Across the Nullarbor
Adelaide to Albany, didn’t sound like much to me at first. But it’s longer than driving from New York to Las Vegas, more than the distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back again, farther than from Manchester to Malaga. Almost as long as this blog, but not quite. So before you read on, go get a drink. You may be some time.
In this blog we document our travels East to West across the Nullarbor Plain. The direction is relevant. Nullarbor is derived from the Latin “Null Arbor” meaning “No Trees” in case you were wondering.
I may have mentioned this before but Australia is big, very big, and every inch is bloody beautiful.
It took us 8 days to work our way across, and we did work as we travelled.
Time is an illusion. Across the Nullarbor doubly so.
Quote shamelessly stolen from Douglas Adams and amended to suit.
Here is the sort of stuff I think about while driving, all of this next section is because we don’t want to drive after dusk or dark because that’s when the wild animals come out and you have a good chance of hitting one of them on the road. Plus I had a lot of time to think about this on this road trip of a lifetime.
The Earth spins on it’s axis once every 24 hours. To mark the passage of time and to aid navigation humans have artificially marked the Earth with grid lines called Longitude (360 lines from the North Pole to the South Pole) and Latitude (180 rings around the sphere). 24 hours in a day, times 60 minutes in a day divided by 360 lines on Longitude means the Sun takes 4 minutes to traverse each Longitude mark. At the equator its about 111 kilometres between Longitude lines but, where we are, at approximately 32 degrees south, it’s about 93 kilometres. We were averaging 4 lines of Longitude per day. We were crossing East to West following the Sun, so by driving 4 lines of Longitude every day we were extending each day by 16 minutes. But the tilt on the Earth’s Axis plus the spinning, wobbling thing it does means the days are getting shorter so we reduce that by 2 minutes each day and that nets 14 minutes of extra daylight a day.
To try and answer the question, “What time does it get dark at our destination and what time will we arrive?” we need to factor in time zones. Australia has 3 official time zones, Australian Eastern Time, Australian Central Time and Australian Western Time. These, along with Daylight Savings Time, are to allow for dawn and sunset to be in roughly the same time in any part of the continent. However along the Nullarbor they’ve made up their own time zone. There’s 1.5 hours difference between time zones in South Australia and Western Australia, and some point in the Nullarbor this was considered ridiculous as dawn might be at 4am or sunset a 3 in the afternoon, so they created a new “unofficial” time zone called Australian Central Western Time that is 45 minutes ahead of Australian Western Time and 45 minutes behind Australian Central time. Satnavs, phones and Windows automatic time zone changer stuff has no clue about this magic time portal zone shift effect thing. Hotels and roadhouses, on the other hand, use this time exclusively. There were clock displays like these in every roadhouse.
All this really means that the internet, GPS time of arrival estimates and phone clocks were not very helpful at telling me what time it got dark at our destination. So what we had to do was take the time of dusk the previous day where we started from, add the number of hours the journey was planned to take, add the 16 minutes, subtract the 2 minutes of lost time due to wibbly, wobbly timey, wimey stuff and ignore the clocks and watch the sun out of the drivers side window for clues. Effectively we followed Nullarbor time, it worked a treat and we didn’t kill anything furry.
This big adventure did require some logistical planning. You can obviously cover the same distance in less time than we did but you wouldn’t have time to see as much or experience anything and certainly no time to stop and do a days work in between stops. We’re not commuters, we’re Vagabonders with jobs. The stops were roughly calculated to ensure we had no more than 4 hours drive between. Our daily routine was, get up early, work for a few hours, drive and explore, book into the next stop and work for a few hours there, sleep and repeat. Bring on the fun.
Day 1: Adelaide to Kimba.
Our first driving leg was 5 hours long breaking our 4 hour rule. We needed to do this longer leg as the journey proper started at Kimba.
First place we stopped for a snack and stretch along the way was Redhill. It was small and almost dead.
The Eureka Hotel had a closed sign on it. It was a beautiful building but looked as if it would be closed for some time.
The road to Kimba took us past Iron Knob. We did the detour just to see what an Iron Knob looked like. It looked like a wild west town in the 1870’s, small shacks lined the dirt roads and the town landscape was dominated by the giant tailings mountain from the mine. I half expected to see a couple of gunslingers facing off against each other in the dusty main street.
Next to the general store there was a small free camp site and a toilet block with a Dunny mural adorning the walls. In case you are not familiar with the term, Dunny is Australian slang for toilet. Like Cludgy in Scottish, (thanks Jenny) or Carsey if you are from England or Bog if you are from Ireland. Despite the looks of the place the Dunny was spotless.
There were a few caravanners parked in the free camp site nearby taking advantage of the facilities. Crossing the Nullarbor by caravan is a thing. Apart from road trains most vehicles we saw on the road were car and caravan combo’s. Experienced travellers like these guys know where every free camp site is along the way. We met a few more like them over the next few days.
Kimba is a rural town focused mainly on servicing the needs of the farmers in the district. They obviously know you need something to make the many tourists that cross the Nullarbor, stop in your town instead of driving right by to the next free camp site. They created a few sights worth hitting that indicator for. Two of which are the painted silos and the Half Way Across Australia sign.
We arrived almost at sunset and the painted silos we’d read about were illuminated in the most glorious light. We’ve seen a few other painted silos and they are all wonderful but these are particularly beautiful. The scene is a sunset scene and as we arrived at sunset it was pretty spectacular.
We stayed at the Kimba Gateway Hotel and were upgraded to a super deluxe room. As far as meal choices went we could see the hotel patrons were going for an almost gastronomic experience with some of the options. They obviously knew they also needed to cater for the masses so there was a lot of steak. The food was good, the restaurant was cold, the wine was amazing. We had a not quite organic red from and organic wine producer called Boot Hill. It was very good.
Day 2: Kimba to Fowler’s Bay
The next day there was a light frost on the car. This was a first. At breakfast we met a guy who exported hay from Kimba to China. He said China needed Australian hay to feed the cattle they are now growing to feed the populous.
On our way out we stopped at the Half Way Across Australia Sign.
Oh, and the Giant Galah as well. Couldn’t resist.
We stopped a couple of times on our way to Fowler’s Bay. Either because of an interesting thing we saw or for a comfort or food break. Here are a few things we stopped at.
We’ve been working non-stop for months and planned to take a day off and stay in Fowler’s Bay for 2 nights camping to relax and recharge. We had done some research and had gathered info from other friends who had done the trip, (thanks Jo), and chose Fowler’s Bay. It is accessed from the main A1 Eyre Highway via a 23 kilometre dirt road.
Fowler’s Bay is a small village of 20 or so permanent inhabitants and a camp site. It is completely off grid and has no mains water or power. Sounded perfect for the decompression we were looking for. It is wild and beautiful and the sunrises were amazing as you will see.
Fowler’s Bay was once a significant port but fell into decline and was all but abandoned, only the substantial jetty remains as a remnant of those days. The landscape is dominated by the jetty and the giant sand dunes at the edge of the village.
We checked into the camp site at the kiosk as the sign said to do.
Robyn, who checked us in, told us she is also a Wallace so we started chatting about that. As I was checking us in (gabbling) Jenni spotted a sign on the wall advertising a camp cookup Saturday night. Sounded perfect, we signed up and were in!
We quickly set up camp in our new supertent.
Fowler’s Bay camp site is small and has only 4 places specifically for tents. The ground is hard dirt but level and clean. Much better than some we have stayed at. The facilities were great for being off grid, hot water showers and a camp kitchen right next door. A gazzillion batteries and a few massive inverters driven by solar and topped up in emergency by diesel provide 1.5kw of power to each site. It’s very high tech.
They also had a fire pit.
Camp Cookup was on Saturday, we arrived on Friday, so Jenni cooked us up a feast in the kitchen. We took our sunsetter drinks and walked to the end of the jetty and watched the sun go down over the dunes.
We met a few fisher folk along the jetty, they all stopped us and had a chat. One guy we talked to said he’d been to Ireland many years ago and nearly died of pneumonia as soon as he got off the plane. While we stood chatting to him he reeled in two squid. His wife nearly died laughing when one squirted ink all over his head and clothes. Judging by the amount of ink we saw staining the boards of the jetty this was a common occurrence.
When we returned some kind soul had lit the fire and we took full advantage of the warmth it provided. The camp site only had a few people on it, we had the fire to ourselves.
Just as I was wondering where they got the big pile of logs from in this land without trees a man came over and told us the logs were his and was donating them to the camp site. He had gathered them up while free camping in the bush and as he was crossing the border into South Australia next day he couldn’t take them with him. We thanked him for his gift of warmth this night.
There’s a significant quarantine station at the border controlling what comes into South Australia or Western Australia. Honey, fresh fruit and vegetables are strictly controlled, as are logs with bark on them. The camp site has this box to leave any food in before you cross. It was usually full. Simon and Robyn, owners of the camp site, used the vegetables left for the camp cookup the next night.
This far from all major towns there is no light pollution and the sky this night was clear and breathtaking. Before we settled in for the night I couldn’t resist trying to capture a picture of the Milky Way as it rose over the jetty.
We slept like babies that night, it’s a peaceful place. Jenni and I were up early to catch the sunrise. Glad we did, it was the best sunrise we’d seen in a while.
Day 3: Fowlers Bay
It was cold, but we were very well insulated.
The sunrise was spectacular, even bigger and better than it looks in the picture as it went from horizon to horizon.
The Red Sky meant it was going to be a cloudy and windy day, not one for doing much. Suited us well. I did go for a stroll around the town, took about 5 minutes, it’s not big.
Jenni cooked lunch in the camp kitchen. Home made veggie soup. Warming and delicious,
We used our own little stove as the ancient, but very functional, camp stove was in a place not sheltered from the wind and we couldn’t get the soup to heat. This was from earlier before the wind got up when we were making coffee for breakfast.
As you can clearly see all Jenni does is stand around cooking and I have to do all the running around clicking pictures till the food is ready. It’s a hard life.
A relaxing afternoon followed. Pretty soon it was Cookup time. The kitchen was buzzing with the 8 or 9 other folk waiting for Robyn and Simon to sort out the chops and snags and chicken patties. Simon had a big cast iron pot full of veg on the now roaring camp fire. Wasn’t long till it was ready. I over ate as usual and it was all very good.
Simon and Robyn joined us at our table and we got chatting. Turned out Simon used to work for the same IT company as I did. Small world. They told us that later in the year whales congregate in the bay and you can see them floating around just off the jetty. This spark lit a idea for a return visit. At some point in the evening after everyone else left Simon offered to take us with him for a ride over the sand dunes in the morning when he goes to check his water hole. Of course we said yes.
We were leaving next day so in the morning we got up earlier than normal and packed up the tent. We found Simon and set off in his Toyota 4×4 over the dunes. It was my first Aussie off road adventure and was great fun.
It wasn’t always horizontal going.
Jenni was up front, I took the back seat and clicked away at whatever I saw. Simon took us for quite a long tour, the dunes are enormous and stretch for miles. It’s a popular spot for off road enthusiasts, there were tracks everywhere. Simon knew the place well and went over some dunes that had no tyre tracks and into new territory. We got out for a look around.
When the first Europeans arrived in Fowler’s Bay the local Aborigines and them had a good relationship. They showed the Europeans where the water sink holes were where they could get fresh water in this desert. The same sink holes are still being used today. This is the water hole and pump for the camp site, it tops up the water tanks if there hasn’t been enough rain. Last year there was a period where it didn’t rain for 6 months, the water from the sink kept them in business and every one alive.
This is me and Simon checking out the water hole.
At this point Simon is indicating where he dug another sink hole but even though it’s only 5 metres away the water in it isn’t drinkable. He also said the sand dunes are constantly moving and growing. There’s a whole village buried under here somewhere. He said one of his neighbours sink holes and pump got buried years ago but it’s still working away somewhere under the sand pumping him water. It’s a different life for these guys out on the edge. Never dull though I suspect.
Day 4: Fowler’s Bay to Eucla
And so with our Fowler’s Bay adventure over we drove back up the 23 kilometre dirt road onto the the A1 Eyre Highway and turned left for our next stop, Eucla. We promised ourselves, and Robyn and Simon, we’d be back, and we will. We also promised to bring Robyn some Guinness when we return, sounds like it needs to happen. There are whales to be spotted.
We stopped at the famous Nullarbor Roadhouse just to see it. It’s a legend.
Shortly after the Nullarbor Roadhouse we crossed the border between South Australia and Western Australia at a place imaginatively called Border Village. This signpost marks the spot.
Border Village also boasts a Giant Kangaroo holding a giant jar of Vegemite. The only way it could get more Aussie was if Crocodile Dundee were in the pouch and AC/DC Highway to Hell was blaring out from hidden speakers in it’s ears.
We passed through the border quarantine check point. They were very thorough, opened every door, made you open any boxes that looked suspicious and checked for stuff you can’t bring across. We passed through without incident.
Before we got to Eucla we stopped at one of the many lookout points where you get great views of the Great Australian Bight. It was cold, very cold and very windy. We didn’t stay long but the view was pretty good.
We also drove 15km down another road and paid $7 each to get to the Great Australian Bight lookout where you can spot whales from June to November each year. It’s called a Whale Nursery as it is where they come to rest and have their calves. It was VERY windy, raining hard and cold, bitterly cold. Like summer in Ireland. I kept my camera in my bag while we were walking around as it would have been ruined otherwise. We did see a whale but it disappeared underwater by the time I got the camera out of the bag 10 minutes later so no picture unfortunately. It was a magnificent site though.
We arrived at the Eucla Roadhouse before dusk as planned. It had a most basic room and served mostly deep fried food in the restaurant. The bar was good. The staff looked unhappy, no smiles on any faces. Service was, lets say, perfunctory.
This was on the bar in the Eucla Roadhouse. We saw a few similar exhibits in the bars along the way.
What made the stay at the Eucla Motor Hotel so unpleasant was one of the staff the next day. I went to the office to confirm what time checkout was as time is wibbly wobbly here. I was told sternly “NOW! CHECK OUT IS NOW!” I checked the clock on their wall, it was 9:32am. I walked back to the room and was in the process of telling Jenni we need to get a shimmy on when the door was rapped really hard, like a policeman knock. A lady shouted at us “It’s 9:45, you need to get out now. Check out is NOW!” She’d followed me over to the room to make sure we got the message. I checked the booking, check out was 10am. We had plans to stop in the cafe, grab a coffee and breakfast and work for a couple more hours before setting off but after that we just jumped in the car and left. We’ll stay somewhere else on our return visit. This was probably the only negative experience on this trip.
Day 5: Eucla to Cocklebiddy
One of the reasons I chose Eucla was it has the ruins of an old original telegraph station nearby. Before we left we drove down to take a look.
The telegraph line is regarded as one of the most important innovations to come to Australia. It helped break down what was called Australia’s Tyranny of Distance. Before the telegraph came, communication between Western Australia and the rest of the nation took months, but when the Eucla telegraph line and manual repeater station were established in 1877, transmitting messages only took a few seconds. Probably as important as the internet is today. Believe it or not a plague of rabbits forced the town to become abandoned in 1890.
As we approached the old Telegraph Station Jenni spotted an Emu right beside us. I didn’t see it and would probably have stepped over it.
As I had the landscape lens on I couldn’t zoom in very close so I used the original photographers zoom technique and walked towards it.
I was able to get quite close before it got pissed off and ran away.
Afterwards Jenni reminded me Emu’s can and do attack people and are quite vicious. Their toes are claws that can eviscerate a human. Of course they are deadly, this is Australia. Later we saw it walking nonchalantly up the road like it didn’t have a care in the world. It was a great encounter.
We stopped for breakfast in Mundrabilla Roadhouse, just 40 minutes from Eucla. It was a friendly place that served good quality food. We were able to get a signal and get online from inside the cafe so we stayed and worked out of there for a few hours.
We had the biggest breakfast we’ve ever been served, everything cooked to perfection. It fed both Jenni and I and set us up for the drive to the Wedgetail Inn at Cocklebiddy. Parked beside us as we left was this lovely fella left guarding the ute. So cool he’s worthy of a space in this blog.
What a different experience Cocklebiddy was. Marie, the lady on reception was friendly and engaging. Again the room was basic but functional and clean. The bar was nice, it had a good crowd and we all chatted to each other. We had a good meal and a drink and retired to bed happy.
Day 6: Cocklebiddy to Norseman
No wild woman hammering on the door shouting at us to get out this morning was quite a relief. We were up early and worked for a few hours before setting out for Norseman. This was one of the longest drives of our giant road trip. As we were up before dawn I took a few snaps from around the roadhouse.
Not far out of Cocklebiddy is the start of the longest stretch of straight road in Australia. 90 miles or 146.6 kilometres long. It’s actually 91.1 miles long but that’s just me being pedantic.
Not far into the longest straight stretch of road we pulled into Caiguna for breakfast. When I saw they had liver and bacon in thick onion gravy I was hooked. This was one of my favourite meals when growing up on the farm. It looks a mess but it was delicious and took me straight back there.
The ladies who run this place were great craic and very talkative, one of them was from Portugal and was working her way round Australia now her kids were all grown up and she was free of any ties. We worked for a few hours and drank our bottomless tea’s and coffee’s.
We stopped a few more times along the road to try and capture what it was like to be on the longest straight road in Australia. I think this was a close as I got.
If you are as old as me you’ll remember Skylab crashing to earth in 1979. No one, not even NASA, knew exactly where it was going to hit the earth. It eventually broke up above Australia and scattered its debris all over Balladonia. Luckily no one was injured. Balladonia roadhouse has created a museum with some bits of the Skylab on display.
Balladonia authorities humorously sent NASA a $400 fine for littering. It has never been paid.
The straight road ends at Balladonia, we realised that we were at the end when I found I had move the steering wheel a bit. Past Balladonia and as we neared Norseman we learned what a “weather front” looks like in the Nullarbor.
Nullarbor Weather Front
We had been told there would be heavy rain coming towards us. On one of the TV’s in a roadhouse we saw a weather forecaster point at a picture of Australia with a long white line with squiggles on it, indicating a front over over a thousand kilometres long, stretching from Perth to below the south coast. This is what the white line graphic looked like from the ground. Importantly, at this point on the road a boy racer in a Mitsubishi was up my ass. We were doing 110 kph when we hit the storm front.
As we approached I was expecting to see a line of rain across the road, what we saw instead was the road disappear into a wall of water. Behind the wall we could see nothing. It was like the Stargate. Water weighs 1 kilo per litre, we must have hit 200 kilos of it at 110kph judging by the SLAM we heard. The car shook and the windscreen went blank with the force of water hitting it, it must have been what Keith Moon saw when he drove the car into the swimming pool, except this went for a couple of hundred metres. I put the wipers on full but they made no difference. I’ve never seen rain like it and as I’m from Ireland that’s saying something. It was like driving under Niagra Falls. There was so much water it couldn’t run off the road quick enough, the car started to aquaplane, I couldn’t use my brakes. I took my foot off the accelerator, switched my lights on full beam and pressed the brake pedal. Not enough pressure to engage the brakes but enough to light the brake lights and, hopefully, let boy racer know I was slowing down. I guessed the road was still straight, it was, thankfully. After a couple of seconds that felt like a lot longer we emerged out the other side of the deluge. I now know what deluge really means. Boy racer had got the message and was OK as well. It was an exciting few seconds, I’ll probably slow down next time I see a cloud formation like that. Even more amazingly the tent stayed on the roof rack.
We arrived in Norseman without further incident and checked in the Norseman Travel Village. We had another meal and went to bed early that night to get another early start tomorrow. We had officially crossed the Nullarbor.
Day 7: Norseman to Hopetoun
In the morning we followed our usual routine, work for a few hours then drove to our next place of rest. Norseman, named after a horse that found a nugget of gold, has some life sized corrugated iron camels adorning it main street.
The drive to Hopetoun was uneventful. We stopped at Esperance for a quick lunch then drove straight to Hopetoun and settled into our hotel.
Hopetoun is a lovely little sea side village. It was a friendly place with lots to explore. We had not much time to stop this time but it’s on the list of places we’d like to stay longer at next time we are passing through. We had a couple of beers in the Hopetoun Port Hotel and went back to our hotel for another early night.
Day 8: Last Day, Hopetoun to Albany
Next morning we followed the same routine as all the other days. As we are on Brisbane time we are up early to catch the start of day by 5:30am WA time, 7:30am Brisbane time. We worked till check out time at 10am then went for a bit of an explore and breakfast in Hopetoun.
The cafe we had breakfast in was obviously run by a very Christian person, it was full of Bibles and massive Bible analysis tomes. It also had this sign outside.
This was the view out the cafe window.
Filling up with petrol involved a routine we’d not encountered before. It required me to go into the store, letting the lady record my car reg, telling them what fuel we wanted, getting a key to the appropriate pump, unlocking the pump handle, filling up and locking it up again, paying and handing back the key.
Albany, final destination
We needed to get to Albany before dusk so did not do any more exploring. It was fitting that after driving across the great treeless plain the last leg of our journey was through lush forests. We didn’t stop between Hopetoun and Albany except to swap drivers and stretch a bit. We arrived at the hotel just before dusk, checked in, dropped our bags and ran to the nearest bar to celebrate. It was called the Rat Bar and is small and has a good selection of wines and craft beers. The Oatmeal Stout is from Artisan Brewery in Denmark and the wine is from the local region, somewhere. The dish is Hoisin Wings. All of these were delicious.
Instead of working this evening, which has been our routine, we curled up on the sofa of the apartment and watched a movie on TV. Then quite exhausted we fell into bed and slept like very sleepy logs.
We’re stopping in Albany for the next 2 weeks. I promise the next blog
won’t, probably won’t, might not be, could be, probably will be as long as this one. Here’s a glimpse from our next blog from our location just outside Albany and our first venture out to explore. It’s looking promising to be a good location already.
Till next time.