Travel Story Spoilt for choice on trip south

Lucky Bay, Cape Le Grand National Park, Esperance. 
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Niall McIlroy

It’s a long way from Perth to Esperance but the day’s drive is worth it and there are a multitude of routes taking in many of WA’s easy-going and historic country towns.

I enjoy the “which way” as much as the “where”.

The where is Esperance for a couple of nights — I’m driving a friend who’s doing a show in the south-coast town.

But there is a choice of ways and I use more than one map app to plot the route. It’s a real drive, the best part of a day and well and truly long enough to shed the skin of city life.

From home in the southern suburbs, it doesn’t matter which way I go. Distance-wise it’s six of one about 700km any way. Time-wise, give or take a 15-minute difference.

But I desire the catharsis of the open road, so instead of spearing on down the Albany Highway through Williams to Arthur River, I decided I’ll leave the traffic in the west.

At North Bannister I head inland through green farmland, then I’m on the way through the woods.

 This year’s early spring is really a late, late winter. The air is crisp — at 11am, it’s about 11C.

Each town is an episode. Blink and you’d miss them at 100km/h. But the limit is 50 in town, the window’s wound down, I’m breathing the cool fresh air and at least getting acquainted.

 Trundling through Wandering, I’m trying to imagine the town’s favourite son, former Test cricketer Geoff Marsh, on his homemade cricket pitch, practising that resolute forward defensive stroke and that famous square cut. 

It’s a story I grew up with — the Wandering kid taking on the might of the West Indies.

There are fewer cars than expected and my mate nods off periodically although he insists I keep the stereo blaring if it keeps my eyes wide open.

The first tinge of regret on this long drive which demands relentless progress is passing the Dryandra Woodland without stopping to explore.

“Welcome to Narrogin,” I say out loud. I’ve announced every little place we pass through. It’s almost a confirmation that I’ve “been there” even though I don’t leave the driver’s seat. An exception is in Narrogin for a ridiculously priced packet of Mentos.

Hundreds of kilometres later in a town that doesn’t have a big shopping mall, sports centre, car dealership or any of the other accoutrements that may put a place on the map, we’re buying better-priced sweets at Ravensthorpe’s Yummylicious Candy Shack.

The sugar wards off a late-afternoon drowsiness induced by the combination of a carb-rich burger and chips lunch at Lake Grace and the mind-numbingly straight road that stretches east to Lake King.

 Winter sun glistens off wind-blown ripples either side of the gun-barrel-straight 10km causeway which crosses the salt lake. Some day soon all moisture will have evaporated, this lake will be parched, soil desiccated, land far less forgiving. 

It’s the bad habit of a lifetime, leaving a departure too late. Some would’ve been off at 7am, snacks and lunch on board, rolling into Esperance at 3pm or so. 

But on this trip the sun is setting as we’re still about 200km from the destination. 

I’m kept wide awake by shadowy crows taking off from kangaroo corpses as late as they can to avoid the Suzuki Swift’s grille. 

The air flashes with wings. Gnats, moths and mossies become one with my windscreen, wipers fighting through their thickening crust.

A succession of willy wagtails almost fly square-on into the side of my car. It’s hard not to swerve, or second guess them.

A duck and a pink and grey galah stand side by side next to a puddle. An odd couple.

It’s dark and then hilly and then the road blinks with the Morse code of headlights approaching then passing as we close in on Esperance. 

Esperance is bigger than I expect, the air is thick, wet and slightly fishy. There’s laughter and good-natured shouts among the big crowd on the foreshore. 

Park, pub, parmi and a pint — cold and very welcome — and the pillow gets an even better reception. 

Just as I drift off, I silently congratulate myself for insisting on two nights between the long drives. 

But then I wonder dreamily — which way home?

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