Off the Road

29 October 2019 Amy Hetherington

Off the Road

My name’s Bob. I’m 72-years-old and live in the regional town of Wagga Wagga in NSW. But for more than half my life, I’ve been cycling around rural Australia, working from town to town, and living in a tent. That’s more than 40 years without a fixed address: without a proper roof over my head, four walls, hot and cold running water, electricity or gas. But it’s the life I chose.

I did a lot of seasonal work to keep me going. I started in New South Wales and went to Queensland and Perth. I did all the seasonal work you can think of – garlic, onions, apples, oranges, pears, chipping and cotton.

I didn’t learn the true value of money growing up. I never had that kind of upbringing. I was handed over to the Salvation Army at the age of seven. My mother handed the Salvos’ lady a note with my birth date on it and my name. That’s all. And then she left.

One of the biggest problems I’ve faced is not having photo ID, because I couldn’t produce a birth certificate. I had to find out who my parents were to get an ID so that I could register with Centrelink as an aged pensioner.

And because I didn’t have a fixed address, when you go from one state to another, when you cross that border, it doesn’t necessarily mean your ID will be recognised. Every state has their own rules, their own way of doing things.

When I rode my bike from South Australia to New South Wales, I had so many problems with ID, so much red tape. I felt like I was under interrogation just to get an ID.

Another big problem is nutrition. I lived on a lot of tinned food, biscuits and artificial supplements like vitamin tablets. I’ve lived off kangaroos, snakes, lizards, but you need a proper balance. If you don’t get all the nutrition and vitamins and minerals you need, you don’t have the energy to keep going. When you’re homeless, you’re limited to how much food you can carry. Water is the main problem.

Last year, I fell off my bike, so I’ve been forced to stay put in Wagga. This was when I agreed to be filmed for the documentary series Struggle Street. I was living in a makeshift lean-to at a caravan park, and I was living on the pension, trying to save money for my eye operation. I found out that I had the largest and most complicated cataract that some of the doctors had ever seen in their medical career.

I got a bit tired of living in the lean-to, because I had to sit up at night and look after my own security. I’d go to bed early and get up at around 1am and stay awake till about 5am. That way I’d be up and ready to go if someone came in and attacked me. I’d have my shoes on, my trousers on, my long top on, so if it’s cold I can make a go for it.

People would judge you and say, “He’s a bludger, he’s bludging off the government.” No! I get my pension, but you know how much tax I’ve paid over the years? Don’t you think I’ve earned the right to have the pension? I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t gamble.

I’m now renting a unit in Wagga. My social worker Judy helped me a lot. I’m on a lease for the first time in more than four decades. I have actually managed to save a bit since living in a house.

I’m originally from Sydney and would never go back to a city again. The country is for me – it’s the healthiest lifestyle. I don’t like being one sardine in a tin, no elbow room, not being able to get away from other people. Here in the country you have beautiful fresh air and the open expanse of nature.

Hear more of Bob’s story in the new season of Struggle Street, now screening on SBS and SBS on Demand.