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DESTINATION: AUSTRALIA

Life in the Vast Lane

Driving the empty-looking west coast is a breeze, even on dirt road shortcuts between a diversity of attractions

November 14, 1999|DON LANGLEY | Don Langley is a writer in San Francisco

KARRATHA, Australia — We had been driving for hours up Western Australia's Highway 1. As we came over a slight rise we could see the road aiming straight for the horizon, with scrubby vegetation stretching out flat on both sides toward infinity. Miles later we reached that horizon, which was another small rise. As we crested it, the cycle began again. And again.

The warning of an American we had met the previous week began seeping into my consciousness. "Boring," he had pronounced when he learned of our plans to spend 10 days or so driving Highway 1 up the coast north of Perth. A six-year resident of the Western Australia capital, he had seen that two-lane stretch of asphalt. Distances on such roads, he said, should be measured in six-packs.

His wife, a native of the state, confidentially softened his remarks: "The trip is what you make it. There is plenty to see."

We were sure of that. Some years ago, we--my wife, Judy, and I--drove up Australia's east coast, and on another visit we did the middle. There's no end to the astonishing variety that is Australia. But preparing for this trip had been a bit intimidating, starting with the study of maps.

From the guidebooks, we had made a list of what we wanted to see--the limestone pinnacles at Nambung National Park, the dolphins that come ashore at Monkey Mia, Ningaloo Reef, the historical tropical city of Broome, and many other spots. The concern was the distance between them. No cities, towns, villages--nothing appeared along vast stretches of the highway. While it skirted the ocean in some areas, much of it ran parallel inland in a ruler-straight line.

An e-mail to the Western Australia Tourist Office in Broome, the farthest point on our proposed itinerary, allayed most of the concerns. Roadhouses are situated at strategic intervals along the highway--combination gas stations-restaurants-bars-motels that have everything you need for a stop or to keep going.

Our adventure had begun with an almost-cross-country train ride from Sydney to Perth. We had chosen the train (three days) over flying (five hours) partly because we hoped to see a cross-section of Australian outback scenery and partly because we thought it would help us sense the enormity of the country. Nothing, however, prepared us for the vastness and emptiness of the west.

The state of Western Australia, which encompasses about one-third of the country, has 1.8 million inhabitants, 1.2 million to 1.4 million of them living in and around Perth. The 400,000 others are spread out over an area one-third the size of the U.S.

The road north of Perth--Australia 1, which circles the continent--meanders through some suburbs, then slices through a sizable wheat belt that forms a semicircle around the city. Beyond that, nothing, or more precisely, almost nobody. The two lanes of the highway are wide, flat and smooth, the curves so gentle they are scarcely noticeable. On those rare occasions when we encountered another car, it was easy to pass because we could see so far ahead.

At midday the first day, we found a promising spot to turn off to a seaside village called Cervantes and the nearby Nambung National Park. The side road was a bit narrow but in good repair. But as happened from time to time, the last few miles to our destination, in this case the park, were unpaved--"unsealed" in Aussie argot.

Nambung is home to the Pinnacles Desert, acres and acres of limestone pillars in a landscape devoid of vegetation. It had a surreal quality to it; we could not mentally fix it in relation to any other time or place.

We had been told that Geraldton, our destination for the first night, was a major lobster port. That evening we looked for a restaurant serving the lobster dinner we were told we were obliged to have, but we failed to find one.

The back road near the coast from Cervantes to Geraldton was of reasonable quality, so the next morning, when the main highway north from Geraldton angled inland again, we were emboldened to try what promised to be a more scenic road along the water.

Our opportunity came at the village of Northampton, where we spotted a Tourist Information sign. The woman inside drew us a map of a road west to Port Gregory but advised that the road from there north along the coast up to Kalbarri hadn't been kept up; there were potholes "as big as swimming pools." She sketched another, parallel route a few miles inland. It didn't faze her--so why should it bother us?--that this meant driving about 44 miles of dirt road. She was sure it was passable.

The reward for this gamble was in the town of Kalbarri, where the Murchison River empties into the Indian Ocean. Along the estuary we heard a squawking and looked up to see flocks of birds cavorting in the trees. They were gallons, a parrot-like bird about the size of a sea gull, with a brilliant rose and gray body and wings. This was one of the sights we had returned to Australia to see.

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