Yesterday I saw a man pushing a loaded bicycle along the highway about 30 kilometres from Bourke. Early, this morning I saw his bicycle leaning against a wall outside a cafe. Around noon I passed him again walking away from town and resolved to stop and talk to him. I made a u-turn and passing him again, parked a couple of hundred metres down the road and waited for him to approach.
As he drew near, I gave as laconic a bush-type greeting as I could muster; “G’day! You got the time to stop and talk?” “No, not really”, he replied…but he stopped anyway. I grabbed the opportunity and asked him how far he’d come. “Walked from Albury. 1000 kilometres in 25 days”.
He told me then, that not many people stopped to talk. “You get the occasional retired couple, but the grey-power mob are mostly snobs”, he said. We discussed the way the world had changed; he seemed to feel the world would be a better place if progress had halted in 1965. “All the young people today are dot.com people. Technology is everything to them”.
He told me that walking with his gear balanced on a bicycle was better than carrying it on his back. Using the bicycle he could carry much more and he wasn’t in a hurry. I told him of an exhibition of bicycles used by the Viet Cong to carry supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail, that I had seen in Amsterdam.
I asked him why he walked. “I’m 65” he said, “I like the outback and I just want to do something significant before I die”. He was on his way to Katherine in the Northern Territory. What I liked was that his idea of “significance” involved no fanfare, no publicity, no fund-raising for worthy causes, no acknowledgment. This was significance without ego.
When I asked if I could take his photo he said, “I don’t mind, if that’s what you’d like”. I took the pictures and then reached for my wallet and asked, “Can I offer you a gift to help smooth your way?”. “No thank you. I don’t take gifts”, he said, “I get the pension. I’m OK”.
He then apologised for being an “uninteresting subject” and that he did not have a more interesting story to offer. I told him, that in stopping to talk all I had been seeking was a conversation from the heart and Robert Newport, for that was the name he gave, had given me all of that.
As I drove off I thought of a hundred questions I would have liked to ask, but felt privileged that he had given me a quality quarter-hour of his day. I’m hoping I might encounter Robert Newport, gentleman of the highway again, along the way tomorrow.