Monday, July 13, 2015


The worst part of leaving Adelaide was the fact that, because I am a cheap bastard, I keep booking flights on Jetstar.

Jetstar is awful. More to the point, Jetstar is deliberately awful. They make the conditions of your flight as terrible as they possibly can, so that they can then upsell you on food, drinks, better seats and entertainment systems… anything to distract you from the fact that you’ve been shoehorned into a narrow seat which is surrounded by other narrow seats on all sides, all of which are full of people who are far too wide for such narrow seats.

The woman next to me tried to make the best of a bad situation and do some work on her laptop, but when the man in front of her put his seat back it pushed the screen down so that she couldn’t see it. That’s how close together the seats are. For myself, I found a way to get through the ordeal when I realised that I had a packet of Mentos in my pocket. I further realised that if I divided the flight time by the number of Mentos in the packet, I could have a Mentos every 18 minutes. It broke the prospect of a hellish three hour flight into more manageable chunks.

So every 18 minutes or so I distracted myself by sucking on a fresh mentos, a tastier equivalent of a prisoner scratching a mark on the wall for each day he’s incarcerated, and spent the rest of the time reading an old John Irvine novel on my Kindle that my book club discussed months ago but I never finished.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


I spent most of yesterday just wandering around Adelaide, wondering if it deserves its reputation as the genteel, slightly weird, church-filled, second tier city that the rest of the country regards with condescension.

Derek falls into the hands of the Angel of Death. I believe this happens a lot in Adelaide.

Meanwhile Leslie hitches a ride on some sort of drunken horse.

I discovered that the City of Churches is indeed full of churches, but I hadn’t realised that this is ongoing rather than historic. Sure, there are plenty of neo-gothic stone piles with stained glass windows and steeples, but there are also mid-century modernist temples made from stainless steel and terrazzo, and post-millennial coffee shop churches full of IKEA furniture and pastors who know their ristretto from their affogatto.

Adelaide! Because God is watching you.

Adelaide also has a deeply seated foodie culture, with most buildings that aren’t churches hosting restaurants. As an added bonus, the food was exceptionally cheap by Perth standards. Two scoops at the high-end gelateria was 10% more expensive than one scoop at home. Dinner with entrees, seafood mains, a bottle of very good wine and coffees at a smart restaurant was around $58 a head… a good 20% less than it would be at an equivalent place in Perth.

Overall, Adelaide seems pitched at the Grandma demographic. There are innumerable churches, a world class Botanic Gardens, cute cottages with frilly lace curtains even in the CBD, and plenty of places to get a nice cup of tea.

Derek and Leslie absorb the atmosphere In the Botanic Gardens.

Having spent the entire day wandering around aimlessly, in the evening I decided to do what I do best, apart from watching Ursula Andress movies. I went bar hopping.

I started in Peel Street, in which is concentrated all of Adelaide’s attempts at hip small bars. I don’t know why they’re all in the one short street –maybe it’s an attempt at quarantine, to keep this trendy new notion of “small bars” from infecting the wider metropolitan area and normal, god-fearing Adelaidians. In any case, I made my way to Clever Little Tailor, where I had an excellent negroni and a snack, and chatted with a man who was either a hairdresser or a drug dealer. I couldn’t quite tell.

Next it was across the street to Chihuahua, for a house cocktail called the Rosita and some tortilla chips and guacamole.

Then to the Griffin Hotel, a horrid corporate establishment reeking of chicken parmigiana and the sort of cologne endorsed by R&B stars, where I made a friend who bought me beer.

Then there was more beer at the Exeter Hotel, a charmingly beat up dive popular with students and other undesirables.

Then it was alcoholic ginger beer at The Little Pub, which was sort of like the Exeter but with the charm replaced by drunk slappers who shrieked, staggered and flailed to 90s disco hits. We fell into conversation with a highly inebriated vegan with a sock hat and dreadlocks, and only got rid of him by speaking wistfully about bacon.

Then we went to Hungry Jacks, because it was 2am, we were drunk, and all of this talk of bacon had made us peckish.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Here are some extra photos showcasing the beauty of the Flinders Ranges. And the fact that Derek and Leslie are bigger camera whores than Admiral Ackbar.

Actually, I take that back. No one is a bigger camera whore than Admiral Ackbar.

Friday, July 10, 2015


Wilpina Pound is a quirk of South Australia’s landscape and not, as one might have otherwise suspected, a minor character from a Dickens novel. It looks like the crater of an extinct volcano, or the site of an ancient asteroid impact, but in fact it’s just a flexing of the geology that puckered into a natural bowl. Vast plates of sedimentary rock have heaved themselves out of the plain in a rough circle, and it was up the side of one of these plates that I clambered today.

While the lower portions of the trail are gentle paths winding through natural meadows, the higher portions develop a challenging verticality. But the summit, marked by a formal cairn of loose stone erected in 1858 and somehow still unmolested by bogans, offers views over a staggering distance.

Perhaps to engender a sense of solidarity with each other in our aching quads and dehydration, climbers have set up other informal little cairns of stones at random points. It seems obvious, on passing an impromptu drystone wall rising up from a ledge of living rock, to add another rock to the pile as one passes by. Instead of graffiti, we commemorate our passing by stacking the innumerable stones into whimsical little towers. I can’t help but wonder how awesome the mountains will look in a thousand years, when centuries of climbers have arranged every stray rock into avenues of stone stacks.

Thursday, July 09, 2015


Rawnsley Park is an estate about four hours north of Adelaide. Once primarily a sheep station, it’s now more lucrative as a tourist station.

In true South Australian fashion, Rawnsley Park is very class conscious. For the hoi polloi, there’s a caravan park. For the better off, there’ a cluster of chalets arranged around gravel drives and neat garden beds. For the VIPs there’s an Eco Lodge, where presumably many resources have been exploited to give the impression that no resources have been exploited.

As a middle class white person, I am naturally in the chalets, most of which are occupied by other middle class white members of my extended family. We have descended on this place en masse for a family reunion, and thus the air is thick with talk of property values and good schools, all with excellent grammar and pronunciation, since we are all descended from a pair of English teachers.

The Wagon family have come from both the east and the west coast – ironically there are no South Australian Wagons in existence – centring around four original siblings, their children and their children’s children, as well as partners. The funny thing about having three generations of one large extended family together is the glimpses of genetic commonality that flash through us like goldfish flickering through a pond. The way one shrugs is reflected in another. A look of surprise is owned by two people. Tendencies towards bossiness or self-effacement ripple through us, regardless of whether we live in Sydney or Perth. We have deep, intimate things in common despite the fact that we have nothing in common.

At the same time, it’s fun to isolate the genetic differences. My love of quietness, for example, clearly comes from the other side of my family tree.

But one thing the Wagons all share is the fact that we are an active people and lovers of nature, which is why Rawnsley Park is the perfect place for us. The land in this part of South Australia bucks and pitches as if geology is doing an interpretive dance, throwing up bulbous hills and jagged mountain ranges, all softened by untold millennia of erosion. At this time of year, it’s pretty in a raw, visceral Australian way. The blush of green turns the flinty land into natural meadows, and the mountains glow pink and red in the gloriously gold sunlight of the late afternoons.

However there’s a really odd thing about this landscape. There is virtually no water anywhere, despite it being the middle of winter, and yet there are watercourses at every turn. There are channels carved into the clay soil where little creeks normally flow. There are falls of rock that are very clearly cascades. There are broad avenues paved with rounded pebbles that are, in normal circumstances, riverbeds. But there’s no water in any of them. It’s as if the entire countryside has been hit with a rampaging plague of feral paper towels.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015


Quorn is a small town about half an hour north of Port Augusta. One of the most notable things about Quorn is that it’s been used for decades as a film set for famous Australian period movies, from 'Sunday Too Far Away' (1975, set in 1955) to 'Gallipoli' (1981, set in 1915), to 'Robbery Under Arms' (1985, set in 1855) to 'The Water Diviner' (2014, set in 1919). Quorn has managed to do this because nothing ever happens in Quorn, ever, and thus it looked exactly the same in 1855, 1915, 1955 and today.

Of course the downside of nothing ever happening in Quorn is that it’s impossible to do anything in Quorn… presumably because that would ruin its cinematic reputation as a town in which nothing ever changes. As I walked the streets at 2.30pm on a Tuesday, the shops remained resolutely shut. In some cases this was because they’d closed down in the 1930s, but in other cases the reason was more elusive. The Aboriginal Art Gallery was locked and the front window was empty, unless South Australian Aboriginals have a previously unknown tradition of crafting carpet-covered room dividers and dusty display plinths. The second hand bookstore was locked too, but at least it had books on display in its window. True, they’d all bleached in the sun so that they looked like a collection of giant, slightly stained teeth, but at least they were books as advertised. The antique store had a folding OPEN sign out on the street, with a bunch of colourful helium balloons tied to it. Its main entrance was standing open. But when I tried the screen door… it was locked. I rattled it a bit, but no one appeared.

It occurred to me that maybe Quorn’s latest film was one of those end of the world movies. Perhaps something about a Rapture that only applies to small business owners? It seemed plausible, but if that were the case one would still expect to see evidence of a film crew or two. I didn’t so much as see a single Best Boy, let alone anyone with a camera or a directorial beret.

Still, there was always Quorn’s other claim to fame: the tourist railway. It’s an amateur railroad run by actual amateurs, who twice a week drive a century-old steam train and carriages up and down a narrow gauge track through the scenic Quornish hills, to the delight of tourists, people who sell pies and pasties to tourists, railway geeks and other middle class white people.

This was the odd thing that niggled me about the crowd for an hour before I finally worked out what it was. In modern Australia, you simply don’t see a crowd of four hundred people any more without at least a smattering of Chinese, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Arabs or other ethnic groups. The travelers on the Quorn railway were more white and middle-class than an episode of 'Midsomer Murders'. Or more damningly, more white and middle-class than the audience of an episode of 'Midsomer Murders'.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Port Augusta

On the third day of my odyssey, I arrived in Port Augusta.

What can I say about Port Augusta? They have a Big W. And the first instance of mobile reception since Norseman, not to mention the first instance of internet access since home.

I took Derek and Leslie to explore the town, walking along the riverside in the twilight.

We didn’t find anything.

Monday, July 06, 2015


Day Two of my cross-country drive took me off the edge of the Darling Scarp and down into the Nullarbor Plain.

In the middle of the plain, where it meets the ocean at the western end of the Great Australian Bight, I stopped to celebrate our progress with the only martini within a 500 km radius, and quite possibly the first martini that this corner of the world has ever seen. You’re welcome, Australia.

As evening fell I stopped at Nullarbor Roadhouse to spend the night. My motel room was built at some time in the 1960s, but while the hotel at Norseman was a faded reminder of a more elegant and prosperous time, the hotel at Nullarbor was always utilitarian and unlovely. The walls of my room were unpainted cement brick, and so thin that I could hear every word of the couple next door (and the wails of their baby). There was a tiny TV, an original bathroom with amber faux-onyx benchtops and harvest gold tiles, and bed linen the colour of haemorrhages. A small sign on the wardrobe warned that the water should be boiled before drinking. The whole room gave the impression of being designed to be simple to clean out after a depressed trucker shoots himself in it.

I stepped out into the cold night to take a walk. It may not be an advisable thing to do around most motels of this scabrous type, but Nullarbor has the benefit of being in the middle of nowhere, and thus outside commuting distance for most ne’er-do-wells. I walked some way down the highway, and once I stepped beyond the illumination of its floodlights and the sound of the idling rigs and the motel’s generator, I was enveloped in darkness and silence unknown in my normal life. There wasn’t a single vehicle on the road for over half an hour. The whole cold, silvery arm of the Milky Way was visible from horizon to horizon – the only visible thing in the darkness other than the lights of the motel a kilometre behind me. The silence was so complete that my mind hallucinated the faint chirp of insects, to add to the faint background hum of what I assumed is marginal tinnitus.

I normally love darkness and silence, but this was too much. Darkness and silence remove distractions and allow you to experience the small things, but in complete darkness and silence there are no small things, and you just experience emptiness.

It was in this nihilistic frame of mind that I walked back to the tiny speck of civilisation of the motel, and watched 'Alice in Wonderland' on illegal Bali DVD that they were inexplicably showing on my tiny TV.

Sunday, July 05, 2015


After leaving home at a dark and chilly hour, I drove all day through the farms and forests east of Perth, then through the marginal towns and wide open fields of the Wheatbelt, skirted the Goldfields towns of central Western Australia and finally made the first of my overnight stops in Norseman, 726 kilometres from home.

Norseman is one of the towns through which one must pass on a drive from the west to the east, as inevitable as menopause or another disappointing Adam Sandler movie. At one point, in the middle decades of the 20th century, when flying was a luxury and most cross-continental travelers drove their cars, it was a prosperous tourist town. But nowadays most cross-continental travelers fly, leaving the town to wither with only the slim pickings of truckers, grey nomads, and Swedish tourists who got lost after typing something into their GPS incorrectly.

My hotel was built in the 1950s, at the height of Norseman’s prosperity, and as such it’s a glamorous Art Deco construction of glass bricks, geometric light fittings and curving walls, with a sleek jarrah staircase and soaring ceilings.

Or rather it was a glamorous construction. Now the ceilings are bulging and badly patched, the cornices are coming away from the walls, and architectural features like the main entrance and the telephone kiosk, with their names etched into their frosted glass panels, have been nailed shut. There are attempts at glamour, but they mainly run to having holographic portraits of Audrey Hepburn hanging in the hallway.

My room was on the front corner of the hotel. As you can tell, there was a fifty-fifty chance that I’d wake up out in the street after the front of the building fell off.

As evening drew in I went for a walk. Derek and Leslie admired the slagheap in the town’s main mine, possibly the most massive man-made object within fifty kilometres in any direction. While it looks like clay it’s actually sand, which has been carved by the rain such that it looks like an ancient and ornately carved pyramid from some lost civilisation.

I had dinner at the local hotel, another grand building from a bygone era. While mine workers played pool and watched the football on the big screen, I had vegetarian pizza and cider next to a warm fire. Given that Norseman is 800kms from the city and 200kms from the ocean, it’s not surprising that the ingredients of my vegetarian pizza were clearly selected for their durability rather than their taste; the vegetable equivalents of Toyota Hiluxes.

Returning to the hotel, and discovering that the front had not fallen off yet, I went to bed. The bed was comfortable, but it was covered with a horribly creepy chenille bedspread, which was disturbingly soft and slick, like a seductive muppet. I lay there and listened to the hotel creak and groan as the front withdrew another couple of inches from the rest of the building, and with the gentle pitter patter of what I assumed was asbestos dust raining down from the holes in the ceiling I fell asleep.

Friday, July 03, 2015


Members of the Wagon family are based on both the west and east coasts of Australia, separated by four thousand kilometres of the country’s interior. However, we are a sentimental clan, and as such we’ve decided to have a family reunion. Rather than make one half of the family fly the full length of the country to come to the other half, we decided to inconvenience 100% of all Wagons and meet in the middle. In outback South Australia, which contains no native Wagons, nor indeed much of anything else.

Being an idiot, this particular Wagon is driving across with other local family members, then flying home. The flight will take three hours. The drive will take three days. To deal with this state of affairs, I will be relying on a) a bottle of gin and b) my traveling companions, Derek and Leslie.

It'll be a lengthy journey through the Outback, but hopefully we won't run out of essentials like petrol or cocktail olives.