“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Machu Picchu, for instance, seems to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.” Anthony Bourdain.
[20 December 2019] “You can’t be serious.” This was the common response. “One does not cross the Nullarbor in summer. If not the heat, the flies will kill you and there is really nothing to see. No trees, no animals, no people. It can be quite dangerous. If your vehicle breaks down, you’ve had it.”
But Werner had his mind made up. This iconic Australian trip will be done. This December. My suggestion of revisiting Tasmania in stead was considered for a mere couple of minutes.
And by the beginning of December the research was done, route planned, precautions taken and we were ready to go. Warrnambool to Eucla and back. We should clock more than 5000 km. At least no flies or mozzies were going to get to ‘some’ of us. We took to the road from Cob & Co, just after midday with our trusted Boganvilla (named by Tudor Caradoc-Davies).
The Fortuner’s thermostat gave us one last warning to turn around and spend Christmas at home, like so many people do, as our little coastal city is really very pleasant and viby this time of the year.
We had only 300 km to do on day one and was confident that we’d reach Naracoorte long before sunset. Despite the heat (46 degrees at one point) and the head-on wind we made good progress in our air-conditioned bubble. Just past Casterton, however, a gigantic pine tree had fallen across the road. Too heavy to pull out of the way and too difficult to turn around with our van in tow. What to do? Lady Luck provided a bypass on the grassy shoulder of the road and we maneuvered around the fallen tree. Thank goodness for 4X4 technology. The wind was picking up at a rapid pace and very soon leaves, limbs and branches of trees were blown across the bitumen, helter skelter. Werner was driving criss cross to avoid damage to our vehicle and van but soon it was quite impossible to dodge all of the debris. Huge trunks littered the road and the flying pieces of wood reminded of a massive missile attack.
We were totally stuck in the middle of this minefield. To stop wouldn’t even lessen the hazards. Turning around was impossible. We had another 30 km to cover. Inside the cabin we were silent. Outside, the sound of crashing timber was deafening. The damage would be assessed when we get to our campsite in Naracoorte.
A new dawn, another day. Damage to the Fortuner and Boganvilla was minimal and we hit the road early, after Werner’s even earlier run, and my coffee served in bed. Oh the luxury!
We drive along our preferred back roads. We have to travel almost 600 km today to reach Mount Remarkable, our next camping spot. The sky is blue and yesterday’s fears far behind. We do wonder what we would have done without GPS.
We enter vineyard country. The large, lush green vineyards are interspersed with smallish white windmills. Like sentinels they stand among the vines. Powering away. The green-white contrast is beautiful.
Eventually we hit Dukes Highway, which will take you to Adelaide, unless you turn off, like we’re planning to do of course. Traffic, especially oncoming traffic picks up, but the Aussies usually stick to the speed limit and general road rules, so that’s not an issue at all. In South Australia the speed limit is 110 km/h. Wow, what a fantastical speed as opposed to Victoria’s 100 km/h. We, on the other hand, don’t exceed 90 km/h due to our towing constraint, fuel efficiency, aircon availability, etc.
Designated resting places along the Duke Highway are abundant and clever billboards urge you to stop regularly.
The landscape has become hilly and now and again the blue of the ocean can be seen in the distance.
Then we cross the famous Murray Bridge, and we are in awe of this structure which was built way back in the 1870’s. Now we are in the Barossa Valley, the renowned wine-producing region northeast of Adelaide. We unfortunately have no time (I know!) for a cellar-door tasting. 600 km, remember. Shiraz grapes are the local speciality, I’ve been told.
The stone cottages and Lutheran churches throughout the region are testament to a 19th-century wave of German settlers.
All too quickly the beautiful drive is over and we turn inland towards Mount Remarkable – Mambray Creek to be exact. Here, at the southern tip of the Flinders Ranges we put up camp, which, I might add, takes us only 20 minutes or so, nowadays. There are not many campers around – only a few vacant tents, presumably belonging to hikers on a mission on the multiple walks available from here.
I should at this point announce that the notorious flies had at this stage properly arrived. My goodness! They were everywhere. And, like their cousins and brothers elsewhere, the little festers were totally obnoxious with a preference for nostrils. With the help of a huge net-enhanced hat, doused in ‘Nature’s Botanical Creme’ (developed to protect horses from flies), we survived the onslaught. But only just. The thought of another fortnight of flies was too much to bear.
What a shocking thought that so many of these giants were killed to be used as railway sleepers, in flooring and framing, and even as firewood. RIP, all you beauties.
On our walk around the foothills of Mount Remarkable we came across a gorgeous, fully grown (easily 2 m in length) lace monitor. Obviously disturbed, it sprinted to the nearest tree and climbed to safety with impressive speed and agility. Monitors are the only lizards that have a forked tongue, apparently.
At around 20:00 (the sun goes down an hour later, this time of year) the flies went to bed and I could indulge in my first G&T of the holiday, undisturbed. Perfectly prepared and presented by Hubby. The wind had completely died down, and we sat in our canvas chairs in blissful silence. The night sounds were faintly familiar, mainly unknown. The stars were shimmering ever so brightly through the tops of the trees. “How privileged”, we sighed in unison.
And at that moment I opened my holiday read – Gregory Smith’s Out of the Forest. Thanks Ilze.
On our morning walk, before we hit the road towards Lake Gilles, I learn that the Aboriginal word for red gum is Wira. On this Wira Loop there are the most spectacular specimens of this fantastic tree. Many have been lost due to irresponsible felling. I can just imagine how beautiful the area must have been before man became involved.
Staying on the Dukes Highway we came across Guido van Helten’s fabulous silo art in Coonalpyn. It took him six weeks (in February 2017) to create the 30 metre mural on the (still operational) Viterra grain silos. Van Helten used a 35 m cherry picker, 200 cans of spray paint and a lot of normal paint.
Intending to represent the town’s ‘hope for the future’ he painted five Coonalpyn Primary School children – Ciara, Blake, Reef, Kiarah and Macey. I love silo art. Not a single car passes this specific artwork without stopping and taking a snap or two – despite outside temperatures being quite challenging in summer.
We push on. In Port Augusta we fill up with diesel and start getting the feeling of total desolation, intensifying as we head towards Lake Gilles. We are now squarely in Mallee country – the growth habit of certain eucalypt species that grow with multiple stems springing from an underground lignotuber, usually to a height of no more than 10 m. Lake Gilles is not far now.
It comes as no surprise to find the lake as dry as a bone – the up side being that there are no other tourists around. We have the whole of the 42 000 hectare reserve to ourselves. With no designated camping areas – not even a longdrop – we drive around for a bit to find a good spot for the night. So many choices! Eventually we settle on a flat piece of land (not that everything isn’t flat, mind you) overlooking the salt pan. Yes, this will do. Werner erects our shower al fresco and the porta potty is put into use for the first time on the trip. Man, can life get any better. The flies are still a problem, but other than that, I could stay here for months.
We camp under a Western Myall tree, Acacia papyrocarpa. It is a slow growing tree that can tolerate very dry conditions and live for over 250 years. Myalls use the dense carpet of cast-off foliage underneath their canopy as mulch, preventing moisture in the soil from evaporating.
We start out to find the special birds of the area. Western Yellow Robin, Rufous Treecreeper, Malleefowl, Crested Bellbird, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Southern Scrub-robin and Blue-breasted Fairy-wren. Out of the whole lot, and I have to stress how hard we searched, we only found the Fairy-wren. It is well and truly a gorgeous little bird and we were lucky to see a beautiful male specimen as well as two females.
We have no mobile reception in the park. We are totally free.
Between Lake Gilles and Ceduna there is what seems to be one gigantic wheat farm. This is indeed one of the largest wheat growing areas in the driest state on the driest continent, we learn from a billboard. At Kimba, now on the Eyre Highway, we realise that we are exactly at the halfway point, when crossing Australia. Also in Kimba we buy the most delicious latté I’ve ever tasted.
Neigbouring Iron Knob is evidently where the first iron in the country was mined, but we had no time to go on a little museum tour. Nope, Ceduna was waiting.
We did not sleep too well, last night. I saw the Manson Family walking down the dirt road towards us wielding axes (thank you Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) and Werner reckoned the heavy downpour in the middle of the night might leave us stranded. Neither of these came true, of course, and we packed up with a heavy heart in the morning because of all the beauty we would be leaving behind, and, truth be told, the fact that we ‘missed’ almost all the special birds. Fortunately many highlights were still laying ahead, most importantly the Nullarbor and the Great Australian Bight.
In Ceduna, the last major town on the drive west to Perth, we camp on the foreshore and are blessed, the very first night, with the most beautiful sunset. Time for the next G&T, served in the usual way by the usual bar tender. Life is good.
An American pushbike rider is camping next to us. Scott Sharick. He started cycling in Asia in March 2018 and is now traveling between Sydney and Perth. From Melbourne he rode along the scenic Great Ocean Road and actually passed our hometown, Warrnambool. After a light stroke a couple of years ago he decided it’s now or never, and undertook this enormous adventure.
Scott asks us to transport a food parcel for him to Eucla, where food is very expensive. We duly load the precious cargo. We don’t even consider the possibility that there may be dubious things inside and that we may be in big trouble at the Western Australia border post. No sir, not for one moment.
24 December, and today we have the whole day to explore the area around Ceduna. It has a proud history of farming – salt, gypsum and mineral sands – and is a significant fishing port. The pristine waters around Ceduna enjoy world recognition for oysters and other prime seafood.
According to the map reference in the book Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s fictional character, Gulliver, met with the tiny people of Lilliput on islands visible from the Thevenard Lookout at Pinky Point. They are in fact the islands of St Peter and St Francis, first recorded by Pieter Nuyts and Francois Thyssen aboard their Gulden Zeepardt in 1627.
But off we go to Yumbarra Conservation Park, 30 km north-west of our campsite on the foreshore. So little time, so many birds to find.
According to Finding Australian Birds it is one of South Australia’s most pristine Mallee reserves. In its 324 000 hectares the key species are Scarlet-chested Parrot, Malleefowl, Western Yellow Robin, Rufous Treecreeper and Chestnut Quail-thrush. Most of these are on our ‘unsuccessful list’ of Lake Gilles. But today we feel lucky – it is after all one of ‘SA’s most pristine Mallee reserves’. What if we saw one of the rare Scarlet-chested Parrots?!
We enter the park through the pest-exclusion Dog Fence. Some sources refer to this famous electrified fence as the world’s longest structure. It was built between 1880 and 1885 to keep dingoes out of the south-eastern part of the continent and protect the sheep flocks of southern Queensland. It stretches for 5 614 km – from Jimbour in Queensland to the cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain in SA.
In late summer (does 24 December qualify?) the Scarlet-chested Parrots drink at Inila rock hole. We head there, find water (surprisingly) in the hole and scores of honeyeaters – White-fronted, Spiny-cheeked and Yellow-plumed – but no parrots or other birds whatsoever. After waiting patiently for hours, first inside the Fortuner, and later in the shade of the canopy (slapping flies and using our water spray bottles, and a beer or two I should add), a couple of Woodswallows arrive, but other than that, nothing. Off then to Yumbarra Rockhole on the south side of the park. Same story. Beautiful granite rocks, silence, heat, and not a ‘key species’ in sight.
Heading back to town we stop at a dodgy roadside stall and do the obligatory fish and chips. We experience our first drive-through booze buying and look forward to speak to the kids to wish then a Happy Christmas as we are going to be without mobile reception for the next three days.
As always it is the absolute highlight of our day to hear their voices.
On Christmas morning we strike camp. Our fellow campers, jovially wishing us a happy day, are overtly astonished that we’re actually going to cross the Nullarbor “in this weather” if “we could easily just stay and enjoy Ceduna’s brilliant blue skies and the sparkling clear waters of Murat Bay”. “My God!” are the only words from one guy’s mouth. Others just frown. But we get the picture – clearly. It is going to be a tough 490 km to Eucla – the first town in Western Australia. Not as tough as for Scott, though. Taking his food parcel with us in the car to be dropped off at Eucla Motel, suddenly gets a deeper meaning and becomes an even greater pleasure. Once we reach Eucla, we shall turn around and make our way back to Ceduna along the same road. Happy days.
We set off, with the Fortuner’s trip metre at 1600 km. Armored with some bottled fridge water and cold Cokes for Scott, who should be 90 km ahead of us. But we don’t see him anywhere.
The Eyre Highway is not as quiet as one would expect on Christmas Day. Holiday makers abound and the presence of multiple road trains reminds us that not everybody gets to spend Christmas with their loved ones. Not having towed the Boganvilla before, I take the bold step and offer to drive. It turns out to be not so difficult after all. Granted, we only travel at 90 km/h, for consumption purposes, but it’s surprisingly effortless to keep our little concern neatly on the bitumen.
As we approach Nullarbor Roadhouse, where we plan to refuel, we see the flashing lights of a police car. It turns out there’s been a fatal crash 10 km otherside of the roadhouse and “the road will be closed for one and a half hours or so” a friendly copper, who is originally from Durban, nogal, informs us.
So me, being my pathologically curious self, ask about the crash. Two cars? Trucks? “A truck and a cyclist”, Darren answers. “It’s Scott!” Werner and I exclaim in unison. But then we calculate carefully and realise there is no way that he could have covered this distance in less than two days. Unless he caught a lift, which he honestly wouldn’t have. Would he?
To utilise the “wasted” time we turn back to Head of the Bight where a spectacular view of the Great Australian Bight is guaranteed, but when we get there we discover that they’re closed for the day – it being Christmas after all. So we lunch roadside and make our way back to the roadhouse, where the senior officers will surely by now have completed their task.
But no, the plane is just landing. The officers offload their gear and replenish their water and lunch boxes in the cafe before they depart for the scene of the crash.
I cannot stop thinking of the pushbike rider, laying there in the sweltering sun, maybe even on the hot, melting bitumen. Who is he. How old is he. Where is he from. When will his family be informed. Is he even a “he”.
Around us one after another vehicle arrive and find a spot to park. Road trains too, shiny as new pins. They can however not switch their engines off as their cargo must be kept cool. One truckie tells me his train is filled with green bananas. He’s on his way to Perth. “From northern Queensland. Does the distance every fortnight”, he says nonchalantly. “No, no more money for Christmas Day than any other public holiday”, he explains. I think of his family back home. What a life.
It’s interesting to observe human behaviour, as the hours of waiting tick over. An airconditioned cafe can only be a haven for SO long. Teenagers sit around with long faces. Mothers entertain their kids with games. Strangers chat about holiday and contingency plans. Dogs in the back of utes look forlorn as they are confined to their tiny space. All eyes are glued to the road to the west. When will there be news. When will a copper appear to inform us of their progress and their possible “we’re done estimate”.
But nothing. Three hours, four hours, five hours. This is becoming ridiculous.
What could be taking so long. Does strewn body parts need to be collected. Don’t they know that all of us, and by now there is a huge fleet of cars, SUV’s, campers and trucks congregated, need to get to the other side of the Nullarbor before dark. Surely they’re aware that it’s too dangerous to travel at night on this road where kangaroos, camels and wombats are a real menace, especially at night. But no word. Nothing.
And then, a few minutes later, in the distance, three police vans approach from the scene of the accident side. In one of them, the body of the pushbike rider, who lost his life while looking out across the treeless plane and up at the big cobalt blue sky. The pushbike rider who didn’t as a precaution leave the road when approached by a road train. The pushbike rider who died on the Nullarbor. On Christmas Day 2019. We later heard that he was 57 and from Queensland.
As if opening a rats’ cage, the vehicles start up and hit the road west. There is still an hour or so of sunlight left as the convoy leaves Nullarbor Roadhouse to try and cross one of the largest arid to semi-arid Karst landforms in the world.
Our original plan was to travel to Eucla (13 km across the Western Australia border) today, then turn around and find our way back for 100 km or so and spend the night at a suitable spot on the Bunda Cliffs of the rugged Great Australian Bight. This would now not be possible, but we opt to set up camp in the veld at one of the secluded scenic lookouts. This turns out to be one of the most magnificent sites we’ve ever spent a night.
The panorama across the Southern Ocean, with not another soul anywhere near was truly a surreal experience. As we sipped our sundowners with a pastel pallet backdrop the angst, uncertainty and disappointment of the day simply evaporated. Oh, to fall asleep where nature is still untouched. Where the gentle drumming of the waves against the cliffs become the most beautiful music. Liquid architecture, in the words of Johann von Goethe.
We have no time to linger, unfortunately, as we have to drive an additional 250 km, which was meant to be done yesterday. We need to be at Fowlers Bay tonight, and we’ll still be driving in the ‘wrong direction’ for most of the morning. We’ve come so far, to abandon our plan to cross the Western Australia border now, would be stupid. And anyway, we have a very important parcel to deliver.
A giant red kangaroo, Rooey II, presides over Border Village. A fascinating signpost points to many regions of the world, and if the signpost is correct, Cape Town is exactly 4 657km from here. To me this doesn’t feel accurate, but hey, maybe the crow flies a shorter route.
We unhook the Boganvilla (to save us the trouble of declaring or chucking fresh produce) and cross into Western Australia. 13 km further we drive into Eucla – our furthest destination for this trip. We would love to continue along this road all the way to Perth one day. We agree that this will have to form part of our ‘Lap of Australia’.
Yes, the Motel will gladly hold on to Scott’s food parcel. They can expect him in a few days, I say. Thank you so much.
The price of diesel in Eucla (at $1.89) is a little less outrageously expensive. At Nullarbor Roadhouse we paid $2.09. It is totally understandable but still enough to choke on. And to force you to drive even slower.
So we head back along the road we traveled yesterday. Across the treeless Nullarbor. The Aboriginal name for the area is Oondiri, meaning ‘the waterless’. Experts believe the plain was created about 25 million years ago when it lifted out of the sea. Lime secreting marine skeletons and shells littered the sea floor and these deposits eventually created the limestone that underlies the entire plain to a depth of 15 to 61 metres.
We respectfully slow down at the accident scene and pass our ‘well-acquainted roadhouse’ and 50 km further come across Scott and his pushbike where he’s sitting at a resting area, sheltering from the blistering sun under a tin roof. We make a u-turn and I’m not entirely sure who was happier about the reunion, us or him.
Werner presents him with the ice cold drinks and Scott says he’s heard about the fatal crash. “Truckies drive as if the road belongs to them”, the American starts. “It is strange how often two trucks would pass one another when they’re exactly next to you. I am very vigilant. I always pull off onto the gravel shoulder when I check my rear view mirror and see an approaching monster. This road is really not suitable for pushbikes”, he continues. I couldn’t agree more. Scott solemnly accepted our warning to be careful.
Well, we must be off, Fowlers Bay is still 120 km or so away and Scott also needs to get going. How he does it in this heat I really don’t know. He’s going to try and reach the roadhouse by nightfall. We exchange e-mail addresses and he undertakes to let us know when he reaches Eucla. Best of luck, Scott. You are a legend. It took him another three days to get to Eucla and as promised, he posted a little comment on my Instagram account: “I just arrived in Eucla. Thank you for dropping off my care package! It will make my life so much easier. They were so happy to see me – they thought I might have been the cyclist that was killed on Christmas. They were going to call the police to check later today if I didn’t show up.”
How interesting that a chance meeting can result in a total stranger becoming a friend (albeit for a very short while) – a person that you care and worry about – who then just as suddenly disappears from your life. Such as ships passing in the night, I guess.
Fowlers Bay. What a show off! Never before have I seen sand dunes as spectacular. Not even in Namibia.
And on a cloudless summer’s day, etched against the blue sky, even more so. The way these astonishing white dunes welcome you as you enter the sleepy little town, is a sight never to be forgotten. And a bonus, when we park at the tiny caravan park we realise that there are no flies. Hallelujah! What a fantastic break.
Each year in winter Fowlers Bay welcomes the Southern Right whale. The Giants of the Deep return to the bay every year in search of warmer waters to breed, give birth and nurse their young. Today, it’s hard to imagine that for many decades these amazing creatures were butchered, right here on the very same coastline. One can still visit the old whaling station to the south, displaying old whale bones and an information sign on the horrific history of this practice.
Late afternoon we’re driving around the salt pan in the conservation park when lady luck suddenly jumps out.”Those cockatoos there”, Werner says. Quick, grab the telescope. And yes, his suspicion is 100% correct. They’re Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos. More than a dozen of them! We’ve been searching for this gorgeous small pink-and-white cockatoo ever since we arrived in Australia but have never hit the jackpot. And today we see them totally unexpectedly on the sand dunes of Fowlers Bay. Who would have thought. They are too far away for decent photographs, but that’s not a problem. Through the scope we can see all their beautiful features. They strut around on the dunes, displaying their magnificent crimson crest, and then disappear as I crawl closer to get a better picture. Life reminds me of the old Checkers advertisement back home right about now – Checkers – better and better. Wow. Major Mitchell’s.
A while later we see two flocks of them fly off into the distance. I count at least 30. Goodbye beautiful birds. And thank you.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to keep track of dates. When we wake up to another glorious day we work out that it must be Friday 27 December. Stop the clock! Our trip is halfway and we really don’t want it to end any time soon.
From our campsite at Streaky Bay Islands we have an unobstructed view of the ocean. The charming seaside town is obviously growing at quite a pace with a variety of accommodation options, modern shopping, sports facilities and a comprehensive holiday recreation program for children.
We decide to do the Cape Bauer Loop the same afternoon, along a rugged and breathtaking section of the Great Australian Bight. (Will I ever get enough of its splendour). We stop ever so often for pictures and general adoration of fairy tale scenes such as at Hally’s Beach, Whistling Rocks and Blow Holes.
Apparently Matthew Flinders gave Streaky Bay its name around 1803. The various shades of blue, laying parallel in stretched-out bands in the water, must have impressed the explorer endlessly, in the same way that it enthralls onlookers to this day.
The next day we plan to do the remaining, longer loops. There is, according to Finding Australian Birds, a certain Yanerbie Beach, 18 km south of Streaky Bay, where all kinds of strange migratory waders are known to have popped out in the past. Of course we shall have to go and have a little look.
Werner goes for an early morning run (as he has been doing every single morning of this trip – hats off to him) and I decide to stop my laziness and walk the first 5 km of our route. Eye-candy and beautiful fresh air.
The Westall Way Loop takes in more spectacular views of the Southern Ocean. And this is where we, for the first time, reluctantly have to admit that South Australia’s coastline is even more picturesque than Victoria’s – even including the Great Ocean Road. Along the way we stop at High Cliff, the Dreadnoughts, Smooth Pool, Speeds Point and The Granites.
When we reach Yanerbie Werner hauls out the telescope. The information we received beforehand had it right. We counted so many different species of waders! 18, if my memory serves me right. The waders’ roost is on the rocks at the western end of the beach, while nearby cliffs gave us excellent views without disturbing the birds. We saw many of the ‘usual’ culprits, but I also saw my very first Whimbrel, flying back and forth to my heart’s delight (isn’t that beak just magnificent) and after Werner had a hard look, he identified a group of Oriental Plover. He counted 53 of these uber magnificent elegant, long-legged birds. In this instance, we did not consult Finding Australian Birds, and its presence took us by total surprise. Wow – how unexpected was that?!
On the way back we stopped at Point Labatt, home to the only permanent colony of Australian sea lions on the mainland. From a platform, high up on the cliffs, we watched as some 50 of these endangered mammals were taking their afternoon nap. According to the internet this is the biggest breeding colony of this specific sea lion in the world.
Before heading home we stopped at the arresting Murphy’s Haystacks, a unique outcrop of pink granite boulders which are actually ancient wind-worn inselbergs. The huge rocks are thought to be over 1 500 million years old.
Round about now I think Streaky Bay must be the most beguiling place of all the beauties we’ve encountered so far.
It is Sunday and we head along the western coast of Eyre Peninsula for some 300 km to reach Coffin Bay, almost at the southern tip of the peninsula just after midday. We settle for a site in the unpowered area of the caravan park in a secluded corner under massive gum trees. We can just about see the (up till now the elusive) Western Yellow Robin flitting around on the branches.
Finding Australian Birds tells us (although by now it feels more like Not Finding Australian Birds, to be honest) that Rock Parrot frequents the Point Avoid Headland. Apparently a good place to look is the valley immediately north of the Point Avoid lookout, as they fly back and forth from the nearby islands. Morning being the best time to see them.
I do not get my hopes up of seeing this ‘stocky, plump, dull brownish olive-green and yellow, with its diagnostic blue forehead and face’ parrot. Its ‘tame, quiet and unobstrusive behaviour’ will slim our chances even more, of that you can be sure.
Anyway, as the Afrikaans saying goes – die hoop beskaam nie. Low and behold, minutes after we stop at the stakeout, Werner sees one flying overhead across the Fortuner. I grab my camera and frantically start shooting away when we see a group of them quietly foraging on the salt-tolerant shrubs. It is truly a beautiful parrot – especially in their blue-and-yellow flight. But then again, I still have to see a parrot which is not pretty. My shutter is capturing overtime and after 200 photos or so my battery dies. Just at that moment they decide to leave, I suppose to their island roosting place, so the dead battery is not the biggest trainsmash anyway. I never got really close enough to them for my lens, but that’s all good, as the wondrous minutes that we spent stalking them and seeing their beauty through our binoculars will be enough to last a lifetime.
Leaving on a high we head back to camp and enjoy the sight of the stunning estuary, pristine calm waters, meandering waterways, multiple inlets and mangroves on an enormous spit. To be explored later, as the sun was already going down.
The night that followed turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Sleeping like the usual log, I wasn’t aware of the drama until I woke from the noise as Werner was struggling to pull the awning in which was flapping in the wind.
When we went to bed the sky was clear and there was no wind. But somewhere around midnight (Werner told me afterwards) there was tremendous lightning in all directions and the wind picked up speed at a tremendous pace. Various cars arrived at the fire station (which unbeknown to us was right next to the caravan park) and a whole bunch of anxious fireys got into two firetrucks and sped off. The wind did not abate. Shortly after it started to rain. With the Boganvilla practically secured as far as possible, we were now both up in bed, wondering exactly where the fire is, when the lightning was going to strike anywhere close by and whether the evident fire will have any repercussions for us. We also agreed on our regret that we parked the van under flammable gum trees. My imagination was working overtime at this stage. The apocalyptic fires in Victoria and on Kangaroo Island, not too far from here, front of mind.
When dawn broke, which felt like a lifetime later, everything was eerily quiet. There was no red glow in the sky. Not even a hint of smoke. There will always be a question mark over the fireys’ behaviour the previous night. Were they just super proactive? Did they attend to a fire? We will never know. But we now do know how frightening the dark night becomes when there is a howling wind and a possibility of a fire in the vicinity.
We were not done searching for our infamous robin and Werner was also after the Southern Scrub-robin (which I saw in Little Desert but he somehow missed). So we took off for the Yangie Bay Hike where they are meant to abound, together with Diamond Firetail and Blue-breasted Fairy-wren (which we had seen at Lake Gilles, but would love to see again).
It is a lovely 4 km walk, give or take, with access to the shrublands that encircle Coffin Bay. There were however really so few birds in sight. A couple of honeyeaters, but that was it. We thought we heard the Scrub-robin, but it never showed itself. Too dry? Too hot? Too windy? Who will ever fully understand bird behaviour.
Or snake behaviour. We were warned that three snakes might be encountered on our hike, including the Death Adder, but we did not see any. We actually have not seen a single snake on our whole trip. And, thinking about it, we haven’t seen a fly or mozzie since Ceduna.
On our way back we drop in at the local beachcomber cafe. Werner orders Whiting and receives the most impossibly expensive tiny piece of fish ever. He swears it couldn’t have been 80 g and that at $14. Goodness knows what crayfish would cost here. One would have thought fish would be dirt cheap at ‘one of Australia’s premier fishing destinations where abundant and varied catches are the norm’. At least the fish was clearly fresh and does not come out of a deepfreezer. I opted for a good old burger and chips. Sometimes one just needs junk food. Or in Mom’s famous words – “your body will tell you what it needs”. Yes, Mom. Whatever – the burger was great.
The next day we only have to travel a very short distance (less than 50 km) to Port Lincoln. Situated on Boston Bay it is one of the largest protected natural harbours in the world and three times the size of Sydney Harbour. Visitors can enjoy a myriad of experiences, including fishing and sailing, cage diving with Great White sharks, touring aquaculture industries and exploring the many sheltered beaches and surf hangouts.
Navigator Matthew Flinders was so impressed with the massive natural harbour and surrounding countryside that he named the area in honour of his native Lincolnshire in England.
Port Lincoln is home to Australia’s largest commercial fishing fleet and renowned for its Southern Bluefin tuna, King George whiting, Western King prawns and Southern Rock lobster. There is clearly lots of money in this town. The luxurious yachts in the marina and the enormous mansions confirm this. According to our Aussie friends not all of this wealth is above board and the ‘fishing millionaires’ are not too diligent with disclosing their income to the taxman. Be that as it may this is one town who’s buzzing, yet relaxed vibe I could make home in a jiffy.
We plan to stay for three days but after we see our glorious campsite overlooking the Spencer Gulf we agree that we could easily stay here for three weeks. The blue of the ocean speckled with tiny sailboats remind us of Greece.
According to, yes we try again, Finding Australian Birds, a good place to look for Western Whipbird is in the scrub and tall heath near Pillie Lake along Donington Road. It is often in full song between July and October and we realise that we’ll have to be more reliant on our eyes than our ears. And yes, there is also a chance for Western Yellow Robin, Southern Scrub-wren and Diamond Firetail. I’m ready to give up on our search for these birds but if you knew Werner you would know that he is not a quitter.
The directions for Western Whipbird is immensely detailed in Finding Australian Birds: Drive along Wanna Road; look on either side of the road up to 3 km from the Donington Road turn-off, particularly near the tracks that lead east, and near the electricity station 2.2 km from the turn-off. Another spot (as if Finding Australian Birds knows that we’re not going to find it) for the Whipbird is the dense heath near the Taylor’s Landing carpark – (again) their distinctive call is usually the best way of locating the bird. It not being between July and October and all.
To cut a story the full length of 31 December 2019 short, none of these clear instructions delivered any luck. Well, maybe midsummer is just not the right time to be birding in South Australia. Maybe we should just accept that we chose the wrong month for it.
It is New Year’s Eve yet we are all but in a festive mood. The Best of Lloyd Webber on the Boganvilla‘s little sound system is in tune with our melancholy. We binge eat on Pringles and TimTams (of all things), enjoy a decent piece of Scotch fillet and then hit the bed. Tomorrow we’ll rethink our plans and adjust as necessary. We fall asleep with the plight of the fire victims in Victoria and closer to home on Kangaroo Island front of mind. Sarah Brightman truly has a spendid voice.
On 01/01/2020 the day breaks with a special splendour. Werner is out running and I wake up just in time to catch the moment.
As said before, Werner is no quitter, and for him to relax and zone out while staring across the blue ocean while the holiday is a mere fortnight, is no option. “We might never see Port Lincoln again – we should utilise each minute. Come, let’s go.”
So we head straight to Pillie Lake, with all the ‘promises of wondrous birds’ in our sidesaddle. But the only birds that jump into our binoculars are New Holland Honeyeater. Dozens and dozens of them. It is well known that these birds’ aggressive nature scares other birds away. And there are so many of them, they might as well have been sparrows or starlings. But ‘we’ don’t give up. The heat is frying us (a water spray bottle can only give so much relief) but Werner is clearly not giving up. I, on the other hand, am ready to sit in the shade until nightfall and not move a limb. Werner is now walking along the white, warm as hell salt pan (ironically called Lake Pillie) on his own. He of course finds a Purple-gaped Honeyeater, walks all the way back to come and fetch me at the vehicle, walk the whole distance back again (where he’s marked the location of the bird where he saw it), and as expected the bloody Honeyeater has moved on. At this stage it really does not bother me at all – it looks just like a Singing Honeyeater to me, anyway. Purple-gaped, singing, screeching, yodelling – who the hell cares. It is too hot. And dry.
So we hit the road again. At Wanna Heads the cliffs and ocean are so spectacular that I temporarily forget about the heat, especially when an Osprey circles overhead. I jump out to try and capture it but time is against me and my pictures are mostly only good enough for identification purposes. But to see an Osprey that close is truly a marvel.
We then drive along Memory Cove Road where we see lots of bird, Songlarks and Pipets and such, but then have to turn around as the road surface becomes a bit tricky and asks for tyres to be deflated. Nope, not worth the effort.
We decide on an evening meal in a restaurant, although by now we have absolutely zero ‘decent’ clothes outside the laundry basket. We nevertheless confidently walk into the eatery run my a friendly Indian guy. After all, we’re on holiday and the owner didn’t look too reluctant to take our money. The King George whiting (yes, when in this neck of the woods one eats locally caught fish – whiting, salmon, snapper, garfish, Tommy Ruffs, flounder, trevally, and the list goes on before it gets to oysters, abalone and scallops) was utterly delicious. The roasted pumpkin and pickled fennel a welcome respite from our tomato and avo staple of the past 10 days. Werner eats ‘oysters with apple’ and Kingfish and we go to bed happy and joyful as can be.
Life is treating us like royalty.
Last night we seriously started talking about our road home strategy. There are currently two raging bushfires between here and Warrnambool and because more fires are 100 percent possible we realise that we might have to take a detour or worst scenario be stuck while waiting for a fire to burn out. We know that having an extra day to get home (we have to be home on Sunday latest) is a good idea. A heat wave and a strong head-on wind is forecast for Saturday, so if we can cover the 350 km to Port Augusta on Thursday, it will broaden our options. We thank the designers of the multiple apps that keep us informed regarding fires and road closures and wonder what we would have done without them. Radio National is the other brilliant source of information. Regular programming gets interrupted all the time to bring everybody up to speed with the latest situation. Australia is truly organised, as far as that goes.
Before we pack up and leave, after phoning Port Augusta to check on availability in the caravan park, we drive to Lincoln National Park one last time. Maybe, just maybe.
Taylor’s Landing is the only spot we haven’t been to yet. We dawdle around the very small camping area set just back from the rugged coast behind dunes and then Werner sees it. Scurrying between the shrubs the unmistakable rusty upperparts with the distinctive black vertical line through white face. Southern Scrub-robin. Eureka!
So now it is very much home Jerome. Less than 100 km on the way north, at Port Neill, we are peckish. Already as per usual. We stop for coffee, almonds and cheese. The friendly cafe attendant remarks that she just loves our travel mugs and yes, these Aus Geo beauties have worked hard over the last 14 days. Many a latté was poured into them. I still vote for the one at Kimba.
The water pipeline which seems to run all across Southern Australia on the surface and parallel to the road strikes me afresh and as on the first day that we saw it we wondered whether potential sabotage isn’t a substantial problem. If Australia has so many arsonists what about other kinds of destructive behaviour.
We make slow progress in a howling wind. But well before dark we arrive at the northern tip of the Spencer Gulf, where the Outback meets the ocean. Port Augusta is the crossroads of Australia where the Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Darwin rail lines intersect.
Side note: I’ve never seen such long trains in my whole life. They remind of the Sishen-Saldanha trains back in South Africa. The famous Ghan also passes through the town on its journey between Adelaide and Darwin, as well as The Indian Pacific, which connects Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. Would absolutely love one of those train trips. One day is one day.
Port Augusta did not attract us at all, notably not the caravan park, but hey it was safe and quite vacant, so we could use our shower and portapotty with conviction.
3 January will be remembered for wind, heat, wind and more heat.
The one thing Port Augusta has that is absolutely mind-blowing, is their Arid Land Botanic Garden, 5 km outside town. It’s quite understandable that this 250 ha garden has won many an award, for the design and maintenance constitutes an outstanding display of Australia’s arid zone flora. The diverse native habitat (all under drip irrigation) results in high levels of bird activity. Because of the heat the birds were not active at all (to hell with Finding Australian Birds) and by now our mantra was – too dry, too hot, too windy.
The list of birds found in the garden ‘on a good day’ is impressive. At least five of them we’ve never seen before. But our hopes were really not high at this stage. We did take a little walk, or should I say a little run from shady patch to shady patch, and happened to see a Redthroat. Not in breeding plumage but still quite distinctive.
The Garden’s cafe was a life saver. After we enjoyed a protracted lunch we drove to a waterhole with a decent bird hide where we got up close to a Nankeen Kestrel, White-winged and Blue-breasted Fairy-wren, as well as Southern Whiteface. It was interesting to observe the birds’ behaviour in the extreme heat and strong wind. At one stage they huddled together in a group, panting with beaks wide open, in the shade of one of the rocks, cooled down by the water. Where the rest of the birds quenched their thirst we didn’t get an answer to. There didn’t seem to be any other water in the vicinity. Anyway, birds are obviously resilient. Even the tiny ones. And feisty, even in a 46 degree heat wave.
Back at camp we strike the shower tent and also decide to collapse the Boganvilla‘s roof as a precaution. It is quite uncomfortable inside, but definitely better than having the roof being blown off.
The heat doesn’t die down through the night at all and we use our water cooler for the first time on the trip. It doesn’t make a huge difference to the temperature but does make it bearable, provided you douse yourself with water every now and again.
When we wake up on Saturday morning, the previous day’s fires are still raging and we decide to head towards Naracoorte. We might reach Keith if we’re luckily and the wind doesn’t worsen. We actually made it all the way to Penola – albeit at 80 km/h.
On Sunday we had less than 250 km to drive so we made a quick stop at Hamilton (I’ve explained how Werner doesn’t give up) hoping to see the Spotless Crake at the lake in town where people often see it ‘walking out on the mud’. But not today, Josephine.
As we parked our trusty Boganvilla at Cob & Co in Warrnambool around midday we agreed that it’s been an exceptionally good trip. We traveled 5 179 km and not a single hick-up with the Fortuner or caravan. Not even one flat tyre. We saw exquisite places and gathered fantastic memories.
And the newest beer drinker on the block? She has gained 4 kg of weight. How that is possible in 17 days is beyond me, but there you go – I did it. I must be a pro.