It mightn’t seem like the typical road trip, but for some Australians, crossing the Nullarbor is a summertime tradition.
Four days (at least). Three time zones. The longest stretch of dead straight road – 1675 kilometres – anywhere in the world… straight across the Nullarboring Plain (as my ten-year-old son calls it).
Unless you’re a sandgroper returning home for Christmas from the east, or have a pressing need to get to Perth coupled with a fear of flying, the Eyre Highway – just under 1700 kilometres from Port Augusta in South Australia to Norseman in Western Australia – is an unlikely summer road trip. Many would rather a road-train reverse slowly over their limbs.
But not all. During summer, the road across the ’Bor – a flat and straight, two-lane bitumen highway – is home to a surprisingly vibrant community: trucks the size of trains, perky retirees towing caravans and bored car passengers who wave enthusiastically as they pass other vehicles. There are more cyclists than you would imagine; even the odd walker, as well as hippies driving converted, petrol-guzzling chuggers called Pearl or Priscilla.
How do I know this? Because I’m a Nullarbor veteran, having driven back and forth across it once every decade of my life. The memories are indelible. On one trip I developed a lifelong aversion to hot dogs, after my sister found a maggot in hers at the Iron Knob roadhouse. On another I got engaged, an idea discussed in the long hours it took to cross this achingly wide treeless plain.
What to expect
First impressions (flat, empty and boring) aside, there’s a surprising amount to see and do on the Nullarbor – including wild camels, cliffs and caves – which is why you need the long summer break to explore it properly.
The Murrawijinie Caves – which feature Indigenous ochre hand stencils – are the most accessible, only 10 kilometres west of Nullarbor Roadhouse in SA. (There are caves on the WA side, but you need a permit to visit those.)
Although you won’t spot any whales in summer, just standing atop the massive Bunda Cliffs, which plunge straight down into the Southern Ocean on the Great Australian Bight, is worth the drive alone.
Even at the height of the season, where the horizon meets the bleached bitumen in a dawn to dusk mirage, you can drive for hours and only pass a handful of vehicles (which makes playing car cricket tricky). But it also means that on a 30-degree day in the middle of summer you can turn off at a secluded beach and have it all to yourself. A nude plunge into the green waters of the Southern Ocean is a joyful and life-affirming experience; the solitude is an unexpected luxury.
You may get a windy, 40-degree day (especially near Esperance) but it’s often followed by a run in the low 20s. And the prospect of rain is remote, making camping more appealing.
Hitting the road gives us a chance to escape the usual pre-Christmas party frenzy and the post-Christmas consumption guilt. It also means we’ll have our own car when we get to Perth, and won’t have to hire one in a place not known for its low prices or public transport.
But it’s more than that. Driving means hanging out together – just the four of us. Being stuck in a car for days on end, where there is limited mobile phone reception, can actually be great fun once you overcome the initial mental hurdles. Truly. Some good road music (The Triffids and The Waifs), good audio books (any multi-part series) and some movies (preferably not Wolf Creek) will help.
Why should I do it?
Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for this five (OK six… or maybe seven) day spin across the country and the chance to collect another ‘I crossed the Nullarbor sticker’.
“Oh what – are we driving to Perth again this Christmas?” exclaims the ten year-old, before quickly suggesting he fly over and meet the rest of the family there. I cajole him with promises of boogie boarding down the sand dunes at Fowlers Bay, the sight of the majestic limestone cliffs, the chance of seeing an emu or a dingo working the night, as well as reminding him about the NASA exhibit at the Balladonia Roadhouse Museum. (US president Jimmy Carter reportedly rang the roadhouse to personally apologise for the dramatic crash landing of Skylab in 1979).
When I see a flicker of excitement cross his face, I remind him we’ll be camping out – he won’t have to shower for days. (Thankfully for those of us who want a decent shower, there are plenty of practical roadhouse motels along the way). While there is no traffic or crowds and, thanks to a distinct lack of water, no coastal developments with boutique shops and restaurants, there also aren’t any towns on the ‘Bor – just a series of roadhouse communities that act as fleeting meeting points for travellers heading in one of two directions.
Sure, the roadhouse coffee you order from a Kiwi backpacker at the aptly named Border Village (between both states) will taste nothing like the latte from Ben, your regular barista. You’ll pay more for petrol and food and your phone coverage will be patchy, but you won’t need make-up, a hairdryer or new bathers.
And you’ll experience Dorothea Mackellar’s country as she intended it – a land of sweeping plains; wilful and lavish, which hasn’t changed much since Eyre pulled on his boots and set off on his transcontinental hike. It’s uplifting; this vast, arid expanse. Just don’t forget your sunglasses.
The journey from Melbourne to Perth is around 3500 kilometres; from Sydney to Perth around 4000 kilometres. But your trip doesn’t really start until you hit Port Augusta and the Eyre Highway, 300 kilometres north of Adelaide.
The Nullarbor (Latin for ‘no trees’) Plain is a limestone plain which is 720 kilometres wide. You can do the drive in four to five days but a week to 10 days will allow plenty of time to explore its secrets. Don’t drive once the sun goes down, unless you want to add to the hefty road kill tally.
In summer, head via Esperance on the coast rather than Kalgoorlie. It may be an eight-hour drive back up to Perth, but you’ll avoid the scorching heat of the wheatbelt between Kalgoorlie and Perth.
Accommodation is practical along the Nullarbor – motels attached to roadhouses or caravan parks with camp sites. Fraser Range Station, an operational sheep station 100 kilometres east of Norseman in WA, provides beds in historic stone shearers’ quarters. It’s also a nice spot to camp.
There isn’t a lot on offer for the health-conscious or vegetarians, so embrace your inner truckie.
Every roadhouse not only has a restaurant, but also a bar for thirsty travellers. Just don’t expect it to be cheap. The restaurant at the Eucla roadhouse (near the border) has an outdoor eating area with ponds full of frogs – great for the kids.
Mocean on the waterfront at Streaky Bay, SA has world famous oysters, and the seafood straight from the fishing boats at Esperance, WA, makes the drive worth it.
There’s something on the Nullarbor for everybody:
• The Eyre Bird Observatory, 50 kilometres south of Cocklebiddy is a research station, museum and B&B – and it’s stunning (08 9039 3450)
• Nullarbor Links golf course has a hole in each participating town or roadhouse
• The Balladonia Roadhouse museum is fascinating
• The Head of Bight, 20 kilometres east of Nullarbor Roadhouse, has towering cliffs and southern right whales
• In summer, turn left at Norseman and head for Esperance – with great fishing, surfing and remote national parks. it’s a perfect spot to spend some lazy days.