Crossing the Nullabor

Think first of a words derived from the Latin – ‘Arbor’ meaning trees, and ‘Nullus’ being ‘not any’ – as in ‘not any trees’. The Nullarbor word may have been derived from the Latin – but in fact the Nullarbor does have some trees. It is also one big drive or train trip to cross and it is also one of the most famous long drives in Australia.
For many Australians and even international travellers “Crossing the Nullarbor” is considered as almost symbolic of something of a milestone achievement in one’s lifetime – all be it by travelling along the Eyre Highway from Norseman to Ceduna, or on the Trans Australian Railway to or from Kalgoorlie.
Over the years, people have travelled across the Nullarbor walking, by camel, horse, bus, bicycle, car, 4WD, wagon, stage coach, truck, road train, on a penny farthing, on a Harley Davidson, in a Rolls Royce and no doubt many other ways. The present road was first built in 1941, and then sealed in 1976. It is at various points also an emergency airstrip – with white painted lines marked on it to signify where the aircraft could land and a turning circle to taxi too next to the Highway.
There are also Kangaroos and Emus and even cattle that cross the road, and seeing “roadkill” (dead animals) on the road tells you that you need to be careful when you drive to keep an eye out for wildlife that could cross in front of you. Kangaroos often sleep during the day, but come out at night, particularly around dawn and dusk. Road trains also cross the Nullarbor too – and you need to take extra care when passing them.
The first crossing by land was completed in 1841 by the Explorer, Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) and Wylie, his aboriginal companion, an epic journey completed after two former attempts had been abandoned. Helped by aborigines, marred by tragedy with the death of his fellow explorer, John Baxter and having to eat some of his horses along the way, the journey took from 25th February 1841 until the 7th July to complete, with the constant threat of hunger and thirst almost killing them both too.
Born in England, the son of a vicar in Bedfordshire, Eyre had arrived in Sydney in 1833 and moved almost immediately to the Hunter Valley to become a “Colonial” learning about sheep and cattle on properties there. He then went on to drove sheep, cattle, oxen and horses across the country to sell at the end of their journeys, and he made good money doing this.
Finding new grazing lands and discovering what lay in the centre of Australia – hopefully a giant inland sea was the dream of many an explorer. At the time, ships could ply the coastline from east to west, but was it possible to find a way across the land from Adelaide to Perth? What lay beyond the horizon?
Eyre is quoted as saying – “If there is a road not travelled, then that is the road I must take” – and so it was that he set out on his journey, recording in his journal the words “Either we accomplish the journey I had in view, or we perish in the attempt”.
Imagine if you will looking out at an ocean of water, with the sheer 60 to 100 metre high cliff faces of the Bunda Cliffs and Baxter Cliffs that run for hundreds of miles along the coastline separating you from that water, and not finding a single creek, river, or water to drink just to stay alive.
Following on from his journey across the Nullarbor, he took on a Government job, as the local magistrate and “Protector of Aborigines on the Murray River at Moorundie, and then later he became a Lieutenant Governor in New Zealand, then in Antigua, the Leeward Islands and then in Jamaica. There in 1865 he was forced to declare Martial Law, following an outbreak of violence which resulted in 100’s of executions, floggings and hangings. The brutality or severity of the response to the violence led to a Royal Commission in London. Eyre was at the time labelled a monster, but was exonerated. He then retired from public life and died in England in 1901, never to return to Australia. The Eyre Highway and the Eyre Peninsula are named in his honour.
The Eyre Highway starts in Norseman, roughly halfway between Coolgardie to the north and Esperance south on the Southern Ocean, and then runs eastwards across the Nullarbor Plain to Ceduna in South Australia – some 1200 kilometres away, and then on to Port Augusta in South Australia, a further 468 kilometres.
Norseman – was named after a horse!
In 1892 a prospector, Laurie Sinclair tethered his horse, and then noticed that his horse, “Hardy Norseman” had kicked gold out of the dust with its hooves! A gold rush followed, and even today there are gold companies and individual prospectors working the area.
With a population of around 1000 people, Norseman is a small town, with places to stay and also eat and it is pretty well the gateway to the Nullarbor for travellers heading east. If you head to Beacon Hill Lookout, you will be able to see over the town and also the giant tailings left by the miners in their quest for gold. Bromus dam is also nearby too.
Heading east, about 100 kilometres you will find the Fraser Range Sheep Station – (See www.fraserrangestation.com.au Tel: (08) 9039 3210) where you can also stay and see this outback station. The Fraser range is covered by Eucalyptus forest trees rather than scrublands.
Balladonia Roadhouse is 191 kilometres from Norseman (See www.balladoniahotelmotel.com.au ) where you can stay in the motel, fuel up, rest at the bar, and even look at the museum here – which has some of the remnants of the US Space Skylab that crashed landed to earth here in 1979. The Afghan Rocks are about 14 kilometres from Balladonia, and the Cape Arid National Park on coast side on Recherche Bay which covers an area of 280,000 hectares is here too – but is accessed from Esperance.
Caiguna – is 147 kilometres from Balladonia Roadhouse, with the Highway sometimes called the “90 Mile Straight” – due to it being a continuous straight road across the salt plain – said to be the longest straight road in the world. Nuytsland Nature Park is close by on the coastal side of Caiguna with 4WD access. Caiguna itself has a roadhouse, motel and camping ground, and even a landing strip for light aircraft. It was near here in April 1841 that Eyre’s fellow explorer, John Baxter was killed by two of his aboriginal party, and the Baxter’s Cliffs are named in his honour. If you can get a chance to see the Cliffs- either from the top of the cliffs, or from an aircraft they are a spectacular. Sometimes international and domestic flights from Perth heading east, pass over the cliffs too.
Cocklebiddy – is 64 Kilometres from Caiguna, and it is near some of the biggest caves in Australia. Most people will never see in the caves, as the main cave, Cocklebiddy Cave, about 12 kilometres from the Roadhouse is 90 metres below the ground land surface and also underwater. It can only be accessed by professional cave divers with lots of equipment and a permit and is a highly risky dive. There are 6.5 kilometres of crystal clear water trapped in the limestone cave system, and those that have ventured to dive here have rated it as equivalent in danger level to climbing Mount Everest in the Himalayas. The Eyre Bird Observatory is also nearby (50 kilometres away) and you need a 4WD to get there. The whole Nullarbor Plain is the largest karst limestone area in the world, and besides caves, there are small blowholes located at various points across the Plain.
Madura – is 91 kilometres from Cocklebiddy, and again there is a roadhouse here, with fuel, food and accommodation camping available. In the late 1800’s and before World War 1, Madura also bred horses called ‘whalers’ – (named after New South Wales where they were initially bred). Australia in those early days bred horses which were sold to the British Army in India, and also were used by the Light Horse in World War 1. The horses from Madura were taken to Eucla and then onto Albany on ships heading overseas.
Mundrabilla – is 116 kilometres from Madura, and also has a roadhouse for fuel and food. Outside Mundrabilla are some caves on Old Coach Road, and head to Wanteen Beach, about 16 kilometres along a rough track through the sand hills to the beach area. This is an isolated beach, and is popular as a place to fish.
Eucla – Look for the giant Whale – is 62 kilometres east from Mundrabilla and also has fuel, food, beer and accommodation available. The old Telegraph Station built in 1877, almost buried in the sand hills is about 4 kilometres from Eucla, with Eucla overlooking the Great Australian Bight. Eucla is just 11 kilometres from the South Australian border and 12 kilometres from Border Village.
Border Village is just inside the South Australian Border, and you will also find fuel, food and accommodation here.
Nullarbor – 187 kilometres east of the border is also a village and from here it is possible to take a scenic flight over the Bunda Cliffs. There are also about eight or so lookouts along the Highway between Border Village and Nullarbor where you can stop to get a view of the Bunda Cliffs. Some of these do not have protective fences at the cliff top, and if you look over the side of the cliff, you can see massive rocks that have fallen from the cliff, so it is best not to get too close to the edge.
Yalata – is an Anangu aboriginal community 94 kilometres from Nullarbor where the people speak the Pitjantjatjara language. There is a caravan park here too. Just east of Yalata you will come to the Dingo fence, first built in 1880-85 between Dalby in Queensland to the Great Australian Bight just near here. The fence was built to stop dingos heading eastwards to attack sheep flocks, and it is the longest fence in the world – some 5614 kilometres long. Parts of it are electrified and it is maintained by ‘dogmen’ who travel beside the fence and repair any damage that they see from camels, dingos, kangaroos and falling trees.
Nundroo, Bookabie and Penong – are all east of Yalata on the Highway heading to Ceduna. They are tiny settlements serving the local communities and travellers that pass by. Nundroo is a sheep area with a hotel, motel and caravan pack. In Bookabie look for the old stone school ruins – They make a good photograph and in Penong there are a number of windmills sourcing water from the Artesian basin, and some grain silos and salt and gypsum mining. Cactus Beach and Point Sinclair are about 20 kilometres from Penong – and a great place for fishing and board surfing. Sharks also can be seen here too, and being an isolated beach, you are quite a way from any help if you needed it.
Ceduna – is a bigger town (Population about 4000) on Murat Bay with supermarkets to buy food and a number of caravan parks, motels and hotels to stay in. It also has a small airport, and there is the interesting Schoolhouse Museum at the junction of Park Terrace and Murat Street. Head to the Ceduna Jetty to see if you can catch some fish from here, or just offshore if you have a boat. Each year in October, Ceduna celebrates “Oysterfest” – a great time to visit. If stopping over, you might also want to head to Streaky Bay – which is also a good place to stay, with some interesting things to see too.
Streaky Bay – 112 Kilometres from Ceduna following the Flinders Highway east, Streaky Bay has a population of around 1000 people and is a popular beach resort with a jetty, rock and beach fishing, interesting sea and birdlife, great coastline and calm water being the main attractions. There is a hotel, shops and caravan park and from here head on the Westall Way Tourist Drive to see sea lions at Point Labatt (51 kilometres), and also the amazing Murphy’s Haystacks – (40 kilometres from Streaky Bay) – large odd shape granite inselbergs (rocks) that stand out from the landscape like haystacks or giant thumbs in the air, a bit like Easter Island. Also look for Speeds Point, Tractor Bay and Smooth Pool. Head also to Cape Bauer to see craggy islands off the coast, follow a boardwalk to the beach and Whistling Rock and look skywards near the cliffs to hopefully see Osprey, Peregrine Falcons and Sea Eagles that nest in this area.
STREAKY BAY IS ON THE EYRE PENINSULA IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA – and about 300 kilometres from Port Lincoln and over 730 kilometres from Adelaide.
Streaky Bay is a good rest spot to stop either after you have crossed the Nullarbor or getting ready to head to Western Australia over the Nullarbor Plains.
Happy Travelling!
Also look on the South Australian part of this website – and see Port Lincoln too.
Geoff Stuart

Happy Traveller

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