Are we there yet? Welcome to the summer holidays!


by Rosemary Kerr

As the summer holiday season approaches, many Australians are preparing to take to the road – catching up with family and friends over the Christmas period; heading up or down the coast for some rest and relaxation; revisiting favourite spots or exploring new places off the beaten track. The road trip looms large in Australian culture. Distance and mobility have shaped the nation and national character but until now the role of ‘the road’ in the Australian imagination has been relatively unexplored.

My new book, Roads, Tourism and Cultural History: On the Road in Australia (Channel View Publications), which will be published later this month, examines how roads and road travel beyond urban settings are imagined, experienced and represented – by travellers, writers, poets and film makers. It tells stories of Australians on and off the road – from sacred Aboriginal ‘songlines’; trails blazed by explorers and pioneers; to the rise of the road trip, beginning in the early 20th century, as cyclists and then motorists answered the ‘call of the open road’, which promised freedom and escape from everyday life in the cities. Today, backpackers and grey nomads follow ‘Highway One’ around and through the continent on journeys of national and self-discovery; while four-wheel-drive adventurers dream of getting off the road altogether.

Based on my doctoral research, the topic was at least partly inspired by my lifelong love of travel. Some of my happiest memories of growing up in the 1970s were Christmas holiday road trips to Surfers Paradise in the family’s Valiant. Leaving home before dawn, our first ritual stop was at the Oak Milk Bar near Hexham for a milkshake and hot chips – classic road trip fare. The choice of milkshake flavours was incredible and I haven’t tasted as good since. Sadly, the Oak closed in 1986. No trip north was complete without a visit to the Big Banana at Coffs Harbour, which opened in 1964 and was the first of Australia’s ‘big’ roadside attractions. Fruit fly inspection stations marked the Queensland border and soon the bright neon sign of the Pink Poodle Motel on the outskirts of Surfers signalled that we were almost there. Some of the quirky aspects of the Australian road – the rituals and communities, food, accommodation and roadside attractions, including all those ‘big’ things – have helped turn the thesis into a book.

We usually travelled up the Pacific Highway and returned via the New England. In those days, the Pacific route could be hard-going. We’d get stuck behind slow caravans or trucks, nervously waiting to overtake. Some sections of the highway were still unsealed, with gravel making for a rough, bumpy ride. Traffic bottlenecks through towns like Bulahdelah have only recently been eased by upgrades and bypasses.

The coastal road trip started to capture the national imagination in the 1960s and 1970s as surf culture took off and extended annual leave became the norm. The coast began to rival the outback and bush as a much-mythologised space, and the idea of ‘going north’ also inspired writers and film makers.

Australia has a love-hate relationship with the road. The book also explores its dark side. The much-anticipated holiday road trip often ends in tragedy. Terms like ‘horror stretches’ and ‘accident black spots’ attest to the spectre of death which haunts the nation’s highways. Disturbing, and often bizarre cases involving murders and disappearances of hitchhikers, backpackers and other travellers on outback and regional highways contribute to the image of the road as a ‘badlands’. These images have also entered our cultural consciousness, inspiring road movies such as The Cars that Ate Paris, Mad Max and Wolf Creek.

This research was strongly influenced by my work as a historian and heritage consultant with Sue Rosen Associates, where I was involved in several projects studying the heritage of roads and bridges. That work focused on assessing the physical fabric of roads and infrastructure as well as their historical context and significance. Questions such as: ‘how and why were they built? Where did they go? Who travelled them? and ‘Why are they important?’ made me think about the layers of history, memory, meaning and mythology embodied in roads. I wanted to explore the significance of the road in broader Australian culture. My experience in the heritage field, where place and space are so central, proved invaluable in framing the topic and thinking about the road as both a physical and cultural space. Drawing on spatial history and cultural geography, I relate the changing physical nature of roads and their representation to broader historical and cultural contexts. Through detailed studies of iconic routes, including the Birdsville Track, Stuart Highway and Great Ocean Road, the final chapter of the book explores how and why some roads have become more famous than others, and asks: ‘What are the implications for heritage preservation and tourism interpretations of these routes?’.

Travel narratives, tourism literature, fiction, poetry and feature films reveal the Australian road to be a space of contrasts and contradictions between Aboriginal and European conceptions of landscape, road and off-road, coast and outback, nostalgia and modernity, nature and technology, freedom and constraint, memory and forgetting, dream and nightmare.

By exploring ‘the road’ as both a physical and imagined space, the book delves deep into the Australian psyche, revealing much about underlying Australian culture including relationships to landscape, modernity, national identity and colonialism. Australia’s history as a settler colonial society has had an ongoing impact on imaginings, experiences and representations of the Australian road and this is a recurring theme throughout the book. It offers a new way of thinking about roads and road tourism as important strands in a nation’s cultural fabric.

For further information and to pre-order visit:

Wherever the holiday season takes you, wishing you safe and happy travels.

Image: Big Banana, Coffs Harbour, by Brendan Bell, 1997, National Library of Australia

BY phanswblogeditor IN PHA NSW Members at Work ON 18 DECEMBER 2018


  1. Mark says:

    Great article Rosemary, very evocative of those long car trips up the Pacific and New England highways. I did those many times. I bring you good tidings in this season too, there is another Oak road stop. It is at Freeman’s Waterhole just off the Pacific Motorway on the road towards Cessnock. They still do the best milkshake on any road and a good bag of chips too. Something to detour for on the next trip north.

  2. Anne smith says:

    Congratulations Rosemary! Can’t wait to read it, specially after being a grey nomad for five years …

  3. Emma Dortins says:

    Oak! That was the only place we ever stopped! Amazing that I have never considered it might be central part of friends and colleagues travel memories too. Congrats Rosemary! Really look forward to reading your book.

  4. Pauline Curby says:

    Congratulations, Rosemary. I can’t wait to read your book. I remember Wyong was also a bottleneck on the Pacific Highway. My iconic road trip was crossing the Nullarbor in wet weather in 2010 and then back again. A must for all Aussies!

  5. Ian Willis says:

    Greetings from another road traveller and frequent visitor to the Oak Milk Bar at Hexham. The milk bar was an iconic part of my youth growing up in the Hunter. There was a similar milk bar at Glenbawn Dam for many years. Our family has continued the tradition of the family road trip and we all enjoy it immensely. Great work Rosemary and congrats on the book.

  6. Rosemary Kerr says:

    Thanks Ian! Maybe there’s another book in ‘Great road trip milk bars’. Glad to hear the family tradition continues.

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