Crossing Australia

Nothing beats a good road trip. Open road, plenty of time ~

~  but what if....

....that road stretches a few thousand kilometres and the trip takes many days?

Crossing Australia takes only a few hours by plane. So why not - at least once - take the other plain?

No strangers to crossing the continent (with family on both sides of Australia, that's inevitable) Gordon, the 'man in the hat' and I decided we would drive across the country and see it all from ground level. Again.

(Oh, no. No hat! He's usually easily recognised by the old Akubra)

Yes, we had driven it twice before, but the last time was decades ago, and surely some things have changed, we supposed. There had been several train journeys too, and countless flights. Maybe we'd even find it boring? That's what we planned to find out.

Another time we will share the journey to this point, and then the several weeks in Western Australia at the end of this trek, but for now let's look at the large chunk of real estate in Australia's middle. And even though we did it all again on the return trip to Sydney, we're simply sharing this as a one-way trip.

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SEE for yourself....WATCH THIS video:

 

Let's get the Q&A out of the way first:

Why cross the country? Because it’s there. Every Australian should aim to drive across at least once. Do it, and you'll gain a new respect for the pioneers, explorers, and those who surveyed and built the roads, telegraph and railway. Like nothing else, it underlines what a huge country this is.

How far is it? Approximately 4000km, Sydney to Perth but, in this central part, you can't get lost if you stay on the highway!

How long does it take to drive? We took six days, but it can be done in less. 

Do you need a special vehicle? No. We used our own small sedan. The road is sealed, two lanes all the way, and the speed limit is 110kph.

Are there places to stay? Read on, and we'll show you.

What is the Nullarbor and how long is it? An 1100km limestone plain stretching from Ceduna to Balladonia. The Eyre Highway crosses the far south of the continent.

What is there to see and do?  Read on.........

Seatbelts buckled? Catch a lift with us, and off we go ~

There is no real 'beginning' to the central 'nullarbor' part of the trip, but after you leave Port Augusta in South Australia's mid-north, you know that you are on your way. The part geographically called 'the Nullarbor' is days away, but west of Spencer Gulf there are very few options. You know you are on your way, even though for many hours you will be passing through agricultural land.

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Kimba, South Australia

Many times on this trip we tried to imagine what it must have been like for the pioneers in this harsh land. Those early settlers were tough. But even they were not as stoic and fearless as the explorers who forged a trail across, taking measurements and creating the maps we now use.

Before we left home, people asked me ‘which way are you going?’ I replied that there’s only one way, the Eyre Highway – named for the courageous 19th-century explorer Edward John Eyre who, with his aboriginal guide, Wylie (above) headed west, into the unknown. As much as anything, they confirmed what was NOT there: lakes, rivers, forests, and an abundance of fauna for starters.

In a reserve overlooking Kimba, these two are commemorated. Modern travellers and settlers owe so much to men like these two.

I am not sure who measured this, but Kimba, 150 kilometres south-west of Port Augusta, lays claim to being this country's midway point, coast to coast. It is a lovely small neat-as-a-pin country town, with cafes, pubs, a few shops.....

....and a stunning surprise!

Silo Art has become popular in wheat-growing communities in Australia and overseas. Vital to the local economy, but not very beautiful, silos are now being skilfully decorated, and becoming a drawcard to passing travellers who might otherwise have driven right past the town. This one had been completed and officially 'opened' just days before we passed through.

Not content with simply marking the half-way point, this roadhouse has added another feature - a giant and slightly puzzled-looking pink and grey galah!

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Sssh! Don't tell anyone

Keep heading west for 220 kilometres, beyond the Gawler Ranges, and the land still supports wheat and cereal grains, but this town has a secret. I can't share it with you because the local we asked said he couldn't tell us either, so you just have to take the short detour off the highway and try for yourself. Despite being way inland it has a pier and a boat. Go figure!

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The sea at Ceduna

By now you can see that crossing Australia is not entirely about deserts and sweeping plains. There is plenty of that, but Ceduna is a welcome coastal stopover, especially when you learn that some of South Australia's best oysters are farmed nearby.

There is even an annual Oyster Festival each October, which draws thousands who come to be entertained, sample the local oysters (of course!) - or even enter an oyster-shucking competition.

Ceduna on Murat Bay in the Great Australian Bight was settled by Europeans in 1839. With a population of 3500, the town has a good number of eating places and hotels and motels. For those with enough time it is an ideal place to relax for a day or two before pushing further east or west.

The rich fishing in the bay draws many visitors, but apart from seafood, Ceduna is also known as the start of the world’s longest (1365km) golf course!

We won't go into that now. It continues until Kalgoorlie, days away, and there will be plenty of time to catch up with how it works. Golf-lovers should definitely pack their clubs, though, as it is a unique experience and makes a great talking point on your return.

Thevenard, a few kilometres around the bay from the town of Ceduna, is a major deep-sea port. It is not unusual to see huge road trains like this taking grains, mineral sands or salt to be loaded onto coastal ships. Just count the sets of wheels on that one, then multiply by four or eight, as each side has two or four tyres!

On a path on the headland, across the bay from the port, local schoolchildren have contributed their art.

Then there is also a delightful walk, the 3.6km Encounter Coastal Trail from Thevenard to Ceduna. Information plaques, like this one, explain the European and indigenous history of the area.

But perhaps Ceduna's major attraction is the 368-metre jetty, built in 1902. A sunset stroll along here is the ideal way to end a busy day in Ceduna.

We had been promised oysters and the locals say the best ones come from this area. A short detour off the highway brought us here.

Sadly we were just a little to late to see the nearby market in full swing. Maybe next time!

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Spinning along at Penong

Smaller towns often need to have a 'hook' to become memorable. Penong, just 45 minutes west of Ceduna has created its own drawcard, branding itself as ....

...the Town of Windmills.

This stunning outdoor Windmill Museum has Australia's largest (and smallest) windmills as well as others in many shapes and sizes.

It is also a unique tribute to these mills that have helped bring water to many arid parts of Australia. Meet Bruce (above) Australia's biggest windmill.

Just in case you were starting to take your foot off the accelerator and think that this trip is getting a little too easy......

...this sign will make you reconsider. Of course the roadhouses along the highway sell most things you might need, but this is officially the last 'shop' you will see  for quite a while.

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Way to go!

The huge truck has three trailers, earning its title of road ‘train’. These guys can be over 50 metres long. Just to pass the time, I make another mark in my notebook. That’s number 15, but it is still early. We are to see 116 that day.

Caravans are plentiful too. As you can see, everyone is catered for on this team, from the small kiddies and their pink bikes to Dad's fishing boat. One day I count caravans too. It's becoming that kind of trip.

Other days we count camels; another day, kangaroos. Most of the ‘roos are dead on the side of the road, and there are so many of them, that I ultimately deem that activity too grisly to repeat. Later we allocate points for sighting live eagles, emus, and dingoes.

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Now we're getting to the outback - Nundroo 

Roadhouses vary. Some are right up there with country town standards, and others are more basic. We found that however many 'stars' the accommodation might have rated, there was always a bed we were too exhausted to complain about, hot water in the shower, usually a small fridge and often a microwave and tea-making facilities.

Every roadhouse also had a golf course, each adding one more hole for avid golfers. Basically it works like this. Sign on at either Ceduna or Kalgoorlie, depending which direction you are travelling, and buy your score card. 

This is the Nullarbor Links - the world's longest golf course - all 1365 kilometres of it. As you can see, it is a little...challenging!

Play the hole when you take a break, then record your score. Cheat if you want to. There are no trophies, and only you will know. Just have your card stamped at the roadhouse or visitors' centre to prove you did it.

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Nullarbor at last!

Did you think we'd never get here?

The Nullarbor’s Latin name is a bit of a misnomer. It translates as ‘no trees’ – and in the true part of the plain the vegetation reaches your ankle. However, the highway technically only covers a part of this massive limestone plain that extends, wedge-shaped, from the Great Australian Bight into Central Australia.

When we announced our plans to drive across the continent, our eastern coast friends asked many questions. Top of the list: ‘Won’t it be boring?’ Quick answer: yes – and no.

Yes, we did sit for hours (we scheduled about seven each day) covering between six and seven hundred kilometres; and yes, the scenery at some points differed only marginally. 

However, NO, the experience was worth every minute.

There even is a roadhouse stop called Nullarbor. It's on the plain and quite close (as distances go in the outback) to the WA border. 

This map shows it well, and it is interesting to notice that the Western Australian portion of this long drive is about twice as long as the South Australian sector. Somehow, reaching a border just makes it feel as if you are 'almost there'.

The trucks are long and strong out here too.

This is the original petrol stop. In the early days you needed to carry your own food - and especially water, both for yourself and the car.

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The Great Australian Bight

If this looks like all those other stretches of road on this page, take another look. See those markings on the road? That's not a pedestrian crossing! It's for the Royal Flying Doctor Service plane to land in an emergency.

Is that the sea on that ruler-straight horizon? 

Well, no it couldn't be as these cliffs are many metres above the water. You can see how the wild Southern Ocean has chomped into the coastline. It is well worth taking the short side-road to the coast to stand and watch those waves endlessly creaming in, and soak up the solitude and sunshine.

These places are ideal for migratory whale-watching between May and October. At Head of the Bight a thousand whales have been recorded, and many whales take up residence, wintering there for five months, as their calves are born. 

As Head of the Bight is Aboriginal Lands Trust property, permission must be gained and a fee paid in order to drive several kilometres to the viewing area.

A little further west, other headlands, such as the one above, are much closer and free to enter.

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Border time!

This photograph was taken on the return journey as we entered SA from WA.

Both Western Australia and South Australia are vigilant about which foods can be transported over their borders. The rules for each state of Australia vary, so I carry with me a booklet which spells out the fruits, vegetables and other foods that may be legally taken from one state to another. For more details check here...

Vegemite, however, held confidently here by Rooey II, seems to have the thumbs up.

Finally we have passed into the last of the four states on this trip. As we had travelled to Mildura from Sydney, we had a brief taste of Victoria, as well as NSW, SA and WA.

Appropriately the roadhouse nearest the border is called Border VillageIt has good facilities and you can even try the famous Border Burger in the restaurant

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Eucla, Western Australia

There is a certain sort of Outback humour that often involves a sign. See if you can identify it here.

Eucla's main claim to fame is its obsolete Old Telegraph Station. Once a major component in forwarding telegraphic messages from WA to the rest of the continent in the late 19th century, now it is prey to the winds and sands of its coastal location. It is definitely worth visiting, and easy to find, as it is well signposted from the highway and the motel. 

Make sure you see it before it's finally covered by the fine white sands of the Bight.

Read more here....

Outside the motel, three key components of local life are featured: whales, fishing - and beer!

For those of us who love a good mystery, the motel shares one that intrigued Eucla in the 1970s.

Even royalty became involved for a while, as the legend of the Nullarbor Nymph abounded. Call it a clever marketing ploy, or maybe the figment of a few fellows after too much Emu Export, but the idea of a nubile female scampering through the nearby bushland had everyone offering an opinion. See what you think....

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Madura Pass - the high point of the journey

If you think driving across Australia is slow and tedious and tiring and heavy going - try this way of doing it!

Just to the west of Eucla, the road curves a little and actually rises from the flat plain on which we had been travelling for so long. These are the Hampton Tablelands and it's refreshing to stop at the lookout and look down on the countryside from the escarpment.

Many of the stops on the Eyre Highway were or still are connected to pioneer pastoral stations. Madura was known in the late 19th century for raising quality polo and cavalry horses for the British Imperial Indian Army.

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Cocklebiddy

Put on your sunglasses late in the day as the highway goes due west into the setting sun. This was a long day, for us. We were later than usual and the roadsides were strewn with carcases of dead kangaroos. You can just see one (above) on the left.

It is vital to take great care if driving later in the day, at dusk, or at night, as hitting a kangaroo can result in major damage to your vehicle, and could also cause injuries.

Each roadhouse along the Eyre Highway was different. We booked motel rooms, ate pub-grub, and sampled a good variety of meals at several.

Hamburgers are almost always available, often with chips and salad, and there are pies, sandwiches and other simple meals. Often a break in the bar at the end of a day of driving gives you a chance to talk to other travellers about their day, or the locals about what life is like when you live so far off the grid, especially in a community of eight people!

There's that Outback humour again.

 

See that strange word over the mirror? We won't spoil the answer, but do make sure you ask the staff to explain it to you.

If you are a bird-lover and have a 4WD vehicle, ask for directions from the roadhouse about reaching the Eyre Bird Observatory 31 kilometres south, on the coast.

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Caiguna- Hub of the Universe

Perhaps not everyone would agree with this, but when you live in a small isolated settlement, it is your hub.

And the 'grub' is good too. Bangers 'n' mash looked just right to us.

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90-Mile Straight

It is what it says on the sign.

Dead straight - put a brick on the accelerator for an hour and a half and take a nap. Just kidding!

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Balladonia - space-junk dump

That skeletal steel 'sculpture' on the Balladonia roadhouse roof is unique. It arrived from outer space in 1979 when the US satellite Skylab plummeted to earth nearby. 

This outpost has seen all sorts of transport, from camel trains to space-ware.

Inside the roadhouse there are displays of debris picked up in the area...

...and cuttings commemorating the event that, almost forty years ago, quite literally put Balladonia on the map.

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Norseman - end of the East-West safari

Finally the Eyre Highway comes to a T-junction. After several days, we have to make a choice - turn left towards lovely Esperance on the south coast, or turn right towards the goldfields of Kalgoorlie.

Keep reading this site for later features where you will see which we chose - and how we managed to see both on this trip.

The town of Norseman was named after a horse. But not just any horse.

In 1894, Hardy Norseman had been tethered overnight by his owner, Laurie Sinclair. The next morning Sinclair discovered the horse had been pawing the ground and unearthed a large gold nugget, beginning a gold-rush in this area.

Camels feature in the main street because of their historic connection with the goldfields region as beast of burden. Interestingly, these have been made from corrugated iron, which was a popular and sturdy building material in the early days of the region.

Nearby a clump of hardy red bottlebrush plants brighten the roadside. Norseman in many ways resembles a frontier town. It is a long way from anywhere, yet it is an important centre for travellers and local farmers.

And, it is the first town since Penong, 1130 kilometres and over a quarter of the country away.

Back in Port Augusta, on the return journey, we had time to explore the Aridland Botanic Gardens, situated high over the gulf and with plants that you should examine closely to realise just how beautiful they are.

This was the same discovery we had made throughout our trip as we got up close and personal with this magnificent country. 

For now, finally, the adventure was over. Let's hope we have inspired others to take the same trip too.

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Need to know......

It is certainly an adventure, but for any long trip in remote areas, you should prepare carefully.

Here are some insider tips:

What to bring: Sunscreen, a hat, drinking water, a first aid kit. Roadhouses are well-spaced and have food, drinks, petrol, and there is other traffic if your vehicle breaks down and you need help. Definitely bring a camera. Mobile phone signal can be sporadic in the most remote areas.

Best time to go: May to October. Summer can be very hot (think, 50C!)

Time zones: There are four zones that vary in NSW, Victoria and South Australia according to Daylight Saving. Eastern WA has its own zone.

Quarantine: Each state has rules about which foods may enter. Learn these or you may have something confiscated.

Supplies: There are roadhouses approximately every 200 kilometres or so. All have petrol and most have basic supplies and accommodation. The larger ones have restaurants, mechanical assistance and souvenirs.

Road safety: Be careful driving at dusk, early morning and at night because of ‘roos, emus and stock on the road.

Emergencies: The Nullarbor has several landing strips on the road for Royal Flying Doctor aircraft emergency landings.

Be careful: Cliff edges at the Bight may crumble. Obey the signs. If leaving your car on the plain, watch out for holes in the ground and underground caves. In bushy areas, keep your car in sight so you do not become lost, and do....

.... watch out for snakes.

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More information about what to see and where to stay on the Nullarbor.....

 


Gordon and Sally Hammond travelled independently across Australia (and back!).

Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

 

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