Going to the Melbourne Cup

We’d parked our camper-trailer under wattle trees in full bloom, at Girraween National Park, on the Granite Belt.

camper girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk
Girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk

The tiny Coleman camper held two double beds, plus a single when we dropped the table down. It had a small fridge and gas stove, a sink with a pump tap, a hard roof and sturdy canvas walls with zip-down, screened plastic windows.

After spending the day walking with our three kids among the spring-time wild-flowers of one of Queensland’s most beautiful and popular national parks, we were lying in bed in the dark, telling jokes and laughing.

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Wildflowers at Girraween National Park

Suddenly there was the sound of a long, musical fart. “Who farted?” said Con, indignantly. Ironic, coming from the family’s master of flatulence.

“That wasn’t a fart”, said one of the kids. “That was a Girraween Giggle.”

That set everyone off with real giggles, and I happily put my hand on Con’s leg, under the doona.

Con was immediately distracted from farts, and we concentrated instead on a problem that all parents face when they share a camper with their children.

Tents are different. A tent might be the same size as a camper-trailer, but it doesn’t jiggle or squeak. Even with its jacks wound down tight under all four corners, a camper does. It’s not unusual, when walking through a caravan park or camping area, to pass a jiggling, squeaking camper.

From our home in Lowood, in the Brisbane Valley, we were now on our way south to go to the Melbourne Cup. We’d bought the lightest of camper-trailers, weighing just five hundred and fifty kilograms, because we didn’t know how to reverse a trailer and didn’t want to learn. For that whole trip, we pushed it into position by hand in every new caravan park.

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Our camper-trailer

We were driving the Golden Holden, the Kingswood we’d bought to replace the old blue and white HR Holden.

Con had just completed his duties as a volunteer at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

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Con on duty as a volunteer at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, Brisbane

At the closing party, only two days earlier, his wallet had been stolen, and so we were travelling under a handicap. In those days, he received a salary, I worked casually, and we had little in the bank – only a Christmas Club account into which I put money occasionally. We lived from pay to pay, with a credit card (Bankcard) for emergencies.

Now the Bankcard had been stolen, plus Con’s driver’s license, his only form of identification. Both our Bankcards had been cancelled. New cards and license had yet to be issued.

In 1982, shopping for groceries or fuel on credit involved a phone call from the business owner to a Sydney number for verification of our Bankcard balance. It seems primitive now, but in those days it was an amazing service. And just as we were about to begin an extensive interstate road trip, this service was closed to us, because we had no card.

Con was on long service leave, and so fortnightly deposits would continue to be made into his savings account. He’d sent his signature to a bank in Richmond, Sydney, where we were going to visit family friends; but he would have no form of identification to enable us to withdraw funds before then.

We banked with the National Bank – now NAB. In those days there was a branch of the National Bank in almost every Queensland town, because the National Bank had taken over the old Queensland National Bank and its many branches throughout the state. In New South Wales they were less common.

Con visited the Lowood bank manager and told him of our predicament – we would be travelling interstate with no means of withdrawing money – and he gave Con a card with his signature on it to show along the way. Off we went.

On the long haul up to the Granite belt, at Braeside, south of Warwick on the New England Highway, the engine of the Golden Holden blew up.

When I first went to Stanthorpe, the road from Warwick was largely gravel, a winding, narrow road up the range where overtaking was impossible, and accidents were common. By 1982 that road was gone, replaced by a long, smooth ascent. Too long for the Holden with a camper-trailer in tow.

We were broken-down beside the road, with steam rising off a seized-up engine, three kids and a camper and very little money.

The RACQ towed us to Stanthorpe, and we arranged to have a new engine installed. Then we went to the bank. Contacted by the Stanthorpe branch, the manager at Lowood opened my Christmas Fund account and forwarded the funds. It was enough to pay for the new engine.

Two days later we were in Armidale. No National Bank there. I made rissoles for dinner out of the cheapest meat I could buy: sausage mince. Con put fifty cents on Kingston Town for the Cox Plate, and another fifty cents on Triumphal Arch in the Moonee Valley Gold Cup, and took the daily double.

In the caravan park we listened to the races on his little radio. First Kingston Town won. “He’ll win the Melbourne Cup!” said Con, with great excitement, “and we’ll be there to see it!”

Next, Triumphal Arch came in first, and Con, with delight, picked up nine dollars from the TAB. It was enough to get us through to Muswellbrook.

Muswellbrook had a CBC bank, which was tied in with the National. Con produced the card he’d got from the bank manager at Lowood and withdrew fifty dollars, enough to see us through to Richmond. It was a high old time that night in the caravan park at nearby Lake Glenbawn.

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Lake Glenbawn ezytrailscampertrailers.com.au

Con had some beers, and I drank a little bottle of Ben Ean. Ben Ean Moselle “Shorts” were popular in those days.

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Advertisement for “Ben Ean Shorts” theconversation.com

A couple of days later, at Richmond National Bank, our holiday was saved. There was a call from Lowood bank while we were there – the manager offering us an overdraft. A few days later our replacement cards arrived, and our financial life had been restored to as much order as we ever managed to achieve. On we went, to Melbourne and the Cup.

Kingston Town came second.

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Old poster showing Kingston Town being beaten by Gurner’s Lane, Melbourne Cup 1982 leski.com.au

Our camper served us well on that trip, and for several more years. By then, the kids had grown. The trailer seemed too crowded, and its canvas showed signs of wear. When I went back to full-time work, we traded it in for a second car, although we were sorry to see it go.

We never forgot the Girraween Giggle.

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The Golden Holden and the camper-trailer at Jerilderie, Vic.

Losing a Wheel

A few kilometres south of Gin Gin, as dusk approached, we were travelling at one hundred kilometres an hour when a wheel came off the car and bounced off through the bush beside us. I watched it go.

Sparks flew up from the road as the axle scraped a track through the bitumen.

It was 1976, and we were driving from Townsville to Brisbane for a family wedding. Before starting out, we’d had our blue HR Holden serviced, including rotation of the tyres. On the rear passenger side, the mechanic had failed to re-tighten the wheel nuts.

Pulled over on to the verge, we considered what to do. It would be dark soon, and we had our young kids with us. We needed to get a message to the RACQ agent back in Gin Gin.

Around this time, a number of travellers had been murdered when pulled over on the Bruce Highway, not far north of here. People were nervous about stopping for strangers; but luckily a family in a car following us saw what happened and stopped to help. Generously, they interrupted their journey to turn around and go back to town.

It was an anxious wait in those days before mobile phones, when stranded motorists relied on passing strangers to contact the RACQ; and a great relief when assistance arrived. Less than an hour after the wheel had come off, the tow truck came to take us and the car to Gin Gin.gin gin 2

Roadside assistance: it’s good to have that backup on road trips. I’ve heard only one bad story connected with roadside assistance, and it came from an unpleasant man met by chance in South Australia.

It was a glorious, starry night at Rawnsley Park in the Flinders Ranges, and there was a fire pit outside the accommodation units. I knocked on doors and invited others to join us for a glass of wine round the fire. We were looking forward to a pleasant evening.

But one man was obnoxious.

First, he embarrassed a nice young German couple by making Hitler jokes.

Then he told us of a great trick he’d played on a policeman he’d come across, broken down beside an isolated country road.

“I hated this cop – he’d pulled me up a couple of times for speeding – but I stopped and asked him if he was okay.

“‘Yeah, I’m right,’ he said. ‘I waved down another bloke and asked him to call in at the RAA in town and get them to send someone out. Thanks anyway.’

“I fixed him, though,” said our obnoxious companion. “called in at the RAA in town and cancelled the call-out. Said the problem was fixed. That cop is probably still out there waiting!”

He got a laugh out of telling the story, but we gave up on the evening. A good campfire ruined.

Back in 1976, after losing the wheel, we spent two nights at the Gin Gin Motel, waiting for repairs

Gin Gin Sabrina Lauriston, Touurism and Events Qld
Gin Gin Main Street

It wasn’t the first un-planned stopover we’d had. In 1970, we took our first long car trip as a family. Living at Rosevale, southwest of Ipswich, we were travelling to Innisfail for Christmas with our eight months old baby, Matt.

All went well as we drove north in the blue Holden, until we stopped for fuel in Rockhampton. There was none. The tanker drivers were on strike, we were told.

“We’ve got enough fuel to get through to Marlborough,” Con said. “They’ll probably have some there. Let’s give it a try.”

An hour or so later we pulled in to the Marlborough service station.

“We’ve got no fuel, mate,” said the man behind the desk. “The tanker’s coming through in the morning. You’ll have to wait until then.”

In the nearby motel, all the rooms had been taken by other stranded travellers. Our only choice was the Marlborough Hotel, in the tiny township a kilometre or so to the east, beside the railway line.

We checked into the last available room in the basic, single-storey pub, grateful to get it: Con and I and baby Matt in a room with two sagging single beds and a washbasin in the corner.

That Saturday night in Marlborough, ringers and stockmen from the surrounding countryside came into town for a night out at the pub, the only drinking place for one hundred kilometres. We were welcomed in the bar, and little Matt was passed round and admired. Later, I washed his baby bottles in hard water in the dingy, concrete-floored communal bathroom out the back.

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Marlborough Hotel from the back

I shared my narrow bed with the baby. The sound of boots tramping along the verandah outside was occasionally drowned out by the rumble of a freight train on the track just across the road. Next morning, we made our way back to the highway service station, where mercifully the petrol tanker had arrived.

The Marlborough Hotel still offers accommodation. According to its web page, fifty dollars a double will buy you a bed and “continental” breakfast; or you can camp out the back and use that dire bathroom for five dollars. I hope they’ve softened the water.

Flat tyres, lost wheels, petrol strikes, bogs, floods, blown-up engines and broken fan belts: we’ve experienced them all over the years. With improved technology and better roads, breakdowns don’t happen so often now, but with gaps in phone coverage, even on the highways, there are still times when travellers need help from passing strangers. It’s wonderful how generously that help is given.

Repairs done and a new wheel on the Holden, we set off again from Gin Gin, heading south. I could picture the wheel bouncing away through the bush, and when we came to those scrapes in the bitumen we pulled over and went searching for it. And there it was, in the long, dry grass among the gum trees, waiting for us.

I can still see that bouncing wheel; but of all of this, our two kids remember only that while we were waiting in Gin Gin, little Lizzie walked in front of a heavy wooden swing in the playground. It hit her under the chin and knocked her over, and even today she can tell you that story, and show you the scar.

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Lizzie and Matt on the swings on another trip

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