Travelling on my own, I’ve always loved the fact that everything I see is mine. While you’re backpacking, you get to do amazing and unexpected things, you see sights that affect you in ways you never thought possible – and the best thing is, it’s all yours.
You can show your family the photos, you can send your mates the emails, but they’ll never know about the tiny, uninhabited moonlit beach, or the golden sunsets over the rolling outback.
This was the travelling claptrap running through my mind as we pulled out of Adelaide. There were only five of us on the bus, including two tour guides, so I let my belt down a notch and relaxed. Crawling west across the huge Eyre Peninsula to a soundtrack of soft rock, the world turns into one huge flippin’ wheat field, countless covers of gold shivering in the wind. It’s both beautiful, and mind-meltingly boring, at the same time.
With such a long distance to cover, a lot of the journey was spent in the van. The first day of driving was punctuated by a bush walk and my first encounter with wild emus; the stifling heat, endless flies, a crate of beer and a dose of sadness and cultural guilt at the ruined population of local Aboriginal people in Port Augusta; and passing a desperate-looking detention centre for illegal immigrants and some dancing “whirly-whirlys” – mini tornadoes breathing the outback dust, before reaching our destination of Baird Bay, as the sun let go of the coast and fell into the grey Southern Ocean.
By the time our tents were up and we’d tucked into a couple of beers, it seemed like the middle of the night. I always forget that about camping – your body clock changes, going to bed and getting up earlier. It’s unnaturally natural.
Up early, we pulled on some very thick wetsuits and took a small fishing boat onto the choppy waters for a trip I’ll never forget. At the tip of Baird Bay, Australian sea lions and dolphins make the most of the food-rich waters and we were going for a dip.
As we neared the small, rocky islands, a couple of things came into my mind. One: I’m as excited as a kid who’s got new sneakers and wants to wear them home. Two: while the water is so cold we’re wearing wetsuits that make whales look slim, our guide and sea lion expert is wearing a pair of Speedos that would embarrass a German. And three: if there’s enough fish for sea lions and dolphins, there are enough sea lions and dolphins for sharks. Ah, who cares…
After a prolonged session of rolling, flipping, clapping and hooting underwater (you need to keep sea lions entertained), I could hardly feel my toes, so I clambered back onto the boat for some hot, sweet tea. The dolphins joined us on the way back but the water was too rough for us to get in with them, so I contented myself with wasting a roll of film on slippery grey blurs.
Life’s a beach
Dry and tired, we left the lonely surroundings, heading for Streaky Bay (along the way stopping at Camelot – Australia’s best toilet for a poo with a view). After a stunning sunset over the bay – it’s streaky because of the oily seaweed – and some very tasty beer, we enjoyed a night in the hotel. It was going to be our last for a while.
The next day we said goodbye to civilisation and made our way to the real outback. First up was Cactus Beach, the best surf beach in South Australia, heading on through salt lakes (turned an alien orange-pink by a chemical reaction to the sun), and landing at a tiny beach called Point le Hunte. After a quick swim in the cold blue waters, hoping the shark net was working, we took off for a walk along the coastline. In return we saw an osprey nest on a rocky outcrop and sunbathed on smooth, dark, granite slopes that dipped into the foaming ocean watching the lightning of a storm out to sea.
Under a cloudless sky, we rolled into Fowlers Bay, a tiny settlement on the edge of the world, surrounded by a mini desert. After a quick chat with the long-eared camp owner, we took to the dunes for some late afternoon sandboarding. It was definitely beer o’clock.
The next day, we moved into the real bush, crossing the famous dog fence (which also has a massive cattle grid, perfect for lying under while mammoth road trains drive over you – you’ve gotta try it) and into the Yalanta Aboriginal lands. We made a quick stop at the Yalanta Roadhouse, which doubles as a store for the local Aboriginal people and a great place to pick up some amazing cultural artwork – have a chat to Stewie who runs the place for the local community. He knows more about the history of the area and people (who were moved from the Maralinga nuclear testing site in the 1950s by the British government) than any other white fella.
We then crossed into the Nullarbor Plain, stopping to stand slack-jawed at the awesome Nullarbor cliffs, dropping suddenly into the Southern Ocean. You may or may not know Nullarbor is derived from “null arbor”, latin for “no trees” – but here’s some technical stuff. The area is roughly triangular, covering about 250,000sq km, consisting of limestone from an ancient seabed (hence the loads of fossils found in the area). Limestone is so porous, water seeps straight through into huge underground water systems, making it impossible for a topsoil to form and stopping any real tree growth.
The road is… long
The miles here turn into a blur. Turn on the CB radio for the truckers (“G’day Jock, waddaya know?” “Aw, about two-fifths of fuck all!”). Endless grey-green scrub. The original, unsealed track running alongside the road. The odd wombat hole and roadkill. Handing over our fresh fruit at the WA border. Stopping at Eucla National Park to check out the historical, abandoned telegraph station half-buried by creeping sand dunes. Constellation-spotting under the purple night sky. Trying to find the same toilet hole in the dark.
The following day we turned off the road, heading for Cocklebiddie Cave – a gaping hole in the Nullarbor with an underground lake, watched by big red kangaroos lounging in the scarce shade and scampering blue-tongued lizards. Down the ladder, over the rocks, locusts and bat poop and into the complete darkness. Standing in the cavern by candlelight, I couldn’t see the lake anywhere – until I stood in it.
The water was so clear and still it was invisible without motion. We crept into the bone-freezing water and swam in the black. I knew there was nothing in there, but the thought of some The Lord of the Rings-style many-tentacled thing kept niggling me.
But with so many miles to go, we kept moving, down the longest piece of straight road in Australia (180km without a single corner, in case you’re wondering), and then another night under the stars.
Ain’t it Grande
We followed the coast down to Cape Le Grand National Park. After all we’d seen, I wasn’t ready for this. Our camp at Lucky Beach opened onto a cobalt blue ocean and curving salt-white beach, with rising green slopes and scattered granite boulders on either side.
After a long drive and two days without a shower I didn’t wait for an invitation. The water was freezing, but fantastic.
We took a bush walk to one of the local peaks, and were treated to panoramic views of the many green islands dotting the glistening ocean, fading off into the lengthening shadows of the hazy sunset.
We spent two days playing cricket on the beach, bushwalking along the wild and brilliant coastline, meeting kangaroos and snakes on the beach and laughing at my own bad jokes after too many tinnies round the fire. I even had a go at fishing – but only succeeded in hooking myself, feeding the seagulls and dropping the hand rail in the waves.
If you’re looking for a WA trip away from the crowds, the breathtaking Cape Le Grande is the money shot.
Too soon again we were on the bus, heading for Albany and the luxury of a night in the pub. And then again on the move, heading into the greenery of south-west WA. We visited the fantastic Valley of the Giants – a tree-top walk among the ancient karri and tingle forests, 40 metres up in the lush canopy. Then all that was left was the long road to Perth, travelling through the gorgeous rolling countryside, lit by a golden green afternoon.
It felt weird being back in a city. We’d covered 3900km – only 80km less than London to Moscow – in nine days. I didn’t want to stop. There was too much more to do. I could have done the return trip.
The experience: Nullarbor Traveller, visit www.the-traveller.com.au;
Ph: 1800 816 858 or (08) 8687 0455.