Driving Desert trip not to be missed

Photo of Bonita Grima

Driving the Nullarbor is almost an Aussie rite of passage.

Taking a three-hour flight from Perth to Adelaide just to drive straight back might sound a bit mad but, like all great road trips, driving the Nullarbor offers freedom and adventure. And it reminds us how unique and beautiful our country is.

Like one of the Choose Your Own Adventure stories I used to read as a kid, each new section of road opens new possibilities for exploration. With so many dusty little tracks leading off the highway, I imagine you could cross the Nullarbor countless times and never feel you’ve done the same trip twice.

The total distance from Adelaide to Perth is 2693km and takes most people between three and six days to drive. While a large portion of that journey consists of one long, straight, flat road, stretching 1256km across a dry and treeless plain, it is certainly not a Nullar-bore.

Driving the Nullarbor is almost an Aussie rite of passage. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was small and saw pictures of my parents crossing the outback in the 70s, back before the road was sealed. So, when my boyfriend suggested I meet him in Adelaide to drive the camper he’d just bought back to the West, I happily agreed. 

I hadn’t been put off by the experiences of others. Most stories I’d read about the epic drive equated to epic dullness; vast emptiness, loneliness, mirages and hallucinations, repeated playlists, quarrelling kids, lack of a (phone) signal, searing heat, breakdown, flies, fried food and fearsome fuel costs.

And while some of these things may be true (the petrol prices are quite scary) I’m pleased to report that traversing the country’s southern edge proved to be every bit the journey of a lifetime I had been anticipating.

We took four days to get to Perth but from the moment we turned left on to the Eyre Highway, I can honestly say I never felt bored. Spending so much time in our new van, we soon got to know it well. At times, Trymie (yes, we named him) even felt like a travelling companion. Reliable, hardworking and sometimes a little clumsy, we soon learnt his qualities as well as his quirks. 

Talking of quirks ... there’s plenty that’s weird and wonderful on the journey from east to west.

In Iron Knob, the birthplace of Australia’s steel industry, you can walk past abandoned buildings on the eerily deserted streets of the once-thriving mining town and imagine what life might be like after a zombie apocalypse. 

In Penong, visit the Windmill Museum to see the collection of lovingly restored old water pumps, including one said to be Australia’s largest, Big Bruce. At Balladonia, view the fallen debris from NASA’s Skylab Space Station that scattered across the desert in 1979. At the bar of the Nullarbor Roadhouse, gaze at the mural of Australian music legends while drinking your first (and possibly last) can of South Australian West End Draught. 

And then there’s the Nullarbor Links, spanning two States and time zones, where you can play the “world’s longest golf course”. 

One of the things I love about a road trip is the chance to travel in a way that allows you to see beauty in the ordinary and to visit places and meet people that you might otherwise overlook.

Kimba is one of those places. In this unassuming little wheat-farming town, I had the pleasure of viewing silo art for the first time. Cam Scale’s mural of a child standing in a wheat paddock at sunset, holding a feather and gazing up at the sky, is 25m tall and 60m wide. It truly captivates.

Jumping from the jetty and exploring the huge, golden dunes in the light of late afternoon was an unexpected joy in Fowlers Bay, a remote historic fishing village that was once the site of a whaling station but is now part of a conservation park.

And I never would have imagined the sand of Eucla to be so changeable. Pure, white and powdery in the dunes, then delicate and smooth, like a layer of wet glass as it meets with the sea, reflecting pastel pinks and pale blues at sunset. Unrelenting as it slowly but surely claims the old telegraph station that was once Australia’s busiest.

What was expected, but didn’t diminish our delight upon sighting them, was the magnificence of the Bunda Cliffs at the head of the Great Australian Bight. Formed 65 million years ago when Australia separated from Antarctica, the cliffs stand up to 120m above sea level and extend 100km from the east of the Head of the Bight to Border Village. Winding walkways and viewing platforms provide excellent vantage points for southern right whales (in season) and the cliffs. 

Standing there, listening to the waves crashing, we could see the many layers of limestone which also form part of the world’s biggest limestone karst landscape, home to many caves. 

In a strange way, it was both humbling and reassuring to feel small in a landscape so vast and to realise that we are connected to something much bigger, and much more ancient.

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