Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nullarbor Plain

Here is a list I jotted in my notebook the day after Adelaide. It is entitled “Things I Would Not Be Surprised to See on the Horizon,” and it includes the following items:

A covered wagon
Mongol hordes
The Mars Lander

After leaving Adelaide, we traveled through the night, heading roughly northward and following the eastern rim of the Great Australian Bight. For a few hundred miles, the track followed close to the ocean, and we passed through many towns.

The next morning, though, we awoke to land that was flat, dry, open, and forbiddingly orange in color. As the morning went on, the sand cooled to a salmony pink, but the few trees went from stunted to scrubby to non-existent. The only signs of human habitation were the occasional remains of burned-out bonfires and discarded Victoria Bitter cases. Once I looked out the window and saw a large skeleton (Camel? Horse? Cow?) next to the tracks. That’s when I knew for sure we had turned west and arrived at the Nullarbor Plain.

The Nullarbor is a forbidding patch of desert where temperatures can reach 130F and only about six inches of rain fall annually. The name Nullarbor sounds Aboriginal, but it’s actually derived from a Latin phrase meaning “no trees.” Early European Australians had a mania for crossing the various geographical obstacles that punctuate the continent, but still didn’t manage to traverse the entire plain until 1841. The first white man who did, Edward John Eyre, described the Nullarbor as “a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams.”

Of course, he didn’t cross by train. Which is too bad, because we were told (admittedly by train staff) that the Indian Pacific is the best way to see the Nullarbor. It’s certainly the most comfortable. There are roads across the region, but the major ones skirt the desert, and the little ones are unpaved. Navigating them involves some intense advance planning to make sure you don’t run out of gas or water.

We didn’t have to worry about any of that on the Indian Pacific. The temperature was perfect and gas wasn’t a worry on the air-conditioned electric train. There was a water fountain in the corridor, and we had a box of Tim Tams stashed away. All we had to do was sit back and watch the starkly beautiful and astoundingly empty landscape pass by.

No comments: