PacificEdge
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PacificEdge

Travels in the Off-Grid…

2. Northbound

Life on the road in the 1970s, traveling in a Toyota van while searching for somewhere to settle off-the-grid. The woman in the photo and her partner of the time built an impressive, off-the-grid timber house on a bush block near Braidwood, NSW. The other person in the photo is the author.

THE MOTOR hums. No. The motor chugs with that sound familiar to those who have owned one of these vehicles with their air-cooled engines. Fiona’s Kombi maintains a steady though far from speedy pace as we bypass Newcastle then watch as Buladelah passes to our west. We note the turnoff to Myall Lakes. Have to take that road some time. Fiona keeps the noisy though more or less reliable machine on track for Taree. We are on Highway 1, heading north.

It’s a basically-appointed vehicle, Fiona’s Kombi. A commercial, grungy-white T2 made some time in the 1970s, Fiona bought it second-hand from someone who had driven it around Australia. Its unlined cabin and lack of side windows and rear seats mark it as a vehicle made for hauling cargo, not people. In town it serves as our everyday drive. On the road it is our home, 1600cc’s of German automotive engineering that over the years will take us far, north and south and, occasionally, west. It is a truly multipurpose vehicle which, once again, it is taking us north, Lismore bound.

We slow to follow the curve and cross the two-lane bridge over the wide, muddy Manning River on whose northern bank the town of Taree makes its stand. Taree is one of those country towns with a long, straight main street, one of those places when on driving through you wonder why people live here and what they do for a livelihood.

I wonder… could I live in a town like this? What is here for me? What would I do for a living? Are there like minds in town and out in the surrounding countryside? Am I too attached to the churn of the city to be content in a place like this, a place in the country? Wouldn’t I always feel that twinge of restlessness, that pull of other places?

That’s it, isn’t it? That pull of other places no matter where we are now. It’s a discontent that bothers so many of us, an urge to move, to be somewhere else no matter how good our present circumstances are. It’s a feeling that life might offer something new and better somewhere else whether that is in the country, in another big city or in another state. That lure has bothered me for years. It appears in my imagination as the opportunity to start over.

It is the same pull that drew people out of the cities to reinhabit small rural towns and disused farms back in the 1970s when the back-to-the-land movement was at its peak. It is the same pull that draws people out of the cities today, the same pull that lures us to the off-grid life as we seek independence and security in a world of turmoil.

Making a start— a new life on the land. How many of those leaving the cities for a new life on the land started their off-grid adventure in shacks like this? The old fibro and galvanised iron shack was home while the couple built their house.

Road trips reprised

I don’t know how many times we’ve come this way, how many times we have followed this highway that joins cities and towns that are like links on an asphalt chain that spans the entire east coast.

I discovered Taree many years ago, on my way to places northward. In those days I had a steady job. Come my annual leave, it felt good to toss a bag of clothes in the back of the Mini, close the door, start the engine and set off with no particular place to go and a month to get there and back in. Those were long, solo road trips with more a sense of direction than destination in mind. I would set out with a feeling of exhilaration mixed with a tinge of uncertainty, all blended with a heady dose of freedom and an openness to the possibilities of the road. It was spontaneous, impromptu. Just pack a few things and go. Head north.

I discovered Byron Bay on one of those journeys, though then it was not the tourist trap and home to the affluent, property-investing middle class it would later become. I remember pulling over at the top of the escarpment on the Bangalow road, getting out and looking down at the town with its headland and lighthouse and its long stretch of yellow beach edged with the white water of crashing surf all the way to some distant headland far to the north. Looking over the narrow coastal plain below, the town appeared as an encrustation of buildings wedged between farmland and sea, like so many Australian coastal towns that cling to that liminal space between the managed landscape and the wildness of the ocean. I liked the look the place and wondered if I could live there. I did, though decades would pass before that happened.

Seen from the escarpment the fertile rural land, the coast and the subtropical climate around Byron Bay attracted people searching for a different way of life as long ago as the late 1960s. By the time the new century dawned the region had become a victim of its own success as real estate prices boomed and a housing affordability crisis ensued. Photo: ©Russ Grayson.

On one of those road trips I ended up in Rockhampton where I decided that I should visit a friend in Auckland. So I drove back to Sydney via Tumbarumba in southern NSW and crossed the Snowy Mountains while the last drifts of snow clung tenaciously to the ground. Down to the coast near Batemans Bay, overnight in some farmers’ driveway, then back to Sydney where I caught a plane over the Tasman.

Life was simpler in those days of footloose travel. Sure, that’s a cliche but like most cliches it contains a kernel of truth. I could just pack and go whether that was for my annual holiday break of just for a camping weekend with friends in the country. Our present journey north is those earlier road trips reprised, only now I am not travelling alone.

The motor hums. Fiona changes into second gear as we turn onto Taree’s main street. On our journeys along the Pacific Highway we usually stop for a break at a cafe on the eastern side of the main street. This day is no exception. Although connoisseur-quality cappuccino was a stranger to Taree in those days, and still may be, we appreciate the break after driving non-stop from Sydney. There is much good to be said for the fresh start caffeine gives the brain. After a walk around town, we go on. The road calls. Northwards.

Intersection

Northwards brings us to the intersection where our choice is turn right for Port Macquarie or left for Wauchope. We will take both of those turns in later years. This day we continue on, our next waypoint the town of Kempsey.

It is understandable if people confuse Taree and Kempsey. They are look-alikes with their bridges across broad, muddy-brown rivers — the Macleay being Kempsey’s — their long, straight, wide main streets and their modest suburbs of detached houses. They are both okay places in their own ways. I don’t demean them in talking about them like this for they are home and life to many. Both are inland from the coast but not so far inland that going to the beach is a major decision.

We stop at Kempsey just as we did at Taree. Not for a coffee, though. We stop to find a shop, a different sort of shop. We don’t want to buy anything, just to take a look. All we have is an address. We find the place without much difficulty. It is on a side street at the southern end of town, close to the river.

This is no ordinary shop. Small, it is packed with the tools of independent living. Photovoltaic panels, hand tools for kitchen food processing, books, gardening implements. All the stuff needed by those that we now call off-gridders but in those days were more likely to be called ‘alternatives’ or ‘back to the landers’ or, sometimes, ‘hippies’. Names don’t matter all that much. Whatever you call them they were the first wave of the contemporary off-grid way of life. Their so-called ‘alternative lifestyles’ played a foundational role in popularising and in some instances developing the ideas and technologies that have matured into the tools of today’s off-grid living.

This shop… it is called Self-Sufficiency Supplies. The name is taken from a notion permeating the alternative /back-to-the-land movement. It is a reaction to the consumerism and commercialisation of everyday life and to its technocracy, although in that lies a contradiction.

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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.