Europe - 1976


When we were at Uni absolutely everyone went to Europe when they finished studying. We were late starters, since Geoff was doing his PhD after having spent some time in the workforce, but as soon as his thesis was submitted we were off. We owned a house in Perth, rented out at the time, and spent our last night in Australia building a fence while the tenants held a party. The last panel went in at 1am, and we went home to pack - our flight to England left at 8am the same morning.

Things started interesting. We stopped off in Jakarta and stared our the windows of the plane, astonished at the numbers of armed men on the runway. Time passed, nothing happened. After several hours sweltering in the plane, they announced that we were all to go to the transit lounge, while the plane was searched - apparently someone who was booked on to KL had departed here, leaving their luggage on board, and for the last few hours they had been looking in the cargo hold for a bomb. Bomb scare over, we flew on to Singapore, spending a week or so with a friend and seeing all the sights, then took the train up to Kuala Lumpur, where we stayed a few days. We can pick them - our first hotel overseas was also our first brothel. We've slept in many brothels since then, but we were very new to travel and a bit amazed by it all.

My most vivid memory of KL was a trip out to the caves, when the bus driver just ran over a goat - no slowing down, no stopping - just 'bump, bump' and he kept going.

We also kept going, flying to London, where my sister, Carmel, met us, and we had friends to stay with in Tooting Bec (John and Mado). Tradition had it that Australians went to London and brought a camper van outside Australia House on The Strand. We followed tradition, and became the proud owners of a very decrepid VW van with left-hand drive and a host of problems. The first major problem showed itself when we drove out to Weybridge to stay with Geoff's cousin, Brian. We stopped at a road junction and that was that - the engine sounded OK, but we simply didn't go. When we got out of the car, we found that the rear axle was no longer connected to the diff - hence, it was no longer connected to the wheels! All of the bolts had fallen out. A call to Brian and a tow to the nearest garage solved that, but other problems weren't so easy to fix. It turned out that our car had been in a head-on smash, and the electrical system had been rewired leaving all the old wiring in place; we found that out when we went to fix the indicators. The gear box was also shot, and that too was replaced - our bargain car began to cost a lot of money.

Eventually we were on the road - a tour through Britain, calling in to visit Carmel in Great Yarmouth, and someone else's Uncle Albert in Durham (and very nice he was, too). Then into Scotland and Edinburgh, where we climbed to Arthur's Seat while further car repairs took place, and we didn't understand a single word of the explanation given to us about the work - the broad Scots accent was beyond our ken. Some of the best bits of Britain were up in the far north - we drove up to John O'Groats with a dour hitchhiker who never spoke a word, then headed west across the top of Scotland, on the one-car-wide tracks through peat bogs, hardly seeing a soul. The coastline was fantastic, and the puffins on the cliffs were a real treat to see - fantasy birds in a fantasy setting.

Our route back south took us through Leeds, where a visit to the University put us in touch with one of Geoff's research contacts, then much further south, deviating through Wales and back into England to Oxford, where I caught up with the Senior Lecturer in Economics from UWA - I had been his research assistant after I graduated. We also called in to the Zoology Dept, where the Prof was very kind to us, arranging for us to stay with some of the postgrads on the farm they rented just out of town, and inviting us to go on a field trip. While we were staying in Oxford we made a day trip to Cambridge, where the Strawberry Festival was taking place.

It is difficult to remember where we went down south - Brighton, Dartmoor, all around Devon and Cornwall, out to Land's End, Cheddar Gorge, then back through Bath to London - all the usual tourist places, the narrow, hedge-lined roads, traction-engine fairs, little sea-side villages, thatched cottages - all the things that outsiders see as typically 'British'.

Our 'green paper' in order, we caught the ferry to France. We were first off the ferry at Calais, and drove out onto the wharf, which gradually coalesced into a road. It took a few minutes to realise that we were on the the wrong side of the road - we switched lanes, and behind us the string of following cars dutifully switch too, all victims of the 'follow-the-leader' syndrome.

We resolved to stay out of Paris, fearing the driving and the parking there, so our trip around France was somewhat privincial, through Brittany, with a visit to Mont St Michell. Then south to Chartres and days of visiting fantastic chateaux in the Loire Valley.

We crossed the border just south of Biarritz, and stayed in the ugly industrial city of Bilbao on our first night in Spain. We were headed for Santiago de Compostela, where we had an introduction to Antonio and Maribel at the University. Santiago was an absolute highlight for us. Despite our lack of Spanish, Antonio and Maribel took us under their wings, arranging for Geoff to give a seminar at the University and showing us all around their city. It is a wonderful place, with the central Cathedral and civic buildings dating from the middle ages, and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The mass has an amazing ritual with a huge censer of incense strung from the roof and swung from side to side across the nave - it takes eight men on stout ropes to keep it moving, and it roars just above your head, spitting sparks and smoke as it goes - really something!

Santiago is a city for pedestrians, with many plazas separated by steps, and most cars kept out of the centre. At night we dined out on the streets, and Antonio and Maribel explained that the boys dressed in black with coloured ribbons were Uni students busking, dressed in costumes dating from the middle ages - the ribbons indicated how many girls they attracted.

From Santiago we went south to the coast then into Portugal. If my Spanish was bad, my attempts at Portuguese were even worse, and two little girls serving us in a shop literally rolled on the floor with laughter at us, and had to be rescued by their parents, who understood our mime. We only saw the poorer far north of Portugal, but what we saw was wonderful. Villages up there have beautiful little tiled churches, and we found ourselves stopping all the time, driving off to search for yet another mosaic masterpiece. One such miniature church was completely tiled inside - totally fantastic. At Oporto we headed east again, back into Spain. We called in to see Maribel's parents at the border town - conversation was a garbled mixture of bad French and even worse mime, but we managed.

One of Spain's most perfect walled cities was on our route - Cuidad Rodrigo. We had very little information about it, and were just stunned by how complete it was. From there we headed to Salamanca, another famous University town, with stunningly beautiful architecture. We were avoiding Madrid (wimpy Oz driver!) but swung north to Segovia, site of an ancient roman aquaduct and one of the most fantastic castles in Europe. We called in to El Escorial to sneer at the monument to Franco then went to look at that more famous walled city, Toledo. Okay, but not a patch on Cuidad Rodrigo; there were dead fish poluting the river, and the heat was exhausting. It didn't help that I was sick.

When we went to leave Toledo, on a boiling hot Sunday morning, the electrical system started to smoulder, filling the cab with fumes and threatening to burst into flames. Geoff ran around the back of the van and attempted to cut the battery connection (the wrong one!) while I raced up to the caravan park office and yelled "fire" in French on the offchance that someone would understand. Eventually the wiring smouldered out and the manager made sense of my frantic Frenglish and calmed me down. He rang a local auto-electrician, who came around and looked at our sorry wreck. Our lack of a common language made it impossible to explain to him about the double sets of electrical wiring, half of which did nothing. He looked at the half-cut battery lead, shook his head sadly, and set about repairing it. Then he slowly and methodically isolated bits of wiring from the fused and burnt mess in the front and fixed it, using a suck-it-and-see method. All we could do was keep him well supplied with cold drinks and marvel that he achieved anything. By late afternoon we had our car back, at a cost so small that we insisted in paying double - it was worth a fortune to us! I succumbed to being totally ill and collapsed in the back of the van while Geoff drove to Barcelona.

I confess I don't remember much of Barcelona - I really was sick. There was some interesting architecture, but that is all I can recollect. Politically, this area was a bit of a hot-spot at the time. There were pro-democracy rallies in the streets, and earlier a very large, internationally-organised rally had been broken up by the police and civil guards. We drove up through the mountains on our way to Andorra, and found ourselves in a small town where there were no people on the street, only troops. Our car was stopped on the way into town, and again as we rapidly drove off out of there - it didn't feel like a good place to be.

From tiny Andorra we returned to the French coast, driving up to Arles, then continuing along the coast to Monaco and Italy. The coast road in Italy was something else again, through tunnels and along brilliant cliffs. We were running short of time, and decided to just go to Venice. Along the way we stopped off in a small village where a local festival to the Virgin Mary was taking place, and we spent a night in Milan, but were very unimpressed with this industrial city.

Venice was everything we had expected - a wonderful city to wander around, to sit in the sidewalk cafes and to just enjoy the ambiance.

We had been told that we could get Yugoslav visas on the border, so we took the winding, narrow road through the mountains to an obscure border post. We mimed our way through some formalities, but waited around while all the other cars going through were seearched. No-one came near our car to search it and it wasn't at all clear if we were free to go, but eventually we drove off very slowly, just in case one of the many gun-toting border guards decided we were skipping out. We drove down the sparkling coast, but noticed that absolutely nothing grew in the crystal-clear water; I guess it was all fished out. The stark white houses contrasted with the vivid blue water and sky; very Mediteranean. Here we totally lacked any common language, and Geoff's mimes and drawings came into their own.

From Yugoslavia to Austria - ice caves, lakes, cute Bavarian towns and even cuter Bavarian cemetries with graves of famous composers. At the time it wasn't all a blur, but all these years later the European scenery all melds into one experience, and it is difficult to remember individual bits. Somewhere in here the clutch gave up, and we had to get it replaced. We were headed for Switzerland, where Geoff had an introduction to someone at the University in Geneva. We called into Zurich and Lausanne on the way, then set off to find Geoff's unknown Zoology lecturer. No problems, we parked the car near the Uni, looked at the parking limits (2 hours) and figured that that would be fine - we were only calling in to pass on regards from someone in Leeds. A full day later we came back and retrieved our car (luckily not fined), having been kidnapped by the friendliest man you can imagine. He took us home, introduced to his family and other guests, fed us dinner and insisted that we spend the night with them. We slept in the couple's bed, in their pyjamas, while they dossed down on a mattress on the floor. It was overwhelming!

We had a date with our London friends to join them in France, at Mado's mother's farm. We had time to stop off in Lyon to visit the cathedral and make a short trip through the Mumm cellars before going to St Felicienne. Mado was already at her mother's place when we arrived, and John joined us a few days later. Early on Mado took us out to the local woods where we were amazed to find wild blueberries and strawberries, growing in such profusion we were able to pick enough to take back to the farm and make jam.

Back to Switzerland, where we spent the Swiss National Day at Rollé on the shores of Lake Leman. The Swiss celebrate with bonfires and fireworks. There were bonfires on floating platforms on the lake, delicate candle-lit lanterns everywhere, and rockets shooting horizontally down the main street under the oncoming traffic.

More blur - driving through Switzerland to Germany, through the Black Forrest and along the Rhine. Lots of places, lots of things to see. Our last major place to visit was Holland. Having a car made it easier to get to small, obscure villages, and we explored lots of the countryside, but it was Amsterdam that we really liked. Generally we kept out of cities, but Amsterdam is structured for humans, and exhibits the same range of dignity and debauchery that people do - it was just great!

A last drive around the coast, visits to a couple of places in Belgium, and we were back on the ferry to England. Geoff was violently ill when we arrived, and we staggered back to John's welcoming house in London.

While we were travelling Geoff had been awarded his PhD and had had a job application accepted to lecture at the Uni of Auckland in New Zealand. We sold the van outside Australia House, back where we had bought it - took less than a day to sell and we were so happy to have it off our hands.

Travelling in the van wasn't ideal for us, as we tended to be too inward-looking; a little bit of Australia wandering around Europe. By the end of four months cooped up in the VW we were sick of each other. No fight, no harsh words, but we decided to go our different ways - Geoff would go to New Zealand and I would stay in Britain. I waved him goodbye at Heathrow, tears pouring down my face, and wondered what the hell I did next.


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