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The mighty Nullarbor – From one oasis to the next

Dernière mise à jour : 19 mai 2022

Walking onto a perfect white sandy beach with no one around, exploring >10’000 year old caves with Aboriginal rock art paintings, walking along 100 m high natural cliffs dropping straight into the furious ocean, learning about meteorites and space station crashes, enjoying one of the best burgers in the country and snapping some of the most iconic shots of an Australian roadtrip? Yes, we did all that within a few packed days, and we did it whilst crossing the desert. Who would have thought!

Nulla arbor

The “no tree” plain, from the latin nulla arbor, was awaiting us after our adventure in the Gawler Ranges, SA. The desert crossing stood before us, daunting and mysterious like some darker parts of Middle Earth in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Can we make it? Will the car be capable? Do we have the stamina to drive through its various sections, all aligned as one continuous (very long) stretch of road? On the other side, we would enter a new kingdom, ahem…sorry, I mean yet another Australian State. Western Australia, the promised land.

The name itself sounds scary, like a monster to avoid or a treacherous mountain to conquer. But the reality is quite different, depending on how one approaches the journey. And for the record, there are trees, so the name is fallacious. Not sure what the people who named it were looking at. I read that it was traditionally named Oondiri, which would mean something like “waterless”. Makes much more sense to me. The Nullarbor is a very arid.

The logistics

The road is so long that it is not exactly agreed upon where its start is. What was clear to us is that the end would definitely be in the small town of Norseman, WA. We would start from Streaky Bay, SA, and hitting the start of the Nullarbor probably at Ceduna, SA, following the Eyre Highway. This leaves 1’200 km for the desert crossing.

We did our homework and spotted the places for overnight stays and for refueling (not that you have much choice when you are towing a van). We also understood that there would be no grocery shopping along the way.

People were mostly commenting on how long and monotonous the road is, and on how one would drive for hours without seeing another car. We planned overnight stays at a roadside rest area after Penong, at the iconic Nullarbor Roadhouse, the Madura Pass lookout and the Balladonia Roadhouse. Five days of driving before reaching a new civilization in WA.

And it would be the crossing of a desert full of surprises.

From Penong to the Nullarbor Roadhouse

When you look at the map, you actually see that the road parallels the coastline on a fair stretch of the drive. This area is called the Great Australian Bight, famous for its diverse marine life and its peculiar coastline geology.

Our first sunset in the Nullarbor - a rest area on the side of the highway, tucked away from the noise of the roadtrains.

On the Eastern end, we left our cosy roadside camping spot just out of Penong, and quickly veered off the Eyre Highway to reach the small coastal town of Fowlers Bay, some 25 km off the main road. Once a booming and prosperous port at the height of whaling times, its activity has rapidly declined in the early 60s, and is now a small tourist attraction. The long jetty is its main landmark and remnant of a glorious past. This past is captured on the waterfront, which is full of very interesting historical panels. They give a great insight into the early times in the middle of the 19th century and the early developments in the 20th century. History lesson for the boys (and the parents).

Fowlers Bay - nice history class on the waterfront (and good coffee, too)

Back on the road, after a bumpy 15 km short cut on corrugated dirt roads, we accessed the Head of Bight, home to a visitor centre and whale watching platform for the summer season. A shiny modern boardwalk with great views of the first part of the Bunda cliffs.

There a couple of other nice lookouts along the Nullarbor, aptly labeled Bunda cliff lookout 1 and 2. They are great for a short stop with a few pictures. Some will choose to get off the dirt track to go very close to the cliff’s edge. Although it makes for a perfect drone shot, we stayed on the safe side of things.

After that first night on the side of the road, we arrived at the iconic Nullarbor Roadhouse for the second night. This place embodies the spirit of the Nullarbor. It oozes roadtrains and petrol. Add great burgers at the quirky bar and dodgy 1$ showers to the recipe for the perfect desert roadhouse. We have seen many of them on our travels, but this one comes with the mythology of the desert crossing, and takes one back to 1841, when the explorer Edward John Eyre completed the crossing with Wylie, his Aboriginal mate (see post on Gawler Ranges).

At night, the sound of roadtrains driving past or pulling in is echoed by the dingos howling in the (not so far) distance. Eerie spookiness.

I could not resist sneaking out of the van for sunrise and getting shots of the iconic road signs sitting just before the roadhouse.

From The Nullarbor Roadhouse to Madura Pass

Our third day of driving would take us to the Border Village. Yes, this is the official border between SA and WA. But before we took off on the Eyre Highway, we took a little 10 km detour behind the Nullarbor Roadhouse to go visit the Murrawijinie Caves. Yes, caves in the flat arid desert.

A rocky bumpy track forced us to drop the van in the desert to make it safely to the 3 caves that are accessible. Actually you do not see anything as you drive along, and you need to find your way down into the cave openings. We treaded lightly, but made sure to stomp our feet, conscious of the likely resident snakes. As we gradually progressed deeper into the caves, our eyes got used to darkness. That is when the thousand year old paintings on the wall appeared in front of us. How fascinating to think that here, in the middle of the Nullarbor, an ancient people found refuge and that part of their story was portrayed in front of our eyes. We took a moment to observe and enjoy this special feeling.

Back in the car, we headed towards Yindi, stopping along to have a look at a squashed snake. As we neared the Roadhouse, we were happy to see our van where we had left it (we had doubts for a few minutes, as we could not spot it). Hitch and go to WA.

We were stopped at the Border Village to verify our COVID documents (newly introduced App since the re-opening of WA 5 days before we arrived). Thankfully, it all checked out fine. This time we had anticipated the fruit and veggie quarantine rules, which really is problematic: you cannot shop for fresh produce along the desert, but you are not allowed to carry an apple in your van. Tough rules. But we got permission to see the Big Kangaroo at the Border.

A few km after the border is the town of Eucla. After we refueled (20 cts/L cheaper than at the Border Village - gotta do your planning, mate!) and hit the road, we noticed a side road going down from the plateau towards….the sea. We had not realized we were that close to the coast. We pondered a second and decided to have a look. No direct access to the beach, but there was apparently a path in the dunes we could hike through. It took us about 15 min of walking through the sand dunes before being rewarded by a spectacular sight: a deserted white sand beach, a beautiful old jetty home to playful birds, and the warmest clean water. We were in the middle of this desert, yet this oasis was as real as our bodies were jumping around in the water (and levitating above it, when loooking at Miles). It appears that hardly anyone takes the short detour and walk to hit that secluded treasure. Now you know where it is.…

The next pitstop was the Mundrabilla Roadhouse. Whilst coffee was close to atrocious, the little shop is famous for its interesting choice of CD compilations for $24.95. I hesitated a moment. Seriously, what Mundrabilla is really known for is the meteorites (up to 12.4 tonnes, 11th largest in the World) that have been found in the area. We could not see the outer space rocks, but it certainly made the place a bit spookier. We decided to move on quickly, not knowing what might hit us if we stayed longer.

"icons" of the Munfrabilla pitstop

We had planned our free night stop at the Madura Pass lookout, highly recommended. A few hundred meters off and above the highway, we found a great spot with an extensive view over the Nullarbor plain. What a starry sky we had.

From Madura Pass to Norseman

After Madura, the highway veered a bit inland. The landscape was more uneventful at this stage. Maybe we had passed the initial excitement and wonder elicited by the Nullarbor. We still had one exciting bit of road: the 90-mile straight. This is the longest straight stretch of road in Australia Whilst it could not match the 487 km of straight railway line further North on the Nullarbor train path (read the excellent novel by Bill Bryson), I must say I was quite excited to see what it felt like. Driving with a limitless horizon. Would I fall asleep, would I start hallucinating, would we enter the zone? Nope, we simply got to a slight curve after about 90 minutes. Nothing happened, no fourth dimension entered, and it went really quickly.

We got to Balladonia, where we had planned to spend the night, a little ahead of schedule. At Balladonia, we were looking forward to visiting the small Skylab museum. As everyone knows, the first NASA space station Skylab re-entered the atmosphere in 1979 and disintegrated/crashed in and around Balladonia. Some debris replica are located at the roadhouse and we were keen to do homeschooling with kids in there. Unfortunately, COVID oblige, the one-room museum was closed. We were literally looking at the room through the glass doors, but they would/could not let us in.

This probably encouraged us to complete our Nullarbor crossing that same day, and push on to Norseman, which we would reach well before sunset.

A journey like no other

In every stage of the trip, there is the expected and the unexpected. The Nullarbor fulfilled all its promises. We expected it to be long, straight and arid and have not been deceived. Even though we have seen other long stretches of driving with not much on the side of the road, this particular drive was exceptional. Every stop brought a new light on what we expected to be a mental challenge. It was refreshing to discover the hidden gems along the way. To be fair, they are not really hidden, you just have to take your time, do your homework, go the extra mile and appreciate every minute of it. We certainly did.

More than 2 months have passed since those 5 special days between South and Western Australia. However, we still feel this part of the road was very special and it will stay with us for a long time. Maybe it was the uncertainty about the opening of WA, maybe it was the hardship stories of the early explorers, or simply the fascination from blogs of modern-day travelers, hard to say. But I can close my eyes and see the road in front of me like I never saw it before.

We did not get the stickers nor t-shirts stating “I crossed the Nullarbor”, but we loved all of the experience and would happily cross again (if we have to).

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