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We’re ambling along the beachside walk that curls around the township of Coffin Bay, just along the road from Port Lincoln in South Australia, and a group of people at a picnic table ask us if we’d like some oysters. Fresh off the back of a local boat, how can we refuse – Coffin Bay is famous around the world for its oysters. So we join them and tuck in, and they’re wonderful, tasting just like the sea smells. The appointed shucker explains that when he bought the appropriate hardware at a local store he was told that inexperienced shuckers always shed blood, and it has proved to be exceptionally true in his case.

That night we see the same four people at Del Giorno’s on the esplanade in Port Lincoln and they recommend the seafood platter, $92 for two. It turns out to be brilliant value. These things usually come with lots of chips to fill out any vacant real estate on the plate, but not here. The seafood is extensive, fresh and delicious.

Most people driving to Perth from Melbourne make two mistakes at Port Augusta. The first is that after the run along the coast and up through the wineries they figure that when they’ve reach Port Augusta they’re halfway there. In fact they’ve driven about 1200 km and still have 2400 to go; Australia is a big place. The other is that they drive straight DSC_0577to Ceduna along Highway One through country that’s vast, arid and desolate. And that has its place except that there’s a lot more vast, arid and desolate between Ceduna and Perth. What they should have done is mosey on down the Eyre Peninsula to Port Lincoln. It adds 275 km but it’s worth every extra metre.

Port Lincoln claims to have the most millionaires per head of population in Australia and it’s all about tuna fishing. It’s a rich town and gorgeous, good for a couple of nights. And getting down there from Port Augusta takes you through a clutch of small towns that all have a story to tell and some unique shops – there’s even one specialising in copper-plating tiny sea creatures. And then you get to drive up to the idyllic Streaky Bay. If it’s open eat at Mocean, frequently it isn’t but the pub does passable fare. Fairly average accommodation though, the motel just up the road is better.

Ceduna is another surprisingly pleasant seaside village and you should have coffee here and use your phone, because between here and Norseman, 1200 km away, the coffee is mostly instant and phone coverage is scant to non-existent. There are no towns after the hamlet of Penola, 70 km west, just road houses and ruins, and an inspection point at the WA border where you’ll be asked to surrender your fruit.

DSC_0733And yet there’s much to see. The coastline is awe inspiring, at the head of the Bight there’s a whale watching centre with a boardwalk to the coastal cliffs, there are ruins of old telegraph stations slowly being swallowed by the shifting dunes, there are dingoes, eagles, kangaroos, emus, camels, wombats and even wild horses if you keep your eyes peeled. There are sections of the highway that double as runaways for the flying doctor and the longest straight stretch of road in Australia, 145.6 km straight as a primary school ruler.

But the big attraction of the crossing, including the 200 km of the treeless Nullarbor (all of it in South Australia) is its sheer vastness. Stand on a hill (a couple of metres of elevation is as much as you’ll get) and look at the horizon for long enough and you’ll start to see, or at least think you’ll see, the curvature of the earth.

And it’s genuine outback. Lots of the roadhouse staff seems to consist of backpackers who have run out of money. At Nullarbor Station we’re served by a waiter in torn shorts and Blundies and Sheryl asks if the fish is fresh. “Ish,” he replies. At Caiguna I order the mixed grill and get enough meat to feed a battalion. And then I’m presented with a similarly-sized serving of chips.

Balladonia, the last roadhouse before Norseman, has a reputation, staunchly upheld, for the most expensive fuel on the crossing but the little museum marking the crash of Skylab in the area in 1979 is worth a visit. The local council sent NASA a fine for littering.

DSC_0730Kalgoorlie is a surprisingly sophisticated town these days with great coffee and all mod cons, but it clings tightly to its rough and often ribald past, the brothels along Hay Street being more about tourism than sex these days. See the Super Pit on the edge of town and visit the Miners Hall of Fame, which includes a tour of an underground gold mine.

From here it’s a straight shot to delightful Perth; large, ordered, clean, hugely isolated and proud of it. Perth people tell you it’s the most isolated capital city in the world (it has nothing on Honolulu but don’t tell them that) and this breeds much of the can-do cowboy spirit that won the America’s Cup. Perth is to Australia what Australia is to the rest of the world – a long way away, a place you seldom hear from but figure you’ll visit one day.

And here’s some delightful trivia. If you stick relentlessly to Highway One, avoiding the Eyre Peninsula and Kalgoorlie, you’ll travel 2350 km, from the western edge of Port Augusta to Mundaring on the eastern outskirts of Perth, without a traffic light. For a major national highway this has to be some sort of record.

Published February 2017

 

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