Hit the road, mate

Australia: a vast, bare, unblemished land where the highway goes on forever. Simon Calder buys into the legend by purchasing his first-ever car

Never having owned a car before, I hoped to bring a fresh approach to solving motoring problems. When finally I arrived at the magnificent collusion of nature, artifice and ocean that lazes under a benign sun and the name of Sydney, I was rattled. On my list of things-to-fret-about-in-cities, finding a parking space had never figured. So my first reaction when faced with no-stopping rules and sky-high parking rates was: sell the car.

Never having owned a car before, I hoped to bring a fresh approach to solving motoring problems. When finally I arrived at the magnificent collusion of nature, artifice and ocean that lazes under a benign sun and the name of Sydney, I was rattled. On my list of things-to-fret-about-in-cities, finding a parking space had never figured. So my first reaction when faced with no-stopping rules and sky-high parking rates was: sell the car.

Actually, that's not quite true. I was driving a 1987 Ford Falcon that I had picked up 2,000km earlier in Adelaide. As we lurched along Highway One into Australia's largest city, the car's performance degraded from bad to worse. My first reaction was to take the airport turn-off towards the short-stay car park, which is where dozens of backpackers abandon their holiday autos at the end of their trips. But "Big Red", as I had nicknamed the absurdly large estate car, lumbered on, burning fuel at a rate comparable to a Saturn V rocket, and stalling at every available set of lights.

The old joke goes: What's the difference between a 747 and a Pom? A 747 stops whining when it gets to Sydney. Big Red didn't whine: she growled and grumbled every time I stabbed the accelerator to keep the revs high and the stalling low. But as I tangled with traffic while trying simultaneously to sight-see, I worried about the state Big Red was in - in two senses. First, her mechanical condition sounded expensively wrong; a fortnight earlier she had cost me £1,000, and I was keen to end my brief car-owning career by recouping as much cash as possible. Second, my location was not ideal for someone trying to offload a car in less-than-perfect nick. Sydney is in the state of New South Wales, which takes a stricter view of car maintenance than South Australia, in whose capital I had bought Big Red. Imagine if you drove from Oxfordshire into Berkshire and everything from the speed limit to the drink/drive laws changed at the border. That's what motoring life is like in Australia.

Any traveller planning to buy a car can use this curious state of affairs to their advantage, and minimise the red tape by buying in South Australia. As the locals will soon remind you, it is the driest state in the driest continent on earth - which must help stave off rust. Perhaps that is why the state has a relaxed attitude to ageing automobiles. You need not spend long listening in on the backpacker telegraph before you learn that Adelaide is the place to meet your motoring match and embark on a cross-country adventure. Indeed, one company exists solely to meet the needs of long-stay visitors who want to sign up for the Australian dream by buying a second-hand vehicle: Boomerang Cars, which occupies a large shed on the western fringe of Adelaide's city centre.

Finding your way around South Australia's capital is easy, thanks to its neat grid of broad streets. And it is an easy city to leave, because of its modest appeal. Adelaide is a model of good order, likeable rather than loveable. The centre is wrapped in a belt of parks, and the westward expansion of suburbia, carried on a surge of prosperity, has been halted by the ocean.

Any city boasting 32km of beaches and some of the nation's finest wineries within a cork's pop can tempt you to stay for a while. But the spirit of Australia is not to be found amid suburbs named Enfield or Croydon, nor even Paradise.

Time to hit the road.

Buying a car, then driving it across Australia and, quite possibly, into the ground, has considerable economic merit. Renting a car can prove very expensive in this absurdly large country. Perth to Cairns comes in at 5,700 kilometres, the same distance as the flight from London to New York.

To make life easy for buyers keen to take the first step on the ladder of car ownership, South Australia forgoes tiresome red tape such as Roadworthiness Certificates (Australia's MOT). Nor do the authorities pry too closely into your identity. As "proof of residence", my receipt from a night at the local youth hostel sufficed. When asked for a mailing address - required in case I were to incur, say, a parking fine in Sydney - I gave the name of a handsome late-Victorian building in the centre of town. Perfectly legally, the vehicle was registered to my adopted home of Poste Restante, Post Office, Adelaide, SA 5000. My abode was far from fixed, though. I was keen to test out a new relationship: with the car, and with Australia. Oh, and to find out if I could still drive.

Big Red had been around the block a few times. Indeed, she had driven over one-third of a million kilometres, about the distance to the moon. But I hadn't. A quarter-century ago I acquired a driving licence, but have barely used it since. My knowledge of road-craft has been gleaned mainly from hitch-hiking. So I aimed nervously north-east out of the city, and almost at once cut up a bus that promised a ride to Paradise.

Adelaide is known as the "15-minute city" because its uncrowded roads are said to make it possible to reach anywhere in town within the quarter-hour. Shrugging off smug suburbs called Greenacres, Golden Grove and Fairview Park took rather longer, but eventually I felt I was on the way to discovering Australia: that vast, bare, unblemished land where the road goes on forever.

The Sturt Highway, the two-lane eastbound black-top, is named after the British sea captain who explored the river systems of south-eastern Australia 175 years ago. I kept my eyes open for road trains - multiple articulated trucks that trundle across the outback - and soon passed through Blanchetown, a blur of a settlement where I first encountered the Murray River.

The mighty Murray is south-east Australia's Mississippi, the river that opened up the nation to settlers. Its lower reaches are as sluggish as Big Red in second gear. Towards evening, skeletal trees reach up from the riverbank to puncture the darkening sky. Yet this wide-screen landscape of listlessness is not empty of promise: the Murray Valley serves as the main artery for the land of plenty. The river irrigates orchards which provide useful short-term employment for backpackers several litres short of a full tank, and vineyards that produce some very tasty and very big reds.

Once you move upstream beyond the South Australia state line, you follow the course of an erstwhile international frontier. When Europeans were in the early stages of evicting the Aboriginal people from their homeland, the Murray formed the border between Australia's two most powerful colonies - New South Wales to the north and Victoria to the south. The frontier ran along the southern bank of the river, giving navigation rights to the powers-that-were in Sydney. Today's state border follows the same line. New South Wales owns the river, but from a driver's perspective Victoria has more tempting places to stop.

At Swan Hill, you can trace the tenuous lives of the pioneers at a recreated Victorian settlement - or tell a tale at Tellers Restaurant, and save on your lunch. Sallie Amy, the manager, is a globetrotter who awards a discount to backpackers able to spin a good yarn. In the gents', I picked up some useful motoring hints from the graffiti: "Beer contains the female hormone oestrogen, which is why after six or seven you can't drive properly."

No, I always drive this badly.

For anyone who prefers to make motoring mistakes in splendid isolation, Australia is the place to be. It is the about the same size as the continental US, but with one-twentieth of the vehicles.

The local soundtrack, though, is more limited. "In Yarrawonga I'll linger longer", goes a First World War tune, but I sped right through town on the Murray Valley Highway. I wanted to head for the hills.

A road with a view: that was the idea when they built the Alpine Way. But on the day Big Red spluttered uphill, all you could see were the ghosts of the mountains. Could this really be part of the same country as parched, clear South Australia, where you feel you can see to the end of world? The road parted company with the Murray close to its source, where it was barely a stream over ancient rocks.

A million people a year take this long and winding road to the nation's only year-round Alpine resort, in the shadow of the highest peak in Australia: Mount Koscziusko, all 2,229m of it. Graham Hoyland, an Independent writer who has also climbed Everest, maintains you can drive to the summit. Not in Big Red, you can't. So I drove on by, and set the controls for the heart of Australia - politically speaking.

Some cities just don't get along. When Australia was choosing a capital, it proved impossible to select between the two leading candidates, Melbourne and Sydney. So they created a seat of government in the middle of nowhere, a product of political expedience. Like most 20th-century new towns and cities, from Crawley to Brasilia, Canberra makes a nonsense of human geography. You will look in vain for the heart of the capital - but while you search, there is plenty to keep your interest.

The mainly subterranean parliament building is a structure fit for hobbits, and in the embassy area nearby you can take a quick trip around the world: Thailand's ambassador has a teak temple, while Finland's mission is a dazzle of glass and steel. But I yearned for Australia, so I took the startling Kings Highway. It startled me partly because of the dramatic way that layers of hills retreat towards the ocean - and also because Big Red chose this lonely road as a good place to collapse.

The problems: an overheating radiator and a jammed driver's window, combined with an owner whose knowledge of mechanics could be written on the back of a parking ticket.

The solution: Glenn Cronly, a sound recordist who was along for the ride. Handily, I happened to be carrying a BBC camera crew. Glenn administered first aid. But like a marriage of convenience that had become inconvenient, my relationship with Big Red was slowly unravelling. The car became the butt of jokes: "How do you double the value of Big Red? Fill her up with petrol". Which I did, all too often.

The Kings Highway meets the ocean at Bateman's Bay, and promptly expires. I turned left onto Australia's Highway One. Like its Californian namesake, this road swerves northwards, alongside the Pacific, towards one of the world's finest harbour cities.

In the end, the road did not go on forever. After 2,000 mostly happy kilometres, I stalled my way into the underground car park in King's Cross, the hub of Sydney's backpacker community.

I wanted out of this highway holiday romance. The King's Cross Car Market has become the place where drivers and their vehicles get divorced -- and, hopefully, pick up a bit of alimony.

"Imagine how good it would feel never having to get an MOT again," Nick Adams had said back in Adelaide as he sold me the car. Unfortunately, the mandatory New South Wales "rego check" revealed a list of faults as long as a road train.

They say on the poker tables in Las Vegas that, if you can't spot the mug, then it's you. In the car park, it was me. Everyone in this strange trading post knew more than I about motoring. At the end of one long ride, I was taken for another. It took two weeks to sell Big Red, and I recouped less than half my investment. Now that's what I call depreciation. But people don't buy flights or holidays or cars - they buy dreams. And for 2,000km, I had lived the dream of driving a car, my car, through a superb slice of one of the world's more extraordinary countries.

As I left the car park, I swear I heard someone ask "Have you got a windscreen wiper for a Ford Falcon?", and the riposte: "Hmm, sounds like a fair swap."

Simon Calder's drive features in "Holiday 2005" on BBC1, 7pm on Monday

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Simon Calder paid £649 for a London-Australia round-trip on Singapore Airlines

(08706 088 886; www.singaporeair.com). Fares of below £600 are widely available on a range of airlines for travel between April and June.

GETTING IN

Visitors require an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) - a "virtual visa" that can be issued by travel agents and airlines, usually for a fee of around £20. Alternatively, apply at www.eta.immi.gov.au for a non-refundable fee of A$20 (about £8).

BUYING A CAR

Boomerang Cars, Adelaide (00 61 414 882 559; www.senet.com.au/~boomcars

King's Cross Car Market, Sydney (00 61 2 9358 5102; www.carmarket.com.au)

DRIVING ALERT

Statistically, Australia is a much more dangerous place to drive than Britain; the fatality rate is nearly three times higher.

MORE INFORMATION

Visit the Tourism Australia website www.australia.com/independent; or call 09068 633235 (60p per minute) for the Traveller's Guide.

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