Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word
It’s September 1 and the dawn not just of a new day but, very nearly, a new millennium.
I’m aboard the Indian Pacific and two days into Australia’s greatest rail journey, somewhere on the Nullarbor, the “treeless plain” that is so vast and empty it is difficult to say precisely where.
Sleep hasn’t come easily as the train has done a shake, rattle and roll all the way from Sydney’s urban sprawl, up the Blue Mountains to the plains of western NSW, thenceforth to Broken Hill, Adelaide and beyond.
The 478 kilometer track along the Nullarbor Plain is the longest straight stretch of railway in the world. When the Indian Pacific departed Central Station in Sydney on the first direct rail journey across the continent in 1970, it made history as the world’s only trans-continental passenger train service.
I’m travelling Gold class but even a first-class ticket hasn’t bought me a smooth ride as my sleeper cabin is right over the bogie and every clickety-clack reverberates through my body.
Giving in to my wakefulness, I draw the blind and look out of the window to see the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, a huge gold ball rising up over the horizon, the sky turning various shades of purple and blue as it magically transforms the earth from pitch black to red ochre.
A few thousand kilometers away in western Queensland, my mother’s ancestral home, my aunt saw the beautiful sunrise too. Later we learn that it was at that exact moment that my mother drew her last breath.
Mum, the person who gave me the gift of life and sent me off on its incredible journey, her burning desire to see the world etched firmly in my mind. Twelve years earlier, we had travelled in Europe together and I had bristled at her determination to seek out particular castles and villages along the Rhine when others were more accessible.
It was only later as I was reading her travel diary aloud to her – a pastime to while away the hours when she could no longer read herself – that I realised we had been retracing the steps she took on her first trip abroad in 1953.
She, a country girl who escaped a certain future of marriage to a farm boy, by applying for a job in the Bank of NSW and landing herself a transfer to its London office.
Over and over, my sister and I heard the story, of how she was there for the Queen’s coronation, how she was invited to the Queen’s garden party, how she toured the continent with a couple of equally adventurous girlfriends, how she met my Dutch father on the ship coming home.
In the first decades of their married life, when money was tight, the only travel done in our household was in the tales my parents regaled us with. But the stories were full of colour and excitement, and my sister and I haven’t stopped travelling since.
When the conductor on board the Indian Pacific tells me that I need to call home as soon as I get to Cook, an hour or so hence, I know immediately what the news is going to be. As everyone alights from the train to stretch their legs at this tiny outpost of a town – halfway point on this 4352km odyssey, population four, the only sign of life a small souvenir shop – I gather up my belongings and head to the station master’s office to make the call.
There’s no platform at Cook and it’s a long drop from the train to the ground with my heavy bag. Not even the conductor offers to help. Doesn’t she know my mother’s just died? I feel sure that everyone is staring at me, that they can see past the smiles through to my aching heart.
Someone hands me a phone – I’m not sure who, everything is still a blur – and suddenly I am talking to my dear strong father, his voice crumbling with the pain of it. And so I have to think quickly. Do I stay on the train for another day and fly home from Perth, the easiest but probably not the quickest solution? Or do I leave the train in Cook along with the rest of my group as we planned, and try to get home from one of the most remote corners of this wide brown land.
“Quickly,” the conductor urges me, “you’ll have to make a decision. The train is about to depart.”
It’s not easy getting a flight out of central Australia at a moment’s notice, so I have to continue with the scheduled tour until arrangements can be made for my return home. There’s no choice but to bump along in the 4-wheel drive with the rest of the party on our tour of the Nullarbor Plain. Until two days ago, most of us were strangers. Now, everyone is unfailingly sympathetic but my grief has cast a shadow and the conversation is awkward.
Still, it is a glorious day this first day of spring, and although it is difficult to focus, I’m buoyed by the morning’s beautiful sunrise and the thought that Mum was freed of her pain on the first day of the season that is traditionally associated with new life.
We pause to admire the view at the head of the Great Australian Bight, where every year between May and October, the waters play host to Southern Right whales that come to mate and calve.
This is one of the country’s premier spots for whale-watching and a viewing platform and boardwalk caters for the growing number of visitors who make the trans-continental pilgrimage. Where once only a few intrepid souls visited this part of the world, now some 15,000 come each year between June and October when the whales put on their show.
Today we have it almost entirely to ourselves but the view of the rugged coastline is nothing short of spectacular. The Nullarbor Plain plunges in an almost sheer drop to the Southern Ocean, the towering limestone cliffs stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. It must have been a perilous journey for early seafarers sailing in these waters, as any ship steered too close to these cliffs would have been smashed to smithereens and it would have been almost impossible to climb ashore.
It’s said that the whale viewing is often better when the water is choppy. With only the Southern Ocean between here and Antarctica, it’s not uncommon for the wind to be blowing a gale and for the ocean to be rough. On this day, the water is not quite as gentle as a mill pond but it’s relatively calm and there’s none of the tail-slapping and rolling that we’ve come to expect from these creatures of the deep.
It’s extraordinary to think that the Nullarbor Plain is a single lump of limestone, all 250,000 square kilometers of it. Where the land is unblemished by man’s hand, you get a much greater sense of how ancient this country of ours is. The limestone was formed about 50 million years ago and was once part of the ocean floor. The Bunda cliffs at the head of the Bight are the remains of this ancient sea bed pushed upwards millions of years ago.
European explorers, whalers, settlers and government surveyors roamed this region from the 19th century, but Aboriginal people have lived here for thousands of years. The Great Australian Bight Marine Park, in which the viewing area and interpretive centre are located, is within the Yalata Aboriginal Lands and has great cultural and environmental significance.
Amongst all the sadness of this day, there are some light moments, such as when our Aboriginal guide, perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit, singles out an Indian-born member of our party and asks him where he comes from. “Melbourne,” comes the reply. “Yes, but where do you really come from?” he says.
I wish I could recall what we did that day but most of it passes in a blur and by late afternoon, we are neatly ensconced in a motel at the Nullarbor Roadhouse. You can’t miss it; it’s the only place on the highway for miles.
The roadhouse is a pit stop on the Eyre Highway, which runs along the southern edge of the Plain. It’s named for the first European to cross this region, Edward John Eyre, who undertook his epic journey in 1841. The first car was driven across the Nullarbor in 1912; only a few motorists managed to complete the route over the next decade.
Even as late as the 1950s, only a few vehicles a day were making the crossing on the rough and ready road that had been knocked up in the 1940s. Western Australia bitumenised its section of the road as far as the South Australian border in the late ‘60s, but it was 1976 before the rest was sealed.
On arrival at the roadhouse, I put down my bags and go for a walk. It’s an opportunity to gather my thoughts. I stop to take the iconic shot of three yellow and black road signs near the roadhouse, one featuring a camel, one a wombat and one a kangaroo, with the words “Next 96km” written underneath, warning of the wildlife ahead. I’ve seen this image so many times on everything from postcards to coffee mugs in tacky souvenir shops around the country.
Dinner is as ordinary as one might expect from a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and the rooms are furnished in the usual plain ‘60s-70s style, their four small walls looking even smaller as my grief closes in. Sleep on this night is even more elusive than it has been the past few nights.
Next morning I’m waiting at the ready for a small plane to fly me the three hundred kilometers to Ceduna – 780km from Adelaide on the northwest corner of the Eyre Peninsula, population 2300. It’s the nearest town with scheduled air services that can get me home to my loved ones. Thirty-six hours after my mother’s death, and two hours after my sister has arrived from Shanghai, I will eventually arrive at my parents’ Canberra home. Such is the size of this extraordinary country.
The plane takes off on a dirt airstrip beside the roadhouse, a strip that is virtually indistinguishable from the earth around it. Now I’m forced to confront one of my fears – flying in a tiny single-engine aircraft. It’s a first for me and I’m not at all reassured, given the plane’s antiquity. The laconic pilot is not wearing shoes and his only other passenger is a man going to town for a haircut.
It’s remarkably easy to confront your fears when you have no choice. Surprisingly, despite my grief, I actually enjoy the flight. As we take off over the Great Australian Bight, the panorama is breathtaking and finally I see what I was expecting to see yesterday: whales frolicking about in the water, putting on their magic show.
The fact that the Southern Right whale moves slowly, close to shore, was once very nearly its death knell. It was the “right” prey for commercial whalers, hence the name.
Once the whalers killed their prey, the whales floated to the surface and were brought to shore where they yielded enormous quantities of oil for candles and cosmetics, and whalebone for corsets, whips and umbrellas. At the height of this madness, there were 18 whaling stations in South Australia alone. Such was the demand that until 1931, when the whales finally gained protection, they were hunted almost to the point of extinction.
It’s a gentler picture now with the whales coming to mate, give birth and raise their young through the winter, before departing for the Southern Ocean at the beginning of summer. My bird’s eye view of nature’s nursery is at once thrilling and heart-wrenching. As I set off on the sad journey home, dozens of whales are congregating in this safe sanctuary. Some are mothers with babies swimming by their side, mothers who will soon be sending their offspring into unchartered waters.
© Christine Salins
This story was originally published in Red Dust & Wanderlust: Tales of Travel in Australia, published in 2010. The book is available from the Australian Society of Travel Writers for $20.00 (incl GST) plus postage and handling of $6.00 anywhere within Australia (up to 3 books per postage and handling charge). It’s a fantastic collection of Australian travel writing and I highly recommend it. You can purchase a copy by going to the ASTW website (and no, there’s no commission for me in recommending it – just a certain amount of pride.)