When you think of iconic Australian drives the first one that normally springs to mind is the mysterious Nullarbor. Officially, its known as the Eyre Highway, and what was once a godforsaken stretch of dirt track through a plain completely devoid of trees, is now a long stretch of asphalt joining Western Australia to the rest of Australia.
Nullarbor, or ‘null’-arbor’ roughly translates into ‘treeless plain’, and it’s a pretty spot on description. However, what makes this windswept plain so fascinating is not what’s on the plain, but what’s above and below it. I’d been told as a child that in Aboriginal Dreamtime, the rainbow serpent would travel through the network of underground caves from the outback, all the way down to the sea to feast on the whales that would migrate to the Bight. The plain has a long network of underground caves, of which the 6 km Cocklebiddy cave is the longest, and above the ground, the sky is so clear that the area is dotted with numerous space station and satellite dishes and the town of Balladonia also happens to be the site of the 1979 US Skylab crash landing.
Crossing the Nullarbor has been something I’ve wanted to do for some time as it sounded so adventurous. My father made the drive with a mate back in the 1970s to head over to the Opal fields of South Australia. Back then there were few roadhouses, no rest stops and not even asphalt on the road! It was rough going and the track was littered with many car wrecks and abandoned vehicles. The Nullarbor today is a stark contrast to what my father crossed back then, today there are roadhouses and rest stops at regular intervals and the road is well kept and easy to drive. Even though you can make the drive in a single day, we choose to do it over two days.
Starting out from Norseman in Western Australia, the Nullarbor stretches 1,675 km into South Australia and meets its end in Port Augusta. With a full tank and two extra jerry cans of fuel, we left Norseman on a rainy morning and wound our way through the last patch of trees that we’d be seeing for the next two days, as once we reached Cocklebiddy, the trees disappeared altogether. The drive itself was uneventful; the fuel was incredibly expensive, and the traffic was a mix of grey nomad caravans and transport road trains. We stopped only to refuel, rest for a night and to take cheesy photographs along the way, like at the famous 90 mile (147 km) straight sign. With bad weather forecast we chose to keep driving and forego exploring the towns along the way, and once we arrived in Ceduna we chose to take the Flinders Highway to Port Augusta instead of continuing along the Nullarbor for a change in scenery.
In the end, the Nullarbor didn’t quite meet my expectations, but then again, I’m not too sure what I was expecting. If I could do it again I would definitely do the stretch between Ceduna and Port Augusta to see the South Australian Gawler Ranges. I would also stop in Cocklebiddy to see the caves, and also explore the sand dunes and ruins around Eucla. Even though there wasn’t much to see along the drive, there were definitely some interesting places around if we spared the time, but the wind and rain at that time made it less appealing to us.
Tips for crossing the Nullarbor:
- Bring at least an extra tank of fuel. Petrol along the Nullarbor is expensive, and having the extra jerry cans will help reduce your fuel costs a little.
- Take advantage of the many rest areas. Rest areas are well sign posted, free of charge, and some contain good basic facilities like drop toilets.
- Avoid filling up for petrol at the WA/SA border village crossing, and fill up in Eucla instead. There was a 15 cent different between the two places!
- Be aware of quarantine laws between Western Australia and South Australia. You will be checked for things like fruit, vegetables, grape products and honey. The quarantine checkpoint if you are exiting WA is at Ceduna, and they will make you open your food stores. For the latest information on quarantine see the official website.
- Tourism Australia has a great itinerary if you’re looking to spend more time along the Nullarbor, check it out here.
That’s one iconic Australian drive down, the next one we tackle will be the Great Ocean Road through Victoria – I can’t wait!