IT WAS 1931 AND unemployment in Australia had skyrocketed to 28 per cent. Before dawn one June morning, Louis Victor Atkins, an unemployed chef and returned soldier, walked 20km from Bankstown, in Sydney’s south-west, to the city centre for a job interview. According to the Western Argus, he didn’t get the job and was “standing on the steps in a dejected mood” when he encountered two well-dressed businessmen condemning “all and sundry of the unemployed”, especially returned soldiers. Upon hearing their remarks, Atkins explained his situation but, according to The Sunday Times, they declared “no digger would walk 10 yards for a job”.
Furious, Atkins retorted: “Bet me 50 quid to a bob and I will walk to Perth, and do it in seven months.”
THIS IS THE STORY of how Atkins came to walk 4477km solo from Sydney to Perth without a support vehicle, food drops, or high-tech gear.
Described by one reporter as a bronzed, fit and wiry 36-year-old, Atkins was a survivor of Gallipoli and Pozières, in France. A private in the 4th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, he was part of a group who called themselves the “die hards”. In an article in the Western Mail, a fellow digger described Atkins as “game as a bull ant and with a great fund of humour”.
But his life was tough. Not only was Atkins unemployed with a five-year-old daughter, but a month before the bet was made, his wife had died.The lure of 50 pounds – which at the time was worth about three months’ wages – was enticing.
The wager was overseen by the editor of The Sun, to whom Atkins wrote from every town. The rules required he walk the entire distance without cadging lifts or begging for food.
Atkins began the walk on 24 July 1931 with four shillings in his pocket, and supported himself by selling copies of a short poem he’d written to people he met along the way. Starting in Sydney, he booted his way to Melbourne, then Adelaide and Port Augusta, before following the Trans-Australian Railway across the Nullarbor Plain to Kalgoorlie. He arrived in Perth on 4 January 1932, seven weeks ahead of his seven-month deadline.
To prove he walked the whole way, Atkins obtained signatures from mayors and secretaries of the returned services organisations in each town he visited.
STANDING AT 163CM AND weighing 59kg, Atkins had a slight build, but he carried an 18kg pack containing two rugs, a waterproof sheet, a raincoat and a change of underwear. He wore army breeches, puttees (gaiters), a purple flannel and lace-up boots resoled with car tyres.
After months on the road, Atkins told the Western Argus his epic journey had “made a new man of him”. He’d come to know the landscape and was impressed by the amount of wildlife he saw, particularly in South Australia’s Ninety Mile Desert.
“I saw more game there – kangaroos, emus – than I saw anywhere else during my walk,” he told The Advertiser.
The most difficult se section was crossing the Nullarbor Plain – the vast la landscape that stretches between Ceduna, in SA, and Kalgoorlie, in WA. Fr Fresh water was scarce an and there were no shops; the only way he could buy food was via the Tea & Sugar, a train that ran along the Trans-Australian Ra Railway track weekly, servicing the isolated Nullarbor towns.
Nights on the Nullarbor were bitterly cold, and as food supplies were hard to obtain Atkins often lived on rabbit. By the time he reached Rawlinna, in WA, on 26 November 1931, he had already worn out seven sets of tyre soles but still had about 400km to walk before he reached the Nullarbor’s western edge, and a further 600km to go from there. Despite the challenges, Atkins arrived in Perth five months and 12 days after he set off from Sydney.There is no official ruling on whether the walk was a record, but Atkins developed a taste for adventure and decided to cycle from Perth to Brisbane. He set off on 12 August 1932 and arrived in Brisbane almost two months later.