Here's another article by an Australian fan,
this time set in Australia. The writer, Ian Gunn, is perhaps better known as a fan
artist, having won the Ditmar Award at the most recent Australian NatCon. Automobile
trips and fannish travel in general continues to be the source of amusing fanzine
articles; we've run a number of articles on these topics in previous issues, but this
one is a little more epic than most others we've read. Anyway, this article also gives
us the impression that Australian fandom has its regional sub-fandoms, just like here
in the States, something we're hoping to check out for ourselves a few years from
Australia is a big country, and it also has two National Conventions each year; one for the 'Media' fans and one for the 'Lit' fans. In 1989, the two Natcons were a week and a continent apart. The Mediacon, Conspire, was held in Canberra the week before Easter while the Litcon, Swancon, was in sunny Perth at the opposite end of the country. For those unfamiliar with Austral geography, that's roughly the same distance apart as London and Moscow.
What the hell, we said, let's go to both.
# # #
The bold adventurers on this expedition consisted of James "Jocko" Allen, Danny Heap, and my good self. The vehicle in question was an elderly white Toyota Hiace belonging to Danny's ex-girlfriend's father. When I saw the straight, upright seats, the dulled paintwork, the odd rusty patches, the lack of seatbelts, and the decomposing ceiling insulation, I expressed my doubts.
I was then told something which I have since learnt to categorize along with phrases such as, "He won't bite you," "This won't hurt a bit," and "The cheque's in the mail."
"Don't worry," I was told. "It may not look like much, but mechanically it's quite good."
If they ever make a film of this story, they would insert the ominously dramatic chord here.
# # #
With Alan Stewart along for the ride, we headed north from Melbourne and into New South Wales. We were aiming for Griffith, a notorious country town famous for producing wine and other, less legal, drugs. Karen Pender lived there, caught in a Catch 22 situation (unable to get a job in this dump and, through unemployment, too poor to shift elsewhere) and we were giving her a lift to Conspire.
Forty minutes out of town we hit roadworks. Minutes later, the roadworks hit us, in the form of a large stone thrown up by a passing car. Much to our surprise, the rock shot straight through our windscreen.
After knocking out the shattered glass, we continued in a vehicle which had now taken on the acoustic quality of the inside of a steel drum. Evening was approaching and the insects were emerging from the irrigation ditches, so we wore handkerchiefs across our mouths like a gang of crazed banditos. Karen was quite surprised when we finally arrived at her flat, waving to her out of the front of the van.
# # #
The next day, we managed to pick up a plastic emergency windscreen, which we taped to the front of the van, then proceeded to our nation's capital. After booking in at the con hotel, we headed off to get a new, laminated windscreen fitted.
The con was quite good. Lots of friends to meet again, and we had a good time huckstering -- our cardboard 'Die Trekkie Die' rubber band shooting gallery was met with mixed reaction. I missed out on the Media award for best fan artist, but the con that James and Karen were involved in won the right to be Media Natcon the next year. By night, with all four guys crashed in the same room, Jocko entertained us with his supersonic snoring (it rattles windows and causes dogs to bark two miles away). He would start out quietly, but get progressively louder and louder with each snore. Then, just when you thought it was impossible for a human being to snore any louder, he would pause... and let out a rip-roaring snore that sounded like a jet flying past. This would almost, but not quite, wake him up; he would sigh and mumble and then start over again. Sometimes he would talk in his sleep, and Danny would delight in holding bizarre conversations with him.
Jocko (asleep): "I can't find it."
Danny (awake): "Er... well, don't worry about it, James."
Jocko: "But I am worried about it."
Danny: "Well, look. It's my turn to drive, so go back to sleep and we'll both look for it later."
Jocko: "Oh, alright... Snore..."
After the con we said farewell to Alan (he was smart enough to fly to Perth) and drove Karen back to Griffith. We suspected our tyres wouldn't make it across Nullarbor, so we called at a local service station to get them replaced. We discovered that since Melbourne, they had worn down to the metal. This did not inspire confidence. We had also lost the cap where the oil goes in, so that had to be replaced, too.
Meanwhile, we had purchased an orange and red toy dragon from the local Salvation Army shop which we dubbed "Hazel" after someone we'd had, shall we say, unpleasant dealings with. We spreadeagled the dragon on the front of the van, tying it on with fishing line, and, bidding Karen farewell, the three of us headed west.
Night saw us in the Adelaide Hills where we stopped at a camping ground, hiring a caravan to sleep in. It had been a long drive, but we had much, much farther to go. We discussed our policy on picking up hitch-hikers. We'd be heading to some pretty remote and inhospitable areas. We'd all heard tales of cars being stolen and stripped, of ripoff artists posing as hitchers or stranded drivers.
Eventually, we decided that we would only pick up hitch-hikers if they were female, good-looking, and Swedish. We considered ourselves to be reasonably safe from harm if this were the case.
# # #
We passed through the industrial Port Augusta and were amazed at the size of the car wrecking yard on the outskirts of town. Little did we know that we would become more familiar with this place later. Dramatic chord.
There was occasional traffic as we passed the enchanting mining town of Iron Knob. Apparently some sports car club was having an Easter rally across the country, so we were frequently overtaken by Austin Healy convertibles. We saw no hitch-hikers, Swedish or otherwise.
The Nullarbor Plain is a very dry, very flat desert. The name is, allegedly, Latin for 'No Trees', but it's not the sandy, desolate condition of dunes you see in Foreign Legion films. It's a limestone plain supporting a tough ecosystem of scrubby saltbush -- little shrubs that have difficulty growing more than a foot high.
Two hundred kilometers from the nearest side track, we stopped to put up a sign that said 'GARAGE SALE '. That should confuse the mundanes, we thought.
We parked on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Great Australian Bight. Magnificent rugged drop down to a raging blue ocean. Danny received an important lesson in life when he had to answer a call of nature: never piss into an updraft without a hat.
# # #
The next day we saw no Swedish hitch-hikers either, just lots more sports cars. We were getting tired and irritable, and sick of driving this dull, straight road. It was getting dark fast, we still had miles to go before Norseman, and the kangaroos were coming out. If you've ever seen what damage a car can receive by hitting a kangaroo, you know it's dangerous. Usually the kangaroo survives. Usually the car does not. Imagine a human-sized animal that is almost all muscle and has a habit of leaping at you out of nowhere, and you'll get the idea. So we drove carefully.
I knew Danny was tired when he asked me to take over driving, because he said that the road looked as if it was melting. Seconds later he was asleep, having fist-clenching nightmares while sitting bolt upright.
I drove. I got bored. There was no other traffic; everything was dark. I put on a tape, and made the van dance to the "Time Warp." Just a jump to the left (indicator on), then a step to the right (other indicator). Put your hands on your hips (beep beep) and bring your knees in tight (headlights off and on), and it's the pelvic thrust (accelerator, accelerator...). Jocko began snoring from the back seat. Very loudly. We were slowly going mad.
What a relief to see the Norseman Fruit Fly Quarantine Station, even if they did confiscate our 'Die Trekkie Die' shooting gallery (it was made from an old apple box and could harbour fly eggs). We booked into a motel and slept through Jocko's snoring.
# # #
By morning we were on our way, Swede-less, to Widgiemooltha. (Yes, that really is its name.) It's practically a ghost town since the salt mine closed, but my hillbilly (plainbilly?) pen-friend Jan of the Nullarbor lives there with her husband and goats. We called in for coffee.
Off to Perth, and we noticed that the radiator was leaking. We fixed it with a can of Bars Leak and, discovering that the radiator cap was of a different pressure rating than to the radiator, replaced it with a new one. Yes, that's right, another ominous piece of music here, folks.
While we were mooching around, we discovered some orange and white bunting from a used car yard. It had fallen onto a vacant lot, and although it was sixty feet long, we decided it would make an excellent decoration for the van. Any car dealer who decorates his premises with such ghastly coloured streamers deserves to have some of it taken away. We liberated it discreetly. The next day, we were a majestic sight as we drove through the Good Friday streets of Perth in our dusty, dirty old Hiace, with a Residents tape blaring, Hazel on the front, and sixty feet of brightly coloured streamers thundering around our roof rack.
# # #
Swancon was a fun convention, although not many people knew us. As NatCon, it played host to the annual Ditmar Awards, considered by many to be serious and important, but not by us. Danny and Jocko, under the joint pseudonym of Jacob Blake, had produced a fanzine called Get Stuffed designed solely for winning a Ditmar. Most of its editorial content consisted of urging readers to vote for it. They had made the final ballot, and I, along with the zine's other cartoonists, had got onto the Best Fan Artist ballot.
We really were genuinely surprised when we won, even though we'd been saying we would all along. It was a bemused Bob Shaw who presented the awards only to see Danny stick his Ditmar down his pants.
# # #
With the con over and our 'DITMARS ON BOARD' sign in the back window, we headed home. We spotted two hitchers outside Widgiemooltha. They were neither female, good-looking, nor Swedish, but in a fit of euphoria we cast our sexist fantasies aside and gave them a lift anyway. We called in on Jan and then dropped them off in Norseman. Jan later sent me a newscutting that said two guys "...wanted for questioning by the police..." were last seen boarding a white van containing three other men near Widgiemooltha. Hmmm.
Next morning we left Norseman and half an hour later discovered that the radiator had developed a huge leak.
Apparently, the new radiator cap had allowed the thing to reach the pressure it was supposed to, but after all these years, the radiator wasn't strong enough to handle it. Fortunately, we had plenty of water on hand -- you don't attempt the Nullarbor without it. We turned the Hiace around and the rest of the day was spent filling up the radiator, driving as far as we could before it overheated, coasting with the engine off, and waiting around for it to cool down.
The van spent the next two days being repaired, while we spent the time being bored. Apart from getting drunk, there was nothing to do in Norseman, and none of us drink. One evening, Jocko and I returned to our cabin to tell Danny we'd discovered the best sushi bar in town.
"In Norseman?" Danny asked.
"Well, actually, it was a Fish and Chip shop, but they didn't cook it much..."
# # #
Eventually on the road again, we picked up a male, non-Swedish hitcher at Nullarbor. He was carrying a car axle back to his own vehicle which had broken down at the next town.
Seven kilometers later, the engine started making a horrendous banging noise loud enough to wake the dead. We stopped, because the engine was beneath the front seats and we didn't want it exploding beneath us. Jocko said the big end had gone. I, being totally mechanically ignorant, assumed this to be so, and offered to hitch back to the Nullarbor Roadhouse to get help.
Our passenger decided to continue hitching towards the next town. The first car along stopped, but, when he picked up his replacement axle they spun their wheels and fled. Strange how an axle wrapped in a sweater looks like a shotgun.
Eventually I got a lift back to Nullarbor, only to find that there was not a tow truck nor mechanic to be found; they just sold fuel and hamburgers. I phoned the Royal Automobile Club of South Australia. Yes, they could tow us to Ceduna, and the first ten kilometers were free. The rest would cost us a few thousand dollars. Oh. I decided to ask the other guys. They'd probably be more willing to dump the thing.
Hitching back to them proved difficult. The Austin Healy club seemed to have a monopoly on what little traffic flow there was, and each car had two seats, both occupied. Eventually, two guys in a semi-trailer, with a smaller trailer behind, picked me up. I explained our dilemma. The driver's eyes lit up with little green dollar signs.
"How much would you pay me," quoth he, "if I took you and your van to Port Augusta?" I did some quick calculations; Port Augusta was a lot farther on than Ceduna, our scheduled stop for that night, and driving that far would cost us plenty just in fuel, even if the van was working.
"Er... a hundred bucks?"
With the van on the small trailer, Jocko in the cab with the other two truckers and Danny and I in the dusty gloom of the truck itself, we were moving again.
It felt like a great weight lifted from our shoulders. We no longer had to worry about driving; we couldn't even see the road. Danny and I snoozed on hessian sacks and relaxed in the cool darkness, sipping lemonade. Jocko, meanwhile, was getting white line fever in the cab and was seriously toying with the idea of quitting his job as a library technician so he could drive trucks for a living. The truck had been to Perth with someone's entire household furniture, plus car (hence the trailer) and the only freight the drivers could get to bring back were five cartons for a house in Ceduna. The door rolled back to dazzling sunlight and we helped carry the stuff in. The little old lady who lived in the house was quite startled that each box had its own person carrying it. What service!
It was late at night when we pulled into the Port Augusta truckstop, unloaded our heap, and staggered off to find a cheap motel.
# # #
The wreckers yard was closed for the weekend, but we moved to a cabin at the local campsite to save money. I withdrew the maximum the automatic teller machine would allow, and we generally mooched around town waiting for Monday. We found that we could actually drive the van around, though you could hear us coming five minutes before we arrived. With Hazel now blackened by diesel fumes from the semi, and mud and dust caked all over the bodywork, we made quite a head-turning sight. Jocko claimed that you didn't need a Porsche to impress people, just tie a fifty-cent second-hand soft toy on your radiator grille and everybody waves to you.
By this time, though, Jocko regarded the van with such an intense personal hatred that he would have quite cheerfully set fire to it. He insisted on driving, foot to the floor, even though he was sitting right on top of the roaring engine. Danny and I, more cowardly, kept to the back seat as far away from any potential explosion as possible.
When the wreckers yard opened, they offered to sell us a reconditioned engine, taking ours in exchange, but it would take a few days to install it. Jocko and I both had jobs to get back to, so leaving Danny with the cabin, a good deal of the luggage and enough food and money to see him through, we bid him farewell, said we'd see him at the Melbourne Science Fiction Club the following Friday, and got a lift into town where we purchased tickets on the overnight bus to Melbourne.
When the bus arrived, several passengers got off, including two young ladies with blond hair and finely-tanned complexions which you only achieve after several generations of bounding around fjords in bracingly cold weather. Jocko and I stared at each other. Could it be? As the tourists passed us, we turned to see. Sure enough, emblazoned on the back of each pack was a large light blue flag with a yellow cross on it. The legendary Swedish hitch-hikers were not a myth after all.
"Should we introduce ourselves and tell them where the campsite is, so they'll go and meet Danny?"
"Nah. Let him fend for himself. We've got a bus to catch."
# # #
POSTSCRIPT: Two years later.
James "Jocko" Allen has had his nose operated on, and no longer snores. Much.
Hazel, now cleaned back to her original slightly shabby condition, is in the possession of Danny Heap.
Karen Pender has escaped from the mundane horror town of Griffith, moved to Melbourne and set up house with the author, changing her surname to Pender-Gunn.
Strangely enough, very few interstate conventions have been attended by these people of late, and ones planned for the future involve air travel.
The Toyota Hiace is now in the possession of another Melbourne fan, along with its new windscreen, new tyres, new radiator, and new engine. The differential's been playing up lately, though.
All illustrations by Ian Gunn