Farewell to old Hume, a road well travelled

It used to be an adventure, the old Hume Highway; a sort of cut-price antipodean version of America's Route 66, winding and thundering its way through dozens of towns now all but off the map. In search of kicks, I hitch-hiked it a few times. My first such expedition was in 1971, riding my thumb all the way from Victoria to north Queensland.

It used to be an adventure, the old Hume Highway; a sort of cut-price antipodean version of America's Route 66, winding and thundering its way through dozens of towns now all but off the map. In search of kicks, I hitch-hiked it a few times. My first such expedition was in 1971, riding my thumb all the way from Victoria to north Queensland.

I'd got the hitching bug years earlier when a pop duo called Bobbie and Laurie released a song called Hitch-hiker. It wasn't quite Chuck Berry, but for a kid from the bush wondering what lay up the road, it was an anthem. Its refrain? "Like a restless tiger/You can't stand still/And you never will".

That first journey on the Hume was so long ago, decades before Ivan Milat turned just about everyone off the idea of hitching, that no one even used the term backpack: I shouldered what was known as a rucksack. Got lost, too.

Just outside Albury, a truckie picked me up and we veered off the Hume, heading inland. He dumped me at a crossroad somewhere outside Tamworth, where I slept under a table in a truckies' cafe, having secured a promise from the waitress that she'd ask any kind soul who came by whether they'd take me to Sydney.

A truck driver finally kicked me awake, tossed my rucksack on board and we plunged into the night. Two hours later he inquired why I was going to Brisbane. He had a couple of days' drive ahead of him and he was taking me along to keep him awake, a living supplement to the pills he was gobbling, and if I'd thought I was going to Sydney, that wasn't his problem. His problem was a seriously overloaded rig that required detours on gravel roads around weighbridges, and a girlfriend waiting in Brisbane.

I didn't get to do much of the Hume, thus, or see the enticing night lights of Sydney, until weeks later when I thumbed my way back from Queensland.

A few years later, 1974, I was back on the road heading north from Melbourne.

Naturally, things went awry. Rain tumbled down and I got waterlogged on the side of the road somewhere outside Seymour. Late in the night, a fellow in a Jag pulled over. He was, he informed me between slugs of whisky from a silver flask, fleeing a wife and a business that had gone bust.

Later he fired up a joint and we weaved between bellowing trucks through the rain-slicked main streets of Euroa, Violet Town, Glenrowan, Benalla, Wangaratta, Chiltern and Barnawartha, stopping here and there so he could cut his medications with bitter black coffee while groaning about misfortune. I wasn't about to abandon his warm Jag on a night like that, even if my life was imperilled. He finally found himself unable to continue past Wodonga, and my rucksack and I were back on the thumb.

It turned into a long journey. The highway was flooded at Tarcutta. A police car was stuck in the middle of the stream and the constable concerned called for help. I was aboard a big semi by then and its driver was only too keen to offer to nudge the cop car out of its dilemma. He used his bullbar to stave in the rear of the police vehicle ("foot slipped on the go-pedal," he explained), which was all but wrecked by the time we had shoved it to higher ground.

The truckie cackled with high humour and the constable was helpless with fury. "Foot slipped on the go-pedal," the truckie repeated.

Gundagai was flooded, too, and I got the impression the truck driver was disappointed there were no police cars floundering in the water, waiting to be ruined by his machine.

Yass was impassable. The river surged above the bridge and hundreds of trucks were backed up by the all-night cafes that led to it, their drivers gumming rump steaks and wandering around telling lies about past conquests, unable to sleep and suffering stomach cramps because they'd consumed too many wakey-wakey pills.

Mere memories now.

The old Hume, a terrifying two-lane track decorated in the night by the jewelled tiaras of trucks' cabin-top lights before the great beasts crested a rise and blinded you with their headlights, bridges too narrow to allow two vehicles to squeeze by, is gone.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese and other notables will congregate with the people of Holbrook to declare that, finally, it is time to call the freeway a free way.

The Hume is done: four lanes wide, all the way from Melbourne to Sydney; not a single town on it to slow you down. No more flood-prone dips or bridges. No more long, slow streets crammed with all-night truckies' cafes and spare-parts garages and panel shops.

It's only taken about 50 years.

Holbrook, the inland town north of Albury with a submarine nosing its way into the main street and a 50km/h speed limit, is the last to be bypassed by the Hume. There's a bit of line-marking to complete before the bypass opens to traffic in a couple of weeks.

Victoria, of course, managed to complete its town-free section of the Hume years ago. Wangaratta was the last Victorian city on the Hume to lose the bawl of highway traffic down its main street. It was granted peace in 1994.

Twenty years before that, however, Wangaratta and its highway culture was captured forever by the marvellously whacky Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, which recorded an album called Wangaratta Wahine. The title song, held together by a wailing mouth organ, was dedicated to a waitress in a late-night roadhouse restaurant ("My Wahine in Wang").

I'm pretty sure I visited the very same roadhouse, for a plastic palm tree is described within the lyrics, though who could be sure? There were roadhouses like that all up and down the Hume once. Now travellers are reduced to a clutch of McDonald's, Hungry Jacks and a KFC or two. Who could imagine Captain Matchbox finding a song in a McDonald's?

Indeed, I wrote a play in the 1980s called Roadhouse Blues, concerning a single night in a little roadside cafe on the Hume. I didn't bother giving the town a name in the play, for it could have been any of a dozen or so, both recognisable and forgettable.

Modern theatregoers could hardly be expected to relate. Finally, there are no towns and their all-night diners with sleepy-eyed waitresses cutting sandwiches behind the counter on the Hume.

And who could imagine anyone standing with a rucksack on the edge of the four-lane freeway, a thumb stuck out in the hope of adventure, a song about restless tigers moving through their heads?

On Sunday at Holbrook, it's goodbye to all that. It was another country.