12+ The photo is from March 1983. My dad has his arm around me at a party for my twenty-first birthday. I had plans to travel back then, but no one thought I'd leave my hometown forever. Let alone that in 2023 I'd have an arm around my son's shoulder for his twenty-first on the other side of the country.
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia (WA), which proudly claims to be "the most isolated capital city in the world". And I shared that pride in my younger years, with no desire to travel beyond WA's borders. But then, to paraphrase the 1980s Redgum song, I went to Bali, too.
It was only two weeks at a beach resort, but meeting tourists from other parts of Australia and the world opened my eyes. And as my twenty-first loomed, when I saw a billboard ad for a $60 one-way coach to Melbourne, Victoria, I thought, Why not?
My dad waved goodbye to me as the coach pulled out of Perth in May 1983 for the 48-hour 3500-kilometre journey across the continent. It was my first trip to what West Australians call "the Eastern States" (as a pejorative term). And I spent most of it in a stupor of sleeping pills.
In Melbourne, I soon realised I'd packed the wrong clothes in my bulging backpack, including Ugg boots, flippers, and a polyester cardigan (birthday and farewell presents). In addition, my new $30 Kmart sleeping bag proved useless in the colder Eastern States youth hostels. (To be fair, it would have been useless in Perth, too!)
I posted the superfluous items back to Perth and bought a warm woollen jumper in an op-shop and a more expensive sleeping bag from a camping store. And on another "Why not?" impulse, I booked a ticket for an overnight ferry to Devenport, Tasmania.
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Almost as isolated as Perth and WA, Tasmanians refer to the rest of Australia as "the Mainland" (again, with a pejorative edge). I spent six weeks circumnavigating and exploring the island state's natural wonders, hitchhiking or cadging lifts from fellow backpackers with rental cars. And I might have stayed longer, but winter descended.
On a bitterly cold night in a Hobart hostel, I accepted a Canadian backpacker's suggestion to head north to warmer climes. And the following day, we hitchhiked to Devenport, caught an overnight ferry back to Melbourne, and took the first coach to Sydney, where he said we could stay in a share-flat with other backpackers in Bondi.
It was a sunny and thankfully warmer than Hobart mid-July morning when the coach arrived in Sydney, eight weeks after I'd left Perth. I planned to stay a short while and then head further north. But within a month, I had a full-time job and had moved to more permanent shared accommodation than the floor of the backpacker flat.
Forty years on, I still live in Sydney, not far from Bondi. I travelled and worked overseas from 1987 to 1996 (packing more wisely!), but I always felt I'd return to Sydney rather than Perth. Although, I have visited family and friends in Perth many times over the years, especially after the birth of my son in 2002.
Perth versus Sydney
If pressed, I can't say precisely why I left Perth in 1983. Looking back, I was unsettled, with "itchy feet" after Bali, when I realised there was more to the world than my life in "isolated" Perth. And perhaps this and my "coming of age" twenty-first inspired my decision to travel.
The question, "Why did I stay in Sydney?" is trickier. The city's setting is stunning, with its beaches, cliffs, and broad harbour, as are the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. However, as I've admitted to Perth family and friends, while I no longer feel West Australian — I've been away too long — I also don't feel like a New South Welshman.
When I lived in England, I identified strongly as Australian. I enjoyed living there, making friends and exploring the history, towns and countryside. But I revelled in supporting Australia against the "old enemy" in cricket, rugby, and the Olympics. And if someone asked, "Where are you from?" I'd respond, "I grew up in Perth, but I'm from Sydney."
In June 2023, my son celebrated his twenty-first, and we reprised the dad-and-son photo from 1983.
If pressed nowadays as to why I stay in Sydney, the answer's easier: My son was born here, it's his hometown, and I want to live near him.
But like me when I was twenty-one, my son has travel plans and is fitting out a HiAce van to head across the continent at the end of the year. And who knows, he might get to Perth and not come back!
© 2023 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might also enjoy reading my tribute to my son, Love Being A Dad, when he turned eighteen in June 2020.
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.