I’m breaking this trip up into multiple posts. Stay tuned for the latest and greatest.
Crossing the Nullarbor: An “In-Tents” Ten Days
March 3rd – March 5th, 2010
In the months before leaving Los Angeles to head down under, I spent quite a few Sunday evenings bonding over German beers with my improv friends at the Red Lion Tavern. One evening, the lovely and talented Katie Dodson asked me what I hoped to get out of my trip, and the first thing out of my mouth was “to get over my aversion to camping”. Well, Katie, I did it! All it took was 10 days of traveling the Australian outback with a cooler full of beer, a bunch of new friends, a few dozen new bug bites and infrequent access to a shower to make me a believer.
This ten day trip took us from Adelaide to Perth via the Nullarbor Plain — a remote stretch of road that less than 1% of Australians will cross in their lives. The trip was run by Nullarbor Traveller, the only tour company interested in basing a business around it at the moment. While being the only company in the game could lead to a lackluster tour, I’m happy to report that Nullarbor Traveller is the real deal, and anyone interested in this type of trip should book without hesitation.
There was a lot of driving, but with a few stops per day to see the sights and get some exercise. We camped outdoors every night, sometimes at campgrounds (showers/toilets), and sometimes in the middle of nowhere (no facilities — a toilet paper roll attached to a trusty shovel).
Most people were in tents, but myself and some other lucky folks were able to upgrade to swags — a single-person hybrid between a single bed and tent that keeps you toasty and dry while you stare at the stars.
Cast of Characters:
– Simon (aka “Simo”) – our Aussie guide/driver
– Steven – England
– Roland – Switzerland
– Cecilie – Norway
– Bec and Tina – Germany
– Stephanie and Jeremie – France
– Sandy and Gary – Canada
– Eva – Australia
– Lene – Denmark
– Christopher (?) – Swiss (?) guy who left us on Day 3
There was some friction between some people early in the trip, but by the end we were pretty much all one big happy family. The one exception is Peter, an old German guy who joined us later in the trip and will get his own stories in a later post.
Day 1 – Adelaide to Lake Gairdner National Park
Simo picked us up from our hostels in Adelaide around 7am, and we hit the road without hesitation. People were sleepy and kept to themselves, as is so often the case with these early morning tour pickups. I’m a firm believer that introductions are best saved after coffee and lunch.
Our first stop was in the Flinders Ranges for a “scenic camel ride”. Scenic, yes, but also hot and painful. My camel was a stubborn old girl named Faryl, and in her attempts to chomp on grass and leaves during the ride, she’d direct me into shrubs that would scratch my legs, and low hanging tree branches that would thwack me in the head. Helmets were a good idea, but a few times I almost killed Steven behind me by bending tree branches forward and then letting them go once I’d passed under them.
Over lunch we were advised to buy fly nets to keep the bugs off of us in the wilderness, but there was only one left at the store. Despite offering it to the ladies, I ended up with it. I was very happy about this, as the flies were brutal for the next few days — although of your standard small, non-biting variety.
Before we left the last large town we were going to see for the next few days, we stopped at a liquor store and were advised to stock up since the prices are almost double at the roadhouses that are sprinkled throughout the outback. I bought some beer and got back on the bus, and apparently was counted in Simo’s passenger headcount. It was then that I realized that the campfire would be lonely without my good friend Jim Beam, and I snuck off the bus to buy some… and the bus started to leave without me. I had to chase it down with my bounty in hand and bang on the windows. Lesson learned: don’t mess around with headcount. Simo joked that he probably would have realized I was missing after a few hours, so it wouldn’t have been TOO bad. Plus, I’d have Mr. Beam to keep me company as I waited.
That night we camped out around Lake Gairdner, Australia’s second largest salt lake. It was “postcard Outback”: bright blue skies, a few white clouds, coarse red dirt, and scattered bright green bushes and trees. The salt lake was completely dry, and with the sheets of pure white salt and the other scenery it looked like an alien world.
Once it got dark the flies disappeared, and were replaced by the night sky. The stars were amazing — you see different stars in the southern hemisphere, and the familiar constellations are all “upside down”. To be fair, the stars haven’t moved — I’m the upside down one. We could also see Mars, the first time I’ve seen it with my naked eye. Extra special since all of the dirt around me made me feel like I was on a red planet too.
Lunch: Subway sandwiches
Dinner: Beef burritos
Memorable campfire music: Calexico, Fleetwood Mac
Day 2 – Lake Gairdner National Park to Coodlie Park
Holy shit, the flies came back with a vengeance once the sun came up. We ate some breakfast and high-tailed it out of there.
We stopped at a few reasonably interesting rock formations during the morning, but nothing that blew my mind.
After lunch it was time for the highlight of the day: swimming with wild dolphins and sea lions in Baird Bay. This excursion is not included in the price of the tour, but it was only a hundred bucks and was well worth it. Most of us paid the money, put on shorties and took a boat to where the animals hang out.
To be honest, the dolphin portion of the trip were really lame. Like, really, really lame. First of all, since we were in open water with rare shark sightings, we had to stay within a few meters of our guide, who was wearing a “shark shield” which emits tiny electric pulses that completely bugger a shark’s internal navigation system. We had some poor swimmers, so the guide was constantly assisting them, and the rest of us had to stay with the slowpokes instead of venturing off in hunt of the dolphins. Whenever we did see some, they’d have a quick look at us and then disappear. We were constantly getting into the water, having a brief sighting, and then getting back on the boat to go find some more skittish dolphins to look at. The guide was sternly lecturing certain people for scaring them off before the poor swimmers had a chance to see them, which caused the incredibly outspoken Cecilie to mouth off to the captain, starting a big argument about whether the whole experience was a ripoff.
Luckily, the sea lions made up for everything. The boat pulled up to a protected cove that a handful of sea lions were bodysurfing in, and more of them showed up once they realized it was playtime. They were like the puppies of the sea — incredibly curious, good-natured and willing to play. They’d sit at the bottom staring at us, and as soon as we’d dive down and do some flips and turns to prove that we weren’t boring they’d join us for a swim. Some of them played fetch with thrown rocks, and others would nuzzle up to an extended fist. Pretty amazing since this wasn’t Sea World.
After some sandboarding and looking at some local caves, we eventually we made it to Coodlie Park, the farm retreat owned by Hassie and Jo, the owners of the tour company. We had the option of sleeping indoors in bunks, or outdoors. Due to my newfound love for my swag I was the only person who opted for outdoors, which was the right choice until I woke up to pee in the middle of the night. The farm dogs did not take kindly to my presence as I walked over to a bank of trees. Every time I’d take more than a few steps, a dog would bark once — more if I didn’t stop. I didn’t want to wake everyone up, so I endured a strange game of shuffling and stopping after the first bark, again and again until I made it over to the trees.
Lunch: Veggie burgers
Dinner: Coodlie Park BBQ – Burgers, homemade sausages, and lamb chops from animals raised on the farm.
Day 3 – Coodlie Park to Koonalda Homestead
We started the day with a surf lesson at one of the numerous bays in the area. Since I was “experienced” and they didn’t have many boards to choose from I ended up with a 7’2″ board, far smaller than I’m used to. All of my training was on larger boards, so I had some trouble, but I managed to catch a few nice ones. The water was pretty cold — there’s nothing in between Southern Australia and Antarctica — and I stayed in the water until I couldn’t feel my toes anymore.
After playing in the water all morning, we had a long day of sitting still on the bus. We had a lot of ground to cover, so we only made a few brief stops between lunch and making camp for the night.
We made a quick stop to see a replica of the largest great white shark ever caught in the area. The guy who caught it put a live baby seal on the hook as bait, justifiably causing a huge animal rights uproar. Yes, poor baby seal, but it still makes for a badass story. I’d never fully understood just how big great whites are, and yes, this thing could swallow me whole without biting… but there would almost certainly be a lot of biting involved.
The best stop was where the Eyre Highway crosses the Dingo Fence — the longest fence in the world. There’s a small tunnel covered with metal grating that goes underneath the highway, perhaps only 2 feet tall. A bunch of us crawled into the tunnel and laid on our backs, facing up through the grating at the sky. Then, we waited for a road train. It took awhile, but WOW, what a thrill when we finally had one drive directly above us. A bit more intense than lying on the roof of your car near the airport runway fence.
Another cool stop was for the unconventional road signs advertising a camel/kangaroo/wombat crossing.
Then it was back into the bus, and finally hit the “official” Nullarbor Plain. The name “Nullarbor” literally means “no trees”, which is inaccurate. There are trees, just not very many. Lots of low bushes, and the occasional tree to break things up.
Our camp site for the night was an abandoned old farm and service station called the Koonalda Homestead. The farm is right off of the former unpaved Eyre Highway, and used to make a lot of money by selling gas/supplies to people passing by. Once the government put in the new paved highway 20 kilometers to the south in the late ’80s, the people at Koonalda lost their livelihood. They walked off of the property shortly after the new highway went in and gave the land back to the government. Since then it’s been one of the best-kept secrets of the Nullarbor. There are no signs advertising it, and it’s a long drive down an unmarked road off of the main highway. Simo said that most times he camps at Koonalda, there’s nobody else there.
We pulled into Koonalda and noticed a pickup truck — we weren’t going to be alone tonight. An older gentleman carrying a beer came out to see who had interrupted his peaceful evening, and Simo led the conversation with “G’day! We’re as unhappy to see you as you are to see us!”. He invited the guy to join us later at our campfire.
Daylight was fading fast, so we had 20 minutes to explore the property. It had a real Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel to it. Tons of old cars of various makes and models just rusting away in the hot sun for 20+ years. Smashed beer bottles everywhere in the car graveyard. Between the rusty scraps of metal and shards of glass, I was very careful walking around in my flip-flops. I’m pretty sure I’m good on my tetanus shots, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
This was our first night of camping with no facilities. We were introduced to our new friends “Doug the Shovel” and “Rolly the Toilet Paper Roll”. Simo then gave us a lesson on how to shit in the wilderness. The three suggested poses were “The Chinaman” (standing up, no props required), “The Water Skier” (standing up, tree branch or something else to hold on to required), and “The Lazy Australian” (heels and palms flat against the ground, everything else pushed up).
After dinner the old guy joined us around our campfire, and started creeping people out in the way that only an old drunk stranger in the wilderness is capable of. Maybe he hadn’t seen a woman in awhile, because he was paying extra attention to our ladies. He was fascinated by how international our group was, and was very forceful in his requests that each of us sing him a song from our home countries. I thought this was a fun idea, so I gave him a piss-poor rendition of the first minute or so of “The Gambler”. When it was his turn he decided he’d sing something Maltese instead of Australian, because that’s what crazy old guys do. Eventually, his crazy old charm grew on me and I found some of his more offbeat jokes to be more hilarious than everyone else. He asked us where we were camping the following night, and when we told him he then asked if any of us had seen Wolf Creek (a horror movie about a creepy loner in the Outback who tortures/murders a group of international backpackers). Jim Beam and I were the only ones who interpreted this as “comedy gold” instead of “the last words you hear before you are murdered”.
After the old guy left and a few people had gone to bed, Simo and I had a nice conversation about music. His iPod had been supplying the tunes for a few days of driving, and his musical tastes were almost perfectly in line with mine: Pixies, Daft Punk, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Elvis Costello, Al Green, and more. A solid, eclectic mix. We agreed that the Black Eyed Peas put out some amazing stuff before Fergie joined, but that they needed her to blow up and make a zillion dollars (none of the girls on the trip had any idea that a pre-Fergie BEP even existed). He also agreed that Elvis Costello is the “One True Elvis”… Presley can go die on a toilet for all I care.
Dinner: Veggie curry
Memorable campfire music: Pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas
On Flickr: Full 10-day trip photoset