15th April, 2021, Broken Hill to Peterborough: It’s often not the big tourist sites that one later remembers, but things smaller, more subtle. The desert town of Broken Hill is the same. What I will remember is the corrugated iron. Walls, houses, fences. So many cottages, where you rake the front yard rather than mow it, where the only plants are desert grasses in corners or in pots, or sometimes the whole shebang has been tiled, seemingly in a fit of temper, or even paved with artificial grass, alarmingly green. For some, a corrugated iron house is apparently not posh enough, so they replace the verandah uprights with Grecian columns or cover the façade in faux Spanish stucco. We smile, we point, we laugh out loud. We love this town, where the cottages might be corrugated iron but the schools and public buildings are fine blue stone or sand stone, grand, imposing, everlasting.
So we leave, equally buoyed by excitement of the west to come yet sad to be leaving, perhaps for the last time ever. So the road runs straight, west heading, in a last minute change of plan, for Peterborough. We’re immediately in desert, salt bush soft green against the red dirt plains, mirages again, trees on the horizon with trunks swallowed by sky, V-triple trucks wavering out of imaginary lakes into monsters, shuddering the air against the van as they roar past.
Peterborough (changed from Petersburg after WWI along with all the Germanic street names) was first invented as a cross on a map – a suitable place for all three Australian rail gauges to meet. It grew from that small black cross to a thriving railway town, and today seems populated solely with steam train enthusiasts, devoted to an era now all but disappeared. There are locomotives in the main street, carriages in the alleyways, model railways running in the newsagency. Then there’s the Steamtown Museum. We go see the sound and light show with a few dozen others, seated in the middle of the old railway roundhouse, which still houses dozens of old carriages of all guages. So the trains are great, but don’t go to Peterborough for the food, it’s awful.
18th April, 2021, Peterborough to Kimba:
But the west is calling. It’s not long before there are yellow wheat fields all around us, not a tree past the narrow road verge, the vastness all aglow in the morning sun. This ground must be rich, but only too soon it’s desert again, always desert but always different – stunted trees, yellowing grass, then more red dirt.
Soon the mountains rise up before us, drawing ever closer and increasing in richness – colours from a Namatjira paint box, sleek and elegant. So we follow up through the winding passes, higher and higher, through the southern Flinders Ranges, seemingly never ending curves.
So it’s a shock when, in a moment, we pass the crest, the ground drops away fast and the vast distant plain around Spencer Gulf is spread before us like a banquet. Olive greens and blues, slashed with white, mixed with the mist that always hangs around water. Skirting past Port Augusta as fast as we can, we drive through flaxen coloured fields into the town of Kimba – not a white lion but an indigenous word meaning ‘Bush Fire’.
We’re just half way across Australia!
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