Oz ’78

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Nomadic monks, appleheads, blue-collar attitudes, gum trees, opals, Tri-X film, buzzed rants, Durban Poison & Australia.


n 1978, less than a year out of college, I took up an open-ended invitation from my closest high school friend to visit him in his new home. He’d been swept Down Under from Ohio by corporate capitalism after his father was transferred to Melbourne, Victoria. I worked for some months at home, saving what I could for the trip before heading over in January 1978. My friend was still attending university in northern New South Wales and had unexpectedly married an Australian woman. Our plans to hit the road like two nomadic monks went down the toilet and I ended up traveling around Oz alone for most of that year in spite of funds that left me living on nothing to a couple dollars a day.

At the time, Australia seemed provincial, untouched and easy to travel. Its social democracy provided everyone with a very sane and equitable existence. It felt like a large egalitarian society, with all the people swimming in one giant middle-class pool. They had blue-collar attitudes and were suspicious of anyone with money or power, especially those who flaunted it. For the most part, everyone seemed happy. Perhaps it’s still that way, though I suspect something’s been lost. Everyone also loved Americans, which didn’t hurt, though they would rip the American government at the drop of a hat. (The Vietnam War and Watergate were not too distant in time then.) I came to understand that mentioning politics (or sports) around even slightly inebriated Australians was at your own peril.

These images were side notes along the road on that trip, taken in just about every corner of the country. Camera gear consisted of an old Nikon F2, a 50 mm lens and Tri-X film (when I could afford it). Though I processed the negatives not long after the trip, the images were untouched until I recently scanned and converted some of them. The post-processing reflects how those days now look in my mind: a bit blurry, dreamlike. Forty years is a long time. It’s hard to get any real sense of it now—a different life, a different person. Still, writing this I know that some of it remains, packed into a ball of ghost images and words in my head…a few regrettable pub fights, construction work, gum trees, hostel misfits and freaks, cricket matches, a short stretch at a commune, surfing attempts, box jellyfish, traveling the outback with two German women, Vegemite sandwiches, writing, snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, a Bob Dylan concert, unexpected encounters with kangaroo and wallaby, appleheads and convicts in Tasmania, playing an extra in a movie, fighting loneliness, swinging the Billy, traveling poets and bards, an affair with a Sydney activist, crashing clubs pretending to be a photographer, actually getting paid to be a photographer, spiders and snakes that kill, smoking weed called “Durban Poison,” Coober Pedy/opals, sleeping on innumerable beaches, fire ants, Australian Rules Football, climbing Ayers Rock alone at night, darts, shearing a sheep, riptides, getting lost in the Sydney Opera House, schooners of ale and watching aborigines get abused from one end of the continent to the other.—Gary Nolan

Gary Nolan is a semi-retired employee of the U.S. space program, having worked for many years in the imaging-technology group at NASA Glenn Research Center. He is an avid programmer, photographer, artist, organic gardener and beekeeper. See more of his photographs on Instagram: @_phase33. (All images © Gary Nolan.)

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