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The Nullarbor: The long & lonely road

Stick your outback soundtrack on the stereo: the quintessential pan-Australian road trip is a soul vacation that offers one hell of a lot of time to think — and play a few holes of the world’s longest golf course

The Nullarbor: The long & lonely road
The Nullarbor, Western Australia. Image: James Draven

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Finally I’ve found it. My golf ball: bright white against the clotted, blood-red dirt, it’s been hiding in plain sight — nestled on a pillow of bones.

This is not your average golf course. It’s 18 holes, par 72, and over 850 miles long. You can’t get around it in a golf cart — you need a campervan. It’s so remote, so wild, so dry, that these remains have lain here, with feet in the air and head on the ground, for long enough for them to be picked clean. They’re otherwise undisturbed and right on the spot where their marsupial owner died.

I’m not much of a golfer. Hell, on this Hadean earth, scattered with lumps of meteorite and — as a roadhouse museum attests — fragments of fallen space station, it took me a while to drive the tee into the ground and get the ball to stay balanced on the damned thing. Although it’s something of an oxymoron, my shot has technically landed on the fairway, and now I’ve found the ball I’ll play it from the madness and the soil in which it lays. This course is an exercise in self-policing, and despite there being nobody else around to see me should I choose to cheat, I won’t. I’d see; I’d know.

The Nullarbor Links is a chain of holes on a golf course that begins in the outback gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, and finishes at Ceduna, South Australia. Behind roadhouses, and next to petrol stations, are its various holes, which often constitute little more than one patch of AstroTurf to tee off from and another as a putting green, with nothing but dusty, primordial clay in between.

It’s one of the few things that constitutes entertainment over the course of one of Australia’s great wilderness drives, the ever-long Eyre Highway, more commonly known simply as The Nullarbor. A place where everything feels like the movies, this route is something of a rite of passage for Australian travellers and ‘grey nomads,’ as caravan-towing retirees are known down here.

Nullarbor literally translates as ‘no trees,’ and kids who are forced to make this 862-mile, sparse, near-featureless journey with road-tripping parents frequently refer to it as the ‘Nullar-boring.’ Sure, there’s a freedom within, there’s a freedom without, but with no landmarks, I-spy gets dull pretty quickly.

Most people would choose their travel companions wisely on such a long, barren trip, but I’m driving this lost highway alone, and I want to go all the way to the horizon.

On these endless, empty plains, the arid landscape is as much a desert of the mind as a literal one. There are a handful of sights along the way — the ruins of a telegraph station, and chunks of the crash-landed Skylab space station that fell to Earth here in 1979. Further along at the head of the Great Australian Bight, southern right whales lolling in the ocean below the cliffs offer an opportunity to go whale watching without leaving terra firma — but there’s more to be found in such solitude. Seemingly infinite space to think can become a purgatory of self-exploration.

A sleepwalk dance and a grim fandango, running up that road with only a decade-old iPod for company. Driving so long, so far, alone, my playlists fast become my best friends: a soul search party on an expedition of introspection.

Ball in hole, and back behind the wheel, my mind wanders along 90-mile straights, while my eyes wince into the sunrise or squint into the dull and dusk. Damn the dark; damn the light.

As I finally arrive to civilisation, my eyes are stabbed by the flash of neon light: strip malls, supermarkets, street lamps, funfairs. Incandescent, artificial light obliterates not just the dark, but shines its scouring beams into the corners of my mind.

What the hell am I doing here? I want to turn back, back to nothingness, and vanish into the land of lonely, lost golf balls… but I’ve forgotten what it is I was looking for.

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