We decided to call the old Ford “Bouncing Bessie” and a couple of days before leaving I painted it on the front and both sides of the car. We left Townsville in early May 1964 and drove to Charters Towers, 90 miles west, and the last sealed road we would see for some time. After driving through Charters Towers we carried on for another 150 miles before deciding to stop and camp for the night. So started our habit for weeks to come. There were very rarely any camping sights. We just pulled off the dirt road wherever we thought it looked interesting. Our biggest problem was dust. While driving it would come up through the floor and windows and any other place it could find. Sylvia was constantly cleaning my sunglasses and as I drove without a shirt the dust would land on my sweaty chest and would become caked there, getting thicker until finally after flexing my chest it would fall off and the process would start again.
Sylvia would suffer the most with her mostly cotton dresses and long hair. Because of the endless brown- red dust and the monotony of the flat open roads stretching forever, Sylvia would get in the habit of reading to me, to pass the time. My favourite book, I remember, was “A Town like Alice” by Neville Shute’s and the main characters spent time at both Green Island on the barrier reef (where we had been) and Alice Springs, where we would pass through.
Normally it never rained so we would sleep under the stars, and the stars were like nothing you had ever seen. The sky was amazingly clear and the constellations would light up the heavens as the Milky-way stretched across the sky. I would always sleep on my camp bed, just in case a snake decided to jump into my sleeping bag. Sylvia was a lot tougher, so she would just lay her sleeping bag on the ground. Although it was hot by day it was bitterly cold by night, so we would often sleep in our clothes and sleeping bags.
Australia has an amazing variety of birds but I was surprised the first morning I woke up to a large flock of noisy chirping birds around our campsite who settled into shrubs and tufts of grass. I was more than surprised when I realised, they were Budgerigars. I had seen many budgies in England but they were all in cages. We encountered other animals such as camels which appeared in great number, as well as wild horses. Like the country we passed through was flat with straight roads of mostly red dust and because it was uncomfortable in “Bouncing Bessie”, we would rarely do more than 100 to 150 miles a day. We weren’t in any hurry. We passed through a few townships which have become quite sizable towns today. One that I remember well is Julia Creek because when we called in, we headed for the bar which had a fair number of jackaroos (cowboys) sitting around. Because neither of us was drinkers I walked up to the barman and asked, “Do you do chocolate milkshakes”? The old barman looked at me in amazement and said: “You must be bloody joking mate, our last cow died two years ago”. The bar erupted in laughter with the jackeroos slapping their hats against their sides and banging their feet on the timber floor. In sheer embarrassment, I grabbed a couple of orange Fanta’s and left. As we drove away, we could still hear the laughter.
As we drove west, we passed two more towns that have since become a reasonable size, firstly Cloncurry and then the mining town of Mount Isa which is now a substantial size. As we moved west the road became more rugged and it was a relief when we reached the junction with the Stuart Highway, which was sealed during the last world war. We had covered 955 miles (1538 Km) since leaving Townsville. We turned left and headed south to Alice Springs. It was such a relief, no more dust for a while. It was 330 miles (530Km) To Alice, a delight after the previous run. Poor old Bessie had taken quite a battering but had held up well. The only problem was that the hydraulic brake cylinder was leaking, but luckily I had a can of oil and was able to top it up. I should have replaced the seals in Alice, but didn’t. Big mistake. Alice Springs was a reasonably large place even in 1964. We spent several days in a caravan park (although there weren’t too many caravans around) and Sylvia was able to shower to her delight and she didn’t cook on an open fire. We really enjoyed our stay in Alice but were really looking forward to our next stop at Ayers Rock. The largest monolith in the world. We had both read about it and I was longing to climb it. It is 270 miles (447Km) from Alice and 152 miles (247 Km) after leaving the Stuart Highway. It wasn’t long after leaving Alice that we ran out of the sealed road and the red dust began to appear again, but Sylvia never complained. It wasn’t long after leaving the Stuart Hwy and heading west that we decided to camp and Sylvia would go through her limited shower. The next morning, we set off on the 150 miles to the rock and arrived in the afternoon. We could see the rock many miles before we arrived. The brake cylinder had started to leak more than before and although I had bought a large can of hydraulic oil, I was bloody sorry that I had been so lazy. I should have fixed it in Alice.
Ayers Rock is an amazing sight and although in recent years you haven’t been able to climb it, both Sylvia and I climbed to the top and also watched it turn red in the setting sun. We spent two days at the camping site in reasonable comfort and were both able to have long showers before we filled up with hydraulic oil and set off for the Stuart Hwy where we turned right and headed south For Cooper Pedy, another place we were looking forward to, famous for its opal mining. I was feeling nervous, as we were running out of hydraulic oil and we still had 300 miles (480Km) to Cooper Pedy. I had never driven a car without brakes? That moment came when we still had 60 miles to go. It’s not the best feeling when you are banging your foot down on the brake peddle and nothing is happening, luckily the road was flat, so Bessie came reasonably easy to a halt. Sylvia and I looked at each other in despair. What were we going to do? We hadn’t seen much traffic and if we did would they have enough hydraulic oil to spare? The last time I filled the tank it had lasted about half an hour. Sylvia said that whatever I considered, she would be happy with. I was for driving on. The “road graders” that looked after these outback roads left a ridge of gravel on either side of the road. I felt by driving up and down onto the ridge and crossing from one side of the road to another (In sailing terms we called it tacking) and I hoped I could slow Bessie down. It was flat country-side where we were but had no idea what was ahead of us. We drove for 30 miles and were able to handle the downhill slopes by driving up and down on the ridge and crossing from one side of the road to the other. It was more than a little scary. We were beginning to think we were going to make it, although every time I went up onto the ridge, Bessie went through a pounding and I wondered how much more she could take. With only 20 miles more we came to a slope that we couldn’t handle and Bessie began to gather speed and driving up on to the ridge didn’t help. I could see a nasty dip ahead on the ridge. I shouted “Hold on” as my heart raced and we hit the dip and the bonnet flew up on its hinges and the battery came clear of its bracket and smashed into the back of the bonnet. I steered to the other side of the road with the bonnet hiding my view and came to a halt on the ridge. When I got out of the car and looked under the bonnet. I had terrible thoughts of what I might see, but it wasn’t too bad, except for the fact that the battery was badly damaged, cracked so badly that all the distilled water had leaked out. After some thought, I decided to lash it back together with some light rope I had. Then fill it with water and hope the cells in the battery were not too badly damaged. I only needed to start the car once, I was sure I would be able to buy a new battery in Cooper Pedy, although seals for the brake cylinder were another matter altogether.
When the time came to start the engine, I looked at Sylvia and smiled as I grabbed the key with my fingers then hesitated before turning it. As I did It immediately roared into life. I never found out whether it would be able to start old Bessie a second time. Now I had to back down off the ridge and hope there was no other damage. Before moving I mention to Sylvia “I can meet you at the bottom of the slope if you would like to walk down”. I could see the road levelling out a couple of hundred yards ahead. “I’ll come with you” she replied. There were no more problems and I drove into the small township of Cooper Pedy a relieved fellow. Most of the inhabitants are in some way involved in opal mining. I understand that some of the world’s finest opal comes from this small area. As we came to a stop outside the garage, come general store and left the engine running I went to see if they had a battery and seals. As the fellow behind the counter looked out at old Bessie he said “I’m sure we can help you with the battery but the brake cylinder seals we would need to bring them up from Adelaide. Take about a week. I’m pretty sure there’s one of that model Ford in the breakers-yard around the back. You need to ask for old Joe.” I immediately went out and turned the engine off and eagerly walked out the back. I could see the old Ford, it had seen better days. I found Joe in a shed full of car spares hanging from racks and rafters, so full you could hardly move. I explained my problem and he told me I could take the brake cylinder out of the Ford and leave the old one with him and he, gave me a price, which I have long forgotten. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until the job was done and we only had a couple of hours of light left, but I did have a kerosene lamp. I knew the temperature could be unbearable during the day. It would be better if I did it at night. I replaced the battery and moved Bessie around the back and started work. Neither of us had ever been anywhere like Cooper Pedy before.
A lot of people lived underground in old mines and had converted them into comfortable homes. The town has become famous because of its opals and underground homes. The major attraction was how cool they were inside. As I worked on removing the broken cylinder, Sylvia went exploring and returned after I had removed the cylinder and was taking it apart to check the seals, they seemed okay to me. She was raving about the “Opal Cafe” and suggested we should eat there for dinner. At around 8 pm I took a break and we went to the Opal café. What an amazing place that was. The meeting place for miners, where they discussed the day’s efforts, had a meal and a beer or two. There were several grinding and polishing wheels around the main room where miners would bring their finds of the day and shape and polish them. The café would stay open all night if there were enough patrons. When I told Sylvia, I would work until the job was finished, she said: “In that case, I’ll stay in the Café.” And so she did, returning to see how I was going, every half hour. After getting only a couple of hours sleep, we took Bessie for a run and I was delighted to find that all was working well. We stayed in Cooper Pedy for one more day before heading south.
Port Augusta was 540 Kms (335 miles). We kept up the old unsealed road routine of driving about 100 to 150 miles a day. On the afternoon of the second day, we came to the sign pointing west stating Eyre Highway, Perth, 1500 miles. So, we turned right to cross the Nullarbor. We spent more than a week driving to Perth passing places such as Ceduna and Eucla. After passing through Eucla we decided to pull off the road and camp as we had many times. That night after we had eaten it started to rain so we had to sleep in Bessie, Sylvia in the front and me in the back. We had mostly enjoyed our camp-sites with the beautiful starlit sky’s, birds and animals. This night was going to be different, it rained heavily all night. When we got up in the morning and walked back to the road, it was flooded in large patches, which made a mockery of the road signs we had seen saying “Reserve your water for the next 200 miles”.” NO WATER”. We packed up after breakfast and headed back to the road but as we reached the ridge at the side of the road the rear wheels started to spin. I immediately stopped, knowing what had happened. I needed to dig the front wheels clear (I carried a shovel) and jack up the back-drive wheel and pack it with rocks. Then with Sylvia looking on I slowly drove Bessie out of her predicament onto the road. I drove with care as the road had flooded sections for many miles. One consolation was that there weren’t any problems with dust for a day.
Somebody must have loved this rain? When we reached Norseman, the road became a tee junction and we turned north towards Kalgoorlie (A famous gold mining town). When reaching the sealed road outside Perth we decided to look for a camp-site where we could clean up and give Bessie a good scrub before driving the 30 odd miles to Perth, before turning south and ending our journey in Bunbury, 108 miles down the coast. I had friends in Bunbury, Trevor and Jan Storey. They were from the same part of Essex as me and had come to Australia shortly after me.
Sylvia stayed for a couple of weeks, then decided to return to Sydney. I stayed for six months before moving to Perth. After a couple of weeks, I decided I also wanted to return to Sydney. I had made a lot of friends there. I decided that I would drive on my own and would drive from dawn to dusk. That way I would more than double the daily mileage we had done on the way over. I can’t say I was looking forward to the drive back, especially the Nullarbor. The heat was exhausting and the dust became unbearable, and Sylvia wasn’t there to clean my sunglasses. It never ceased to amaze me the amount of punishment old Bessie could put up with. I was extremely happy when I reached Port Augusta and knew that if I took the longer route for the rest of the trip it would be all sealed road. I had had an enough of bloody dirt roads and was sure Bessie had too. So, the first thing I did was to look for a campsite and borrow a hose and hose the outside and inside, and then have a good shower knowing there was no more of the old red dust. It’s about 1,000 miles (1670 Kms) from Port Augusta to Sydney and I could do it in less than two days. As I drove into Sydney and across the Harbour Bridge to Manly, on the Northern Beaches, where I had lived, I had a great feeling of accomplishment and was looking forward to staying with old friends.
I had written to Sylvia and was surprised to hear she was married. I was still keen to catch up with her, so at the first opportunity, I gave her a ring and told her that we should get together. She told me she would love to meet up, but her husband didn’t want her to see me. I was shocked. He had nothing to fear from me. I considered Sylvia a great friend. I never heard from her again. I often tell the story of my adventure with Sylvia Paris, as in France.
After less than a week I got a job repairing TV’s and was given a van. I sold Old Bessie for exactly what I paid for her, – 10 pounds. As Churchill once said, “Never in the history of human adventure have 2 friends owed so much to one old car.” We travelled for 12,000 Km and 7,000 was just a dirt road. When you think that today the route we took is all sealed.
It was to be two years before I started my next adventure. That story is told in our book, “Dreamer of the Day”.