Location: 36° 29′ 13″ S, 148° 07′ 34″ E (Snowy Mountains, New South Wales)
Distance from Sydney: 405 km
And so the final day is here. When I planned this journey, I knew I wanted to drive back into Sydney. I could have had Magda shipped straight from Bangkok to Sydney and flown home. But it didn’t seem right. You couldn’t end a driving adventure from inside a shipping container. And crossing Australia was part of the challenge. After the exotic sights of the world, I thought I knew what I would be seeing as I crossed my own country, a dull blast across the empty interior. I’d forgotten how amazing Australia really is.
The first thing I noticed after Asia were how quiet the roads were. The use of car horns is like a language of its own across the world. Here in Australia a toot of the horn means “Look out! We might crash!” It’s a last resort to avoid a calamity of some sort.
Thinking back over the cities we’d passed through, in Paris tooting the horn generally means “F**k you, f**k him, f**k everyone. And where are my f**king cigarettes”. By the time you reach Russia, a truck bearing down on you on the horn is likely to mean “Get out of the way little people! Also, my brakes aren’t working.” China? “I’m here and I’m coming through, possibly on your left, or your right, or possibly in the opposite direction to the way the street runs I don’t really know.” I never quite worked Thailand out, the best I could tell it was simply “Woohoo I’ve managed to fit my whole family on this scooter!” Anyway, all I knew was that driving in Australia again was a relatively peaceful and relaxed affair.
I was heading south from Perth to explore the wine region of Margaret River, reaching Cape Leeuwin, the most Sou’Westerly corner of Australia before turning east to cross the Nullarbor Plain. The South West coast of West Australia (WA) is a very beautiful area. The vineyards of Margaret River means the roads are filled with wineries and various other boutique food producers. There are many national parks, with fantastic views out over the Indian Ocean.
There is a dangerous side to the beauty too: On day 2, at a near deserted beach I’d stopped to grab some photos of the surf, which was big. As I walked back to Magda a girl came running up in tears, calling for someone to call emergency services, as two guys were caught in the surf. We looked out and could see their heads in the white spume lifted off the tops of the waves by the wind. It wasn’t good, the surf was very dangerous and everyone was powerless to help. Someone called triple 0 (911) and within 20 minutes a helicopter thuddered in low over the beach hunting frantically, being joined by another aircraft and a searcher on a jetski. But it was too late, and all they could do was retrieve a body. Many die each year after being caught in rips off Australian beaches, but it was a shock to see it happen so quickly right in front of me.
I was heading east, a total drive of around 4,500 kilometres. Driving across the Nullarbor reminds me of the childhood challenge of getting from one end of the pool to the other while holding your breath. In the west stands Perth, the world’s most isolated city. Over east lies Sydney, Melbourne, and the various other states, territories and capitals of Australia. And in between lies the vastness that is the Great Australian Bight, the Nullarbor, and not a lot else really. Spanning the two is the Eyre Highway, a long straight tenuous connection of tarmac joining Australia’s east and west.
As you head east past the small town of Norseman you are very conscious that you are heading out into a deserted territory. Like holding your breath as you dive into the pool, I became more conscious of Magda’s steady rumbling underneath me. I subconsciously crossed everything, that for the next 2,000 kms nothing would fail. Many doing this trip carefully go over their vehicle and make sure it is solid before heading out. I was tacking it on the end of 30,000kms across the planet.
Out on the highway traffic is sparse. You can divide it up into three groups: 1. The giant road trains, huge multi trailered trucks steaming from one side of the country to the other. 2. The grey nomads, retirees in shiny four wheel drives hauling their caravans behind; and 3. The battered backpacker vans with various combination of euro and american backpackers who are circumnavigating the country, mattress in the back, beers in the front. What I love about this kind of place is the sense of camaraderie. Unlike ANY other country we passed through on the trip, out here everyone waves. Even the truckies, which I’ve never seen before. On the highway, there is no where else to go. It’s ocean to the south, and desert to the north, so the only traffic on the highway is doing the crossing.
There is an art to the wave too. You can’t just go crazy and wave like a long lost family reunion. No, the wave needs to be casual, as if you’d nearly not noticed them in the first place. The wave is almost always simply raising your index finger from the steering wheel as you pass. Between you and me it’s a bit of a pain in the backside really. I usually drive with a single hand at 6 o’clock on the wheel, so when I see a car I have to move one hand up to the top of the wheel, ready to do the ‘casual wave’. I do this because if they wave and I’m not ready I feel a little guilty for not waving. Equally, if I’ve gone to all that effort to wave and they don’t return the wave I instantly assume they’re a rude b*stard and probably come from the city. (Which is where I live, but that’s beside the point).
Meanwhile, for a whole lot of nothing, this part of Australia really is a beautiful place. Flocks of emus watch you suspiciously from the side of the road, kangaroos keep pace alongside, long easy bounces launching them into the air with amazing speed as they put space between the front of the car and them. The bight itself is a harsh coastline of huge cliffs dropping into the Southern Ocean. The desert, flat and barren simply stops and drops into the sea.
Crossing the Nullarbor was special for another reason. My father passed away unexpectedly 6 years ago on the 10th of December. He’d been preparing to cross the Nullarbor, and it seemed somehow appropriate that on the anniversary of his passing I was here, where he had been planning to be. Sure, our approaches for crossing were quite different: I was blasting across in a turbo charged SUV while he’d been planning to cycle across, but both trips had the same approach: a challenge to be met. He’d always loved his challenges, and travelling with us in the back seat as kids as we criss-crossed Australia had been a big part of my childhood. As I rolled across the desert towards Sydney I’m pretty sure he would have been proud of what we’d achieved.
And then, like arriving at the end of the pool, you arrive back into civilisation. Towns, cars, people reappear. Shops, billboards, garages. You’ve crossed the divide, into eastern Australia. And no one waves, you don’t feel so special any more. And so I come to be here, in the Snowy Mountains (don’t worry it’s summer), part of the Great Dividing Range that separates the coastal cities of Australia from the vast interior. It was the 7th mountain range of the trip, and an appropriate place to spend the final night. This morning I packed up for the last time, and am posting this as I set off for Sydney.
Almost six months since I left Sydney, across 3 continents, 24 countries, you would think that I’d had enough. But I wish I could keep going. I love the freedom of travelling this way – and the constant change of the world around you. Robert Louis Stevenson said “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” And it’s true. Even a big empty plain of nothing becomes something as you travel across it. But it all costs money. And that’s the part that has run out, even if my willingness hasn’t. Would I do it again? In a heart beat. Would I do the same journey? No, there’s too much else out there. Will there be another journey? I think so.
And Magda? Just as she has every single day of this trip (except the day she had a flat battery) starts willingly every morning, never missing a beat. Her achievement is impressive: 33,000 kilometres; an average of 220kms per day, every day, for five months, polishing off 3,700 litres of diesel. All the more impressive is how little maintenance she’s needed during all this: A new battery in Greece, the fastest 2 hour service I’ve seen in Russia, a $50 second hand tyre in China, and the sh*t beaten out of her suspension for five hours by me and the scooter mechanics in Laos. And that’s it. Without doubt she needs a little TLC: we’re still travelling on the bent suspension, and she continues to grumble about her intake manifold, but nothing stops her. Proud? Yeh. She’s an absolute champion.
And there’s no rest for the wicked either. A week in Sydney and then it’s back on the road for 1,000kms to Queensland for Xmas, and back in the roof tent for new years on the NSW coast. But that’s another story, for this one is coming to an end. The story of the long drive home; of Benn, Andres, Magda, and all the others who became a part of the story along the way: of Mark hiking with us Austria, the wonderful Meggi who saved us on the Croatia border, the lovely Julia dragging us around the Ural Mountains in Russia, my bizarre Kazakh police friend insisting on showing me his porn collection in the Almaty Police offices, Huub & Milan racing us in the little Citroen in Mongolia, the group of 6 on the China border, and of course the mighty Malinda, guiding us across China. And so many many more.
This blog is just a part, a glimpse of the sights we’ve seen and the world we’ve experienced along the way. But I hope I’ve managed to open a window onto the adventure, the highs and the lows, and given you a taste of what it is to travel across the planet. To challenge yourself and meet it. For those who posted, commented, liked – thanks, it makes the effort to write it all worthwhile. And for those who read and enjoyed, thanks for coming on this journey with us. Beginning of the end? More the end of the beginning. But for now, it’s time to go home.
Over and out.