A 20-day Australian road trip changes one’s perception of time and distance, discovers Catherine Marshall
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
The long road home: Vincent, Kate and Julia Rademeyer at Kimba