By Fergus Blakiston
Did I get lost while I was gone
I travelled space for much too long…..
– Yellowcard, Space Travel
Midnight on the Nullarbor. A sliver of moon hangs low over the eastern horizon. Cold air, barely enough to call a wind, shifts the dust around the compound of the Nullabor Roadhouse where I am spending the night among a collection of trucks and three resilient British cyclists. Somewhere off to the north, the generator which keeps the Roadhouse’s lights gleaming through the night, throbs and clatters.
The stars form a brilliant canopy above my makeshift sleeping arrangements, which consist of a mosquito net slung from the door of my car over my camp stretcher. A satellite passes languidly overhead. In the darkness nearby I hear the rustle of feet and a pair of green eyes peers back at me from the edge of my torch’s light. Lulled by the starlight, I drift back into sleep.
The Nullarbor stretches for almost 2000 kilometres across southern Australia: from Port Augusta in South Australia to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Covering an area of 200,000 square kilometres, this great plain is the world’s largest single piece of limestone. The name Nullarbor is derived from the Latin nullus for “nothing” and arbor for “tree”. The Spinifex Wangai Aboriginal people, who have inhabited the region for millenia, call the area Oondiri meaning “the waterless.”
Daylight arrives suddenly. Without a skyline of bush or hills to provide dawn’s slow introduction, the sun clears the flat line of the horizon in a sudden rush, like theatre house-lights switched on at the end of a show. I stow my simple camp in the back seat of my car and I am on the road while the shadows are still long.
Beyond the Roadhouse the highway runs along the Bunda Cliffs, suspended mid-way between the ocean and the sky on the outer edge of the land. I turn off onto a rough dirt track. It is blocked by a locked gate but there is enough room to squeeze the car past and I drive a few hundred metres to an empty car park at the road’s end.
A short walk through stunted scrub leads to the cliff top where I stand on the rim of the continent looking out at the great Southern Ocean which, with the exception of a few storm-lashed rocks, is empty all the way to Antarctica. I have been wandering around blithely for half an hour before I notice the myriad of cracks in the ground. This section of the Bunda Cliffs is about to collapse into the ocean. I beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the highway.
When the space station Skylab fell back to Earth in 1979, most of its remains fell on the Nullarbor. At Balladonia (on the western edge of the plain) there is a small museum containing several chunks of the space station which were salvaged from the surrounding land. It seems fitting that by quirks of gravity and mathematics, this orbiting laboratory which had spent so long in the sky, should fall into this vast terrestrial space. Perhaps its computers used their last moments of awareness to guide the falling wreckage into a final resting place which most closely resembled the emptiness of space.
To me, crossing the Nullarbor also becomes a kind of space travel: a voyage through an immense void with only the shift of light to guide me. I drive for hours. The road unfolds into a vanishing point ahead of me and closes behind me with barely a ripple. Out here, on the longest long straight road in the world, I am alone, with nothing but the horizon and the sky for company. But in the midst of such enveloping vastness it is the small wonders around me that I begin to notice: the wildflowers blooming along the roadside, the drifting clouds, the rhythm of the tyres on the tarmac.
At Eucla, I turn off the highway again and follow another dirt road down an escarpment into an arid labyrinth of sand dunes. The dunes are slowly overwhelming the old Eucla Telegraph Station, abandoned to the elements more than a hundred years ago. The windowless remains of the buildings protrude from the ever-shifting sand, their walls bleached white like the bones of dead animals. Once an integral link in Australia’s immense telegraph network – the Internet of it’s day – the only messages the station receives now are initials scratched into the soft stonework; it’s keepers are gurgling crows who listen only to codes tapped out by the branches of nearby casuarina trees.
From the telegraph station I set off across the heaped sand towards the invisible ocean. A vague track twists between the dunes and crosses shallow salt pans. The forlorn remains of a windmill, its vanes and frame rusted into an almost unrecognizable mass, lie where it too crashed to Earth.
I emerge from the dunes onto a beach of pure white sand washed by warm, perfect waves. A derelict jetty, its heavy timbers bleached by years of exposure to wind, sun and salt, juts out into the ocean. I climb up and sprawl, shirtless, in the sun on the warm planks.
No one knows where I am. I have vanished. Like the stars ahead of daylight, the telegraph messages and the falling space station, I too have disappeared into the void of the Nullarbor. The ocean slips to-and-fro beneath me, wrapping its arms gently around the piers and sighing on the sand. Soon I will have to return to the road. But for now I am content to lie under the big sky on this forgotten jetty, out here alone at vanishing point.