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Published: September 19th 2019
Is travelling about the destination, or the journey? It depends, doesn’t it? On this trip, the journey has been every bit as important to me as the destination. And the one section of the journey that stood above the rest was crossing the Nullarbor.
I always thought the word Nullarbor was an indigenous name for some reason, but only in the last year did I discover that it comes from the Latin “nullus”, meaning “no”, and “arbor” meaning “tree”. But long before this, as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to drive across this foreboding place by myself.
Of course, these days it is not the vast challenge it once was. There are roadhouses with food, fuel and accommodation at regular, if long, intervals. There is even mobile phone service available at many of them too. And, of course, modern cars, with air-conditioning and cruise-control, make even the physical endurance bearable. But it is not something you tackle on a whim.
Setting out from Ceduna on Wednesday morning, I was later than I planned because I wanted to get my last blog out before I went (or so I believed) incommunicado. The first thing I noticed about
The sun setting over my camp
Boolaboola rest area, Western Australia
the drive was that the most abundant inhabitant of the road across southern Australia is the grey nomad. While you could not call the road busy by any stretch of the imagination, there were nearly as many caravans as cars and almost all of them were driven by retirees. And good on them! I think it’s great that people want to spend their kids’ inheritance and see as much of Australia as they can. The only sad thing is they had to wait so long before setting out.
The next thing I noticed was the wind. Long before I reached the Nullarbor proper, the flat open land was allowing the wind to blow unimpeded and it was buffeting my car enough that I almost felt that I was fighting it the whole way.
Not coincidentally, the first tourist site I stopped at was in the town of Penong. I saw a sign advertising a windmill museum that features Australia’s largest windmill. The town is not big, so I could see it from the road, but I figured it would be worth it to stop for a photo at least.
Continuing on and I soon came to the
Penong, South Australia
Nullarbor plain itself. There’s not a lot to say about it, really. There are trees in places, but in other places there are none. It’s flat. While there are lots of caravans, there are also a lot of straight sections of road so overtaking is never a problem.
Much sooner than I expected, I came across the Head of the Bight. My dad visited there when he drove across the Nullarbor with a mate a few years back and highly recommended stopping. The sign on the highway said there were currently 20 whales with calves in the bay, so it seemed like I had come at a good time of the year. I did actually make sure I would be there during the whale-watching season, but I hadn’t thought about the fact there would be mothers and calves as it is towards the end of the season, before they head south for the summer.
The whale-watching centre was a bit of a drive from the highway, but definitely worth visiting. Unfortunately, I only saw 2 of the mother and calf pairs when I was there, but one was pretty close to the cliffs. I stayed and watched them
for a while. I would have liked to spend more time to see if any others appeared, but the day was rapidly getting away.
I was planning on driving for 6 hours each day to get to Norseman, on the other side of the plain, on Thursday night. However, it wasn’t far up the road that I saw a bunch of caravans at a roadside rest-stop and I realised the highway was now much closer to the cliffs of the bight. So, I had to stop to get some photos before pressing on.
It turns out that on that part of the highway there are quite a few vantage points to look at the cliffs. I had a vague plan to spend one of my nights camping on the Nullarbor (one on the way over, two on the way back) near such a location. However, I don’t think I can without changing the itinerary or having a really long drive on one of the days.
I was definitely going to be camping, though. I knew the roadhouse at Mundrabilla was about half-way between Ceduna and Norseman, so that was where I was targeting for my Wednesday night
stop. However, while you can camp at the roadhouse, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted a more isolated experience. So, as I crossed the border into Western Australia and stopped for the quarantine search, I asked my GPS for campsites along the route. 50km past Mundrabilla was a rest area where camping was permitted so I decided to check it out.
When I pulled in, I was disappointed to see that I was not the only one there. At the back of the truck parking area, I saw a couple of caravans. I decided to check it out anyway and noticed there was another caravan further back in the scrub. I followed the road to see if there was another place to camp and was delighted to see the road continued between some low trees. After 100m or so, there was another campsite and I parked the car. It was perfect, as there was enough vegetation that I couldn’t see the other campers. I was not quite alone, but as good as.
While I felt like I was the only human there, I was greeted by a swarm of the local flies. Some were really big;
some were regular flies we get back home in Sydney. But there were a lot of them, and my insect repellent was not entirely successful. Thankfully, it was nearly dark, so I didn’t have to put up with them for long. I was soon able to cook dinner in peace, and then spent a good amount of time experimenting with taking photos of the Milky Way. For a time, I was in a race to take some decent photos before what I thought was the moon rose and wrecked the amazingly clear, dark sky. About 10 minutes later, I realised it was just the headlights of a car. But that goes to show how far away you can see car headlights on the Nullarbor… no wonder people have reported UFO sightings there! In the end, I did have enough time before the moon rose and it was actually clouds rolling in that ruined it first. But I was happy with what I got – definitely my most successful attempts so far!
I woke up early on Thursday morning, partly because my body was still on South Australian time, which is an hour and a half ahead of Western Australia.
Whale calf practicing tail-slapping
The Head of the Bight, South Australia
But that was good, because it meant I could have breakfast and pack up camp before too many flies woke up! By 7:30am I was ready to go and I hit the road.
This part of the drive was not as exciting as Wednesday. There were not any tourist attractions on the way to Norseman, and the coast had long since turned south-west and was miles away. I was preoccupied by fuel, though. Based on normal mileage, my long-range tank should have easily been enough to cover the 1,200km from Ceduna to Norseman. Even with the extra load and reduced aerodynamics, I had been averaging under 11 litres per 100km so far on the trip. This should have meant I would use 132 litres of the 140. However, I had not reckoned with the headwind on the Nullarbor and it soon became apparent that attempting to reach Norseman on one tank was going to be a gamble. So, I had to bite the bullet and fill up at Balladonia instead. On the plus side, if the wind is the same on the way back, I should make it on one tank easily!
The weather was very different too.
Whale calf playing
The Head of the Bight, South Australia
On Wednesday, it was sunny and reached 35 degrees Celsius. On Thursday, it was cloudy with some rain and only reached 15. I’m glad I didn’t get the rain on Wednesday, as the pictures of the cliffs of the bight would not have come out as well.
I reached Norseman just before 2pm. I stopped at the roadhouse to pick up something my brother-in-law had asked for and decided to eat lunch there as I waited for him to call me back. I then proceeded to my motel to a welcome shower and a restful afternoon.
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