Tuesday morning, 14 December 1971
A threatening humidity lurked under a blanket of darkness as we hit the highway out of Ceduna around half past five in the morning, dawn a threatening red streak on the east horizon. You have to start early to make headway before the heat hits. The nearest large towns are Port Augusta, 300 miles to the east and Norseman, about three times that distance to the west.
The road west runs along the bottom edge of the Nullabor Desert where it meets the section of Southern Ocean called the Great Australian Bight. Cliffs run along the coast for hundreds of miles and the sea, over millions of years, has gouged tunnels deep into them. These surface as blowholes in the plain and people, straying off the road, have fallen into them. What a horrible fate. Today, we’re aiming to reach Eucla, driving across a red desert with nothing in it except a dirt road. The car has run like a Swiss watch so far, hasn’t missed a beat.
It was a steamy, dusty, unforgettable day. Uncle was unusually quiet. It could have been the early start, but it was probably the prospect of driving a car towing a caravan across three hundred unsealed miles. The bitumen ended a few miles out of town, and as we hit the dirt, the tyres starting talking a different language, a kind of cobble-cobble-cobble instead of their usual crossply whistle. We swished along in the heat and dust like a land-boat.
Red dust everywhere and scrubby, ugly, spiky desert plants that could not possibly have had names. They probably had, but I’m no botanist. You wouldn’t want them in your garden next to the prize roses. The things you think about when there’s nothing else; and even your aunt in the front seat has stopped the wisecracks. The morning creaked towards noon. The miles rolled under the car. The road has a name. It’s the Eyre Highway, after Edward Eyre, who walked it, so shut up and stop complaining. Actually, he had horses. There’s very little traffic now. Most travel early to avoid the heat, but that’s when animals are up and about. People worry about snakes and spiders, but kangaroos are the biggest killer in Australia. People hit them in cars. Have you seen the size of a Big Red? I talked rubbish to my cousin, stared out the window, tried to sleep.
Late morning we were stopped by some Anangu; gentle, black-skinned, snub-nosed, brown-eyed people with washed out hair and the kind of eerie presence possessed by humans whose ancestors have lived in the district for thousands of years. They flag cars down to sell their wares; carvings, craft, traditional items. Later, we crunched to a stop somewhere in the flat sea of red dust for lunch, and cups of tea. Always cups of tea.
We - my uncle, aunt and cousin - had left Melbourne three days earlier to cross Australia from east to west during the sweltering Christmas holidays of 1971-72. The car had no air-conditioning. You wound down the windows, except on the unmade roads, because the car would fill with dust. It came in anyway. Entertainment was the AM car radio when in range of a station, and my aunt’s jokes. My cousin was fifteen, a year older than me. The journey should have been a teenager's nightmare, with nothing to do except stare at an endless flat landscape.
Tuesday afternoon, 14 December 1971
I fell asleep as usual after lunch with my head against the C-pillar. Uncle’s power of staying awake at the wheel amazes me. Two thousand miles of alertness. Maybe Aunt, in the front next to him, was jabbing him the ribs the whole way. She never drove.
I snapped out of my reverie when I felt the car braking. A car was right in front of us. It was the white Renault 10 with yellow NSW registration plates that had accompanied us, on and off, from somewhere near Port Augusta. We had seen its occupants, a somewhat eccentric elderly couple, at two of the overnight stops. Uncle was driving evenly now, but the Renault kept accelerating and slowing down as if its occupants were looking at something outside the car. What, exactly? Dust? Uncle braked, sat back, braked some more. The Renault slowed again and eventually Uncle had to swing out and pass. Mid-manoeuvre, the Renault sped up again. Fools! It was too late to pull in again, so my uncle had to coax a little more speed out of the engine, which was already singing the high notes.
You can’t see potholes but you know they are there. The dust evens them out. The Valiant's right front wheel hit one; the car lurched. The lurch telegraphed through the tow bar, and the caravan corrected, the other way. Then back again. Uncle wrestled the beast. The beast fought back. Uncle kept wrestling. I waited for the jack-knife. We ran off the road. After an eternity that lasted maybe eight seconds, he somehow found a straight line in the dust, dragged the car and van to a stop, switched off the engine. He got out of the car, sat down on a log. We got out. My aunt lit a cigarette, a little shakily, and made some kind of a joke about it being a nice place for a stop. My cousin and I took off our shirts. It was unbearably hot and the sweat was turning the dust on our backs into soup that ran down our spines and into our shorts. The Eyre Highway's verges are littered with caravan wrecks. No point retrieving them. They just leave them there to bleach in the sun like bones. We'd seen them. Uncle got up off the log and walked around the car and the caravan. One hub cap was gone. He didn’t go and look for it. It could have rolled into a blowhole for all he cared. The Renault 10 had just kept going, of course. The last thing we had heard was its idiotic four-cylinder rear engine popping up and down like an over-enthusiastic marching band.
We got cold drinks out of the caravan; and then after a while, we got back in the car and pulled back onto the road. The dusty unmade highway stretched on into the afternoon. Now the sun was in front of us, drawing us on like land-moths to a flame in the western sky. Some hours later the car rumbled across dust and small stones into Eucla. We found the caravan park easily enough, and the car panted to a halt at a sign that read ‘Stop Here To Register'. Uncle and aunt got out and went into the office.
My cousin touched me on the shoulder and pointed. A Renault 10 was parked in a camping bay at the far end of the park, bonnet lid up and front doors open. We watched as a man fussed over a tent that kept falling down. A woman was jabbing her finger at the tent and her mouth was snapping open and shut.