My parents - inspired by their own childhood travelling memories - would pile my brothers and me into the car and set off into what felt like the great unknown. We drove from Perth to Monkey Mia to feed dolphins, and while the limestone Pinnacles of Nambung National Park were astounding, what blew my nine-year-old mind were the signs warning that we were passing the last petrol stop for hundreds of kilometres. We travelled from Sydney to Crescent Head for chilled-out beach vibes (and to be lulled by the heady scent of bonfires and salt), dreamt of braving the Canning Stock Route, and high-tailed it to Echuca in a day, our backseat patience rewarded with muffins by the Murray River as paddle-steamers pootled by. So, after a decade living abroad, it it was apt to celebrate my Australian return with a road trip. But where to?
White Cliffs is easy to adore. From a distance, it appears to be two cratered mounds rising above the saltbush plains. But these pearl- and ochre-hued hills house thousands of holes, which hopeful miners have dug in search of opals. What’s intriguing as you get closer though, is that beside this minefield is a vast subterranean world where dozens of houses (and even a motel) have been carved out of the earth. Often a corrugated metal sheet or weathered sofa is the only evidence that a dwelling lies beneath - but enter, and chances are you’ll find an ingeniously designed wonder.
Fascinating as White Cliffs may be, the journey there was half the fun. I’d passed the Darling River in flood, and seen emus dash across the glowing red earth at sunset. I’d stopped for a wine in Orange (where flavours are made wondrous by volcanic soil), and driven along roads so improbably straight that it was hard to believe they’d ever end. Returning home, I’d taken a detour via Mungo National Park, cooled my feet in Menindee Lakes, and walked with an Aboriginal guide through Mutawintji Historic Site, a wildflower-dotted oasis filled with the most astounding rock art - including an engraved kangaroo that’s believed to have been chiselled into the rock face nearly 40,000 years ago.
All this was sublime - the sort of experience that roots your firmly in the here and now - but what I remember most vividly was sitting outside the White Cliffs Hotel on my first night in town. As I watched the comings and goings around the much-awaited supply truck that had rolled in an hour earlier, a handful of opals appeared on the table in front of me. “What do you think these are?” a voice drawled. “Opals?” I replied, maybe a little too hopefully. And just like that, the conversational floodgates opened and a night of storytelling began. Because that’s a road trip’s biggest allure. Yes, the landscapes are divine and star-filled skies inspire, but a conversation with a passerby in an Australian outpost can delight - and may just change the way you see the world.
The again, you don’t need to venture far to uncover something wondrous - especially if it’s nature you crave. When odysseys into the NSW outback simply aren’t possible, I find reprieve in Sydney’s Royal National Park. Here, I can ramble the flower-scattered trail from Bundeena to Wattamolla, which is part of the park’s 26-kilometre Coast Track that takes in Wedding Cake Rock and the glittering Pacific. Or there’s the walk from Lady Carrington Drive to Palona Cave. Or I can keep things simple and find calm by claiming a spot on Bundeena’s sandy beach and listen to the sounds of the waves and the calls of the cockatoos.
Driving into the sunset, walking into nature, floating into the ocean. These simple things offer a reset; a chance to bask in landscapes that take us out of the everyday. Surrounded by the immensity of the natural world, we breathe deeper, strike up conversations with strangers, let our thoughts wander and embrace the urge to travel further. It’s all remarkably good for the soul.
Words by Liz Schaffer & Photographs by Angela Schaffer