Round Australia Road Trip #21
When the explorer Edward John Eyre completed his crossing of the Nullarbor Plain in 1841, he described it as “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”. Perhaps his opinion was coloured by his experiences. Three of his horses died of dehydration, his expedition partner John Baxter was murdered by two Aborigines and the rest of the party took seven months to complete the crossing from east to west.
Travelling by car when crossing the Nullarbor makes the journey faster and easier; it’s an iconic adventure and, despite Eyre’s lack of enthusiasm, there is plenty to see along the way.
The west to east crossing of the Nullarbor Plain, the world’s largest area of limestone bedrock, begins at Norseman in Western Australia and ends at Ceduna in South Australia. The word Nullarbor is derived from the Latin words nullus meaning no and arbor meaning tree and, although the first section is covered by eucalypt forest, saltbush and bluebush scrub dominate the land for much of the journey. The plain extends over an area of 200 000 square kilometres and the actual treeless part is more than a day’s drive from Norseman.
Crossing the Nullarbor by car means travelling 1200 km on the Eyre Highway, named for Edward John Eyre who was the first European to cross the plain. There are no real towns between Norseman and Ceduna; isolated roadhouses separated by hundreds of kilometres supply fuel, basic supplies, and camping. Water availability is limited and travellers need to ensure they are carrying plenty.
100 km east of Norseman is Fraser Range Station, once a working sheep station and now a campground. The granite hills of Fraser Range rise up out of the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest hardwood eucalypt forest.
A further 90 km east at the Cultural Heritage Museum at Balladonia Hotel/Motel and Roadhouse, there are interactive displays about the history of the area, from the indigenous peoples to the pioneers and cameleers who first settled in the area. One fascinating exhibit details the crash landing of Skylab. Debris from the NASA spacecraft fell to Earth near Balladonia in July 1979.
A little further east is the beginning of the longest straight stretch of road in Australia – 146 km of black bitumen lined by mallee scrub and not a bend in sight.
The limestone karst of the Nullarbor Plain is littered with underground caves. Because of their fragility and concerns about visitor safety, most of the caves aren’t open to the public. Just before the next roadhouse at Caiguna is a blowhole, the entrance to a subterranean cave system which extends more than 20 km to the coast. Air chilled by the ocean is drawn through the caves until it makes its escape through these holes in the limestone. The breeze coming out of the blowhole is cool and refreshing. In the heat of the desert, Mother Nature’s air conditioning system is much appreciated.
According to the sign at Caiguna Roadhouse, this remote outpost on the highway is the hub of the universe!
Occasionally the highway doubles as an emergency airstrip when the Royal Flying Doctor needs to land. The landing zone is clearly marked and if there is going to be an emergency landing the road is temporarily closed beforehand. The cleared spaces on either side of the highway are turning bays for the aircraft.
Just before Madura, there’s a sudden change in the landscape. A lookout at Madura Pass reveals the flat expanse of the Roe Plains which lie between the escarpment of the Hampton Tablelands and the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. After descending through the pass, the highway tracks the ancient cliffs of the tablelands for 180 km between Madura and Eucla.
There are free camps on the side of the highway for truckies and for travellers. At the end of day one we stop at Moodini Bluff Rest Area for the night.