I took a road trip out to Western Australia, that remote gold-rush province full of oil, mines, sharks and desert, where the rules are loose and all are welcome.
Perth seemed the other end of the world from Sydney, where I’d been living. A small town on the Indian Ocean, near the mysterious wine region of Margaret River, from which it is easier to fly to Thailand than to Australia’s major cities, a trip few Australians have made (but those who have will never forget).
So I bought a car, packed up my suitcases in the back, and set off. What kind of car? A sturdy, practical utility vehicle of some kind, what Australians call a Ute? No, of course not. I bought a beautiful, white, nearly new, VW Beetle. A car which had been pampered and adored by its former owner, a collector, who would barely let it out of the garage. It even had the little daisy in the flower vase on the dashboard.
This car and I were going to get dirty and scratched and roughed-up together.
The drive across Australia can take as little as four days, if you’re a professional truck driver with a good supply of methamphetamines. That, however, is not my idea of a road trip. The plan was to get off the main tracks, see some country, find out what Australia was really like. I got out a map and asked friends for recommendations. A highly technical trip plan was prepared, with precise distances, routes and stopover points (actually, it was a sketch map on the back of a bar napkin)
The first couple of days’s drive were a leisurely amble from Sydney to Dubbo (I stayed at the zoo, fantastic - lions and giraffes on the night tour!) then on into interior New South Wales. Which very quickly felt remote indeed. There was no one but me and a few truckers on those highways, and at the roadhouses they seemed quite glad to see anyone. I guess they don’t get a lot of casual drivers out that way.
They have this thing at road houses, called ‘The Works’. It’s a burger with literally everything on it. Fried egg, beet root, mayonnaise, cheese, bacon, you name it. I recommend ‘The Works’ as an important part of your Australian cultural studies.
There was this little town somewhere on the road to Broken Hill, called Nevertire. See picture below. I loved this town. And a couple of blocks later I passed Bogan Lane. Yes, wit is alive and well in country Australia.
In another place, in a town whose name I don’t even remember, looked like a classic roadside cafe, until you went inside. Once you got in, every inch of wall, counter and ceiling was painted and gilded and covered with fantastic, multi-colored Indian ornament, like a Bollywood stage set. The guy behind the counter came from somewhere on the subcontinent - I didn’t ask where - and the Indian sweets he gave me with my flat white were fantastic.
Our Bollywood friend continues a long tradition of dreamers, hopers and chancers who have moved to the Outback. During the gold and silver rushes of the 19th century, Afghan drovers showed up to claim their share, with their camels and veiled wives in tow, and built their mosques and founded towns, becoming so much a part of the local scenery that some Aussies swear the camels are native to the bush.
That brings us to Broken Hill, a storied place with a rough history and a great downtown, sitting on top of one of the great silver finds of the 19th century, its gaudy hotels and brothels still hanging on, hoping for a return to the good old days. And yes, the bar from ‘Priscilla’ is still there.
They make a very nice flat white in Broken Hill.
The road led on, through the Kimba Roadhouse, Streaky Bay, and the Nullarbor Plain. There is little to say about the Nullarbor, although I did get to ride in a small plane. We flew out over the humpback whales hanging out in the Great Australian Bight with their calves, which was pretty spectacular (That darned pilot still texts me every few months to see if I know of any pilot jobs in the oil industry. For the record, Mate? No).
Then on through Norsemen and Esperance, Albany and Margaret River. Coming out at Cottesloe Beach in Perth just in time to watch the All Blacks trounce the Springboks in a bar by the beach, with the sun coming down.
Three weeks, six thousand kilometers, fifteen roadhouses, and except for the friendly folks on the road, not another human soul for much of the time. This was definitely not West Hollywood.
Plans are just something for God to laugh at while he sweeps them aside. But for the record? Thanks, God.