Laura and I left Adelaide on 17th March to embark on one of the planet's most legendary journeys: eight days of driving over 3,600kms from Adelaide to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain, taking the long scenic route around the South coast of Australia's largest state, WA. The distances involved were immense (the same as driving from London to Moscow, but stopping off in Italy along the way), and although we had come psychologically well-prepared, nothing about the trip was to go quite how we had imagined.
The first 24 hours of the trip were an unmitigated disaster, but also a blessing in disguise. Laura had arrived in Adelaide with a cold that very quickly deteriorated into a nasty fever, and by the time we had reached out first pit-stop at Port Augusta the next day she was pretty delirious. To add to our woes, after filling up the petrol station the starter motor suddenly decided it was time to bow out from this world and left us stranded motionless on the station forecourt. In her defence, the starter couldn't have picked a better moment, since Port Augusta was the last outpost of civilisation of any size that we would see until we arrived in Esperance three days later. Had she gone when we were camping on the sand dunes off the Great Australian Bight with no phone signal we'd have been f***ed. Meanwhile, the ordeal of push-starting the car had nearly sent Laura into a coma, and so we coasted the Cakmobile into a garage to have the starter replaced and booked ourselves into a dreary hotel in town to recover for the night. The room we acquired was unrenovated and therefore cheap, and the decor still held true to the architect's original vision from the nineteen-sixties: a satanic blend of formica and wood veneer, complete with a TV with two channels and a knackered old AC unit jammed through the wall, busy devouring a hectare of ozone with each ineffective belch from its compressor. That day was pretty gruesome for Laura I think, but we came through it, and the next day was very much a new start, with a new starter.
What few plans we had made regarding our destinations each day were swiftly binned as we realised it was just best to put our foot down and get across the desert and into WA as quickly as possible. By day two we had made it as far as Penong, West of Ceduna, where we found an idyllic camping spot on the sand dunes looking over a dramatic stretch of cliffs fringed with white sandy beaches. The weather though was closing in, and ironically we were heading straight into a weather front of rain (rain!) that had been crossing the desert from the West. I really chose a strange summer to come to Australia, what with La Niña bringing a wet summer in Sydney, the floods, Cyclone Yasi and now heavy rain on the Nullarbor. The common retort from locals that they 'couldn't remember a summer as bad as this one before' was really starting to grate a little.
As we tore up the kms along the Eyre Hwy we found ourselves unable to appreciate the baron nothingness around us because of a thick band of fog (fog!) reducing our visibility to just a metres for several hours. We also missed out on the view of the sea at the Great Australian Bight Head for the same reason, but hey, I saw the Great Ocean Road in Victoria on a clear day, so you win some you lose some. By the afternoon we had reached Bordertown, where we had an impromptu picnic by the roadside to avoid having to bin all our salad and veggies at WA quarantine, and by night had got all the way to Cocklebiddy. This was to be our last hot shower until we reached Perth, but otherwise the patch of gravel round the back of the roadhouse that we called home for a night was light on redeeming features.
The next day began with one of the longest stretches of straight road in the world, ninety miles (146km) from Caiguna to Balladonia; the ceremonial turning of the wheel to take the slight curve at the end of the road the only event to break the monotony of the driving. This was a lonely part of the world, a scene of utter lifelessness that finally did justice to the desert's gloomy name, derived from the Latin 'nullus arbor' (without trees). The road was so straight and flat that the asphalt vanished into a liquidy mirage on the horizon that left the bushes by the roadside floating in mid-air. Oil pressure 3kg/cm3, battery 12V, speed 130kph, temp 90C, revs 3500, petrol... well, ignore that one it doesn't work; my eyes scanned the dashboard over and over again, hour after hour after hour... put that Tame Impala CD on again! Pass me the funny disguise glasses and the pirate bandana! Take a photo of the mirage/sign/dinosaur! Road train! And then, all of a sudden, bang, we hit Norseman and civilisation (of sorts), and we turned our first corner of the trip to head South to Esperance. In the end we made it all the way to the Cape Le Grand National Park that day and finally switched the engine off at a camp site on the beach. This was a stunning beach on talcum powder white sand and crystal waters, and a taste of what more was to come in WA. A sense of freedom and calm came over us. There were trees and houses and happy smiling people here. We had made it across that god-forsaken desert.
Day five, and we decided to do ourselves a favour and not spend the whole day driving again. We had opted originally to go off-road and head into the Fitzgerald River National Park, where they had some rugged 4WD-only camp sites, but heavy rain (rain!) had made the roads impassable. So, instead we made it to Cape Richy, a stunning white sandy beach with bright turquoise water, where we camped right on the dunes. We spent some time chillaxing on the beach, had a nice swim in the sea, and Laura made an elaborate sand castle (complete with a treasure chamber guarded by a dragon, obviously). The place was swarming with kangaroos, which you could feed, and there were a few resident lizards there too. The owner of the camp site told us about some decent 4WD routes along the headlands and the dunes, so we headed out in the afternoon to explore and found some pretty entertaining rocky assents for the car to climb up. I don't think Laura had been off-roading before, and the surge of adrenaline made her wolf down nearly a whole packet of wine gums in about five minutes.
The next day was spent around Denmark and Walpole National Park, driving around pristine forests and visiting the Valley of the Giants treetop canopy walk. The whole area was lots of fun with various diversions on route, such as a toffee factory and a honey winery - yes, wine made from honey: apparently one of mankind's oldest forms of alcohol. It was definitely tasty, but my brain had trouble appreciating something that looked and smelt like wine, but wasn't; so I decided to just buy some honey and some fresh honeycomb - just pure indulgence, yummy. That night we found a quite bizarre place to stay, a camp site in the middle of the forest next to a little lake and non-existent waterfall called Fernhook Falls. The lake was dead still and almost black, and so it reflected the forest and the sky perfectly. It was like an optical illusion at times, and sitting in the pontoon would actually induce vertigo because your brain was tricked into thinking you were sitting on some platform in the sky looking down on the clouds below. We were completely on our own at this site and when we arrived we made the spooky discovery of a 'hut' next to the kitchen block. It was actually kitted out with bunk beds inside and wouldn't have been a bad place to stay if you were, say, six years old on a camping trip with your family; but, for us, the hut stuck out like a beacon of witchcraft in the middle of the forest just yards from where we were camping. This was our Blair Witch moment. I obviously thought it would be funny to invent a character called the 'Hut Witch' about whom I would regale Laura with fictional tales, combined with doing things like letting out a blood-curdling scream without any warning from by the hut when I had left Laura on her own, which sent a chilling echo reverberating through the dark, empty forest. Laura found these things less funny. In the end another couple did turn up to keep us company, and they told us they'd found an even more freaky hut at the other end of the site, covered in lots of writing... I'm glad we didn't find that one.
In the morning we drew out a 'direct' route to Margaret River via Pemberton using 'short cuts' on unsealed roads through the countryside. We immediately took a deliberate detour through the forest by the camp site to make things more interesting, but after about five minutes we realised that the 'detailed' map we had bore no resemblance to the actual layout of the tracks. We're one road name appeared on the map, like Wye Road, there were several tracks with the same name, like Wye Road 5 and Wye Road 7... plus a host of other tracks called Wild Cat Road, Goat Road and Fernhooks Trail, which didn't even appear on the map. We ended up doing circles and finding ourselves at the same point over and over, or finding our preferred route out blocked by a fallen tree. We quickly reached the point where we couldn't remember how to get back to the campsite, and with the compass as our only guide we pushed through bushes and overgrown tracks in the general direction we wanted to go. We were by definition, lost. It crossed my mind that if the car broke down here, even if we had phone reception, we had absolutely no idea where we were, nor how to get even back to the main road. Did we have enough water? Where we gonna die out here? In the end though we found a way back to the main road, a good hour after having left the campsite. Hmmm... not a great start to our unsealed road adventure. Still, things improved from that point, and we ended up making good time by cutting across the forest, not to mention being treated to a gorgeous drive on empty roads through wild countryside. Eventually, after one more episode of getting lost down blind alleys in the bush, we found our way to Margaret River. We threw the car into any old campsite and cooked dinner.
We woke up for our final day of the trip and headed into town for coffee and to pick up a map of the local wine region. Margaret River was a pleasant, gentrified sort of a place, but was essentially just one road surrounded by vineyards; but, what vineyards. The region is home to some of the giants of the Australian wine industry, such as the Leeuwin Estate, which not only has a restaurant but also puts on regular live concerts in its grounds that always sell out. The grounds of Voyager and Xanadu were amazing too, the former having a pristine rose garden and cellar door building, proudly displaying the date 1996 carved into the masonry. This was still a very young country.
Whilst at the vineyards I had noticed a sound coming from underneath the car every time we went over a bump - like a kind of hollow metal tube sound... I quickly realised that one of the stupidly rutted tracks we'd driven down yesterday had clearly been too much for one of my shock absorbers, which had sheared off at the axle. I despaired for a moment as it was literally 24 hours before I intended to advertise the car in Perth, but in the end I thought: sod it, I'll just take it off and hope nobody notices. A-ha!
Our final afternoon was spent at Meelup beach near Dunsborough - a gorgeous white sandy beach with picnic areas and flat water ideal for swimming in. We had one final picnic, a fry up of all things, but as soon as I sat down a kookaburra swooped down and took a sausage from my plate right in front of me. They were certainly brave b******s; they wouldn't even move if you went right up to them waving your arms around in complaint.
We were just hours away from Perth now, and after one last push through rush hour traffic we dropped down to the beach at Cottesloe and checked into the Ocean Beach Backpackers, where we had been fortuitously upgraded to a private room. I didn't realise it at the time, but this was the place that I would be calling home for the next month, until I left Australia on the 29th April. Laura left the next morning to head out volunteering for a month, and I threw my stuff into a dorm and switched my brain into work mode again. I had a few weeks working at the University of Western Australia (UWA) ahead of me, after which I could 'relax' until I left the country. The truth was though that I had a mountain of work to do over the next few months, in preparation for coordinating the project in Costa Rica, and I was just entering one of the busiest times of my life. Busy, but not busy meeting deadlines for someone else in some office somewhere in London, but busy meeting my deadlines, for me, for the work that I wanted to do. I realised then that I was probably never going to go back to London to the life I had before - working whilst travelling had just offered up so many more opportunities.
Laura and I would meet again when she finished volunteering, and we had plans for a big night out at the casino for my 30th birthday. The Cakmobile had made it, and was ticking over just like she always had - I had always doubted her, be she had turned out to be a legend. Now I just had a month to sell her. The final episode of my Australian adventure was just beginning to unfold.