May 19, 2010
At Nundroo, after the featureless plains of the Nullarbor, came the first signs of civilisation: wheat fields, little windmills pumping water from the soaks below, then farms and houses. Well, only one, to be honest, but you have to start somewhere.
Suddenly, late in the golden afternoon, we crested a rise to be smacked in the face by a cool sea breeze, and 20 minutes later had descended to the coast at Ceduna, the first town we had seen in the five days it had taken us to cross the Nullarbor.
Edward John Eyre, the first man to cross this desolate plain in 1840 and 1841 from east to west, had taken five months in a trek which saw the deaths of three of his party and left Eyre and his native tracker Wylie cresting a similar rise at the other side of the Nullarbor to see the little settlement of Albany, where they had long been given up for dead.
As they stood looking down at the houses of the town in howling wind and rain, Eyre wept as he looked back on the horrendous crossing, and wrote later in his diary: “The contrast between the circumstances under which I had commenced and terminated my labours stood in strong relief before me.
“The gay and gallant cavalcade that accompanied me on my way at starting, the goodly array of horses and drays, with all their well-ordered appointments and equipment, were conjured up in all their circumstances of pride and pleasure; and I could not restrain a tear as I called to mind the…sad disasters that had broken up my party, and left myself and Wylie the two sole wanderers remaining at the close of an undertaking entered upon under such hopeful auspices.”
Compared to Eyre, and even Winifred, our troubles had been paltry, but he was not the explorer I wanted to pay homage to before we arrived in Adelaide.
No, that was John Ainswsorth Horrocks, whose grave lies in Penwortham, a smattering of houses huddled around a church for comfort..
On the way there is Wirrulla, which was preceded for miles by signs saying Wirrulla: The Town With a Secret.
“Here, what’s Wirrulla’s secret?” I said to a large and cheery woman emerging from the grocery store with a melon and a leg of pig.
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?” she grinned, getting into a dusty white ute and driving off.
The next morning, after a night at the venerable Flinders Hotel in Port Agusta, we rode south, frozen solid by the rain and wind of the approaching winter.
On our left rose the sullen lump of Mount Remarkable, presumably named with the same sense of irony with which redheads in Australia are invariably called Blue. Alongside the road, meanwhile, ran a pipeline which I naturally assumed was transporting pies from the great pie mines of central Australia, but which sadly turned out to contain only gas.
On the stroke of noon, we dismounted in Penwortham, walked up a grassy path past the little church, and found ourselves standing before the grave of Horrocks, who set forth from these parts in July 1846 to find good pastoral land.
From the very start, his expedition was prescient proof of W C Fields’ later adage that you should never work with children or animals.
Particularly animals: first the goats took great delight in leaping on the tent and eating it. Then Harry, a psychotic camel who was the first of his species to be used on an Australian expedition, tried to eat one of the goats, bit Garlick the tent-keeper, who was presumably wandering around redundant since he had no tent to keep, and chewed to bits the precious bags of flour.
As if that wasn’t enough, one evening as Horrocks was dismounting, Harry lurched to one side and discharged Horrocks’ gun, which was rather unfortunately pointing at Horrocks at the time.
Harry was subsequently shot, although it took two bullets to kill him and he bit a stockman on the head before succumbing, Horrocks died of his wounds two weeks later, and 164 years later, we stood in mute homage before the plain grey cross and matching slab which marks the last resting place of the only explorer in history to be shot by his own camel.
I had half hoped that alongside it would be a grassy hump marking the spot where Harry had been buried standing up next to his arch enemy, bit it was not to be, so we got back on the bikes and rode the few miles into Clare, a pleasant little town where the contrasts of Australia yet again surprised me.
Half an hour north of here, we had been riding through endless grassy plains with no sign of life in any direction, and yet here we were ensconced in a little pub, with rooms upstairs, a roaring fire against the late autumn chill, and a bottle of Black Bush beckoning from behind the bar.
Truly, this country is a land of wilderness interrupted by tiny outposts of civilisation, and after so much of the former, today we were most glad of the latter.
October 16, 2016