The long un­wind­ing road

From west to east across the Nullar­bor Plain, with many a sur­pris­ing de­tour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - VIR­GINIA JEAL­OUS

YOU get what you give on the Nullar­bor. Given time and at­ten­tion, it re­pays in spades. Cross­ing it is still a rite of pas­sage of sorts, a good ground­ing in how big Aus­tralia re­ally is. And while the Nullar­bor Plain is in­deed long and straight and flat ( no sur­prises there), it’s very beau­ti­ful.

Light and coun­try are mer­cu­rial. Sun-struck still­ness morphs into windswept rainy wild­ness in min­utes. To emerge from the car is to en­ter a Cin­e­maS­cope land­scape, like a bit player in a movie whose pres­ence seems vi­tal for a mo­ment but in­signif­i­cant in the big­ger pic­ture. Wed­getailed ea­gles barely move from their road­kill feasts of kan­ga­roo. Bird­song and heady, resinous smells em­anate from scrubby bushes and stunted trees. Dust stirs, then set­tles.

I am driv­ing from Den­mark, on the West Aus­tralian south coast, to NSW. About 700km af­ter leav­ing home, I make a right turn on to the Nullar­bor at Norse­man, be­tween Esper­ance and Kal­go­or­lie, and head in a straight line to­wards Port Au­gusta in South Aus­tralia, 1668km fur­ther east, where I turn right again and con­tinue through the state, briefly into Vic­to­ria and on to NSW.

I soon re­alise the Nullar­bor is an art les­son in van­ish­ing points and hori­zons, heat haze and mi­rage. Quiv­er­ing im­ages of air­craft ap­pear at in­ter­vals. These are not hal­lu­ci­na­tions but re­minders that the high­way dou­bles as the fly­ing doc­tor run­way. Other, stranger things have come to the Nullar­bor from the sky, such as the tum­bling de­bris of Sky­lab on its re­turn to earth in 1979.

Un­der­ground is also oth­er­worldly; hon­ey­combed with lime­stone caves, the sur­face soil is prone to sub­side and un­der­mine the un­wary who go bush with­out maps. Side­tracks beckon. Head­ing for Eyre Tele­graph Sta­tion, a line of pudgy camel tracks along­side the car il­lus­trates the need to de­flate tyres on soft sand.

I let air out, take a breath in, start to move again. The tele­graph sta­tion, in WA’s Nuyt­s­land Na­ture Re­serve and now one of Birds Aus­tralia’s ob­ser­va­to­ries, may still be iso­lated but life there is no longer as hard as it was back in 1877. Al­most a cen­tury later the daugh­ter of Eyre’s first sta­tion mas­ter re­called that ‘‘in our home there were no girls, there were no chil­dren, we were all work­ers’’. It’s hard to tell if this was re­mem­bered with pride or bit­ter­ness.

To­day there’s an im­pres­sive ar­ray of so­lar pan­els, a satel­lite dish has re­placed the Morse code ma­chine (rel­e­gated to an eclec­tic on-site mu­seum) and from the weather sta­tion re­ports are re­layed elec­tron­i­cally to the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal depart­ment. At the huge rain­wa­ter tank, young Ma­jor Mitchell’s cock­a­toos are work­ing out a peck­ing or­der. They’re hooning wildly around the house and hang­ing up­side down from the gut­ter with punky pink-lemon­ade crests raised.

Sur­round­ing sand dunes re­curve into tusky peaks and ridges that look like scrimshaws, etched by the wan­der­ing feet of vis­i­tors. This was a whal­ing coast; one morn­ing, help­ing to oil the decks, I graze my arm on a fos­silised whale rib propped against the wall. It bleeds, and for days I wear the scratch as a badge of pride.

At Head of Bight fur­ther along the Nullar­bor, win­ter whale mi­gra­tions bring south­ern rights to birth and rest in the bay. But on the cliffs of the bight in late sum­mer there are no whales, no other peo­ple, just me and the wide ocean and brown fal­cons wheel­ing and call­ing from the cliffs.

It is beau­ti­ful and wild, with all shades of blue in the ocean and sky.

On the road again. At Cac­tus Beach, on the far west coast of South Aus­tralia, home to a desert surf­ing le­gend that started in the 1970s, the wa­ter is calm and rugged-up surfers on the shore eye the ocean for any sign of swell. A tac­i­turn man and his dog, in a beaten-up Kombi van that looks as if it’s been around since the 70s, main­tain the le­gend. In an empty clear­ing he parks so close I can see the flakes of skin on his peel­ing nose; only then do I re­alise I’ve parked be­side the fire pit and that he’s come to cook up a feed.

Surfer friends have warned against such tac­ti­cal er­rors if you want to keep the lo­cals on side. They’ve also warned of great white shark at­tacks. In nearby shel­tered Port le Hunte, where a young boy was taken in 1975, a shark net drip­ping ten­drils of weed now hangs from the old jetty across to the beach. A me­mo­rial sits along­side her­itage plaques de­scrib­ing the port’s hey­day in the early 1900s. Alone here on this cold, clear day, with wa­ter shoosh­ing in un­der the jetty and cor­morants lined up on the net, it’s hard to imag­ine hol­i­day par­ties, the bar­be­cue pit sizzling, a queue at the long-drop dunny. Next to the pic­nic area, some­one has pro­tec­tively net­ted a lone pump­kin plant, bat­tling to sur­vive against the el­e­ments.

The scab on my arm itches and I re­main ob­sessed with the sea; I keep turn­ing south off the high­way and head­ing for the coast.

John Eyre, the first Euro­pean to make the east-west cross­ing along the coast, de­scribed the 1840 whal­ing sea­son in his j our­nal. ‘‘Upon walk­ing around the shores of Fowlers Bay I found them lit­er­ally strewed in all di­rec­tions with the bones and car­casses of whales . . . washed on shore by the waves . . . recog­nis­able as be­ing those of dis­tinct an­i­mals . . . a very for­tu­nate and suc­cess­ful sea­son . . .’’

At Fowlers I stand on the sand, try­ing to imag­ine bones in place of the mounds of sea­grass.

I keep an eye on the car’s trip me­ter. At about 500km, tired­ness sets in and there­after I think mostly about stop­ping. Some days I drive only 200km, some days none. Oc­ca­sion­ally I drive my­self too far; around 700km, a sec­ond wind kicks in and ev­ery­thing is brighter, even the mi­rages are more sharply de­fined. I talk to my­self to stay alert. I know this isn’t sen­si­ble. On these long days I’m try­ing to get some­where, any­where, to avoid overnight­ing on the dust-blasted pieces of red dirt be­hind road­houses that wouldn’t look out of place as a Mad Max back­drop. They are camp sites in only the most lit­eral sense.

Be­tween Ce­duna and Port Au­gusta, the Nullar­bor be­comes a tamer wild. There are more ve­hi­cles and more peo­ple here, and I re­sent this a bit, even though I’m one of them. Rough camp­ing ar­eas be­come ser­viced tourist parks. At Streaky Bay, the full-to­burst­ing car­a­van park is the haunt of long-stay trav­ellers, here for se­ri­ous fish­ing. It seems to be at once the most open and most in­su­lar of worlds. Each patch of van park turf is guarded j eal­ously. Blinds are drawn, an­nexes zipped shut, noth­ing strays an inch over the site-line. An un­writ­ten but closely ob­served eti­quette is main­tained in terms of how close to ap­proach; en­try is by in­vi­ta­tion only.

In con­trast, the pub­lic spaces are alive with talk. Top­ics range from the cheap­est place for fuel and the best place for fish on the Nullar­bor, to the best way of quick-cook­ing veg­eta­bles at the road­side to com­ply with in­ter­state quar­an­tine re­stric­tions. In the ablu­tions block, con­fi­dences are ex­changed within earshot of strangers. There is lots of laugh­ter.

Much kind­ness and cour­tesy is shown by fel­low trav­ellers on the road, and only once in this 10-day cross­ing does an in­nocu­ous con­ver­sa­tion turn into a big­oted tirade. It’s an ugly, un­com­fort­able mo­ment, but surely this is one of the great de­ter­min­ers of travel: the step out­side the com­fort zone, the re­al­i­sa­tion that ev­ery­one’s jour­ney is, and should be, dif­fer­ent.


The Nullar­bor is an art les­son in van­ish­ing points and hori­zons, heat haze and mi­rage

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