Almanac Life: The Glass Highway



A six-year-old Smokie peers into the shattered remains of the family’s Ford Cortina



Mum had clipped out a picture from the travel brochure and stuck it to the door of the fridge. For months, my sister and I stared in wonder at the beach-side high-rise building.


There! We would point at the grainy black and white image and speculate animatedly about which room might be the one reserved for us. It was to be our first ever family holiday. The name of our destination stirred up idyllic images of beaches, waves and sun: Surfers Paradise. It couldn’t help but sound exotic, even with the frequency at which those words rolled off our tongues. Mum and Dad were probably just as excited as us. At 23 and 24 respectively, it wasn’t so long since they themselves had been kids.


In the January school holidays in the pre-dawn darkness, we set off in Dad’s pride and joy, a slightly modified Ford Cortina. He drove taxis for a living, and had stretched himself to purchase it, but it was a beautiful looking car, silver with black racing stripes on the bonnet. On that first day, he drove all the way from Melbourne to Narrabri, where we stopped for the night in an on-site caravan. Even in the evening, the heat was all-enveloping. Was this what Surfers Paradise would be like? We ate a dinner of fish and chips, and wondered why the potato cakes in this town were called potato scallops.


The next morning, we bade farewell to the Newell Highway at Goondiwindi, and turned onto the Cunningham Highway to head east toward the coast. Flanked by gravel verges, so narrow was the Cunningham’s strip of asphalt that it was insufficient to allow two vehicles to pass each other. Dad would later ruefully remark that it was referred to as the ‘Glass Highway’, such were the number of accidents that it saw. When a vehicle approached from the opposite direction, he would raise his hand and press his thumb and two fingers to the underside of the windscreen to prevent a stray flicked-up stone from cracking it.


When the fateful on-coming semi-trailer appeared, Dad and the other driver both veered to their left to allow each other to pass safely. But the truck’s trailer jack-knifed and recklessly swung toward us, and in that split second my dad made the decision to move even further off the road, lest the car’s roof – and quite possibly the heads of its passengers – was peeled back like the top of a sardine can. Out off the verge the tyres lost their grip and dad lost control. We were catapulted back across the highway. Because it seemed to happen in slow motion, I had the time to count us rolling five times whilst watching my sister’s Barbie dolls weightlessly float about in the maelstrom. The sound of glass shattering and metal buckling, and feeling the doors and the roof of the car making crunching contact with the bitumen at speed, are sensations which are not quickly forgotten. The Cortina came to rest – on its side – in the brush on the opposite side of the road.


My sister was sobbing, and my mum initially feared that my Dad was dead. Slumped against the steering wheel, he was lifeless. But she still had the wherewithal to hoist me out the passenger side window, which was facing upwards to the cloudless blue Queensland sky. I scrambled down the roof and out onto the road, six years old with legs of jelly, to flag down the first vehicle I spied on the horizon. There was kindness and sensitivity in the strangers who stopped to assist the young family, one car driving on to organise an ambulance, most expressing disgust that the truck-driver did not stop to render assistance. ‘Surely he knew?’


We were transported to the hospital in Warwick, where Dad spent a couple of days under observation, and my three-year-old sister underwent an operation. She would lose the tip of her ring finger. Mum and I stayed in a motel, and in between hospital visits we went to the wrecking yard to retrieve the rest of our belongings from the twisted remains of the Cortina. I was startled by the mangled chassis. How had we all survived? In my naivety, I asked mum if we would still be going to Surfers Paradise.


Thanks to the differing colonial-era rail gauges, it took three trains to get us home from Warwick to Melbourne. It seemed to take forever, probably because there was no enticing high-rise apartment block waiting for us at journey’s end. The disaster must have cost my youthful parents a fortune. Although we would go on to enjoy numerous holidays together, we never again got to Queensland as a family. But no other holiday brought us closer together, nor taught us as much about resilience.


After the first day of the new school term, my mother was concerned about the possibility of my displaying symptoms of trauma. She told my Grade 1 teacher about our accident. “We know all about the car crash,” my teacher replied. “He stood up in front of the class and told us all about it.”




Read more from Smokie Dawson HERE



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About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Gee Smoke, you’re lucky to be here to tell the tale!

  2. Wow Smokie, one hell of an experience. Great everyone got out alive.

    I vaguely remember we were holidaying in Tasmania back in 1973 and a car in the opposite direction rolled over. I recall my parents assisting the occupants of the car get out.

    There were all the regular drives up the Hume (Sydney Road) to visit family in Corowa. The old highway back in the 60’s & 70’s was a rough drive in those days.

    Stay safe,


  3. I haven’t been on the Warwick to Goondiwindi stretch for years, Smokie, but it was always the worst section of the drive from Laidley to Adelaide. Not sure what it’s like now. Your story reminded me of a trip up the Newell in the late 70s. Two young couples BK (before kids) in my friend’s little Honda Civic on pre-steel belt radial tyres, driving non-stop north from Adelaide to Queensland. We were between Dubbo and Gilgandra just after dawn broke when a tyre blew and sent us into a 270 degree spin, across the road and into the verge. Somehow or another we didn’t roll and ended up at 90 degrees facing the road in a gap between two substantial trees. A split second sooner or later and we were into one of them. No injuries apart from a good shaking, no damage whatsoever to the car. A local council road crew came by within minutes, helped change the tyre and pointed us in the right direction. Just as well because we were totally disoriented! As we tracked up through the New England Highway during the rest of the day, we all silently looked out at a hundred other spots where the tyre might have blown and we would have been cactus. Sobering!

  4. Powerful memories Smoke. The Australia that was. The Australia that is. We take so much of the growth of the last 50 years for granted. Car air conditioning. Divided highways. Medicare. As you say the financial – let alone emotional – cost to a young couple would have been dramatic.

  5. Good story Smokie ! It was amazing you all got out of that carnage alive. As far as Surfers goes until they built Sea World I had no wish to go there. Not for me. For kids it wonld be exciting.

  6. Phhhhfffffffwwwwwwwwwfffffffffffffffffffffff.

    Thanks Smokie.
    Oh dear. So extremely lucky (unlucky? lucky? unlucky?).
    What a world this is.

    These tears are good tears.
    Thank you.

  7. Lucky the Cortina had a hard roof! Or maybe you lot had hard heads!!

    Lucky indeed Smoke.

  8. Holidays were treacherous on those highways; and gravel verges for the uninitiated were also lethal. My first memory of one was turning from he Northern Hwy onto a quiet narrow rural rd when the tail of my car spun out. Fortunately no collision resulted, but I forever learnt the meaning of the gravel verge. It’s not something you learn in city driving.
    Love the vehicles in the background.

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Wow, very lucky to get out of that. No wonder you never went to Queensland as a family again!

    Did your Dad ever get another Cortina?

  10. Fate shuffles the cards and we play. (Schopenhauer)

    Glad you’re with us Smoke.

    Of all the wonderful things you do, and are, never forget that you are a key figure in the Smokie Dawson count at the Almanac GF lunch.

  11. I made that same trip for my first holiday too Smokie, but instead of counting car rolls while Barbie tumbled around, I counted car makes as they whooshed past our mustard Toyota Camry wagon.

    Echoing the others, we’re lucky to have you with us!

  12. Thanks for your comments, all.
    Much appreciated.

    Unfortunately this accident was not the worst in which I was involved.
    But that is a tale for another day.

  13. Good story, as ever. Good last line too.

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