Around Australia: crossing the Nullarbor


Our hotel in Norseman did not look very promising as we approached it. The signs were all down and it looked like it was ready for a re-paint. There was no answer to the phone number on the door but just as I was about to look elsewhere, James found a guy round the back and the reception door was opened. We discovered that it was built in 1939 and is under renovation. The interior has been done and now the exterior is underway. The guy who was doing some of the work was living in a caravan on the site. I think we were the only customers that night. We left fairly early the next morning as we had over 400 miles to drive. The town was so quiet James thought tumbleweed should be blowing down the streets and it had a hint of Hotel California about it.

The Eyre Highway was named after the first European, John Eyre, to cross the area in 1841. It begins in Norseman and runs along the southern edge of the Nullarbor Plain. The Trans Australia Railway which runs from Perth to Sydney, passes through Kalgoorlie and runs north of the road. It passes into the Nullarbor Plain more quickly. We travelled on the Indian Pacific on that route seven years ago. The road leaves Norseman in the Great Western Forest which is bigger than England. This eventually peters out into bush with trees near Caiguna which continue until just before Eucla.

Just outside Norseman we saw a couple of cyclists we had passed the day before and later saw a third as well as one guy running. I have no idea how far any of them were going. Our first stop was at Balladonia which promised bean coffee on a sign before the roadhouse. The hotel and community were originally 17 miles or so further east on the site of the old telegraph station at the end of the old telegraph road from Norseman. The modern road construction started in 1941 and the hotel moved to its current site in 1962. It is now part of the fairly standard set up of hotel/motel, camping & caravan site, filling station and shop/café/restaurant that most of the roadhouses comprise of. There is a small museum next to the café that covers many aspects of the community and area and one episode which brought it into the public domain. Skylab was a space research laboratory launched in 1973 from Florida. Various teams worked on over the years and in the late 1970s it was decided to return it to earth. It did so on 12 July 1979 and partially burned up on re-entry, spraying fragments into the ocean and on this part of Western Australia. Reporters descended on Balladonia and the roadhouse received a phone call from President Jimmy Carter apologising and offering assistance. NASA posted a $10,000 reward for the first piece of wreckage to be returned to the USA and this was claimed by a 17-year-old from Esperance.

There was also some information about camels. They had been used for outback transport from the 19th century until motor vehicles arrived. The people who worked with and led the camels were often referred to as Afghans although those who worked near Balladonia were either from Karachi or Baluchistan in India. Camels fitted the outback climate very well, but their drivers remained nomadic and isolated from the rest of the community. Some of the camels escaped and have become feral. I saw some from the train in 2011.

After Balladonia we drove round a bend and then came to the longest straight stretch of road in Australia: the 90 Mile Straight.

As we stopped at the sign, I noticed a guy with an old Ford ute had also stopped. I asked him if I could take a photo as my brother used to be secretary of the Ford pre-67 Owners Club in the UK. He was quite happy for me to do so and told me that he was on the way back from an old ute gathering. He also said that he had got married in the early 1980s and that he and his wife had spent 17 years just travelling around the country. Further on we saw more old vehicles also returning home. Our lunch was at Cocklelbiddy Roadhouse. Near there, down an unsealed road to the coast is the Eyre Bird Observatory which we did not have time to explore. We continue through blue bush with stretches of blue flowering plants by the roadside and still some trees. The road goes over the Madura Pass at 90m and then descends from the Hampton Tableland to the plain. After Mundrabilla we spotted the first motorcyclist of the day heading in the opposite direction. Our destination for that night was Eucla (population 53) which sits on a 100m pass and is about three miles from the coast.

There are sand dunes and the old telegraph station which dates from 1877 is slowly being covered by sand. There is also an old jetty down at the beach, but the winds were high and as we approached it looked like a sandstorm ahead, so we turned back. The surrounding landscape is much more like the Nullarbor with plants and after Eucla more like desert. The high winds overnight had brought cloud but at least we did not have to worry about fallen trees on the road.

At the South Australia Border the old Eyre Highway (unsealed) runs parallel until Nullabor. There are several viewpoints looking over the Great Australian Bight. Just after Nullabor we passed the exit to Cook (population 2 and 1 dog) which the Indian Pacific Train stops at. The Highway enters the Yalata Aboriginal Reserve and hills and trees reappear. We passed three cyclists in total. Later, the landscape reverts to sheep pasture and cereal crops. The road passes through Penong before reaching Ceduna. The town claims to have Australia’s biggest windmill and has a windmill museum. I was not tempted.There is also a turn off to Cactus Beach which is renowned for surfing. We reached Ceduna having driven 302 miles in addition to the 435 on Wednesday bringing our total to 8,999 miles.

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