As I am writing this article we are sitting in the car crossing the Nullarbor plain, a stretch of land that is shared by the states of Western Australia and South Australia. It’s big skies and long horizons in the Nullarbor, not much else. Rolling over this plain almost triple the size of Austria we are driving the equivalent of the distance Vienna-Moscow. The Nullarbor was once part of the ocean floor and today is the biggest and flattest piece of limestone in the world. During these long days of journey we had time to reflect on our trip in Western Australia and since we’ll enter South Australia in a couple of hours we think it’s time for a summary on the wild, wild West. Over the last weeks we have travelled the biggest state of this continent and have already done a number of articles on our experiences there. This post is meant to adress all the other things, the ones that give a specific flavour to travelling in the northern and western corners of Oz and the ones that, at the end of the day, make it so special.
Roadsign in the Nullarbor
Coming from Central Europe where within 5 hours driving you can reach about 7 different countries the dimensions we encountered were overwhelming. Western Australia (WA) is beyond huge, to give you an idea: if it were a seperate country it would rank the 10th biggest in the world, it’s coastline stretches for over 12.000 km and the distance from it’s capital Perth to the next reasonably sized city (Adelaide) is 2.700 km. But it’s not only the road distances. Everywhere you look there is “so much space”. Some of the cattle stations we passed had the unbelievable number of 25.000 animals. We talked to a guy working on one of them who told us that they didn’t have a dishwasher, but 6 helicopters to keep the cows together – within a farm area of more than 4.000 km2!
Some of the cattle stations, roadhouses or small towns (consisting of a roadhouse plus a cattle station) literally stand in the middle of bloody NOWHERE. Certainly, there are no schools for the children who grow up in such places. Therefore, they are taught via the phone and hand in their exercises by post. Every semester or so they have to show up in the next town to do their exams (if that system had existed when I was a kid for me that would have meant going either to Rome or Berlin.) I imagine it is not easy to make many friends at school like that.
Also as a visitor you can feel the seclusion. It’s possible to walk through the bush without seeing another human soul or even a footprint for hours, you can have heavenly beaches all to yourself and we stayed at campgrounds in national parks being the only visitors there. It’s impressive to gaze up at the stars knowing that there is literally no one around, but it’s also a bit scary. And that’s what it makes it so beautiful.
What Justin Bieber is to 11 year old girls, Australia’s west is to nature lovers. We have raved enough about it, hence I sum it up quickly: Western Australia’s nature is breathtaking! The intensity of colours, the abundance of flora and fauna and the ever-changing landscapes often make your eyes blink twice before your brain can take them in. Travelling here is a true gift and nature is what it’s all about.
Natural beauty comes for free, but conservation has a price which many countries or communities are not prepared to pay. This is definitely not the case in Australia. People show incredible respect for nature and public amenities. The cleanliness everywhere is AMAZING. You wouldn’t find a single tissue or cigarette butt on a beach or a walkway in the city. Campgrounds are impeccable always – including toilets! Even bushloos in most cases are more inviting than many public toilets back home (and I consider Europe a fairly clean place). Many parks also feature public gas barbecues and they actually tend to be in perfect condition. No offence: but if you imagine a public barbecue space in Spain somebody would demount the gas bottle within a minute and sell it from the trunk of his car.
If nature is king, camping is queen! Australian’s are camping enthusiasts and big travellers in their own country. While there is a lack of (budget) accomodation in many places, there are fantastic camping facilites everywhere – many of them even for free. It seems, that every Aussie has to do “the loop” (a roundtrip of the whole country) at least once in a lifetime, for many this moment comes when they retire. The so-called grey nomads are all over the place, many taking a year or more to complete their trip. But we also met many families with kids who tour the country long-term. Australia is prepared for this and offers long-distance schooling for travelling families. So the children, between fishing class and surf lesson, can keep up with arithmetics and grammar. That’s fantastic, isn’t it?!
Up to this point you must think that Western Australia is the perfect travel destination. So here comes the biggest downturn: Prices are horrendous! A beer in a bar is the equivalent of EUR 6, a night in a dormroom is EUR 30 and a dish at a restaurant (which we had ONCE) is somewhere between EUR 20-30. The prize level led to a very healthy lifestyle for us. No going out, only home-cooked meals and hardly any booze 😉
Talking to Australians we reckon this has got to do with the mining boom that happened in WA over the last years. The guys who work in the mines earn big bucks and are happy to spend them. Many people from other parts of Australia have moved here to find work in the mining industry. Therefore prices have rocketed, making it even expensive for people who have always lived there.
Travelling in this part of the world certainly didn’t challenge us culturewise like it was the case in Central Asia. As an Italian friend had put it: In Australia tutto è easy! Language is not a problem, religion not an issue, the general behavior of people is more or less the same as at home and history, well, does not go back too far (obviously not including Aboriginal history). For those reasons, there was no whatsoever “clash”, everything went very smooth. Anyhow, we sometimes missed those weird moments, the ones where you ask yourself “what the hell is going on”, the ones where you don’t know what to do and can’t express what you want.
Last, but not least: It’s … wild
Hard to explain, but it sometimes feels like Mad Max all along. A dead kangaroo every kilometer on the roadside and the only ones bothering to clean up are the ravens. Crocodile warnings and indicators for the status of bushfire risk. Getting out of your van in the morning you check the sand for signs of snakes. Might only be me and my paranoia, but fact is that Australia actually has more wild creatures that can kill you than any other place in the world and the West hosts a big number of them. Or as Bill Bryson has put it in his book “Down under”: “Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes all are Australian. Five of it’s creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed space octopus, paralysis tick and stone fish – are the most leathal of their type in the world. [ … if you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessy out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.]
Western Australia, it’s been a pleasure and you will never stop to amaze me!