The Nullarbor Plain is perceived by many caravanners to be too daunting to cross, but to others, it is like Mt Everest: it is there so it must be crossed.
Don't let meekness be the better part of valour and miss out on an exciting experience.
The Nullarbor Plain, however, is only a trivial part of the trip and it is more accurate to boast of crossing the Eyre Highway than of crossing "The Nullarbor".
The Eyre Highway joins Norseman, in Western Australia, with Port Augusta in South Australia. It is about 1673 km long and for the most part is a first class highway. It is sealed throughout its length and always wide enough to enable caravans to pass road trains without difficulty.
Between Balladonia and Caiguna is Australia's longest stretch of straight road – about 160km dead straight. Signs clearly indicate its start and finish.
Most who have not driven the Eyre Highway do not realise that the real "Nullarbor Plain" overlaps the highway for a total of only 20km.
Nullarbor Roadhouse sits in the middle of this stretch. The image of endless, treeless desert, that takes days of hard driving to cross, is false. For most of its length, on both sides of the Nullarbor, the highway runs through mallee-like country with dense stands of trees.
From the South Australian side grain farms extend almost to Yalata Roadhouse. Between Madura Pass and Eucla the highway runs along the coastal plain. Here, the vegetation is mostly coastland heath but with stands of trees along the foot of the escarpment.
For well over 100km east of Eucla the highway skirts the top of high cliffs that drop precipitously into the Southern Ocean. The ocean can be clearly seen from the road and there are numerous parking areas provided to walk around and view the ocean and cliffs. Each of these areas is well sign-posted with warnings about the dangers presented by the cliffs and the winds.
From June to October each year the northernmost point of the Great Australian Bight is inhabited by Southern Right Whales. This point is less than 10km from the highway via a sealed road. A safe, extensive viewing platform has been built along the top of the cliffs and enables unobstructed views of the whales.
When last we visited about 30 were in residence – many visible within a few hundred meters of the cliff face. A small fee is charged for entry into the viewing area but the scene is worth every cent and more.
Between Norseman and Ceduna, the serious part of the highway, there are twelve places where fuel can be obtained. At all of these there is only one service station, except at Eucla where there are two. Most have a café that also sells take away food and drinks. Most have a small, basic caravan park with powered sites. You won't find a tap to connect to your van nor a drain. There are ablutions and most are of a reasonable standard.
Usually there is also some form of motel accommodation.
Fuel is, of course, expensive on the Eyre Highway. As always it pays to discuss fuel prices with others travelling in the opposite direction. At Eucla we found a 12c difference in the price of diesel between the two service stations.
On our trip Penong had the cheapest fuel between Perth and Melbourne. The longest stretch without fuel is 193km between Norseman and Balladonia. It pays to think ahead and use your nous too. Don't, for instance, fill up with expensive fuel if you can confidently buy only enough to get you to a place where you know it is cheaper. And of course, always make sure you have a good reserve.
Some of these remote places have no reliable fresh water supply and either truck water hundreds of kilometres or use desalination plants to meet their own needs. Caravanners should fill their tanks before starting the Eyre Highway and conserve water until they are across by using it only for essential purposes. Do not expect to be able to fill your tanks en-route.
There are numerous places where one, or more, caravans can camp for the night. There are no rangers to worry about but also there are no facilities at most of these places. Some have pit toilets. Most, also, bear the scars of previous human visitation and the grotesque disfigurement of discarded rubbish. Very few of these stops are far enough off the highway to exclude the sound of passing traffic.
Most of the service stations have a mechanic available but they carry only a limited range of spare parts. It may take several days for parts to arrive on a road train. Before you start out, make sure your vehicle is in top mechanical condition and equal to the task of towing your van across the Eyre Highway. Every morning, before starting out, check the oil, transmission fluid and water levels in your vehicle.
Medical services beyond first aid are almost non-existent. There is a nursing post at Eucla and the Flying Doctor visits regularly. Some sections of the highway are marked out as Royal Flying Doctor Service emergency landing strips. There are no chemists between Norseman and Ceduna. The Eyre Highway is not a good place to take ill or to get injured – drive carefully.
There are a few emergency telephones scattered along the highway. Forget about using your mobile – there is no Telstra service between Norseman and Ceduna. But most service stations do have public telephones.
Animals are a distinct hazard. Kangaroos pose the highest risk near dawn and dusk when they move around in search of water and food. For most of the day they sleep in whatever shade is available and are rarely seen. Always slow down when you see a roo cross the road ahead. Chances are it will be followed by a doe and a joey. If one stops in the middle of the road don't try to anticipate which way it will go. Try to steer behind it and it is just as likely to turn around and go back into your path. If you are unfortunate enough to hit one stop and go back.
If it is still there it is badly hurt – do the right thing and put it out of its misery. Several well aimed blows to its head with a tyre lever or such like should be enough. This sounds callous but it is not as callous as leaving an injured animal to die a slow, lingering death.
Even dead kangaroos present a distinct hazard on the roads. Their bodies stay where they die after being run down by road trains or other vehicles. Sometimes there will be four or five within a 100m.
Always go around them and never run over them. Hitting them may damage suspension or steering. Possibly worse, straddling a carcass may see it caught up under your vehicle or van and showering putrescent fluids in all directions. The odour may be impossible to eliminate from a caravan.
Emus strut around, mainly during the day. Despite being about 2m tall they can be difficult to see against the background of surrounding bush or even against the road surface. Hitting them with a vehicle is not like hitting a feather duster – under the feathers is solid flesh and bone that can do a lot of damage. Camels and wombats are other animal hazards on the Nullarbor and both can do serious damage to your rig.
The trip across the Eyre Highway will take three or four days of comfortable driving. Therefore you need to take enough healthy food for good meals along the way. Healthy food includes fresh fruit and vegetables.
But don't take any more than you need to get you to Ceduna if travelling east or to Eucla if travelling west. At these points you will by stopped and your rig searched by plant quarantine inspectors.
All unprocessed fresh fruit and vegetables will be taken and destroyed. If in doubt about any item declare it immediately. Explanatory brochures and guidelines can be obtained from Quarantine Domestic on Freecall 1800 084 881.
If you are travelling around Australia it is wise to obtain this information before starting off as there are other quarantine areas in various states.
One final point - while there are 1673 kilometres between the ends of the Eyre Highway there are also 90 minutes time difference – 150 during daylight saving. Travelling east you are shortening your day and travelling west you are lengthening it. It is not a big deal but travelling west the day will be perceptibly longer; travelling east it will be perceptibly shorter than your biological clock is telling you.
Some people complain of boredom driving long distances. It is not a problem to my wife and me. We look for things to see. If you don't look you don't see. Animals, reptiles, birds, bird's nests, the ever-changing topography, unusual clouds, the contrails of unseen aircraft high overhead, farms, crops, passing traffic – there is always something to occupy the mind and generate discussion.
To us the Eyre Highway, and every other road we travel, continually offers new and interesting things. If you are thinking about crossing it, stop thinking and do it. And bear in mind some of the points made in this article.
Editor's note: Ken and Maureen Hay are the authors of The Nitty Gritty of Caravanning. GoSeeAustralia thanks Tourism Western Australia for assistance with pictures.
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