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Crossing the Nullarbor

(May 25, 2019 – written by Dave)

We’ve successfully crossed the Nullarbor – woohoo.  Before getting too far down the “congratulations Nancy and Dave” path however, consider a couple fellow travellers that we met out there.  The first an elderly man who noted that he was completing his 65th crossing – Ehum…  And a second gentleman who was considerably more senior than us who was crossing on his heavily loaded touring bike.  Ehum indeed…  respect to those guys.  We happened to meet the gentleman on the touring bike at a roadhouse and were at least able to shout him an iced tea.

And speaking of getting ahead of ourselves, for the non-Australians out there, perhaps we should explain a little about what the Nullarbor is, just to fill in the blanks.  The name Nullarbor comes from Latin meaning “no trees”, as in Null Arbor.  The Nullarbor Plain sits just above the Great Australian Bight and runs for some 1,200 kilometres east to west.  It covers nearly 200,000 sq kilometres and is the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock.  It is far from treeless.  Parts of it have very few trees but other parts, particularly the western end are covered with downright forests of small gum trees.

Crossing the Nullarbor, however you do it, is a minor rite of passage for many Australians.  If you walk it or cycle it, you may just get a mention in one of the regional newspapers.  If you drive in a car like we did, well, you’ll probably have to buy your own “I crossed the Nullarbor” fridge magnet.   Today we finished “our crossing” and yes, we had to buy our own magnet.  Oh yeah and for the record, we each rode our bikes for a little of the Nullarbor – just the opening 80k where the shoulders were good and we could share the driving.

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Our reward!

At the west end of the Nullarbor, you’ll find a small town called Norseman.  It’s a small town and could be classified as being beyond the middle of nowhere, perhaps at the edge of nowhere if one were being honest.  Aside the Nullarbor Plain connection, Norseman was the centre of the world back in 1979 when the US space station called Skylab came crashing back to earth in these parts.  Skylab was supposed to burn up before reaching land but many fully intact pieces somehow got through crashing to earth here.

Coast near Esperance 2

Coast near the start, before you reach Norseman

Sky Lab 2

Skylab water tank and model

The east end of the Nullarbor is anchored by a town called Ceduna.  It is also pretty small but to us, after 1,200k’s of nothing but a few roadhouses, it seemed downright bustling.  There was a grocery store and nearly normal petrol prices in Ceduna, so it felt like we had returned to civilisation.

In the middle, as noted, the Nullarbor is just roadhouses.  We camped at a couple of them over our three day crossing.  They are desolate and isolated places.  You can expect to pay a 25% price uplift for food and fuel at the roadhouses.  And tap water is not always free.  It’s hard to complain however when you consider that most stations have to provide their own power, via generators, their own water, often via a well and small desalinisation plant and all of their goods have to be trucked thousands of kilometres to reach them.

We didn’t perform an exhaustive study but where we looked, we found a good number of foreigners working at the roadhouses.  We found Spanish, Dutch, Indians and Kiwis.  When staff was not too busy, we asked them how they ended up at a Nullarbor roadhouse.  More often than not, they were on short-term working holidays.  It’s not hard to imagine the recruitment brochure potential workers may have seen back in their home countries.  Think “Fresh air, Open space, Constant stream of new visitors, Amazing sunsets and Million star views every night”.  All true of course but bear in mind that we didn’t have a mobile signal for three days.  All that fresh air comes with just a wee bit of isolation!

Sitting just to the south of the Nullarbor Plain is the Great Australian Bight.  The Great Australian Bight is a large oceanic bight, or open bay, off the central and western portions of the southern coastline of mainland Australia.  It is almost always just beyond the view of anyone driving across the Nullarbor, on the Eyre Highway.  As you drive, you can’t help but know that amazing sea cliffs and the dramatic Southern Ocean sit just out of view.  If only the road was a little closer.

Great Australian Bight 4

Where we could drive down to see the Bight, we did

To be honest, maybe the road is in the just the right place.  You see, the Eyre Highway is two lanes for the entire length.  And for more than half of it, there is virtually no shoulder whatsoever.  There is no time for rubber necking.  Traffic is patchy, sometimes busy – with a mix of Toyota Hiluxes pulling caravans and frequent road trains.  The Hiluxes are driven by an army of grey nomads who more or less stay in their lanes.  And the road trains, some as long as 120 feet (no, that’s not a typo), can wander a bit in the side winds.  Yes, wandering caravans and road trains can make driving stressful.  Full marks to the cyclists taking this road – give me the chaos of a million-person South American city any day over that.

Nullabor roadtrain

This is a short one – the four car coal trucks are even longer – yes, on a two lane road with no shoulders.  Perfect.

The sunrises and sunsets on the Nullarbor seem bigger than anywhere we’ve been.  There is no light pollution and the horizon sits low so you get the full show two times a day – if you are awake.  We travelled west to east and had no trouble getting up in the mornings for sunrise.  Waking up was aided by moving our watches forward 45 minutes each day.  For some reason, there are 2, 45 minute time zone adjustments on the highway.  Every roadhouse has a clock and staff often goes to great lengths to point out which time zone they are in.  We were both greeted several times by workers that started their conversations giving us current time updates.  Roger that.

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Nullarbor sunset

Penong windmills 1

Old windmill park on the Nullarbor

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Sunrise on the Nullarbor

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Nancy and the van on the Nullarbor

There are heaps of animal warning signs on the Nullarbor.  The signs warn of wombats, camels, cows, kangaroos and emu.  We were even warned by the rental company when we rented our camper van that “the Nullarbor is awash with roos” (I am sure it had nothing to do with the higher level of insurance they suggested we buy).  While we are happy to have made it across safely, we can honestly report that we did not see a single living kangaroo (much less anything else) for the entire drive.  We passed through a number of stretches full of dead and perhaps recently hit kangaroos, but for us, the live animal count was thankfully zero.

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Camel, wombat and roo

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The longest straight section – 91 miles

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The Nullarbor Roadhouse

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And an emu gets added

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120 feet long – four trailers at the extreme

Nullaarbor sign 1

Just for reference, that is 1.200k between Norseman and Ceduna

Crossing the Nullarbor over 3 days in a camper van was fun but it’s hard to feel overly smug when you’ve done it straining only your right ankle and perhaps your nerves.  I’m glad we did it, but can’t see coming back out to repeat the crossing on a bicycle.  Perhaps one day if they fix the shoulders.  For now, we can “tick” the Nullarbor box and not think too seriously about how we’d conquer it on a proper full length bicycle ride.

WA-SA Kanga 2

Seen at the WA/SA border – the big roo

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The old Nullarbor Roadhouse still standing

We’ve spent the last two days in a nice little town on eastern edge of the Bight called Streaky Bay.  It’s very picturesque, and seems to be a popular spot with the grey nomads.  Tomorrow we head east as we make our way back to Sydney.  We are still trying to work out the best route back to Sydney.  We have two choices: number one, the Orange/Mudgee wine regions; and number two, the Barossa/Clare Valley wine regions.  Honest, we really don’t drink that much.  Honest.

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Mural at Streaky Bay

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Sunrise at Streaky Bay – how good is that!

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19 responses to “Crossing the Nullarbor

  1. Rose and Gary

    Hey guys. Good story. It’s nice to hear about your travels.
    We are currently in Iceland. We are here for 3 weeks. The beauty here is amazing. We looked at the roads from the point of view of cycling and we are glad that we are in a car. No shoulders and lots of empty km’s.
    Rose and Gary

    • We had some friends who rode Iceland and liked it. They described narrow, but low traffic roads. But many isolated Ks as well. Sounds like a nice place to visit with or without bikes.

  2. Love the Big Kangaroo holding the vegemite, so Aussie. See you in Sydney soon – can’t wait!!!

  3. Wow, more of Australia to hear about. Who knew? It really is a large country with wide open spaces in the middle parts! Thanks for the travel log!

  4. Go to Orange/Mudgee–it is very cool! Go to De Salis Winery and hear their story and drink their fabulous wines.

    • Thanks for the tip Cheryl – unfortunately we are going to miss Orange. The forecast is for snow in the mountains so we’ll have to take the southern route and hope for only rain.

  5. Very interesting write up. Thank you for that. I hope the van had cruise control! Shouldn’t that refrigerator magnet say “Western Australia | Eastern Australia” or perhaps “North Australia | South Australia”? How do you explain “Western Australia | South Australia”? Is that just to slip in the “WA” and confuse the Pacific northwest tourists?

  6. Chris from Torrance

    Good to hear from you! Always a pleasure to read your posts! Love the sunrise and sunset. The roadtrains are such an alien concept here in the U. S.

    • The roadtrains are bizarre in deed. Put 120 of truck on a road with no shoulder and too narrow lanes. I can’t honestly see how the get away with it. White knuckle stuff when you meet on coming at you!

  7. Thanks for the update and explanation of the Bight & the Nullarbor! Beautiful sunset and sunrises. Not warm enough here now but rain is good for garden!
    Love to you both!

  8. Love the pictures and information. I’m glad you weren’t on bikes!

  9. Fascinating! Never knew anything about this amazing remote area. Thank you!

  10. Paul Alcantra

    Thank you for sharing your adventures in the great Australia desolation. And, thank you for the amazing sunrise at Streaky Bay.

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