Nullarbor Tales. Bruce McCorkill October 2015
The date is 15th September, 2015. The time is 7.30 AM. Our car is caught in peak hour traffic on the Western Ring Road. Years ago, I would have been commuting, cursing the traffic and worrying about being late for work. This time is different. I’m not fussed by the delay. There is an appointment we have to keep, one we dare not be late for, but there is plenty of time. We are driving to a party at Margaret River – ten days and four thousand kilometres away.
Ten years ago, our son moved there, searching for great surf. He found this, as well as a casual life style and a lovely wife. Now they have a baby boy – Lachie, and he’s just about to turn one. Naturally, we decide to gate crash his party. Generally, we fly over, but have always hankered to drive. Just to do it, for the experience, for the fun of it. This is the perfect excuse. Hence, we are heading off on our adventure of driving across the Nullarbor. The car has been serviced and new tyres installed. I have gathered a collection of spare parts and tools. The boot contains more birthday and Christmas presents than luggage. Our family realised we could be the free Nullarbor postal service.
In the traffic, I think about the trip and decide to write a story about it. Not a diary type travelogue, but one more expressing my feelings along the way. I have a month to plan the story and craft the words to describe feelings which will interest the reader. At this early stage I experience a mix of mild apprehension, concerns about safety and a desire to have an adventure. We are keenly looking forward to seeing our family, especially our grandson. I miss my son, but realise he has found a new home on the other side of the continent. Friends ask when is he coming home, and I curtly reply that he is home.
It will be a fairly quick trip. Seven days to drive over, two weeks there, then seven days to return. A few days will be over seven hundred kilometres of driving. We share this duty, but I wonder if we have allowed sufficient time for a relaxing trip. The research sternly warns against driving at after dusk, with the risk of striking kangaroos and other wildlife. I have read about the dangers of the long snaking road trains, and the need to be wary of people towing huge caravans for the first time. My rational mind decides that these feelings are normal, and I should have no problems in expressing them in my story.
The first day to Adelaide is a long pleasant country drive, like driving to Ballarat, only eight times longer. The road is mostly a doubled lane highway, fairly flat, until we get lost in the Adelaide Hills and spend an hour driving around winding hilly roads. But this is a picturesque diversion, and the B&B owner has provided a range of tasty food in a comfortable environment, so we are off to a good start. The second long day to Ceduna is also a pleasant trip, so I’m feeling quite chirpy. We can do this.
The next two days we cross the Nullarbor proper. The drive is not what I expect. I had thought we would be driving through the desert, but the landscape is fully vegetated. As per the meaning “treeless plain”, there are few trees, but there are ongoing blankets of small saltbush shrubs, native grasses, and delicate purple flowers; all springing up from the rich red gravelly soil. The land is totally flat, just endless stretches of dull grey green colour.
When I think how to describe my feelings, the most suitable phrase would be that of feeling slightly disappointed, maybe somewhat cheated. The landscape fascinates me, but it is too easy after what I had been expecting. The road is wide with generous easy bends, good visibility, and occasionally passing lanes. The tarmac is smooth, with wide verges. Passing the dreaded road trains presents no problems, there is tons of space. Even the hordes of caravans pose no threat. The road even seems somewhat busy, with oncoming vehicles several minutes apart, and the car hums along smoothly. I recollect how my father wrote a story describing how in 1928 his father drove the family, with six kids, over the Nullarbor in an old Dodge, when it was only a dirt road. I feel admiration for those early travellers.
At the Head of the Bight, we digress to the Nullarbor cliffs, where whales spend months mating, calving and teaching their young to survive. I wonder how to describe the feeling of watching these huge creatures softly floating in the gentle swell, diving and surfacing, slapping wide tails, and keeping calves close and safe. We see about a dozen whales plus a few calves, and my camera is working overtime. The words I will use will be along the lines of awe at seeing these lovely animals, sadness at how they have been hunted nearly to extinction, and anger at how some countries still attempt to justify their slaughter.
It is intriguing stopping at Roadhouses. On this highway, function triumphs over form. Motel buildings are simply long brick boxes for travellers to sleep in. Food is basic. The servos are simple shops selling rudimentary supplies, plus fuel. The huge gravel forecourts are stacked with semi trailers, a place for drivers to sleep, grab a meal, have a freshening shower, and refuel. In my big city way I tend to denigrate the standard of some places until the realisation dawns that they are serving their purpose; helping travellers along their way. But I allow myself a Melbourne smugness over the coffee paucity, and crave for a decent coffee. Most places have push button self serve machines, which spit out a milky mixture tasting like baby’s formula. I experiment with the buttons and realise that by pressing the button marked “flat white strong”, a substance resembling coffee trickles out.
I develop an interest in the human tentacles snaking over the countryside. The Grey Nomads. The road is full of caravans pulled by retirees. Couples selling homes and travelling around Australia. The vans are nothing like the primitive plywood ones of my youth. These machines are sophisticated, sleek and shiny, fully self contained with ensuites, satellite dishes, solar panels, comprehensive kitchens and soft beds. Capable of camping anywhere by the side of the road, they are towed by sensible vehicles. Not the cute city SUV style, but powerful diesel four wheel drives and utes. At dusk at caravan parks, flocks of vans arrive. The routine is simple. Carefully back into the spot, connect the power and water, set up the satellite dish and solar panel, wind out the awning, unfold the deck chairs, and within ten minutes sip on a glass of wine. It looks like a good life, and I hope the Nomads are having fun, but for myself I prefer more structure in my life, plus a bit more space. My words to describe these travellers would be in the vein of people who have worked hard over a long life just wanting to have hard earned fun.
We reach Norseman, the Western end of the plain. I am becoming sadly aware that small bush towns are dying. There are only the roadhouses, surrounded by a police station and a few houses. But Norseman, which in gold digging times housed fifty thousand people, seems to be still a large town. I am hopeful that there is some heart left here. But this is an illusion. As we drive into the town, most of the houses are empty and broken down, with shattered windows and overgrown gardens. I ponder how I will describe this in my story, the feelings of sadness I feel. How to adequately convey the desolation of a town which was once a busy hub, to one which now on a Friday night has a deserted main street. There are a few voices emanating from the big pub, which in the past would be full of noisy men furiously drinking and laughing. A few cars are parked along the kerb, and a few children riding bikes up the footpath. The shops along one side of the street are all boarded up, with peeling paint. It is all so quiet and deserted, a living ghost town.
We head north to Kalgoorlie. On the way we stop at the mining town of Kambalda. My wife lived here when she worked for Western Mining Corporation over forty years ago, on a working holiday, and was anticipating seeing her old temporary home again. But she also experiences some sadness. Kambalda has changed so much we have trouble finding her old residence. We finally find the block of flats, but it is abandoned, corralled by a high fence. The busy mall where she had shopped, is firmly boarded up. The once thriving town is now a modern day ghost town, with Western Mining gone. We inspect huge residential compounds, built to house hundreds of miners, now empty, with not even one high vis vest left dangling on a clothes line. I suspect my wife is feeling despondent as we drive away.
Kalgoorlie is an enjoyable break. We stay two nights in a comfortable apartment, and wander the wide streets, admiring the beautiful old buildings, the big double storied pubs with bull nose verandas and ornate pillars. The city seems busy, with numerous interesting eating places, and we enjoy a decent coffee. We even stand outside a brothel. In a somewhat ludicrous twist, the main patrons of the once thriving Hay Street establishments, now mostly gone, are no longer miners needing to press the flesh, but Grey Nomads going on brothel tours. We watch the kerb fill up with lines of caravans, and groups of respectable couples self consciously queuing up. In my story I may try to put some amusing twist on this slice of modern Kalgoolie attractions, but overall I feel happy at seeing this town. It is still a busy regional hub, with life bubbling up. I will describe it in these favourable terms.
From Kalgoorlie we travel inland to Margaret River. My feelings range from regret that we are leaving the intriguing dry inland county, to a fascination with the changing nature of the landscape. I think of this as a transitional journey. The red soil disappears, replaced by fertile grazing land. The scrubby bushes give way to tall trees. Phone lines and fences spring up along the road. Semi trailers carrying massive Caterpillar excavators give way to flat top trucks carting agricultural machinery. John Deere dealerships dot the highway, and towns become more frequent.
It’s easy to describe my feelings for the next fortnight. Simple joy and delight at seeing our son, daughter in law, and our grandson again. Lachie is a lovable little guy. We spend time hanging out together, visiting wineries, going to the beach, and playing with Lachie. I take delight in sipping a daily cup of sweetly brewed coffee and reading the local paper, in the little cafes lining the bustling main street. Because the town is booming, shops are busy, eating places are full, mostly by well heeled tourists enjoying the beach atmosphere, dressed in smart holiday clothing. An absolute contrast to the drabness and functionality of the inland. I realise that Australia, while one country, consists of two landscapes, the harsh dry inland county and the soft wet coastal fringe.
We celebrate Lachie’s first birthday with family and friends, and this is a great day. It’s what we drove all that way for. In my story I will keep it simple, just write a bit about family bonds, love and affection, then leave it to readers to understand.
Regretfully, we finally have to go home. The trip is a reverse of the one over, an easy drive, we know the road now. But this time we travel around the coast, via Esperance. This involves driving south from Margaret River, down through the tall karri timber forests. These are spectacular, tall trees, densely crowding the forest floor. The words to describe this drive are ones like majestic, strong, tall and dramatic. We finally hit Esperance, a lovely place, where we have a walk on the beach and a final decent coffee before heading inland towards Norseman again, where we return back over the Nullarbor.
We reach Ceduna and branch down along the Eyre Peninsular. It is a great drive along the coast, stopping at small coastal towns and sitting by the beach having coffee and cake, and looking out over the blue seas, with cute piers jutting out into the water. In my story I will say we just had a peaceful, leisurely relaxing time in this part of the world. A highlight is detouring to the seal colony at Point Labatt. This is a sixty kilometre drive on a rough gravel road, but it is worth it. From the viewing platform, we gaze down at the colony of sea lions, lolling around on the rocks, seeming to be having a fine peaceful life. The sea is a dark aqua colour, with numerous white crests, and I have fun taking lots of pictures.
At the small town of Tumby Bay, after our coffee on the cute cafe on the beach, we go for a walk and spy two bikes parked next to a bench. These bikes are totally full of panniers, back packs, handlebar baskets, as well as various other bags hanging down. During the trip we have seen a few cyclists riding along, but I have never had a chance to talk to the riders. We see a couple about our age in cycling gear walking towards us, so I naturally ask them if they are the owners of the bikes. We have a great talk to them, for the next half hour, finding out how they cope with the riding, where they sleep each night, and so on. It turns out they are a couple who decided to take two years off work to ride around Australia. So far they have travelled 19,000 kilometres, including riding up the highest mountain in each state. The reason they are doing this, is that the guy developed multiple sclerosis. He couldn’t ski or run any more, but still could ride a bike, so off they went to achieve this item in his bucket list. I would simply use the words of massive admiration and inspiration for this man. Also, if any of the cycling group guys back home, complain about the hill at Westerfolds Park, they will get no sympathy from me.
Port Lincoln is a bustling place, the home of the tuna and other fishing fleet. The town is busy, and in the evening we have a tasty meal of oysters in the pub, with a cold glass of white wine. Beautiful! We inspect the marina, and I have the “aha” moment, when I realise this is where the tuna in little cans in Safeway, actually comes from. The marina is full of big fishing boats, painted blue and white, strongly built to withstand the powerful seas. It is a dramatic moment.
In contrast, the next overnight stay, at Whyalla, is just depressing. The town is a dull functional one, built to accommodate workers in the huge steel mill. We drive up to the lookout to take pictures of the mill, a scattering of brown red buildings, surrounded by huge piles of iron ore. We get talking to a local resident about living there. He tells us about the large number of workers he knows who have died of cancer. Also, he describes the fish from the local harbour, which are a fluoro green colour, and terribly deformed. We hear how safety equipment for the workers is hung on walls, but without any signs directing workers to use these things, as this would clearly admit the mill is a dangerous place to work. He asks us to look around the town at the colour of the buildings and streets. On the way back to our motel we see that the whole town is covered in a red brown sediment, even the concrete footpaths and street posts are brown. Lots of the houses are painted brown, to blend in with the dust from the steel works. That night we look up the place to find that it has one of the highest incidences of lead poisoning in Australia. My thoughts here are a mixture of sadness for the workers who are suffering, despair for the future of the kids who will suffer in the future, plus anger that nothing is being done about this terrible deadly place. In fact I read an article by the mayor, complaining that people should stop criticising the pollution from the mill, as the company puts a huge amount of money into the town economy. We are glad to drive away the next morning, but feel despair for the residents who can’t leave.
At Port Augusta, we visit the Wadlata Interpretive Centre. This attraction has displays of both the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the Outback area of South Australia, plus the early white settlers. We wander through the centre, admiring the interactive displays as well as the pictures and equipment of the settlers. It is a fascinating look at the early days of this part of the Outback and life there. A number of areas detail the original overland explorers, and I can only think with admiration and amazement of how tough those men and women were.
Finally, we are on the road to Adelaide and nearly home. On the drive, we talk a lot, and relive the highlights of the visit. Our feelings can best be described as some sadness in leaving, wondering when we will next see the Western part of our family, but a certain keenness to get home, as well as the pleasure of reuniting with our Melbourne family. There are some regrets that we did not have nearly enough time to do much sightseeing along the way, but there were time limitations. But we start to talk about what we could do next time if we drove, including taking longer to drive over and see more off the main road, then maybe get the Indian Pacific train home. We will just have to wait and see.
We have achieved our main challenge of crossing the Nullarbor and attending Lachie’s birthday. So after seven days of driving, we finish where we started, on the Western Ring Road, this time in evening peak hour traffic. The welcoming arms of the Eltham trees embrace us, as they have for the last forty years when we return home.
We unload the car, check the garden, and have dinner. Then I head for the study and computer, because I have a story to write.