South Australia: We Finally Go West

So for the last six or seven months people have been asking Hailee and I, “what’s your plan?”

To this we would rattle off a laundry list of people to visit and places to see along the east coast. We wanted to check out Tasmania. We had people to visit in Brisbane. We had to work for a while in Armidale, and so on.

At the end of this list, the last item was always to “Go west!” You might notice the vagueness of this description, and that’s because we really didn’t have any idea of what “going west” meant. It could describe all sorts of activities. Taking a daytrip to Geelong technically counts as “going west,” for example. So does flying to Madagascar.

When you look at a map of Australia, the vast majority of it is taken up by the western states of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. These are unimaginative names for vast tracts of mostly uninhabited territory, scattered with a smattering of towns and loosely linked to the populous east coast by dodgy phone reception and a handful of lonely highways.

Most Australians crowd the eastern coasts and look, from afar, to the rest of the world. Surely there’s something going on out there, we think, because there definitely isn’t much going on here. We spend so much time looking outward, we forget that there’s a whole continent at our backs, as exotic and intriguing and perplexing as any place beyond those oceans. An old friend of mine has spent the last six years telling me as much, but it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand what he was on about.

To me, the west was a vaguely threatening place of isolation and sameness, where real men did real work and people like me only got in the way. It’s also a place where indigenous Australians live in visible squalor, a living hangover of the more shameful aspects of our history. In short: it was easier to ignore, and keep on looking outward.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’d only just returned to Melbourne, after all.

Waiting for Robbie

If you’ve read this blog before, you might remember Robbie from most of my cycling and Colombia adventures. Well, he’s been living abroad and I hadn’t seen him for a year and a half. He was due to land in Melbourne in three weeks, and in the meantime Hailee and I did our best to overstay our welcome at my sister’s place. We did manage to squeeze in a quick camping trip to the Mornington Peninsula and Wilson’s Promonotory, too.

Eventually Robbie and his girlfriend, Emilie, showed up. It was good to finally meet Emilie, and to see the big man again. Rob is probably one of the most beloved people in the country and everyone wanted a piece of him during his two weeks down under, so we were lucky to get two days together driving the Great Ocean Road. The weather wasn’t fantastic, but that was sort of beside the point.


Rob and Emilie made their way back to Melbourne after two days and, at long last, it was time to actually “go west.” But first we had one more spot to visit in Victoria, and it was (sort of) on the way.

This was Grampian National Park, a range of sloping mountains that appear like shark fins from an otherwise flat and featureless plain of land given over to agriculture. We arrived late and made for a free campsite at a place called Bryan’s Swamp. Looking for the campsite, we ended up driving onto the swamp. When we tried to drive off it, Steve’s wheels spun uselessly in the mud.

This was exactly the sort of blunder I was afraid of. Now we’d have to wait several hours or more for a farmer to drive by. We’d wave him down, explain our predicament (“We, ah… we drove straight past the sign that said ‘Bryan’s Swamp’ and promptly lodged our vehicle in said swamp.”) and have to endure the humiliation of being rescued.

It was this vision, above all else, that focused my mind and stopped me from panicking. We locked Steve’s front hubs and shifted into low range four-wheel drive. A quick reconnaissance of the treacherous terrain ahead (all five metres of it) told me where to aim the wheels, and thirty seconds later our muddy home was mobile once more. Later, we fell asleep to the sounds of geese, ducks and other birds having a convention of sorts on the swamp. They were probably discussing the drongos who’d bogged themselves that afternoon.

Hikes in the Grampians mostly take you up the sloping back side of the Wonderland Range, to the edge of cliffs that look out across the valley below, and the forests that climb the next set of mountains beyond it. Cloud gathers in the valley, but on our second day it was clear at the top, and the world became a white ocean lapping and churning at the feet of the cliffs.

Hailee took this one.

I’m including this one purely for its homage to 2000’s fashion. Note the soul patch, the fabric belt and the Roxy shirt.


We left the national park and immediately hit dry agricultural land. I had never been to South Australia before, and so while the names of towns were unfamiliar to me, they had a certain Australian ring to them that felt comforting: Brimbago, Mundulla, Wolseley, Coonalpyn and the resoundingly appropriate Keith, for example.

South Australia is probably the most overlooked state in the country, wedged between populous New South Wales and (relatively) cosmopolitan Victoria, and the great frontier lands of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The “coastal crescent,” the populated curve of coastline that starts in Cairns, in far north Queensland, sputters and dies out completely at Adelaide, and I was interested to see this edge of civilisation.

At Henley Beach

Adelaide looks fantastic on a map. As you scan from east to west, a mess of squiggly country lanes becomes an ordered grid. Adelaide’s city centre sits on the banks of the Torrens River, and is completely surrounded by a city block’s worth of parkland. This, in particular, is a pleasing idea. The city then squashes against the Gulf St. Vincent at beach suburbs like Glenelg, Henley and Brighton.

My impression, however, was that Adelaide isn’t as big as it was built to be. The areas around and to the east of the University of South Australia are full of street art and good food, and its array of alleyway bars would rival the scene in Melbourne. But that only takes up about a quarter of the central district, and the rest is a grey afterthought of office blocks and traffic. The parks that surround the centre feel forlorn and underused. Beyond them, the city quickly becomes a sea of Australian Dream suburbs.

That’s not to say it’s not worth visiting. The long, straight coast feels like southern California, complete with boardwalks, kooky old beach dens and ghastly new money mansions. There’s a bike path that follows the Torrens River 13 kilometres or so from the city centre all the way to Henley Beach. We stayed with a lovely couch surfing host in Mile End, not far from the CBD, and through her found what is probably my favourite pub so far in Australia: The Wheatsheaf. After three days we loaded Steve once more, made a beeline for Aldi to stock up on cheap groceries, and pointed our wheels north.

I had to include this photo of a mannequin shop we found. Two Queens!

The Eyre Peninsula

The coast of south-eastern South Australia looks like a velociraptor has taken a big swipe at it, forming three distinct peninsulas and a pair of gulfs. Adelaide is on the Fleurieu Peninsula, overlooking the Gulf St. Vincent. Apparently the traditional custodians of the land around Adelaide, the Kaurna nation, have songlines that describe Gulf St. Vincent as a lake that was filled by a rising ocean. Geologists say this happened tens of thousands of years ago.

Just think about that for a moment. The cultural memory of western civilisation stretches back, at most, some three or four thousand years. Indigenous Australians have oral histories that record the end of the last ice age.

Sunset colours at Fitzgerald Bay

We stopped on our trek north to hike up a mountain that John Eyre, a nineteenth century explorer, thought looked pretty remarkable. That’s why he called it Mount Remarkable. I have to disagree with John on this one: it was a nice hike, but as mountains go it was pretty ordinary.

We crossed the top of the Yorke Peninsula and barrelled instead down the Eyre Peninsula, a chunk of land that looks like a shark’s tooth and, fittingly, is surrounded by shark-infested waters.

Dolphins at Venus Bay

I don’t have much to say about the Eyre, to be honest. It’s arid, mostly empty and has a few stunning beaches, most of which are in Coffin Bay National Park, way down the bottom. Most of all, it’s windy. We spent a day or two trying to avoid the wind, until we realised this was best done by leaving the place altogether. The Nullarbor beckoned.

Venus Bay

Ceduna – Gateway to the Nullarbor

The factoid that everyone will tell you about the Nullarbor is that it’s not an Aboriginal name. It comes from the Latin “nullus arbor,” which means “no trees.”

Speaking of Aboriginal people, Ceduna was the first town we’d visited with a sizeable (and visible) indigenous community. Several generations were found on the street one morning, enjoying the sun out front of the Foodland supermarket. The old timers were sitting on benches, hands resting on their canes. Children scampered barefoot through the carpark. Their parents stood around chatting, and occasionally bringing their kids into line when they became rowdy.

Meanwhile, the white citizens of Ceduna drove around them, parked their cars and marched into the supermarket, averting their eyes from the people standing on the street as they did so. The indigenous crowd seemed comfortable in the public space, time rich like old timers in the plazas of Latin America. But no white children played in the street, and their parents stiffened at the sight of the indigenous crowd.

Hailee and I were quiet as we walked back to the car. I started Steve and as I checked behind me for children, an older woman rounded them up to make room. She gave me a nod when the coast was clear. I nodded back and backed out. It shouldn’t have felt significant, but for some reason it did.

“I… I feel like I can’t look at them,” said Hailee, after she had thought about it for a while. I felt the same way. We didn’t know why.

This made me think about Armidale, where I spent my high school years. Armidale has an Aboriginal mission on the outskirts of town, and I knew a few people who lived there. I always heard stories about how “bad” it was, but I’ve still never been there myself. Armidale is a town of 22,000 people – I know all the streets. In my mental map of the place, the mission is a blank spot around the edge, just beyond the field where I used to have soccer practice.

Why is this? I think our culture tells us to look away from indigenous people. We all do it. I remember a family trip to the Northern Territory when I was in high school, and we passed through the town of Hermansburg, one of those artificial towns where disposed indigenous people have been lumped together to make room for cattle stations. Rubbish drifted through broken fences. Wild-haired children stared from empty door frames. Youths with deadened eyes held cans to their faces.

Mum sighed. “So sad,” she said. The air conditioning was on in our rental car. We left the windows up. We kept driving.

By every measure of a society’s wellbeing, Australia’s indigenous people are in trouble. A universe of intermingling cultures with 40,000 years of history, and a cultural memory that can describe the end of the ice age (I can’t get over this) has been decimated, then forced into a European way of life with all its trappings and few of its benefits.

I don’t have solutions or big ideas, and I don’t intend to tell you what to think. My goal on this trip is only this: to stop looking away.

Dodging Locals at Cactus

At Penong we turned south off the highway and crossed a series of salt flats to a beach called Cactus. I know about Cactus because I grew up reading surf magazines, although the locals would probably prefer that I (and every other nonlocal) forgot about it.

The beach is small, backed by high dunes and flanked with picturesque headlands. A right-hand wave was breaking on a reef off the western headland. After some hesitation, I pulled on my wetsuit, waxed my board and marched down to the water’s edge. The only way out was to wade across the reef, then stand and wait until waves made the water deep enough to paddle across a shallow rock shelf, before another set exploded and dragged me across the limestone.

I only just made it. As I paddled frantically to clear the ledge before the next wave, my fingertips brushed the rock below. A current swept the surfers up the reef, beyond the spot where the bigger waves would break, thereby necessitating constant paddling to stay in position. The crowd was reasonably heavy, and very talented.

Every surf spot has a hierarchy, with older locals at the top, young rippers in the middle and nonlocals at the very bottom. Where you sit in this hierarchy determines how possessive you can be of the waves. Disrespect a local or take his wave, and you will probably get an earful. Violence can occur in extreme cases. It’s easy to forget that they’re only waves.

I have never lived anywhere long enough to be a local, and so I’m happy and comfortable at the bottom of the pecking order. I’m not a great surfer. But I am pretty good at getting waves despite my lowly status, the surfing equivalent of a street urchin. I can identify the top dogs at any spot (that’s the easy bit) and I never paddle for a wave when someone else is closer than me to the breaking wave. Early on, I make sure to call others into waves that are rightfully mine and when my chance comes, no matter how big or scary it is, I always go. Locals will watch your first wave to figure out if you’re worth sharing with. I’m usually wily enough to make sure this chance comes on the right wave – large enough to earn some respect, but not too heavy that I feel out of my depth.

However, this place was particularly tough. Even by the high standards of Australian localism, Cactus is known for its unfriendly locals. They barely glanced when I took my place at the far edge of the line up, and nobody was giving away waves to a blow-in like me. Not that I particularly wanted them – the sets were picture-perfect when they came through, deep green with an almond-shaped barrel as they detonated on the reef. But they were also twice my standing height, breaking over sharp rocks, and extremely powerful. I floated at the edge of the group, stayed out of the way, and waited for a medium-sized lump of ocean to sneak through unnoticed.

At one point, a younger local turned to paddle for a wave and seemed surprised to see me sitting a few metres down the line from him. I wasn’t in his way, and gave him a small grin. He sneered and paddled up to the head of the pack, complaining loudly about how “I must have a fucken sign on me back that says ‘Sit close to me and you’ll get heapsa waves.’” His mates commiserated, just as loudly. My face burned a little, and I paddled further down the line. Now I felt their eyes on me when I paddled for waves.

At one point, a set caught me out of position. I duck-dived desperately through the first one just in time – instead of pummelling me towards shore, it rolled over and kicked me out the back. I surfaced only to see a second, larger wave peaking further up the reef. You always know when you aren’t going to make it, and this makes the experience all the worse. Adrenalin pumped through my arms, and from my lips escaped an involuntary bellow of dismay. Instinct tells you to abandon your board and start swimming for the centre of the Earth, but the better strategy is to paddle hard and fast, duck dive as deep as you can, and cling to your board like life itself. The momentum will help lessen the blow, and your board will guide you to the surface once the wave has let you go.

I followed the protocol, but the impact was like a punch from Superman and I went flailing and thrashing like a cartoon henchman, my board ripped from my hands. Once the wave released me, and I’d figured out which way was up, I surfaced spluttering and fearing another. But the ocean let me off and I paddled back to my spot at the bottom of the pack, panting and twitching at every movement on the horizon.

I caught two in the end, both at the smaller end of the spectrum but wickedly powerful beneath my feet, and still a few feet over my head. They were all I needed. I scratched my way back over the shallow ledge and stumbled ashore like the survivor of a shipwreck. I can barely claim to have surfed Cactus, and I don’t intend to do so again.

We’re moving right along now. Next week: The Nullarbor!

3 thoughts on “South Australia: We Finally Go West”

  1. Quinten, I think I just road each wave with you and realized I was holding my breath until we got ashore.

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