Day 195 – Monday, 5 December 2022

The alarm blared out at 7:00am to get us straight out of bed. It was overcast with patches of mizzle and the temperature was 18 degrees when we left the Bushland Holiday Park for the last time at 8:11am.

We headed north on the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway until we got to Norseman, passing through several small (read tiny) towns, and some that were there during the heyday of the steam trains.

The Welcome sign at Grass Patch was very impressive and would be one of my favourites of the trip. However, there is no grass in Grass Patch. Rather, it reminds me very much of places like Walpeup – great community spirit but not a lot of cash to splash, so to speak. The area is covered with lovely mallee scrub and the town possesses the biggest grain collection area we have seen for such a small place.

From Esperance we climbed up to 231 metres above sea level, which took us two hours, and then it was a progression of hills and dales where the sand dunes were located. We also had a cross wind blowing which made driving a more difficult proposition.

I never knew that there was a Mildura in WA until we were almost at Norseman, and it appeared on the map. It is located about ten kilometres southeast of Norseman and it was not on the road we travelled so we did not pass through it.

At 10:54am the sun was shining, and the temperature had reached 26 degrees. We had passed a Poverty Lane (imagine how that one got its name) and the towns of Widgiemooltha and Speddingup.

By 11:09am we had re-fuelled at Norseman and turned northeast onto the Eyre Highway (Highway Number 1). Diesel at Norseman was $2.27 a litre.

We then came across Jimberlana Hill and Bekker Hill in the distance before reaching the Southern Hills 24 Hour Rest Area at Fraser Range West where we had lunch. We were still 110 kilometres from our designated overnight stop at Balladonia Roadhouse. We reached this august spot around 2:00pm, refuelled once more ($2.76 a litre) and managed to get there early enough to score a powered site, about which we were very happy as the air-conditioner went on for a couple of hours.

The area around here is spotted with large, dry salt lake beds.

When the explorer Edward John Eyre completed his crossing of the Nullarbor Plain in 1841, he described it as “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”. Perhaps his opinion was coloured by his experiences. Three of his horses died of dehydration, his expedition partner John Baxter was murdered by two Aborigines and the rest of the party took seven months to complete the crossing from east to west.

Travelling by car when crossing the Nullarbor makes the journey faster and easier than Eyre had it. It’s an iconic adventure and, despite Eyre’s lack of enthusiasm, there is plenty to see along the way.

The Nullarbor Plain, the world’s largest area of limestone bedrock, begins at Norseman in Western Australia and ends at Ceduna in South Australia. The word Nullarbor is derived from the Latin words nullus meaning ‘no’ and arbor meaning ‘tree’ and, although the first section is covered by eucalypt forest, saltbush and bluebush scrub dominate the land for much of the journey. The plain extends over an area of 200,000 square kilometres and the actual treeless part is more than a day’s drive from Norseman but covered by low-lying scrubland.

At its widest point, it stretches about 1,100 kilometres from east to west across the border between SA and WA.

Historically, the Nullarbor was seasonally occupied by Indigenous Australian people, the Mirning clans and Yinyila people. Traditionally, the area was called Oondiri, which is said to mean “the waterless”.

Edward John Eyre became the first European to successfully cross the Nullarbor. He departed Fowler’s Bay on 17 November 1840 with John Baxter and a party of three Aboriginal men. When three of his horses died of dehydration, he returned to Fowler’s Bay. He departed with a second expedition on 25 February 1841.

By 29 April, the party had reached Caiguna. Lack of supplies and water led to a mutiny and two of the Aboriginal men killed Baxter and took the party’s supplies.

Eyre and the third Aboriginal man, Wylie, continued on their journey, surviving through bushcraft and some fortuitous circumstances such as receiving some supplies from a French whaling vessel anchored at Rossiter Bay. They completed their crossing in June 1841.

Some agricultural interests are on the fringe of the plain including the 2.5-million-acre (1-million-hectare) Rawlinna Station, the largest sheep station in the world, on the WA side of the plain.

The property has a short history compared to other properties of its type around Australia, having been established in 1962 by Hugh G. MacLachlan, of the South Australian pastoral family (think Hamish and Gil and you will have the family).

An older property is Madura Station, situated closer to the coast. It covers 1.7 million acres (690,000 ha) and is also stocked with sheep.

Madura was established prior to 1927; the extent of the property at that time was reported as two million acres (810,000 hectares).

In 2013, a huge area of the Nullarbor Plain, stretching almost 200 km from the WA border to the Great Australian Bight, was proclaimed as the Nullarbor Wilderness Protection Area under the Wilderness Protection Act 1992 (SA). It doubled the area of land in South Australia under environmental protection to 1.8 million hectares. The area contains 390 species of plants and a large number of habitats for rare species of animals and birds.

The Nullarbor Plain is a former shallow seabed.

One theory is that the whole area was uplifted by crustal movements in the Miocene, and since then, erosion by wind and rain has reduced its thickness. The plain has most likely never had any major defining topographic features, resulting in the extremely flat terrain across the plain today.

In areas, the southern ocean blows through many caves, resulting in blowholes up to several hundred metres from the coast. The Murrawijinie Cave in SA is open to the public, but most of the Nullarbor Caves on the WA side can only be visited and viewed with a permit from the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

The Nullarbor is known for extensive meteorite deposits, which are extremely well preserved in the arid climate. In particular, many meteorites have been discovered around Mundrabilla, some up to several tonnes in weight.

Frequently the Nullarbor is expanded in tourist literature and web-based material to loosely refer to all the land between Adelaide, SA and Perth, WA. Through observing satellite images, the limits of the limestone formation of the plain can be seen to stretch from approximately 20 kilometres west of the original Balladonia settlement (now abandoned) to its easternmost limit a few kilometres west of the town of Ceduna.

Vegetation in the area is primarily low saltbush and bluebush scrub.

The fauna of the Nullarbor includes communities of crustaceans, spiders, and beetles adapted to the darkness of the Nullarbor Caves and the underground rivers and lakes that run through them.

Mammals of the desert include the southern hairy-nosed wombat, which shelters from the hot sun by burrowing into the sands, as well as typical desert animals such as red kangaroos and dingoes.

An elusive subspecies of the Australian masked owl, unique to the Nullarbor, is known to roost in the many caves on the plain. The grasslands of the Nullarbor are suitable for some sheep grazing and are also damaged by rabbits. The caves provide roosts to large colonies of wattled microbats.

32% of the ecoregion is in protected areas which include the Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve, Nullarbor National Park, Nullarbor Regional Reserve and the Nullarbor Wilderness Protection Area. The latter three of these protected areas are administered by SA.

The need for a communications link across the continent was the spur for the development of an east–west crossing. Once Eyre had proved that a link between the two states was possible, efforts to connect them via telegraph began.

In 1877, after two years of labour, the first messages were sent on the new telegraph line, boosted by eight repeater stations along the way. The line operated for about 50 years before being superseded, and remnants of it remain visible.

The railway line of the Trans-Australian Railway crosses the Nullarbor Plain from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta. Construction of the line began in 1917, when two teams set out from Kalgoorlie in WA and Port Augusta in SA, meeting in the centre of the Plain at Ooldea, an uninhabited area noted for a water supply.

This original line suffered severe problems with track flexing and settling in the desert sands, and journeys across the Plain were slow and arduous. The line was entirely rebuilt in 1969, as part of a project to standardise the previously disparate rail gauges in the various states, and the first crossing of the Nullarbor on the new line reached Perth on 27 February 1970. The Indian Pacific is a regular passenger train crossing the Nullarbor from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide.

The railway line has the longest straight section of railway in the world (478 km).

Most of the inhabited areas of the Nullarbor Plain can be found in a series of small settlements located along the railway, and in small settlements along the Eyre Highway that provide services to travellers, mostly spaced between one and two hundred kilometres apart.

The Eyre Highway, which connects Norseman to Port Augusta, was carved across the continent in 1941. At first it was little more than a rough track but was gradually sealed over the next thirty years. The last unsealed section of the Eyre Highway was completed in 1976. Unlike the railway, though, it crosses the plain at its southernmost edge rather than through the centre.

The unsealed Transline Road closely follows the Trans-Australian Railway, running all the way from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta and onward. It services the numerous cattle and sheep stations that populate the Western side of the Nullarbor and affords access to rail maintenance teams. It is a brutally rough road and—despite the amount of traffic it carries—is apparently poorly maintained.

The Nullarbor represents the boundary between eastern and western Australia, regardless of the travel method.

Crossing the Nullarbor in the 1950s and earlier was a significant achievement, as most of the route then was a dirt track of variable quality and caused real hazards to the motorist. It presented one of the major challenges in Round-Australia car trials (the Redex and Ampol Trials) and gave photographers many opportunities for shots of daring driving and motoring misfortune.

The Nullarbor features in the Australian 1981 thriller film Roadgames. The film was directed by Richard Franklin and starred Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis. It has often been cited as one of the best Hitchcock films Alfred Hitchcock never made.

By Bicycle – On 25 December 1896, after an arduous journey of thirty-one days, Arthur Charles Jeston Richardson became the first cyclist to cross the Nullarbor Plain, pedalling his bicycle from Coolgardie to Adelaide. Carrying only a small kit and a waterbag, he followed the

telegraph line as he crossed the Nullarbor. He later described the heat as “1,000 degrees in the shade”.

In 1937 Hubert Opperman set a record fastest time of 13 days, 10 hours and 11 minutes for the transcontinental crossing from Fremantle to Sydney. His time cut five days off the previous record.

During their three-year cycling trip around Australia between 1946 and 1949, Wendy Law Stuart and Shirley Duncan became the first women to cycle across the Plain.

Between 29 June and 3 July 2015, brothers Tyron and Aaron Bicknell recorded the fastest-known crossing of the Nullarbor Plain on single speed bicycles. Their ride took advantage of the low temperatures in the Australian winter months and was completed over 4 days, 5 hours and 21 minutes, making it one of the fastest bicycle crossings and the fastest done with a single-geared bike.

The first non-Indigenous person to walk across Australia from the west to the east coast, Henri Gilbert, crossed the Nullarbor Plain on foot, with no support team or stock, in the middle of summer. His walk across Australia, from Fremantle to Brisbane, was achieved between August 1897 and December 1898.

For two winter months in 1985, six young Jesus Christians walked 1,600 kilometres from Port Augusta to Norseman without taking any food, water, additional clothing or a support vehicle- although supplies were given to them by passing motorists.

In 1998, runner Robert Garside ran across the Nullarbor without a formal support crew, as part of an authenticated run around the world. Unconventionally, Garside obtained water and other support from “passing traffic” who would leave water cached ahead for him at agreed drop-offs, to achieve the feat.

In 2010, columnist Dan Koeppel ran the 320 kilometre heart of the Nullarbor with a friend the same way, to vindicate Garside. Garside commented in his diary, that “the key to running the Nullarbor turned out to be Australian hospitality”, and Koeppel concurred that “From an armchair it is completely impossible to run the Nullarbor. Once you’re out there, however, there is a way”.

Crossing the Nullarbor by car means travelling 1,200 kilometres on the Eyre Highway, named for Edward John Eyre who was the first European to cross the plain. There are no real towns between Norseman and Ceduna; isolated roadhouses separated by hundreds of kilometres supply fuel, basic supplies, and camping. Water availability is limited, and travellers need to ensure they are carrying plenty.

100 kilometres east of Norseman is Fraser Range Station, once a working sheep station and now a campground. The granite hills of Fraser Range rise up out of the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest hardwood eucalypt forest.

A further 90 kilometres east at the Cultural Heritage Museum at Balladonia Hotel/Motel and Roadhouse, there are interactive displays about the history of the area, from the indigenous peoples to the pioneers and cameleers who first settled in the area. One fascinating exhibit details the crash landing of Skylab. They have a piece of debris from the NASA spacecraft which fell to Earth near Balladonia in July 1979.

Several more vans and motorhomes joined us in the caravan park during the remainder of the afternoon, and by teatime the wind had become very cool, so we were able to turn off the air-conditioner and open the windows for a while.

While Russ was napping I chatted with Jeannie as we now have some access to both phone signal and internet – thank goodness.