Tales from a Broad #12

Yeouch, is this ever one big country. I have just returned from a trip of such epic proportions that the mind boggles. Yes, that’s right. I drove right across Australia.

Having been called into the line of service by my employers, Newsforce, the mission set out before me was to drive from Sydney to Perth, right across Australia, in five days. Seems like a long time, eh? However, you must remember that Perth is 4320 km away. That’s the same distance (approx.) between Toronto and Vancouver or New York and Los Angeles. So a quick little trip this isn’t.

Newsforce was going to Perth to cover the Heineken Golf Classic for Fox Sports, Channel 10 and international clients. Seeing as we had a limited time to get to Perth and then return to Melbourne, I was recruited to join an engineer there and back to take a load off the driving duties.

So, on Thursday, January 25th, Greg the engineer and I set off in what I affectionately call Bessie. She’s just a baby, less than a year old, but this Mercedes van – fully loaded with satellite dish and enough electronics to keep NASA geeks happy for years – is a beaut. Greg and I exited Sydney and headed west, and further west, and even more west. I was excited. I finally was about to see the Australian outback in all its glory, while glory-ing in comfortable air-conditioned conditions. It was superb.

I can attest to any prior descriptions that, indeed, Australia is very long and very flat. What we have to remember is that Australia is basically a brand new country (they are celebrating their 100 year anniversary of federation this year) with a very small population that live on the outer edges of the continent. They all huddle close to the water simply because it’s darn near impossible to live further inland. It’s hot, dry, dusty, barren and utterly beautiful.

The first few days we revelled in Triple J, the best radio station, knowing that once we hit the Nullabor, the signal would quickly disappear. Speeding across New South Wales, we stopped one night in the thriving metropolis of Wagga Wagga, NSW (population 50,000), had lunch with Greg’s inlaws in Mildura in the state of Victoria, and decided to call it a day in the Barossa wine valley of South Australia. Three states in one day. Not bad at all. And the wine wasn’t shabby either.

The next three days were quite different. Up until this point we were travelling in fairly well populated areas. We never had to worry about having enough petrol, a place to stay or clean water supplies. After the Barossa Valley, things got a little more serious.

The Nullabor plain extends from the middle of South Australia, starting at a town called Ceduna, all the way across to Norseman in Western Australia. This is the serious outback, where you have to be tough to survive. The only bastions of civilisation were the roadhouses every few hundred kms that exist merely as a source of petrol and cheap place to sleep for the night should you be stuck in the evening on the plain. Besides that, it’s just you and the sand, road kill, various live animals and the open road.

The Nullabor, bastardised Latin for ‘no trees’, is 1300 km of the longest, straightest, most desolate stretch of highway on earth. It stretches along the Great Australian Bight (the Southern Ocean), although you rarely see the water as mostly it’s down cliffs of about 100 meters and 15 km from your car. Once in a while, however, the road and ocean would meet for a hundred kilometres or so, and you would drink in the colour and beauty of the cliffs.

The Nullabor wasn’t sealed for regular traffic until 1976, and several explorers who forged their way across the continent died while on their quest. Their graves are marked with the occasional headstone in the desert.

It’s so remote that you wave at any vehicle that passes you by just to stay in contact with civilisation. You stop at every road house to chat with the employees who spend their lives filling the petrol tanks of those that zoom out of their lives just as quickly as they arrived. I even started saying “g’day” and wasn’t looked at strangely. You do 140 km per hour simply because it feels like you’re doing 50. And you dream up ways to pass the time. To do just that, I started keeping lists:

Types of road kill on the side of the road:

Emu, camel, kangaroos, birds, sheep, lizards, snakes, wombats, rabbit, dingo.

Number and types of animals we killed:

Kat – 1 (bird). Greg – 3 (1 lizard, 2 birds)

Types of live animals spotted:

Sulphur-crested cockatoo, wedge-tailed eagle, osprey, bobtail skink, emu, dingo and, oddly enough, two pigs (see number of speeding tickets below).

Number of speeding tickets:

1 (Greg). A cop car in the middle of nowhere pulled us over. They were based in the desolate Eucla, and the guy who booked Greg was obviously shagging his partner. You’re based in Eucla. And why the hell not I ask?

Greg and I were lucky we got along well and didn’t feel like we had to fill the vast empty space with useless conversation. Talk would peter out early in the morning and when not driving I would spend the time gazing out the windows and gawking. The desert has always been my favourite climate, and this was gorgeous. While technically a desert, the Nullabor is actually very green. Small bushes and trees cover the landscape.

Greg and I attacked the Nullabor in one long stretch of day. Thirteen hours got us from Ceduna to Norseman, the official end of the stretch. And Norseman’s a doozey. Entering town after the long haul, we ponied up to the bestest motel (still a dump though) and asked where the best grub in town is served.

The answer? The BP petrol station across the road. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Norseman.

But, we were off the Nullabor and in the goldfields of Western Australia, the most prosperous goldmining area in the country. The de facto capital of the region is Kalgoorlie-Boulder. K-B has a largely transient population of 30,000. Miners come to spend half of the year in the mines and brothels before heading out to a better place for the other half.

Along with the seedier side of life in K-B (you can actually take a tour of a working brothel), K-B is also known for its Superpit – the longest, deepest hole in the Southern Hemisphere. They even have a lookout where you can see them raping the earth. Cool. After a stop in KB for lunch, Greg and I decided to push onto Perth a day early. By now, we just wanted to get there.

Perth is beautiful. Situated on the Swan River, and with a population of 1.3 million, Perth is the thriving metropolis of Western Australia. The rest of the state has a total population of 500,000 so Perth is the place to be. As the boys worked, I got to play and explore in the city for five days. I took in the Western Australia Museum (great megamouth and aboriginal displays) and the Western Australian Art Gallery (ditto on the aboriginal displays). I walked and drank coffee in Northbridge, read the paper in King’s park overlooking Perth, ate sushi at Mat Suri (highly recommended). I also revelled at staying in the first decent hotel I’ve been in for four months. An iron! CNN! A bathtub! I was in heaven.

My best tourist time was spent in Fremantle, an artsy-fartsy town half an hour outside of Perth on the ocean. Fremantle is full of students and artists, and the coffee and markets couldn’t be better. I walked around drinking in the city, and spent a lovely afternoon at the Fremantle prison.

The prison, built by convict labour, was in use as late is 1991 and has had lots of famous prisoners (including the lead singer of AC/DC in for drug charges). The four hour tour takes you through this huge prison, including both the male and female barracks, the kitchens, the chapels (still used for weddings strangely enough), exercise yards and the gallows where 43 people have been killed over the years (Western Australia no longer has the death penalty). Might sound boring, but in fact it was a fascinating visit, and I highly recommend it should you be in Perth.

Then, Monday the 5th of February, it was time to return head back over the desert, this time with Engineer Dave. I won’t bore you with our surf ‘n’ turf return tour of the Nullabor, safe to say it was as flat and as long as the first time around. So, I’m back in Sydney and back into the groove of things.

What’s next? Inez and I are thinking of pedal biking around Australia. Are we crazy? Perhaps, but it could be a hell of a lot of fun.

(This tale, and ‘bonus tracks’ of photos of the Nullabor, Bight cliffs and the Kalgoorlie-Boulder Superpit, are available on my website at: www.geocities.com/katcalls_76)