Officially the Nullarbor is a limestone outcrop that extends over a thousand kilometres from west to east at its widest point. ‘Doing’ the Nullarbor by road generally involves crossing from Ceduna, SA to Norseman, WA – a distance of 1,256km. But that’s just the start of it. Given that most of our population lives on Australia’s coastal fringes, a trip across the Nullarbor is likely to involve at least 4,000kms, the distance between Sydney and Perth.
Because of the vast distances involved, many overlanders choose to incorporate their Nullarbor adventure into the ‘Big Lap.’ But it doesn’t need to be this way. In a four-week return-trip getaway from the east coast, you could be enjoying WA’s unspoilt south-west beaches, Rottnest Island, and wineries – and still find time to venture into the South Australia’s Flinders Ranges or the magnificent Eyre Peninsula.
And regardless of what you do on either side of it, the Nullarbor Plain is a destination in its own right. Some may even say it’s an Australian rite of passage. So, what are you waiting for?
It could be easy to regard the Nullarbor Plain as simply the long flat bit of land between the interesting things you want to visit. With the Eyre Highway’s straight, sealed road - beckoning you to drive just a little bit further - the challenge is to slow down, and let the magic of this desolate landscape capture your imagination. To achieve this, you’ll need to venture off the highway.
Once you take the time to look, you’ll find your horizons are not limited by relentless bitumen. At Ceduna, you’re at the start of Googs Track. This is one of the country’s most iconic 4WD destinations, extending north to intersect with Tarcoola on the Trans-Australian Railway line which also later crosses the Nullarbor.
But you don’t need to commit to days of bone tingling backtracks to feel the spirit of this part of the world. From Ceduna to Norseman, easily accessible options are everywhere. How about Lake McDonnell, located just 15km south of Penong with its striking Pink, Green and Blue Lakes? Or visit Fowlers Bay, 22kms from the Eyre Highway, and immerse yourself in the history and ecological richness of a township that was established as an overland telegraph station and supply station in the days of the early explorers. Book a night at the Eyre Bird Observatory near Cocklebiddy, and you’ll actually stay inside a former telegraph station, and Australia’s first bird observatory, nestled among the sand dunes with walking tracks among the coastal vegetation.
Then don’t forget to take every detour you can to gaze-out across the cliffs of the great Australian Bight, and to whale watch when the season’s right. From May to October, Southern Right Whales transit the Bight to breed and give birth to their calves before returning to Antarctica. For a ringside seat, go to the Head of the Bight Visitors Centre, 12 kms from the highway, where boardwalks and viewing platforms have been established so you don’t miss a thing.
Camping - Roadhouses or Remote?
The only official campsite inside the Nullarbor National Park other than roadhouses is at Koonalda Homestead, 100km from the Nullarbor Roadhouse and 18km north of the highway. This place is a must-see. The abandoned petrol station and car graveyard speaks to an era when transcontinental tourism first began, well before we had the benefit of well-equipped 4WDs or sealed roads. Formerly a sheep property, this is the location of one of the semi-arid karst sinkholes for which geologists worldwide know the Nullarbor. The large underground cavern holds water that wildlife depends on, and you could sit for hours birdwatching at this one site alone.
Another great camp location is near the Madura Roadhouse. The Roadhouse itself has great facilities and offers a feed that’ll satisfy the hungriest of your tribe. But if you’re hankering for a night away from the sound of generators, you may prefer to free camp on the escarpment above. Simply drive a couple of kilometres west from Madura and turn right at the lookout sign. Drive for a kilometre or so, and you’ll find sites with unparalleled views across the Plain. There are no facilities, so this one’s suitable only for self-sufficient campers who can leave no waste. Do it right and the next camper will be able to enjoy the place as much as you did.
Taking a trip of this magnitude demands a disciplined mindset. There’s a real risk of ‘white line fever’ or ‘highway hypnosis’ when you’re travelling long distances on straight roads. This is a condition where you find yourself driving, and responding to road conditions, but don’t remember doing it. In other words, it’s driving with your brain on automatic.
The SA and WA Governments have done a great job sign-posting the truck stops and rest areas along the highway, letting you know well in advance how far away they are. The same goes for the roadhouses and the official lookouts. So, take the time to ‘Stop, Revive and Survive.’
In the Tracks of Explorers
While you’re in this part of the world, it’s worth reflecting on how hard life would have been for the pioneer explorers. Matthew Flinders sailed the southern coastline in the Investigator in 1802, spending time at Fowlers Bay in the east, and Lucky Bay closer to Esperance.
Doing it harder, in 1841 John Eyre trudged from east to west on foot to achieve the first overland expedition across Australia. His expedition partner, John Baxter, didn’t live to tell the tale, having been murdered by the party’s indigenous guides near the current town of Caiguna. His lonely remains weren’t recovered until 1920 and a memorial site was established at the site of his death. While this location is just 35km south of the Caiguna roadhouse, it’s 4WD accessible only and will take you 3hrs.
Easier to get to, Eyre passed by Eucla where there’s a memorial to his efforts on the edge of town. Later, in 1877, an overland telegraph station was established here, off the escarpment and down by the coast with a jetty to receive supplies. The remains of the stone block building are well worth the short detour.
There are plenty of signs warning drivers to beware of camels, kangaroos and wombats. But truth be known, when we travelled this way, the Plain could well have been renamed ‘NullaFauna’ given the lack of furry critters around. The reason is the lack of surface water. Any rain that falls simply filters down through the limestone, creating the caves and water traps which the birds rely on.
So, it’s birdlife that you’re more likely to see. And if there is any roadkill, it’s likely to be visited by high numbers of predator birds, like Wedgetail Eagles, eager for a decent feed. It’s any wonder that the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse is called the Wedgetail Hotel.
STAT’S N’ FACTS
- Nullarbor is Latin for Nulla (No) and Arbor (tree)
- The Nullarbor occupies an area of about 200,000 square kilometres
- The Bunda cliffs are 80m above sea level
- It took explorer Edward John Eyre 7 months to cross from Fowlers Bay to Albany on foot.
- Summer temperatures can reach almost 50 degrees.
- The coldest temp recorded on the Plain is -7.2 at Eyre.
- The average distance between roadhouses is 110km.
- The largest distance between roadhouses is 191km.
The straightest stretch of road is unbending for 147km.