01.07.2008

Desert Dreamtime

Endless distances and breathtaking beauty –not to mention some very original flora – greetedAirdre Grant on the Great Australian road trip, crossingthe Nullarbor.

There's nothing like a trip across the great NullarborPlain that lies between South and Western Australiato freshen up your outlook on life. Before I left mylittle town of Lismore in verdant North NSW, my friendKay from Central Australia had said to me that thiscountry has great road trips. She was right. Ten ormore years ago, Kay and I drove from Alice Springs upthe Stuart Highway to Darwin. After that trip, I vowedto come back as soon as I could. Sadly, it took 10 yearsto get back on one of those fantastically endless outbackroads. During that time, I forgot all about the powerof the desert and the celestial magnificence of thenight skies.

That trip I took with Kay was pre mobile phones, soyou felt really that you were over the hills and faraway. I know our lives have been transformed by technologyand this is a wonderful thing, but I was glad that duringlarge tracts of time and space on the Nullarbor, themobile lay useless in the glove box (along with thegloves, no doubt). This was one of the blessings ofthe trip. But I missed my children and, like an addict,raced for the phone at the first big town. It was amessage from my daughter asking where the instructionmanual was for the sewing machine. Life's rich irony,I thought, as with some relish I switched off the phoneand we plunged further into digital darkness.

My travelling companion and I went to Eyre, Australia'smost remote bird observatory, situated halfway alongthe Nullarbor Plain and accessible by dirt road and4WD drive only down a steep escarpment. I almost don'twant to tell you how beautiful it is in case you goand then start complaining about not being able to useyour mobile and the next thing you now there's a fourlane highway, cable TV showing hideous American sitcomsand cheesy TV personalities making programs about howremote and unspoiled Eyre is. Some places are best leftalone and, in my view, not everything has to be modern,shiny and looking like it comes from a lifestyle magazine.The blessing with Eyre is that a tyranny of distanceprotects that wonderful place from the well heeled andspoilt, who need to have their cushions plumped up allthe time.

We slept under night skies so richly laden with starsthey were mesmerising. I felt like I was in a dreamas I walked along the sweeping coastline or sat in themallee scrub and watched the Major Mitchell cockatoossquabble over roosting places on a tree. One night,I counted 12 shooting stars in a row. Before I left,I had been to a party in Palm Beach in Sydney and thecontrast was great. At Eyre (and in the desert places),water was conserved vigilantly and electricity was treatedas a precious commodity. In Sydney, lights blazed, tapsran and food was so abundant it lay about ready to betossed. I confirmed in myself the knowledge that citylife is no longer for me. The older I get, the moreI seek a simple lifestyle, uncluttered by the rampantmaterialism of city life that can be so confusing. YetPerth was cool, what I saw of it. It had a similar feelingto Brisbane, not so big as to be obnoxious and difficultto get around, evidence of funky stores and originality.The city seemed to be not, as yet, hopelessly dominatedby the chain stores that render everything the same,extinguishing originality and uniqueness of expression.

The desert and the outback were the best, offeringup friendliness and common sense in the people we met.I liked the old sheds with rusty roofs and the inventivenesswith which things are mended and kept going year afteryear. It reminded me of my childhood in New Zealandwhen there was a high import tax on new cars and everyonekept them going on a wing, a prayer and very good mechanicalresourcefulness. It wasn't about new this and new that.New this and new that simply weren't available, so youmade do, as they used to say. You made do. I wonderhow much we make do these days with everything highlydisposable and cheap.

The huge empty spaces of the outback fed my soul ina profoundly enriching way. I wasn't expecting it, butwhen I got back to Lismore I was deeply refreshed bymy time under the big sky and in the deep quiet. I feltreally sharply reminded how important water is. Theysay the next lots of wars will be about water and migration.Already we have riots in the world over food shortages.I worried for a while as we drove on towards a dustyroadhouse with scabby dingoes hanging about a giantmodel of a whale. Dingoes and whales: more desert irony.The Nullarbor falls away into the Great Australian Bight.High sheer cliffs that drop into the deepest, clearestblue of the Southern Ocean mean you can see the seaat certain places as you drive along the plain. It'sa whale watcher's paradise at certain times of the year.

The desert held surprises. We cruised along the Nullarborand suddenly a tree came into sight. Hanging from thebranches were all kinds of kitchen utensils: a pot,a masher, a kettle a long handled spoon. There stoodthe kitchen tree. We laughed and drove on and came acrossthe bottle tree. All the branches had bottles stuckon the end. Curiouser and curiouser! We drove on andfound the sneaker tree, the branches festooned withsets of sneakers hanging off like you see occasionallyin the city hanging on power lines – supposedlyindicating drug houses. Finally, at the end of the desertstood the last tree. This one had bras stretching fromlimb to limb. The tree looked so great standing proudlyon the plain. No one in sight, just miles of scrub anda spindly tree decked out with all kinds of bras: sexyblack, faded pink, tatty turquoise, D cup and A cup,all stretched out between the branches in sartorialsplendour against the sunset. Sometimes, you just haveto love Australia.

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