SikhNet's Annual Report - everything your donations make possible

Nullarbor Drive: A spiritual experience

The spirit yearns for this kind of peace and quiet and I guess at my age I much rather go to such remote parts rather th...

{‘The soul feels, sees and hears things which the mind does not fully understand. The soul is infinite, the mind is finite.’ (Inspired by Rumi.)}

Dya S 0.jpg

This is not exactly a sight-seeing travelogue. It is more an inner-pilgrimage without a destination. Just as life is a journey, not a destination, this was a drive without a destination. The destination did not matter, the journey did. It is about a drive from Melbourne in the south-west corner of Australia across the continent through the vast Nullarbor Plain and off the Great Australian Bight hugging the south coast of this majestic continent, to the south-east corner, Margaret River. Right to left, as my grandson says.

Meditation, simran (especially recommended long periods sometimes days), sadhana, even astral travelling, and time-out for self, for the soul, the inner spirit and such activity has always intrigued me. I have dabbled in numerous such activities, but I have always found that as a Sikh, ‘action’ of some sort like doing sewa, helping others grow, yoga, fitness exercises, walking, or even just engaging in kirtan and gurmatt discourses always appeared more productive and meaningful, spiritually, and often physically beneficial too.

As an example, recent research has uncovered that 9th Sikh Master, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was thought to have hidden himself away in meditation for 26 years (!) was actually in reality, actively promoting Sikhi universal values in spiritual tours in the north of the Indian sub-continent in that period! (A book will be released towards the end of this year by SYA – Sikh Youth Australia about his ‘true’ story, researched and authored by S. Gurmukh Singh OBE of UK.)

In my 60’s (between 2010 and 2018) I walked long distances (average 200km. per walk over one-week periods) in Malaysia, my country of birth, enjoying the beautiful Malaysian countryside, contemplating life on this planet in human form, and immersing in ‘naam’ - perhaps what we understand as – ‘searching for the Truth’. These ‘walks’ have been most rewarding physically and spiritually. In the process I have ‘walked’ almost the length of the Malay peninsula (from Penang to Singapore) along the old roads, sometimes using different routes.

Now, in my 70’s such long ‘walks’ appear to be beyond me though my spirit says I still have one more to carry out, on my ‘bucket list’ – from Sabha House in Kuala Lumpur to Khalsa-Land, Kuala Kubu Bharu. I have an infinity with SNSM – Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia from its inception in the very early 1960’s. In fact, I am one of the original participants of the first couple of ‘samelans’ (Sikh youth camps), in Port Dickson (1962 and 1963).

Hindus carry out a ‘sanyas’ in latter life, of shaving their heads, wearing simple garments of ‘sadhus’ (Indian holy renunciates), and leaving their families to go in search of their spiritual ‘truth’. My escapades are not that drastic, but certainly are for spiritual nourishment. This is my first such ‘drive’, hopefully of numerous more to come. This is the ‘Nullarbor spiritual Drive’.  

At the outset I must mention that we in Australia are extremely lucky so far from Covid-19. We have had cases, even deaths, lockdowns but not to the scale as experienced in numerous other countries. In fact, last year, a friend who works in the cremation/burial industry here joked that ‘business is down’ because less Australians have died last year compared to any other years of late! Due to lockdowns even deaths related to influenza and other communicable diseases, are way down and also deaths on roads! Ironically, the industry is suffering! Guru Ji has been kind to us.

First and foremost, I am writing this as a way, hopefully, of cheering up the reader. I think we are all suffering from ‘pandemicities’ – the fear, apprehension and the deep psychological invasion of talk and news, and the pre-occupation with the spread of the deadly Covid-19 not only at home but globally.

We all need to find some form of escape occasionally from this current and ongoing foreboding phenomena which has invaded our lives. Friends and relatives who barely read any newspaper or magazine or even watched the news before, are today fixated especially by their I-phones or smart phones, being bombarded by gloomy news, gory details, statistics of infections and deaths, conspiration theories, global shutdowns, even dark jokes about the pandemic and the vaccine. Domestic violence and mental issues are on the rise because of ‘lock-downs’ and the subconscious fear of the pandemic. Depression is at an all-time high. Most of us are coming to terms with our mortality, and that is frightening. Many are suffering because of job losses and financial strain. Hopefully, this missive raises the spirits somewhat.

Dya S 6.jpg

A drive across the Nullarbor is a relatively safe trip, but it is about 4000km. Importantly, the middle bit of about 1000km. along the coast of the spectacular Great Australian Bight is a ‘blackout’ area with virtually no internet or phone coverage, scarce water and very expensive fuel for the vehicle, if you can find a fuel station at regular intervals. One is almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. One depends on two-way radio or the regular truck drivers who ply this route and are in touch with each other and the emergency services.

At the time of this drive, Covid was well under control here, but we had to take the chances of sudden lock-downs between states. Our state premiers appear to do a one up on each other on closing down borders as soon as any Covid alarm bells ring in any state! The premier of Western Australia, the state into which we are driving, is the most trigger-happy. But then, his constituents love him for that, as he supposedly keeps them safe this way. Western Australia has barely had any lockdown or Covid cases. Luckily, our politicians and administrators listen to our medical experts and err on the side of caution.

My daughter Jamel acquired a good reliable and comfortable car for the journey and we set off from Melbourne on 17th May 2021. The weather – autumn moving into winter. Comfortably warm during the day but chilly cold at night. We carried adequate drinking water and also a 20 litre can of petrol, beside some food items and warm clothing. (She has planned to continue from Perth northwards along the coast all the way to Darwin at least, before deciding what to do next. She is still on the journey at the time of writing this. I felt I was not up to all that.) A drive around Australia is still on my bucket list though.

Our first day was uneventful, along a route that I have driven for the last 40 years – Highway 8 from Melbourne in Victoria state westwards to Adelaide, South Australia, a distance of about 800km. I could feel the strain and stress leaving me and my body relaxing, as the sky-line of the ‘big-smoke’ Melbourne receded in our rear view mirrors.

As dusk set in, about 6.30pm, we both recited Rehras, our evening prayer piece. We were close to the mighty Murray River, the longest river in Australia which flows from Queensland in the north-east through New South Wales and Victoria and has its mouth in South Australia.

We watched the sun dip away. Darkness suddenly spreading its blanket and the road ahead becoming just visible in our car lights as we both reached within, with the darkness around us, to the words of the prayer. I also remembered fondly that 3 years earlier, with my brothers, we immersed the ashes of our beloved Bebay Ji (mother) in this same river. She passed away at the ripe old age of about 104 years. Jamel and I discussed some aspects of Rehras after that and soon, we reached my brother, S. Baldev Singh’s home in the south Adelaide hills to a lovely home-cooked meal by Bhabi Ji, good company and a good night’s sleep.

Dya S 1.jpg

Next, Adelaide to Ceduna via Port Augusta - about 900km. With the Asa Dhi Var (Sikh morning musical prayer) on tap, we cut across two peninsulas - Yorke and Eyre. {Our morning routine after the ablutions and a quick breakfast (brekky, we call it) normally, was to be on the road as soon as possible. In the vehicle we recited JapJi Sahib (morning Sikh prayer) and then put on the Asa Di Var on cd. Then the music normally moved on to Islamic Sufi qawalis or my favourite old Hindi or English songs. I then had to tolerate my daughter’s choice of modern Panjabi/English songs and other most recent (excuse for) Hindi music! Most joyful and fulfilling were the periods when we chatted – also to keep away from nodding off at the wheel!} We set off early as we intended to reach Ceduna after stopping to meet some friends in Port Augusta. I decided to do some of the driving today.

We just did not have the time to pay our respects at the Adelaide gurdwara which also holds some great memories as we lived in Adelaide for 27 years. It is the hometown of our three girls, birthplace for two - Harsel and Parvyn.  Oldest Jamel, my fellow traveler and main pilot on this trip was born in UK.

Vegetation became sparse as we headed westward from Adelaide, past a romantically named ‘Wild Horse Plain’ where there was no horse to be seen - wild or domestic, let alone any other animal except rolling tumbleweeds! Past the towns of Port Wakefield (gateway to the Eyre Peninsula) and Summertown are a couple of magnificent red coloured dry salt/lime pans close to a small township called Lochiel. Otherwise, uneventful journey physically as we bypass Port Pirie which, true to Aussie character, has been named Australia’s ‘shittiest’ town by one of our TV channels!

Far from being considered boring and uneventful, to me ‘nothingness’ has its own amazing charm. When we move spiritually away from our materialistic pursuits (maya) which are going to remain behind as we move on, nothingness is a doorway to the realm of the Truth - Sach Khand. Indian religions call it the state of ‘shun’ (nothingness). We are physically and spiritually moving away from this reality as the drive continues. ‘Jag rechena sabh jhooth hai …’ (This world is an illusion, remember this O traveler.)

In this ‘nothing’ vastness, the mighty Flinders Ranges suddenly loom on the right and one catches glimpses of the glistening sea-coast, white beaches and clear blue water meeting the sky on the left. It is a sight which takes the breath away, and the spirit soaring. One enjoys this vastness for about 250km before the township of Port Augusta (gateway to Eyre Peninsula) appears like a mirage. Port Augusta is probably the main port of South Australia of historical significance. Camels and cameleers in the 19th and early 20th century sometimes landed in Port Augusta if they did not alight in Fremantle in Western Australia. (Camels helped to ‘open up’ the hinterland of Australia in the early years of ‘white’ settlement and the cameleers were mainly Muslims and Sikhs and mainly from the north of the Indian sub-continent and Afghanistan, hence the generic term ‘Afghan’ for all of them.)

Dya S 5.jpg

From Port Augusta we cut straight across west bypassing the Eyre Peninsula to the south, to Ceduna.

HITTING A KANGAROO.  We had been told that this would probably be inevitable on this trip! Unfortunately, we hit dusk before reaching Ceduna, our overnight stop. The time when the kangaroos are out foraging. I was just about to start Rehras when out of the bushes jumped a dark grey beautiful specimen of a kangaroo right in our path! These modern vehicles are so well technologically equipped that it virtually stopped itself as the impact took place. The kangaroo, with Guruji’s Grace, died on impact and we watched as it slid slowly across the road. The scene appeared to transpire in slow motion as we watched on.

Luckily as is common on such a journey in a sparsely populated region, there were no vehicles behind us. We alighted and briefly inspected the damage which was minimal, said a quick prayer for the kangaroo and dragged it off the road by its tail. We recited Sohila (prayer before sleep or last rites) for the kangaroo and then Rehras as we headed to Ceduna. The passing of the kangaroo was in our thoughts as we recited our prayers. We were responsible for taking a life. The circle of life continues… . We spent the night in a caravan park in Ceduna.

One of the residents in the caravan park turned out to be a ‘bush’ mechanic. (A bush mechanic in Australia is firstly from the vast rural areas and one who can work around the lack of adequate tools and spares … most of the time.) He checked the vehicle in the morning and in his typical Australian country drawl informed us, “Nehhh, nothin’ wrong with them wheels. No worries, she’ll be right mate. Av’ a G’da-ey”! (‘Your vehicle is fine to drive on. Have a good day friend.’)

We replenished our small stock of essential food, water and extra fuel. The journey truly into the nothingness starts today. We will have to take our chances with accommodation. I need a good night’s sleep these days, and I am also a prisoner to a sleep-disorder machine which blows oxygen into my lungs when I sleep. I have an oxygen deficiency.

Nullarbor means ‘no trees’ and the aboriginal folk call this vast nothingness – ‘Oondiri’, the waterless. Average rainfall is about 8 inches per annum.

Dya S 3.jpg

This was the start of the main stretch of nothingness. The Great Australian Bight on the left. The ground – shades of ochre to almost a blood red with patches of white suggesting limestone, gypsum and salt, low tumbleweed bushes, the occasional gum tree, stony outcrops, the occasional mirage when the terrain was flatter, thorny semi-dry acacia bushes sometimes - the Nullarbor Plain stretching in front of us. Coming into sight occasionally, the simmering ocean breaking into white waves as they smashed against the rocks at the cliff base, receding into varying colours of light blue, green, turquoise and emerald to darker shades of blue meeting an azure sky in the distance. Time stands still and the vastness as far as the eye can see gives one a sense of infinity.

The environment was so awe-inspiring especially the spectacular coast-line that we kept diving off towards the ocean and we barely covered 200km. the first day in. Such was the breath-taking beauty of this vast expanse of virtually nothingness, yet everything, where the inner senses were concerned. We just wanted to stop, be part of this amazing spectacle, even stop breathing rather than move along, least of all in a hurry.

Penong is the last stop for cheap(er) fuel and replenishing of water and essential food. We turned off left again at a sign saying LeHunte Jetty. Twenty kilometres of dirt track with white salt, lime and gypsum mounds, reddish half dried lakes and salt bush. At the end over an outcrop, the beautiful expansive ocean meeting the sky and white cliffs on land side. The jetty looked like a smugglers cove with a wooden jetty of about 200 metres. All abandoned now but a ghostly reminder, even in broad daylight, of a busy past when boats came in to drop off merchandise and pick up goods. Gypsum, lime and rock salt were the main goods going out from here, a sign told us. Crystal clear water. We could see shoals of small fish, sea-horses, colourful fish and other sea creatures weaving in and out of the gently swaying seaweed as we walked up the jetty.

Dya S 5.jpg

Back on the main (Eyre) highway, we took a left turn once again when we saw a sign saying ‘Whale Watch Centre’. This time a shorter dirt track drive with breathtaking views of an expansive smaller bight within the greater bight. We were informed that this was a safe-haven for whales of different kinds (mainly the Southern Right whales which come in from the Antarctic to the warmer waters of the Bight we are told) to give birth to their young and safely see them introduced to the vast blue yonder.

Just before dusk we arrived at an abandoned fuel stop in front of an almost abandoned Aboriginal community settlement – Yalata.

Yalata was one of four resettlement sites for the inland aboriginal people displaced from Maralinga, the atom/hydrogen bomb test sites by the British in the 1950’s.  Another sad saga of the displacement of the aboriginal people of Australia. The resident group of aboriginal people, the ‘Anangu’ were divided into four and trucked off in four different directions for resettlement when the area was earmarked for bomb tests. They are lost people today. Many from this camp have moved on to become virtually street dwellers in Ceduna and Port Augusta.

Our aboriginal companion Rachel Shields who joined us in Ceduna lit a bonfire and we set around it for Rehras as the day came to an end. As we reached within, reciting Rehras we could sense the pain of the Aboriginal people here, the restlessness of their spirits, yet there was a gentle sense of timelessness. The temporary nature of human life and the eternal nature of the soul loomed large as Guruji guided us forward.

After a quick-cooked feast of noodles (mee/meehoon/koeytiao goreng) by Jamel, we slept with the presence of warm friendly but disturbed souls around us. A rather desolate place, but a place where one can perhaps get closer to one’s inner self. There is nothing outside to distract you except the emptiness and perhaps the presence of ghosts of the past as the wind blows through the scattered red and ghost gum trees and low bushes, and the occasional howl of the dingo.

We decided to cover distance today. This is also the harshest part of the journey. About 1,000km. of more nothingness, even sparser vegetation, more prominent stony outcrops and gently undulating plains with the ever-present sparkling ocean on the left as we sped forward to the border of South and Western Australia states and further westwards. Truly a stark desolate vastness. Thank God for the bright sun which brought a sense of well-being and cheer.

Dya S 4.jpg

This is one of the toughest state borders in Australia to cross, for quarantine and Covid safety checks now, with forms to be filled, and the semi-desert remoteness does not make it any easier! We were in line with only two lanes of about ten vehicles ahead of us for about 45 minutes! It is a sense of relief when one has crossed. Thankfully, our border officials are friendly, though firm. Fuel here at the border is almost twice the price of fuel elsewhere!

Here there is a stretch of exactly 146.6km of a road straight as an arrow and one tends to speed up. Many accidents take place due to speed, narrowness of the two-lane highway, and road-trains (a semi-trailer with 3 to sometimes 4 trailers attached – called double-bogey or even triple-bogey) rushing past at speed. Special sections at regular distances are marked out on the road as runways for the ‘flying doctor service’ - such is the remoteness.

Tyre Trouble. Dusk set in as we sped on and just 80km. from the next ‘stop’ Norseman in Western Australia the vehicle started wobbling badly, just as we were settling to recite Rehras. We stopped and discovered a huge gash in the left back tyre!

Once again we experienced the true, beautiful spirit of the road-users here. We would not have experienced it otherwise. The very next two cars which passed us stopped and turned around to help. One was a simple Volksvagen van with a young couple with their three little children. The couple came to assist as the children noisily ran out to stretch their legs. The other car were two brothers of Greek origin. One of them claimed that he had done this journey over 30 times in his lifetime! On a two-way radio he radioed for a tow truck after deciding that the tyre could not be quick fixed. (These new modern cars do not come with a spare wheel!) On finding out that the tow truck would take about two hours they made space for us and our essentials in their vehicle to take us to the next town, Norseman where we could find accommodation and the tow-truck driver could pick up the car key from us.

As we journeyed with them, I requested if we could recite our evening prayer? They were very enthusiastic about that and sat in rapt silence listening to Rehras as we sped toward Norseman. They asked enthusiastic questions about Sikhs and Sikhi after that. They have now become lifelong friends. Two more souls on this planet know a little more about Sikhs and Sikhi!

Dya S 2.jpg

We had to stay two nights in Norseman due to the vehicle problem. I will not bore you with details except to say that we found incredibly hospitable folks – the two Italian brothers who helped us; the Publican (Pub owner) where we had to stay the first night as accommodation was scarce in Norseman; the tow-truck driver; the mechanic; the owner of the Railway Hotel where we stayed the second night; some caravaners who were from Queensland and New South Wales and some amongst them turned out to know me from my folk festival singing and kirtan concert presenting days, and generally the country folk of Norseman. The owner of the Railway Hotel even had a couple of cd’s of ours which she uses for her yoga classes.

If Ceduna was the last post before the Nullarbor, then Norseman is the Western Australian equivalent on the other side. It is a small country town which is on the route to the 19th. And 20th. Century gold rush towns of Karlgoolie and Coolgardie northwards from the south coast and was used by cameleers as they carried freight across from Port Fremantle to the hinterland. (A kid amongst a group of them on the streets of Norseman even asked me politely if I was a descendent of the cameleers. I must admit that I lied but it gave me the opportunity of telling them about the Sikhs amongst the Afghan cameleers! One of them even asked if I could come into their school the next day and tell them about myself!)

The rest of the journey became the usual sight-seeing ‘touristy’ type. The true spiritual experience was perhaps over, yet it remains with one. Our vehicle had to be left behind to be towed from Norseman to Perth for further repairs. Our aboriginal companion Rachel who had fallen behind caught up with us and accommodated us in her vehicle for the rest of the journey – to Bunbury, where we picked up a hire vehicle.  

From Norseman we could have headed north towards the gold-mining ‘cowboy’ towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, but I chose south towards the coast for Esperance which has a number of beautiful pink salt pans and greenery further on past the scenic coastal town of Albany onto Busselton which has a train-ride on a 2km. jetty and Bunbury, another beautiful oceanside town. My main interest was visiting an Australian sandalwood showroom just out of Albany. Sandalwood has always fascinated me because of it’s mention in Gurbani* (Sikh scriptures) and of course carvings made out of sandalwood. It does not have the lovely fragrance of Indian sandalwood, but, it is sandalwood nevertheless. We purchased a few perfumes and shampoo.

Dya S 7.jpg

*‘Chandan vaas venaspath, aval dhom n saim kheraba’.Bhai Gurdas Var24. {Like the fragrance of sandalwood, without discrimination he (Nanak) spreads the fragrance of universal truths.}

Margaret River village is a leafy, green laidback township. A great stop for a night or two and the river-mouth is spectacular, as it rushes into the Indian Ocean. For me, the journey is complete. We headed north past the historic port of Fremantle onto Perth where we finally enjoyed another home-cooked meal at my brother-in-law Bhagwan, and wife Surjeet’s abode. The entire journey was ten days. You need more time if you wish to do further sightseeing in this beautiful region of Australia. I flew back to Melbourne while daughter Jamel continues with her journey.

The spirit yearns for this kind of peace and quiet and I guess at my age I much rather go to such remote parts rather than the regular tourist attractions. I still have more such items on my bucket list!

Nanak says, find ‘the way’ (jugt) in all activities and everyday living. But I would suggest that once in a while, when you can, just go and find the space to be by yourself for introspection and personal reflection. And I am not talking about sight-seeing or exotic destinations – not even pilgrimages to supposed spiritual places or famous sacred sites.

Just … out there, to reach within.

Add a Comment