‘Good day for a drive eh? Not too hot, and you’ve got a tail wind.’
The guy who checked me out of the backpackers at Esperance was the last person I talked to before setting off over the Nullarbor. My second crossing – four years after driving west I was returning to my east coast homeland. Again the car was full of everything I had, again I was moving to a new beginning. Though this time it was to a familiar territory. And this time the car stereo was working.
As I pulled out of the car park that old melancholy seasickness settled in – a familiar feeling that comes to me during times of upheaval. I made it worse for myself by putting David Gray on the stereo, and the ache of his voice singing ‘through the wind and the rain my darling, say goodbye’ and the grey sky and drops of rain on the windscreen combined with the thoughts in my head about places I was leaving behind and a love that never happened and the vague uncertainty of life, to make it a wistful journey north towards Norseman.
I filled up with fuel, ate an apple and then turning eastwards the countryside changed. The steel grey road glistened in the wet and off to the side there were eucalypts of glowing white, dark brown and rusty orange. The moist leaves shimmered in subtle shades of green, and there was bare red earth, dark grey clouds and patches of blue sky.
I was in no hurry and stopped for stretches, for snacks, to admire the view. The road was quiet – a couple of road trains but mostly campervans or four wheel drives towing caravans. People crossing the country, people on the move.
I drove the ninety mile straight listening to Midnight Oil, ‘yellow belly black snake sleeping on a red rock waiting for the stranger to go’, it’s suited to this country. At the end of the straight I pulled down a dirt track and found a spot to set up camp. There was enough wood for a fire so I got a little one going then began my maiden attempt at making damper. It was messy and there was flour everywhere and dough stuck all over my hands, but after giving it a spell in the coals I brought out a toasty, one person sized loaf of warm crusty goodness. I sipped my tea, leaned back to take in the stars and felt alright.
A dark cloudy morning, somewhere on the Nullarbor. Wind gusted light rain onto the windscreen. Five or six crows stood over the slain figure of a lone roo in the middle of the road. They looked like sinister men in dark suits, not uninvolved in the death of this unfortunate individual. Some sort of gangland hit. One pecked at its exposed guts while the others stood guard. ‘Aaaarg’ said one of the henchmen. As I drove closer they reluctantly flapped over to the roadside. ‘Oooorg’ said another. I had a suspicion I had just witnessed a murder of crows.
I watched the gradual changes in landscape and vegetation. So many trees, more than I remembered seeing last time. At Madura Pass there’s a slight rise and as the road drops there are sweeping views to the south over a flat plain dotted with low acacias. A scarp ran to the east and the road followed the bottom of this into the distance. There was a lookout and a barefoot guy had hopped out of his van to sit on a rock and strum his guitar; another couple in a big campervan took some photos then drove away. There was a cool breeze, and I sat for a while then drove off too.
Thick clouds roamed the skies dumping brief rain showers as they passed. Puddles formed in depressions in the road, luring thirsty kangaroos into dangerous territory. An emu took tentative steps onto the road in front of me before wisely deciding to give it a miss for now.
Entering South Australia the ocean became visible off to the right. There were tracks leading to the cliffs, vertical and powerful and I gazed over the Great Australian Bight. Less trees, more low scrub here. The afternoon wore on, I wasn’t sure of the time exactly because there had been one or maybe two time zone changes. But it was late enough to stop. I pulled onto another track to find a corner to pitch the tent and light a fire. Did I talk to anybody today? A few words to the crusty fella at the Eucla servo, that’s all.
Next morning, the third day, I drove on. My mind was everywhere. I tried to be present in the moment, to appreciate the place and time because I know it’s special to be doing this trip. But I was flicking to the past and the future. Thinking of how the metaphorical journey of life is occasionally a literal journey as well. For a lot of people on this road, and for me, we’re on a journey to somewhere. I’m beginning a new part of my life, done with Western Australia, I’m driving somewhere new.
I gently brought my attention to the feel of the sunshine streaming through the windscreen and warming my chest, these waves of energy that have flown through space from the fire in the sky just to crash into my navy blue tshirt, bringing a hum and a zing to my skin; I noticed the smell of the wood smoke in my hair and clothes from last night’s fire; I felt the vibrations of the tyres on the tarmac coming up to me through the chassis and the seat where I was perched only centimetres above the road I was hurtling past; I heard the sound of Paul Simon on the stereo singing ‘and I could say ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh and everybody would know what I was talking about’ , and for a moment there, just for a flash, I think I did know what he was talking about and I felt that truly this moment, this minute of this life is something to treasure.
There was a sign stuck to a tree with the painted message asking WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY? Someone else had banged in a handwritten sign below this replying 6 FEET DOWN WITH YOU.
Further along there was a sign proclaiming JESUS DIED FOR ALL, but it was barely legible, thoroughly pocked as it was with what I assumed were bullet holes.
The Nullarbor... the place draws the lurking demons to the surface. I guess I outran mine this time. I made it unscathed to Cactus Bay where I stayed quite still for a few days, giving them a fair chance to catch up.