South Australia. © Dean Sewell
A drive of around 8000 kilometres, there and back, requires plenty of planning if you’re travelling with a child and you don’t drive at night. We don’t because of the risk to wildlife, and to ourselves. Also, as vegans, we can’t just eat whatever is on offer at isolated roadhouses. Tracy is an experienced navigator, and plans not only our desired route, but also alternatives in case of ‘surprises’ thrown up by the road. We choose not to fly if it can be avoided, because, if you do the maths, transporting a family of three across the country in a small, fuel-efficient car has less environmental impact.
Crossing the continent by road is as much a voyage as a drive. The Eyre Highway, the road from Norseman to Port Augusta, and the major part of our journey, was named after explorer Edward John Eyre, who with John Baxter and three indigenous men, Yarry, Joey and Wylie (the first two of whom killed Baxter en route and abandoned the trek), travelled across the Nullarbor from South Australia to Albany in Western Australia. Whatever Wylie’s feelings about the journey, Eyre would not have made it without him. In accounts of the trek Wylie’s indigeneity seems always to have him relegated to “companion” or “assistant” or some other subaltern role. For us, our journey is acknowledgement of Wylie’s equality (at least) in the journey and process of exploration, with all the baggage that carries. The ethics, the failed ethics of exploration, are foremost in our minds, because very few places were ever undiscovered when they were discovered, and unless local knowledge is taken on board, little of place will be understood, especially when passing through. So what happens before the trip is as important as what happens during it.
The run from Norseman out through the woodlands and onto the Nullarbor is typically littered with roadkill. The morning we set off from Norseman to our favourite place between the coasts, Madura Pass, had been highly active for wildlife. Between Norseman and Madura I counted well over a thousand recently dead kangaroos and other animals. Road trains had barrelled through, drivers picking off animals perhaps without compunction. It’s the blood sport of the crossing.
Journal entry, Madura Pass, 10/10/2012 (down onto the Roe Plains, running between the coast and the Nullarbor Plain):
Merging with silhouette of plateau/plain. Brilliant orange light of sub-day consuming the evening star before it can shine – nowhere to be seen. Yet. Peace. Would live out here if we could.
On the return journey, we share Madura with members of the Outlaw motorcycle club, who are returning from their own there-and-back crossing.
The Nullarbor Plain forms part of the Bunda Plateau and is approximately 180,000 square kilometres, almost the size of Victoria, our destination on the trip over. This vast flat region of karst is said to have been a seabed once, and its dry treelessness is poised up to 80 metres above the sea. But the Nullarbor is much more than this. The shimmering horizons; mirages that promise water that can’t be; the car manifesting on the highway in the distance indeterminate, unsure. A bike rider, sometimes a walker, pulling a small trailer. Mostly road trains. An animal hesitating. Camels.
Our journey parodies the notion of ‘the trek’ in that one is hurling along in a machine at maximum warp, but counting each mile-peg, working the distance-to-place equation. It’s a movement across not one country, but many. As we pass through each language-place, we would like to seek permission and explain our reasons for passing through. But that’s difficult. There is an indigenous language centre in Ceduna, place of the first fruit-fly inspection crossing from the west, and thus a kind of demarcation in post-invasion Australia; and there’s another at Port Augusta.
Yalata is an indigenous community on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain itself, and if one leaves the road, permission is required, but I still feel there should be some formal address to all the peoples whose land and country one traverses. The Nullarbor is often said to be a place that was ‘no-man’s land’ since, because of its lack of water, it was never inhabited at its core by indigenous peoples. I have often thought it’s the only place in Australia I might ‘occupy’ without a feeling of theft. But it’s more complex than that, and permanent occupation doesn’t erase a place’s spiritual and physical significance. Places of transition and even absence are as important as those occupied.
Rabbits and foxes made their way across the Nullarbor, but it is generally unkind to those who try to live off it. On the run along the Eyre Highway or, as it might more fittingly be called, the Eyre–Wylie Highway, each outpost tries to distinguish itself in some way. The so-called longest golf course in the world, with a hole to be played at each roadhouse, is one way of fetishising isolation. Or take Balladonia Roadhouse, with its Skylab Museum, displaying fragments of the space station that fell on the area in 1979. It prompted a phone call from the US president to the roadhouse. Hope all’s okay down there, mate – sorry. Tracy had a schoolfriend whose dad was a newspaperman covering the story. He brought a bit of Skylab back with him.
The highway, tracking the Great Australian Bight, passes Eucla just before the Western Australia–South Australia border, which was the site of the telegraph station where messages in the different codes used by each state were translated and passed through holes in a desk barrier to operators who worked for the other state. The telegraph station is now consumed by sand dunes. Tracy’s father crossed the Nullarbor hundreds of times in his work as a salesman. He knew everyone on the way, and everyone knew him. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I, like Tracy, crossed the Nullarbor many times in Greyhound and Pioneer buses. Usually on the way to Sydney or Melbourne, sometimes Adelaide.
This journey takes us most of the way to Melbourne via the old bus route, though we diverge at Mildura to take the back way to Gariwerd (the Grampians). Those buses no longer run from Western Australia; the only bus journey you can take is a long tourist drive that takes in many days of sightseeing. Since that period, I have been eight times across on the train. The Nullarbor has grown achingly familiar to us. Whether it’s looking out from the cliffs of the Bight, or into the interior across the bluebush, we feel as much at home as we have anywhere else. The excitement of seeing a bustard raise its head, or of dingoes working the nights at Nullarbor Road House, are memories as pungent and indelible as seeing, say, the Eiffel Tower or Mont Blanc.
Rather than start at the beginning, on either side of the continent, Port Augusta is a beginning and an end in itself. On our recent trip from the Western Australian wheatbelt to Melbourne and back, we stopped there overnight heading east, and again heading west. It’s often called the “crossroads of Australia”, because Highway One (the Eyre) links with the Adelaide to Darwin route at Port Augusta. In the past, we have stayed at the Standpipe Motel, which sits at the junction of the highways, but this time we stayed in town, alongside the Spencer Gulf.
Port Augusta is a town I particularly like, as do Tracy and young Tim, almost ten. But it’s a problem for us, as it is for others, though they might not realise it. When I started to pack the car, I found that most rooms in our motel were occupied by a visiting Roxby Downs sporting team. Uranium dust is never far away.
Neither is Maralinga, the site of the nuclear weapons tests (1955–63). Yalata settlement is around 150 kilometres from Maralinga; while crossing on the train you go within 40 kilometres. The Maralinga Tjaruta peoples (Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara) have suffered long and will continue to suffer in ways obvious and less obvious. Tracy was two years old when she first went across in the train, a few years after testing had stopped, and before the first of the so-called clean-ups.
To cross Australia is to negotiate contamination. This time, for example, we avoided the lead smelter and disused (now covered) uranium tailing pits of Port Pirie, one of the more tragic places in Australia. The lead poisoning of the townsfolk, especially the children, is notorious, with instructions not to wear outdoor shoes into the house and to keep young children off the lawns and the like; a faint, weak gesture towards acknowledgement and prevention of the poisoning.
Crossing the Nullarbor is an event. It carries its own symbolism within the mythos of nation, but that’s not part of it for me. It’s a full ‘emptiness’, where flatness and absence of trees entail a sublimity and immensity that has few equals. One should say that going by road, there’s not a vast distance where trees are absent, as there is when you go by train, deeper into the interior of the Nullarbor, but bluebush is more dominant than, say, the odd acacia or myall. Refuge is close to the ground; most of the land is prospect. If you need to pull over and piss, you’ll be there for all to see. No wandering into the bush. But you can generally see a long way, either way, so it’s an issue of timing.
‘Eyre–Wylie Highway’ is an edited extract of a work in progress, to be published early next year.