Distance has never been an object.
Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.
My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.
Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.
The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.
A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.
Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.
Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.
Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.
All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.
So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?
Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!