Around Australia aboard the Nautilus RV 1956

by Perc Schmidt (with Richard Schmidt)


Around Australia in the Nautilus RV“We’re goin’ round Australia, mate.”

 “Wish I could, but the Missus won’t go.”

“Yep, the Toyota’s loaded up, caravans hitched on, pension cheque’s been cashed and we’re off!”

Every day, ‘New Age Adventurers’ are leaving home, with caravans, motorhomes, camper trailers, and a variety of recreational vehicles to commence their journey of a lifetime – to ‘Go around Australia’. New highways, tourist information offices and local communities showcasing their attractions; plus a proliferation of camping, caravan and national parks are all helping to make adventure-travel dreams come true.

Motoring and caravanning was a very different story in 1956, when my late father, Perc Schmidt, set out with his young family of wife Ivy, 12-year-old son Richard (myself), and young family friend Sheila Sonter (who would be a governess and companion), in an attempt to drive a motorcar and caravan right around Australia.

The roads of the 1950s were atrocious; highways were nothing more than gravel country roads. Only the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne was fully sealed. The Pacific Highway from Brisbane to Sydney had gravel sections and vehicular ferries provided substitute bridges across the wide northern rivers of NSW. The Bruce Highway from Brisbane to Cairns was nearly all gravel. The Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor was the almost deserted dirt supply line built by the army during World War II. The ‘highway’ across northwestern Australia, The Kimberly, the Northern Territory and parts of Western Queensland was a mixture of sand tracks, stock-routes and some two-wheel beef and mining dirt roads.

The cars themselves needed constant mechanical attention. A straightforward journey between country towns could be fraught with disasters of blown tyres, breakdowns etc.; ‘Roadside Assist’ was the driver himself.

Caravans were common for seaside and country touring holidays, however they were restricted to the major highways and roads of the then known ‘motoring world’ that stretched between Adelaide and Brisbane.

The ‘Round Australia’ motorcar rallies caught the population’s imagination even though only a few of them owned a motorcar. The 1955 Redex Reliability Trial attracted over 170 entrants. Following dirt roads, stock routes and bush tracks it showed that a route existed that a car could travel right around Australia. The event was the second longest car rally ever held, after the famous ‘New York to Paris’ event of 1908.

The Sydney Cricket Ground was standing room only as the competitors were flagged off from the starting line. Thousands of spectators lined the route through the suburbs and in the country towns locals waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the ‘Road Warriors’ go hurtling past covered in dust and dirt.

The Movietone Newsreels that were screened at the cinemas, showed champion drivers together with their works-teams of mechanics desperately trying to keep new motor cars in the event after breakdowns and encounters with the horrific roads. They showed cars blasting through dust on bush tracks, splashing through floodwater, others damaged and wrecked by the roadside.

That effervescent host of the widely popular radio quiz-show ‘Give It a Go’, Jack Davey, himself an entrant driving a Ford Customline, broadcasting on the radio and featuring on the newsreels, told in graphic detail of the difficulty of driving over the terrible roads; suffering the hardships, and the cars rattling apart. He used the expression – ‘Horror Stretch’ to describe particularly rough and damaging sections of the dirt roads.

The Shell Oil Company supplied petrol dumps in areas where fuel was unavailable and the organisers arranged medical assistance, shelter, food and water to be available where needed along the route.

Perc probably thought that if the Redex entries of family cars, (some driven by housewives) could handle those roads and tracks then he could tow his caravan across them. He was an experienced caravanner who had travelled extensively around Queensland in the early 1950s.

The idea of anyone driving an unmodified, new motorcar and caravan through those desolate areas, and across the incredibly rough roads, alone, and without outside assistance, was beyond comprehension. Frankly, it bordered on the foolhardy and ridiculous.

Few people thought that 36-year-old Perc would succeed, when he and his young family of wife Ivy, 12-year-old son Richard (myself), and young family friend Sheila Sonter as governess and companion, set off from Bundaberg, Queensland, in March 1956 in an attempt to ‘Go Round Australia’ by car and caravan.

Today, an expedition to traverse similar terrains and conditions, with the same distances and isolation, would require two; possibly three specially modified off-road vehicles. They would feature satellite navigation, radiotelephone, computer 3-D maps, emergency positioning beacons and carry a wide array of medical supplies, recovery gear and spare parts. Perc had no such luxuries and had to rely on his own mechanical abilities and bushman’s skills.

No doubt, he had received a good deal of advice, and warnings about the dangers of such an expedition, but none had the first hand knowledge and authority more so than those from the local Police Sergeant at Carnarvon, when he arrived at the beginning of the sand tracks on the north-west coast of Western Australia.

“Don’t go any further north Perc, you’re bloody mad if you do. It’s ‘Black Fella Country’ up there mate. No roads, knee-deep sand tracks, bull dust that’ll stop a truck, two wheel tracks through the bush that all of a sudden, well, just disappear, and I doubt whether you’ll ever get across the Pardoo Sands,” advised the Sergeant against continuing the expedition any further.

“It’ll be alright Sergeant”, Perc replied, “We’ll take it quietly. We’re used to the rough roads of Queensland, and the rig is well prepared. We’re in no hurry; we’ll take it slowly and make it through, with a bit of luck.”

“I bloody well hope so, as I’m the mug that’ll have to go up there and drag you out. Anyway keep in touch with the cattle stations, carry their mail for them, tell them which way you’re headed and tell the coppers too. But that mad Irish Constable at Onslow might think you’re a bloody lunatic and lock you up!” he said with a smile.

“I assure you we won’t cause you any trouble”.

“Well, I can’t stop you but at least I’ve warned you. I hope you’ll be all right, anyway, good luck and goodbye”. With that, he hopped up into the police truck and with a cheery wave, drove off.

My recollections of the trip as a twelve-year-old boy are a bit vague but this incident has left a marked impression on me because the Sergeant had taken the trouble to personally drive around to the caravan to deliver his dire warnings. Perc was not overly worried about them, but I think Ivy and Sheila were perturbed.

I vividly remembered this exchange while packing up my mother’s house to finalise her estate. We had come across Perc’s photograph collection of 35mm Kodachrome colour transparencies of the around Australia expedition, and stopped work to view some of them. I then recalled that Perc had written a manuscript for a book about the trip, so I went looking for it. It was my wife Lyn, who unearthed it from where it had gone to ground under a pile of old travel books.

A black ring-back folder held pages of thin letter paper – probably typed on a portable typewriter. Perc had left school when he was ten years of age, and although he was an intelligent and well-read person, I did not expect to find any great literary masterpiece.

We took the photograph collection, old Aldis projector and the manuscript home and began reading through it while viewing the transparencies projected onto the dining room wall. We were surprised the way the story unfolded and how it told, in a clear and unpretentious way, of the enjoyment and hardships encountered. It seemed to capture the colour and excitement of an incredible caravan adventure that travelled through some of the most remote and hostile wilderness regions of Outback Australia, all that time ago.

What amazed us were the dangerous situations and terrains encountered. To have become lost or have had a serious breakdown in the isolated areas of the West Coast, the Kimberly’s, or the Northern Territory could have meant death to some or all of the party. Today, motorists still perish in the remote Australian Outback after becoming lost, or suffering breakdowns, minor accidents etc.

I sought help and advice from a journalist friend of ours, Ian Hamilton, about having the manuscript published. Ian and his wife Fay, (the ‘Travelling Hammies’ of Byron Bay’) are travel writers who have toured extensively in motorhomes and fifth-wheelers across Australia and Europe. They thought the story was a great read; however, it needed redrafting, editing, formatting, etc.

Ian suggested that Lyn and I should take a new tour of Perc’s original route and download the manuscript onto a lap top computer as we went. We would then be able to include a ‘Then and Now’ aspect of places and situations that Perc had encountered over 50 years ago.

I talked this over with Lyn and we both agreed. What a great idea! We both love off road touring and camping, and over the years have been fortunate in having spent time exploring some of the remote areas of Australia. This would form a new adventure, to follow Perc’s footsteps and re-formulate the manuscript.

I began by correlating the photograph collection, putting the manuscript into folders and researching what had happened in the mid 1950s. I soon found that 1956 had been an ideal year for Perc’s expedition. Years of flooding rains had turned the Outback into a veritable Australian ‘Garden of Eden’. A wave of post-World War II prosperity was sweeping the land, old highways were being upgraded and new ones were stretching out into the countryside.

We loaded up our new ST diesel Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive with our camping gear plus a few luxuries. It was late May 2008 and ready for our little adventure we set off. Our home base is Surfers Paradise so we had time to be over on the west coast of Western Australia during a similar season to Perc’s expedition.

Come along and join us as we follow this remarkable, and amazing caravan adventure, and share the hardships of the isolation, hostile countryside, breakdowns, being lost, etc. We will travel through regions that few others had visited, meet missionaries, Aboriginal drovers, Aborigines who had never before met Europeans, attend a Corroboree as the only European guests, and meet pioneers of the forgotten regions of Outback Australia.


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