Friends expressed concern for Anita Ryan’s safety across the Nullarbor Plain from Perth to Sydney (Australia). A single female travelling solo may be a magnet to the rugged men of the desert, they said. Anita recorded her journey for posterity, or a first-hand obituary should the worst happen.
Heading south from Perth, I stopped at Bunbury to swim with wild dolphins in Koombana Bay. The Dolphin Discovery Centre supplied the wetsuit, but swimming with these magnificent creatures made me forget the cold. I even forgot my own name, which was tragic seeing as I was the only company I had hereon in – apart from infinitely annoying commercial radio.
My senses still buzzing, I drove inland through the salt-bed of Lake Grace, turning south again at Lake King. Here I passed a sign welcoming me to the outback, and began to notice other drivers waving at me. It took a while to realise they weren’t waving off the abundance of flies, they were simply being courteous country drivers.
After eight hours of driving since Perth, I arrived in Esperance – a town so pretty I quickly forgave it for placing its entrance through the industrial area. Fortunately I arrived in time to drive the 45-minute Pink Lake circuit to see (you guessed it) the pink lake.
The circuit runs past Australia’s first wind farm at Salmon Beach, then meanders onwards past the stunning Bluehaven and Twilight Beaches. Luckily the speed limit is 60 km/h – the view is so amazing who wants to watch the road?
I took my time following it past 9 Mile Beach, 10 Mile Lagoon and 11 Mile Resort (no, I’m not joking, those really are the names of the beaches). Relaxing at Pink Lake I hung around for the sunset to see if the lake gets any pinker. It didn’t.
I found accommodation easily, choosing a Bed and Breakfast a block from the jetty. For dinner I headed off to Esperance’s 30-year institution: Beryl’s Eats – a mobile burger van on the Jetty foreshore. Then I did what every local does… I sat between the fishermen on the jetty, ate half the burger and threw the rest to the sea-lions playing under the jetty pylons.
On Day Two I awoke to breakfast served on Wedgewood china and advice to wear my hair down – “The police are young dear,” my host smiled.
I set off with bouncing hair and high spirits despite having to give up my plan to travel further east along the Cape le Grande. Arguably it is Australia’s most stunning coastline, but with 4WD-only access it was an invitation for disaster for my two-door coupe.
Instead I headed north to Norseman – the last town before setting forth across the Nullarbor.
Norseman is named after an old horse who crossed the Nullarbor and founded the town. The story got me to wondering if the town is therefore made up of stallions and nags.
Barely ten minutes onto the Eyre Highway that would take me approximately 1200 kilometres without having to turn a corner, I passed my first casualty. A pop-top caravan that had popped its top. It was a timely reminder that I was embarking on a serious journey and my job was to stay alive to enjoy it.
Barely two hours later I whizzed past the Belladonia roadhouse. That’s when I realised the dots on the map aren’t towns, but roadhouses. Thankfully for the recalcitrant traveller like me (sans jerry can and camping gear), the roadhouses are usually no more than two hours apart and have fuel and accommodation facilities. However, unfortunately for the recalcitrant traveller like me (sans drinking water) showers can cost a dollar a minute and attendants laugh at requests for fresh water.
Outnumbering roadhouses by, oh, a million to one, was road kill. This was proof positive of the road signs warning the presence of kangaroos, emus and camels. Camels? Yes, apparently so, although I didn’t see any. I only saw dozens of kangaroos and emus, and needless to say treated them with enormous respect.
One emu particularly impressed me when he crossed the highway at what looked like a pedestrian crossing. I learned later that the white stripes are markers for an emergency landing strip for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. So now I was watching out for kangaroos, emus, camels and aeroplanes.
At around the halfway point of my day’s driving, I hit the start of Australia’s longest straight road. On the map it’s called the 90 Mile Highway, but I think that’s because it was built in the time of imperial measurement. Besides, “144 Kilometre Road” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Another hour on and the countryside started resembling a Leunig cartoon. A barren landscape with only a scraggy tree to break the horizon.
The road kill was now competing for space amongst an amazing array of inanimate objects such as blown tyres, half a ute, a boat rudder, and a yellow Hi-Ace converted to a message board: “Hi Pam and kids, I saw a yowie.” And I thought they were only found near cash registers.
Despite the barrenness of the terrain, it is exquisitely beautiful, especially when viewed from the Madura Pass lookout another two hours on. I almost got out of the car to take a photo, but the heat outside melted my lip-gloss.
The Madura Pass marked the start of a rounded hill so long and unvarying I imagine that from the air it must look like a giant carpet snake. It stretches all the way to Eucla, 200 kilometres on.
A huge white Christians’ cross overlooks the highway on approach to Eucla. After ten hours in the car, I was so delighted to see it I almost converted. I didn’t, but it was a narrow escape.
Upon arriving at the biggest roadhouse on the Eyre Highway, I did some stretches to activate my leg muscles again and headed straight to the bistro for some hot food and cold beer.
A very cheerful waitress told me about the menu: “oh we have both kinds – chicken AND beef!”
“How about wine-by-the-glass?” I ask.
“Oh, the best cask wine money can buy!”
I really love their enthusiasm – we were, after all, in the middle of very harsh terrain miles from bountiful fresh water and internet connections, and these girls can still smile.
I then went to book a room, but the motel was booked out. (And it wasn’t even school holidays!) I had no option but to take a rudimentary cabin in the caravan park. It was comfortable enough, but the constant stream of people flip-flopping past my door to the amenities block had me cursing the double-plugger. Just as I thought it was safe to go to sleep, at 3am, I was woken by my neighbour’s alarm through the thin walls. This is not unusual, except that it was his mobile phone, and it was set to vibrate.
From then on, the sounds of travellers hitting the road filled the air, and I found it impossible to get back to sleep.
Tired and cranky at the start of my third day, I took a gentle trip to the Old Telegraph Station 4km south of the Eucla establishment. Seeing how remote and rugged our settlers would have had it made me count my blessings, and I pointed my car east in a much better mood.
Minutes later, I stopped again. I’d reached the Western Australian and South Australian border and there were roadblocks while guards searched the cars for fruit and vegetable matter. I ate all the fruit I could then surrendered the rest, along with a Margaret River grapevine cutting that was to be a gift for my brother.
Sadly, border guards weren’t forthcoming with hot coffee to accompany my breakfast, even despite fluttering eye-lashes and a threat to put my hair down.
Never mind. For the next 180 kilometres I was to be treated to the most stunning coastline I could imagine.
Innocuous “Photo Opportunity” signs dotted along the road pointed to car parks 600m towards the coast, and every single one was worth the detour.
There is no railing along the cliff edges; so be careful you don’t get blown off. Furthermore, if you suffer from vertigo, go with a friend – they can hold onto you and stop you from jumping off. The water is so stunning and clear, it really entered my mind as a good thing to fly off the edge. I don’t know how far down it is, but I sensibly dragged myself away before I could find out.
Two hours later I entered what I came to refer to as the “zone” – the Nullarbor Treeless Plain.
Lightly vegetated, the land is an incredible desert wilderness, its wild beauty offering an hour of spiritual space. As it melded into the National Park and then the Yalata Aboriginal Land, I was so moved I decided to create a mobile Nullarbor Disco as a gesture of gratitude. I sang the only song I know about “rain” in an effort to influence the Universe to nourish the spattering of trees, although I’m not quite sure what the trees would do if it really did start raining men.
Emerging from the “zone”, I felt a real sense of loss as I encountered commercial signage advertising crafts and email. Ah, civilisation. I use the term very loosely mind you – my senses were assaulted with the sight of cleared land that looked brutalised after the untamed beauty of the desert. I didn’t enjoy this section and, for the first time in this whole adventure, I felt tired while driving.
Even though I thought it was mid afternoon, I had missed a time-zone change, and it was now in fact late afternoon. Luckily, Ceduna was only another 30 minutes down the road. The time lag combined with the deflation from re-entering civilisation had taken its toll. I fell into bed after gorging on Smoky Bay oysters, and this time slept like a baby. (No, I didn’t wake every two hours with a pooey nappy screaming for bosoms. I mean, I slept well.)
By my fourth day, I’d just about had enough. I was starting to suffer from Rrrrr Disease – named after the sound of the relentless hum of tyres on the road that permeates every waking thought. I took a shortcut across a desolate wasteland across the top of the Eyre Peninsula to Port Augusta, but it was a hard slog. Only one town, Kimba, made an effort to welcome tourists, reminding them that they were now “half way across Australia.”
The best thing to happen to me this day, was a serendipitous diversion via the southern Flinders Ranges. After the monotony of the dead straight roads, it was delightful to be able to steer again and I vowed to never take a curvy road for granted after this. The inland road wove its way south through picturesque historic towns and via the Clare Valley wine region.
I headed straight for my favourite Clare winery, only to discover they had shut early. This disappointment triggered a weariness so profound I fell onto the grass and sooked. By now I was completely sun-smacked, road-wrecked, wave-whacked, white-lined, sign-swiped and travel thick. The thought of getting back into the car sent me into a panic, and it was only the patient coaxing of a friend by mobile phone that convinced me to get back into the saddle to drive the last hour to Adelaide, which I did, only it took me two hours including the periodic roadside rests to settle the nerves.
After mopping up my dribble, I went to bed looking for sleep. Unfortunately, the perplexing question of “Where was the rabbit proof fence?” kept me awake, until I looked it up on a map only to find it several hundred kilometres north of where I’d been driving. Ooops. Just goes to show how good I am with maps – I’m probably quite lucky to have even found Adelaide!
Even so, the fact that I’d got this far safely was enough to say a heartfelt “thank-you” to my guardian angel.