Ean McDonald lives in Perth, and has been many things in his long life – adventurous youth, sailor, prospector, architect, councillor, actor, artist, dancer and writer to name a few. Heck, he even named Coral Bay in WA (a story for another time). Here, then, is an extract from his autobiography, 90 Not Out, the life and times of a not so ordinary Australian
Thursday 24th March 1932: 8.20 Left Melbourne. Goodbye to all our friends. 8.40 Saw last of Melbourne. Sang “Goodbye Melbourne Town”.

Arrived Geelong 10.05. Left 10.45. Rich district. Swaggies. Good haystacks.

So began another transcontinental journey; this one taking a full three weeks of hard driving. My dad, mum and Neil West were co- drivers of our two year old Essex sedan. Passengers were brother Ken, me and Cocky. As a thirteen year old and a somewhat matter of fact, even laconic, trip diarist, there seemed to be no literary talent emerging. Two days later my entry read:

Got up 5 o’clock. Wind, rain, moon. Coorong Desert, scrub tussocks, sand hills, swamps, not much of a desert.

Then, variously:

Adelaide seems small, wet. Parks. Nullarbor Station. Sam, black boy, taught us Coondy. Ken calling rabbits. Nothing in sight, only water. Camped in stone hut. Rain, rain, rain. Balladonna. Man, wife, son biking to Brisbane. Swaggy once died. Bogged down, all slept in car. Finally up to Aunty Rose’s Mount Street. View of Perth.

The Depression had by 1932 engulfed Melbourne, but Perth was thought to be not so badly suffering. Dad had lost his job as foreman painter at the Alfred Hospital and Mum’s hemstitching business was floundering because of its luxury category. Western Australia at least offered family connections and wheat, sheep or rabbit to eat, although rabbit was tasteless whichever way it was disguised in the cooking! At least we were guaranteed breakfast cereal, bread, biscuits and meat.

Mum and Dad sold up everything but the car and the piano and set off West.

My diary of the trip reveals a singular lack of reporting skills. Just imagine the wonderful sights and exciting happenings that I could have recorded in shattering prose along that journey of 4300 kilometres in that now far distant time. Instead I revealed myself as a recorder of facts, rather than a writer of philosophical depth. I’ll accept that I was young and there was so much happening around me that I was probably goggle-eyed rather than poetic. I had simply listed times and places, perhaps even then thinking that my record could act as a memory-key for a later more expansive work. Seventy-six years, however, is too distant a time. I can, however, recall a few of the more picturesque moments of the journey.

The first of these could be of the morning of day three at my awakening, pre-dawn at the edge of the Coorong desert, along the shores of Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray, south of Adelaide. We had camped in sand dunes, then brilliantly lit by a full moon in a clear sky before the dawn had broken. No wind. No sound. All was so still, except for a small band of rabbits that was dashing about the pure white dunes in the moonlight. For a lad just out of the bustle and harsh brightness of Melbourne streets, it left a beautiful and long-lasting memory.

I find it strange that I, who later designed, drew and painted; loved scenic vistas; and developed a fair ability to scribe, did not capture many pictorial gems like that. Instead, I dryly recorded the exorbitant price of milk in Adelaide and the fact that in Coolgardie a three-penny pie cost sixpence!

My diary of the trip reveals a singular lack of reporting skills. Just imagine the wonderful sights and exciting happenings that I could have recorded in shattering prose along that journey of 4300 kilometres in that now far distant time.

Punctures and blowouts loomed large. They grew more frequent as the journey lengthened and the tyres wore thinner. One memory was of the long stretch of roughly graded corrugated gravel track from Iron Knob to Kimba. We travellers of old well remember the bone-shattering journeys on the roads of the times. Gravelled or rough-graded they made up about ninety-five percent of Australia’s country byways. Bitumen was the stuff they used in cities.

That day we in our Essex had suffered some hours of bone-shattering miles before we decided we had all earned a roadside cuppa. As we prepared to light our billy fire, we smelled burning rubber and all looked aghast at our rear-inside wheel that smoked in thin blue-black whiffs. Around its rim were thin ragged shreds of rubber. We had punctured some way back but had run on for miles, totally unconscious of any change in shuddering below. The tyre had almost disappeared; leaving only a somewhat battered wheel rim and shards of rubber.

At Nullarbor Station the natives were friendly to a point whereat brother Ken and I palled up with one of their boys called Sam. He took us on walkabout for miles across the plain and taught us how to throw his coondie. This was a club with a tapered to nothing end that you held in your hand. At the sighting of a rabbit you swung it then let it go so the coondie twirled towards the little victim and with luck gave him a killing clout behind an ear. Young Sam killed with almost every throw.

Caravan Parks were then of the future. Overlanders were very few. Once you left Port Augusta you learned about those who were travelling a day or half a day ahead of you. You accepted that you would keep a lookout for them and check on them as you reported yourself to the next station or petrol stop along the way, especially where the water tanks were as much as 120 kilometres apart.

We met folk from the world. Travellers moved on broken down jalopies, buggies, bicycles and even on foot, but Hughie had to look after those.

Our family were experts at finding convenient places to doss or boil a billy. My chronicle records how we camped in Cricket Pavilions or croquet clubs or on school verandas. It records that occasionally all five of us had to sleep inside the car. Imagine driving all day and having to spend the night curled up tight on the seat of an old fashioned steel box.

The diary records an enormous amount of rain falling almost all the way across Australia. We were bogged for thirty-six hours just east of Norseman until help came. For those hours we were car bound. We just had to sit in the car or slop about in the deep, slippery red mud. Our cocky, on his walks, would take a step forward then stop to peck off the thick coating of mud from the claw just raised. He would then put that one down and peck at the other one, and so on ad infinitum.

The multiple confusing roads, rather tracks, were like ice rinks of red mud so that stable driving was a harrowing and constant strain. Once we went through a gate on a slight angle and Dad had to turn smartly to try and get back on the track ahead. But instead of going ahead the car went into a full circle spin. It kept spinning until it slowed down in the slosh against a nearby saltbush. I had shot sideways across the back seat. As I passed her, my mother grabbed me with a calm admonition, quietly chiding, “Hey you. Back you come.”

The Madura Pass, from the coastal plain up the escarpment to the upper plateau was a frightening memory. You had to climb up a hundred or two metres in height over a non-road, meandering over great bulging bare rocks. On local advice, you emptied your car and carried all your gear by hand to the top. One only brave driver stayed in your vehicle. As he slowly edged the car up, using the lowest gear, the rest of the crew paced alongside. Each held a huge rock ready to jam it under the wheel should the car begin to slide. Over the cliff sides, way down below in the narrow canyons, lay remains of battered car bodies as warnings that if your car did slip it might not stop.

Once, near Widgiemooltha, we hit a road bump that sent me to hit the car roof and knock me out. When I came to, I had a severe headache, I well remember. Over twenty days of overlanding 4300 kilometres we had made 200 kilometres a day. Included were 20 puncture and blowouts and one ruined tyre.

In comparison, my eldest son Bruce and I travelled across in the other direction in about 1975. On a three-day journey, we did 2500km in one stretch, with only petrol stops!

Finally arriving in Perth, our first few days were spent with Aunt Rose Ross in her apartment at the top of Mount Street, where I soon got a picture of my new city.

DETAILS // 90 Not Out is published by Hesperian Press of Perth, and can be purchased at $30 from the State Library, Serendipity of Leederville, The Royal WA Historical Society, Broadway, Nedlands – or by order from any bookshop to Hesperian Press.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What did you think of this extract from 90 Not Out? Sign up free to the AT Website and have your say on Ean McDonald’s autobiography.