The Nullarbor is said to be so named because of an absence of trees, i.e. null arbor. The thing is, like other misconceptions that may feature on a jovial edition of QI and set off a high pitched wail, it’s really not so true. Sure, there are a few bits that are made up mostly of low scrub and saltbush, and some of it is very, very flat. But there are plenty of trees clustered and scattered across the thousand kilometres or so of its reach. Plus there is my own festive Christmas tree dangling in the front of the car, attempting to bring some light and joy to this escapade in monotony.
One of the little treats of heading east is that you gradually get to move your clock forward until eventually you get a reasonable sunrise and pleasant light evenings. Not so at Fraser Range, undoubtedly the nicest stop along the road but still subject to the same peculiar hours as Perth. Hello 4am sunshine, before vanishing into a strangely cool, cloudy day to plough through the rest of Western Australia.
At Eucla, close to the WA / SA border there is the concession of 45 minutes but you have come so far east that it makes little difference. And then, ten minutes down the road you suddenly jump forward 1 hour 45 minutes and should you wish to straddle the border it is quite possible to indulge in your own creation of Back to the Future.
Jumping into South Australia there is a sense that civilisation is returning, but it is still 500kms or so to Ceduna, which is itself a subjective interpretation of civilisation. I’m glad to push on another hour and make it instead to Streaky Bay, for a cooling motel room, a chance to endure cricket on TV and nice, long, light evenings to take in the jetty and glassy calm bay of this glassy calm town.
It seems the journey is one of milestones – crossing the border, finishing the Nullarbor, reaching the crossroads of Port Augusta and again seeing a kangaroo for the first time in ages. Bushland and hills return and the environment becomes a more familiar, comforting scene of generic southeast Australian. Stopping and appreciating this at Mambray Creek, in Mount Remarkable National Park, is a delight, even if it means being awoken by huge flocks of galahs clattering around the majestic River Red Gums in the morning.
Adelaide is another milestone and just a few hundred kilometres down the road. I reached the city by way of a small diversion into the northern Yorke Peninsula and a triumvirate of towns – Wallaroo, Moonta and Kadina – at the heart of the Copper Coast. Or ‘Little Cornwall’, a moniker derived from the miners who settled here many moons ago. You would think I would have learnt by now not to get my hopes up with such names, to avoid such disappointments as a ‘Devonshire’ Tea and a ‘Pork’ Pie. But I live in hope that certain culinary heritage items are preserved amongst this flat, agricultural landscape which – apart from the presence of a bit of sea – is nothing like Cornwall.
So it is really not that much of a surprise that despite the slightly cutesy high streets crying out for a charming tea room there is no sign of a cream tea in sight. The closest thing to a scone and jam and clotted cream is a shiny bun with a blob of jam and squirty cream in the middle. Salvation may lie in a traditional pasty, but this is about as traditional as sticking a possum on top of a Christmas tree and singing we wish you a merry Easter. For a start, a pasty tends to have much more meat in and a lot less finely diced carrot please.
Anyway, meanwhile, back in Australia, I reached Adelaide and was glad but slightly daunted by being in a big smoke again. Not that Adelaide is that big or smoky. Indeed, it is rather graceful and refined at its heart. There is decent coffee to have and the fabulous central markets to salivate in and the tram to Glenelg to catch and a short drive to be had to the hills, peppered with wineries and koalas and dinner and conversation waiting. Leaving is a bit sad but there is one final little hill stop in Hahndorf, making amends for a missed German style meat fest opportunity last time around, and a brief reminder of hot summer days in Munich.
After such a lunch it would be a decent idea to nap, but I had new milestones to reach and crossing into Victoria was on the agenda. Three more nights of swagging it, following an inland course close to the Murray River and over the highest hills in the country and down to Canberra. Still 1200km to go but feeling close to the end.
The first stop was among the gums and lakes of Hattah-Kulkyne National Park, a little to the south of Mildura. Here mighty trees rise from the waters, attracting a dense concentration of screeching cockatoos who mercifully quieten down after dusk. They perk up again in the morning, but by now mornings start at a much more reasonable hour.
The trees, water and birds combination continues along the length of the Murray, interspersed more frequently with pleasant towns. A reminder that in Victoria country life seems quite amiably civilised. Swan Hill even offered a giant Murray Cod, whilst Echuca evoked steamboat and latticework charm. The thing to do in Echuca is to hop on one of these and cruise upon the river. It made for a pleasant enough hour albeit a little dull.
The Murray rises in the Snowy Mountains and by time I reached Wangaratta I was on very much more familiar ground, stocking up on coffee and cake and heading for the hills. It’s a beautiful approach from Wodonga, following the shores of the Hume Dam with golden hills rising and small valleys drifting into New South Wales. The valleys tighten and become more heavily and lushly forested as they shelter beneath the higher ridges of the Main Range of Kosciusko National Park.
From this western approach it’s quite a twisty ascent over appealing sounding places like Siberia and Dead Horse Gap to a much starker and moodier side. Here a landscape of high moors and glacial hollows is scattered with ghostly snow gums and boggy pools. A world in which leftover snow still stubbornly sticks; a world a long way from Perth where I commenced this journey.
It was rather nice to get out of the car for a late afternoon walk immersed in this landscape, setting off from Charlotte Pass along the Main Range track, dipping down for a Snowy River crossing and up again to overlook Hedley Tarn and Blue Lake. From here it is really not that far as the crow flies to Canberra. Indeed, continuing along the track just a little further, crossing a couple more slushy white patches, you can look out over the ridges and folds of the ranges to the north and east. It is a vast view and I suspect if you had super Legolas vision you might just be able to make out Black Mountain Tower. So, so close.
In a somewhat romantic poetic notion it seems fitting that having traversed and explored huge tracts of this huge country over the past year that I finish it, well, not quite at the top but close enough. It feels like Australia is laid out before me and I can survey what I have crossed…from its white beaches to its desert plains, its golden hills to ragged red gorges, its shimmering cities to one pub towns. And yeah, It may well have the most annoying cricket team ever, and make poor attempts at Westcountry produce, and have strange time variations and a few super long dull roads but, other than that, it seems pretty good to me.