Driving home this afternoon I heard part of ABC Radio National’s Australia Talks, on the subject of that great Australian summer holiday ritual, the drive to wherever the Christmas-New Year holiday is to be spent.
The consensus was that, in spite of the vast improvement in our roads, modern, time-poor city folks don’t want to spend more than about three hours in the car to get to where they are going. This caused me to reflect on the summer holiday drives of my childhood and youth.
I grew up in Armidale and from 1948 until I left home at the end of university in 1966 we went every year to Port Macquarie for three weeks from a few days before Christmas until the first week in January. The drive was quite a business – in those days the New England Tablelands were very isolated by the bad roads which lay in every direction, including, I can dimly remember, the New England Highway to Sydney having eighty miles of unsealed road between Tamworth and Singleton. Those were the days when you had to book ahead to get a seat on the train.
There were three possible ways of driving to Port Macquarie. The most direct route was via Kempsey, down the road through Bellbrook. I don’t actually know anyone who went that way, although I have seen photos taken on that road before the Second World War by an Armidale Greek family. In the post-war years it was definitely 4WD territory, but even then it was not always passable. I travelled some way along it a few times in my early secondary school days when an American student at UNE (David Werner, inevitably known as “Hank the Yank”) used to invite me to accompany him in his searches for specimens in the rain forest at the edge of the escarpment. Stunning scenery, and the leeches were friendly, but the road was definitely not in good shape.
The road of choice in those early years (late 1940s to mid-1950s) was the Oxley Highway, a 158 mile journey that included 108 miles of unsealed road between the outskirts of Walcha and the entrance to Wauchope. This included a stretch of narrow winding road that wound its way down the mountain through state forest from which timber (the last of the cedar, I fancy) was being harvested, so one would inevitably come up behind a timber jinker and eat its dust for the rest of the journey, there being no possibility of passing it. The 158 mile journey typically took about eight hours in our 1948 Ford Anglia tourer, and one arrived caked with dust.
So when some time in the late 1950s the road to Dorrigo was sealed, it was no contest. The journey via Dorrigo and Bellingen, picking up the Pacific Highway at Urunga, was a longer journey, but faster, safer and definitely cleaner. And by that time we had graduated to an Austin A40, which at least nominally kept the dust out.
Now the roads are all sealed and Google Maps tells me that the journey time from Armidale to Port Macquarie (247km via the Oxley Highway) takes 3 hours and 14 minutes.
Nevertheless, it was exciting doing it the hard way in the little old car, to end the day lying in bed at the Beach Park Holiday Cabins with the sound of the surf crashing onto Flynn’s beach just a couple of hundred yards away.