As The Lost Swimmer starts its journey into the world, I’m thinking about the events that inspired me to write the book, and how I grew to love travel. In Adelaide when I was young my Dad would drive us across town to holiday at the beach and we’d stay near a marsh where dogs ran wild. Every morning I’d hop onto the back of the milk truck with the local kids and hang on tight, wind blasting my face, as the truck rattled through its run. That was my idea of a great trip. But my Dad had other plans, and in longer school holidays he’d squash Mum, my three older sisters and me into the Holden and take off around Australia. I had the position usually reserved for our cocker spaniel: the rear compartment of the station wagon. Dad would carefully craft a hole for me among the suitcases, and the back window was wound down a crack for air – air mixed with petrol fumes. I suffered from carsickness, and there would be numerous roadside stops. Eventually I was allowed in the front beside Mum on the wide vinyl bench seat. My favourite part was when she’d announce we were back on ‘Good old Highway One,’ and we’d weave down through the Adelaide Hills, around the Devil’s Elbow and soon be home.
But then came the overseas trip when I was eleven. Dad and Mum took us to Athens and the Acropolis and we walked through the Parthenon. We went to the Palace of Knossos on Crete, and I ogled the fresco of the leaping bull and paled at stories of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. At Pompeii, I saw glass cases filled with concrete moulds of people caught when Vesuvius erupted, their bodies writhing in agony, and the poor dog whose last moment was frozen in time. They seared into my memory. And I’ll never forget the terrifying bus ride along the Amalfi Coast to Sorrento, where the road seemed to hang in mid-air, waiting to fall off the side of the cliff into the sea. Venice, when we arrived, was tranquil and mysterious, and the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It was like walking into a fairy tale. These adventures gave me an enduring love of classical history and luminous places, and forged me into the traveller I became.
I started to enjoy the car trips, our tyres roaring on back roads to far-flung country towns; the smell of desert; anthills higher than my tall Dad, and scrubby rest-stops alive with black inch-ants on red dirt, where one of my sisters would invariably get bitten. We drove across the Nullarbor Plain one year, then right up to Cooktown, near the pointy top of Queensland, the next. The travel bug was growing. There were vibrant blue butterflies and scary bats on Dunk Island and slimy green tree frogs in bathrooms near Darwin. Dad drove us everywhere.
Decades later, at eighty-three, Dad stopped driving. He had cancer. I went home to Adelaide to be with him, and this time it was my turn to drive. On a cold, blue afternoon he wanted me to take him up to the hills to see the autumn leaves. We were too late to see many, but it gave Dad one more chance to show me what I always loved him to point out – the Oakbank racecourse where he and his mates had trained for the Second World War and the long, low-slung sleepy pubs where they drank before heading off bravely to the Middle East. His history. On their way home these young men were rerouted to Java and captured, spending the rest of the war as prisoners of the Japanese in the horrendous conditions of the Burma Railway and in a claustrophobic, water-soaked coal mine between Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It hadn’t dulled Dad’s passion for travel; nothing could.
After he passed away, in my grief I promised myself I’d return to the places on that first overseas trip to relive where Dad and Mum had so generously led us. And on that horror-road on the Amalfi Coast I stayed at a hotel perched on the cliff. Checking in, I asked about their private beach. It was hot, and I was eager to swim. ‘You Australians are good swimmers,’ the hotelier said cheerfully before handing over a key to the path that snaked down to what can only be described as a blow-hole, where waves metres high slammed against the rocky ledge. It was a place both beautiful and terrifying. And the story of The Lost Swimmer began.
I hadn’t realised until I wrote this today how much of my first overseas odyssey has crept into the book. Travel does that – it stays deep inside you and never lets go.