Esperance, WA. 3rd February 2016.
Although it was time to get out of town, I still needed to do one more thing before I left. A game of golf beckoned. ‘Golf?’I hear you exclaim. ‘Geoff doesn’t play golf, in fact he can’t stand the game.’ Indeed I can’t. I’m with Mark Twain on the subject. ‘A good walk spoilt,’ he’s quoted as saying. But Kalgoorlie Boulder is host to the first two holes of the Nullarbor Links Golf course, the world’s longest. The keen golfers among you can read all about it here: www.nullarborlinks.com.
The majority of you just need to read this brief intro from the website: The Nullarbor Links concept is unique. The 18-hole par 72 golf course spans 1,365 kilometres with one hole in each participating town or roadhouse along the Eyre Highway, from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to Ceduna in South Australia. Each hole includes a green and tee and somewhat rugged outback-style natural terrain fairway. The course provides a quintessential Australian experience and a much-needed activity/attraction for travellers along the renowned desolate highway.
So of course I had to visit hole one and to that end I rode to the town’s CY O’Conner golf club. In the car park I asked a guy where the tee for hole one was and not only did he show me but he borrowed a club from the shop for me to hold while he took my photo. The sharp eyed among you will realise I’m only pretending to hit that ball – which isn’t there anyway! You’ll also spot the label still attached to the club. Duty done, I headed south for Esperance, stopping at Normanton to have a quick look at hole four, just out of interest. No pristine greens and welcoming clubhouse down at this sandy outpost. Just a tin shack for a changing room and an honesty box for the green fees. No shortage of sand filled bunkers though.
An easy ride down to the seaside, where I booked into the YHA hostel for a couple of nights. Then I went to visit Neal, who Paul had put me in touch with. He has a variety of bikes, in various stages of refurbishment, but his main one is a Yamaha XT600, which he uses on the dirt quite a lot. This was the bike I had originally planned to use for my trip until the Suzuki took preference, and mine got smashed up anyway. Neal knows the tracks in the area well and I got some useful advice from him about the route back inland to the Eyre Highway, the main Nullarbor road. The track I planned to take should be OK, Neal said, provided it’s dry. There had been some rain around lately, but not for a few days, so between us we thought I should be alright. Given the stiff breeze blowing in off the sea, any water still there should be drying up well. How rough? Road trains use it, which usually means such tracks are generally in good order. So far, so good. Then I showed him my rear suspension.
Over the past week or ten days I’d been concious of something being not quite right with the bike’s handling. In the end it had become obvious something was wrong and when I checked the rear shock absorber I could see that the bracket at its base, where it bolts to the swinging arm linkage, had collapsed. The bike was much lower to the ground than it should be and suspension movement was limited. So was the poor old girl in a fit state to be going off road? Well, I’d been fine on the dirt roads included in the Golden Quest Trail and going via the sealed roads would add 200kms to the journey, plus a load of extra time. I was heading towards Adelaide and wanted to get there as soon as I could. I decided to dwell on it before making a final decision.
Esperance is a small town but is on a very beautiful stretch of coast. It has beautiful bays nearby, great for surfing, fishing or simply visiting for the sheer pleasure of it. I went for a walk around the town, enjoying the foreshore area and checking out the Museum Village, full of historic buildings. One of them is an old church, small and wooden, now used as a shop selling natural beauty products. It somehow seemed an appropriate change. As well as the old courthouse and government buildings, the village also contained the first school house. Parked outside was an old tank, with its gun barrel aimed right at it. I could only admire the Esperance version of school discipline.
You won’t be surprised when I tell you the town was born out of the farming and agriculture industries. It became a port later, supporting the mining industry too. Until the railway was built between Perth and the goldfields, Esperance was their main supply route. It was named after a French explorer ship, L’Espérance (Hope), although that appears to be the only French influence in the area, except for the towns Bijou Theatre. I may have said this before, but I like the history of these small towns. ‘Cute’ would be too patronising a word to use. ‘Pocket sized’ suits their stories better and they are always straight forward and meaningful, invariably relating to a fledgling industry built on hard graft or a fortuitous discovery of some kind, often both. Good stuff.
Esperance’s most recent claim to fame though, was when Skylab 1 fell onto it. Well, almost. Skylab 1 was America’s first space station and in 1979 it fell out of its orbit and burned up in the atmosphere. It was a huge media event, with the San Francisco Examiner offering US$10,000 for the first piece of it delivered to its offices. The debris mostly landed in the Southern Ocean, off Australia’s south coast, but some fell on land around this area. Various residents found pieces of it on their land and one lucky 17 year old was flown, along with his family, to San Francisco to deliver a piece to the newspaper office. The town council cheekily issued NASA a $400 dollar fine for littering. Thirty years later a local radio station raised the funds to pay it. There’s a few sculptures and memorials along the foreshore relating to the event and it surely adds a unique dimension to the history of any town.
That afternoon I took a windy-but-sunny ride along the Great Ocean Drive, a very lovely ride alongside the beautiful coastline. There’s something special about sea and sand on a sunny day. Turquoise blue water, white sand, surf and rocky cliffs. A proper coastal view. Included in the route was the Ten Mile Lagoon wind farm (well done Esperance!) and a view of the lagoon itself, made pink by the beta carotene-bearing algae that lives in it. The ride also gave me time to think about which route to choose out of town. I plumped for the Parmango Road, trusting to Neal’s advice and plenty of luck.
Did I do the right thing? Yes, as it turned out, but while riding the track itself, I wasn’t so sure. It was fairly smooth at first, but that only lasted until the last factory farm. The recent rain had left some muddy sections to be dealt with, but that wasn’t so bad. The worst part came later on when the track changed from packed dirt to stone – and became very rough. My poor bike! The back end was bumping and bouncing all over the place, with the suspension clashing and banging like a goods train in a shunting yard. By then I could do nothing other than grit my teeth and carry on. It’s hard to control a bucking and bouncing bike while your fingers are crossed, but I managed it and finally emerged onto the Eyre Highway, a couple of hundred metres from Balladonia roadhouse. Doris and I both needed a rest.
Roadhouses are, I believe, a peculiarly Australian phenomena these days. America had them but now they’re roadside bars, often with dodgy reputations. They were born of the huge distances within the country, and the need for travellers to get food, fuel and accommodation as they traversed the long highways. Sometimes they’re part of a small settlement, more often they’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere. As an example, roadhouses are the only places of help and sustenance along a 750km stretch of the Eyre Highway, between Norseman and Eucla. They usually have simple accommodation, as well as a campground. Balladonia roadhouse does all of this but with some extras bolted on. Just one word explains it. Skylab!
The atmosphere rained space debris on the area around the roadhouse too, and the roadhouse makes the most of it. Well, why not! There’s precious little else out there. Next to the café is a small museum with a section of Skylab on display. On the wall are posters showing a montage of newspaper headlines from 1979, some of them quite funny, along with the background story. Unusually, and to their great credit, there is also a decent display relating to the local Aboriginals, along with one on the settlement of the area. Reading all that information helped to stop my brain rattling, one of the effects of the track. The coffee was good too. And before I left I took a photo of hole 7 on the Nullarbor Links, aptly named Skylab.
Onwards then. I was now entering the infamous Nullarbor Plain, a treeless, featureless waste. At least, that is its reputation. But reputations arise out of fear and ignorance and are there to be challenged and defeated. If you look at this highway on a road map there seems to be nothing there. No symbols representing rivers, mountains or forests, and no towns. The reality is far different, of course. The tourist map I had lists a whole host of interesting places and features. Pretty much all of them natural phenomena, such as walking/cycling trails; blowholes; nature reserves; national parks with flora and fauna. There are some man-made attractions too, such as old telegraph stations, cattle stations, museums etc. Many of these are a short distance off the highway and there is easily at least a week’s worth of exploring to be done. Roadhouses occur often enough that fuel, food and accommodation need never be a problem. Some careful thought and planning would be all you need. For all that it is a harsh environment and travellers need to take care. But if none of this interesting stuff appeals, you could always play golf.
I guess I was probably like most users of the Eyre Highway though – it was a route from A to B. I needed to get to Adelaide to meet Gilda. She had bought a house there and was moving in over the coming weekend. She had invited me to stay. I urgently needed to do some work on Doris, not least of which was to repair the rear suspension. I had located, and talked to, a company near Adelaide which would rebuild my old shock absorber. Just what I needed. Doris was also due a service and some new clutch plates needed to be fitted. Chain and sprockets too. I was now a man on a mission.
It was lunchtime when I left Balladonia roadhouse but I didn’t get far before one of the Eyre Highway’s famous features appeared in front of me, Ninety Mile Straight. Although these days it’s the 146.6 kilometre straight. Doesn’t quite have the same ring, somehow. It is the longest straight stretch of road in Australia and one of the longest in the world. There’s a sign at the beginning of it, just right for a photo opportunity. A couple had stopped for the same reason and the guy took mine for me. It’s a shame the road has to go up and down while following the terrain because there’s no real sense of distance. I would have loved to have seen what ninety miles of straight road actually looked like. But from the saddle it was just more asphalt. In fact the only moment of excitement between Balladonia and Cocklebiddy roadhouse, my night time stop, was that I was launched forward forty five minutes in time when I crossed into a different time zone. Forty five minutes? What’s the point in that? Why not make it an hour? I slept on it.
Day two of this marathon was as hot as the previous one. And mostly just as boring. The only real excitement was changing states as I crossed from WA into South Australia. This is a big deal. They have a border village on the dividing line and a two hour time difference. The other interesting event was entering the barest part of the Nullarbor Plain. It was given its name by a surveyor, EA Delisser, in 1865, who simply combined the Latin words for ‘none’ (nullus) and ‘tree’ (arbor). It stretched for 1,100 kilometres ahead of me, west to east, and is an unforgiving, arid land of desert scrub and almost no trees. It looks very odd. Just low, green scrub as far as the eye can see. The first crossing was made in 1849 and a motorable track was finally cut across it in 1942. Between those two events the telegraph line was constructed and an east/west railway was built, but used a route about 120kms to the north. It always strikes me as odd when I think about how long it took for some of these routes to be built. But it simply reflects how sparsley populated Australia is compared to its land mass, and how individual states tended to be more inward than outward looking. It often took major events, such as WW2, to act as a catalyst for action. Meanwhile, I instinctively ran through a mental check of all the bike’s functions, sharpening my hearing and raising the alert level a notch or two. Breaking down in this wilderness did not appeal in the slightest.
Eventually the roadhouse at Penong hove into view. A count of the hours said I’d been on the road for ten but the clock said twelve. Either way, dusk was approaching so I turned into the campsite. Yesterday the traffic had been quite sparse. Today had been much busier, with plenty of trucks coming past me. Although I always feel guilty when I hold these guys up, it’s good to know they’re around should things go wrong. I came across an example of this when I saw a broken down car and a truckie had pulled up to help. There were a couple of young French girls, struggling to get the wheel nuts undone so they could fit their spare. Needless to say, we had them under way in short order.
Something that often happens when you cross state lines is a quarantine check. They are keen to stop the spread of fruit fly, banana blight etc. Some just focus on trucks but this one required all vehicles to stop. I was about to go through it so I breakfasted on all my spare fruit and had no hassle from the man at the checkpoint.
My third day on the Nullarbor and beyond was going to be a long one. When I left Esperance I put Gilda’s address in my GPS, purely for the purpose of tracking progress. Let’s face it, I didn’t need any help with directions when there was only one road to follow, but seeing the distance gradually dropping away gave me a comforting feeling that progress was being made. It started as 2169kms I still had well over 800kms to go but having got away fairly early, I was expecting to make it. And I did. Those kilometres just kept ticking away. The road slowly changed as I left the Nullabor behind, meaning I’d now completed one of the great, iconic Aussie road trips. More towns, more traffic, as I headed across the Eyre Peninsular to Port Augusta. There were probably some nice places to visit, if only I’d had the time.
Eventually I came to the city outskirts, marked by all those typical edge of city industries. Finally I was crossing the CBD and the GPS took me out to Gilda’s house. 855kms and eleven and a half hours on the road. A long day. A day of achievement. Now for some rest and relaxation. I wondered what Adelaide had to offer.