Thumbs Up Australia

Tom Parry

Read June 2007

The bio sketch on the inside front immediately situates Tom Parry for us: he is a meandering slacker (he failed his A-levels, tried to become a rock drummer, held a variety of odd jobs, and so forth). This man will now be our guide on a hitch-hike through Australia? How much can we expect?

It soon gets worse. He is not alone: he is accompanied by his girlfriend, Katia. We're soon wishing that he will come across a driver with room for only one, because Katia speeks like zees, in ze French fashion, and M. Parry records 'er faithfully. And she doesn't like hitchhiking. And she pouts.

How out of this volatile and unlikely mixture one could produce a readable book, I don't know. I was looking for light reading for a very-early-morning flight (light being the only kind of reading I can sustain at that hour). And yet, there was something more: the route. Parry and Katia vowed to skip the tourist trail and instead head into (in his case, return to) that fabled land for which the Australians have so many terms, not all complimentary: woop woop, the back of Bourke, the Outback. That desert has exercised such a magnetic hold on me in the six months since we were there that something about Parry seemed just enough on this side of sensible.

It proved to be an inspired move. Parry's is a flat-out fine book, with a decent, thoughtful, intelligent human lurking under that veneer of careless slackerdom. I felt about him as I did about Mustoe: both are people clearly capable of relating immediately to those around them and bringing out their best (or, at least, their inner) qualities. (In a more literal echo of Mustoe, Parry is constantly warned about the impossibility of staying alive while hiking in Australia.) The result is a well-paced, sometimes gripping, introspective but not self-indulgent, account of actually making it all the around the eastern half of that great continent, not only alive but renewed and enlightened. Parry has the humanity to notice and comment on the dreadful situation of the Aborigines, but the intelligence to at most hint about his views rather than sledgehammer them into us. The warmth, geniality, mateship, but also staggering racism of Australians is firmly on display, again with the author letting reporting take the place of commentary. And when, at the end of the book, Katia finds her groove on the road (an element of surprise the book could have had, but robbed by the fact that both bio sketches of the author tell us he is now married to her), we cheer for these good people. The last paragraph, and line, of the book is one of its very best.

The book's great shortcoming is its absence of maps. To be sure, the inside-front and inside-back covers are both maps, but they appear to be a photograph of the totemic map that Parry used on his two trips. Atop this map is an overlay of their route. Presumably because of the map's wear, not helped by the overlay process, and hurt further by the scale of things, much of the map is unreadable. I'm also certain that the route drawn is just wrong, seeing as it hugs the south of the Atherton Tablelands before proceeding south along the Queensland coast, entirely skipping Cairns and the Daintree, which they do visit. So, unless you have a fairly good map of Australia in your head, keep one handy if you want to follow along. Or just sit back, relax, and let the thumbs do the talking.