To Tom Parry, a British-born former drummer and philosophy graduate, it seemed like an awesome idea – but his French girlfriend Katia wasn’t so sure. When they agreed that Katia could decline any offer, the whole thing felt more comfortable and together they set off to do it with strangers.

A travelling sex tour of Australia? Not quite. Tom and Katia had agreed to spend five months hitchhiking an 8000km round trip of Australia. From Adelaide to Darwin, on to Queensland and back down the east coast through Sydney and Melbourne. All going well, Tom and Katia would find themselves back in Adelaide. Their quest was to find the “real Australia”. Their plan? They didn’t have one.

As the couple thumbed their way around lonely stretches of deserts and near-empty highways, they encountered a terrain and people wonderful and extreme. In cattle stations, Aboriginal communities, remote waterholes, caravan parks, hippy communes and roadhouses, they experienced a country as extraordinary today as it was for the first European settlers.

Now married to Katia (surprisingly, says Tom) and living in London where he works as a journalist for The Daily Mirror, TNT spoke to Tom about his book Thumbs Up Australia – an account of his time on the road.

What made you want to experience Australia this way?
I’m one of these awkward people who looks for the most difficult way of travelling. I’ve been on buses and I found you don’t see much. I like to takes risks. By hitching you meet a lot of people, people who aren’t there to please tourists and if you sit in their truck for two or three hours, you find out a lot about their lives. For a lot of hitchers it’s probably about the money, but for me, it’s more the social aspect.

Did you worry about your safety?
There was only one ride over the whole five months that was bad. That was a truck driver going through Queensland. He hadn’t slept for days and was keeping himself awake using speed. We didn’t feel safe and Katia was terrified. Other than that, almost everyone went out of their way to help us. There were lots of eccentric people, a bit weird but not nasty. Hitching reinforced my positive view of Australians and what friendly people they are. The murder of Peter Falconio happened a few weeks after we got back to the UK. As someone who works on a newspaper, I know what it’s like when a story like [the] Falconio [disappearance] breaks, it gets such massive coverage, but it’s one case in the thousands of travellers who have a great time. It’s one very sad and unlucky situation.

Was it good for Katia?
I really had to talk her into it. She was reluctant and for the very first lift she was very nervous, but after a few days everyone we met was really kind. And we always had an agreement that if she didn’t want to take the ride, we wouldn’t. That bad feeling didn’t happen once.

Did you plan your route or did you just go where the rides took you?
We started in Adelaide and we had a vague plan. Our route was loosely based on the early explorers who first crossed the continent. From Adelaide we went up to Darwin, then back down and across to Queensland, down the east coast to Sydney, then to Melbourne and back up to Adelaide. But there were detours. You have to be open to those – that’s what hitching is about.

What was the hardest part about hitching?
Occasionally we’d find ourselves at the end of the day in some godforsaken town with about 15 people living there. But at most places there’s a roadhouse or something similar and if you give them a few dollars, they are usually happy to let you pitch your tent and use their facilities. But for the bad times there’s a flip side – one lift lasted for about four days and they took us all around Ayers Rock, and if that happens, you see as much as anyone would see on a package tour.

Did you pay for any of your lifts?
That’s the other great thing about hitching – it’s free. And for the distance we covered, that’s a massive saving. Initially we offered some cash for petrol but then we found the best way was to pay for a meal or a few drinks when we stopped off. We found that if people are travelling that route anyway, they are happy with a contribution to the meal. Usually they are just happy for the company.

How was the food on the road?
Bad. We ate lots of Chiko Rolls and roadhouse food, but we walked a good two or three kilometres every day to get to the outskirts of town, so it was okay. I think I lost weight.

Did hitching as a couple put stress on your relationship?
We’d been together for about four or five years at the time. But despite having lived together for about two of those years, spending 24 hours a day together and having to make rapid decisions – and not having any time apart – it’s a different experience. In our case it was actually really good. But I can see how it could be a make or break thing. I certainly increased my admiration for Katia. She was willing to put up with me being so obstinate and I thought well, if she’s able to put up with this then she’s able to deal with anything. We became engaged six months after the trip and now we are married with a baby son.

The weather in Australia hits both extremes. Did you plan to travel with the seasons?
The heat up in the Northern Territory got very bad at times and the stickyness around Katherine was really bad. We managed to do it the wrong way – we ended up in the south in the coldest period and in the Top End during the wet season. But that’s a part of why you go travelling, to experience the differences and it’s not always comfortable.

On average, how long would you wait for a lift?
Most times we’d wait about two hours – on a good day an hour. On a few rare occasions we had to wait a whole day. You have to be patient.

After Australia, did you hitch any where else?
We went to Mexico together, but we hitched only two lifts there. That’s where Katia drew the line. I didn’t feel as safe there either and we thought we’d play it safe and got the bus. I’d love to hitchhike around Europe though, down through France and Spain.

Do you think hitchhiking in Australia is safe for a woman on her own?
I wouldn’t advise it for a woman on her own.

What tips can you offer travellers who want to hitchhike?
Mostly you just want to keep moving in the right direction. We tried not to look too scruffy, but you don’t want to look like you’re really well-off either. Always find a good hitching spot on a clear road at the outskirts of the city limits. Be safe, but don’t be too fussy about who you ride with and be patient – you must be prepared to wait as long as it takes. And always be ready to be a good listener – remember that on those long roads, some people might not have had anyone to speak to for days. It’s really a great way to discover a national character. All you have to do is listen.

Read about Tom and Katia’s hitchhiking adventures in Thumbs Up Australia, published by Nichola Brealey, distributed by Allen & Unwin, $24.95.