Road to nowhere

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Sven Lindqvist tells the sad story of Australia's desert

Between Balladonia and Caiguna stretches the longest straight road in Australia, and presumably the world: 180 kilometres without a milli metre's deviation sideways.

The coastal desert is called the Nullarbor ("no trees"). All you see are occasional dried-up trees along the wayside, like those marker buoys with brooms sticking up. The last forest disappeared during a period of drought 15,000 years ago.

The history of the Nullarbor goes back to the time when Australia was part of Antarctica. After the two continents went their separate ways around 50 million years ago, the landscape was broken in two. Rivers that once ran from Antarctica into Australia continued in their previous course and Australia became unique in that the flow of water in its interior and on large parts of its south coast is not towards the sea but inwards. What were once rivers are now chains of thin salt lakes and the water from the irregular rains vanishes down into the limestone in this karst desert with its winding, undrained cirques.

Over hundreds of millions of years the effect of periodic world ice ages and sea-level rises brought marine sediments to the landscape. The limestone that covers the Nullarbor Desert is the former seabed.

The Nullarbor is the world's largest limestone plateau, a quarter of a million square kilometres in size. Beneath the plateau, there are caves, large and small, some eroded by the sea, others by streams of water from torrential rains falling in the interior. All caves "breathe" to some extent, and in the Nullarbor the breathing of the caves is particularly lively. They breathe in when the air pressure rises, and out when it falls. Air speeds of up to 72 kilometres an hour have been recorded.

The sighs and groans emanating from the blowholes through which the caves breathe have been the source of legends claiming that the caves are inhabited - with stories of subterranean cities and secret passageways to undiscovered gold deposits, and of ancient peoples living on underground, defying time.

The desert is at its most desolate between the Nullarbor and Yalata roadhouses. In the middle of the day, a red dust-storm comes sweeping along the coast. Wild gusts of wind tug at the car. The red vortex lifts debris from the ground and tosses it up in the air in whirling spirals. Trees and houses are shrouded in red mist. It's scarily beautiful; my heart contracts sharply in my chest, but nothing happens, and seconds later the vortex has moved on.

At Nundroo Roadhouse, where I stay the night, you are permitted entry to the bar only if you meet strict criteria for neat, tidy, clean dress, good personal hygiene, appropriate footwear, sobriety and unripped clothing. The management, moreover, reserves the right in each individual case to deny admission to those deemed to be behaving inappropriately.

I am woken several times during the night by violent cloudbursts beating on the tin roof. Will the rain make the road impassable? Have I, in this area of extremely sparse rainfall, managed to coincide with the only day of the year when water floods the road out into the desert?

Heavy black clouds hang like udders from the sky; the ground is covered in pools of water and there's a light drizzle. I drive the 50 kilometres to Yalata in the dramatic lighting of the sunrise.

Then I turn north through Yalata Community, an Aboriginal settlement, where the tarmac gives way to a washboard-like surface. The buzz is like driving across an endless cattle grid and the hard suspension makes the car body vibrate like a pneumatic drill.

After a long, bumpy stretch, the sand comes as a delightful, treacherous, relief. The car is suddenly floating agreeably, like cream on top of milk. You're suspended. But that's also when you run the greatest risk of getting stuck, as your tyres dig into the sand. The potholes are easier to negotiate. You drive round them, of course, if you can. Otherwise, you take your foot off the accelerator and let yourself swing down into the hole and up again.

I don't meet a soul on this stretch. I pass a score or more of wrecked cars at intervals along the road, showing that it's not without its dangers. I carry on north through the ever more naked landscape that I love. And suddenly I'm there. It's the railway. There's the first little signpost. It points west, to Watson, the next station. Straight on, heading north, the road goes up to Mara linga, a prohibited zone. A few hundred metres east stands the station sign: Ooldea.

The site of the Nullarbor's biggest natural watering hole, Ooldea became a junction on the transcontinental railway that was built between 1912 and 1917. The railway used 45 metric tons of water a day and, in ten years, company engineers managed to destroy an ancient natural resource.

The black people whose watering places had been destroyed congregated around the station in their hundreds to beg for water. Soon enough, the railway passengers realised that they could invite little black girls on board, get them drunk, abuse them and throw them off further down the line - where they had no choice but to prostitute themselves again for a free ride back to Ooldea. Within a few years, the Aborigines who had come from the desert healthy and well-nourished were destroyed by alcohol and syphilis.

An Irish-born journalist named Daisy Bates, convinced that the indigenous peoples of Australia were bound for extinction, applied for the position of "Protector of Aborigines" for the Northern Territory. But the post was considered too hazardous for a woman. Instead, she became "honorary protector of Aborigines" based in the town of Eucla. Sixteen months later, after a lecture tour, she went to Ooldea, where she immersed herself in the Aborigines' world unpaid and unprotected.

How did she bear it, year after year in the monotony of the desert, through winter storms and summer heat? What did she really do for the natives? Her book The Passing of the Aborigines (1938) offers no answer to these crucial questions.

Ooldea's station house and platforms have now gone, and all that remains is a little shunting yard with rusty rails and a small pile of concrete sleepers. And there inside a ring of white stones is a white-painted lump of concrete bearing the words: "1859-1951 Mrs Daisy Bates CBE. Devoted her life here and elsewhere to the welfare of the Australian aborigines."

No flowers, just thistles. The sun is shining and the wind is bitterly cold.

"Terra Nullius" is published by Granta (£10). It was translated by Dr Sarah Death

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran