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Published: April 22nd 2019
“We’ve done it twenty-six times,” the grey-haired retiree next door told me matter-of-factly. “Kids and grandkids in WA,” he added by way of explanation. “People ask us, ‘What do you see out there?’ ‘Australia,’ I tell ’em, ‘we see Australia.’”
I’d encountered a similar reaction when I first started talking of driving the Nullarbor, that 1,200 km (745 miles) expanse of barely inhabited country in the middle of the 3,940 km (2,450 miles) between Perth and Sydney. “But why would you wanna do that? There’s nothing there.” “Jeez, have you got enough music?” “Well, I guess, if it’s a ‘bucket list’ kind of a thing…” Yet, since joining some friends in a couple of self-drive trips out of Johannesburg and into Botswana and Zambia in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I’ve had a yen for crossing countries at ground level, and preferably by road. Mostly, I’ve found it easier to join overland trips – across the Tibetan plateau, Patagonia and the wonderful expanse of the Gobi in Mongolia, for example – but I got the bit between my teeth for the solo self-drive version last April when I trundled round 2,000 km (1,250 miles) of Central Australia visiting Uluru, Kings Canyon,
Alice Springs and the Macdonnell Ranges, and found myself not in the least bored by the ‘nothing’ out there, nor rendered particularly stir-crazy by my own company for so many kilometres.
With friends to visit in Perth and a desire not to be fried by the sun coming in the driver’s side the entire trip, I decided to drive from west to east. I had a happy few days with my friends and their one-year-old before going to collect my trusty steed, and stocking up on basic snacking provisions that wouldn’t melt or go off too fast (it’s theoretically autumn here, but the mercury can still happily hit the mid-’30s, and I wasn’t taking a cool box), as well as the long-distance driver’s essential, Red Bull, and sufficient self-catering bits and pieces to last until the next anticipated supermarket of any size (I was to become a bit of a Pot-Noodle-and-ways-to-enhance-it connoisseur, I admit). Many of the places I’d be visiting wouldn’t necessarily be famous for their range of gourmet restaurants, and this vegetarian-of-convenience didn’t want to have to resort to burger’n’chips more than absolutely necessary. I was also conscious that, with the price of fuel escalating the further
one gets from “civilisation”, and the exorbitant one-way drop-off fee imposed by car hire companies (I joked before I left that, yes, I wanted to drive the Nullarbor, but I didn’t want to do it twice), this was not going to be the most economical of trips, so self-catering would be an easy if comparatively miniscule bit of cost-saving. And so, having bade my farewells and persuaded the car to talk to my iPhone (love technology when it works!), I set course for southwestern Western Australia, my sweetener-to-myself before tackling the big one.
I am a planner, I admit it. I get a fair amount of grief for it, and there are times when I would quite like to be a tad more spontaneous, but I do like knowing that someone somewhere has got a bed with my name on it for the coming night. After a flurry of Book-consulting and fiddling with TripAdvisor and booking.com apps in between more sociable moments that Perth weekend, I left Perth armed with bookings for my southwestern peregrinations. In Esperance a few days’ later, the last blast of civilisation before I headed north to join the Nullarbor, I sorted out accommodation for
the next stretch. Towards the end of the Nullarbor, I started working out beds for the Eyre Peninsula, and so on. It’s not often that a mobile phone provider gets a positive name-check, but I have to say my UK provider’s generous approach to data roaming in certain countries, of which Australia is one, meant that I had far better reception throughout the whole trip than I would have done on my Australian SIM card. Wifi is not (yet) ubiquitous in the Nullarbor roadhouses.
As for entertainment, I made myself a rule that I would listen to nothing more than once (unless it was different versions of the same song). Nor was I allowed to skip tracks (my thanks to a bartender in Esperance for that tip), for that way frustration lies: even an irritating song eats up another 5-10 km. And I rationed the really catchy stuff. Podcasts would dominate my day, I thought virtuously, though I have to admit to perhaps only limited self-improvement from the politics, current affairs and occasional ‘true crime’ series that were my staples. Thus armed, I argued with the talking heads, queried legal niceties, and, when I needed pepping up for the
plus a couple of Australisian darters hanging out their wings to dry
last 200 km of the day, sang along energetically if not exactly in a manner of which my old choirmaster would have been proud. Here’s hoping Hertz doesn’t bug its rental cars.
So much for practicalities, it was time for the open road.
After a 1,500 km (932 mile) warm-up around the southwest, a welcome couple of slow days in Esperance, and the chance to refuel and clean both the car and me (and my clothes), I tore myself away from my pretty Yot Spot studio apartment and set course for Norseman, described by one writer as “the last major town in Western Australia before… the Nullarbor Plain”. Although it only has a population of some 600 or so, it would be the biggest urban conglomeration I’d encounter for the next 1,500 km. At Norseman’s tourist information office I was introduced to some of the “I’ve driven the Nullarbor” merchandise that I hoped to earn the right to buy in the next few days. Superstitious in this respect, I refuse to purchase something before I’ve seen or done what it commemorates – no postcards of tomorrow’s sights, for example. I didn’t doubt that, at the other end of
the Nullarbor, Ceduna – its name deriving from the local indigenous word meaning a place to sit down and rest, more than apposite in this context – would furnish me with very similar retail opportunities. In the meantime, Norseman provided fuel and caffeine, and a fabulous set of corrugated iron camel sculptures, a nod to the area’s invaluable form of transport a hundred years’ ago. Less than two kilometres out of town, I turned right onto the Eyre Highway towards Adelaide. Apart from stopping off at roadhouses, viewpoints and a couple of tourist attractions, I wouldn’t be turning off this road for nearly four days.
Six hours’ later, I was buzzing. This was amazing! How could anyone say this landscape was boring? So much for ‘nul arbor’ (the ‘no trees’ for which this part of the world is named), I had driven through wonderful woodland for much of the day, and then watched the vegetation gradually change. Just after Balladonia, my first Nullarbor roadhouse coffee stop, I hit the ‘long straight bit’, with a signpost announcing that I was about to embark upon the longest straight road in Australia, all 146.6 km (91 miles) of it. That’s tantamount to
driving from London to Peterborough, or New York to Philadelphia without so much as a bend in the road. Traffic had been sporadic, the half-wave acknowledgement of fellow feeling perhaps every five to ten minutes; I might have overtaken three vehicles that afternoon. And the mighty road trains, massive trucks comprising up to four sections, and which could reach a daunting think-twice-before-overtaking 53 m (175 feet), hadn’t been at all problematic. Time was, I’m told, when they pounded across the country at over 140 kph (87 mph), creating a terrifying suction effect in their tail winds, but there are now strict regulations in effect across the country. Indeed, I was appreciative that a road train driver would courteously indicate if the road were clear for me to overtake.
By Cocklebiddy, my first Nullarbor bed, I’d moved onto the quirky Central Western Time Zone, 45 minutes ahead of the rest of Western Australia. It’s not an officially recognised time zone, though my phone was prepared to be manually programmed for it, and it only stretches for 340 km, encompassing perhaps as many people as kilometres. Guaranteed to confuse the tourist, particularly those worried about when the restaurant closes, the five
view from the Eucla lookout
roadhouses in or fringing this time zone all helpfully display three clocks – Western Standard Time, Central Standard Time and what’s effectively central Nullarbor time. Not every state in Australia has adopted daylight savings, so time in this country can be confusing in any event. I had it comparatively easy: daylight savings had just ended in South Australia (Western Australia doesn’t observe it), so I only had to deal with two 45 minute increments over three days. After all, for me, time was currently of only academic interest: my life was governed by the sun and the fuel gauge.
I was prepared for my first day’s ebullience to fade, but it didn’t. Far from it. Reaching the Nullarbor Roadhouse my second evening, I was still beaming happily. It had been a day of unexpectedly varied landscape. Just before Madura, an hour or so on from Cocklebiddy, I saw signs warning heavy goods vehicles to use low gear: a steep descent was coming up. To my left was a viewpoint, so I turned off, and found myself gazing across to the year after next. Unbeknownst to me, I was standing at the edge of the Hampton Tablelands, with, at my
feet, a fabulous view across the apparently infinity of the plains below. After descending the pass myself, I found the escarpment keeping me company for the rest of the morning.
Just before Eucla, the road turned uphill again, and, at the memorials beside the campsite, I was rewarded with a stunning panorama that was now fringed with dark blue: I was only a few kilometres from the ocean. A dirt track took me out to the old telegraph station. Like Namibia’s Kolmanskop in miniature, it is slowly being swallowed by the dunes; much of the rest of the 1870s town has already disappeared. I trudged past, drawn by the chance of a closer view of the ocean, the roar of the crashing waves tempting me onwards. A ball of string would have been helpful. I don’t have the best sense of direction, and, just as the mountain peak is always a little further onwards, so the ocean refused to be at the foot of the next dune or the one after that. I drew myself arrows in the sand, turning every so often to try and imprint patterns of shrubs and dunes in my mind. There had only been
one other car parked at the end of the road. But it was worth it: a dramatic sand-scape spilled away to each side of me, brutal and wild and empty. A couple of hundred yards away were the remains of an old jetty, a few uprights still valiantly battling the strength of the waves. I flicked my polarised sunglasses on and off, but no, the ocean really was this wonderful collection of turquoises and blues, the sand a dazzling white. I would have liked to explore further, but I’d spied a family in the distance, and thought I’d try and retrace my steps while there were still other people within hollering range. Of course, I completely missed my arrows, but found my way back to the car without much of a detour.
At the Nullarbor Roadhouse, I gave myself a day off. I didn’t want travel-indigestion, and there were local sights to be visited. Yes, there really are some here. The roadhouse is close to the Head of Bight Whale-Watching Centre, and I’d deliberately missed stopping at a couple of the Bunda Cliffs lookouts the previous evening in order to avoid driving in the half-hour or so before sunset.
In the cooling temperatures and diminishing visibility, this is when Australia’s larger wildlife tends to emerge to feed, and my Hyundai i30 would not have been improved for an altercation with a kangaroo or a wombat.
Sadly, it isn’t whale season. Southern right whale females come into the protected warmer waters of the Great Australian Bight to calve in the middle months of the year, appearing in significant numbers. There’s no beach-level access here, but the boardwalks along the top of the cliffs provide dramatic views across to the head of the Bight and along the cliffs to the west. I didn’t mind about the lack of cetaceans; it meant fewer people and more space for me to enjoy the once-more fabulous colours of the ocean. But I shivered, and not just because of the southerly breeze. This is a terrifyingly stunning piece of coastline, and these are unrelenting waters. I was losing track of the number of memorials I’d seen to those lost at sea. Sailing down New South Wales’ Central Coast to Sydney on a comparatively calm day in January had reminded me – if I needed it – of the ocean’s power, and we had been
Nullarbor Roadhouse bar
armed with an engine and a GPS and a depth gauge; earlier sailors had not been so lucky. Not one given to seasickness at the sight of the ocean, I have to admit to a degree of queasiness as I looked down from the Bunda Cliffs at the waves smashing the rocks below.
The next day I’d be back in civilisation. Already, having crossed into South Australia in the middle of the previous afternoon, I felt as if the end was in sight, but I didn’t want it to end. There’s a wonderful camaraderie amongst people driving the Nullarbor. Just about no-one is doing only a bit of it; you can’t. From Norseman to Yalata – almost 1,000 km (620 miles) – there simply aren’t any roads off the highway that go anywhere. Everyone is in the same position, hence the regular half-wave as you pass each other on the road. Some take it a stage further: I’d met several solo cyclists tackling the tedium and pain of the long flat road, with virtually no downhills to cruise, a reasonable chance of a headwind, and a reasonable chance of a persistent headwind. There are those on motorbikes, travelling solo
or in convoys, and ‘grey nomads’ with their caravans and campervans. Many of the roadhouse staff are transient, young foreigners working their way round Australia and choosing something a little out of the ordinary. Everyone is on some kind of journey.
The next day, I continued the half-wave at passing cars, but realised that, after a few hours, not everyone I saw would be doing The Big Trip. I turned off the road after Yalata, and took a dirt track down to Fowlers Bay for very little reason other than the fact that I could, though it’s a pretty little tourist/fishing enclave tangled up in the dunes. After refuelling at Penong (finally, fuel that was a smidgeon less than exorbitantly priced), I turned down another track, this time to the alleged surfing mecca of Cactus Beach (though very few were out that day) and on to Point Sinclair where I read the tragic story of twelve year old Wade Shippard, killed by a great white shark in 1975 while his friends looked helplessly on. A salutary reminder: while much of Australia’s coastline is shark-aware, somehow I felt that South Australia was even more so, and it was here that
say it big!
welcome to Border Village
I was going to try and get up close and personal with sharks myself.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day. In the meantime, I returned to the highway, and stopped off at Ceduna for some well-earned (I thought), if maybe a touch naff, souvenirs. Duly supplied – through I drew the line at purchasing the “I Crossed The Nullarbor” certificate, I turned off the Eyre Highway one final time, and set course for Streaky Bay, the first stop on the final leg of my trip. Idly, I wondered about applying for the job of PR adviser to the Nullarbor. Unless all of the negative stuff emanates from agoraphobics who drive the road west – driving for much of the day into the sun is not only more challenging for the driver, but leaches colour out of the surroundings – I struggle to understand why anyone with a love of travel would not want to drive this road. The chance to see the countryside slowly evolve and change, fabulous colours in the afternoon light, and to experience the tacit companionship of your fellow travellers. As my erstwhile neighbour had said, you do “see Australia”. Acknowledgement: my thanks to https://clairesfootsteps.com/driving-across-nullarbor-plain/ for reassuring me that it could be done AND that it’d be fun to do!
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