The Nullarbor

The Nullarbor is more famous for the things that aren’t there than the things that are. There are no hills, for example. Nor are there many trees. There are no real towns to speak of, and very few bends in the road.

This lack of things makes for a large (even by Australian standards) blotch of blank space on the map. Peer at the rectangular piece of land that stretches from Penong, in South Australia, to somewhere east of Western Australia’s Norseman (1100 kilometres as the road train flies) and you’ll see the single line of the Eyre Highway stretched taut between the two, a handful of roadhouses clinging to life at its dusty kerb. All this empty space between the coasts, with the equally untamed Gibson Desert to the north and nothing but ocean until Antarctica to the south, is a powerful lure for the mind. When Hailee and I first dreamed up this trip in our Burlingame basement, the first place I told her about was the Nullarbor.

Strip away the mystique and the Nullarbor is this: a 200,000 square kilometre chunk of limestone (the largest piece on Earth) that, long ago, rose to form part of the Australian continent. It is exceedingly flat, hot, desolate land that rarely contains enough nutrients to support a tree – hence the name (“null” = “no,” “arbor” = “tree”). The bushes and shrubs rarely grow beyond knee height, but they are hardy little buggers. Most get their water by absorbing it from the atmosphere.

Despite its deficiencies in the floral department, the landscape sustains a whole range of critters – we spotted red kangaroos, emus, wedge-tailed eagles and camels (originally introduced to help navigate the desert, now running wild) from the highway, and heard rumours of hairy-nosed wombats and dingoes. By night the plain is covered in spiders the size of your palm, on the hunt for food. We know this because a pair of spots on their back reflects the light from a headlamp, and everywhere we looked they glimmered back at us. We were happy to have a tent on the roof, although its flapping in the notorious wind meant we didn’t sleep much.

The Nullarbor escaped the ocean floor some three million years ago, but the sea has made it its business to reclaim the plain. From the Head of the Bight, the northernmost point in the Great Australian Bight, a line of sea cliffs runs westward, unbroken by a single dune, headland or pretty beach for 800 kilometres.

Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? Makes you want to jump in a car and drive across the continent until you’re in the middle of it, where you can’t see a single noteworthy thing, and say “Bugger me, there really is nothing here.”

Well, that’s exactly what we did. The farmland ends at the Nundroo Roadhouse, and our government has (coincidentally, I’m sure) chosen the precise point where the land becomes commercially worthless to mark the beginning of the Yalata nation’s land. Yalata land ends at the exact point where the “no tree” section begins. Here, you cross into the Nullarbor National Park and at last enter the nothingness.

The Thing With Nothingness Is…

… That it can become rather boring. I suppose this is sort of the point. Hailee had the honour of being at the wheel for Australia’s Longest Straight Stretch of Road. This was exciting for the first kilometre. 141 kilometres later, she woke up in time to nudge the wheel a couple of degrees, straighten out – and go back to sleep.

With little to look at on the ground, the sky becomes theatre. Low clouds speed overhead on windy days, or dapple patterns across the stratosphere.

Of course, the land isn’t completely flat. It undulates with such an infinitesimal incline that it may as well be, but the effect is that you approach the “peak” of one of these negligible mounds expecting the landscape beyond to reveal itself to you with a glorious view from above. In reality, you’ve only gained fifty centimetres in the ten minutes that you’ve been “ascending,” and the world looks much the same from those lofty heights as it did way down at the bottom – just a shapeless disc of Earth below the white midday sun.

Steve watches the sunset.

At night, this plays havoc with your sense of distance. On our second evening on the plain, Hailee and I parked Steve near the clifftops to camp. We were about 200 metres from the highway. Road trippers generally retire from the Eyre Highway by sundown, but the road trains (semi-trucks towing up to three trailers) keep driving until 9 or 10 p.m.

We cooked dinner as the sun went down, and the last embers of the day had died by the time we sat down to eat. As we did so, I noticed a pair of lights glimmering on the horizon, unmoving.

“Road trains,” we agreed, and turned to watch them come in.

But they didn’t come. We got into a distracting conversation and when we looked again, the lights had vanished. Five minutes later, they reappeared in roughly the same spot – equally spaced, but slightly brighter. They went out again. Then they were back.

We started to wig out a little. Surely they couldn’t be vehicles – we’d first seen them some ten minutes earlier. It was definitely the same two lights. Perhaps they were people, walking towards us in the night? That idea was even more unsettling. We watched some more. No, they definitely weren’t people – they didn’t flicker and jostle like they were attached to a walking person.

Finally, we heard the first whisper of an engine ruffling the edges of the Nullarbor’s unearthly quiet. Road trains after all. The whisper became a roar and finally the pair of lights could be seen moving, like a satellite you first mistook for a star. The first of the two machines drew level with us, suddenly thundering along at unimaginable speed, and as the white headlights turned to red and it began to slow into the distance, the sound was like an airplane taking off. Five minutes later those red taillights were still visible, apparently unmoving.

A couple for our mums.

The Cliffs

In the absence of things, the Nullarbor is a place of straight lines and abrupt angles. The road bends only when it must, and only after it has spent, at the very least, a good 30 or 40 kilometres thinking about it. The horizon is so straight it actually starts to feel round, like it’s encircling you.

But nowhere are these angles more apparent than at the Nullarbor’s southern edge where, after untold miles of happy horizontalness, the land decides to change tack and plunge vertically into the ocean. The effect is a real edge-of-the-world feeling.

The Head of the Bight, where the cliffs begin, is a beautiful spot. Facing south, the coast approaches you from the left in a confusion of dunes. The limestone emerges from the sand somewhere below your feet, and to the right a stern line of cliffs marches southward once more.

The turquoise waters offshore are a calving area for Southern Right Whales, and their presence is so assured between May and October that a business has been set up to capitalise on it. Pay these hardworking individuals $15 and you can walk to the edge of the cliff (credit where credit’s due: it’s a pretty nice boardwalk) and almost certainly spot a whale. We saw five, including a mother and calf idling in the clear shallows right by the water’s edge. Later we spotted a large pod of dolphins hanging out at the base of the cliffs. Beautiful, yes. But also bizarre.

That’s some boardwalk

And That’s Pretty Much It

Not too much changes for quite a long time. Eventually you enter Western Australia, where you celebrate with a photo and wind your clocks back an hour and a half. “We did it!” you cry. “We crossed the Nullarbor.” Perhaps you start to think a swim at a nearby beach will be a nice way to end the day.

Then you look at the map and realise you’re only about a third of the way there – and “there” is a town called Norseman, which isn’t much, and it’s still a long way from anywhere else. Furthermore, the cliffs – which provide such lovely views at convenient intervals during the South Australian stretch – have deserted you, drifting away over the southern horizon.  You’re left with the flatness, punctuated only by the occasional roadhouse.

The most interesting of these is at the western end and is called Balladonia. In addition to the roadhouse staples of expensive fuel, dodgy accommodation and a pub full of outback characters, Balladonia houses a small museum. The most interesting thing to happen to Balladonia occurred in 1979, when the American Skylab space station fell out of orbit and zoomed down to earth in a fiery crash. Pieces of the space station landed quite close to the roadhouse, presumably startling a few camels, and charred chunks of metal bearing the words “United States” in proud letters are on display there today. The American ambassador arrived some weeks after the crash, to inspect the damage his spaceship had caused to this corner of the outback. Legend has it that Jimmy Carter himself called the local shire council to personally apologise.

End of the Nullarbor

Trees appeared as we neared Norseman – tall red gums and scraggly mallee. The land began to rise and fall beneath us, climbing higher and falling further each time like a boat entering open ocean from the shelter of a bay. We pulled into a clearing a few hundred metres off the highway 30 kilometres short of Norseman, exhausted from the drive and bored with our podcasts. Exposed shelves of granite formed clearings in the scrub, and we camped there for two nights. We called loved ones, wrote blogs and sat around campfires. We pulled out maps and examined this new state: Western Australia.

It’s the biggest one yet, promising lush karri forests in the south, crocodiles and red deserts in the north and perhaps a whale shark or a dugong somewhere in the middle. Stay tuned.

Next week: the South West!

4 thoughts on “The Nullarbor

  1. WhileI have never driven the Nullarbor, reading your prose, I felt I was there, occasionally nodding in agreement when the “aha moments” arrived where I recognised exactly what it felt like to be there, without ever having been there!

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