We spend our evenings counting stars and spotting satellites, soaking up the refreshing chill in the air that finally sets in about an hour after sunset. Traveling through the north-western outback in Australia, in winter, is a traveller’s dream. There are no rains to dampen your day-long riding and even if the midday temps get you hot under the collar, you know there will soon be a respite.
It’s a fine line, in this big land, between perfect and downright miserable. We seemed to have crossed it about 200kms before we hit Exmouth. In the preceding weeks, the days had still been just a tad too cool and the nights downright frosty. The elusive ‘good night sleep’ in the tent, for me, happens above 8 degrees Celsius. I’ve become a bit of a princess like that. The days of seeking out suffering in order to feel ‘adventurous’ are way behind me, thank you very much. But when you’re in Oz-land one has little choice in the matter. In order to be ‘somewhere specific’ at ‘just the right time of year’ means the in-between’s probably gonna suck. And so it was with Perth, a city we left a little too late. But the amazing news is that along with my fervent displeasure at having to suffer the wrath of bad climate emerged an immense pleasure at riding at breakneck speed to move on. Super.Pixie.2 demands no less than a cruisy 110km/hr – right on the speed limit – and inches just above that when I’m not looking. The cheeky devil.
But the amazing news is that along with my fervent displeasure at having to suffer the wrath of bad climate emerged an immense pleasure at riding at breakneck speed to move on. Super.Pixie.2 demands no less than a cruisy 110km/hr – right on the speed limit – and inches just above that when I’m not looking. The cheeky devil.
Before too long, we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. This too has the habit of sneaking up on us. One moment there’s a town, traffic, crowds, shops. Next? Nada. A seemingly endless stretch of flat horizons that runs into the thousands of kms, a bunch of retirees in campers experiencing what has become a rite of passage and an insane number of truck drivers on a mission.
In a nation that is THIS big and with the incredible expense of domestic air transport, trucks and their hardy drivers have become the backbone of the local economy. Since turning east and heading to the heart of the mineral-enriched Pilbara region, it’s 28-axle road monsters filled to the brim with all manner of prized minerals which keep us company all day long. They feed on iron ore, gold, nickel, copper and zinc, and their hunger seems insatiable. Western Australia boasts half of the mineral deposits of all of Australia and so it also reasons that here is where we find the most incredible kaleidoscope of colours, compliments of Mother Nature.
As we ride along one morning admiring the change from drab-brown to intense firey red, a multi-coloured canvas takes shape befofre our eyeszon, I imagine my delight being similar to those who sat in front of the TV, all those years ago, and saw the picture suddenly change from black and white to colour.
Just like magic.
The unsung endemic wildlife species not mentioned in any guide book, the grey nomad, continues to thrive even this far north. This impressively large group of retired couples makes up an entire social and economic class on the road. They’ve raised their kids, run their businesses, exhausted their careers and spend their twilight years roaming their country slowly and relaxingly. Some for a few months every year, some continuously. Some for whom the caravan is a holiday-mode of transport, others who’ve literally sold up everything and gone mobile full-time.
Many seem to ping-pong between children living in different states, many admittedly content not to be stuck with grandchild-raising duties. Quite a few boast rigs that would make your head spin. much to their children’s chagrin, they’ve spent their life savings and all their worldly possession to afford large and very comfortable caravans. These oversized yoghurt tubs on wheels provide much of the transient business in rural Australia and many towns are busy installing bio-toilet dumping spots and parking lots in order to accommodate them and entice them to stay for a day or two, hopeful that they’ll spend boatloads at the local pub and supermarket. They usually do.
When we set off from Sydney and all along the eastern and southern states, we used an app called WikiCampsAU, a very popular travel tool here, to seek out suitable bush camp spots. But as it happens, our idea of bush camping, and the grey nomad’s, are often polar opposites. After a full day on the bike, a bush camp for us is a little corner of quiet, some shaded shelter, and a little distance from the main road. For the great majority of local travellers, however, a bush camp must have at toilet block, several rubbish bins, be built as close to the road as possible, and phone connection thanks. So what ends up happening is that a caravan of caravans ends up overtaking every spot mentioned on Wikicamps, and since the Nullarbor, we’ve actually been using it to ensure we miss those specific pinned spots instead.
Aside from freezing temps, there are other things which can sour my sleep, namely a generator that’s left to run all night, radios and TVs on full blast until the wee hours of the morning and incessantly inane drunken conversations a metre from our tent. Can really do without those, to be honest. Because as big as the Outback is, trust me that it can shrink in the blink of an eye.
Luckily, there are plenty of spots yoghurt tubs can’t get to.
In this remote region of Australia, which stretches for half a million square kilometres and boasts only about 50,000 inhabitants, we encounter but a handful of foreigner overlanders.
After all these years and given all the incredible highlights, my favourite part of the day is still the end of it. I love getting off the bike after a full day’s ride, searching for a super secluded spot, collecting firewood and exploring the ground for the millions of insects who seem to happily thrive here. That’s the thing about the arid and deceptively lifeless plains: life is everywhere. At night, if you turn on your head torch and shine at the ground at just the right angle, you’ll see life staring back at you in the form of countless pairs of curious translucent eyes. They scared the beejeesus out of me the first time I spotted them. I thought our tent area was surrounded by snakes with mini head torches on. But turns out that as darkness falls, thousands of tiny little beige spiders come out of the woodworks and their tiny burrows, no doubt as surprised to see us as we are to see them. I’ve even gotten used to the thumping sound of hopping roos in the middle of the night. We hear them thump-thump-thumping towards us, stopping to figure out what on earth we are, and then thumping off into the darkness.
We dash into the Karijini National Park and soak up the visual feast for a few days. It is outlandishly beautiful out there and our eyes dance in delight at the shapes of the park’s gorges and peaks, not to mention the array of hues. We chat to a lovely young couple about the impressive number of highlights in this country which one really shouldn’t miss. And together, we also commiserate over the thousands of kilometres of endless and monotonous plains that separate them all.
For the first time in three years, it feels like we’re actually travelling. Not merely meandering and living on the move as we have done for so long, but on a bonafide motorbike journey. Our resolve to circumnavigate Australia within the limits of Chris’ one-year tourist visa undoubtedly adding a tinge of travel angst and excitement, the kind we only really ever experienced when crossing China.
In every other country we’ve travelled through, the options for onward travel were always multiple. If we had to move on swiftly, for whatever reason, we could simply just choose a land border into the next country and get on with it. But Australia’s insistence at being sea-locked makes this a tad difficult. We’ll try to apply for a visa extension in Darwin in October and face the possibility of one being denied. If that’s the case, we could do a visa run to Bali (not the most horrid plan in the world, if you ask me) but if we feel our time has come then we’ll simply move on, having only scratched the surface of the country in a year. Mind-boggling.
If there were to be a serious gripe about travelling through the western half of Australia, aside the astonishing size of the state, it would have to be the painful expense of it all. Coupled with the fact that if the government could find a way to charge travellers for the clean air they breathe they certainly would, the sheer cost of travel in WA makes this one of the most expensive overland regions we’ve ever come across. Ironically enough, fuel price is the only reasonable aspect of travel here yet the fact you need ginormous amounts of it to get anywhere, even the relatively low per-litre-cost doesn’t help things much.
Australia is renowned for existing in a financial bubble of sorts, the kind that didn’t even really burst during the global financial crisis of a few years back. Prices are outrageous just about everywhere, compared with the rest of the world, and although it may be relative to the kind of high incomes afforded in all the major capital cities, it certainly loses all relations in the countryside, where prices are at least 30% more expensive than in cities yet incomes nowhere near as high. We’ve shopped in some outback IGAs and wondered how locals could even afford to live there. Ghost towns once famous for mining or logging now left almost derelict bar a few poor souls who’ve nowhere to go and food to buy.
Outback towns certainly boast their own unique charm but there are a million reasons no-one wants to live there. It’s quite eerie to walk through a ghost town that is still, somewhat, clinging to life.
Then there are the rare economic anomalies: places that are still in the middle of nowhere and with few inhabitants, yet are nearby special attractions so attract a healthy dose of tourism traffic. Tourist towns like Coral Bay and Exmouth hold their captive audiences hostage to extortionate ransoms. We lasted less than an hour in Coral Bay. The campsite was full and the overflow campsite (which was the car park at the beach) came at a rate of $50 per parking bay. No joke. We rode out of town and took a 20km dirt road which we’d hope would lead us to the beach. Before hitting the sandy shoes, we found a dude in a kiosk and a STOP HERE! sign. ‘That’ll be $20 a head thanks’ he said. He repeated it three times, each time louder. I stood there as a stunned mullet, unbelieving of the fact that the local council would put a booth here in the first place. Poor dude just thought I hadn’t heard him.
Coral Bay was indeed lovely but it was also immensely overcrowded and expensive.
It’s no wonder then that the only foreign travellers we’ve met in the last month have been a couple of groups of backpackers who are sharing one rental camper or one recently-purchased 4WD. They say sharing is caring but here in WA, sharing is also travel-surviving.
This thriving Aussie-senior-travel group bodes well for all outback towns, but not so much for anyone who doesn’t fit into the mold. They are, perhaps more than anything else, responsible for the high price of all things tourism-related in the outback. They see nothing untoward about a charge of $50 for a parking spot and $5 for a coffee, and just about all with whom we have spoken seem completely oblivious to the disparity in living costs between Australia and everywhere else. It does make sense, in a way. If you spend $200,000 on a campervan in a country such as this (where driving to a neighbouring country in impossible) chances are you’re probably not all that interested in overseas travel anyway.
The only discouraging part is that their lack of knowledge and understanding leads them to be particularly nasty to young foreign backpackers. They’re all stingy, they say: if they can’t fork out $50 a head for a pub meal when they come here then they shouldn’t travel. The poor victims of the prejudice, by the way, are the same foreign backpackers who pick Australian fruit and vegies every year. The same backpackers on 407 working-holiday visas most Australians loathe, whose backbreaking work contributes to 30% of the agricultural economy of the country. between stints of backbraking work they try and see as much of the country as possible, trying to avoid $50 meals in pubs, naturally.
“There’s so much to see here, the country is so huge, you could drive around Australia for years and not see it all….why the need to go anywhere else?” This is something many local travellers have told us time and again. And every time I hear it, it still catches me by surprise. It’s a concept I simply don’t understand. And actually, forget the expense of it, the only true downside to spending a year overlanding Australia is that you can cover tens of thousands of kilometres and still not experience any kind of cultural or historical variation. This is the most ethereal Australia travel experience of them all.
Within a 1,000km radius of Chris’ hometown in Germany, you can visit 32 countries. That’s 32 distinct cultures, 32 histories, 32 languages, 32 cuisines and countless diverse natural landscapes. We are both quite fond of diversity and I suspect that although we are thoroughly enjoying our journey here, the lack of diversity is what will eventually entice us onwards. We have now covered 12,000km in Oz, more than we covered in Europe through 12 countries and more than we covered through all of Central Asia. By the time we’re done here we will have probably ridden 50% of our total trip distance in one country alone.
It’s worth mentioning that the mentality that there is enough to see and do here to last a lifetime (so why bother travel abroad) is not necessarily unique to Australia. It’s a common trait of many who live in incredibly big nations.
For now, Chris and I are relishing exploring this country one kilometre at a time. We’ve resorted to our old trick of thinking merely one section forward at a time. The Australian bush is still one of the most unique and surreal regions on earth. I suspect it’ll be quite a while before we do exhaust our curiosity here.
I recently applied for a potential dogsit in Broome and the lady owner just replied this morning. ‘I’d never let bikies look after my furbabies!’ That was it. A one-line reply. I chuckle. I wonder how many Hell’s Angel members would have gone to the trouble of setting up a profile on TrustedHousesitters and, moreover, how many would have applied for a sit with a blind Chihuahua and three-legged poodle. Normally, I’d be inclined to enlighten the lady as to the wondrous and VERY VARIED blend of people who ride motorbikes and overland Australia but, today, I simply can’t be bothered. She can keep her misconception.
I have stars to count.