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Stranger #21 - Naomi, Border Village Roadhouse, South Australia

Australia is a big country.  So big. It is hard to imagine how big until you drive it.  Divided into seven states and two territories it is a continent in itself.  The land changes with the temperature and conditions: rainforest, desert, temperate rainforest, mountainous terrain.  It is both lush and barren, cold and hot, dry and wet. Most of the population of 24 million live on the east coast particularly the southern corner.  Sydney and Melbourne have the largest populations and with good reason: the weather is more predictable and less harsh.  Travelling to the west is an adventure, one that takes hours by plane or days by car.  Last week my partner and I embarked on this adventure in our car.

To get to Kalgoorlie, our destination, we will start from our territory and then travel across four states: NSW, Victoria, South Australia and finally Western Australia which is about half the country. We will travel across four time zones. The distance?  3184 kms.  That is the same distance as London to Kuwait.  We could have left London travelled north and got past the North Pole, if we were birds. It is only 2250 kms from Paris to Istanbul!  

We left Canberra on a cold morning just as the sun was emerging.  The frozen grass on the oval opposite glinting in the sun.  Hardy walkers chasing dogs in the increasing light, running across the crunchy surface.  We said our goodbyes to our child and our cat and set off.  The first part of the journey was familiar; the Hume Highway, the main route between Melbourne and Sydney.  We have travelled this road many times.  We arrived at the Dog and the Tuckerbox, 12 miles from Gundagai, before the shop had opened.  I have taken photos here, over the years of children, dogs, friends and just the figure.  Taken photos during different seasons and the pandemic, an usie with the dog with masks on. We fill up with fuel and coffee then onwards to Mildura.  The day was long, the countryside full of tall established gums, hills and clouds petering out before we got to our destination.  Mildura, on the banks of the Mighty Murray, is surrounded by flat, scrub land that opens up to vineyards, orange groves and fields of almond trees as we approached.

Our next destination, the following day, Streaky Bay, on the southern coast of South Australia offered us the sights of the sea and pelicans waiting to be feed fish heads and innards.  The fishers clean their catch on tables by the beach, the pelicans now expect to be fed.  One had given up and was sitting, head tucked in ready to bed down for the night.  I know from experience it is unwise to get too close to pelicans who want food.  They snap their beaks and make a grunting noise to show they do not want to be near anyone who is not going to provide what they want. We headed back into town for dinner with a choice of restaurants, pubs and a couple of late night cafes.

It is hard to make it over the Nullabor in one go as it takes about 12 hours.  The roads are good, the speed limit is high, 110 kph but the distance is huge.  This road incorporates the longest stretch of straight road in the world; 146 kms without one bend.  The signs that give warnings of animals; kangaroos, emus, camels are a distraction for us, bored in the car.  The bend, when it came, was also exciting.  And the hills in the distance.

The Nullabor also hosts the longest golf course in the world.  Nullarbor Links, 18 holes spread over 1,360 kms between Ceduna and Kalgoorlie.  It costs $70 to play.  Players are encouraged not to drive onto the fairway, and to tee up balls on the fairways.  

Border Village, our next overnight stop, is on the border between South Australia and Western Australia.  It also hosts the WA biosecurity checkpoint.  All vehicles are stopped and checked for food items: fruit and veg, seeds, honey.  The three lanes are set up for trucks, caravans and camping vehicles and cars.  We head for the third lane to give over the small pot of honey we were given by the caravan park at Streaky Bay.  The official said she had a number of them in the confiscated box.  

As we headed away from the checkpoint we wondered if we had missed the roadhouse.  We had seen trucks and cars queuing for petrol but could not spot any accommodation.  We drove onto Eucla before we realised we had missed our place to stay.  A coffee, snack and a rest later we turned around to head back the way we came, but not before we drove 5kms following the sign to ‘Eucla Golf Club’. Down the road, a little more than a track, we bumped our way along.  Scrubby bushes, stunted trees, red earth and a long view ended in a collection of dilapidated corrugated iron buildings with ‘Golf Club’ burnt into a wooden sign.  The drop dunnies had lost a wall, the minigolf course could use some work, and it was clear the club was no longer used.  We headed back to Eucla to try the other direction.  

Eucla sits on top of a cliff that drops away into the Southern Ocean.  Whales will be making their way to this part of the sea to give birth to their young in warmer water than they usually inhabit near the Antarctic. There is no signs of any whales as yet.  We drive down the cliff road to make our way through the sand dunes, on foot, to look at the remains of the telegraph station long since abandoned.  It has been tagged by a local or a person passing through.  It is further than we thought to the beach and give up, head back to the car.  On our way we pass someone with towel in hand, walking barefoot, hoping for a swim.  

Eucla may be the place to stop for fuel, accommodation and a personal pitstop but it does not go out of its way to entertain those who arrive there.  The playground had seen better days, and the sign with distances between there and other places in Australia did not have the national capital.  And the whale, what to say about the whale?  We arrived to see a mother telling her child to read the sign and ‘Do not climb the whale’.  

Australia is full of big things, there is a map that documents them all; pineapple, banana, potato, earthworm, koala, Murray Cod, prawn, lobster, to name a few.  We had passed the Big Galah, in Kimba our way.  This whale must be the only ‘big thing’ that is smaller than the real thing.

As we head back through the bio-security check point, at Border Village, we can see how easy it was to miss the accommodation, settled behind the petrol bowsers, trucks and cars.  We headed in with a number of others to book in.  

A young woman with a French accent welcomed us, booked us in, gave us a key and told us what the local time was, so we did not get confused.  She is good natured offering the family with three boys more than one ticket with the wifi code on it.  Nodding towards the three boys she says you will need more, yes?  The three clocks behind her have WA, SA and local time all printed in large letters underneath.  This must be a weird place to work.  My phone is confused it keeps switching time zones each time it connects to a tower.  We peruse the plentiful gift shop looking at t-shirts, badges, plastic animals, shot glasses, stickers and hats all with ‘Border Village’ printed on them.  Replicas of road warning signs with emus and camels on, fridge magnets with images of desert and kangaroos, toy roadtrains with at least three trailers and ‘Long Vehicle’  are temptations for all those who stop here.  We settle for a plastic echidna and a fridge magnet for the children we will be staying with for the next few weeks.  We have been told they have a large magnet collection from the places they have been.  We will add to the collection on the fridge.

That evening we eat at the only place in town, the bar attached to the roadhouse, with its ‘Pokie Room’ next door.  Two truck drivers, I can tell by their clothes, hoodies with logos the same as the trucks outside, are playing the flashing machines, beers in hand. The two young men behind the bar also had French accents, but they are attuned to the ‘Stralian’ twang emanating from the purchasers.  Beer is the go.  They only do one white wine; Oyster Bay.  That’s lucky as it is one of my preferred tipples. The food, on the other hand does offer some variety; burgers, steak, chips and other deep fried morsels despite the French staff. Maybe the cook is Australian?

The following morning at breakfast the young woman who welcome us, takes our order.  My partner says thank you in French.  She is surprised and pleased.  I ask her if she is French, yes from Montpelier.  She tells me there are lots of French people in Australia.  Yes, I know but not many of them miles from anywhere in the middle of the outback.  She tells us there are three French couples all working together during their working holiday year.  They all got jobs at the roadhouse and were pleased to working together.  They work a little and then travel a little. I wondered how they found these jobs and how did they travel here.  Naomi is called away to deliver huge plates of bacon, eggs, hashbrowns and fried bread to the two Sikh truck drivers sitting on the next table.  Their bangles chinking the table as they eat. Naomi comes back to us to tell me that she loves Australia and loves it at the roadhouse.  She tells of her first experience driving for hours to get between two places.  “In that time we could have driven from Paris to Moscow.  Crazy.”  She thinks she will see distance differently when she returns to Europe and will not be put off by it.  Just because things are a long was does not mean the distance should not be travelled.  The bell the chef is ringing to tell her the next order is ready.  She tells us she would love to chat but she has to work. Now. And off she goes. More enormous plates of food delivered to overnight stayers.

Many young people, from around the world, come to Australia for year or so on a  working holiday visa.  This is a symbiotic relationship: young people do the jobs others don’t want, in places many Australians do not want to live in.  Picking fruit, working in cafes, on ski fields, resorts and au pairing are all on offer but mainly on the East coast. The weather is good, the jobs are plentiful, small towns welcoming them to fill roles as baristas, wait staff and other hospitality roles, and there are many other people doing the same thing; earning money and practising English skills. Working at a roadhouse two hours from the next roadhouse, in either direction, and at least five hours from the nearest township is intrepid.  I bet Naomi is seeing a side of Australia not many people do, even those who live here. The difference between urban France and remote Australia is a chasm not many people cross.

Our day ended in Norseman.  A place we have been to before, 18 years ago on a trip around Australia.  It has not changed much in those years.  The highlight of the town are the corrugated iron camels on the main roundabout. There are two places to stay; motel and caravan park situated next to each other.  As I sit outside our cabin crocheting in the last of the days warmth, a couple with a curly haired dog approach.  They have seen our ACT number plate and tell me they too are from Canberra.  They are making their way up the west coast to go to places they haven never stopped at before.  It has taken them two weeks to get from Canberra to Norseman and are impressed with our three days.  We are all heading to Kalgoorlie after this.  They will stay a couple of days.  We will stay for a few weeks with our son and his family.  The man does not think much of Border Village.  I tell him about the French people there.  He had not noticed them, they just filled up with petrol before moving onto Eucla.  

It is a short two and half hour drive to Kalgoorie from Norseman.  We shop before heading to our place of residence for the next few weeks.  We bump into the couple from Canberra, on the main street, who like the city already; wide streets, history and of course the Superpit.  They plan to go to the lookout at night.  It is a 24 hour operation so it lights up like a city at night.  Our plans are more modest at this stage; get to our destination and catch up with our family.  We will take it from there.


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