Off topic: Max Pritchard

Off Topic and on the record as South Australian identities talk about whatever they want… as long as it’s not their day job. Acclaimed architect Max Pritchard talks about his gap year, which lasted a decade, that allowed the Southern Ocean Lodge designer to explore the world.

“I went straight to uni from school at 17 and graduated five years later. I was paid by the government through uni, which was a system they had then. We got a living allowance from the government with the requirement you had to work for them for three years. I spent three years working for what was then the Public Buildings Department as an architect and at the completion of those three years I resigned and considered my options.” Pritchard decided to travel. With no set plans he hitchhiked north from Port Wakefield Road armed with just a rucksack. “I originally started out with a mate but after a short time we decided we’d have better experiences travelling alone. The intention was, as many did in those days, the early 70s, to travel through to Europe – usually people were doing it through some sort of program but I really had no plans at all. “I hitchhiked indirectly to Darwin via Townsville. The cheapest way out of Australia was a short plane flight to what was then Portuguese Timor. That was then landing into a very undeveloped sort of country, so right from the start I had this idea to do the cheapest travelling possible and through doing that it could turn out to be very interesting, which is what happened.” After Timor, Pritchard explored Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. “I particularly remember Thailand being interesting because I just travelled as far north as you could on the map, beyond Chiang Mai. I met a guy up there who was a refugee from Burma. He was interested in exploring beyond where the hill tribes are – that have got publicity since then but no one really knew much about the little tribes in the early 70s – but he was interested in exploring that area for potential tourism. We headed off trekking in northern Thailand and kept on staying where we could with these villagers, these semi-nomadic tribes that lived up there. “It was quite an experience and we actually stayed with tribes that had never seen a white person before, so that was amazing that you could still do that in the 70s. I met an American anthropologist after that and I said how I’d stayed with this particular tribe, which was quite an elusive one. He tried to study the hill tribes and hadn’t found a lot of them, which is just an example of how by stumbling around you can have these amazing experiences. “The area up there is what was known, and I think still is, as The Golden Triangle where most of the opium was grown and controlled by rebels from Burma, China and I think the Thai army was pretty involved in as well. In hindsight it was incredibly risky from that point of view that you were in the midst of that but there were lovely sights while going through the poppy fields.” Pritchard then travelled into Northern Laos. The Vietnam War was still raging and there was a civil war in Laos, although when he arrived there was a temporary truce. “It was still pretty silly to be travelling down there but you only found out about the dangers after you’d been through.” After Laos, Pritchard travelled to Burma, Mandalay, India, Nepal and then Afghanistan where a rifle was pointed at him accompanied by the click of the safety. “I realised then, I was just wandering around aimlessly, that I was quite near the royal palace, which didn’t look like a royal palace but it was. This was the last days, within months, of the last king of Afghanistan getting exiled, so there was a lot of sensitivity about him and their political situation.” After catching malaria in Iran, Pritchard settled in Scotland to work and get treated before tackling South America. “I guess from my experiences in Malaysia, and particularly up in the hill tribe areas, I was fascinated with anthropology and remote or indigenous cultures and in the Andean countries with the original Incas that was quite fascinating. I was taking some silly risks without realising it until afterwards. I doubled up quite high in the mountains of Peru beyond where there was public transport and just travelled on the back of trucks to get a lift, so it was quite remote and high up there. I found out later, months after I’d been through a heady area, it was the breeding ground of what became known as the Shining Path Guerrillas. They became a quite notorious group in Peru and they actually massacred a village. I think it might’ve been one of the villages that I went through, months after I’d been through it. Again, blindly, I used to go on these adventures and survive.” Pritchard arrived back in Australia to work as a labourer for many years before registering as an architect in his mid-30s. When he was travelling the world there were times he thought he might become a professional traveller. “I did but there was a time when I was travelling I thought I’d come back and study anthropology because I really liked the remote indigenous culture aspect of it. I haven’t pined for going away [since returning] and I’ve moved on. I’ve really enjoyed the work that I’ve done since. When I was travelling, and even when I was working as a labourer and a concreter, I didn’t have a set plan that I was going to be an architect again. I became an architect when it just felt right. I just started going to the library and getting books on architecture and I thought, ‘Well this is quite interesting. I might have a crack at this again.’”

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