The long unwinding road
From west to east across the Nullarbor Plain, with many a surprising detour
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