Gertrudinous by Robyn Boswell
No matter how much you travel or how many exciting and exotic places you visit, nothing can ever match the feeling of the first time you step on a plane and head to another country across the ocean. That very first trip inspired me to travel the world.
In 1969 I took my first tenuous steps into the big, wide world, moving 100 miles away from home to Auckland to go to Teacher’s College where I made friendships that have endured to this day. In our last year, we daringly left the hostel that had been our home for two years and five of us rented a big old house together. During late nights sitting around chatting, we discovered that we all had a dream of exploring the world. The ‘Big OE’ (overseas experience) was almost a rite of passage for young New Zealanders so we made a plan to meet up at the end of our first year of teaching to spend our summer holidays in Australia – a terribly big adventure in those days.
Five of us set out on an Air France flight from Auckland to Sydney on Boxing Day. We were wearing our very best dresses and our families, who had all come to see us off on our journey across the Tasman Sea, bought us corsages of fresh flowers which we proudly – and naively - pinned on our bosoms and felt like sophisticated world travellers. The flight itself smacked of old-time travelling luxury with a three-course meal that included caviar, although none of us knew what those strange little glistening balls of fish-tasting stuff were. A tarmac glistening with water greeted us as we landed in Sydney. It was bucketing down with rain, so we got our raincoats out of our hand luggage and suited up, much to the amusement of many of our fellow passengers. In 1973 the only way off a plane in New Zealand was to walk across the tarmac. What an embarrassing surprise to find that Sydney was a bit more classy than Auckland and we walked off through a bone dry jetway, still wearing our raincoats.
Customs quickly disabused us of the wisdom of wearing fresh flowers when visiting another country, then Immigration almost sent us back home on the next plane when we could only give them the address of the hotel we were staying in for the first night in Melbourne. Fortunately, I had the address of a friend of a friend of a friend who we didn’t even know, but that satisfied them. Our education in the ways of the world had begun.
Sydney’s incredibly humid summer heat was something we were totally unprepared for, so the first opportunity we raced into the restroom and removed our panti-hose. We were sweltering! So much for sophistication. A porter at the airport told us to take a taxi into the city and quoted us the price. The taxi driver charged us four times the amount and in our naivety we paid up without comment. Nowadays when I get in a taxi in a foreign country I pretend that I’ve been there before and know where I’m going. We managed to cram a bit of sightseeing into the day, but, coming from a country where trains were almost unknown, we were a bit challenged by the rail system. On a train to Central Station the guard called “All change” and we just kept sitting where we were. Eventually the guard had to come along and tell us that train wasn’t going any further.
By that evening we were on the overnight train to Melbourne since that was the cheapest way to travel, an important criterion that would underline our travels together over the next few years. Sitting up all night on extremely hard, sparsely upholstered seats was a bit of a come-down from caviar and corsages, especially as we had to queue in the dining car for ages and dinner turned out to be tea and toast. At some ungodly hour just around dawn, the train lurched to a stop and we discovered we had hit a couple of horses on the line so were delayed for some time – that was also a portent for our further adventures together.
My neighbour’s daughter’s boyfriend was a used car salesman in Melbourne and we had arranged to buy a used car from him. The morning was spent making a series of calls to Denise. In later years I have had my suspicions that she hadn’t actually made any arrangements about the car before we arrived, but eventually she and her boyfriend turned up at our accommodation – the inappropriately named ‘People’s Palace’ - with a car for us. I had never met Denise or her boyfriend before and he was the epitome of a slick, smooth car salesman in a shiny suit who didn’t inspire the confidence that he was no doubt hoping to portray. In fact, after we met him, had someone said “Would you buy a used car from this person?” I would have said an unequivocal “No!” There was just something about him. I should maybe have listened to my inner voice, but we really had no choice as he had a car lined up for us for $285, so we paid our money and were the proud owners of a somewhat ancient, blue and white Holden station wagon. We very quickly named her Gertrudinous. Despite our apprehension and her rather noticeable flaws, we became quite fond of her over the few weeks we owned her.
The oily salesman had offered to fly to Sydney – at our expense – at the end of our trip, collect the car from the airport, drive it back to Melbourne, resell it and send us the money. We didn’t hear from him for months then he spun us a tale about how he’d tried to drive the car back to Melbourne but the engine had blown up half-way through his trip. We didn’t believe him for one minute and he probably had a great weekend in Sydney at our expense. We never saw a cent of our money, but oh well, it hadn’t really cost us anything much for several weeks of fun.
With some trepidation, we set off on our first drive – around the block - to find a parking place. Linda and Pauline didn’t drive, Teresa and Helen had only had their licenses for a few weeks and I had had mine for a year. Guess who got the job of driving first? We made a very slow and stately trip with me driving and the others adding lots of encouragement.
Having never been in a city that size, it was terrifying, but we survived. The next day I even managed to drive to the caravan park on the outskirts of Melbourne where we’d be staying for a few nights.
A couple of days later, once we had all gained a bit of confidence by driving out into the beautiful Dandenong Ranges and down to the beach, I plucked up courage to drive us back into the city for the day. I still wasn’t confident to drive much above snail’s pace and was taken aback when we were pulled over by a couple of young cops. They said they were doing a license check, but I’m pretty sure it had a lot more to do with a car load of young, attractive women. They didn’t seem particularly interested in my license, but they did suggest I might like to drive a little faster. They treated it as a huge joke – we nearly had heart failure!
Teresa opted to drive home after dinner in the city. We were quite lost and crawling along a dark, deserted street trying to find the way out when poor Gertrudinous, our new pride and joy, failed to stop at a red light because the brakes had suddenly given up. Fortunately, we drifted to a halt right opposite a petrol station where the proprietor took pity on the five naïve Kiwi girls. He couldn’t find anything wrong and rang the RACV to have Gertrudinous towed to a garage that could repair it in the morning. Luckily – although we hadn’t thought so at the time – we had had to pay to join the RACV so we could get insurance on the car. We all piled into the tow truck for the trip to the garage then had a very hairy taxi ride back to our caravan park. The kind guys at the garage checked the car over, fixed the leaking brake fluid and put on a new radiator hose. Sadly, though, they apparently didn’t discover the lack of a handbrake so we had to learn to live with foot brakes only. That caused great hilarity when we went to a drive-in theatre for the first time ever and kept rolling back on the slope so someone had to sit in the driver’s seat for the whole movie with their foot on the brake. Driving off with the speaker attached to the car was another story.
We wended our way from Melbourne to Adelaide along the stunning Great Ocean Road, enjoying the sights and spending most evenings enjoying meals and fun in various pubs along the way. Unfortunately, Victoria was having its hottest weather in 71 years and Gertrudinous, being a rather old 1963 lady didn’t have aircon. With the temperature hitting 43C we drove with all the windows open which only led to a searing hot current of air flowing over us.
I’ve always loved exploring back roads and byways. Down one particularly rough country road we came across a dead snake in the middle of the road. That just had to be explored, so we hopped out and were suddenly pursued by two very fierce dogs who were far more terrifying than the snake. A little further down the same bumpy road, the muffler fell apart. The nearest place we could get help was 50 miles away so there was nothing for it but to carry on, sounding like a 747 taking off and scaring every living beastie for miles. We roared past one old lady on the side of the road and nearly frightened her into the ditch. Eventually we came across a garage where a laconic young mechanic hoisted the car into the air and unenthusiastically banged on the exhaust pipe with a hammer, somehow hoping to push it back into the muffler. A few days later it dropped off again so that night Linda scrambled under the car with an unravelled wire coat hanger and wired it all together. We had no further problems with the muffler for the rest of the trip.
About the same time, the speedo broke, which was very disconcerting to say the least. We tried to get it fixed without luck so had to drive on a bit of a wing and a prayer until we could get it fixed in Adelaide.
It was in Adelaide that I learned that getting lost when you travel is one of the most distressing things that can happen. I had taken note of the fact that we were parked in a square somewhere, but that was it. Somehow I got separated from the others and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea where I was or where the car was. Wandering around looking didn’t help at all, so panic started to set in. I couldn’t even remember where we were staying for the night. After walking fruitlessly for what seemed miles, I eventually I hopped in a taxi, told the driver my dilemma and that the car was in ‘the square’ – he looked at me and said “There are nine squares in Adelaide.” I just said “Well, take me to all of them.” I sat there shaking with fear and trying to figure out where I would find my friends. Fortunately, the very first square we came to I spotted dear old Gertrudinous just pulling out of the carpark. They had waited over an hour and a half, also in a state of panic so had finally decided to go to the police. Relief doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt.
The next week or so we rambled through the Barossa Valley, availing ourselves of the products from the various world-class wineries, and along the Murray River, taking every opportunity we could to jump into the cool river waters to escape from the oppressive heat. We spent one night at a drive-in movie in a sandstorm which made for interesting movie viewing.
Gertrudinous behaved very well until we went to take off one morning and discovered we had a puncture. Fortunately, we were in a town and not way out in the wilds and we managed to get a new tyre from a wrecker’s yard. He shook his head in disgust when he discovered we didn’t have a spare – not one of us had actually noticed that – and gave us a second tyre for free to use as a spare.
The cooler air of the Snowy Mountains was a great relief and although the mountains were nothing like our mountains at home there were some very steep stretches of road. It was here that poor old Gertrudinous began to show her age. Several times we had to stop while trying to get up a hill and give her time to take a breath – and cool down. It was all a bit too much for our poor old pride and joy.
In Canberra we stayed in a Youth Hostel run by a very imposing older woman, who brought back unwanted memories of the overbearing matron from our teacher’s college hostel. This one somehow thought she would look after the five Kiwi girls who were on her doorstep for a few days. We sure didn’t appreciate being given the job of cleaning the loos! She warned us against going out at night because there was a large black snake that lived in the carpark. I’ve never been sure if that was true or if she just thought she was protecting our virtue.
As we got closer to Sydney the heat was accompanied by fierce humidity, which was even more uncomfortable. In Bundanoon, while we waited for the Youth Hostel to open at 5pm, we were told there was a swimming hole in an old mine in a park on the edge of town. It was only a ‘short walk’. After an exceedingly steep walk through clouds of flies, we eventually came to the edge of a cliff – way below was a small, green pool. Linda was the only one of us brave enough to climb down to it and had a dip although she did admit it was rather slimy. The walk back up the hill was horrific and made all the worse when I actually swallowed a fly.
Sadly, our few days in Sydney were marred by a petrol strike so we had to park Gertrudinous up and explore where we could by train and ferry.
At the airport we bid a very sad farewell to our erstwhile travelling companion. Despite her temperamental hiccups, Gertrudinous had become one of our gang and it hurt to leave her standing all alone in the vast carpark. We phoned the slippery salesman and he promised he would be up the next week to collect her. If only that was true.
We had learned many lessons, amongst them that you don’t need to dress up for a flight. However, Helen and Teresa had bought some very spectacular (think 1970s!) false eyelashes and were determined to wear them on the flight home to show everyone how trendy they had become. Due to the petrol strike, our flight was delayed, then rerouted via Brisbane for the plane to refuel. By the time we arrived home at 1.30 in the morning our families had been waiting for many hours and were very happy to see us. No one noticed the false eyelashes!
Gertrudinous certainly set the pattern for all of my future travels – every long trip I have done since has been highlighted by breakdowns and technical failures including one engine failing whilst flying out of LA and having an emergency landing, our ship delayed by a week when a generator blew up, nine weeks on a shaky bus in Europe and a 4WD drive that caused us many anxious moments in three months in the Australian outback. All of those just add to the adventure. That first trip was the one that showed me how much fun it can be to set off and explore our wonderful world.