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girl’s journey across Australia by car.
Ryan © 2003
From the Driver’s Seat.
Parts @ 2,100 words each (including Tips)
PART ONE: A LONG, LONG ROAD AHEAD
Finding herself stranded in Western Australia with no flights east Anita Ryan decided to drive cross-country instead to Sydney via Adelaide and Melbourne with naught but a staggering degree of radio static for company. Friends expressed concern for her safety suggesting a single female travelling solo may be a magnet to the rugged men of the desert. She recorded her journey for posterity, or a first-hand obituary should the worst happen.
Early on my first day, I headed south from Perth, stopping in at Bunbury to swim with the 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 apart from infinitely annoying commercial radio.
My senses still buzzing after connecting with the dolphins, 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.
The landscape slowly changed from the lush rolling hills of the Fergusson Valley to sandy scrub and anorexic trees, and I really felt like I'd entered another world.
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 insisted.
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. I didn't hang around to find out - I had a long trip ahead of me and I was keen to make that right-hand turn onto the Eyre Highway.
Barely ten minutes onto the 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.
Asking what's on the menu, I was told by a very cheerful waitress, "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 (i.e., I made a wrong turn!) 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.
PART TWO: HOW LONG TO HOWLONG?
Anita Ryan continues the tale of her single-handed trip across Australia to Sydney. After four days of solid driving across the Nullarbor, she leaves the endless Eyre Highway behind and heads through the more populated areas of Victoria and New South Wales.
My state of mind being delicate to say the least, I rested for a day in Adelaide, taking time out to tour the quaint Adelaide Hills townships, wineries and lookouts with a friend.
Touring the townships of Crafers, Stirling, Aldgate and the historic Bridgewater Mill winery, I tooted my horn while passing residence of Alexander Downer as a joke. It backfired on me though when informed that this would have been taken as a sign of support. Doh!
Towards evening, when my friend suggested the Lobethal lights, I thought she was offering me a low-fat salami. It turned out she was talking about a Christmas lights festival in the little township of Lobethal, where thousands of people converge every evening in December to view the nativity play and gadzillion lights adorning the streets and houses. It was worthwhile visiting, and better than anything a low-fat salami could have offered.
Gearing myself up for Day Five of driving that would take me from Adelaide to the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool, I breakfasted on German cheeses, black bread and salamis. This was quite natural considering I was staying in a German-settled area in the Adelaide Hills, where the influence of the European culture is still strong even after a century and a half.
At almost halfway through my day's journey, I took a break and visited a small selection of wineries in the Coonawarra wine region on the way. I would have visited more, but re-entry onto the 100km/h highway from the 10km/h winery driveways proved to be too hairy for my liking.
A few kilometres down the road at historic Penola, I bypassed a tourist sign to Vulva Cottage (I don't want to know...).
Then I turned east towards the Victorian border and the Southern Grampians. I resisted following the Mary McKillop tourist trail (Australia's first Blessed, but not yet a Saint) simply because I thought the signs were advertising a peg-puppet show. But I ended up following it by default, as I saw the peg-puppet symbols all the way to Coleraine.
From Coleraine, the roads looked like a Christmas curling ribbon wrapping around the rolling terrain. It was a picturesque yet uneventful drive, apart from the proliferation of police trawling up and down the highway.
Very large, decorated hay bales decorated the roadside for many kilometres. Happy faces and colonial clothing adorned the bales, welcoming drivers to the wool capitol of the world - Hamilton.
I sensed my day's journey was nearing an early finish when I was unable to find a sign to Warrnambool. Fortunately primal instincts kicked in and I used the setting sun west to find the road I needed east.
Eight hours after leaving Adelaide, I arrived into "Australia's Southern Right Whale Nursery", Warrnambool. I thought it was only 5.30pm, but when I raced down the main street (when in Rome...), I realised I had missed another +30 minutes time-zone change at the Victorian border. I realised this because the shops were shut, and apart from hotted up Toranas doing laps, the streets were deserted.
I went instead to have a gawk at the Lady Bay from the Cannon Hill lookout. Judging by the number of foggy windows I realised I had stumbled upon an infamous "parking" spot, open all hours. It can be found just past the Dirty Angel - the unfortunate nickname of the town's war memorial. It took me a few laps (when in Rome…) to work out why, but when I did, my belly-laughs could be heard all the way back to Adelaide.
The next leg of my journey, from Warrnambool to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road, was a highlight equal to the breathtaking beauty of the Nullarbor and the Great Australian Bight.
Viewing the wild rock formations peppering the rugged coastline remains an all-time favourite memory. From the Bay of Islands, to the Loch Ard Gorge, to the London Bridge, and to the world-famous Twelve Apostles just north of Port Campbell, each stop was an exercise in involuntary jaw-dropping.
Although the journey was less than 500 kilometres, I allowed myself a full day to account for all the rubber-necking to do along the way. I even allowed myself to get out of the car in order to absorb nature's astounding works of art first-hand.
As I stared at the crystal blue waters thrashing underneath the London Bridge, I remembered the day in 1990 when the bridge fell down, marooning two people on the seaside part of the bridge. For a while it was a fashionable dinner-party question to ask people "where were you when the London Bridge fell down?" My answer "I have an alibi you know," ensured I wasn't asked it too often.
Descending the hundreds of stairs to the bottom of the Loch Ard Gorge is an impressive accomplishment, but perhaps more so is the feat of climbing back up.
Spare a thought for the sailor who was washed up on this beach in 1878 when his ship, the Glaswegian iron clipper Loch
Ard, was shipwrecked outside the jaws of the gorge. Not only did he have to climb his way up the cliff-face (sans wall-climbing equipment), he then had to walk for miles to find help for him and the only other survivor - a female passenger who was still lying at the bottom of the gorge (sans martini and banana-lounge).
Just after the Twelve Apostles, (che? I only counted eight - four must have done a Judas), I faced a choice: either continue on via the Great Ocean Road through the Otway Ranges, passing through gorgeous little beachside towns and the surfing meccas of Lorne, Torquay and Bells Beach, or turn inland and head straight for Melbourne.
After six solid days of driving, albeit through spectacular scenery and experiences, I was gasping for a decent cocktail and shopping. So I turned inland and drove straight to Melbourne, directly to South Yarra.
I wasted no time in getting stuck into the world's best coffee in the Chapel Street café scene, followed by copious cocktails at the countless bars and restaurants along the strip.
I thoroughly enjoyed the huge choice of cuisine, the festive ambience, and the doof-doof music coming from the stream of show cars crawling along the street. Now this is what I call civilisation!
The final leg of my journey dawned amidst a hazy hangover and a vague memory of very bad pick-up lines. Nevertheless, running the gamut of red lights to get out of Melbourne proved to be the biggest challenge of my day.
Two hours after leaving South Yarra, I finally hit the Hume Highway to Sydney.
Fortunately there are plenty of historic towns and sites to use as an excuse to stop along the way, and thoroughly mindful of the advice on the glut of police billboards to "Stop, Revive, Survive", I stopped regularly.
My first stop was at Glenrowan, site of Australia's last bushranger's last stand. Ned Kelly was hung in 1880 at the age of 25, but the plaque on the giant statue sounded more like a description of Heath Ledger. "Described as a rebel, bushranger by necessity, a bush battler, underdog, sometimes gentleman, sometimes larrikin and a man with a strong sense of family."
Store themes were unanimously "Aussie", selling nothing but "outback-dunny" tea-towels and "Aussie-Whinger's Port". For the life of me, I couldn't think of one person on my Christmas list, here or overseas, who would appreciate Aussie gifts like these - so I saved my money for all the coffee I would be needing today.
To combat Rrrrr Disease, I amused myself at stages by asking the obligatory questions: At the turn off to Howlong I asked, "How long to Howlong?" At Binalong, "It's been a long time since Binalong." As for Bogalong Creek, well... I left that one alone.
Four hours from Melbourne, I crossed the border from Victoria to New South Wales. I gave the tragically commercial Ettamogah Pub a big miss, but stopped for coffee in Holbrook 80 kilometres further on. Holbrook's biggest attraction, despite being many kilometres inland, is a submarine.
Che? I search for answers, but only came up with rhetorical ones.
Another 20 minutes down the road, and I pass through Tarcutta, the "Half-way on the Hume" township. I let rip a big Dukes of Hazzard style
"yeeee-haaaaaaaaa" as I head into the final hours of my trip.
In honour of a childhood memory - Mum playing (on loop) the number one hit The Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox - I tracked down the monument in honour of said dog five miles north of Gundagai (as the song goes).
The monument was erected in honour of a loyal dog who sat by his master for days on end when he... something. I didn't actually pay a lot of attention to the story - to call the little bronzed statue a "monument" was my interpretation of "optimistic".
I pretty much filed the experience in the "Mum's old-fashioned music - do not revive" file and went to look for some lunch. The food at the roadhouse was
skanky, so I back-tracked to Gundagai for the Famous Niagara Cafe for a liquid lunch of iced coffee.
When I asked the waitress why the café has Famous in its name, she shrugged and suggested it was because John Curtin visited there in 1942. Fancy that. This year the café celebrated not only its centenary, but also the 60th anniversary of a prime minister's visit.
I hope it celebrates many more centenaries to come - the décor is delightfully kitsch, the history real, and the simple meals exceptionally tasty.
After eleven hours in the car, I arrived at the M5 toll booth. The only thing blocking me from reaching my goal was $3.30 - the toll for average cars to travel the M5 freeway into Sydney. I tried convincing Kevin the toll collector that my car is far from average, but he wouldn't listen and I had to pay like everyone else.
As night fell on my seventh day of driving, I found an unlimited time-zone car space in the inner west suburb of Glebe. Pulling up at the kerb, I decided that this is where my car is going to live forever more. I am flying back to Western Australia. Or Europe. It may well be cheaper to fly to France than back to Perth, but it's a question I'll save until after the three SH's: shower, shave and shix
Coshmopolitans. Ah, civilisation.
Tips For Travellers
I would like to think that the fact that I'm writing this today is testimony to my pre-trip research and preparation. But it's more an indication of the degree of safety and resources available across the Nullarbor. Staying alert and keeping a level head helps, along with a bountiful supply of fresh water, a reliable car and pre-trip hypnosis to remove your dependence on internet access. Here are some more tips:
If staying in touch with civilisation is your bag, take a CDMA phone.
BYO drinking water to save paying $4 per bottle on the Plain (assuming they have any).
BYO fresh water for radiator and windscreens as roadhouses won't give you any.
Bring a jerry can of petrol only if you are not prepared to pay 125 cents/litre in the desert. Roadhouses are no more than 200km apart, so generally speaking you have no fear of running out of petrol.
Book motels ahead during school holidays. Pack a pillow and sleeping bag *just* in case you have to sleep in the car (while parked, need I say?)
Buy a map with tourist attraction notes.
Be your own best friend. Whether travelling alone or with a partner, you're the only company you'll have for a while.
Be kind to your body - avoid junk food and drink lots of water. You are already abusing your body by sitting for so long - don't abuse it further by blocking your system with junk. It will only lead to zits and a pot belly.
Don't promise 10 tips if you can only think of nine.
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