Crossing the Nullarbor

Journal: 018

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The Nullarbor Plain (nul-arbor: no trees) lies across the WA/SA border and its cliffs hold back the Southern Ocean. Technically, the highway only crosses the plain around Nullarbor Station at the head of the Bight, but generally a Nullarbor crossing is the 1200 km from Norseman, WA to Ceduna, SA, though the Eyre Highway continues another 500 km across the Eyre Peninsula to Port Augusta (map).

The Plain is largely uninhabited except for the roadhouses every 60-180 km and the quarantine workers at the border (Eucla/Border Village Roadhouse). Driving across from west to east, the clay soils of the Goldfields and the Great Western Woodlands give way after Balladonia to limestone plains, light scrub and saltbush until well into South Aust. and the Mallee woodlands around Yalata. The Nullarbor itself is “the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock”, but as far as I can see, sand, limestone and mallee scrub extend all the way across SA and into northern Victoria.

Much of the plain is fenced for grazing, sheep I imagine, though you never see any. Then from around Nundroo – a couple of houses and an old service station – scattered wheat farmers scratch a living from marginal soils and even more marginal rainfall. Penong, 70 km before Ceduna, is the one township, with a truck stop, a couple of shops and a police station. A while ago, I wondered why Kim Scott’s great grandmother Fanny (Benang) and her husband carried supplies from Esperance (on the coast) to Balladonia, 180 km east of Norseman. It was not a sheep station as I thought but a township, although for what purpose I cannot imagine, and is now long gone.

The signs along the highway, when they’re not being stolen by backpackers, warn of camels, kangaroos and wombats. There’s no shortage of kangaroos, or emus or wedge-tailed eagles; camels are a problem when they venture this far south, which is luckily not often, because their weight and high centre of gravity cause a lot of damage when you hit them; wombats dead or alive, you used to see a lot of at the eastern end of the plain, but not so much now.

I can only think of two literary references to the Nullarbor, Daisy Bates’ The Passing of the Aborigines, a selection of articles written by her and collated by Ernestine Hill, and Hill’s biography of Bates, Kabbarli (here); and Stephen Orr’s The Hands with its improbable Herefords (they certainly wouldn’t get fat!) and mathematically impossible train sighting (one hour horizon to horizon at 100 kph). Though at the edge of my memory is an SF novel written by Sean McMullen, a workmate of a friend but now apparently famous, Mirrorsun Rising about a post-apocalyptic future which somehow involves Victoria at war with Western Australia.

The Indigenous map I rely on (here) shows a major language group extending from around the Goldfields (Kalgoorlie) along the Bight to Nullarbor Station in South Australia. As best I can discover, the original languages along the coast were Ngadjunmaya to the west and Mirning to the east, both now extinct. The people of the Goldfields and out into the desert are Wangkatja, Western Desert people

Further east, from Yalata to Ceduna, were the Wirangu whose language was subsumed by the related Kokatha, another member of the Western Desert family of languages to their north, following the establishment of the Koonibba mission near Ceduna (map). Yalata on the highway has been a mission, a roadhouse and is now an Indigenous community centre. And the roadhouse where you could once stop for souvenirs and snacks is closed.

Not just out on the Nullarbor, but in the roadhouses I use in WA, in the Goldfields and the Pilbara, and in outback SA and NSW, you never – I think I can say never – see Aboriginal workers. Racism probably. Chinese-run roadhouses don’t prosper either, though there are a couple of Indian ones. Truckies it seems, like to be served by (white) housewives and backpacker girls.

White 9000 Adelaide 1976

The SA end of the Eyre Highway was sealed in 1976 and I made my first crossing at the end of 1977, so I never got to cross on the dirt, though long sections of the old road still run parallel to the bitumen. I’d always wanted to run east-west and my business, I was an owner-driver then too, was registered as “Go West”. I got my chance when Holymans in Sydney offered me a load of lawn mower grass catchers. I’d brought a mixed load of oranges and general freight up from Adelaide and the Riverland, unloaded Sunday night at the markets, went round to Holymans who had me going by Mon evening; was in Adelaide Tues arvo to top up; and more importantly pick up my girlfriend Tommy who had promised to introduce me if I ever got a load to Perth, to her busty blonde friend Xenia; arrived Perth Thurs, pulled up in inner suburban Rivervale outside Xenia’s duplex; and were met at the front door not by Xenia but by her slender younger sister  …

Milly and baby Psyche. I went off and unloaded. Xenia came home from work and took us down the beach. By that night I had been awake 6 days. I fell asleep in the shower, was discovered, crawled behind a couch and there lay oblivious to the five women who hadn’t seen Tommy for years since they were all together in Alice Springs, and now had a lot to say.

The next morning I woke early. Milly was in the kitchen feeding Psyche. We talked, we sat and read, I held Psyche. Later, the girls said if I was ever back in Perth I should come and stay. I rang Adelaide, organized a load for Xmas Eve. Took Tommy home. “You’ve fallen for Xenia, haven’t you,” she said – resigned after repeatedly losing boyfriends to her in Alice. “No,” I said, “her sister.”

Drove all day Xmas Day, absolutely no traffic, was back in Perth Boxing Day and stayed for 2 weeks. Down the beach, Cottesloe, Swanbourne, New Years Eve at Steve’s (a famous pub). The time of my life. Got regular east-west work, took Xenia to Melbourne, took Milly’s best friend to Melbourne. Brought my Monaro back, to take Milly to the drive-ins. It took a while to convince her. And where was the Young Bride you ask. In Holland as it happens – a story for another day.

I struggled to get work for my trailer, a pantec (van), so borrowed B2’s flattop. Rolled it with a load of jarrah when I came over the rise into Ceduna and there was a train on the line, took it off the road out into the sand and laid it gently on its side. Bought a new trailer but was soon broke and declared bankruptcy. Was a salesman for a few months, then a driver again, crossing the Nullarbor twice a week each way, two-up (one driving, one asleep) with Ipec fast freight. Rolled another truck in the Blue Mountains. Flew home. Retired. Lou was on the way.

After five years in Perth I dragged Milly and the kids to Melbourne where we stayed for fifteen years. Milly flew home sometimes and we made two trips by car, Mitsubishi Magna station wagons, a trailer for the tent and supplies. The first time the two youngest sat in the very back (with seatbelts!), talked and played games, Psyche listened to music, Milly read to me and kept everyone fed. The second time Lou had a broken leg, a corkscrew fracture when he was tackled by all his fellow scouts, including his sister, playing british bulldog, and he got the back. Psyche flew home early that trip to celebrate her 18th birthday while we came home round the coast, the Big Tree at Pemberton, Denmark, Albany, Esperance.

In 2001 Milly had had enough of Melbourne and drove back to Perth in her little Daewoo, came back to see us in July and again at the end of the year when she sold up. I hung on for a couple of months then drove my lovely Triumph 2500 TC I’d bought all those years ago back in Perth, round to the wreckers, piled all I had left in the Mitsubishi and drove over to join her (share housing you understand, we’d been separated a while). Started running out of Perth to north Qld for Sam, till in December (2002) a co-driver foisted on me for a quick trip to Darwin rolled the truck with me in the sleeper and I packed it in. And that was it for Nullarbor crossings until I rejoined Sam and Dragan earlier this year. The rest you know.

Indigenous Stories

Train refuses to stop for injured Aboriginal, Ooldea, 1941 (here)
Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions from Ooldea (here)
Our People, Ooldea (here)

Recent audiobooks

Ian McEwan (M, Eng), Sweet Tooth (2012)
Jonathon Kellerman (M, USA), Heartbreak Hotel (2017)
Margaret Atwood (F, Can), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Kerry Greenwood (F, Vic/Aust), Death at Victoria Dock (1992)
Kate Chopin (F, USA), The Awakening (1899) – Project Gutenberg

Currently reading

Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language
Yelena Moskovich, The Natashas

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