The Nullarbor, the word has to be said in that deep male cinema voice. The Nullarbor is a plain, stretching 1200km from Norseman in WA to Ceduna in SA. It is 200km deep from South to North where it becomes the Great Victoria Desert. The Nullarbor creates a natural divide between Western and South Australia. The Eyre Highway is the only road across and runs parallel to but not in view of the Trans-Australian railway line.
Edward John Eyre, with a lot of help from his Aboriginal guide Wylie, explored the plain in 1840 from East to West and the Surveyor Edmund Alfred Delliser gave it its new name. The railway was built in 1917. Before then WA was completely isolated from the Eastern states which themselves were very separate from each other. In fact before 1901 they were separate British colonies.
The building of the highway began in 1941 spurred by WW2 and the potential need to transport war machinery and troops from East to West, but was only completely sealed by 1976! Coming from Europe this makes me realise how recently Australia was made accessible to us white folks who wouldn’t last a day. Aboriginals had, of course, known and crossed the plain for a lot longer. I guess it would be wrong to call it a desert as there are plants, small hardy shrubs mainly, but after a while, from either end, the trees disappear which is what gave it its name.
Aboriginals call it Oondiri which means “The Waterless”. There is no groundwater here so people collect roof run-off water and have water transported in. Due to the scarcity and cost of it, travellers are responsible for their own supplies and there are warning signs at Norseman, telling you to stock up before embarking on that journey.
The road is still one of the main routes for products to reach WA. Most goods are imported to the Eastern states and when you order something online in Perth you can expect to add a week on to the delivery time as everything is brought over from Sydney or other hubs either via road or rail. Of course, Fremantle is the main port in WA but this detour does apply to many goods, nevertheless. Many of the road trains we saw were commercial goods trucks rather than mining road trains familiar from WA northern highways.
With the road trains come dead kangaroos. Sometimes we saw them every few metres. Road trains are fitted with roo bars at the front, sturdy aluminium constructions that knock kangaroos to the side like flies. If we hit them with our motorhome we would come unstuck – which is why we don’t travel after dusk, as that’s their time to come out of the bush.
During the first explorations, camels were used here for transport and to carry loads. They were brought in from India and Afghanistan and herded by Muslim cameleers from old British India, i.e. Pakistan and from Afghanistan. The old Brits didn’t seem to be interested really in their cameleers’ origins so they called them all Afghanis, which eventually led to the other main train line connecting Adelaide with Darwin just being called the Ghan, short for Afghan. Pioneer towns have very wide roads to this day as they had to accommodate huge camel trains and allow them to turn around. As long as camels have access to moisture retaining plants they can go for months without drinking and when they do drink they can take 100 litres on board – a third of their own bodyweight. Clearly they were preferable to horses. When trucks took over from them, the camels were released into the wild, which has proved to be as foresightful as the story with the rabbits and the foxes. Nowadays there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia, about half of them in WA and the centre. You would think they would have learned at some stage.
One of the curiosities along the Nullarbor is the Nullarbor Links Golf Course. It is the longest links course in the world with some holes more than 200km apart. It’s a full 18 hole course that begins or ends in Kalgoorlie and Ceduna depending on where you start. We saw several of the greens but, unfortunately, no players.
Most of the Nullarbor is in WA, 720km of it. We decided to do the drive over four days, taking it relatively easy, so after starting off in Norseman, we headed for our first stop at Caiguna. As I wrote earlier, there are trees at the start but they become fewer into the journey. We saw beautiful salt lakes and drove along the longest straight stretch of road in Australia which ends just before Caiguna. It is 146.6km long but it has to be said that the whole of the Eyre Highway is very straight and we hardly noticed that this stretch was any more direct than the rest.
The roadhouse campsites have a special atmosphere; it’s almost like a fellowship amongst people, more so than on other campsites. The facilities tend to be simple but functional. After having read some comments on my camping app, we were very pleasantly surprised. I think some people really do expect the latest luxuries. We find that old is just fine as long as there is a certain amount of pressure in the showers (non-drinking water) and it’s basically clean.
The weather was relatively cool and overcast for much of our journey along the Nullarbor, which added a special something. Towards evening and during the nights we had thunderstorms, spectacular lightning displays. As the plain is very, eh, plain I was worried that we might get struck because, not only does our fibreglass home not conform to the usual metal Faraday’s cage and would, in fact, go up in a cloud of smoke, but we are also blessed with Roddy’s invention on top: the gargantuan metal rooftop antenna, concealed as a roof rack. Often we were the tallest vehicle on site which was a bit worrying… As you can tell, nothing happened, though.
Eucla was our second stop. We had planned to drive on to Border Village in SA but decided to stay in Eucla due to the time change. SA is 2.5 hours ahead of WA, which might have meant that the campsite was closed. As we had been heading straight east the change in daylight at sunrise and sunset was noticeable. Even Eucla has its own time zone, West-central time, which is 45 minutes ahead of Perth. The sudden switch to 2.5 hours ahead in SA even caused us a bit of jetlag – it was strange to have to get up early enough for the 10am chuck-out time at the first SA campsite after having lived on WA time the night before.
Eucla is the last town in WA, which felt strangely sentimental and made me realise how much a part of my heart this country has become. We drove to the old Eucla village by the beach which is slowly being swallowed up by the sand. This is due to those rabbits mentioned earlier. They ate all the plants in the dunes, which made the dunes unstable and caused the death of the old town. Eucla was rebuilt up on a hill and all is good now.
Staying in WA for another night also had the advantage that I could use up all our vegetables for another gourmet meal followed by a dessert of fruit salad. There is an actual border between all states, which mainly exists to enforce strict quarantine restrictions. SA is mainly concerned about WA fruit flies. There are none in SA and they want to keep it that way to protect their crops. We have noticed this btw – no wee flies in the grapes! You can understand our disappointment when we were not controlled at the border… Only trucks going into WA were inspected. However, all was not over!
So, after the uneventful border crossing we continued on to the quite iconic Nullarbor Roadhouse. It makes the most of its history and location with numerous info plaques and what amounts to an outdoor museum, showing off its own journey from the beginnings to the present day.
Our neighbour was a middle-aged woman who was travelling with her 14-year old daughter. They had been travelling for three years and were now on their way back home to Brisbane for the first time since leaving. The girl receives her education via the School-of-the-Air. I was in two minds about the situation, not that it’s anything to do with me. On the one hand, of course, she will be learning an immeasurable amount travelling. She was also fairly confident talking with adults but there was something almost middle-aged about her. We couldn’t help wondering how much she was missing out on peer friendships during these years and how well she would integrate into a standard school environment back home. I’m sure my own kids would have revolted at some point. It brought home to me again how much parents’ decisions about their own way of life affects the children – whatever that is. How and to what extent have my own choices affected my children? I know how my own parents’ stories have impacted on me. There is no fault, though, we all try our best, whatever that is.
There was more thunder and lightning that night but, as we had a massive Telstra tower next to us, we weren’t bothered. We just sat in the driver seats with our wine and watched the spectacle all round.
The Great Australian Bight is the half-moon carved out of the south coast of Australia. As the Bight keeps carving, the Eyre Highway edges ever closer to the coast. Remember that we drove circa 200km straight north from Esperance to Norseman before the Bight starts so by the time we were in SA the Bight was close to its highest, the Head of the Bight, which opens up amazing views of the edge of the continent. Miles and miles of sheer and ragged limestone cliffs! I couldn’t get enough of the sight. The feeling of standing at the final rocks of a continent always has a very powerful effect; the thought that the ocean stretches all the way to Antarctica without being interrupted by land is breathtaking, a point so easily visible on a world map. It makes me feel in awe of this beautiful planet we share and of the power of nature.
Our last day took us to Ceduna where we finally came across the dreaded quarantine check. We were surprised that they left it this late but I guess up to Ceduna there are no real crops grown, nor are there other settlements or opportunities to stock up. By chance we met up in the quarantine line with the woman-daughter team again. They had six bags of food confiscated! How can that happen? There are signs everywhere and from the very start of the Nullarbor. Eventually it was our turn. The officer came into the van and inspected the fridge and the empty fruit bowl. He asked about potatoes but we had none so he was happy. I had been worried about my sourdough starter but he wasn’t interested. I would have thought that with the number of cars traversing the plain, insects and bacteria would catch a lift somewhere even though they can’t travel by themselves but I guess controls like this help to keep pests to a minimum.
We saw one cyclist! A lone man with a German and an Aussie flag flying behind him. I wish we had stopped rather than just wave but we couldn’t pull over. Cyclists regularly ride across the Nullarbor and there are websites dedicated to it and even a cycle race, the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. The cyclists have to be very careful to carry enough water and not to be sucked under a road train. There are stretches without a roadhouse for 180km, so no opportunity to buy more water! Argh. Still, I can understand the lure of the challenge and the feeling of achievement at the end of each day. My sister once cycled from her hometown of Reutlingen in Baden-Württemberg, in southwest Germany, all the way to Scotland. As the weather was horrendous, I met her in Edinburgh on a torrential Sunday morning and persuaded her to put her bike in my car and come back to Troon with me. It was so amazing to see her there, just with her bike and saddlebags, drenched but oh so happy. I quite fancy a long-distance cycle trip one day – who is up for it? I have always loved the idea to just leave wherever you live and start walking or cycling to wherever. When we did the Camino in 2010 (we were me, Roddy, Paul, Tina and Jane, out first patchwork family holiday) we walked from our home in Troon to Prestwick airport, flew to Porto, walked to Santiago, flew back to Prestwick and walked back home in the middle of the night. I think it’s the simplicity that I like so much. It grounds you somehow.
Back to Ceduna! We stayed for two nights, stocked up and had the fabulous fish and chips from Billy’s chip shop that Adelle had recommended. The girl in the chip shop even sold deep-fried Mars bar so we had the Scotland conversation. She said she had visited once and wanted to go back because she had loved it. I asked her where she went but she couldn’t remember. She said she had been in England with her friend and they drove up to Scotland for the day “to that really popular place” and got pissed so she doesn’t remember anything but it was great. Hm!
On the campsite we met a couple who were towed to the site next to us. They broke down 250 km from Ceduna and waited for 6 hours in a lay-by for a pick-up truck. Their car was put on top of the truck and the caravan was towed. We have been so lucky so far with only a wee chip in the windscreen.
After four days’ driving it was lovely to chill and to not drive for a day so we sat back and made plans for the next wee while.