lodging for as long as we wanted to stay.
In the wee hours of the morning, my brothers and I were piled half-asleep into the back seat of the Ford Cortina and we set off into the darkness. By sunrise, we were on roads unfamiliar.
Dad sat close to the steering wheel, as was his habit, puffing on a rollie wedged between the index and middle fingers of his right hand and glaring at the road from under the brim of his felt hat.
For Dad, driving was a joyless activity, designed for the sole purpose of getting driver and passengers from point A to point B, safely and without delay.
“Just before dusk on that first day, Dad slowed the Cortina and pulled off into a rather dingy rest area”
Mum couldn’t drive at all, except the old Land Rover on the flat, so with a captive audience she read aloud from P.C Wren’s, Beau Geste, an adventure novel my brother was studying at school. My brother had refused to read it and I can understand why. The book was about as much fun as this driving business.
After initial excitement, the mood in the car soon turned sombre. Such was Dad’s determination to reach our destination that we were “shushed” by Mum if we dared to ask for a toilet break.
At intervals, Mum would put the novel down, roll another cigarette for Dad, and distribute bread and butter to quell the appetite. Food is not that appetising when all you want to do is empty your bladder.
Just before dusk on that first day, Dad slowed the Cortina and pulled off the highway into a rather dingy rest area that mercifully was equipped with a toilet, a “thunderbox” to be precise, and an undercover picnic table. This was to be our campsite.
As the light faded, the mosquitoes, big enough to saddle, descended. A light rain began to fall. From the boot, Dad extracted the tent he had borrowed from the neighbours – payback for seven years of horse shoeing – and started to erect it.
The prospect of camping under the stars had seemed so adventurous, but for me, as a child of 10, it was apparent from the outset that Dad, though an experienced bushman, was a novice at erecting tents.
The mood darkened as the sun departed. For failing to cooperate, the tent was cursed up hill and down dale with a rich cocktail of swear words that Dad usually reserved for special occasions and never in front of the children.
His language was reminiscent of the time he played his last competitive cricket match, when a bouncer hit him in the mouth and broke his false teeth.
My brothers and I retreated to the back seat of the car. It was raining steadily now and pitch black. Mum got behind the wheel, started the engine and pointed the headlights in the direction of the tent. Finally, after an hour’s hard slog, it was up.
But Dad had not counted on rain when he selected the campsite. He’d pitched the tent over a hollow that was steadily filling with water. Dad spent the night on the picnic table, while the rest of us were cramped like sardines in the Cortina.
We never camped again, although Dad continued to shoe the neighbour’s horse until he retired.
With a smile, I threw back the covers and prepared to greet the day, safe in the knowledge that there were plenty of things for us to do today and camping wasn’t one of them.