If ever you were looking for inspiration, that nudge you need to just get out there and get driving, 88-year-old Mary Taylor could well be it. But you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Somewhere out on a lonely stretch of road – maybe in northwest Queensland, maybe somewhere in the Territory – there’s a little red car speeding along. Behind the wheel is a woman wearing her deceased husband’s hat over her white hair. In the boot there are many small tins of baked beans, a flagon of sherry and a cask of claret. To pass the time as she drives she’s reading the names of the dried out creeks and the tracks meandering off into the heat and scrub. Dead Horse Creek. Wedding Bell Creek. It’s all history; it’s all fascinating.
Mary Taylor, 88, loves to drive. She’s driven herself around Australia at least 12 times, crossed India by train several times in the last days of the Raj and undertook many wartime sea trips. “It’s the getting there I like,” she explains. “I only stay overnight. So it’s the open road. It’s the people you meet. Real people.” And the “absolute freedom” of driving alone, always alone, through the Australian desert day after day: “I love the desert; there’s something fascinating about the desert.”
Mary also gives talks about driving around Australia as “an elderly unattached female.” At last count she’d given more than 350. She sells her book, Baked Beans in the Outback and Curry in Kashmir, at her talks. In the eight years since she first self-published it for family she’s sold more than 7500 copies.
Despite her success and the obvious appreciation from audiences, Mary remains self-deprecating to a fault. “I can’t believe anybody wants to interview me. I’m not that sort of person. Everyone says it was an interesting life. But it was just what happened.”
She took her first trip at age 74. “My daughter lives in Armadale (Melbourne) and I go up the Princes Highway, and I used to think, ‘What if I kept on going?’ It became an absolute obsession, you’ve no idea.”
She’d never even driven as far as Geelong before, and only got her license at age 40 while living in Queenscliff, where her late husband Tim taught at the army college. Her family were nervous; when her young grandson reported that her son-in-law had said, “Do you think we should allow her to do this?” she decided, definitely, to go.
“I can’t believe parents let their children tell them,” Mary laughs. “Why should they? If anybody’s giving permission, it’s the other way around.
“People ask aren’t I frightened, aren’t I lonely? I can tell you, you’re much more likely to be mugged in your suburban street. Nobody will leave you by the side of the road in trouble . . . the truckies are marvellous, absolutely marvellous. They’re my lifeline. Not that I’ve needed them, but I know that if I was in trouble . . .
“There was one truckie I met at Balladonia Roadhouse [on the Nullarbor] and he was feeding a crow and talking to it. I said, ‘I can’t believe you’ve got a pet crow.’ And he said, ‘He comes up to me every time I stop at Balladonia.’ I said, ‘How do you know it’s the same crow?’ He says, ‘Well, no other crow would come,’” Mary trails off laughing again.
“See, I have the best fun because I’m by myself,” she continues. “I have people come up and talk to me and that’s where you meet all these gorgeous people. This is where I’m not like your average tourist who wants to go somewhere fantastic. My destination is all the way round and back again. Driving up the Matilda Highway I love, because that’s as close as I can manage to the route taken by Burke and Wills. I think it’s a long way in an air-conditioned car – they either walked or rode their camels up that. Every day wondering when they were going to see the sea.”
Life in the outback is much harder, isn’t it? “Oh, desperately. I think most of us make a fuss if we can’t get our favourite soap powder or something ridiculous, but people out there, they haven’t got washing machines anyway. They’ve got to be really tough.
“Last year when I went through Queensland it was drought time and, I mean, even the native gum trees were dying. That was dreadful. One year I went over when the clouds had just broken and as I was driving across the Nullarbor I couldn’t make out what these – brown rocks, I thought they were – and when I got up close it was kangaroos! They’d all come down to drink the water and they were so thirsty they didn’t bother to move when I went past.”
And then there was the bull on the road, up in the Gulf of Carpentaria . . . “So there we stayed, the bull and I, locked in eyeball-to-eyeball contact for what seemed like a very long time,” Mary says. “Till he decided to amble off and join his mates. Have you been up there? The size of the bulls – the stations up there aren’t fenced. They just have a cattle grid on the road, so you have a lot of roadside cattle.”
Though nerve-wracking, Mary remained unfazed. “Because we lived through a war,” she explains, “looking after children, never knowing if we’d see our husbands again. It was pretty stressful and it taught you to cope. You had to do it yourself. Everybody said [before my first trip], ‘Oh, what if this happens, what if that happens?’ Well, I just say, ‘I’ll deal with it when the time comes.’”
How long do you want to keep driving? “I’ve no desire to live to be 100. I keep thinking, and I’ve been saying this for years, that each trip might be my last. I’ve got to pay some respect to my age.”
As you’re reading this, Mary’s most likely away again, zooming through the beautiful and barren backblocks of the country at a speed she wouldn’t disclose to us. She’ll be alone, of course, and happy. If she’s finally installed her CB into her two-year-old red Honda Jazz she might be talking to the truckies, asking them about the roads and whether she’s taken the right detour.
“Galloping Granny calling. Got a copy? Got a copy?”