Words // Chris Hammer:
As a child, Christmas meant one thing: Melbourne.
And Melbourne meant everything: Christmas lights, street decorations, Bourke Street crowds, the windows in Myers, the beach, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, grandma’s dog, presents, food and lollies. Melbourne had it all, much of it experienced for the first time: lunch at a department store cafeteria, ice-skating, cricket at the MCG.
There was only one problem: getting there.
My parents were from Melbourne, but we lived in Canberra. And if Melbourne was the Emerald City, the Hume Highway was no yellow brick road.
Nowadays I can drive from Canberra to Melbourne in under seven hours. The Hume is duplicated the whole way, the driving near effortless. My car is air conditioned, cruise-controlled and stereo-endowed.
In the late sixties, we were lucky to do the trip in twelve.
The highway was a potholed, single-lane death trap. Underpowered trucks would lumber up hills, slowing almost to walking pace, trailing clouds of consumptive black smoke, contemptuous of the cars strung out in their wake.
Even when the traffic thinned, as it sometimes would, my father refused to drive at more than fifty miles-per-hour – eighty kilometres-per-hour in today’s currency.
In later years he harvested his fair share of speeding tickets, but back then he was mindful of the safety of his young family. And fair enough. This was in the days before cars had seat belts, before airbags, disc brakes and rack and pinion steering, before random breath tests. The road toll, particularly over summer, was a constant refrain on the news reports. The death toll in 1970 was 3798 when Australia’s population was half of today’s; in 2017 the toll was 1225.
There was another factor in slowing our progress. Vomiting.
I was a heaver, the last of the family. At some point early in our trip, after fighting it back as long as possible, I would utter the dreaded words: ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’ Indicators were flashed, drum brakes deployed, swear words uttered. And I would be ejected from the car moments before I in turn ejected the contents of my stomach, painting the road side with carrots and embarrassment.
I want some sympathy here, some understanding. Our old FC Holden was an oven, defenceless against days nudging century heat. The bench seats were vinyl, so hot that they would burn exposed skin. The suspension was so soft the car was in constant side-ways motion. I’d start in the middle of the back seat, wedged between my older brother and sister. A few vomits in, and I’d be in the front seat, wedged between my mother and father, dehydrated and miserable.
‘Are we there yet?’ ‘How much further?’ ‘Can we have an ice-cream?’ The temperature would rise, tempers would fray, fights break out. Dad would threaten to turn back, or abandon one or other of us beside the road.
There were no ipods, no DVD players, not even a radio. ‘I spy with my little eye,’ quickly wore thin; there was bugger all to spy: trees, paddocks, sheep, sky, clouds, cars, the occasional windmill. My brother’s claim he had spied something starting with G.E.G (a green-eyed gnome, it transpired) sunk the game for all time. One time my father spent several hours explaining the evils of communism; I found myself missing ‘I spy’.
And then finally, after it all, we’d reach Melbourne. And the final test: Sydney Road. No Tullamarine Freeway, just mile after mile of traffic lights, pollution and bumper-to-bumper traffic. And trams, hell-bent on ramming us.
But then, at long last, we’d arrive at our grandparents’ houses. We were in Melbourne, the magic city. And suddenly it was Christmas, everything was right with the world and everyone was happy again.
At least until the drive back to Canberra.
About the author:
Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV’s flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than 30 countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age.
His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award.
Chris has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.