In the 1980s I worked for the Domestic Policy Division of the Department of Aviation as an auditor for the Remote Air Services Subsidy Scheme. The Scheme, still running, subsidises a weekly passenger and goods air-transport service to remote settlements in the Australian outback.

As an auditor, I travelled to Port Augusta, Alice Springs, Katherine, Darwin, and Wyndham, near Kununurra. Although I spent most of my time in airport hangers checking account books, the glimpses I had of the countryside made me want to see more.

In 1987 my mother and I decided to have a holiday in the outback, visiting some of the places I had passed through. My father and my husband Greg at first pooh-poohed the idea on the grounds that one gum tree looked like any other. However, fear of missing out – disguised as marital duty – persuaded them to join us, and my father extended the program to include a week’s sailing in the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, near the Great Barrier Reef.

In the 1980s Australian air travel was expensive, but besides normal destination-to-destination fairs, Ansett, one of the domestic carriers, offered a ‘Kangaroo Airpass’ charged by distance. In 1987 for $600 you could fly 6,000 kilometers. 10,000 kilometres cost $950.

In late August 1987 we set out from Canberra, first stop Sydney. From there we flew on to Proserpine, in Queensland. Laden with groceries for our bare-boating experience, we continued by minibus to the port town of Airlie Beach, where we’d hired a 33-foot sailing boat called ‘Panache’.

‘Panache’ was a bit cramped and its engine was unreliable, but we had great fun, with perfect weather and some wonderful sailing.

Leaving ‘Panache’ at Hamilton Island Marina, we flew north to Cairns. There we hired a car for a drive to Kuranda in the hinterland. The town of Kuranda is surrounded by tropical rainforest and is on the escarpment high above Cairns.

 From Cairns we flew on to Darwin, in the Northern Territory. On the following day we hired a car to drive to ‘Yellow Waters’, a resort in Kakadu National Park. The hire car, unfortunately, had a faulty fuel gauge and we ran out of petrol half way.  Greg hitched a ride to buy enough to get us going; my father and mother and I had a tedious wait in the tropical scrub at the roadside. Told about this, the hire car people seemed quite relaxed and unconcerned. It was around then that we learned a local joke about the NT. The letters stand not for ‘Northern Territory’, but for Not Today, Not Tomorrow, Not Tuesday, and Not Thursday.

‘Yellow Waters’ made it worthwhile, though, especially a dawn boat ride we took through the lagoons. The birdlife was was superb; the crocodiles elegant but sinister.

From Kakadu we returned to Darwin and the next day drove to Katherine, 300 kilometres southeast. In Katherine we walked along a trail to view the scenery. We got a bit bushed and turned back, but it didn’t matter, for in the afternoon we had a boat trip on the Gorge itself, quite magnificent and worth the long drive.

 From Darwin we flew to Broome in Western Australia, once a pearling port. We stayed at the Hotel Continental, the ‘Conti’, a few kilometres from Cable Beach, where the submarine telegraph cable from Java came ashore in 1889. I had a swim there, but the water was churned up and – I imagined – full of sea snakes, so it was really only a brief splash. The town of Broome has certainly changed since we were there, but I’m sure the earthy red colour of the landscape and the turquoise sea are the same: quite memorable.

 From Broome we flew back to Darwin and then on to Alice Springs.

At Alice Springs we visited the Telegraph Station. My step grandfather George Symes was very interested in Charles Todd, the astronomer and meteorologist who planned the telegraph line linking Adelaide to Darwin. Alice Springs was named after Todd’s wife. Symes began a full-scale biography of Todd. Though this remained unfinished, he wrote the entry for Todd in the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’.

 From Alice Springs we drove to Yulara Resort near Ayers Rock (now often called Uluru), 450 kilometres southwest. The five-hour drive was was a marvellous experience: how vast the inland seems!

In those days you could climb Ayers Rock, so we did, and we signed the book at the top to prove it. Since then the rock has been closed to climbers.

We flew home from Yulara to Canberra, arriving with only a few hundred kilometres left of our 10,000 kilometre air tickets.

It was a memorable holiday. Even though the air-pass scheme has gone and the socially-lubricating bottle-a-day of gin would now cost more, I’d do it all again tomorrow.

A map of our 1987 itinerary generated by