Categories: Oceania

Little Car, Big Dreams: A Road Trip Through Australia

A brief interlude to pay homage to a beloved car and that most freeing of pursuits: the road trip.

Female and a car, on a road trip

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.” –Douglas Adams

Last week Scott and I received word from Sydney that our beloved Betsy—a 1984 Ford Laser we bought in Melbourne in 2003—was headed for the scrap yard. In an instant, a flood of memories, some of the best of our shared life, rushed forth—a testament to the role this car, and the epic road trip we embarked upon in it, played in our collective traveling past.

It was April 2003. We’d already quit our New York advertising jobs, put all our stuff in storage, spent a month in New Zealand and close to another in Sydney. We were scouting cars in Melbourne, having a hard time finding one within our budget that wasn’t total crap. An ad led us to Monica, an older Romanian woman who made us icre (carp roe paste) in her kitchen on one of several trips to check out her ’85 Ford Fairmont. We didn’t buy it once a mechanic, also Romanian, informed us she was ripping us off.

This mechanic, John, led us to another car his friend was selling, one he could vouch for. He helped us negotiate it down to $2,550 Australian (about US$1,700 at the time), a large wad of money for us budget travelers. He helped us install new, cheap speakers and replace some gaskets as needed. (He also invited us into his home, where he and his wife hosted us for a night; we watched horror movies with their kids and slept in their master bedroom, at their dogged insistence.) Before we left with the car, we asked the previous owner if she had a name. “Uh, sure. Betsy!” he replied, clearly making it up on the spot. Betsy it was.

Soon it was just me, Scott, and Betsy in for the long haul. And it was a long haul, longer and farther than we ever expected. We took the gorgeous Great Ocean Road toward Adelaide, thinking we’d probably double back on an inland route before we got there. But we wound up in Adelaide, crashing with perfect strangers (again) whom we met at a Chinese restaurant. We decided to press on to the rugged Flinders Ranges, where we got a small but enticing taste of what Outback travel might be like. Let’s just go to Coober Pedy, we said, intrigued by its otherworldly landscape, luxurious dugout homes, and inhospitable-desert surrounds. After Coober Pedy, we were all in: We were taking the Stuart Highway to Ayers Rock, and Alice Springs beyond that. And then, who knew? We didn’t have a plan. We were just going places.

The Stuart Highway, in the Australian Outback
The Stuart Highway

We could drive Betsy only about five hours a day before she started showing signs of exhaustion, and we had to be at camp for the night before dusk—we already knew, from dodging night critters in Tasmania, the dangers of driving in the dark in wild Australia. Betsy topped out at about 110 km per hour (68 mph), after which she would shake pretty violently. We ambitiously took a few short detours onto dirt/gravel roads, but realized it was foolish to test Betsy’s limits in the middle of the Outback (the local cops agreed, to put it mildly). We also learned to slow down and keep left when the giant “road trains” thundered past. 

We had limited music. This was the only downfall of the Greatest Road Trip Ever. We had one iPod at the time, but the battery never lasted as long as our day drives, so we often resorted to the sole Bob Marley tape we’d purchased at a flea market somewhere. I cannot tell you how many times we listened to “Soul Shakedown Party,” over and over and over again. At night we’d scramble around camping grounds looking for a kind RV owner who’d let us charge our gear.

In a land of blistering sun and thirsty, swarming black flies that wished to invade every orifice of our faces, Betsy was our safe haven. We had to wear bush hats every time we stepped outside, the flies were so bad. But inside the car, with the windows (hand) rolled down, we were untouchable. We lived on pb&j sandwiches, bean- and pasta-based camp dinners, Arnott’s pizza-flavored Shapes crackers—splurging on the occasional meat-and-potatoes pub meal and cold beer at night—but we were filthy rich. Rich and exhilarated by the wide-open road ahead. In the dead center of the country, we watched the descending sun set Uluru on fire, sipping Barossa Valley port from plastic cups, and vowed to keep going.

Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, at sunset in Australia
Kata Tjuta, a.k.a. the Olgas, in the Australian Outback

We never meant to visit Darwin, or to detour to Bali from there, but Betsy got us there. She took us through the rainforests of the northeast and down to Cairns, where she chilled while we went diving on a live-aboard. Further south, she hung out in a borrowed driveway in Brisbane for six weeks while we explored Southeast Asia. Eventually, back in Sydney, after two flat tires, a replaced starter, one close call with an emu, and about 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) logged, the time came to give her up. We had no luck selling her to other travelers; it was the Australian winter and Betsy needed serious work. We wound up giving her to friends, expecting they’d use her another year or so. Instead they replaced the engine, repainted her, gifted her again, and she survived 11 more years. The little car that could.

She was the only vehicle we’ve ever owned. But more than that, she was the car that led us around Australia, to new people, new places, and new experiences, back when we were two kids in their mid-twenties who quit their jobs for the love of travel. In our few months together she gave us a taste of freedom so intoxicating it literally changed our lives.

RIP, Betsy. You were a real beaut.

A 1984 Ford Focus, in Australia
       Betsy, 1984-2014 (photo by Ben Marshall)

Published On: February 13, 2014


  1. Sharon Anderson August 26, 2022 at 3:23 am - Reply

    Amazing blog, please keep on writing this. I love to read such engaging and informative blogs, I look forward for more of your blogs.

  2. Henry Thomas December 21, 2022 at 3:14 am - Reply

    Wonderfull blog. Just having fun in reading this and getting a huge info about Ausralia road trips.

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