On and on and on across the Nullarbor

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October 18th 2018
Published: October 18th 2018
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The Eyre Highway, Ceduna and Port Augusta 8-17 October 2018

From Esperance we set out north to Norseman to pick up the Eyre Highway to travel east across the Nullarbor (means no tree in Latin). In fact the Nullarbor itself is only part of the journey and for the first two days there were plenty of trees. We intend to cross the area from the south of Western Australia to Adelaide in the south east along the edge of the Great Australian Bight, by way of the huge arch of land along the Southern Ocean. This is approximately 3,000 kilometres. However we may make a few detours en route.

This road is meant to be one of the world's great road trips. Nowadays it is much easier than in the past. The road was constructed in 1941 but only sealed in 1976. The roadhouses were built alongside the road at suitable intervals to provide travellers with basic necessities, beds, meals and fuel. Campsites are also provided by the roadhouses. On the map these places look like towns, names like Balladonia, Caiguna, Madura, Mundrabilla, and Eucla in Western Australia, and Nullarbor, Nundroo and Penong in South Australia, but in fact there is only one roadhouse in each of those. Oh, almost forgot, there is a police and ambulance station in Eucla.

Tourist maps are available highlighting points of interest to encourage visitors. However we soon learned that reality on the Eyre Highway is a little different from the brochure for various reasons.

Our first lesson was in the Norseman information centre. Apart from general information on what we might encounter I was particularly interested in visiting the Eyre Bird Observatory which I was hoping would be a highlight of the trip. In the literature it says you need to book ahead, preferably to stay overnight, but you can do a day visit, and they will come and collect you from the road as it needs a 4x4 with specialist driver to get you there. So we hoped the information centre could arrange that for us. A very pleasant little old lady started off by saying, no it was not possible to go for the day but she would call and ask if they had availability to stay over and how much it would cost. She called them, it is $95 per person per night but for a minimum of two nights. That all sounded fine until she said, but of course you first have to get yourself to the lookout point 25 miles down a dirt track to be picked up for the last 7 kilometres. Those 25k require a 4x4. Why did it not say that in the literature? So we could not do that. It was very disappointing. She then said, quite gleefully, of course that is why it is so pristine, no-one can get there and only two people are based at the Observatory.

So Jim followed up by saying that we were hoping to visit another couple of specific sites and she seemed as if we were making her day as she said even more happily, oh no, you can't go to any of those either without a 4x4! In fact we did manage to reach Newman Rocks which was well worth the short dirt road excursion and provided beautiful views across large rock outcrops and a pretty water hole.

It was starting to become clear that there is a huge discrepancy between what seems to be possible from the very vague (perhaps deliberately so?) tourist information and what you can achieve on the Eyre Highway in an ordinary vehicle.

Anyway we had a quick look at the corrugated camels in Norseman and learnt how the town received it's name. A wandering prospector had a horse called Norseman. The prospector was not doing well and feeling dispirited when he noticed that his horse had become restless and was kicking his hoof against the ground. When he lifted the foot to see what was wrong there was a nugget of gold trapped in the hoof. So the prospector's fortune changed on the spot and he founded a settlement and called it Norseman in gratitude to his horse. Apart from the statue to commemorate Norseman there is very little else there.

Our first night was spent in a free camp between Norseman and Caiguna and was fine. Then we settled into the 'crossing' routine. Life is simple, get up, breakfast, wash as well as facilities allow (showers available at roadhouse sites but not free sites) and get on the road. There are plenty of rest areas to pull in and park to eat lunch or take a nap if needed. Then back on the road until late afternoon. It feels a little like the wagon trains of the old western films except we travel independently on the road during the day but 'circle the wagons' at dusk in a camp site. Then prepare a meal and off to bed.

Thankfully we stocked up with food, drink and water before leaving Esperance as there is very little available in the roadhouses and what there is is prohibitively expensive. For instance, the Magnum ice creams are $6.50 each (about £3.50). Not that we live on Magnums but they are one of our price indicators. We certainly won't pay that much for one. What has surprised us is that it is not possible to top our water up in the van at any of the stops so far and in fact in many of the sites there are warnings about dreadful repercussions for anyone found guilty of stealing water from the shower blocks or toilets. Bottled water is available at a price but of course it is wasteful to put that in the van for washing dishes. Luckily the water in the van was lasting well and we had 20 litres of drinking water in two 10 litre bottles.

Some parts of the road had the bodies of kangaroos every few hundred feet, all in varying stages of predation and decomposition. It seems such a waste but of course many of the commercial vehicles in particular continue to drive in the dark which is when so many kangaroos are hit.

Caiguna has an interesting feature, a breathing cave. We have never heard of such a thing before but it seems where you have a very large cave, or cave system, and a small entrance then the change in air pressure outside the cave takes time to equalize inside. The result is a sound as if the cave is breathing in or out. We heard it quite clearly and it was a little eerie even knowing the cause.

The second night we stayed at Madura Roadhouse. It was basic but adequate apart from no water top up. Madura is approximately half way between Perth and Adelaide so some of the large trucking companies use it as a crossover point. A driver will bring a road train from Perth, sleep at the roadhouse, then in the morning he will exchange his road train for one brought from Adelaide or another eastern town and he will return with that one to Perth, while the driver from the east will take the vehicle from Perth onwards to Adelaide. This cuts the continent in half and saves one driver having to do the whole journey.

Day three from Madura to Nullarbor Roadhouse was the most difficult because of the wind. We had encountered flies on day two but that is to be expected. The weather was good, neither hot or cold, then as we started travelling from Madura the wind came and it was unbelievably strong. It created two main problems, the first being that even climbing in and out of the van was difficult, approaching impossible at times as the wind would not allow the door to open. The more scary issue was that when a high sided road train passed on the narrow road the effect of the horrendous wind was to suck you in towards the other vehicle or push you out as if trying to shake you off the road. That was not pleasant. And in the wind it was freezing! We had fleeces back on and at the roadhouse people were wearing woolly hats. That night we put extra bedding on top of the sleeping bags. The effect of the wind was made more dramatic by the total lack of cover as the land was flat for hundreds of kilometres. The Nullarbor itself is bare of trees and only has very low scrub and in many places just short grasses so the wind really hurtles in from the Antarctic.

Thankfully the next day, our fourth of the crossing, was much calmer with just a moderate wind. We were so pleased as that stretch has the only real lookouts along the road, three just across the border in South Australia. They allow wonderful views of the Bunda Cliffs, between 40 and 80 metres high, which border the Bight non stop for 800 kilometres. Yes, 800 kilometres. It is the scale of everything here which is amazing. Imagine Beachy Head stretching from Eastbourne to Edinburgh to get an idea of that scale.

Then the fourth and last lookout is at Head of Bight which I imagined might be a tiny village but no, it is a boardwalk, lookout and souvenir shop. What makes it really special is that it overlooks a southern right whale breeding area in the bay below where the females stay with their young until they are physically ready to start their journey to the Antarctic. We arrived at the end of the season so did not expect to see any, and the right whales I saw in South Africa were quite small so I did not mind missing them here. We entered the shop/ticket office and the lady said none had been seen that day and in fact the ticket price had fallen by half because it is end of season.

However, after walking the boardwalk for a while a female and calf came along to the bay, to be followed shortly by another two pairs. They come so close in it is wonderful. I had seen an information board giving markings of some of the 'regulars' and it suggested you try to identify any you saw. When I looked out across the empty sea I thought, hmm, bet that never happens. I was wrong. Fifteen minutes later I was trying to spot the head markings on the three females. These females were huge, much bigger than the ones seen in South Africa. The mothers just lie around, sometimes rolling over, while the young whales feed and play around them. It was a lovely sight. Best of all, as you are watching from land it does not make you feel sea sick.

We stayed over two hours. I could have stayed all day but understandably, as he is doing all the driving, Jim was keen to be back on the road as he wanted to reach Ceduna by dusk. So we carried on and reached a cereal belt where the wind was still strong enough to sway the crops so that they looked like a choppy gold sea.

Eventually we approached Ceduna and our crossing was almost over, although we were still 1,000 kilometres from Adelaide. The journey had taken four days and the experience is a cross between a religious retreat and a weird endurance test. It is certainly not for the faint of heart or those with a low boredom threshold. For most of the 2,000 kilometres the road was flat and straight, including the 140k (90 miles) longest, straightest road in Australia (and maybe the world?). To be honest we could not detect a difference between that 90 miles and the other 750 miles. The scenery is beautiful but mostly unchanging, mallee vegetation for nearly two days, reducing to low scrub, then the treeless, bare, totally flat land of the Nullarbor which eventually towards the end of day four starts to sprout shrubs and then trees as you leave the plain behind. There are no structures of any kind between the roadhouses which are approximately 150-180 kilometres apart and no wifi or even phone signal. So the feeling of isolation is profound.

The road itself is relatively busy and it was unusual to go much longer than 15-30 minutes without seeing a vehicle so that makes it feel relatively safe. If you break down you know someone will be along soon. However there is a sense of the road stretching out before and behind you like a tightrope. You can balance on it but if you were to fall off the never-ending wilderness on both sides will soon swallow you up. There were moments when I felt quite dizzy constantly watching the road disappear in the far distant mirage between wide open vistas that stretched to the horizon for 360 degrees around us and I regularly checked that Jim was not being hypnotised. We resorted to singing along with very loud music a few times, not something we normally do.

The literature also promises the longest golf links in the world running from Kalgoorlie to Ceduna. Each tee was signed at the roadhouse but they were usually hidden away behind the building and we found them difficult to spot especially in the strong, dust laden winds. We did find the one in Caiguna and I stood on the tee thinking that if I hit a ball and followed it into the bush the ball would not be the only thing lost for ever. The risk of quickly becoming disoriented and getting lost in the bush is great. Even the rest areas can be confusing as they are often a sandy track leading off the road into the bush and then the track splits into different trails which wind around shrub to provide lots of quite private parking spots. Twice Jim and I had real difficulty finding our way back out but the thought of the potential embarrassment of having to be rescued from a rest area spurred us on .

Then as we approached within 2 kilometres of Ceduna we spotted a house. It says something about the journey and isolation that we were both quite shocked to see that house, soon followed by others as we pulled in to the town. We climbed down from the van to find the weather had changed since our last stop a couple of hours earlier. It was now 31 degrees which was a welcome relief. Once on site it was interesting to see other travellers pull in with glazed eyes obviously having the same reaction to suddenly returning to a 'normal' environment.

Does that all make it sound like torture? It is a unique experience which really made us appreciate the size of the wilderness we travelled across, and the harshness of the environment. We ate well, slept well (our bed is amazingly comfortable ) and stayed sane. The only thing missing was the chance to exercise as there is nowhere off the road to walk. Part of me wanted it to continue for ever, it is surprisingly soothing. And yes, I would love to do it again but next time in a 4x4 so I could visit even more out of the way places!

Ceduna provided a welcome rest with walks by the sea but the most interesting part of our stay was dealing with the plague of ladybirds, yellow ones. It reminded us of the summer of 1976 when we had a plague of red ladybirds in England. They were not really a problem in Ceduna as they did not bite but it did take two of us to make a sandwich, with Jim removing the ladybirds as soon as they landed while I buttered the bread.

We thought the journey to Port Augusta from Ceduna would revert to normal as we expected the population would be greater and distances between stops shorter. We were wrong. Yes, there are tiny hamlets and very small townships that we passed rather than a single roadhouse but the distance between was just as great. The scenery changed a little more often and it did not have the same sense of challenge as the Nullarbor. It was simply tedious.
The tee, but where is hole?The tee, but where is hole?The tee, but where is hole?

Seems like a good way to disappear for ever

The only respite from the tedium was when we stopped to fill with petrol yet again and a sign on the door send, 'Cold? Warm up with our curry'. As the traditional food available in garages is a range of two or three different pies which always look past their best I was surprised to see a gleaming stainless steel serving area offering six different curries and all the trimmings to accompany them. The Sikh couple running the place were lovely. They obviously spotted the yearning in my eyes and offered samples to taste. Our meals for the next two days were sitting in the fridge so I had no excuse to buy curry but the young woman made me try the mango chicken, then the lamb pasanda, both delicious but I managed to resist. However she would not let me leave without testing the beef vindaloo. I was lost. It was superb. Not as hot as vindaloo at home but so good I had to buy some. Jim guessed what had been delaying me as I was the only customer but he agreed it was delicious too. The next day in another town and another garage there was exactly the same set up with another Sikh couple. I don't know if they are recent migrants or are long established but I can only say South Australia must be delighted to have such wonderful food available. We were.

We are now in Port Augusta and have stayed here for four days because we like it so much. It is a small town which was an important port but is also at the crossroads of the highways leading to Perth, Darwin, Adelaide and further east. Plus it is on the railway, so it is an important communication hub. The town is cut in two by the Spencer Gulf, an estuary leading out to sea and of course offering opportunities for fishing.

There are two main attractions here, the Wadlata Outback Centre and the Australia Arid Botanic Garden. Wadlata is a museum which uses numerous videos and interactive displays to provide information about the prehistory of the area, flora and fauna, the history of the town, aboriginal traditions and skills and also describes the nearby Flinders Ranges and their settlements. It is fascinating and we spent a very enjoyable four hours inside.

The Australia Arid Botanic Garden is very different but just as enthralling. On the edge of town it comprises a large area of the adjacent bush which visitors can walk in to view the plants and try and catch sight of birds and wildlife. It has a restaurant, shop, two bird hides and around the visitor centre are laid out gardens which contain plants from the various arid areas of Australia such as the Simpson Desert, the Gawler Ranges, Western Australia etc.

We have spent almost two and a half days walking the tracks and sitting patiently in the bird hides and enjoyed every minute. Today we were trying to find and photograph the White Winged Fairy Wren. We finally managed to spot one in amongst the blue bush scrub. They move quickly and when trying to find them through the viewfinder it is more than usually difficult because all the blue bushes are identical. At last I had it in view but the wind suddenly gusted so strongly I could not hold the camera still. Such a shame. The picture is blurry but at least we have one.

Our plan was to move on from here to Coober Pedy but as that would be a detour requiring two days long drive each way, and as we saw most of it on video in the Museum we have decided to go north a little way into the Flinders Ranges instead before heading south to Adelaide. I think Jim has had enough of the long drives for the present.

Additional photos below
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20th October 2018

What pioneers!
Loved reading your blog. Very interesting stories behind every site.
21st October 2018

Thanks Becky
Good to hear from you & hope all is well. Yes, surprising sights pop up everywhere & we are still enjoying the travelling. X Sue & Jim

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