The Six-Week Tour That Kept On Giving

[Photo Credit: David Willersdorf]

[Photo Credit: David Willersdorf]

A few years ago, I set out on a six-week concert tour of eastern Australia. At the time, it was considered a very long tour, ensuring a series of send-off parties by my friends with cakes and departure gifts. These days, a six-week tour is almost the equivalent of heading away for long-weekend.

I was joined on the six-week tour by another tour regular, Harry*. I had a tour van which I’d had regularly serviced, with a special service prior to the tour. So it came as a little bit of a surprise as two days into the tour the van started spewing thick white smoke out of the exhaust system.

We coasted into the nearest car park, which in this case happened to be The Big Banana in a town called Coffs Harbour. I called the service department who I’d especially had service the van for the tour. They told me to immediately drive the van to their local service centre.

As we drove out from The Big Banana, I realised that the van was now accelerating on its own without me touching the pedals. A short exciting drive later, with my feet riding the brake the whole time, we pulled into the local service centre, just down the road from The Big Banana. The service centre manager there broke the news to us that the engine needed to be fully replaced, or at least completely reconditioned.

I remember sitting by one of their indoor plants with a flurry of logistical thoughts rushing through my mind. I couldn’t quite get over the engine being non-functional after I’d had it regularly serviced by the manufacturer of the van. I think their version of servicing the van was to replace the wiper fluid. And all this was occurring just two days into our six-week tour! In my logistical frenzy, I arranged for the van to be sent ahead of us to Sydney and started looking for a hire car.

Unfortunately, there was a massive tourist event in Coffs Harbour while we were there and every local vehicle had been hired. This led to a complicated plan where Harry and I caught a bus two hours down the highway to a place called Port Macquarie, picked up a hire car from there and then drove back up the same highway to Coffs Harbour to load as much out of the crippled van as we could fit into our hire vehicle to continue the tour.

To add insult to injury, I’d picked up a bout of the flu along the way, and as I sat down on the bus trip I’d also sat on my highly cherished sunglasses as well. It led to a tradition of me often breaking and replacing sunglasses the first few days of a tour.

Harry’s role on the tour was originally to be the co-driver as well as to oversee production and merch sales. I should describe Harry for you.

I first came across Harry when I visited a church his family had a hand in running. It was one of those churches where they set up and pack everything down into a big enclosed trailer afterwards. Harry was in charge of making sure everything fitted into the large trailer in an obviously elaborate scheme where each item had to be loaded in a very precise order. At the time, Harry was fourteen and was able to squeeze into the trailer as people passed up a variety of items from microphone stands to large speakers and sound desks.

At the time of this tour, Harry was now twenty years old. I’d paid an exorbitant amount for Harry to be included on the insurance of my tour van. However, no amount of money I’d offered allowed a twenty-year-old to be included as a driver on the rental car. As the rental period was just for the week of the van being towed ahead of us to Sydney and repaired prior to our arrival, I didn’t see any major issues.

I began a week of concerts, loaded up with cold and flu medication. I’m one of those artists who believe in ‘the show must go on’ and I’d like to think that my new “Rod Stewart with the flu” vocals gave my voice a surprising sexiness, although in reality I think it sounded more like a seal dying.

The idea was that we’d do a run of concerts on tour that would eventually take us to Sydney, where the van would have been towed, repaired and awaiting use for the rest of the tour. The reality was that when we arrived in Sydney, the van still hadn’t turned up and was lost in the system somewhere. I called the car rental company and while they still wouldn’t allow a twenty-year-old to drive their vehicle, they did agree to extend the car hire period. We continued to head south on tour in our hire car hoping that my van would appear and be repaired on our way back through later in the tour calendar.

Over time, my flu left me and the concerts and crowds were pretty amazing. I put the problems of the van out of my mind and settled in to enjoy the many tour moments we had. Eventually we arrived in Melbourne and after a few shows there it came time to catch the ferry to Tasmania for a run of concerts on the Apple Isle.

For each tour, I have a complicated itinerary and spreadsheet to avoid going bankrupt and to know where we’ll be staying and playing every day of the tour. As we drove up to the ticket window for the ferry to Tasmania, I was looking forward to all the carefully planned days of our visit. So it came as a brutal surprise when the ticket lady told me that we weren’t actually booked on the ferry that day! I’d made an error when booking the ferry to Tasmania and had booked us on the wrong day!

They stopped the long line of cars and diverted many of their team to wave us towards a seldom-used side-gate, which was I mentally called the ‘Idiot Departure Gate’. As we received the scowls of a hundred inconvenienced drivers, we shamefacedly drove away. We spontaneously stayed that night in Melbourne with Harry’s brother, Finnegan* and made up for the previous day’s shame by going ten-pin bowling.

It seems that one of the regular pastimes of some Australians when they hear that someone is going to be catching the ferry to Tasmania is to tell the traveller of some horror ferry crossing that they’d heard. When people found out that we’d be going on the ferry to Tasmania, I heard a number of stories of rough weather, seasickness epidemics and tales of woe, all told to me by people with a cruel humorous glint in their eye.

So, when we turned up on the following (and correct) day of travel, I was armed to the teeth with motion-sickness medications. We were doing a night sail, and so I took a sea-sickness pill as we boarded, hoping for a smooth crossing.

In the end, it was a very smooth crossing and I needn’t have worried about taking any sea-sickness pills. We arrived the following morning into Devonport. It was then that the ramifications of booking the wrong sailing date came home to roost, as we had to drive straight to Hobart to fulfil my tour obligations there that day.

While the unneeded motion-sickness medication didn’t aid me at all on the voyage over to Tasmania, it more than kicked in during our drive across the whole of Tasmania the morning we arrived. Harry was in charge of poking me in the ribs if he sensed me getting sleepy, and we’d occasionally stop and throw a football until I could continue. It was around now that I especially rued the day my van broke down and that the rental car company forbade anyone of Harry’s age from driving their vehicle, leaving me to be the full-time tour driver.

Soon enough we were then driving back up the length of Tasmania where I played in a town called Ulverstone. We approached the date to sail back to the Australian mainland. I checked and rechecked my booking to make sure that I hadn’t made any errors this time. I also vacillated as to whether or not I should take any more motion sickness pills on this crossing after they’d had little effect on the ship the previous crossing and yet turned me into a zombie the following day.

As I contemplated whether I should take the travel medication, the locals gleefully chimed in. “It’s not like sailing from Melbourne,” a number of the Tasmania locals told me with a mischievous gleam in their eye. “It’s not like you have an hour in a tranquil harbour before you get out into the wild seas. Five minutes after leaving Devonport, you’re in The Strait brother! And there the wild winds blow and the seas sweep in from the south. You’d be wise to prepare yourself for the harrowing gales and the giant seas!” I’d hear the doomsayers tease me.

And so once again, I found myself having a motion-sickness tablet as I boarded, and once again it was a perfectly smooth crossing. And once again my elaborate planning let me down, as this time, once we arrived back in Port Melbourne I had to drive from one Australian state to another and perform that night in a town called Wagga Wagga. All while suffering the day-after effects from the motion sickness pill.

As I drove, Harry again had to poke my ribs each time he thought I was getting sleepy. In fact, he was becoming accomplished at it with an almost ninja-like method that brought tears to my eyes. The fact that Harry wasn’t able to drive this hire car was a cruel reality that day of driving.

When I could no longer go on, we stopped at Beechworth Bakery and gorged ourselves on Bee Stings, Lamingtons, Vanilla Slices and Custard Tarts. The sugar and carbohydrate high was enough to get me over the state border and into Wagga Wagga for the concert that night.

After the Wagga Wagga concert, we curved northwards, returning to Sydney to see about the progress on my tour van’s diagnosis and repair. When we arrived at the service centre, the van sat abandoned in a far corner of the yard. They still hadn’t even looked at it. We resupplied some merch and CD boxes and other items from the van and continued northwards. Once again, I had to extend the car hire and resolved myself to be the driver for the remainder of the tour.

It was around this time that I started building up a small resentment towards Harry. I’d read about these things happening on long voyages that the early explorers suffered whilst sailing unknown oceans. In my case, it revolved around my mobile phone.

In Australia, you cannot use your mobile phone whilst driving. Prior to the tour I had arranged for one of those expensive unlimited data plans before the tour, the idea being that I could be working away on social media and updating my fans in those times that Harry drove my tour van. Now I was driving a hundred percent of the time, and my phone spent much of its time being used by Harry to check up on his online game forums. It became apparent to me that I had become one of those people where their phone had become an appendage, and now that appendage had been removed. I carefully buried my resentment behind a steely glare of the road ahead.

We continued our journey northwards, eventually coming to the town of Armidale.

It’s here that I should mention that over a few tours of varying lengths, Harry had often mentioned a particular motel in Armidale where he and his family had stayed and where they had spent the days lazing about a heated pool. It became an ongoing story that we’d refer to a number of times as we travelled as Harry kept talking about this idyllic ‘hotel with the heated pool’. So, when I was planning this particular tour, I’d asked Harry’s family about the hotel with the heated pool that held such memories for Harry growing up, and I made sure to book us into that hotel as a kind of gift to Harry.

Finally the day arrived and we drove into the hotel grounds that Harry had so often talked about. I ducked into the reception area to check us in.

As I regaled the receptionist with the story of Harry’s fond memories and how we’d booked in specifically so that he could once again experience his long-awaited swim in the heated pool, the lady started cackling.

“The pool heater’s broken, love,” she laughed maniacally.

I broke the news to Harry who showed remarkable restraint in his grief. After unpacking into our room, we decided to brave the temperature and dashed through the cold wind and icy rain to the indoor pool in our swimmers.

I dipped my toes in the water and immediately had a cramp seize my leg.

“Oochy Momma, that’s cold!” I shouted as I stumbled away from the waters edge.

Harry’s resolve to swim in the pool that his family had enjoyed quickly dissipated as the water gave off an icy mist.

Abandoning any attempts to swim in the unheated pool, we found a miniature sauna to get warm in before dashing back through the blowing rain to the hotel room.

I played a concert in Armidale that night. Afterwards, Harry and I contemplated dinner.

Most people have their dinner at a certain time of evening. For musicians, we are often searching for dinner after the concert, which is usually at a time when most restaurants are shutting or have shut. On tour and in towns where you don’t quite know the local restaurant options well, this leads to the inevitable fast-food chains. So Harry and I ended up driving through a drive-through lane of a well-known burger joint.

We arrived fifteen minutes before the restaurant officially closed. At the drive-through window we ordered our meals only to find ourselves somehow embroiled in the middle of a staff dispute.

“I’m not making no xxxx burgers!” we heard from the depths of the kitchen through the drive-through window.

“You’ll xxxx make what you’re xxxx told to!” the manager yelled back.

It descended into farcical chaos from there as the manager and his cook screamed at each other prior to shutting the restaurant. As I contemplated whether we should just drive straight off, a bag was roughly thrust out the window and into my hands. I had a quick look and knew that my burger was stone cold. The drive-through window slammed shut and I passed the bag over to Harry.

Harry ended up eating his big burger and mine as well. We retreated back to the hotel for our last night in town before setting off to my next musical stop in Lismore.

The following day, we drove up to where we would be staying, this time with a good musician friend and his family in their basement. I wasn’t performing that night, however I had a double-header the following day when I’d be performing some of my original gospel songs in a church service in New South Wales in the morning, followed by a full concert the same day up across the Queensland state line on the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast concert was to be my final concert of this six-week tour.

We arrived in Lismore and had a late-night catch up before heading to our assigned rooms in their basement area.

My exhausted head hit the pillow and I was almost asleep when I heard a noise coming from the next room. I went to investigate. The room was empty, aside from some organic mounds of matter strewn across the floor like gopher piles which smelt like a cross between bile and hamburgers. I heard strange noises coming from the bathroom.

It was Harry. He was being sick like I haven’t seen someone ever be sick before. He heaved with the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast. I patted him on the back as he erupted like some sort of puce-coloured fountain. I didn’t think that it was possible for all the regurgitated matter to have come out of one human being. Harry was really sick.

I went to find my musician friend and host. While Harry continued to be sick in the bathroom, we pulled up the carpet and started hosing it off in the backyard. I was still in my socks. After a while, I realised that I’d have to take Harry to the hospital - he wasn’t able to stop being sick. He was like a walking Niagara Falls of bile.

I went to put on my shoes, only to realise that they’d been within direct fire from one of Harry’s heaves. I cleaned them as best as I could. I drove him to the hospital.

After sitting with Harry in the waiting room, he was eventually triaged, admitted and put on a drip to restore lost fluids. I sat beside his bed, wondering what to tell his parents. “I’m sorry, but somehow my tour might have destroyed your son.”

Eventually, the sky started to lighten outside the hospital. Morning had arrived. I looked over at Harry and even though he still looked ashen and green, he was at least sleeping.

I snuck out of the hospital room and arranged for Harry to stay at there until my return.

I coasted to a silent stop outside our host’s house in the rental car. After ninja-ing my way in through their garage, I quietly packed up all our belongings and cleaned up as best I could. I looked at my watch and realised that it was not long before I was due to do a sound check for my my local appearance.

I brushed my teeth and straightened my hair in the bathroom of the church and greeted the pastor. I then started loading in all my gear and merch. To say that I was wrecked would have been an understatement.

The service began and I propped myself up in the front row of chairs. At some stage, the pastor began to pray. Soon I realised that I was fully asleep and jolted myself awake with the horror of possibly having been introduced and not having been awake! It was a false alarm. I popped some breath mints to try and get a sugar rush in order to keep myself awake. As I continued to fight fatigue, the time eventually arrived for me to get up and sing for my allocated thirty-minute slot. Adrenalin kicked in, and my tiredness became a distant memory.

It was a wonderful morning with a truly lovely group of people. They were earnest, happy and responsive to the songs I’d brought to share. It went so well and they were very gracious.

Afterwards, I made my way to the merch table to find a couple who had driven up from Coffs Harbour especially to see me. They were fellow musicians who wanted some touring advice. I have no idea what I said, but it mustn’t have been too horrific as we’ve since become firm friends.

As the people continued to socialise and congregate, I went back to pack up all my gear. As I finished packing the rental car, I waved goodbye before driving off to the Lismore hospital.

As I arrived at the hospital to pick Harry up, I heard someone shout out to me in the car park. A lady was running at me with cash in her hand. She’d been at the church that morning and wanted to buy a CD. My thoughts of Harry’s well-being were immediately cast aside as the prospect of another CD sale took my full attention - hey! I am a musician after all and a CD sale is a CD sale!

Soon I helped a still ashen-faced Harry out to the car. I’d arranged for Harry’s parents to pick him up from my next and final concert destination on the Gold Coast that evening.

Usually it would take an hour or so to drive from Lismore to the Gold Coast. I was so fatigued that we visited every rest stop along the way for me to powernap. It took us three and a half hours. At one rest stop, they had some ladies making tea for motorists. I fell upon them like I’d been in a desert. My shaking hand managed to get most of the tea into my mouth. I think that they might have thought I was on drugs.

We eventually made it to the car park of my next concert venue on the Gold Coast. I found a tree for shade and parked the rental car. We slumped in our seats and slept like the dead.

In my sleepy haze, I realised that I could feel an unexpected breeze on an area of my body that doesn’t normally get a breeze. I looked down. At some stage during the horrors of the previous night and day I had split my pants! I started cataloguing my movements that morning at the church: bending over on stage, facing away from the church congregation as I rolled up my microphone leads; leaning nonchalantly with my foot up on a step as I spoke of deeply spiritual matters with a collection of earnest people who kept a determined eye-contact with me the whole time (was that a tremor on their faces that I now remember?). It seemed pretty mild with what we’d survived. In the end, I just embraced it.

Harry’s parents finally arrived, bundled him off in their car and headed home. Meanwhile, I set up for the evening concert. At the end of that Sunday night concert, I headed off to stay with the concert organiser. We talked briefly before I went off to sleep for twelve hours.

I woke up and immediately drove eight hours back south to Port Macquarie to empty all my music gear from the rental car into a friend’s garage. I returned the long overdue rental car and I then flew to Sydney to await the verdict on my crippled van.

I stayed in Sydney for two unexpected weeks whilst awaiting the van’s diagnosis and repair. They reconditioned the engine and gave me the call to tell me that I could finally pick up the van and drive twelve hours home to Queensland. I paid the extreme repair bill and five minutes down the road the engine started making a rattling sound. I pulled over, gave the repairers a call and was told to return. Three minutes later, the engine completely blew up. A tow truck was called and the van was towed back to the service centre. More than eight weeks after leaving on my tour, I flew home.

The van ended up as a mechanical write-off and I wasn’t able to get my money back for the repair, or any insurance to replace the van. Apparently it was later used to train mechanical apprentices.

Since this six-week tour, I’ve done many three month and more concert tours of Australia and beyond. The one consistent thing is that every tour has its own challenges. The challenges are always outweighed by the incredible people who come along to the concerts I do and also the many amazing characters I’ve been able to meet as I’ve travelled.

While the van is a distant memory, I did return to the hotel with the heated pool. The heater was still broken.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

David Willersdorf is a singer-songwriter, traveller and food and coffee enthusiast


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