Australia’s great treeless plain holds a tremendous fascination for travellers in search of a little solitude and a lot of space.
Using only public transport and his trusty bicycle, Roger Trowbridge ventured across that plain to see things in a clearer light.
I’ve just returned from riding my old two-wheeler across the Nullarbor.
North-south, not the usual east-west. Ivor (the station manager at Cook – we’ll get there later) said he hadn’t heard of this being done before. No-one he knew had gone out by themselves and ridden a bike across the plain.
Well, that’s something, I suppose . . .
In my 68th year, and in the first year of retirement, it was time to shake myself free for just a while; time to shed the city’s trappings and, in a clearer light, see if I know the person I’ve become.
Over time the dimensions of my journey came slowly into focus: first, I must travel alone, and to a place that is remote. My destination must be in arid country (emotional geography – can’t explain it beyond that). Finally, I must travel to this remote region by some form of public transport, and from there by bicycle to my destination.
Knowing what I sought was one thing; finding it quite another. By definition, public transport needs a public. Which, also by definition, remote places just don’t have. But there are a few exceptions: places that the great Australian public passes through without any desire to stay. One such place is Cook, at the centre of the Nullarbor Plain. Population four.
The plan was clear. I would travel from Melbourne by coach to Adelaide, and by train to Cook. I alone would alight with my bike and baggage. Instant remoteness. Perfect.
Gloom on the overnighter
The overnighter from Melbourne is a solemn experience. I joined the other sorry souls, strung out along a grey concrete wall of the Melbourne Greyhound Terminal. No-one spoke. I stayed apart, in a vain attempt to avoid the gathering gloom.
We took our seats, alone where we could, and avoided all others by fussing about with reading matter, warm socks, pillow, stash of food and drink, as though we each had taken, with the purchase of our ticket, a vow of silence and sadness. Clutching my pillow and a piece of fruitcake, I stowed my luggage and settled against the cold window.
Nine-thirty on the dot, we swung out of the depot. From the solitude of our respective windows we watched the darkened city recede and turned, each to our way of managing the night.
Horsham was the only stop, the only diversion. One-thirty in the morning. We had an hour to kill in the cold night air. The bus was beginning to look like a refugee camp. One by one we woke and wobbled into the fluorescent roadhouse to fulfil respective needs. Gloom deepened. We travelled on.
There’s something quite poetic about a timetable that had us drive the quiet streets of Adelaide in early morning light, and arrive right at the terminal door to the unexpected laughter of Aboriginal children, tumbling off their bus from somewhere north. Our coach door opened and we dissolved into this joyful dawn.
Dawn on the night train
It was 5.15am in the lounge car of the Indian Pacific as it clattered out of the night and onto the edge of the Nullarbor Plain. I’d just decamped from my Red Kangaroo day-night seat to the lounge car for a better view. There was barely a hint of dawn in the inky sky, but I looked anyway, not wanting to miss my first sighting of the treeless plain.
By the time most passengers were turning their minds to breakfast in the life-giving dining car, I’d watched the desert bloom into day: stunted saltbush grimly grasping at life on flinty limestone, blurring in every direction to a blue-grey horizon. All through the hours of morning the picture never changed, save for an occasional far-off bush and one lone dingo. That vision gripped me. Years of imaginings merged with real time and place.
Imperceptibly, the train slowed. I gathered those sparse belongings that had helped me through the night and watched the carriage stir to life, like a great caterpillar. Cook. There was no turning back. The train would travel on and I alone would stay.
The pull of the pushbike
“Hi. I’m Zac,” Young bloke, perhaps 19, at the wheel of a twin-cab. “You must be the bike rider?”
“Yep. Can you tell me where I’ll find Ivor?”
Today was a day of arrival; a day on which I would put down tentative emotional roots, enough to allow me to embark on a journey about which I had the vaguest understanding but the strongest drive.
From the start, planning for this trip was fraught with demons created across decades of city life. Family members thought I’d probably die of thirst and heat exhaustion; friends were convinced I’d wander from the track only to be found years later as whitening bones; while my constant preoccupation was with great marauding animals that would track me down in the night; and with snakes, spiders and scorpions that had evolved for the sole purpose of invading tents and sleeping bags.
I left at dawn to follow in the tracks of all who sought to find themselves.
Even with the thoughts and plans of many years behind me, by the time the radio mast at Cook had shrunk to needle size I was humbled by those plains. For travellers by bicycle on this track, the deal is clear: pick a wheel rut, select low gear, steer round and between the sharpest rocks, hold slewing bike against loose gravel, brush bush flies from eyes, mouth and ears, hold breath against burst tyre on misjudged edge, glimpse for dingo or camel . . . be ever patient.
The Nullarbor is a dot-matrix of knee-high saltbush, thin-layered red sandy soil over ancient limestone, broken occasionally by a single mulga shrub twisted against the dry wind. If there’s rain, tiny daisies bloom. The horizon is an unbroken circle of blue-grey, always an hour’s ride away. So I stopped each hour at every new horizon and wondered at the vast sameness of it all.
When all is so much the same then difference really matters: a rusting survey spike to match the map, driven into the limestone by Len Beadell’s Gunbarrel Highway Construction Party some 50 years before as they carved the original route from Volkes Corner to Cook; the route I now followed. Or a lone dingo heading south and skirting to the side as I held the track. Or six or seven camels strung across my path, grazing. These few encounters were all it took to foil the tendency for the mind to tell me I was on a treadmill, going nowhere.
The silence deep
By mid-afternoon the plain was beginning to show signs of breaking up. First shrubs then stunted trees in shallow depressions of rich, red sand as I neared the southern edge of the Great Victorian Desert. This was enough. Nine hours, hard-ridden. This was the destination I had sought, but had not known.
For any journey of discovery there will be a time that marks its core, its essence; a time that fixes deep into the soul and stays there. For me this essence lay in the hour of dusk at my campsite on the desert’s fringe. The tent was pitched, meal eaten, and baggage stowed in mulga scrub against unknown marauders. I stoked the fire and sat for a long time.
The sun faded to indigo. Birds stopped their song. Flies buzzed their last and disappeared. The wind that blew incessantly through the day was still. Flames slowly died to embers. I was completely in the moment, keenly aware that there were no other human beings in any direction for perhaps a hundred miles, save for the few souls at Cook, now over many horizons to the south.
Utter silence, such that I had never known.
It’s done. At dawn I stretched away the stiffness of the night. Dog tracks, a furrow twisting in the sand to show a snake had passed, fresh rabbit droppings all made clear I had not slept alone. The eastern sky glowed faint, ants busied on a log and further north a dingo howled.
The time had come to turn for home.