Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Nullarbor Plain, or, What Traveling in Australia Is Really Like

Right now, I'm in Adelaide, the cozy, pretty capital of the state of Southern Australia. My tummy is stuffed with prawn and couscous salad, topped with a shamefully rich chocolate tart and some of the local chardonnay. My hotel room has artwork on the walls that could be a Duran Duran album cover.

All this feels unbelievably luxurious, because I've spent three grueling days behind the wheel. The journey from Esperance, Western Australia to Adelaide, South Australia, passes through nearly 2,000 kilometers of utterly uninhabited wasteland called the Nullarbor Plain. (Sorry, no pictures from the windshield this time; I was booking it, and rarely stopped for photos.)

Except this one.
"Nullarbor" sounds like a lot of the silly Aboriginal place-names down here (Woollomoolloo, Bungle Bungle, Chappaquiddick, etc.), but it's actually derived from "null arbor," or "no trees." All descriptions pointed to it being two relentless days of treeless, flat, featureless nothing.

The reality was much different, which ended up being both good and bad. For the first part of the journey, it looked a whole lot like all the long drives I've been doing across Australia (and I've been doing a lot of long drives). Wide agricultural fields that almost look too dry to grow anything; broad pastures dotted with sheep; occasional lanes of eucalyptus. Outside the cities, the population density drops off incredibly quickly. You immediately feel like there are no buildings other than distant farmsteads, and the only other vehicles on the road are similarly rugged, packed-to-the-gills Land Cruisers on their way to distant and difficult places.

Then, more natural country started to mix in. There were still plenty of trees--low and scrubby, but trees nonetheless--and the ground was covered with shrubs, bushes, and undergrowth. In fact, under high clouds, it was quite lovely. Most of the plants had a pretty blue-green color, giving the scene an almost icy glow. By the end of the first day's drive (over 10 hours) I hadn't stumbled upon anything that could be described as "treeless." I even found a perfect roadside camping spot with shade and privacy, not far from other determined travelers.

The next day, I entered what was supposedly the "real" Nullarbor. It was, in fact, very flat and treeless. I drove through something called the "90-mile straight," which is nearly 100 miles of road with no turns, no elevation changes, nothing different at all. It was like a video loop.

There were a few overlooks where the Plain meets the Southern Ocean in dramatic cliffs. When I stopped at the first overlook, a nice couple there said the cliffs got taller the farther east you went. So in the interest of making time, I skipped the next few overlooks. Before I knew it, the flat plain gave way to dense bush again--full of trees!--and led away from the coast. It turns out, the actual treeless Nullarbor only encompasses maybe 3 hours of a more than 18 hour drive along the Eerie Highway. When I bypassed the overlooks, I'd completely skipped the only scenic attraction of the entire trip! So that was bad. But it was also good, because the road itself was far more pleasant than its reputation made it out to be.

The other thing in evidence on the Nullarbor was the extreme niceness of the Australian people. On the Nullarbor, people wave. I mean, I'd already figured out that campervan drivers tend to wave at each other. Australia is so vast and so sparsely populated that on rural drives, passing another car is kind of an event. I make a point to wave at anyone who rents from the same place I did. (Men nearly always wave. Women wave about a quarter of the time. Bitches.)

But once you get on the Eerie Highway, everyone waves. Sometimes, the passengers would all wave simultaneously, like jazz-hands at the end of a big Broadway number. Now that I'm in the city again, I almost resent that people don't wave.

The only permanent habitation on the Nullarbor is roadhouses. Roadhouses are a kind of all-in-one Australian travel stop. They usually have a gas station, a convenience store, a restaurant, a motel, and a caravan park under one management. Some of them aren't much more than truck stops. Others are quirky, adorable spots with display cases full of homemade desserts and plump, grinning family members who joke with you and ask you where you're from as they ring up your diesel purchase. The roadhouses on the Nullarbor were almost universally the latter. I haven't actually spent the night at a roadhouse yet, but I won't mind when I do.

So the biggest, longest, toughest drive of the trip is done. Even with ample warning, it's taking me longer than I thought to get from one place to another down here, so I'm thinking of leaving the coast and cutting inland in the next week or two. Along the way, I might squeeze in a part of the trip I'd thought I'd miss--the Great Dividing Range, the only mountains in Australia worthy of the term.

In the meantime, FOOD AND WINE AND COFFEE.

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