A man and his dog are heading for Darwin. They’re on a long, slow trip that has so far taken half a year and spanned 6000km, from the Sunshine Coast to the Top End via rutted roads, remote settlements and vast outstations.
There are so many standout features on their unlikely adventure: the fact that it is even happening during a pandemic; the fact that Sam Hughes, who is accompanied by his beagle-kelpie cross, Bitsa, is just 18; and, perhaps most significantly, the fact that they are undertaking this journey, which Hughes hopes will become a two-year circumnavigation of the continent, on a 60-year-old tractor.
“I’m used to being overtaken,” laughs Hughes, who has a knack for acquiring multiple modes of transport. A freshly minted driver, he has red P-plates affixed to the back of a trailer hitched to his old tractor to form a colourful one-man convoy. Travelling light is not for Hughes. His extensive and eclectic load includes a cockatiel, a boat and a gyrocopter that travel on a rack atop his tractor, plus – in or on his trailer – a small car, a motorbike, a wingless light aircraft in which he sleeps most nights, a bike, a portable cinema, a jumping castle and a popcorn machine.
He has been on the road since leaving his family’s 120ha cattle property at Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, in March. “I like helping people and I was too stupid to be a doctor,” he says drolly when asked about the inspiration for his trip. “I didn’t have the guts to be a police officer… and I thought, well, if I want to do a gap year and I want to help people, the best way I can do it is by supporting charities.”
He initially planned a drive to Toowoomba, a 200km-odd journey that would have taken him just a few days on his preferred mode of transport. “I can work with a tractor better than I can a car,” he says, having tinkered with the former for almost five years, compared with the few months he’s had a licence to drive the latter. So he bought a 1960 Chamberlain 9G from a neighbour and spent a year modifying it; new canvas and a four-inch foam-core seat were about the biggest luxuries he could afford. By the time he was ready to leave home, his plans had expanded and for next to nothing he had acquired a small if ageing transport fleet to make his progress even more visually outstanding. “There are no computers in any of my vehicles,” he says proudly. “That means if it breaks you can fix it with duct tape or zip ties.”
Sam Hughes, travelling jackaroo.
At an average speed of 35km/h, his progress is slow and low-tech. He has a VHF radio, but no airconditioning or power steering. And with all the rattling in his cab it can be hard to hear the Slim Dusty songs he plays, full blast, on a journey that has so far taken him to Barcaldine and Longreach, along the coast to Rockhampton, Cairns and Townsville, inland to Charters Towers, Cloncurry and Mount Isa, and up through the Red Centre via Tennant Creek and Katherine to Darwin.
He sometimes picks up work en route, helping out at a local pub for a shift or two. Often, to raise funds, he sets up his outdoor cinema or jumping castle for locals. In half a year he has already raised $50,000 for his three favourite charities: the Royal Flying Doctor Service, anti-bullying group Dolly’s Dream and Drought Angels. You can also help with his repairs via his GoFundMe page.
“Out here doesn’t seem to have changed much because of Covid, just a QR code as you go in,” he says at the end of another seven-hour drive, during which he encountered fewer than 30 vehicles on the Northern Territory’s big open roads. So far he has managed to avoid lockdowns, bar a few days in Townsville.
While driving a tractor around a largely shuttered country has its disadvantages (“of course it’s lonely”), he has been overwhelmed by the welcome he has encountered. He’s been unsettled, too, by the breadth of mental health issues and lack of local support services. Many times Hughes, the 18-year-old outsider, has found himself listening for hours to the harrowing stories of those struggling to access psychiatric help for children or recounting yet another story of suicide. “I feel very privileged with what I do because not only do I get to see the country but I hear so many stories,” he says. And he has been astounded by the scenery. “When you’re cruising along at 35km an hour you get to see the country change. It’s the most amazing thing to see the underbrush go from a yellow to a beautiful green, and the trees.”
But of all the standouts of his unlikely gap year, there is one incident on which Hughes is extra keen to report. “The most proud moment of this entire trip, and I think it will be until the day I finish, was the day I overtook a grey nomad,” he reveals with enormous satisfaction.
“Coming out of Roma, I was cruising down the highway and up ahead I’ve seen this big white box sitting in the middle of the road.” He soon realised it was not in fact stationary, but moving – very slowly. To Hughes’ astonishment, a couple in a mobile home were proceeding through southwest Queensland at an even slower pace than a tractor.
“And I’ve just gone, ‘Holy heck, you’ll never get a chance like this again’. Twenty metres away, I’ve floored it – 42km an hour – and I went past them, like I was jogging, and waving like hell.” After months of being repeatedly overtaken, he was ecstatic. Victory, however, was short-lived. “About two seconds later they miraculously found their throttle – and went past me at 80km an hour.”
Please help Sam cover the costs of maintenance and repairs on his trip:
Source: Excerpt from The Australian Magazine story by Fiona Harari Oct 2nd 2021