Crossing the Nullarbor via National Highway One is the quintessential experience of the outback and crossing it is a rite of passage for any self respecting Australian, yet it is a path few Australians follow. The Nullarbor Plain is famously known as the longest stretch of straight road in the world. Consequently, it also has the nickname Nullar-boring so when the few Aussies and international tourists who do make the journey, they consider it a chore and something to be achieved as quick as possible. Contrary to popular belief, if you have the time explore, then it’s as interesting as you are prepared to make it as I have outlined in the following facts and details. However, with my recent experience of the crossing, it is infinitely more interesting on the way over than it is on the way back.
Nevertheless, the Nullarbor crossing is a once in a lifetime drive which is recommended to road enthusiasts worldwide. Road trips in Australia are just as popular as they are in New Zealand or the USA and crossing Australia through the desert to experience its total vastness and awesomeness should be on everyone’s bucket list.
1) Distance and Transport
The road across the Nullarbor Plain is called the Eyre Highway and it connects Norseman in Western Australia (WA) with Port Augusta in South Australia (SA), a distance of 1675km.
The Nullarbor’s claim to fame is one of the world’s longest straight stretches of road. The Ninety Mile Straight, which is 147km, starts directly west of Caiguna in WA. The first motorcar crossed the Nullarbor Plain in 1912 and was fully sealed in 1976. There is a roadhouse every 200km or so, so there’s nothing to worry about. You can get accommodation in several places and there are many places for free camping.
The Eyre Highway is also a major trucking route which means that someone will be along to rescue you if you break down! Driving across the Nullarbor is no longer a challenge as it was in days gone by. However, the Nullarbor is still a remote area and when travelled by road you can expect to pay high prices for fuel and food. Make sure your vehicle is reliable before crossing as mechanical repairs are expensive and time consuming, especially if parts have to be freighted in.
WA’s remoteness and distance forms a natural barrier to most pests, weeds and diseases present in other states. However, with a nation on the move unwanted items can easily be transported unwittingly and threaten to undermine WA’s biosecurity. The officials here take their job just as seriously as the US border officials checking people and cars on their way out of Mexico. You will be stopped on your way into WA, interrogated and searched for contraband in the form of fruit and vegetables at the border quarantine station.
The Eyre Highway in this area also doubles up as a runway for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). The tyranny of distance can mean the difference between life or death if there is a bad accident on the road. There are no medical services between Norseman and Ceduna so the RFDS is it. The RFDS is also an essential service for rural and remote Australians in the rest of the country.
2) What’s in a Name?
The word ‘Nullarbor’ is derived from the Latin meaning for nothing (nullus) and tree (arbor). As the name indicates, you will be lucky to see any tress along this desert plain. The sparse vegetation consists of low salt bush and blue bush scrub in this flat, arid / semi-arid country.
The Eyre Highway is named after famous explorer Edward John Eyre who was the first European to cross the Nullarbor in 1841. Eyre soon summed the place up with his quote “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”. It’s a wonder why he proceeded to cross it anyway! However, in the words of a true explorer, in the same year he was also quoted as saying “If there is any road not previously travelled, then that is the one I must take.”
Eyre Bird Observatory is located approximately 50 km southeast of Cocklebiddy, about 1km to the north of the Great Australian Bight, at the site of the old Eyre Telegraph Station. The Eyre Bird Observatory is a nationally significant site for ornithological and environmental research. Surrounded by the Nuytsland Nature Reserve, this area of Australia is home to over 240 species of birds with many of them being rare and endangered. Wardens at the Eyre Bird Observatory offer a pick up service operating from Cocklebiddy Roadhouse. The Observatory also provides overnight accommodation.
Despite the Nullarbor having very harsh weather conditions with rainfall averaging 200mm per year, it is home to a surprising amount of animals as alluded to by the amount of iconic wildlife signs on the Eyre Highway. As well as birds, kangaroos, emus, wombats, dingoes and feral camels also call the Nullarbor home.
The first 24 camels were imported in 1860 for the Burke and Wills expedition. At least 15,000 camels with their Afgan handlers came to Australia during the 19th century for transport and construction during the colonisation of the arid central and western parts of Australia, Many were released into the wild after motorised transport replaced the camels’ role in the early 20th century. By 2008, it was feared this population numbered about one million and was projected to double in ten years. Since then there has been a huge culling program to reduce these numbers and the devastating effect on the desert’s fragile ecology. Sightings are more likely during the summer months and they tend to migrate south to obtain water.
If you travel through the Nullarbor Plain around between May and October you will be able to see Southern Right Whales in their nursery grounds from the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, situated between Nullabor Roadhouse and Ceduna in SA. Visitors have reported seeing up to sixty mothers and their calves surfacing as close as 20 metres to shore. There is an entry fee for this but is well worth it.
The Nullarbor is officially home to the earth’s largest piece of limestone (200 000 km2 and 1200 km from east to west at its furthest point) and from space it looks like a giant tried to take a bite out of the land between southern WA and Southern SA. This is called the Great Australian Bight. Travellers heading east from Border Village should definitely take the time to view the Bunda Cliffs which can be viewed at several scenic lookouts located very close to the Highway between Border Village and Nullarbor Roadhouse. A vista of perpendicular limestone cliffs dropping 90 metres or so into the Southern Ocean for hundreds of kilometers is a wonderful sight. Visitors should note that some scenic lookouts are definitely much more spectacular than others, and be careful not to get too close to cliff edges as the limestone cliffs Have a habit of crumbling into the ocean below.
The Caiguna Blowhole is located 5km west of Caiguna in WA and 10 metres off the Eyre Highway and access to the site is well signposted. In this area, blowholes are formed by chemical and physical weathering processes which erode the limestone bedrock common in this part of Australia. 10km to the north west of Cocklebiddy Roadhouse in WA lies Cocklebiddy Cave. In 1983 a French caving expedition created history by exploring the underwater cave to an unprecedented distance of 6.4km. This record was later broken by 20metres in 1995 by an Australian named Christopher Brown. In recent years Cocklebiddy has gained an international reputation as a site for one of the world’s largest cave systems. Within the Cocklebiddy cave system is Dead Dog Cave where the mummified remains of a Tasmanian Tiger was found. With the last known Tasmanian Tiger becoming extinct in Tasmania in 1936, the Tigers did actually live on mainland Australia thousands of years ago.
5) World Records
The Nullarbor can claim several world records. Not only does it contain the world’s largest piece of limestone, the longest underwater cave and has the world’s straightest stretch of road, it also has the longest straight section of railway in the world at 478km. The Indian-Pacific railway runs twice weekly from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide and takes three nights to cover the 4352km journey.
The Nullarbor is home to the world’s longest golf course. The Nullarbor Links concept is unique with its 18-hole par 72 golf course spanning 1,365km with one hole in each participating town or roadhouse along the Eyre Highway. The holes go from Kalgoorlie in WA to Ceduna in SA.
Rawlinna station occupies an area of approximately 8,000 square kilometres or 2.5 million acres in the remote southeast of WA, making it the largest sheep station in the world. The station encompasses part of the Nullabor Plain.
The traditional landowners of the Caiguna area and other western nullarbor lands are the Ngadju and Mirning peoples. Ngadju is centred around Norseman and east toward Balladonia in WA. The Mirning people are a group of Indigenous Australians whose traditional lands lie in the coastal region of the Great Australian Bight in the south-west of SA and bordering WA. Historically, the Nullarbor on the central south coast was used by the semi-nomadic ‘Spinifex’ and the indigenous ‘Wangai’ people for thousands of years. The Anangu people live in the Yalata Lands surrounding the Yalata Roadhouse which is situated 94km to the east of Nullarbor Roadhouse and 51km west of Nundroo. The Anangu people were forced to vacate their traditional lands further to the north around Ooldea, in the vicinity of where the Indian Pacific Railway now runs. This was because the British government used this area to do nuclear tests at Maralinga in the 1950s. The area was contaminated with radioactive waste. British and Australian service men were purposely exposed to fallout from the blasts, to study radiological effects. The local Aboriginal people have claimed they were also poisoned by the tests and in 1994, the Australian Government reached a compensation settlement with Maralinga Tjarutja of $13.5 million in settlement of all claims in relation to the nuclear testing. Previously many of these facts were kept from the public.
At the Yalata Roadhouse there is a very good selection of Aboriginal Arts and Crafts for sale. If you plan on leaving the highway in the Yalata region, it is necessary to buy a permit from the Yalata Community Inc (YCI) and the Yalata Land Management Unit at the Roadhouse as this is Aboriginal owned land, managed by for conservation of biodiversity and the sustainability of traditional cultures. They also manage the Great Australian Bight Marine Park 90km away where there is superb whale watching but there is now a great modern facility where you can pay to go in at the entrance. Yalata Roadhouse is due to undergo major renovations so please check before relying on buying fuel there.
Afghan Rocks, named after an Agfan camel driver who was shot by parched travellers for washing in an unpolluted waterhole. See his grave near Balladonia Homestead in WA, built in 1889 and now home to an art gallery depicting the region’s history.
Edward John Eyre became the first European to successfully make the Nullarbor crossing in 1841. Eyre departed Fowlers Bay, SA in November 1840 with John Baxter and three Aboriginal men. Three of his horses died of dehydration, so he returned to Fowler’s Bay and departed on a second expedition in February 1841. By 29 April, the party had reached Caiguna in WA. However, due to a lack of supplies and water led to a mutiny. Two Aborigines killed Baxter and took what was left of the supplies. Eyre and the third Aborigine, Wylie, continued on their journey, surviving through bush craft and fortuitous luck in receiving some supplies from a French whaling vessel anchored at Rossiter Bay. They completed their crossing in June 1841.
Arthur Charles Jeston Richardson became the first cyclist to cross the Nullarbor Plain. On Christmas Day in 1896 he arrived in Adelaide in SA after 31 days of pedaling from Coolgardie in WA Carrying only a small kit and a water-bag, he followed the telegraph line as he crossed the Nullarbor.
The Australian Overland Telegraph Line was a 3200km telegraph line that connected Darwin in the Northern Territory with Port Augusta in SA. Completed in 1872 the Overland Telegraph Line allowed fast communication between Australia and the rest of the world. An additional section was added in 1877 with the completion of the WA section of the line. It was one of the great engineering feats of 19th century Australia. The Eucla Telegraph Station was established in 1877 as a repeater station and at the time, both the SA and WA colonial administrations operated the telegraph station. This lonely outpost was built in WA 20km from the SA border and transmitted up to 600 telegrams a day.
Eyre Telegraph Station was also a major repeater link in a chain of stations and the completion of the line enabled WA to be in communication with the rest of the world. This great feat of engineering also represented an important symbol of Australia’s growing sense of nationhood.
Near the remains of the Eucla Telegraph Station, are the remains of an old jetty which was also built in 1887 to provide seaport facilities for the Overland Telegraph line and local pastoralists. Today the Eucla Telegraph Station is almost totally swamped by a sand dune and all that remains are the limestone foundations and partial walls. In the Eucla township there is a motel and between rooms 30 and 31 there is a small room which houses the Eucla Museum. It is quite interesting, especially the picture of the Telegraph Station which was fully intact some 60 years ago and some artefacts from the telegraph station. Even more interesting is the fact the Museum is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An absolute testament to how remote this place is, too far for even the most fool hardiest of burglars. Today, there are only a few limestone foundations and partial walls left.
8) Space Junk
Skylab crashed to earth on the Nullarbor in 1979 near Balladonia in WA. Within the Balladonia Roadhouse complex is a museum housing the remnants from Skylab. The local Chief Executive Officer of the Local Dundas Shire must’ve had a good sense of humour as Shire Council presented NASA with a littering fine, and President Jimmy Carter even rang the Roadhouse to make his apologies.
9) Nullabor Nymph
The Nullarbor Nymph was a publicity stunt in the early 1970’s. Reports, including bad quality amateur film, of a half naked woman living amongst the kangaroos on the Nullarbor Plain held everyone’s curiosity and the small remote town of Eucla, with a population of eight at the time, was besieged by journalists.
10) Online Nullarbor Travel Guide
For comprehensive on-line travel guide to driving across the Nullarbor including accommodation options and contact details please go to Nullarbor Net as it is a fantastic resource. They take pride in being more up to date than regular paperback travel guides.
Our adventure across the Nullarbor Plain was a part of our family’s road trip to South Australia and back. To read about our whole adventure, please click here for the whole blog.
Makes me even more keen to do the trip with my kids!