Story Archive



Posted on February 19, 2012 by
on the road at
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I was driving along the Olympic Highway on the way to Cootamundra. Just another motorist on a country road. Inside my head raged an epic struggle between the powerful anchor of home and the lure of a wandering life. It had done so relentlessly for months and was now in its final death throes. Like Spencer Tracy and that fish in The Old Man and the Sea. Finally and completely the road triumphed where it matters most, in the pit of my stomach.

Flushed with that resolution I rounded the next bend.

On the left side of the road walked an old man, his worldly possessions harnessed to his back. I knew in an instant that this was John, Australia's LAST SWAGMAN.

I had seen him on Australian Story years ago. I pulled up and offered him a cup of tea.

Never say no to a hot brew.

John has trekked for 35 years and is about my age. We both look it. After 2 years in a bank job he took a holiday and then kept walking. His family thought he was dead but after the television program they were re-united. He writes to his mother every month now and was on his way to visit his sister. She feeds him up for a week and he is off again.

I asked where he sleeps. He pointed to the side of the road.

I do everything wrong ... he smiles ... I just sleep in the long grass with the snakes.

John has a stoic's simplicity. He carries only a couple of blankets, a tarp, a few clothes and some sheets of plastic.

What do you do at night?

I read or think.

What happens if it rains?

I put the plastic over me and sit under a tree.

What if it keeps raining?

I keep sitting.
A second smile.

The longest time under the plastic was in Queensland for 5 days of torrential rain.

John collects coins from the side of the road.

Those gold ones add up. You can get to $5.

His life is totally carbon neutral. He doesn't even make a fire at night. A tea bag is placed in a bottle of cold water and infuses as he walks. He eats from cans of noodles and spaghetti and the culinary discards from passing cars.

My gas billy boils and we have the first of many cups of tea over the next hour or so. I tried not to punctuate the quiet in which he sits with ease.

John isn't going anywhere. He is here. The long grass as good to sleep in as it will be 5 miles down the road.

Time is something I've got plenty of  he said when I thanked him for giving me his.

I tell him that meeting him means something to me. Of the fears of being without my home and family. He nodded and gave me the third in the trinity of smiles. It was deeply kind.

As I headed off I offered him my gas stove.

Can you use this John?

Nope ... A pause ... When you've got nothing you can go anywhere.

People climb the Himalayas to hear stuff like that in Tibetan. I heard it on the side of a road outside Cootamundra in a slow Australian drawl.

How did I meet this man at that moment of resolution? I don't know. Seeking meaning is still seeking a payoff, the accountant's dividend on life's investment. I have no proof but I did see it as a validation. How could I not?  That it came when it did is a splendid wonder that resides in both the unknowable and the immeasurable.

God's Speed John and to the spirits of all the other swagmen who walked the Australian bush like Sadhus of the Outback.

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Virginia gray
We used to have visits from Swagmen year in out. My father was the local policeman in various towns in Sth Australia during the 50`s & 60`s & he would take these men in, provide shelter for a few months and they would move on after a rest time of good food and stints of gardening on our Police Station site. We became fond of a few Swaggies who came back every year to visit . One chap who we remember vividly was Fido Finch, a great character & wanderer. He sorted our veggie patch out every year for 5 years,sheltered in our shed & then disappeared. We never found out what happened to him,but missed his presence when he didn`t turn up again.
Hi Virginia Your Dad was a kind man. As In understand it most people just gave them some shelter for night and a bit of food in return for chopping wood or whatever. When I am back in Sth Australia I'll ask some questions about Fido Finch. What town was your father stationed at?
Shelley Lane
Hello Raymond, Great story, sounds like Colin when he goes walkabout in Arnhem Land. Cheers Shelley
Hi Shelley .. yes he is an interesting man. I got a sense he was doing the best he could with what he has. Colin by the way was on one of my Meditation trips and not only had never meditated but never wanted to either. His lack of involvement in the spiritual aspects of The Quiet was made up for by his wearing of an old fashioned suit to dinner each night around the campfire. He treks into remote parts of Arnhem land every year. An interesting man. You have reminded me of another Colin story that I shall write about when I get to Ipolera this year. Hope you are both well. Rx
Jim McGowan
As I read your story from my office working as an accountant: "I sit here in my dingy little office, where a stingy ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall™ Your story reminds of the great poem (Ode) for all Accountants “Clancy of the Overflow. Where is Clancy these days? Jim
Yes Jim. But I know you get out and walk each weekend. I've always seen you as a Clancy figure. Just a lot more attractive. c ya mate Raymond
Lorraine McLoughlin
A beautiful piece of writing and an extraordinary meeting. travel well yourself Raymond Lorraine in the Fleurieu
Hey Lorraine. Thank you for your comment. It was a wonderful meeting and he was a fascinating man. Next time I am whinging about something I'll think about him under the sheet of plastic for a week. Now that was a great Desert Writers trip we did huh! All the best. Raymond xx
Rae Jacobson
I found your meeting with John amazing.-and I hadn't heard of his existence before.Your rich telling of it almost took me there with you. May your travels on the road continue to bring riches . Rae
Thank you Rae. It was a brilliant moment when something other than reason or logic takes over. Met a mutual friend the other day, Deb the artist. Raymond xx
Dear Raymond, Thanks for sharing the story of meeting John and reminding us that those who have no fear need to fear nothing. Happy Travelling Heather
Hi Heather. Just in Alice at the moment. I had the final negotiation with the Traditional Owners concerning the Ilpurla Trail. On the designated day a teenage girl died of a heart attack. The whole community is closed for Sorry Business. Its awful.
Perhaps everything we need is there, but we just don't see it. Perhaps you have driven past John in times past and didn't see him. Perhaps you saw him this time because now you can see. The black and white images are excellent.
Hi Helen .. Perhaps .. I have an agnostic's view of these things but it was far beyond uncanny. I have noticed many times that life on the road throws up these events. It may be that it happens in a more conventional world but life is so hectic that things go unnoticed. Love having you with me on this journey Helen. Rxx
David Hall
Love the last two posts! Fantastic! A David Lynch movie then the conversion experience of St Raymond the unpossessed.
Thanks David .. I hadn't thought of it like that .. although my canonization was to be expected. Raymond
Rosa Christian
Isn't it fascinating that life often supplies such moments to re-inforce our decisions. It is obvious you are doing the right thing for you at this moment. While I love travelling around, I do love my little fisherman's hut at the beach.
Hey Rosa .. I think Ill find some great spots as well. Mind you I would love to see your fisherman's hut sometime. Already I have a lot of people offering farms and access to Aboriginal communities. I am now very excited about picking up my camper and heading off full time after the Tasmanian Choir in a few weeks. c ya Raymond xx