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Crossing the Nullarbor – what’s it really like?

March 18, 2019

The Nullarbor Plain, with the longest stretch of straight road in Australia, is something you learn about in primary school geography and is famous in Aussie folklore. As a school kid I envisioned it as a cross between the Great Sandy Desert and the Sahara desert, with giant sand hills and no civilisation for thousands of kilometres. Now having crossed the Nullarbor ourselves we know that my childhood imaginings were very different from the reality.


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From the Western Australian side, the crossing of the Nullarbor starts in Norseman, which is about 200kms north of Esperance and finishes in Ceduna in South Australia. The total distance between the two is about 1200kms, with the bitumen road the entire way and a series of roadhouses for fuel. Most of the eight roadhouses provide accommodation, truck-stop food and some basic groceries, with some also having full restaurants and bars. Not exactly super remote desert travel, but still far enough to require some planning before you start.


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So what’s the Nullarbor really like? The countryside is more variable than I had expected, although with the exception of the cliffs of the Bight, it is not the most picturesque scenery.

The first day of the trip saw us driving from Norseman to a free camp just past Balladonia through the “Arid Desert Woodland”, which is one of the world’s oldest and densest forests. It looks a lot like dense scrubland with small trees and lots of undergrowth. We stopped briefly at Balladonia roadhouse for fuel and hot chips and loved seeing the piece of Skylab space debris on the roof. The “90 Mile Straight” begins around Balladonia and despite my plans to take a family photo in front of the sign, it was upon us before we knew it and we managed to fly past the sign unable to stop. Luckily there’s one at both ends of the straight.


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The second day saw us finishing the 90 Mile Straight, with a quick photo stop at the sign and then the first corner in a long while. There is a blowhole at Caiguna, however as we were fighting 50 km/hr headwinds and were already making really slow time we didn’t stop. We also passed straight through Cocklebiddy skipping the Chapel Rock formation, the Eyre Bird Observatory and the Baxter Cliffs as the wind was just too horrible. The scenery changed from dense scrubland to more open heaths, although we were still passing through sections of larger trees. As the slow drive continued the countryside seemed very flat and a bit monotonous and our kids christened it the “Nullaboring Plain”.


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I assumed that we were driving on a flat plain close to sea level, but when we reached the Madura Pass I realised I was mistaken. This pass, which is a few kilometres east of Madura roadhouse, sits at the top of an escarpment with amazing views out over the Roe plain towards the Southern Ocean.

The Roe Plain is large, flat, with low growing plants and looks how I imagine African savannah to look. There is a rest stop at the top of the pass which is perfect for photos. We camped that night in a free camp on the Roe plain and were surprised to find a lot of seashells around the campsites. It seems that this plain was once part of the ocean floor. The free camp was one provided by the WA government, with heaps of space, lots of picnic tables and best of all toilets (long drop). We were impressed with the how many rest stops were provided along the way. Not all had toilets, but if you’re self-contained there is definitely no shortage of places to camp or stop for a cuppa.


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The third day the wind finally decided to be nice to us and swung around 180 degrees, now pushing us along. The Roe plain ends as you pass through Mundrabilla and head up the Eucla pass back onto the escarpment. We stopped for fuel at Eucla which is the last town on the WA side of the WA/SA border. The roadhouse has a nice hotel/motel, caravan park, museum and playground. Our kids loved the “old-school” playground with metal slide and see-saw and also the Leeuwin Whale, which is a large concrete whale funded by the Albany tourist board. The Eucla Telegraph station ruins are also a short distance from the roadhouse.


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Next stop was the border village. There is a strict quarantine check at the border as you head into WA. The quarantine officers will check your car, your fridges and your cupboards for fresh fruit and vegetables and other items such as honey. Check the relevant government website for information about quarantine restrictions. Heading into SA you are not checked at the border, the first SA quarantine point is at Ceduna.

We stopped at the Border village roadhouse and took the opportunity for a photo of the giant vegemite-holding kangaroo. It’s not every day you see one of those!


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Driving onwards into South Australia you’ll get your first opportunity for a look at the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. There are several signposted photo spots – with car parking – for views of the cliffs. The cliffs are absolutely spectacular and everything I had hoped they would be. At our first photo stop there were no barriers and we couldn’t go too close to the edge as the winds were still so strong I thought I was going to get blown over. The view was amazing! Our second cliff stop had a fenced walkway out to a point for some more fantastic photos. Given the strength of the wind and the undercutting of the cliffs we were more than happy to have some fences in place.


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Our plan had been to camp on the cliffs for the night. It was a bucket list item and something we had been looking forward to. We’ve all seen photos of people doing that and it looks amazing, however with the winds so strong, and the weather cold and miserable, we decided that that would not be a good choice. We continued on our way hoping to find a sheltered camp for the night, which was easier said than done.

Late in the day we came across the turn off for the Head of Bight whale watching centre. The centre is operated by the Aboriginal Lands Trust and is situated on the cliffs of Bunda, with great views of the Bight and, more importantly, heaps of whale watching. The area is a breeding ground for Southern Right Whales (May – October) and the centre even guarantees that you will see a whale if you visit in peak season between June and August.

As we continued our search for a sheltered campsite we passed through the Treeless Plain, which is an area with no trees at all starting near the Nullarbor roadhouse, encompassing the Head of Bight turn off and continuing for about 20kms. We finally found another rest stop at 222km peg near Yalata, nice and sheltered with lots of trees but plenty of space.


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Our final day crossing the Nullarbor saw us fuelling up in Nundroo, which claims to be the wombat capital of Australia, passing the turn off for Fowlers Bay and Mexican Hat Head, and stopping in Penong for lunch in the town park. Penong is home to Australia’s largest windmill and has a great outdoor windmill museum.


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The turn off to the famous surf beach of Cactus Beach is also in Penong. A keen surfer in his younger days, Cameron decided it was worth driving the 20kms of dirt road to go and see it. The drive in was quite interesting with lots of sand dunes and salt lakes, some of them were even pink, along the way. There is a rustic campground right near the beach which is a favourite spot among avid surfers. The surf wasn’t up that day but it was still a great spot to see. Returning to the bitumen, we continued on to Ceduna and the end of our Nullarbor adventure, another bucket list item complete.


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While the drive is long, there are plenty of interesting spots and also some quirky things to keep an eye out for during your crossing. Our favourites were:


  • The Nullarbor Links – the world’s longest golf course.

It’s an 18 hole golf course that starts in Kalgoorlie and ends in Ceduna. The holes have some interesting names and many of the tees are at the roadhouses along the way.


  • Decorated trees

In true outback Aussie tradition there are special trees along the side of the road that are decorated with a specific theme. Look out for the Teddy Bear Trees, Tea Cup Tree, CD tree, Bra Tree, Underwear Tree and Cooking Pot Tree. Travellers are welcome to add their own items to the trees. Most of them a listed in wikicamps.


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  • Animal road signs

There are various animal warning signs along the way. Our favourite was the Camel, Wombat and Kangaroo sign.


  • RFDS Emergency Landing Strips

Parts of the highway are designated as emergency landing strips for the RFDS. There are signs and road markings to advise you of where they are. You are not allowed to stop in these areas.


Crossing the Nullarbor Plains is an adventure in itself and definitely worth doing. It’s something we would do again although perhaps in whale watching season and without the wind next time.


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