We drive east from our house near the west coast, across the coastal plain and up the Darling Scarp. We leave the tuart and banksia woodlands of the sandy lowlands and climb up through the gravelly granitic hills. We pass through jarrah forest and rocky outcrops as we climb. Further on, the pale bark of wandoo appears in patches then gives way to the over-cleared wheatbelt, my old home ground. The occasional tall salmon bark on the road verge gives a clue as to what this landscape was like before chains strung between bulldozers (and earlier, between horses) dragged the mallees and taller eucalypts from the earth. There are pockets of remnant bush, with coral gums, moort, salmon gums and others, but mostly it’s paddocks, a tinge of green showing through the stubble as crops poke their first leaves up into the sun.
The wheatbelt gives way to the goldfields and the trees return. The smooth coffee-coloured gimlets are gilt by sunlight. We break our journey in Kalgoorlie, stretch our legs by walking the length of Hannan Street, past the statue of Paddy Hannan who found gold here in 1893. What happened after that is history, as they say.
The next morning, we travel on, out from Kalgoorlie along the railway access road. After an hour the trees become patchy and the road rougher. We’re in pastoral country now and fat cattle stand in groups of three or four watching us pass. There has been rain recently and the gravel road is underwater in parts, big puddles stretch almost from one side of the road to the other. Rivulets cross in rocky gullies and I’m glad we are in a four-wheel-drive. We would be stuck without it.
The trees thin further. The eucalypts give way to a species of acacia known as mulga. For many kilometres we drive through trees blackened by a fire a couple of years ago. Bright green leaves sprout optimistically from buried lignotubers, showing the toughness of this brittle environment.
Then there are no trees. Shrubs - bluebush, saltbush and others - dot the landscape. Grasses and herbs pepper the red earth between the shrubs. We are on the Nullarbor and the sky is huge above us.
A bustard stands in the middle of the road and we stop as it slowly walks to the edge of the road. It eyes us warily, beak to the air, blending remarkably with the sticks and shrubs. A wedge-tailed eagle pauses from feasting at a cow carcass on the side of the road, watching us as we pass. Eagle-eyed. Later, walking near a stock water trough, I find an eagle’s skull and the beak is formidable even in death.
We reach our destination, Rawlinna, a sheep station on the Nullarbor, and watch the sun set across the wide plains. The darkness is total. I fall asleep looking at stars through my bedroom window, bright specks against the black sky.
The next day we spend more time in a vehicle, bumping along station roads from one mill to the other, seeing the country and checking stock water troughs. The tanks by the troughs are made of stone, functional and beautiful. A kangaroo bounds along the track in front of us before diverting off into the shrubs. Others race along beside the vehicle. I measure the jumps against the fence posts and calculate each bound is about seven metres long. We are on the largest sheep station in the world but see remarkably few of the 38,000 sheep that stock the property. Those we do see eye us warily.
On the journey home, we pause again in Kalgoorlie and this time are treated to a scenic flight by a pilot friend. The plane is tiny, a four-seater. We sit shoulder to shoulder. We fly slowly over the Superpit, the massive gold mine that has consumed the Golden Mile. From the air its colossal size is evident. The massive Haulpak trucks look like child’s toys in the scale of it. I surprise myself by being stunned at the enormity of the mine and the engineering feat of it rather than being horrified at the destruction of the environment. I don’t pretend to understand the desire to mine gold nor the economics that make it profitable to do so, but looking down at the Superpit from above, I can’t help but be awed. There is something awesome about it, as well as something awful. Further out from Kalgoorlie we circle over Lake Lefroy and the patterns made by running water as it drains into the lake are truly beautiful. The close aerial view of the landscape with shrubs, watercourses, tracks and trees etched across the red dirt gives me new appreciation of Aboriginal dot paintings. It fills me with wonder.
Back in the car we continue our journey west, retracing the road we took going out. We drive into the setting sun. It is dark when we crest the scarp again and the city lights spread out below us.
Finally, we are home. We have done over two thousand kilometres in less than a week. It was a quick trip, perhaps too rushed, yet it has left a deep impression.
We settle back into being at home. Washing is done. Our own beds slept in. Food eaten. House-sitter farewelled and thanked. Borrowed car washed and returned.
With movement stopped and familiarity surrounding me I can reflect on the journey. Is this why people travel, for this moment of time afterwards when you look around at your home and feel renewed but settled? Feel comfortable. Relaxed. Feel … at home. But richer and stiller for having been away.
Thanks for reading,
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