Travelling Australia
Crossing the Nullarbor
The term "crossing the Nullarbor" means driving about 1,200 kilometres on the Eyre Highway between Ceduna and Norseman in South Australia and Western Australia respectively. Between these towns the traveller crosses the 'real' Nullarbor Plain (the treeless limestone plain) as well as other regions with different characteristics.

The Nullarbor Plain is a flat limestone plain stretching across the southern part of South Australia and Western Australia. The limestone was laid down 25 million years ago on an ancient seabed and has since been uplifted as a limestone layer between 15 and 60 metres thick. The climate is classified as arid to semi-arid with 150mm to 250mm of annual rainfall and mild winters. Summer weather is extremely variable. Hot days with daytime temperatures exceeding 40C can be followed by mild cloudy days in the low 20's. Summer rainfall is unreliable, usually comprising localised heavy showers or coastal drizzle. The mean summer temperature ranges from 18C to 33C.

The limited rain that does fall quickly disappears into the limestone. There are no natural watercourses but there are numerous, extensive cave systems. In earlier times, when rainfall was heavier, Nullarbor limestone was weathered and dissolved by water to form karst terrain characterised by underground drainage systems and caverns. Karst development sometimes changes the gently undulating surface by forming shallow, circular depressions with sufficient soil and localised drainage to support scattered small trees or large shrubs. Otherwise, the plain is dominated by bluebush and saltbush with scattered mulga except for the famous treeless part covered in only bluebush and saltbush.

Bluebush The treeless part of the Nullarbor Plain is covered by bluebush and saltbush.
Bunda Cliffs Bunda Cliffs are the southern boundary of the Nullarbor Plain. (see - Bunda Cliffs)
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Right Whales Southern Right Whale mother with calf below the cliffs at the Head of the Bight. (see - Southern Right Whale)
The seaward margin of the Nullarbor Plains in South Australia is Bunda Cliffs which is one of the most compelling sights in Australia with 60 to 80 metre high vertical limestone cliffs facing the Southern Ocean. The highway runs less than two kilometres from the cliff and five signed lookouts have been built over a stretch of 85 kilometres, each with a short gravel access road from the Eyre Highway. All five lookouts are spectacular but the western one (at 130° 08' 40" East longitude) is probably most favoured because visitors can walk to a jutting out piece of cliff and look east along the face of the colour-banded cliffs. At the eastern end of Bunda Cliffs there is a lookout at the Head of the Bight (accessible by sealed road) where visitors can stay for hours watching Southern Right Whales in the ocean below the cliffs. Southern Right Whales migrate from the sub-Antarctic in the autumn and give birth to calves in inshore water along the southern Australian coast, then remain in the vicinity for months while the calves put on weight. Head of the Bight is one of these calving/mating grounds. Sight-seeing flights are available from the nearby Nullarbor Roadhouse over the whale calving ground.

Much of the Nullarbor remains undeveloped; pastoral leaseholds for sheep grazing cover about one-third of the region, mainly near the coast of Western Australia but pastoralism is limited by lack of bore water. From the highway, the signs of human activity are roadhouses serving the passing public and Telstra's optical fibre repeater stations set back from the bitumen, usually with an array of solar panels.

The Eyre Highway between Ceduna and Norseman is sealed all the way with a reasonably good surface. The road is a comfortable two lanes wide but some care is needed passing oncoming trucks and B-doubles, especially when driving a motorhome or towing a caravan. Much of the road is flat or gently undulating. The longest straight section of sealed highway in the world (146.6 kilometres) is clearly signed in Western Australia. The railway further north has the longest straight stretch of railway in the world (478 kilometres). A few sections of road have been prepared as emergency landing strips for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The Eyre Highway is named after Edward John Eyre who set off from Fowlers Bay in February 1841 with an overseer, John Baxter, and three aboriginals to attempt to reach Albany in Western Australia. Eyre and his party made slow and thirsty progress towards Albany. At the end of April two of the aboriginal boys shot John Baxter and absconded, fortunately leaving behind some supplies and water. Eyre was left with one aboriginal boy, Wylie, and the packhorses. They continued towards Albany, living off the land when they could. In Lucky Bay they met a French barque Mississippi under the command of Captain Rossiter who fed and re-supplied the travellers; 12 days later Eyre and Wylie continued towards Albany arriving on 6 July 1841 having proved that there was no grazing land near the Nullarbor and there wasn't a practical stock route between Adelaide and Albany.

There are roadhouses roughly every 200 kilometres on the Eyre Highway and petrol or diesel is available during daylight hours. Prices vary widely between roadhouses. Refuelling at every roadhouse may not be necessary but the prudent driver will review remaining fuel when approaching every roadhouse just in case. Strong, gusty headwind can increase fuel consumption above the planned figure. Water is very scarce; do not assume that roadhouses have fresh water available. There are several public water tanks along the highway but these cannot be relied on because of possible vandalism; the water from these tanks is classified as not fit to drink.

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Eyre Highway The Eyre Highway.
Motel/hotel accommodation is available at most roadhouses. Most also have caravan/camping grounds but water is not as freely available at sites as in other, better watered, parts of Australia. There are many rest areas along the highway; some set back from the bitumen to minimise the noise from passing traffic. Rest area facilities are limited; possibly some tank water (labelled as unfit for drinking) and possibly a pit toilet.

The quarantine inspection on entry into Western Australia should be taken into account when stocking up before departure if westbound. The inspection is thorough and the list of forbidden items is depressingly long. Going in the other direction there is no inspection at the border when crossing into South Australia but there is a checkpoint just outside Ceduna.

The road traveller going from east to west leaves the last reasonable size settlement at Ceduna in South Australia and heads west through grain-growing paddocks and the town of Penong with a number of windmills around the town. Beyond Penong the amount of growing grain visible from the road decreases until, once past the Fowlers Bay turn-off, there are only occasional grain grown and some stock being grazed. Land is increasingly under mallee with an understory of bluebush. Around Nundroo the road theoretically enters the Nullarbor Plain proper but this margin of the plain is thickly covered with mallee and bluebush and the road undulates up and down about 100 metres in short, sharp hills. After little more than 100 kilometres of this thick mallee/bluebush the scrub quickly thins out; over a distance of ten or fifteen kilometres the mallee completely disappears leaving the treeless plain covered with bluebush scrub. Eighteen kilometres before passing the Nullarbor Roadhouse a sign proclaims the beginning of the treeless plain. These plains prompted a South Australian surveyor (Edward Delisser) to coin the expression 'Nullarbor' in 1866; he based the word on the Latin phrase 'nullus arbor' meaning 'no trees'.

Roe Plains Looking from Madura Pass lookout over the open mallee woodland of the Roe Plain.
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Roe Plains Blue bush and mallee at the foot of the escarpment forming the northern boundary of Roe Plain.
The WA/SA border and Quarantine Inspection are 185 kilometres past the Nullarbor Roadhouse. On this stretch the highway passes Bunda Cliffs and the lookouts just off the highway.
Inside Western Australia, Eucla is just off the highway and nearby is the Eucla Telegraph Station alternatively covered and uncovered by the drifting sandhills. Eucla Telegraph station is one of several built along the east-west telegraph between Port Augusta (SA) and Albany (WA). This 2432 kilometre long line of iron wire took two years to build using iron poles in SA and jarrah timber poles in WA. Eight telegraph stations were installed along the route (in WA at Bremer Bay, Esperance, Israelite Bay, Eyre and Eucla) to repeat each message to ensure that it reached the destination. The line began working in 1877 and continued operating until 1927 when the coastal line was replaced by copper wires along the Trans-Australia Railway to the north.

From Eucla the Eyre Highway leaves the tableland of the Nullarbor Plain and begins a long descent down the escarpment to the Roe Plains made up of marine dunes on a coastal plain between the sea and the escarpment at the edge of the Nullarbor limestone plain. The highway runs parallel to the bottom of the escarpment so that on the right is the scree slope at the foot of the escarpment and on the left lies the coastal plain. There are no creeks. Vegetation on the coastal plain is open mallee woodland with an understory of the ever-present bluebush. 194 kilometres from the border (past Mudrabilla roadhouse) the road reaches Madura and climbs from the Roe Plain up Madura Pass to the Hampton Tableland. From the lookout at the top of Madura Pass the traveller can get a better idea of the extent of the open woodland on the Roe Plain below.

Grasslands Around Caiguna grassland takes over from the bluebush as the main ground cover.
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Salmon gum West of Balladonia the Eyre Highway passes through extensive woodlands containing a variety of eucalyptus trees with Bluebush understory.
After negotiating Madura Pass the Eyre Highway returns to the Nullarbor Plain and crosses the limestone plains of the Hampton Tableland passing roadhouses at Cocklebiddy and Caiguna; the former becoming well-known for particularly interesting caves nearby with extensive underwater development. Bluebush dominates much of the landscape but scattered mulga and mallee trees are now dotted over the plains which are no longer treeless. Around Cocklebiddy, vegetation is largely grass with scattered bluebush. This area of alkaline limestone soil and low rainfall can support only low growing grasses and some shrubs such as saltbush and bluebush with occasional acacias.

Balladonia is the last roadhouse before Norseman 193 kilometres further on. Balladonia's claim to fame is that pieces of Skylab fell near the roadhouse in 1979 when the orbital station disintegrated while re-entering the atmosphere. West of Balladonia is an area of slightly higher, and more evenly distributed, rainfall (200mm - 300mm); here the limestone of the Nullarbor has been replaced in an area characterised by granite outcrops. This region experiences hot summers and mild wet winters. Mean average summer temperature ranges from 17° C to 34° C. Mean average winter temperature ranges from 5° C to 17° C. Despite the slightly higher rainfall there are no rivers or creeks in the region. But more favourable conditions do encourage the formation of woodlands with a variety of eucalyptus and acacia species (this is the western part of the goldfields woodlands stretching beyond Coolgardie). The scenery here of Salmon gums with their orange-pink bark is very different to that on the treeless bluebush plains of the Nullarbor. But the thicker vegetation can conceal hazards; emus can burst out of the vegetation and race across the road in front of vehicles without warning; being emus they are just as likely to burst out of the undergrowth and dither for several minutes before racing back into the scrub and away from the road. Recent (2006-7) rebuilding of much of this road has cleared roadside scrub giving drivers more time to react to these unpredictable birds.

Norseman is the end of trip across the Nullarbor. Norseman has a history of gold mining extending to the present-day gold mine providing much of the economic base for the township. From Norseman the traveller intending to stay on the bitumen can go north towards Kalgoorlie or south towards Esperance as the next stop in Western Australia.

  Nullarbor Net at
  NRMA Travel Guide at thenullarbor.asp