Probably I would have looked back and shrugged my shoulders at two weeks of empty miles were it not for a simple phrase I read in Edward John Eyre’s expedition journal:
“If there is any road not traveled then that is the one I must take.”
I brooded over those words the entire night before I set out across the Plain, and as I packed my bicycle in the grey of first light I still hadn’t the slightest idea what they meant to me.
There was little hope of embracing them literally. South of the main highway lay a labyrinth of sandy tracks and sinkholes. Far to the north, the service road running beside the Trans-Australian was either closed or patrolled by railway police.
Like it or not, my “road not traveled” was going to have a lot of traffic.
I lowered myself onto the Eyre Highway’s carousel of caravans and started pedaling east. As eucalyptus thinned to saltbush and then to nothing at all, I was reminded of the emptiness of the Pilbara in Australia’s northwest. There I could have been the centre of the universe or its smallest speck of dust – the silence in my ears would have rang just the same.
I spent almost a month in the Pilbara’s vast sea of red sand, and though it didn’t frighten me, I remember well the comfort I felt when a ramshackle roadhouse would appear on the horizon.
It took me a long time and plenty of overpriced hamburgers to understand that what I was craving at those outposts wasn’t conversation or supplies, but predictability in days otherwise filled with windstorms and road trains.
The trouble with normality is that it looks an awful lot like a credit card. I began to catch myself with armloads of things I didn’t need, buying for the sake of buying. Finally I had to admit that my Aussie adventures were becoming more ovine than intrepid.
And I wasn’t alone. Every roadhouse I visited was full of people not quite sure why they’d stepped through the door. We were the perfect sheep, all of us – shepherdless yet dutifully waiting to be fleeced.
Suddenly my path across the Nullarbor seemed obvious, and maybe it was the least traveled road of all. I would cross the Plain without spending a dime – not for food, not even for water. I’d rely on what I was carrying and leave the rest to fate.
But poor Fortuna had her work cut out for her. I still had nearly 1,200 km to go.
It took a few days, but eventually I settled into the rhythm of back-country cycling. My legs grew stronger and my ears became as sharp as my eyes. I could see the traffic behind me without ever turning my head.
The miles slowly clicked by, and so too did the roadhouses I had vowed to abandon – Balladonia, Cocklebiddy, Madura and Eucla. I breezed past their bursting parking lots more certain than ever that I had found my way.
My greatest worry wasn’t water but a wandering mind. On a road that refused to bend, I would watch my shadow creep over my shoulder, shape shifting in the heat of the day until at last, when the sun hung low in the west, I was face to face with the person I used to be.
I’ve done some rotten things in my life, just like everyone else, but my fatal flaw has always been a conscience with an industrial capacity for guilt. I pickled my liver and biked around the world trying to lose that feeling, and still the shadows found me.
As if they wouldn’t. Nothing can hide on the Nullarbor, least of all a man from himself.
Alone in my tent at night, I began writing two letters, fumbling with apologies I had never been tall enough to make. Perhaps they won’t be delivered, but at least now, finally, they are words on paper instead of lumps in my throat.
Across the South Australia border the highway was as empty as the sky above it. All I saw in every direction was dusty gravel and bluebush too stubborn to die. I kind of liked it.
The beauty of simplicity is that even its smallest aberration stirs the heart. I found myself walking a half kilometre from the road just to inspect an old surveyor’s stick, and in doing so I discovered exactly what I’d been missing.
It turned out the Nullarbor wasn’t quite as empty as I thought. On my mindless hike to a rusted pole I nearly tripped over a quail thrush. It trilled and went back to chasing insects I’d never bothered to notice. At my feet were karkallas and everlasting daisies in full bloom.
The next day I found an overgrown track and surprised myself by following it without question. I’ve shown more hesitation at the end of my own driveway.
I pedaled south, not knowing where. The faint rumble of water against rock grew thunderous, reaching its deafening peak at the precipice of the Bunda Cliffs. I peered over the edge and forgot to breathe. Two steps and a 100-meter free fall were all that kept me from the Southern Ocean.
That was close enough for me. With rubber knees I turned my bike east and hugged the coastline, suitably distanced from tarmac and turquoise water.
My every move was watched by tiny eyes as dingoes, rabbits, red kangaroos and even bobtail lizards quietly revealed themselves.
Their company faded with the sun and by late afternoon I stopped to snack on a carrot. Over the din of my crunching I heard an impossible release of pressure, like the brakes on a bus. I looked around, miles from anything, and feared I was going mad.
I heard it once more.
“What on Earth is that noise?” I thought.
Again it sounded.
I walked to the edge of the cliff and studied the ocean. In a moment a ripple appeared in front of me, then a vertical blast of spray, and from the murky depths came the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.
I don’t know what brought it there – I don’t even know what brought me there – but neither of us moved from that spot. I sat staring at that whale until the water went white with the moon, and as I curled up to sleep I could still hear it splashing below.
I awoke in the cold silence of dawn, alone and knowing I couldn’t stay. My detour to the Great Bight had cost me precious time. Now I had four long days of cycling ahead of me and barely enough food for one.
Only I knew of my plan to cycle across the Nullarbor without spending money. That day I could have noshed on a roadhouse sausage roll the size of my head and nobody would have been the wiser. But I didn’t.
Biking hungry is no great challenge. Doing it with patience and kindness is almost impossible, and that is the reason I consider my time in northern China to be such an abject failure. I needed to explore those feelings again, not to bury the past, but to find if I’ve grown.
I have. Thirteen days after leaving Norseman, I am in Ceduna, softly smiling at how easily my rings now slide from my fingers. All thanks to the Nullarbor.