The Nullarbor crossing is infamous among road trippers, with legends of how monotonous the 1256-kilometre route across southern Australia can be.
But there is plenty to surprise travellers embarking on the journey, says Jennifer Ennion.
From cool ‘outback’ pubs and awesome ranch-style campsites to eerie horror-movie-style motels you should drive straight past, the Nullarbor is an iconic Aussie road trip that cements itself in your subconscious. Dismiss the rumours of mind-numbing boredom, get the music cranking and prepare yourself for a sometimes beautiful but often quirky journey.
Your first stop in the east
There’s not much in Ceduna, South Australia, except a pretty foreshore, jetty and basic services, but it’s the last big-ish town you’ll come across before you head west and, therefore, the eastern launching point for any adventure across the Nullarbor. This is where you fill up on fuel (it’s worth comparing prices at the few service stations), stock up on groceries and ensure you have plenty of water for the journey. It’s also wise to pop into the Visitor Information Centre, as the staff members are a wealth of knowledge and you can pick up a detailed paper map to help you plot your route and number of travel days (four is a good amount).
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped onto the set of a 1980s surf doco when arriving at Cactus Beach, officially called Point Sinclair Camping Ground. It’s a half-hour detour (21km) off the Eyre Highway at Penong but it’s worth it. Cactus is one of the first accommodation options after Ceduna and a highlight for any ocean-loving road-tripper. Picture vintage caravans and 4WDs protruding from coastal scrub just metres from roaring waves that have attracted surfers for decades. Of course you don’t have to camp here – you could just come for the surf – but the campsite is cool, with firewood topped up daily, a rudimentary camp kitchen where wetsuits and garlands of shells hang side by side, and two cold showers, including a “little old ladies’ shower” where privacy is guaranteed and wetsuits prohibited. Around the corner from the campground is Port Le Hunte, a wharf and shark-netted swimming area.
If you’re fascinated with small Aussie towns then you’ll find Fowlers Bay one of the most curious stops along the Nullarbor. Odd in appearance due to the towering sand dunes encroaching on the buildings and the empty streets, this little-known town offers a peaceful respite from the bitumen. Named by English navigator Matthew Flinders in 1802, Fowlers Bay consists of a mix of historical stone houses and ramshackle fishing shacks, with a quiet beach, wharf and general store where you’ll be able to grab a cuppa and bite to eat. There are few people about the day I visit, meaning we share the foreshore with only a handful of other road-trippers and enjoy a bayside lunch before scaling the nearby dunes. From the top of the dunes, there are great 360-degree views, so make sure you take your camera. This once active port remains a good place to cast a fishing line off the wharf or beach, and has a reputation for great whale watching between May and October. The dirt road in can be heavily corrugated so take it slow and give yourself plenty of time to get there.
After Fowlers Bay, you’ll pass through the long stretch known as Yalata. Keep an eye out for the great native animal road sign that’s worth a selfie.
There are plenty of roadhouses along the Nullarbor where you can top up your fuel, stretch your legs and fill your belly. One of the best is Nullarbor Roadhouse, where the manager is friendly and you can grab a coffee and slice of cake. It’s also a good spot to stay the night (there’s a motel and campground) as there’s a tidy little bar with a pool table and pinball machine. Be sure to wander over to the still-standing original roadhouse from the 1950s before moving on. Another great roadhouse full of character is Cocklebiddy Motel, over the border in WA. Again, there’s a quirky little bar and diner.
Caiguna is a somewhat weird stop and reminiscent of the roadside motels you see in American horror films – though, I’m sure they’re not like that inside – and besides, some might find that concept thrilling. Although the roadhouse itself is large and clean, the playground in front is a little dilapidated and looks somewhat unsafe; best not to linger.
The last hurrah
‘Spoil’ yourself towards the end of the crossing with a stay at Fraser Range Station, in Western Australia. The owners’ pride is evident as soon as you drive into this sprawling property, with gardens flourishing in this harsh environment. There’s a cool camp kitchen here and a communal dining room where you can enjoy a home-cooked meal for $30. Camels and emus roam the property, the showers are hot and the water is safe to drink. Fraser Range is a welcome respite after the tiresome ‘90 Mile Straight’, Australia’s longest straight road.
The end of the line
Norseman marks the end of the Nullarbor but it’s no oasis. This town is tiny and travellers still have a couple of hours’ driving before reaching the worthy stops of Kalgoorlie to the north or Esperance to the south. What Norseman is good for is more fuel, grabbing essential groceries and letting the kids run amok in the large public playground. And, of course, celebrating the official end of the Nullarbor crossing.