Coast coast

A 20-day Aus­tralian road trip changes one’s per­cep­tion of time and dis­tance, dis­cov­ers Catherine Mar­shall

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

DAY 1: SYD­NEY TO CO­BAR WE are set­ting off on a transcontinental road trip, but have pre­pared as ca­su­ally as one would for a week­end away: we’ve scrib­bled some es­ti­mated dis­tances and familiar-sound­ing lo­ca­tions on a scrap of pa­per, strapped our camp­ing gear to the roof of our Kia Carens six-seater sta­tion wagon, popped the three chil­dren into the car and packed 5 litres of pre­mium-qual­ity en­gine oil in the hope it will soothe our age­ing ve­hi­cle on the empty roads of the Nullar­bor.

Ten thou­sand kilo­me­tres lie ahead, so pulling into Co­bar we feel as though we’ve not yet left the start­ing box. The spring sun­shine in this cop­per­brown min­ing town is de­cep­tive, and our in­ad­e­quate cloth­ing is a poor bar­rier against the nasty chill. The cold set­tles upon us along with the dreaded re­al­i­sa­tion that it will only tighten its grip as we ad­vance across the vast empti­ness of south­ern Aus­tralia. DAY 2: CO­BAR TO PETER­BOR­OUGH This end­less jour­ney with three chil­dren and no por­ta­ble DVD player — the cause of un­told angst among dis­be­liev­ing friends — is pay­ing healthy div­i­dends al­ready: we de­bate and dis­cuss, tell jokes and pick out odd rock and cloud for­ma­tions.

We try to spell un­usual words, keep a road-kill tally and lis­ten to Roald Dahl read­ing his funny sto­ries on CD un­til fi­nally our 14-year-old asks to be left alone with her thoughts, and so we pro­ceed in priceless si­lence.

By­pass­ing Bro­ken Hill, we chase a rapidly sink­ing sun in search of a camp­site. Fi­nally we pull into slum­ber­ing Peter­bor­ough, a lov­ingly tended time warp where ev­ery­one, it seems, lives in a 19th­cen­tury home. DAY 3: PETER­BOR­OUGH TO ARNO BAY As the brochure prom­ises, our car rolls mirac­u­lously up a slight in­cline at Mag­netic Hill near Or­ro­roo. Emerg­ing from Hor­rocks Pass, we spy Port Au­gusta, a thin rib­bon of blue sea slic­ing into dun­coloured land. From Tim Flan­nery’s new book, WhereisHere?350Year­sofEx­plor­ingAus­tralia ,I read to the chil­dren the story of ex­plorer John Ainsworth Hor­rocks, who roamed from here to Lake Tor­rens and died af­ter be­ing shot by Harry the Camel. We pic­nic on the grass along­side the Port Au­gusta ma­rina where chil­dren swim and fish from the jetty and seag­ulls eat the in­sects pasted on our ra­di­a­tor grille.

Fur­ther along the Lin­coln High­way, Whyalla’s pink-washed streets and build­ings at­test to its love af­fair with iron ore. DAY 4: ARNO BAY TO CE­DUNA On Arno Bay’s man­grove path flies ha­rass us while a butcher­bird warns us off from its nest. The road takes us south to Port Lin­coln, South Aus­tralia’s seafood cap­i­tal. From here, a tena­cious mis­tral buf­fets us north­wards along the Flin­ders High­way, via the milk-and-aqua wa­ters of Cof­fin Bay and the Eyre Penin­sula’s salt-weath­ered, wind-blud­geoned west­ern rim. Black snakes, lizards and grey no­mads ply this road with equal fre­quency.

Streaky Bay en­tices us, but we press on to Ce­duna where we set up camp be­side the sand dunes and bat­ten down the hatches against a wind turned pos­i­tively ra­bid. DAY 5: CE­DUNA TO NULLAR­BOR Fi­nally, we are on the Eyre High­way, sal­ly­ing forth on one of the world’s iconic road trips. We de­tour to Fowlers Bay, a for­mer whal­ing vil­lage ringed by ic­ing-sugar dunes. At the Head of Bight, the sea is like a great caul­dron of thick cyan paint pound­ing the pre­cip­i­tous Bunda cliffs. Nullar­bor Road­house is an oa­sis in the most sim­plis­tic sense: a bleak clear­ing within an in­hos­pitable ex­panse of red earth, squat green flora and brit­tle yel­low grass, its ground un­yield­ing be­neath our tent pegs.

A cold southerly men­aces us as we bat­tle to pitch our tent, and my hair takes on the tex­ture of steel wool. Car­a­vans line up here like fu­tur­is­tic camels, re­signed to a night spent un­shel­tered from the Antarc­tic-fu­elled wind. A dingo chases rabbits close by, and a gen­er­a­tor emits a mourn­ful wail all night long, blot­ting out the plain’s si­lence. By 8.30 next morn­ing, a sin­gle car­a­van re­mains, ma­rooned like a ship. No one, it seems, hangs around the Nullar­bor for long. DAY 6: NULLAR­BOR TO BAL­LADO­NIA I pinch my­self: the Nullar­bor has mor­phed from a neb­u­lous men­tal im­age to an ac­tual ex­panse be­fore me, a place in­hab­ited by flies, road trains and curious, fleet­ing trav­ellers. Mallee trees dec­o­rate its lon­gi­tu­di­nal rim like tas­sels, pro­vok­ing scep­ti­cism among us as to the ac­cu­racy of its Latin name: trans­lated, Nullar­bor means no trees. As we drive along Aus­tralia’s long­est stretch of dead-straight road — a daunt­ing 146.6km — polyp-shaped clouds form above the bak­ing land­mass. Our ther­mome­ter reaches 42.5C at a road­side pic­nic spot be­fore the fur­nace-like wind and tyran­ni­cal flies per­suade us to flee.

At Bal­lado­nia Road­house, some­one has surely held a match to the molten twi­light sky. DAYS 7 & 8: BAL­LADO­NIA TO ESPER­ANCE The sea at Esper­ance fans provoca­tively out­wards like an overdyed skirt. To the east, at Cape Le Grande Na­tional Park, heav­ing split boul­ders ogle im­prob­a­ble turquoise bays. This is where Matthew Flin­ders found refuge from a fierce storm and where the French ship L’Esper­ance docked in the lee of one of the count­less is­lands that make up the Recherche Ar­chi­pel­ago. DAYS 9 & 10: ESPER­ANCE TO ALBANY Albany, swad­dled in driz­zle and mist, is like an ex­cla­ma­tion mark at the end of a sparse sen­tence. We spend hours at the Princess Royal Fort on Clarence Hill, look­ing out over King Ge­orge Sound like so many watch­ful sol­diers; we visit the Gap, sear­avaged and dan­ger­ous, and walk kilo­me­tres in the rain and cold to see wind-lashed blow­holes.

At the Squid Shack, where we or­der fish and chips, al­most ev­ery pa­tron stops for a chat: the man just back from Mt Kosciuszko who says that, al­though Albany’s colder, ‘‘ It’s still the best place to live’’; the 70-year-old blow-in from Ger­ald­ton with his young fam­ily who has fallen in love with this town where ‘‘ it rains and ev­ery­thing grows’’.

DAYS 11 & 12: ALBANY TO MAR­GARET RIVER At Walpole’s Val­ley of the Gi­ants, a spi­der’s web walk­way el­e­vates us to a ver­tig­i­nous 40m. We’re high in the canopy of the tow­er­ing tin­gle trees, so named for their red or yel­low blush. From here on, the land­scape is like a teenage girl, chang­ing its clothes con­tin­u­ously: it sheds its trees, re­plac­ing them with green hills, then clads it­self in dense shrub­bery be­fore start­ing the dress-up all over again.

We camp at a farm in Cowaramup near Mar­garet River and thread our way along bu­colic laneways to­wards sun-span­gled Cape Nat­u­ral­iste and south­wards to its cheer­less sis­ter, Cape Leeuwin. DAYS 13 & 14: MAR­GARET RIVER TO PERTH South of Perth, squeaky-bright towns are spread out like beads on a neck­lace: Bus­sel­ton, Bun­bury, Man­durah. Ev­ery­one here ap­pears to be on hol­i­day: the young moth­ers who gather in packs along­side the wa­ter, the men in shirt­sleeves fly­ing about in shiny four­wheel-drives. Sun­baked Perth has bur­geoned since my first visit eight years ago, a bevy of project homes spread­ing like a con­ta­gion along the west­ern seaboard. DAY 15: PERTH TO KAL­GO­OR­LIE The land­scape grad­u­ally shakes off its trees and un­du­la­tions and bright wheat fields. The his­toric Golden Pipe­line, which car­ries wa­ter from Perth to a dry, thirsty Kal­go­or­lie, is our faith­ful com­pan­ion on this stretch of road, skirt­ing rail­way lines, over­fly­ing or bur­row­ing be­neath road cross­ings, part­ing ways with us only once we’ve reached Kal­go­or­lie. The Su­per Pit is host­ing an open day and so the chil­dren feast on com­pli­men­tary can­dyfloss and lol­lies as we peer into the world’s largest pit mine, gouged with vig­or­ous per­sis­tence from this de­fi­ant land­scape. DAY 16: KAL­GO­OR­LIE TO FRASER RANGE South of Kal­go­or­lie, the rim of Norse­man’s Lake Cowan is smudged red where the wind un­set­tles the earth. We overnight at beau­ti­ful Fraser Range sta­tion, where wine-swill­ing campers fill the fire-warmed farm kitchen and swap trav­ellers’ tales. DAY 17: FRASER RANGE TO NUNDROO The re­turn trip casts the Nullar­bor in a more melan­choly light, for the sun is at our back and our Nullar­bor en­counter is reach­ing an end. Sand scours our eyes and fills our shoes as we climb through sand-drifts and into the ru­ins of the old tele­graph sta­tion on the beach at Eu­cla. Ethel Turner’s Seven Lit­tle Aus­tralians keeps us riv­eted on the long, long drive: a fit­ting story of ad­ven­ture and dis­cov­ery. At Nundroo we pitch our tent by the light of our car, and are kept awake all night by a group of drunken men. DAY 18: NUNDROO TO PETER­BOR­OUGH Ad­vanc­ing along the Eyre Penin­sula’s north­ern perime­ter, hillocks rise against the bright blue sky and wheat fields bil­low along­side us once again. We reach Kimba, the ge­o­graphic half­way point be­tween Syd­ney and Perth and home to one of Aus­tralia’s curious gi­ant sculp­tures: in this in­stance, an 8m-tall galah. Birds abound here and to the north­west in the bio-di­verse Gawler Ranges. Who knows what this tamed am­ber land­scape looked like when John Eyre first clapped eyes on it in 1836? Be­yond Port Au­gusta, pad­docks stretch seem­ingly for­ever. At Or­ro­roo, a farmer sits on his veranda, watch­ing the sun set be­yond his gold-plated fields. There are worse ways to end your days. DAY 19: PETER­BOR­OUGH TO SYD­NEY We pick our way through a se­ries of for­saken out­back towns, each one lit­tle more than a col­lec­tion of crum­bling, ghostly build­ings. At Cock­burn, the pub­lic toi­let is filled with rub­bish, and the lo­cal publi­can wants to charge us $2 to use hers; I re­ply res­o­lutely that we’ll go in the bush, such as it is. We lis­ten to TheWizard­ofOz, with a new-found em­pa­thy for Dorothy’s ex­cite­ment at the prospect of re­turn­ing home. This trip has altered our per­cep­tion of time and dis­tance, re­duc­ing a thou­sand kilo­me­tres into a sin­gle day’s drive. Nyn­gan, Bathurst and Welling­ton flash by in the dark, guid­ing us home.

We per­sist un­til, in the early hours of the morn­ing, on Day 20, we reach Syd­ney, wiser in ways John Eyre him­self might have taught us: most im­por­tantly, that dis­tance should never be a bar­rier to dis­cov­ery, and that the great open plains of Aus­tralia are an en­ter­tain­ment chan­nel in their own right.

In for the long haul: Con­tem­plat­ing the end­less high­way across South Aus­tralia’s Nullar­bor Plain, main pic­ture and be­low

Pic­ture: Catherine Mar­shall

The long road home: Vin­cent, Kate and Ju­lia Rade­meyer at Kimba

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