The road less taken | Daily News


Lankan-born Australian drives 4000 km from Perth to Sydney

The road less taken

Dr Sunil K Govinnage
Dr Sunil K Govinnage

The road that bridges Perth and Sydney has embraced drivers of varying kinds. But not many motor vehicle drivers, naturally owing to the four-figure kilometre statistics. Driving a neat 4000-km journey is no cakewalk. It takes much courage. It takes much determination. And above all, it takes over at least five days to complete such a journey.

If a Perthian wishes to migrate to Sydney, another of the eight capital cities in Australia, you need to depend on interstate car transport. Unless you are into the heavy truck industry, making such a journey could be a risky endeavour.

That’s exactly why the fact that a Sri Lankan-born Perth-based poet, with a recently earned doctorate, takes up the journey to Sydney makes quite a strong case.

Mind the keywords: A Sri Lankan. A poet. Domiciled in Perth. Recently earned a doctorate in mining laws. He wishes to make a 4000-km car journey across Australia.

And he is Sunil Govinnage.

Immediately after earning the PhD, Govinnage wanted to make that long journey from Perth to Sydney. Many roads diverged before him and he was to cross the famous Nullarbor Plain and pass several Australian time zones before finally arriving in Sydney.

We can certainly count Dr Govinnage among the sizeable diasporic writers domiciled in Australia. He has been comfortably settled down in Perth for many years. Why, then, did he want to take this journey?

“I made the journey because there was an open road from Perth to Sydney! This trip was something I had in mind as I have not travelled much by road in my domiciled country. Crossing the Nullarbor, either way, is a kind of a dream for many Australians. Some make this journey and others do not,” Dr Govinnage begins to anatomise his expedition.

When he refers to Nullarbor Plain, Dr Govinnage narrates one of the longest straight roads in this planet earth. Called the Eyre Highway, this road lies between Western Australia and South Australia. The highway is named after John Eyre who crossed this stretch of road between two States in 1841.

For over 50,000 years, our wayfarer is certain, many Aboriginal people would have made this journey on foot. Any such record of such journeys, unfortunately, is not available. The Eyre Highway is about 1675 km long across Nullarbor and takes approximately two days to cross. For Dr Govinnage, however, it took only four days to travel the stretch of Nullarbor.

Dr Govinnage took over this journey immediately upon completing the doctoral studies researching into Western Australia’s environmental regulations on mining and environmental protection. Could there be any connection?

“Of course, yes. A few months after I arrived as a skilled migrant in Australia, I flew to Melbourne from Perth for a job interview; my first unsuccessful job interview in Australia. After the job interview, I returned to Perth via a Greyhound bus travelling across Nullarbor for the first time in 1988. My first journey back from the eastern seaboard to Perth, not only gave me some insights into the arid nature of my adopted country, but also motivated me to read further on the environmental issues that have impacted the ecosystem of Australia. I think my first journey across Nullarbor and my professional interests in the Australian mining industry motivated me to do my PhD on mining regulations and environmental protection.”

There are still many untested assumptions about the notion of prosperity from the mining industry in Australia. The notion about the generation of jobs from mining, and actually whether the projected employment figures have been met and what type of environmental impact would have occurred are issues to be further examined. Right now, there are debates going on in Australia about the approval of Adani coal mine project in Queensland. While various mining prosperity related assumptions may be true in the short term mining, the mining industry has contributed to many negative impacts concerning the environment across Australia.

In Western Australia alone, there are about 17,000 abandoned mines which cannot be rehabilitated for a few generations.

This kindled the curiosity in Dr Sunil Govinnage in order to undertake the journey. He had an aching desire to see his adopted country. More than that, he wanted to test his endurance of driving in somewhat dangerous roads. Many accidents and fatalities have happened on these roads.

The road kept going. It never seemed to end. The cold nights led to cold mornings. And the cold mornings led to cold nights once more. He had to hold the steering wheel of the Holden Astra firm and proper. It was an important safety precaution to observe every time he got behind the wheel. At times, his lonely heart cried out without warning. At such times, he consoled himself by reciting a poem or two long-buried in the memory.

“An instantaneous wrong reaction when driving at 110 kilometres per hour could kill you as most of the journey was on a dual carriage roadway where long trucks called ‘road trains’ travel both ways carrying heavy goods. On many occasions when passing a road train, the distance between my driver’s side mirror and the road train’s right end was only a few centimetres. I tested my mental ability by focussing on driving alone and following the road safety rules all the time.”

Nullarbor Plain is a strange road. There is nothing between two stops for fuels or refreshments. On three spots, the road is also used as an airstrip for emergency landing for the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. Both sides of the arid bush are still home for Kangaroos. Worse, they could jump on to the road without any notice.

“I did not hurt a single Kangaroo. But I saw thousands and more Kangaroo carcases on the road. That, I had to avoid.”

The journey also helped the wayfarer write many poems during the stopovers and overnight stay. Reputation as a bilingual diasporic novelist and poet aside, Govinnage has received rigorous training as an academic.

“In a way, this journey was like the experience of the horseman in Robert Frost’s famous poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. But in my case, crossing a desert and several old mining towns provided insights into how fragile the Australian economy as we largely depend on renewable energy. In that context, this journey was a real inspiration. It is simply like an unplanned postdoctoral fellowship!”

The journey was a reawakening process. Good and difficult travels always not only challenge but also inspire the traveller. In all probability, Govinnage would not have lived to tell this story. He would have perished on a road accident – his bones getting along, alone, with the Kangaroo carcass residue. But he arrived in Sydney, with none of such probability, in one piece. There was not even scratch in his Holden Astra, which he now terms as Lotus Princess.

The journey exposed him to a few great Australians who live under very difficult situations and would never come under the radar of Federal politicians in Canberra unfortunately.

“For example, I met a woman in a rural New South Wales town who has lost her family farm due to prolong droughts affecting the rural New South Wales. Having abandoned the farm, she and her family had lived for over 20 years. Now she is working as a cook to make ends meet. But she had not lost her spirits like many other impoverished people I know and met in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. I have asked this inspirational woman whether she had written to her Member of the Parliament about their loss. She said “no” emphatically, adding that “they are” not interested in the plight!”

The lady has become one unknown figure in the statistics about the Australian drought. But she is not the one to give in yet. During the brief conversation, our wayfarer could read the lady’s remarkable resilience.

There were many other experiences. Govinnage has seen the Great Australian Bight from three points during his Nullarbor crossing. He has seen the sunrise over the Flinders Range in South Australia. He has seen groups of sad-looking aboriginal people looking for cigarette butts and empty bottles on the beautiful Ceduna foreshore as he went to watch the sunset.

The trip from Sydney to Perth is breathtaking. Plus, it is definitely an interesting journey which takes the traveller through old mining towns and popular destinations. The 4000-km figure describes the shortest route between Sydney and Perth. No one in his right mind would undertake such an endeavour, they would say. But then you wish you had the courage to undertake such an endeavour.

Dr Sunil Govinnage had the courage to take that road less travelled. And that has made all the difference.

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