6 friends, crammed into a van travelling from coast to coast across Australia. I looked at a map. It seemed pretty straight forward. Easy, even. On a whim, I booked a camper van and wrangled together 5 mates. I allowed a month to make my dream a road trip reality.
The distance between the western most point and the eastern most point of Australia is about 4,000km, as the crow flies. We allowed 12 days to complete our adventure, and loosely based it on a trip Aussie Adventurers The Leyland Brothers pioneered 50 years earlier in their Documentary, “Wheels across a Wilderness”. Sure, we would be travelling in a luxurious McMansion on wheels, but we were still trekking from Steep Point in Western Australia to Byron Bay in NSW’s north east, seeing parts of Australia usually reserved for grey nomads. This was not likely to be a piece of cake.
We picked up our ride in Perth and set out. A bunch of townies, dressed in wannabe khaki, driving north and drowning out the sounds of the city with off key renditions of Icehouse and Midnight Oil hits. Our first “stop”, but the true start of our road trip, was to be Steep Point. After 8 hours of excited driving, we veered off the northwest coastal highway into the Steep Point turnoff. 140km of unsealed corrugated road stretched between us and destination Steep Point. Contemplating the low clearance of our camper, our group let out a collective groan. A quick meeting and a change of plan followed. The second western most point in this great Aussie land sounded just fine. Shark Bay.
Keen to get out and about and learn about Shark Bay, we joined a didgeridoo dreaming night tour with our tour guide, the charismatic "Capes", in Monkey Mia. Capes sparked our interest and imagination with stories about the history and culture of Shark Bay and the local Aboriginal people. We played didgeridoo (badly) well into the night, before falling into bed full of optimism for the long trip ahead. Capes had given us some advice and it was foremost in our minds, “don’t travel as a stranger... the local aboriginals might think you lot are a bit tapped in the head, but they will laugh along with you on your journey... just say hello to country wherever you go”
From Monkey Mia we travelled all day in a south easterly direction to Sandstone, a small gold mining community with a population of about 50, 25 of whom we met later that night at the pub. I gauge the authenticity of an outback pub by the number of its patrons wearing hi-vis and the number of English backpackers working the bar. This pub scored high on both counts. There was something charming in the sincerity in which we were welcomed into this small community. The locals were so stoked to have 6 excited, thirsty 20 somethings in their bar that the usual closing time of 9pm went out the window and the night escalated into bar scenes reminiscent of a fusion between Coyote Ugly and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The next day, with dusty heads, we drove south before stopping at a little outback cafe in Menzies for lunch. Will took a stroll over to the Menzies Hotel and got chatting to the publican, Dave. Back in the van, riding shotgun, Will passed on his freshly acquired local knowledge, "Dave said, with a sly nudge'n'wink, we just have to drop into Kalgoorlie to see The Super Pit and the skimpies." So we did just that, dropping into The Super Pit, Australia’s largest open cut gold mine, before discovering just how popular the skimpies are in these outback parts. The footpaths were covered in fallen chalk dust from tags on every pub front, SKIMPIES HERE TONIGHT. What’s a skimpy? Out there, a skimpy is a barmaid, serving drinks in her lingerie, with a smile. As I walked past one pub an older lady came outside for a cigarette. Channelling Capes’ advice I greeted her as a friend and asked for her thoughts about the service inside. "To be honest I think I’d feel a little ripped off if I was served by someone wearing clothes", she laughed.
We settled in for a night of cards and tea in anticipation of a BIG next 2 days. We were going up against the famously flat and treeless Nullabor Plain. 1675km of bitumen lay ahead. The drive proved to be both captivating and secluded, and I made a captain’s call and grabbed the wheel so I could steer us across the 150km stretch known as “Australia’s straightest road”. We stopped in Eucla for lunch and were told about the Nullabor Nymph from a truckie. She was a nude chick who lived with the ‘roos in the 70’s. We hadn’t seen one kangaroo yet, so we didn’t fancy our chances of spotting the elusive, if now somewhat aged, naked nymph. But still, we looked hard.
Conscious of the fact that if we were to make it to Uluru and then push on through to Byron Bay within schedule we needed to put some serious KM’s behind us. We finished the drive across the Nullabor before turning north. We drove up through South Australia to Andamooka, a small opal mining town about 6 hours north of Adelaide. Driving through Andamooka I was struck by its similarity to the streets of San Pedro in Chile. Dirt roads and dust everywhere, a lunar landscape, with a small town charm unlike no other. We met up with Peter, an Andamookan resident for more than 50 years, and he guided us on a tour of the opal mines. Peter is not only one of 30 local opal miners but also the town’s weatherman, sashimi chef, motelier, postman and laundromat operator. After our tour we `sailed’ into the Andamooka Yacht Club. Owners Kurt and Matilda loaded us up with some handmade delights before we trudged off to climb opal mounds and watch the sun set over country.
Andamooka is one of Australia’s most unique and mesmerising landscapes, and with beers in hand it was hard to imagine being anywhere else. I wouldn’t have been dead for quids, as my grandfather used to say. As we headed off next morning we passed another wise sage, the multi talented Peter and he left us with his own Opal miner’s gem, "remember Folks, if it looks good it is good… if it looks crap, it’s probably crap."
The bitumen road turned from dusty grey to rich reds and the landscape became more vast as we drove north along the Stuart highway towards the Northern Territory. With 85% of Australia’s population living on the coastal outskirts and filling only 1% of the continent it was not surprising that we sometimes drove for more than 100km before seeing another soul. All in the van felt a sense of isolation that had not been felt in any other place.
We crossed the SA/NT border and pulled into Kulgera for fuel a short time later. It was dusk and the sun was setting across the lonely police station. Roadkill time, and with over 750,000 camels roaming the outback it seemed sensible to call it a day. That night we relaxed under more stars than I had ever seen before.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta were calling our name so we hit the road at the crack of dawn. Not even cynical references to Uluru as "ripoff rock" by a local at the Kulgera pub could tarnish the extraordinary moment Uluru came into view as we entered the national park. Having travelled across Australia it was amazing to finally be there and there was only one suitable soundtrack for this experience: Great Southern Land. But, as breathtaking and popular as Uluru is, it was Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas, that was the true stand out for me. Believed to be over 500 million years old, the many heads spread over 20km dwarfed us as we walked through their ochre coloured cavernous walls, swallowing our shadows.
Sitting and chatting as the sun set over Uluru later that evening, you could be excused if you thought we did not have a care in the world. We didn’t …except for the fact that it was day 9, we had travelled 5000km and we only had 3 more days to complete our adventure.
The next 48 -72 hours are a blur of roadhouses, toilet stops and kitschy souvenirs. We had to continue north through the Northern Territory before heading east through Queensland. We passed the Devils Marbles before motoring through central Queensland. Those final few days were filled with bacon and egg rolls and steak pies from buzzing bain-maries.
We arrived in Byron Bay at noon on our second last day. We all dived into the surf to wash the sweat, grease and red desert from our skin. Feeling elated that we had made it, I looked down upon Byron Bay from the lighthouse and breathed it all in.
Shaun, the engineer in the group stretched out the map and started calculating the kilometres covered. 10,108km in 12 days. We had met some amazing people and shared a bunch of stories. It had been fast and it had been fun.
Later that night we shared a few beers, pulled out the map and queried, where else did the Leyland Brothers go?
Words/Video by Nick Sullivan
Photos by Shaun Vincent, Will Stafford, Nick Sullivan and Lucy Nairn-Smith