Round Australia Road Trip #20
One of the iconic Australian road trips is the crossing of the Nullarbor Plain and it’s a journey I was looking forward to. But to get to the start of the Eyre Highway at Norseman, first we had to travel 723 km; leaving Perth and heading east for two days through just six towns and some tiny hamlets on long straight roads over vast flat plainlands.
We stopped for morning tea at Meckering. In the Memorial Rose Garden local families have planted dozens of fragrant rose bushes to commemorate their pioneering ancestors.
On October 14 1968 Meckering was struck by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. The quake lasted for just 40 seconds, but it was long enough to damage almost every structure in the district. Some have never been repaired and the section of railway track displayed in the park shows the force exerted along the fault line.
We drove for hours along the Great Eastern Highway; first through the Western Australian Wheatbelt, where golden fields of wheat ready for harvesting stretched away on either side of the road. Then, as we entered the Great Western Woodlands, the landscape changed and the highway was lined by scrubby eucalypts and mallee forest. The woodlands, covering 16 million hectares, are the largest Mediterranean habitat in the world and are home to 20% of Australia’s plant species.
There are remnants of the original Rabbit Proof Fence along the highway. Rabbits were brought to Australia in 1859 for hunting, but they quickly multiplied and became pests. The fence was constructed to keep the ever increasing plague of rabbits out of the agricultural lands of Western Australia.
That night we camped at Boorabbin National Park in the heart of the Woodlands.
The next morning we continued along the highway to Coolgardie where gold was discovered in 1892. The subsequent gold rush saw hopeful miners come to Coolgardie in the greatest movement of people in Australia’s history. The main street is extra wide to accommodate the camel trains which traversed the outback carrying vital supplies of food and water. Coolgardie was once the third largest town in Western Australia but now only 1000 people live in the area.
By contrast Kalgoorlie-Boulder, a further 39 km east, is the largest city in the goldfields. Gold was found here one year after Coolgardie and the town of Kalgoorlie quickly grew as men came to find their fortunes. In 1989 Kalgoorlie joined with the neighbouring town of Boulder to create one of the largest gold mining cities in the world. The elegant buildings in the main streets are testament to the wealth that gold brought to the area.
Gold is still mined at Kalgoorlie-Boulder. From a lookout just outside town, we looked down into the Super Pit, an open cut mine so large it can be seen from space. About 20 000 kg of gold come out of the mine each year.
The Great Eastern Highway ends at Kalgoorlie. After leaving the Super Pit we turned south on the road to Norseman, another town with a golden history. Legend says that Laurie Sinclair, a prospector searching for gold in 1893, tethered his horse for the night on a ridge. He discovered in the morning that the horse, named Norseman, had pawed the ground overnight, exposing a reef of gold and starting another gold rush. Norseman the horse is remembered in the main street.
Also commemorated along the street are the camels who trekked in trains of up to 70 across the arid inland in the second half of the 19th century, bringing vital supplies to settlers.
Near Norseman is Lake Cowan, a vast salt lake. When good rain fills the lake it covers an area of 160 000 hectares, but at the end of the dry season it’s covered with a crust of glittering salt crystals. The road south to Esperance goes across the lake on a natural rise in the lake bed.
After a night’s rest in Norseman, we were ready to begin the next stage of the adventure – one of the great road trips of the world – crossing the Nullarbor.