Even though it may now be comfortably sealed all the way, crossing the Nullarbor on the Eyre Highway is still one of this country's epic road journeys. Like so many of our major routes, it is awash with history, colour and stunning natural beauty.
We begin our journey in Adelaide, a city founded in 1836 by mainly English free settlers that quickly grew into a regional centre for trade and agriculture. As we leave the flat north suburban plains and head for the gulf town of Port Augusta, we are presented with a few options. The quickest means is certainly via Highway One, through Two Wells and on to Port Pirie, clocking just over 300 kilometres. However, if time is on your side, then a NE deviation past Gawler will lead you through the lush Barossa Valley where you could easily linger amongst the wineries of Tanunda, Angaston and Lyndoch.
Head out of the Barossa toward Clare and Burra, taking in more of the gorgeous Mount Lofty Ranges, and take your pick of the scenic routes back to Highway One and Port Augusta. Even a straight drive up through the Barossa will consume most of your day, so take your pick from the many accommodation options available in Port Augusta.
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4WDers have a great deal more to choose from when it comes to getting across the Eyre Peninsula to Ceduna. The Gawler Ranges is a superb option, traversing these ancient mountains on well-maintained gravel roads to Wirrulla. Check with locals for road conditions, as it is often quite possible to get through in 2WD vehicles. The standard route via Kimba and Poochera is a troublefree 470 kilometres, but there is also a lot to be said for going the 280 kilometres out of your way to Port Lincoln, the famous tuna fishing town at the tip of the peninsula. Some underwater scenes from Jaws were actually filmed in the shark-infested waters out of the port.
As you travel west from Port Augusta, the stark, salty earth gradually returns to flat wheat fields on the Eyre Peninsula. Be sure to stop for a look at the Iron Knob village. Once a bustling iron ore town, the buildings and landmarks were gradually growing over as the BHP mine was wound down. Instead of disappearing like its close cousin, Iron Baron, this quirky spot is enjoying something of a renaissance as the cheap housing attracts new families. The unusually rich ore deposits in the vanishing hill behind Iron Knob kept the town alive for over half a century and now mining has switched to deposits like Iron Duke to the south. Shane at the Shell Roadhouse can give you plenty of history.
A detour via Whyalla, or if you are headed for Port Lincoln, would enable you to take in the expansive BHP Steelworks and one of the tri-weekly tours that are available. The Maritime Musuem with its dry-docked centrepiece, HMAS Whyalla, is another worthwhile attraction.
If you've chosen The Eyre Highway, or are coming up from Port Lincoln, you'll come across the quaint seaside hamlets of Streaky Bay and Smoky Bay. Both are used to their fair share of tourists, being popular boating and fishing retreats for Adelaidians on vacation.
Ceduna is the last bit of real civilisation you will see for a while and the end of current mobile phone coverage. It's a good idea to overnight and stock up on provisions here.
Surfers will be well aware of the locations between Ceduna and Fowlers Bay that are legend amongst board riders. Cactus Beach, a rough twenty kilometres south of Penong, is probably the best known of them all and it is quite common to see the sun-bleached wave hermits camped amongst the dunes behind the breakers.
The town of Penong is the last proper town you'll come across until Norseman in Western Australia and signals the western limit of South Australia's grain growing region. Penong's major curiosity would have to be the unusual population of windmills scattered crazily amongst the fields along the highway. From here until Norseman, some 1000 kilometres away, roadhouses, homesteads and outposts are all you'll find dotted along the black ribbon that binds the two states.
300 kilometres west of Ceduna is the Nullarbor Roadhouse, named after the old homestead that still stands and serves as staff accommodation nearby with comfortable motel rooms are available for travellers. Nundroo and the Aboriginal community run Yalata roadhouses also fall along the route if you need them. Be aware that most of the land bordering the road between Nundroo and Nullarbor is Aboriginal land and a permit is required to venture into it.
Meals are surprisingly good at these far-flung roadhouses and it is easy to spot those prospering from above average service. It's a simple test - if you don't like the look of a place, then don't go in.
The spectacular Bunda Cliffs stretching between Nullarbor and the Border Village are without doubt one of the highlights of the journey. Photographing them can be frustrating, as the 80m sheer limestone faces are often in shadow. You'll get your best chances early or late in the day and consensus is that, of the several signposted vantage points available, the one 111 kilometres from the border is the best.
For the curious, there is a 200 kilometre length of the old, unsealed Eyre highway remaining between Nullarbor and Border Village. It's certainly in even worse condition now than it ever was, but makes for an interesting comparison. At the border, you'll pass through a checkpoint where live plants, honey, soil, fruit and vegetables need to be declared.
Refresh, relax and refuel at either Eucla or Border Village where you'll find adequate amenities, good food and comfortable beds. The magnificent white sand dunes, old telegraph station ruins and its accompanying jetty make Eucla worthy of extra attention. History buffs will find plenty to keep them occupied in the little museum there.
As you head west out of Eucla and descend to the Roe Plains below through the steep Eucla Pass, the enormous expanse of this country is laid out before you. A breathtaking view of the ancient seabed can be had from cross marker at the top of the pass. If you are coming from the west at night, the illuminated beacon can be seen at a great distance in the still clean air atop the cliff and serves as comforting reassurance that rest and food are not far away.
The cliffs now form a high barrier to the north as you drive west below the level of the Nullarbor Plain itself. Healthy Wedge Tailed Eagles are common along this stretch of road, growing fat on the abundant road kill provided for them by the unstoppable road trains. It goes without saying that drivers should take extra care as livestock, emus and kangaroos commonly make ugly contact with vehicles along the Eyre Highway, particularly at night. Emus, not known for their intelligence, almost always travel in pairs, so if you have just narrowly missed one - watch out for the mate following close behind!
The Mundrabilla Motel is sixty kilometres west of Eucla and offers all the usual facilities. Don't confuse it with the station of the same name further along, or the abandoned siding on the railway line to the north. This was the location of a number of vivid UFO sightings some years ago. A more conventional attraction, a "mini zoo", could liven up some bored children.
Madura, 116 kilometres farther along and halfway between Adelaide and Perth, is where the road climbs back up onto the main Hampton Tablelands, through its namesake pass, in similarly spectacular style. The fuel at Madura is about the dearest you'll find on the trip, well over $1 a litre, so try and avoid buying too much here. Thankfully there's a decent little cafe and also a bar to dull the pain - if you are overnighting.
Travel almost 100 kilometres further west and you'll come across Cocklebiddy, another (by now) familiar looking roadhouse complex. You would have seen the sign pointing out the Eyre Bird Observatory, about 20 kilometres before the roadhouse. Run by the Royal Ornithologist Union, it is housed in the restored Eyre Telegraph Station and hosts a number of comprehensive bird-watching courses. If you are planning to visit the observatory, it is a good idea to call first from the roadhouse. The wide Telstra access road soon changes to a narrow sandy track that is definitely 4WD only. Allow at least a half day round trip for a casual visit.
Just the other side of Cocklebiddy is the famous cave of the same name. The Nullarbor Plain is renowned worldwide for its vast number of limestone caves and water-filled subterranean channels - many still unexplored. Beginning at a nondescript road siding about 20 kilometres west of the roadhouse, there is a dirt track of about 10 kilometres leading to the cave. There's even a small ladder in place to hep visitors down into its bowels.
Caiguna, 66 kilometres along, is another case of deja vu, only it seems a particular favourite amongst truckers. It's not unusual for the roadhouse to be completely obscured by big rigs, tankers and pantechnicons. Maybe it's the triple-decker steak sandwiches that bring them en masse? Many truckers and travellers will remember Caiguna as an oasis during the 1995 floods when the Nullarbor briefly became a seabed again, stranding hundreds until the vast waters subsided some days later.
A short five kilometres down the track is the famous blowhole, which also marks the beginning of the longest straight section of road in the country - 146.6 kilometres. At the end of this section you'll see the old Balladonia Telegraph Station and some remnants of the old line. The historic station is degrading rapidly, due mainly to undisciplined visitors, so it's best that you stay behind the prominent fence erected to preserve the property. Its namesake roadhouse is a further 27 kilometres away where a recently opened museum includes a Skylab display.
The final 200 kilometres into Norseman marks the end of the Nullarbor section and a distinct change in scenery. The earth undulates and climbs and the low scrubby cover thickens into light wood and small trees. Norseman is a hard town built, like so many in our outback, around a rich ore find. First settled in 1894 and named after the drover's horse that stumbled over the first nugget, it's kept much of its frontier character and is populated by hardy, no-nonsense folk. A couple of modern, landmark motels and a roadhouse are all that set it apart from the "wild west" and an expansive view is afforded from Beacon Hill Lookout. Otherwise, take a trip out to Dundas Rocks along the original Cobb & Co route.
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Perth is just over 500 kilometres away, as the crow flies, but 723 via Coolgardie. 760 if you take in Kalgoorlie. 4WDers might like to choose the direct route around Lake Johnston, through to Hyden and Wave Rock. Don't attempt this road after rain, as it is apt to turn into an unholy quagmire. Thereafter, it's a doddle to make your way through the pastures and wheatfields around Corrigin and Quairading through to the postcard village of York, home of the celebrated motor museum which houses Alan Jones' 1980 world championship winning Williams F1 car. When you've finished soaking up the automotive history, it's a straight and scenic run through Mundaring to Midland and the city.
Those choosing to take the popular northerly route via Kambalda, Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie will find a wealth of attractions to keep them occupied in this rich gold and nickel mining area. Gold, first discovered in the early 1890s, brought most of the fortune seekers to the area around the same time and remains the lifeblood of the region to this day. Kambalda's gold however, ran out in 1906 after a brief but glorious 'rush' that yielded 30,000 ounces. The town was rebuilt in the 1960s on the ruins of the earlier town after the establishment of a profitable nickel mine.
In Kalgoorlie there's all the comforts of a minor city. The kids can get back into their familiar junk food surroundings, while shopping, museums and restaurants can occupy the grown-ups. If you want to really get a first hand look at gold mining, old and new, get out to Hannans North Tourist Mine where you can go underground, pan for gold and stroll amongst a rebuilt mining village. Ride the Golden Mile Loopline historic railway that set s out from Boulder at 10 am daily. There's a lookout over the enormous open cut mine where you can see the hurley-burley of modern processes first hand and another, Mount Charlotte, which overlooks the town.
The Kalgoorlie-Boulder Tourist Centre is located in Hannan Street and contains comprehensive information on local attractions and accommodation options. To do this fascinating place justice, budget at least a full day's sightseeing.
A number of busy satellite towns like Kanowna and Ora Banda also sprang up during the rush one hundred years ago, but most have decayed to virtually nothing. Ora Banda's historic inn however, which closed in 1945, has now been restored as a tourist attraction. You can get there on seventy kilometres of mostly sealed road, northwest of Kalgoorlie.
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The remaining 550 kilometres into Perth is a straightforward enough drive through, firstly quite dense scrub and low woodland, then from Southern Cross onwards, rolling fields of grain and pasture. You'll notice too that traffic is increasing and you should pay particular attention to the frequent wide loads carrying mining equipment along this route. (The huge trucks won't fit under the bridges when loaded on the train). These oversize rigs will be accompanied by leading and trailing teams in constant radio contact, so watch for their signals and they'll indicate when it is safe to pass even though you may not be able to see the road ahead.
There are several scenic rest points before Southern Cross, particularly around the Boorabin National Park, and some quite splendid walks out onto the bare outcrops of rock that characterise this area. Take your camera with you at sunset and see the ground glow golden under your feet. Time permitting, you can still make a detour through York from Northam before heading into the city of Perth and ticking this classic road journey off your list.
This story was originally
published in NRMA's 'Great Drives of Australia' 1999
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