A Landscape of Sensual and Terrible Beauty

EUCLA, Western Australia—I realize that in all of this, I haven’t really given my impressions of Australia, particularly its wild and woolly western half. In short, it’s tremendous and awesome. I’ve been around, and I’ve never quite seen a landscape like this.

On Sunday, as we headed north from Esperance toward Norseman, the forests of the coasts gave way to scrub. Spindly gum trees and sullen little bushes dotted the landscape. Every now and then, we pass what looks like a salt flat. The evening sunlight was low and angled, imparting a glow of gold to every tree trunk.

I could see the scars of previous bush fires. Felled trees and scorched terrain spoke of the fires that burned on our left. The charred marks extended as high as my head on many of the gum trees. On my right, there was no scorching to be seen, indicating the fire never jumped the road.

The landscape may as well be Mars, it is so alien. Often, flat-bottomed cumulus clouds drift lazily across the Australian skies, looking a little like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ airships of Barsoom. Adding to the sense of alien-ness, the gum trees reach their thin, infinitely bifurcating limbs higher, topped only by thin green leaves that give way to drier, amber tips.

We rarely pass another car. For the most part, we have the road to ourselves. Highway 1 stretches out before us like a black ribbon, almost perfectly straight. I love it, the feeling of motion and freedom that comes with the drive. I also love that Julia is driving, and for the fire time in days, I can take in the countryside without worrying about flying off the road in a stray gust of wind.

In 1979, the US space station Skylab crashed in the Australian outback near Belladonna. This is one of the recovered pieces now proudly displayed in a roadside museum. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

The Nullarbor from space

As I mentioned in my last post, we have entered the Nullarbor Plain, a “flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast with the Great Victoria Desert to its north.” It is also, apparently, the world’s largest single piece of limestone and stretches more than 1,100 km from Western Australia into Southern Australia. It is hot, dry and dusty. Used by the nomadic Spinifex and Wanagi peoples, it was described as “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams” by Edward John Eyre, the first European to cross the plain (1841.) The main highway through the land is named for him. I find this fact a bit sad, because while the land is harsh and unforgiving — you need to bring your own water with you — it’s got a grandeur and harsh nobility to it. It deserves a better highway than one named after a guy who hated the place.

Strangely, for a region named for its lack of trees, there sure are a lot of them. True, they’re mainly sad-looking eucalyptus bushes — which often look like broccoli sprouts with a hormone problem — but by any measure they’re trees.

Just before we left the lush wetlands of the southwest, however, I had my first run in with The Man outside Belladonna. Despite the Beast’s large size, it just wants to lunge forward when I put it in 5th gear. And so, I tend to let it have its head, and before I knew it, a cop car was approaching. As they passed me, they flashed their lights and I watched in my rearview mirror as they made a quick turn-around.

I got clocked going 127 kph in a 110 zone.Busted.

After we both rolled to a stop on the side of the road, they approached the car. I silently willed them to cut me some slack and give me a warning.

“Are you aware of the speed limit, sir?”, the first cop asked me. I was thinking furiously, Give me a warning, give me a warning.

“Um, 115?” I lied.

He explained that I was going 127 kph and that extra 17 kph would make braking very difficult were I to hit a camel or a kangaroo.

I focused on him. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought. Move along.

“We’re going to let you go with a warning this time, but make sure you obey the speed limit.”

Yes! Jedi mind trick worked! Good thing I had had a Berocca that morning. It had obviously boosted my mitichlorian count.

After that, I took it easy on the speed, finally — finally! — rolling into the “town” of Belladonna, which consisted of one structure that contained a gas station, a motel, showers, toilets and everything a weary traveler might want… including pieces of Skylab.

Yes, that’s right. Motha’-truckin’ Skylab. In 1979, the United States’ first space station plummeted to earth, breaking up over Western Australia. Hundreds of shards of the station ended up all over the place, and one kid found 24 pieces of the station around his house in Esperance. (The Shire of Esperance famously and furiously fined NASA $400 for littering.)

In 1979, the US space station Skylab crashed in the Australian outback near Belladonna. This is one of the recovered pieces now proudly displayed in a roadside museum.

Belladonna, however, has decided to capitalize on its near miss, and display some of the larger pieces that survived re-entry.

Heading further east, we hit the start of the longest straight stretch of highway in Australia, the 90 Mile Straight, which is actually 145.6 km long. This is the most isolated place we’ve been so far. Here the scrub really is scrub, and trees are few. Scrub brush comes right up to the thin strip of blacktop. The desert is hungry and wants to reclaim even this meager bit of civilization. For here, the civilized world is two-lanes thick and hundreds of kilometers long… It runs straight and thin as a garrote across the Nullarbor. There are no billboards, few road signs and only a few dirt tracks, capillary thin, branching off to god knows where. Most of the time, the place as flat as a billiard table.

It is beautiful and terrible and awesome, in the truest sense of the words. I understand why Aborigines thought this place holy and settlers coveted it. Everyone who sees this land will be confronted by its sublime beauty. It is so wondrous in nature that it hardly seems natural. And yet, of course, it is.

We’re ahead of schedule. We’re in Eucla, near the South Australia border. Tomorrow, we’ll cross the border into Nullabor National Park and then start heading southeast into the wine country around Adelaide. The goal is to hit Adelaide near the end of the month.

A note on the trip’s progress: Since leaving Bangkok, I’ve crossed just over 28 degrees of longitude, meaning I’ve covered about 7.7 percent of the earth’s circumference. By the time I hit Panama on or about April 8, I’ll have crossed almost 161 degrees of longitude, or 44.6 percent of the earth’s circumference. Almost halfway!

Below are some pics from the trip so far:

And here’s a short video I did when I had some free time in the outback:

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

6 Comments on “A Landscape of Sensual and Terrible Beauty

  1. There is nothing more powerful than a place of nothing, a place of silence to experience the true spirituality of a place. Beautiful article my friend