Previously: Perth to Melbourne, Part 1

February 12th
Esperance – 0km

At South Coast Motorcycles a mullet-haired mechanic expressed barely restrained contempt for our decision to ride 250s across the country, before inspecting Chris’ chain and declaring that it was fucked because it hadn’t been sufficiently lubricated. “You need to lube ’em every three hundred k’s,” he said.

“I thought every thousand k’s,” Chris said.

Snort. “Nup. Three hundred. You got any tools?”

“No.”

Another snort. “You’re crossing the Nullarbor without any tools?”

We could have told him that there was no point in having tools because we wouldn’t know what to do with them, but we felt we’d been derided enough for one morning. He tightened Chris’ chain and sold us some lubricant, but told us it needed replacing, which he couldn’t do because he was booked solid.

We went down the road to Esperance’s other motorcycle shop to seek a second opinion, where we were again greeted with a generally condescending air. “Mechanics are always assholes and I don’t understand why,” Chris said later. “They think you’re an idiot for not knowing what they know. Like, ‘what are you going to do if your bike breaks down?’ What the fuck? I’ll bring it to you and pay you to fix it. That’s your fucking job. It’s like if you went to a book signing and the author said, ‘What do you want to read my book for? Why don’t you write your own?'”

The mechanics at the second store had the time to replace Chris’ chain, but didn’t have a new sprocket, so I had to ride back to the first store and buy one. During the transaction the female cashier – doubtless our mulleted friend’s wife – said “Yeah, you just got to keep those chains lubed. You can’t just treat them like that and not expect them to break. And what’s your fuel mileage? You know on the Nullarbor there’s about 250 k’s between…”

“We’re carrying jerries,” I said. “Longest stretch is 182 k’s.” I asked for a sprocket, not a lecture.

In defence of the mechanics who so despise their clients, the bikes do, upon closer inspection, instruct us to lube the chains every 300 k’s. It’s written right there on the chain guard. I’m not sure where we picked up the 1000km figure from.

While waiting for the chain to be replaced we went to a cafe for breakfast, but it was hideously overpriced, so we went to IGA and bought some hideously overpriced ingredients to cook back at the hostel. WA’s cost of living is quite unreasonable, but in remote areas like Esperance it borders on ridiculous. After breakfast we went for a walk, even though it was still overcast and howling with wind.

Another long jetty, although this once had a sea lion dozing underneath it.

Apparently he’s a semi-tame town local called Sammy. Brett lied to us and told us he’d been murdered, just like somebody murdered the dolphins at Underwater World. You lied, Brett! The sea lion is alive and well. We thought he was dead for a bit, but eventually he stirred ever so slightly in his sleep.

Here’s a stupid billboard:

Skylab did indeed make landfall across the south-east of WA, and the Shire of Esperance really did fine NASA for littering. This is the kind of story that’s quite amusing, until you put it on a tourism billboard with the calculated intent of portraying yourselves as a bunch of witty Aussie larrikins.

Later that afternoon, after retrieving Chris’ bike ($250, ka-ching) we did an oil changes on our bikes… or at least, on my bike. Chris was quite frustrated to find that his sump bolt – plus all the other nuts and bolts on his gearbox – were fitted so tightly that his most vigourous attempts to remove them simply wore down the angles of of the bolt’s head. After half an hour of fruitless prying he flung his Yamaha spanner into the bushes. “It’s useless!” he yelled. “I can’t take it apart without destroying it!”

The entire time we were keeping up a conversation with a babbling Tasmanian man, who was attending to a stray puppy he claimed to have found wandering in the street. He never shut up, and being alone with him for even a few moments was a sentence to being drawn into some long anecdote about how he’d gone to Thailand to learn kickboxing and had then taught it to Aboriginals on a station he’d been working on up north. “Yeah, I been up there about eighteen months, pretty much on my own,” he said.

“No wonder you’re fucking batshit,” Chris muttered later on.

February 13th
Esperance to Caiguna – 441 km

The crazy bastard robbed us! Come morning, the Tasmanian was gone, along with the tool kit from the back of my Kawasaki and nearly every earthly possession belonging to the European backpacker who’d been sharing his dorm. “I wonder if he really just ‘found’ that dog?” I said.

It was still fucking grey and fucking windy. I know it’s the south coast, and that it has to spend every day of its windswept existence facing down Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, but Jesus Christ. It’s meant to be summer. It’s meant to be an Australian summer. I’ve seen photos of perfectly still days in Esperance, you know the ones, one the brochures with the crystal white sand and turquoise water and kangaroos fucking lazing about on the beach. It must be like that sometimes, and if not February, when?

East of Esperance is an unsealed road that runs all the way up to the Eyre Highway, connecting with it just east of Balladonia. It would save us a hell of a lot of time and distance if we took this rather than the typical Norseman route, and since it was about 200 k’s, it was perfectly possible to do with the jerries. It would also save some wear and tear on our off-road tyres, which were starting to look a little bald after more than a thousand k’s on tarmac.

So we headed east out of town, on a little-travelled road leading to the town of Condingup, a tiny hamlet hidden in low scrubland.

This was another service station (well, actually just some pumps outside the pub) where the attendant came out to fill our tanks up for us, as though Robert Menzies were still in the Lodge. I guess it’s a country thing. We queried him about the condition of the off-road track, and he said it wasn’t bad at all – actually tarmac for the first forty k’s, and in pretty good condition until you got to the half owned by the Shire of Norseman, which didn’t bother to maintain it. It was quite corrugated on that half, he said. Chris knew what he meant, and I pretended I did too.

He knew what he was talking about – even got the distance right. After forty k’s, asphalt ran out, and we were in Hardcore Offroad Country.

Not really. It was good solid ground, not sand, and most of it was even graded. Still a bit bumpy, but about as close to an actual road as off-roading can be. We passed a bearded farmer who resembled Santa Claus driving along on his quad, and as we passed him he turned to look at us with an incredulous yet delighted expression.

After about 120 k’s we stopped to refuel. Something had happened to my bike, but I didn’t notice until much later.

We passed a gate covered in people’s underwear, a curious rural ritual which we saw repeated all over the country.

Further on the road was no longer graded, and I discovered what corrugated meant. The loose sand that blew along the surface had formed into tiny little dunes, no more than a centimetre high, making it similar to corrugated tin. As you might imagine, this is difficult and unpleasant to ride on. “It actually gets better if you can get up to about 80 or 90 k’s,” Chris said. “Which is intimidating, but trust me, it’s a lot better.”

I did sometimes manage it, but then potholes or patches of gravel would come along and I’d slow down again. For the most part I managed 70, which was still quite nerve-wracking. At one point I hit a gravel-soaked part of the road, and ended up in a long tyre-gulch, which funneled me to the left. I have a fear (reasonable or not, I have no idea) of turning even slightly when I’m on gravel at any kind of speed, and so I tried to brake rather than steering out of it. I’d developed the speed wobbles and the trees were looming up on my left and I was gripped with the same kind of looming helplessness as when we’d beached the speedboat on the last night of Collie, only a few weeks ago. “Oh no,” I said. “Oh no.” Fortunately I managed to slow down in time and the worst that happened was some branches scraping my left arm. But it was a close thing.

After four hours of off-roading we finally hit the Eyre Highway,and both of us were glad to see it.

We swung left to fuel up at the Balladonia Roadhouse, where we encountered our first stingingly high Nullarbor prices ($1.90 for premium). The weather was worsening and it was getting late in the day, so we agreed to lube the chains, scarf down a quick lunch and then be on our way.

The roadhouse was staffed by a charming young Irishman, who asked us a lot of questions about “dem boikes,” and also checked up on us while we were eating about every 30 seconds: “Are you aright der, boiyes? You aright?”

“He was very nice,” Chris said later, “but also very… there.”

“My Nana does that too,” I said. “Just randomly asks ‘Are you alright, Mitchell?’ Maybe back in Ireland you had to check on people every five minutes to make sure they weren’t dead.”

The roadhouse also had a modest museum, which contained what is probably not a real piece of Skylab.

After shoving down coffee and sandwiches prepared for us by the Asian chef, we prepared to head off, with less than two hours before sunset, and more than two hundred kilometres between our target of Cocklebiddy. “You take care of dem boikes, boiyes,” the Irishman said. “Don’t rush, just take yer toime.”

This was it. The Nullarbor Plain. Two thousand kilometres of absolutely nothing stretching ahead of us, the largest settlement containing no more than fifty people. Flat and featureless and remote – and yet holding the major artery between Australia’s east and west, so that a vehicle passes you every ten or fifteen minutes. This was the stretch of the journey that all our friends and relatives had been wringing their hands about. I still recall the words of an ex-girlfriend of mine who, when I had proposed a hypothetical roadtrip to the eastern states to see a concert that never ended up eventuating, had said: “Mitch, people die on the Nullarbor!” (This made me and Chris laugh for many months to come.)

I didn’t expect it to be anything worse than boring. And yet it was also something I wanted – had always wanted – to do. In what other country can you drive along a major highway for two or three days and see literally nothing?

Of course, I’d always imagined I’d be in a car when I did it. Not a motorbike. Bikers like corners, because they’re more interesting. Long straight stretches of road, not so much.

Oh.

At least we can say we’ve done it. (It’s listed among Australia’s top 200 bike rides in the Australian Motorcycle Atlas purely for that reason). I believe this was formerly the longest straight road in the entire world, before one was built to one of the king’s remote desert palaces in Saudi Arabia. At least we still have the longest straight stretch of railway line in the world, which is also across the Nullarbor, about two or three hundred k’s to the north of here. Why the railway doesn’t run alongside the road, I don’t know.

It was, as one might expect, quite dull. It was also freezing and cold – quite ironic, given that one of the major concerns people had about the Nullarbor was that I would literally bake to death. Instead I was keeping an eye on the clouds and hoping we could make Cocklebiddy before it started raining.

We stopped to refuel from the jerries, and took a moment to appreciate the sheer emptiness around us.

Fifty k’s out of Caiguna, the sun went down and we were soon plunged into darkness. I was still wearing my sunglasses, but couldn’t be bothered pulling over to take them off. I was constantly keeping my eyes on the bushes on either side of the road, worried that a kangaroo would suddenly leap out and end my life in a heartbeat. We’d heard regular warnings about kangaroos, which often bound out onto rural roads at twilight and into the path of vehicles, to the detriment of both. Trucks don’t notice them, cars can be severely damaged, and on a motorbike you may as well be hitting an atomic bomb. Yet we’d seen nothing but crows so far, and very little kangaroo roadkill. It occurred to me that the same people who had warned me about kangaroos had been the same people who thought crossing the Nullarbor was akin to crossing the Sahara.

When we pulled into the roadhouse at Caiguna, it was well and truly nighttime. We asked the proprietor if it was true that kangaroos were a serious danger at dusk, and she said they absolutely were. “Had a bloke come through on a bike last week who said one came out right in front of him and he missed it by that much,” she said, holding her hands apart about a foot.

“Alright,” I said. “Guess we’ll stay here.”

“Right, that’ll be twenty bucks,” she said, at which Chris’ eyebrows shot up, “and I’ll need your names and license plate numbers.”

“I’ll go check what they are and call them out to you,” I said to Chris. I went back out to the petrol pump and discovered I couldn’t, because my license plate had fallen off.

“What the fuck. What the fuck!

It was pretty funny and we cracked up laughing for a bit, but it did leave me nonplussed as to what to do. I couldn’t exactly get a new license plate out in the middle of nowhere, especially since we’d be entering South Australia tomorrow. The fact that I planned to have the bike re-registered in Victoria just added further hassles. I rang Dad from a Telstra phone booth (no reception out there) so he could check my rego papers and tell me what my license plate number was. He suggested making a new one out of cardboard in the interim, and said as long as I could tell cops what the number was I should be OK.

We set our tent up in the dark, and had showers at the reassuringly clean facilities. The sign warning us to keep the door shut to keep poisonous snakes out didn’t fill me with confidence, though.

February 14th
Caiguna to Nullarbor Roadhouse – 531 km

That night’s sleep in our miniature tent wasn’t nearly as bad as the night in Pemberton, because we’d been absolutely exhausted. We rose around 9 am and packed the tent up.

Breakfast was toast and jam for the ludicrous price of $6. An emerging theme at every breakfast was the discussion of dreams, which we were both having a lot of. I suspect it’s because on a bike trip, you do a lot more imagining and thinking and daydreaming than usual, due to the huge stretches of the day where you don’t have much to do except look at the road.

I was still worried about my license plate, convinced that if police pulled me over they would have every right to make me remain here until a new license plate could be mailed out. “Don’t worry about it,” Chris said. “You’ll be out of WA before they catch you… shit, that was a bad thing to say as someone walked past.”

It was sixty k’s to Cocklebiddy, which was a very desolate roadhouse – only about two buildings and no sign of a caravan park. Quite glad we’d ended up sleeping in Caiguna instead.

Another 91 k’s until Madura. At this point the novelty had worn off and I was tired of being on the Nullarbor. I found myself swaying back and forth along the road from sheer boredom. The skies were still grey, and it was still chilly and windy. At Cocklebiddy I had decided I couldn’t take it anymore and put my iPod in, shoving the earbuds up my helmet (with great pain) and spending a good fifteen minutes wiggling them about until they fit in my ears. Music provided slight stimulation in an otherwise sterile landscape.

Madura was situated on an unexpected ridge – I’d thought the Nullarbor was flat from beginning to end. I neglected to take a photo, so here’s one I swiped from flickr.

Madura Pass Lookout
(Credit Les Kay)

After Madura was Mundrabilla, and after that, Eucla. I was naturally looking forward to seeing Eucla, but realised almost immediately that the real Eucla bears no resemblence to the wholly fictional Eucla of my writing, so I didn’t bother looking around or taking any photos – except the mandatory petrol fill-up.

Even the Nullarbor itself bore no resemblence to the Nullarbor of my imagination, which involved, oh, I don’t know, nullus arbor. There were trees all over the goddamn place.

We had a quick lunch here and pushed on to the Border Village, where we crossed over into South Australia under the shadow of some huge wind turbines. This felt quite good. In a country with only six enormous states, crossing into another one is always a small accomplishment, even if they’re all pretty much the same.

This was the longest stretch we had to cover without fuel – 182 kilometres. The trees actually started to thin out a bit here. I later found out that “Nullarbor” originally just meant a relatively small region in South Australia, but was later expanded to include the whole empty wasteland between Norseman and Ceduna, even though much of it has trees.

This stretch of the Eyre Highway is the one that comes closest to the coast. We took advantage of the first side road we saw and headed south, parking the bikes and approaching the ocean with the expectation of dramatic cliffs.

We were disappointed; the plateau merely sloped down to an ordinary beach.

Fifty k’s ahead, we tried again, and this time were rewarded.

Photos don’t quite capture the dramatic majesty of these cliffs – a thousand kilometres of desert suddenly pitching straight down into an equally desolate ocean, which stretches all the way to Antarctica. If you were to fall off these cliffs, it wouldn’t really matter whether you survived or not; the nearest helicopter is in Ceduna, some five hundred kilometres away. There is absolutely no way back up.

If I ever get diagnosed with a terminal disease and a fairly accurate timeframe, I know how I want to go out: riding a muscle car off these cliffs, playing “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.

As we mounted the bikes and drove back to the highway, we saw a light plane flying eastward, very low, only about two hundred metres above the road. I assumed it was the RFDS, although it had no markings. I couldn’t imagine who else would be out here. We’d passed about three or four emergency RFDS landing strips – just sections of the highway itself where the scrub had been cleared out on either side, to provide space to turn around and take off again.

When we stopped to crack open the jerry cans, the sun was setting behind us.

We plunged on into the dusk, and when some tosser drove past in the gathering gloom with his high beams on, I conceded defeat and pulled over to remove my sunglasses. This improved my visibility, for about five minutes before the darkness descended even further.

This part of the Nullarbor was rabbit territory. There were dozens of them visible at any one time, darting about at the edge of the road, their eyes glinting in the headlights. They would quite often choose the exact moment we flew past to make a dash to the other side of the road; I braked to avoid hitting one, and another later zoomed right between me and an oncoming road train, adjusting his direction at the very last second. I think he made it… I think.

It’s amazing how bright lights can be when there’s absolutely nothing else around. I spent a good twenty minutes staring ahead at bright blue truck headlights light visible just beyond the horizon, blinkered by the curvature of the earth. The lights of the Nullarbor Roadhouse were visible a good half hour before we reached it.

I presume that this roadhouse, out of the dozens of roadhouses on the Eyre Highway, gets the privilege of calling itself the “Nullarbor Roadhouse” because it’s in the only part of the plain that actually has no trees. We bought an outrageously priced $30 patch of dirt from the one-armed proprietor, and then went to buy dinner. I was informed of the price and called out to Chris, who was inspecting a rack of bumper stickers.

“Dude, do you have six bucks?”

“You have a fifty dollar note.”

“Yeah. Do you have six bucks?”

I get that it costs money to transport food out there, but Jesus Christ.

While we were eating dinner we chatted to a pair of young men who asked us about our bikes, and how much ground we could cover in one day. One said they’d started the day in Kalgoorlie, which I thought was an impressive feat, until he said “we’re flying, though.” I thought he meant they’d been speeding all day, until I twigged that they were the owners (or leasers) of the light plane we’d seen at the cliffs. They were students from a flight school in Melbourne, trying to clock up hours so they could get their commercial licenses, and were doing a long loop via Uluru. “We’ll hit Adelaide for fuel tomorrow, then be in Melbourne tomorrow night,” one of them said. “When are you planning to get to Melbourne?”

Chris and I glanced at each other. “About another week.”

The clocks in both the petrol station and the roadhouse both had a typed note plastered next to them that read “YES, THIS IS THE CORRECT TIME,” and another that read, “YES, THIS SIGN IS CORRECT.” Personally I think they could have had a sign that explained why there was such a huge discrepancy instead of two signs that are snarky to confused Western Australians. South Australia is on GMT + 9.30, because most of the population lives in the far eastern half of the state; furthermore, South Australia observes daylight savings whereas Western Australia does not. So while our bodies thought it was 7.45 pm, it was actually 10.15 – a disconcerting jump of two and a half hours.

This made getting to sleep in our coffin even more difficult than usual. More irritating was the fact that the showers were coin-operated, and since everything had shut up shop right after we had dinner, there was nobody to change our notes into coins. We went to bed tired and unwashed and with empty wallets. Fuck the Nullarbor Roadhouse.

February 15th
Nullarbor Roadhouse to Wudinna – 513 km

When I rose in the morning, under daylight, I saw something I hadn’t noticed the previous night.

It reminds me of Ray Winstone in The Proposition: “I will civilise this land.” More importantly, though, was the fact that there was actually daylight. The clouds had mostly parted, and we were witnessing blue sky for the first time since Pemberton, some two thousand kilometres behind us.

We went to the roadhouse for breakfast, at either 8.30 or 11.00. Stupid timezones. Behind the counter was a girl from the UK, who explained how she and the Irishman had ended up out here: it’s a good way for backpackers to save money and experience the “real” Australia. We talked to a married couple from Melbourne who were heading back east after visiting Perth. Inflicting the dreary eternity of the Nullarbor on yourself more than once, and in such close succession, takes a determined mind. “It’s the kind of thing you want to do once, to have done, and then never do again,” I said.

At least it was a much nicer day. Not only were the clouds gone, but there was absolutely no wind, which made riding a dream. I was getting up to 130k’s with no problems, whereas I’d been previously struggling to hit 110. I spent a lot of my time staring up at the huge, wide, open blue sky. How I missed you, blue sky.

About a hundred k’s east of the roadhouse we found ourselves driving through bushland and trees. So the Nullarbor is basically 10% Nullarbor, 90% forest. We were now in Yalata Aboriginal Land, where you need a permit to stray off the highway. Are there Aboriginals out there, living traditionally? The very last Aboriginal tribe that had never had contact with white man was discovered mind-bogglingly recently, in 1984. Of course, it’s a catch-22: every tribe is the “last” one until we discover a new one. Although we probably are done now.

I’d always thought Ceduna marked the end of the Nullarbor – it certainly marks the first place where you have the option of more than one road to take – but east of a place called Nundroo we found ourselves in tin windmill country again, surrounded by golden acres of wheat and corrugated water tanks and miles of fencing. We stopped for lunch in Ceduna, a place the Gullottis and Hills had both warned us was “a hole,” presumably because it has a significant Aboriginal population. I thought it was OK. While we had lunch I bought some zip-ties from a hardware store and scribbled myself a new license plate, on cardboard I cut out of a box of Shapes.

Good as new!

It blew off in the wind enroute to our next stop, and I didn’t bother replacing it again. We left the Eyre Highway on a reccomended detour south, which was about as boring and even longer. On the plus side we visited the pleasant little town of Smoky Bay.

We’d been planning to take a ferry across the Spencer Gulf, which would have saved us hundreds of kilometres and provided a pleasant break from riding, but we’d found out in Ceduna that it was discontinued several years ago. This meant we’d have to get to Adelaide via Port Augusta after all, but there was no chance of making it there that night, so we stopped at a wheat-farming town called Wudinna which had a strange obsession with granite, featuring several granite-related attractions that I’m sure as many as five or six people visit each year.

After two nights in the tent we were quite ready to shell out the money for a twin room at a motel. Dinner was better and more reasonably priced than it had been on the Nullarbor, and also featured James Boags (for some reason the pubs at both Caiguna and the Nullarbor Roadhouse shut very early). “I am so glad,” I said, “that we’re out of that expensive desert.” Having a bed again, of course, was the greatest luxury of all.

For some reason the motel room TV only picked up Northern Territory stations, which was weird, but provided a fascinating glimpse into a frontier world. “Vote to introduce the bottle refund scheme in the Territ’ry!” a PSA urged us. “The scheme works in South Australia and it will work in the Territ’ry! It hasn’t increased the cost of living in South Australia, and it won’t in the Territ’ry!”

“TerriTORY!” Chris shouted at the TV.

A poltical advertisement featured a middle-aged white man in business clothes walking around Alice Springs and speaking earnestly to the camera. “We’re all sick of it – drunkenness, graffitti, littering, anti-social behaviour. Vote for me, and let’s clean up Alice Springs!” You all know who I’m talking about, I imagined him saying.

“I’ve had the best idea,” Chris said. “When we get to a sign that says “WELCOME TO MELBOURNE,” we should take a photo of both of us sitting in our bikes in front of it giving the camera the finger, and mail it to that mechanic in Esperance.”

Both Caiguna and the Nullarbor Roadhouse had noisy generators running all night, but as I went to sleep in that motel, it was in absolute silence. Or it would have been, but in my head I could still hear the screaming of my bike’s engine and the sound of the wind hammering against my helmet.

Next: Perth To Melbourne, Part 3

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