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Overland: A Road Trip Across Australia

Nan has spent weeks road-tripping through Australia, from Tasmania to the Nullarboor Plain.

The Wide Open Road

Australia's mainland population is concentrated on the coastline—east, north, west, and some parts of the south. There is a reason for this: although early explorers made great efforts to locate the great inland sea or lake of Australia, they failed, with many of them dying in their attempts. That is because there simply is no inland water body; the middle of Australia is a dry and inhospitable place whose features include scorching deserts dotted with some remarkable rock formations, the best-known being Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock).

Crossing Australia, from west to east, or east to west is most frequently done along the southern route known as 'Crossing the Nullarbor', although the Nullarbor Plain itself is only a portion of the journey. From my home in Western Australia to Melbourne is almost 3,500 kilometres, although if travelling via the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, as I did, it is a little more. I had pre-booked a ticket on the ferry to Tasmania and had allowed two weeks for the journey, a relatively relaxed pace, but not enough time to linger and explore too much along the way.

My Camping Rig

My Camping Rig

Starting Out

Setting out on the road, I was feeling a little apprehensive. Previously, when I had crossed the country it was by plane, train or bus. This was my first drive across the "dry, brown land," and I was traveling solo.

The road across the Nullarbor is bituminized these days, and well-frequented by Road Trains carrying freight between the east and west coasts of Australia. There are also numerous travellers of all ages including many "grey nomads" and European backpackers on tourist/working visas.

The last town in Western Australia before the Nullarbor crossing is Norseman. Norseman can be reached from the north via Kalgoorlie, or from the south via Esperance. I stopped to fill my car in Esperance, anticipating that it would be the cheapest fuel for a long distance. Then I headed northwards to Norseman.

My van and car were stocked with water—40 litres in the van and another 30 in containers in the back of the car. I had also bought a 24 pack of bottled water to drink along the road. I had ample food, a full bottle of gas for cooking and making those essential cups of coffee. My car had had a full service with new fuel filters. I hoped it would drive like a dream. A truck driver familiar with the route advised me not to drive at night due to the number of animals on the road.

First and Second Nights

I camped at Quaggi Beach, just a short distance west of Esperance, for my first night away from home. I didn't want to stay overnight in Norseman; I wanted to get out into the bush so I could feel that I had started my adventure had really begun. My sights were set on a rest area and campsite between Norseman and Balladonia, which is the next stop, travelling east.

Rest areas are not well signposted and the best that my map could offer was a distance from Norseman. I drove on, keeping an eye on the odometer in my car. And there it was, signposted as a rest area, with a drop toilet (seriously filthy) and roadside rubbish bins.

I pulled in and followed the tracks, bush bashed by 4-wheel drives until I found a spot a good distance from the road and the noise of the Road Trains. It was warm and sultry and during the night a thunderstorm started, with a smattering of rain. It can get hot on the Nullarbor—over 50 Celsius—so I was glad to have a break in the weather.

After coffee and breakfast in the morning, I set off again. Still a lot of driving to do. I stopped at Balladonia for fuel, my first roadhouse stop. Then on again. At Caiguna I stopped again, this time for a sandwich and coffee and to take a break from driving. By this time, I was nearing the SA border but slowed my speed as I was feeling fatigued.

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I started looking for a place to stop for the night. I'd like to be able to tell you exactly where it was, but I'm not entirely sure. The tracks enabled me to drive a fair way back from the highway and I found myself surrounded by bush with the ground, red baked and cracked earth below. It was good to pull over, and there was no one around.

A Roadhouse Sign

A Roadhouse Sign

Third Night

Awesome. I celebrated my achievement so far by creating a shoe tree (tourists often hang their thongs—as in footwear—on trees in the outback) with all my footwear displayed. I was nearing the border to South Australia and after dinner and a few relaxing drinks, I sat out under the stars. The night sky on the Nullarbor is amazing, there is little backlight, so the sky is a multitude of stars stretching out to infinity. I loved looking at it, so great a sky, and me, like a human ant beneath it. Seeing the magnitude of the universe stretched out like that really puts things in perspective.

Next morning, I crossed the border into South Australia and stopped to look out over the cliffs to the Great Australian Bight. Amazing. Blue ocean reaching out forever and joining to blue sky on a barely discernible horizon. Another incredible sight that reminded me of the insignificance of the scurrying humans who inhabit this earth.

My 'Shoe Tree'

My 'Shoe Tree'

Fourth Night

I pressed on; there is not a great deal to do on the Nullarbor except drive. The road took me through the Aboriginal lands of Yalata, which are inhabited by the Anangu people. This land was given to them after they were pushed out of the Woomera and Maralinga areas, which were their traditional 'country'.

The Australian government set up a long-range weapons testing site at Woomera. Permission was also given to the British government to test atomic weapons at Maralinga in South Australia. In the 1960s, 12 atomic nuclear bombs were detonated, as well as numerous trials with nuclear warheads. In total, over 100kg of radioactive and toxic elements were released over the land, which is now contaminated despite efforts by the British and Australian governments to clean it up. Many of the local indigenous people—including entire families—died as a result of radiation exposure, what they called 'black mist'. Blindness from the explosions is also common.

There is a side road leading to the head of the bight where whales can be seen in vast numbers between May and October as they make their annual migration. Since it was February, I didn't take the turn-off, but I have heard that the sight of as many as 80 whales in the waters off the bight is wonderful.

The vegetation was now low and scrubby with few trees (hence the name Nullarbor). My final camp was once again down a track at a roadside rest area. A popular campsite where several caravans and a car with a rooftop tent also pulled over for the night.

From there, it was an easy drive to Penong—a small town on the Eyre Highway and gateway to Cactus Beach, and a well-known surfing spot. I kept driving. My remaining fresh produce was taken at the quarantine checkpoint just outside Ceduna, this is to protect the agricultural industry from pests. I arrived in Ceduna soon after midday. To a caravan park, a swim at the beach, and my first proper hot shower since leaving home.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Nan Hewitt

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