Travel

The Nullarbor Plain is more than a long road trip – for the author it was a chance to re-establish a family tradition and reconnect with the Australian landscape. By Dave Tacon.

Crossing the Nullarbor Plain

A truck parked at a fuel station in the desert.
A roadhouse on the Nullarbor.
Credit: Dave Tacon

My parents first crossed the Nullarbor Plain in 1971. That was five years before I was born and the new sealed road from Adelaide to Perth opened. The route they embarked on was 2700 kilometres of mostly dirt track. As a sulky skateboarding teenager, I joined my parents for their third and fourth Nullarbor crossings  in 1989, along with my older sister. This winter I retraced the journey, thus stretching my immediate family’s connection to the treeless plain to more than half a century.

The Nullarbor is one of Australia’s ultimate road trips: traversing the southern coast from end to end, across a flat, desolate barrier of exposed limestone bedrock. The journey along the arrow-straight 1100-kilometre section of the Eyre Highway that spans the Nullarbor can be gruelling, and for the return traveller it must, of course, be done twice, unless you’re game to go off-road – an even more difficult and dangerous prospect.

My most recent journey clocked up close to 9000 kilometres from Melbourne to Cervantes – a two-hour drive north of Perth – and back down along Western Australia’s southern coast. From Margaret River I passed through the forest of giant tingle trees to Denmark, Albany, Esperance and the rugged beauty of Cape Le Grand. I then headed inland to Norseman for the return leg, passing through the Nullarbor’s western gateway town for the second time in a month.

Why undertake such a journey? There were reasons beyond a sense of accomplishment.

It was a year since my wife, Vanessa, and I had moved to Australia from China – fresh, or perhaps a little stale, from Shanghai’s Covid-zero lockdown. Vanessa, who is Chinese, wanted to camp and experience Australia’s great outdoors, and particularly to see quokkas on Rottnest Island. And by continuing a family tradition, I hoped to reconnect with a country from which I have sometimes felt estranged after more than 11 years away.

As for our mode of camping and transport, we were more closely aligned to my parents’ 1971 combination of tent and Peugeot 403 than to today’s prevailing trends. Our Mazda 3 hatchback and swag was minimalist compared with the expansiveness of the grey nomads, some of whom commanded convoys comprising RVs, boats and compact four-wheel drives for off-road exploration.

Just as my parents had done before us, we camped at Eucla, midway across the Nullarbor, where the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight give way to rolling dunes. There is a motel, caravan park and roadhouse on a hill just off the Eyre Highway, but below them, a ghost town has been progressively swallowed by the sand since its telegraph station closed in 1927. Besides a broken jetty now popular with cormorants and terns, the Old Telegraph Station is the last visible remains of this outpost, a sandstone building half submerged in the dunes. In 1971 it looked much the same, apart from the graffiti painted and etched onto its walls.

Losing light, and unable to venture into the dunes in our hatchback, we chose to pitch camp in a sheltered area just off the car park, a short walk from the ruins. All was well until a four-wheel drive pulled up in front of us at our camp fire an hour after dark. The motor idled, but no one got out, and we sat frozen, blinded in the headlights. The next day, Vanessa insisted we’d waited like startled prey for at least two minutes. My recollection is the vehicle moved on after a very long 15 seconds, in which I uneasily glanced over at the hatchet embedded in one of the hardwood logs we’d paid cash for at a kebab stand in Ceduna. Fortunately, it was the first and last Wolf Creek moment.

While it is possible to traverse the Nullarbor at a leisurely pace – there are roadhouses with motels or campgrounds every 200 kilometres or so – once behind the wheel, I had to keep fighting a primal urge to keep going. When we stopped and got out of our car at dusk on the eastern edge of the expanse, I was dumbstruck by the unforgiving landscape: flat, dry and endless; barren besides the scattered knee-high saltbush. An eerie quiet was broken only by the rumble and then roar of a road train on its way to Perth. The landscape is starkly beautiful but terrifying. Outback psychopaths notwithstanding, this treeless, waterless plain is indifferent to human life and will kill you given half a chance.

I was, however, able to stifle these internal alarm bells and play some golf. The 18 holes of the Nullarbor Links are dotted over 1365 kilometres from Kalgoorlie to Ceduna, and the ragged artificial putting greens and red dirt fairways are peppered with tiny bleached shells from the ancient seabed. Clubs (usually a couple of old drivers, an iron and a putter) can usually be borrowed from a nearby roadhouse. Apart from providing a welcome break from the monotony of driving, the golf course is one of the few ways to meet fellow travellers. On the way back east, we repeatedly crossed paths with retirees John and Sharm from Perth, who were battling it out over the full 18 holes. Their plan was to travel across Australia in their Mercedes RV emblazoned with “I’ve Benz Everywhere”, while John continued a course of chemotherapy. Keen to make the best of their sporting venture, they capped off the par 3 Border Kangaroo hole at Border Village with a night above the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, complete with camp fire, kiddie pool, a bottle of bubbly and Creedence Clearwater Revival blasting out over the Southern Ocean.

Our most exceptional fellow traveller was Ivo Schär, a 41-year-old Swiss who had left his home in Gondiswil, outside Lucerne, on a bicycle a year ago, and had come to the Eyre Highway via Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Nepal and Singapore. His first leg had been to raise money for street kids in Kathmandu, but this stretch was to shorten his bucket list. He chatted to us at a pit stop near the South Australian border. “I recognised the car; did you come from Mundrabilla?” he asked, referring to a town of 23 people (by the last census) roughly 150 kilometres back.

Schär’s journey required an extreme level of endurance. That night he also planned to camp on those cliffs above the Bight – a mere 80 kilometres and three to four hours away with pedal power.

Other than the Swiss adventurer, just about the only traffic we encountered on the road was grey nomads and road trains. I handled most of the driving, and Vanessa, who holds an Australian learner’s licence, was the relief driver. While her permit-mandated 90km/h speed limit was helpful in terms of fuel economy, it meant road trains were constantly bearing down on us. They didn’t appreciate the check on their progress. Sitting next to a table of truckies at Mundrabilla Roadhouse, we heard drivers discussing penny-pinching grey nomads: “Anyone who drives the Eyre at 90km/h should stay at home,” one growled.

The greatest danger on the Nullarbor is not road trains, wandering camels or the brutal landscape – it’s fatigue. Lest either of us succumbed to a nap from which we would never wake, Vanessa and I would speculate as to whether that speck on the horizon was a road train or a grey nomad. If it was a grey nomad, we’d bet on whether the driver would return the Australian country road wave of lifting a couple of fingers briefly off the steering wheel. On our return journey we delved into the relative merits of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the trio of albums looped on our little stereo for two days. Once we agreed Revolver was superior to the other two, we debated its ranking versus Abbey Road. Two months of hard lockdown in Shanghai had set us in good stead for a month-long road trip through the middle of nowhere.

As for my parents, these days they have joined the throngs of grey nomads with four-wheel drive and caravan. At the time of writing, they were headed north with their kelpie, Olive, overnighting in Mallacoota. They still talk of making a third trip from Melbourne to Perth and back. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "Eyre’s breadth".

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