02.04.2015 - 24.04.2015 23 °C
If you are not into a lot of “me” time, if you don’t like getting lost in your thoughts or talking to yourself, making lists in your head, if you dislike creating odes to road kill, if you get tired of listening to the same 15 CDs, if you can’t bear the thought of limited or no mobile or internet access, and if looking into the far distance makes you dizzy or sleepy then driving across Australia, solo or otherwise, is not for you. However, if you enjoy spectacular sunsets, quiet and solitude, the changing colours and vegetation of the bush, stargazing at the brilliant night stars, being surprised by the pop of a meteor entering earth’s atmosphere and having great spontaneous chats with people you meet on the road, then a driving jaunt across Australia may be just the adventure for you. And one of best ways of doing this is by camping along the way.
Travelling the 3,900 plus kilometres from Perth to Sydney entails driving very, very long stretches of road that seem to extend well beyond the curvature of the earth. Just past the Balladonia Road Station on the Eyre Highway, there is a sign proclaiming that you are entering the longest straight stretch in Australia being 146.6 km…also referred to as the 90 Mile Straight. Having just driven from Perth, I mentioned to Kylie, who was a backpacker working at the road station and making my cappuccino, how this stretch could be any straighter than over what I had just driven. I just received a knowing nod and proclamation that “you will see what it means”. It took me well over an hour to traverse this portion of the road with nary a curve or dip to be found. Yes, it was long and straight but there were other stretches that seemed just as long and straight.
Camping is a great way to appreciate the sounds, colours and smells of the bush. For the most part, there is no shortage of places to camp while crossing the Nullarbor or generally in Australia. A person can stay in the roadhouse camping grounds, in designated parking areas (identifiable by the blue P sign), designated 24 hour overnight areas, or go completely bush. Camping restrictions arise in the more populated areas, near fenced paddocks, and regions that generally get a lot of tourists. I found that you could easily pull into a P area and there would be tracks that led away from the highway back into the bush a bit which helped to get away from the noise of the cars and trucks on the road and the multitude of campervans pulled over for the night. This is usually where I set up camp. Setting and packing up my camp was always easy as I keep things simple - the crucial items being my dome swag (which took me about 5 minutes to set up and take down), a single gas burner stove, a small table and folding chair, a lamp, a Coleman esky and a 20L water container. And of course, food, the mobile phone and a first aid kit.
My first day of driving saw me overnighting at the campground at the Widgiemooltha roadhouse, about 30 km north of Norseman. I set up my dome swag on the small patch of grass provided for campers, settling in for the night. Although convenient for me that night, the campground was noisy due to trucks passing by continuously and I could not seem to avoid the security light that shone down on the grounds and into my swag. So very little sleep was had.
I found Norseman to be a tidy little town and it is well worth visiting the Beacon Hill scenic drive and walking trail to view the stunning red trunks of the eucalypt woodlands and the remnant tailings dump from previous gold mining operations.
Then it was onto the Eyre Highway to begin the crossing of the Nullarbor Plain, a single, large lump of limestone, one of the most unpopulated, flat places in Australia yet one of the most fascinating. The Nullarbor Plain sits between Western Australia and South Australia, and edges the Great Australian Bight.
Although long and relatively empty, the Eyre Highway does have its busy times and places, and must be shared with other cars, hordes of “grey nomads” pulling their campervans and motorhomes, trucks, semi-trailers and the occasional biker, runner and walker. While driving, it is well worth learning and using the driver’s salute every time a car passes from the other direction as a means of camaraderie, acknowledging the other drivers and entertainment. An amusing description of the different types of salutes can be found on the website www.ourwalkabout.com/2009/10/26/the-wave. I found I was very partial to what was dubbed The Double Wave – lifting the index and middle fingers of my left hand which never left the steering wheel.
My first night camping on the Nullarbor was near Cocklebiddy Caves. I turned off at a designated P area and drove along the road heading north towards the caves (which were closed due to the edges being unstable) where the vegetation consisted mainly of bluebush, saltbush and as scattering of acacia shrubs about 1-1.5 m high. I found a nice acacia shrub to camp behind, out of the sight of the road and not a soul in sight. I was setting up my swag when I realized there was activity happening at the acacia tree one over from me. A peep through the branches revealed a man in a fluoro yellow vest also setting up camp. My first thought was that this was either a ranger or a maintenance man and I was going to be told to move on. It actually turned out to be Jonas who was from Germany and was bicycling from Adelaide to Perth. It had taken him 16 days to get thus far. Although I thought I was tucked and hidden behind my acacia shrub, the landscape was so flat and the vegetation so low that I had to laugh when Jonas told me he had seen my car (and bright orange kayak on top) about 500 m away.
For me, this was a stunning site and you really can’t appreciate the bush until you have stopped, smelled, looked and listened. I sat sipping my oolong tea watching the sun set, releasing shades of red across the sky and over the open scape of the bush. Six grey kangaroos foraged about 50 metres away from me and just before the sun totally set, there was a cacophony of noise as the birds settled in for the night. Watching the Milky Way emerge as the night sky got progressively darker was brilliant. It was also later this night that I was awoken by a loud “pop” and watched a meteor with a bright orange tail streak across the night sky. Magic.
Although most of the Nullarbor is vertically challenged, not far past Cocklebiddy, the Hampton Tableland escarpment begins to rise in the north providing some relief to the flat land and scrubby vegetation. A real feel of this expansive flatness can be gotten by walking up the bluff just behind the Madura Roadhouse Station at Madura Pass. Looking far into the distance, what I had initially thought was the ocean, was just a vast expanse of plain dotted with small blue-green trees.
The next two nights were also spent sleeping in the bush: the first on a small hillock in amongst a small stand of gum trees about 50 km away from the closed Yalata road station where, when taking a walk towards the sand dunes, I sighted two dingoes and scattered a multitude of kangaroos feeding at dusk. Having cut across the top of the Eyre Peninsula through Kimba, the second night was spent outside Port Augustus where I had both the joy of seeing the Finders Ranges at sunset and getting rained upon.
I was on a pretty tight schedule driving over to Sydney, so after a very long drive, my next stop was Cobar, passing Broken Hill and a multitude of small bush towns that are virtually totally closed down but still retaining some great examples of Australian architecture and history. The drive between Broken Hill and Cobar was harrowing due to a million wild goats and a billion kangaroos being on the side of the road. I got to Cobar just after dark and as I was exhausted, I stayed at the New Occidental Hotel which served a pretty mean pumpkin and fetta salad and gourmet chocolate cupcake topped with icing.
The next day was a very long drive to Sydney, passing through Dubbo, Orange and Bathurst with very short stops to take a quick look at the city centres. Next to the strip of road between Broken Hill and Cobar, driving through the Blue Mountains into Sydney was just as harrowing: it took me nearly three hours to get from Lithgow into Sydney due to road construction, the winding road overused with semi-trucks and the heavy traffic congestion.
I had much more time on my drive back to Perth, so I drove through Goulburn, Griffith and Mildura to Port Augusta, staying as much as possible on the smaller roads and realizing too late that I missed the Big Tennis Racquet at Barellan, where Australian tennis great Evonne Goolagong Crawley grew up. Having more time, I was also able to see the sights I missed on the Nullarbor my way east.
The rains decided to set in about three days after leaving Sydney which did help to keep the bugs away at night but also almost got me bogged when I turned into a driveway to take a picture and my tires started spinning in soft, gooey mud. I did manage to get some traction and get out but not before covering my car in a coat of gluggy bits of mud, which I wore with pride.
Two of the best spots where I camped on my way back west were at Heron’s Point on the banks Murray River and Horse Rock in Lincoln National Park. I managed to go kayaking at both locations and was lucky not to have to battle any or very little wind at either spot. In fact, it was so calm and quiet at Horse Rock, that I sat in my kayak and did not move an iota, just looking at the seagrass beds through crystal clear water and the terns swirling around dipping into the water catching fish.
A highlight on the way back was town hopping through the historical town of Burra and its great second hand bookstore, visiting Jamestown, Crystal Brook, Murray Town and Wilmington, all located in the foothills of the Flinders Ranges to the southeast of Port Augusta.
I also had time to bay hop along the south shore of the Eyre Peninsula, visiting Coffin Bay, Venus Bay, Streaky Bay and then on to Ceduna where I had the best takeaway fresh, raw oysters with a splash of lemon juice. I walked through the mulga woodlands admiring the burnt red colour of the branching trunks of the trees and the multitude of birds flinting through the branches. I had a looksee at the Old Lake Hamilton Eating House, a side trip to see the cliffs at the head of the Great Australian Bight and the Eucla Telegraph Station, and a walk to the Talia Caves before finally going through very strict quarantine at the South Australia-Western Australia border.
One bonanza of the roadhouses along the Eyre Highway is that some have shower facilities. The Nullarbor Roadhouse offers showers at $1 for 4 minutes which is a real bargain when you find that they charge $6 for a cappuccino, the priciest of all the roadhouses at which I bought petrol. And as an aside, the cost of petrol ranged from $1.71 per litre to $1.94 per litre at the various Nullarbor roadhouses from where I bought petrol. Prices are, as one would expect, substantially lower on either side of the Nullarbor Plain.
One joy of my trip was meeting fellow travelers along the way and listening to their story: Australians following their dream of driving around Australia, pastoralists who had not had rain in three years, a couple who bred and raised some of the cutest and most disciplined kelpies I have come across, men who felt the need to give me their life stories, shopkeepers looking to escape the big city, women who found the trip tedious, overseas backpackers looking for the Australian story.
Once I did my rest stop again at the Balladonia Roadhouse (where some idiots had driven their car into the front door a couple of night previous), it was the long drive back to Perth. Despite the great enjoyment I had during my road trip to Sydney and back, I felt the length of that last bit of drive between Coolgardie and Perth as I was anxious to get home and get off that long, straight road with my “I drove across the Nullarbor”” touristo key ring firmly in my pocket.