Thursday, February 13, 2014

On the Road Trip - Australia - Crossing the Nullarbor - South Australia to Western Australia - and then we came back again!

We planned to leave Streaky Bay in the cool of the afternoon, however the cooler weather never arrived that afternoon and so once packed up, we headed off west (temp 38 deg C) around 5pm. Our plan was to drive for four to five hours, hoping to cover three hundred kilometres, then camp overnight at the Nullarbor Roadhouse. We had heard so much about ‘crossing the Nullarbor’, it had been described as a 'relatively easy, but very long drive', so we had a combination of excitement and trepidation about what lay ahead. 
We had done everything we knew and had been pre-warned about to be prepared, plenty of fuel, with spare stored in our boat, plenty of drinking water and food snacks, spare tyres for the car and boat, toolbox, car jack, bottle jack, jumper leads, battery charger, spare trailer wheel bearings, plus hats, sun cream, fly squatters and a first aid kit. Before long we had travelled sixty five kilometres to reach the town of Ceduna, the major commercial centre of the far west of Eyre Peninsula. 
Ceduna, SA is the last ‘big town’ we would see, before reaching ‘the other side’ of this legendary crossing, some fifteen hundred kilometres away, when we arrived in Norseman, WA. 
In our ten week road trip, we have now crossed the Nullarbor twice, firstly to get to the south west coast of WA and then again to return to our east coast home in the Northern beaches of Sydney. Both crossings we saw vast beauty, experienced radical weather patterns, had our share of mishaps and our patience tested.

As we continued to head west, another seventy two kilometres on from Ceduna, we reached the next town, Penong. This town is made up of a roadhouse, general store, post office, hotel and caravan park. We refueled the car and grabbed a welcome roadhouse steak sandwich for our dinner. This is also the place to turn off toward the coast, to see Cactus Beach, a spot for great surfing and fishing, with basic camping available, take your own water in. 
Pushing on as the light began to fade and the temperature continued to soar, (now 42 deg C) at 8.30pm, we were treated to an incredible sunset on the distant horizon. Colours in the sky like you wouldn’t believe were possible, changing every few minutes, all the time getting more spectacular. 

As we enjoyed the display, we were also aware that with the beautiful sunset fading, it meant only precious minutes of daylight remained, before we were going to be setting up camp in the dark. We had driven another seventy eight kilometres from Penong, when we arrived in the darkness, to the town of Nundroo (still 42 deg C) at 9.30pm. 
Wheat and sheep paddocks line the road to Nundroo, it is the western extremity of the agricultural land of South Australia. Offering hotel motel accommodation, a roadhouse for fuel, basic supplies, hot food, and a caravan park. What no one had told us and we ignorantly had not bothered to research before hand, was what time do these places stay open until at night, on these isolated stretches of road. As we rolled into Nundroo, we watched the young guy inside the roadhouse, turn the sign on the door from open to closed. I ran over to the door and tapped on the glass pane, he kindly stopped in his tracks, reversed and turned to unlock the door, asking ‘did we want fuel?’. I responded ‘what time do you close?’, he said ‘normally it is 10pm, but on quieter nights we close earlier’, we had just made it in the nick of time. Quickly I enquired about a powered campsite for the night and he willingly let me in, to pay for such. At the same time he told me the ground was a little hard for pegging, which later proved to be quite the understatement. 
Following his instructions we gingerly made our way in the darkness to the camping area. This was our first time setting up in the dark and as usual in the wisdom of hindsight, we now realise it was rather an unwise thing to do, in such an inhospitable place. There was a scattering of caravans already in position and most occupants were seated outside under the starlit sky, desperate for relief from the relentless heat. An elderly, short, pot bellied man, in his off white, chesty bond singlet, stared then smiled at us, as we drove in late with our boat in tow. He was accommodated in the smallest, old caravan on the site next to ours, and he and his little wife of many years warmly greeted us. It was clear that we were going to be the evening’s entertainment for the surrounding travellers, as we proceeded to park, unload, grope in the darkness for our power supply, and then pitch our tent with torchlight. 
(For obvious reasons there are no photos of this part of the story!)
As we continued to vigorously hammer our tent pegs into what seemed like rock, our new neighbour and friend, proceeded to tell Mr G of the hardships of his day, suffering not one but two flat tyres on his daily travels. It should be noted, before I continue, that it was now 10pm, still very hot, very still, with not a breath of wind and the ground we were pitching the tent on was a hard, dusty, gravel surface. These circumstances led as to make another (again in hindsight), questionable decision. We decided to only erect the shell of the tent and not bother with the fly. The fly works as a bit of a security blanket over a tent for those ‘non camping’ readers amongst you, it covers you to protect from rain, wind and bird droppings, it keeps things firm and snug. However, being that we were only needing the tent up overnight, that the skies were clear, there was NO wind or sign of wind and the birds had gone to bed, we decided to skip the fly, making set up and then pack up in the morning much quicker. 
After a reasonably smooth half hour set up, we had the tent up, our pjamas on and teeth cleaned, ready to rest until our early start the next morning. It was unbearably hot in the tent, regardless of the fact we had all the windows and door open, it was just so incredibly still and we tossed and turned doing our best to drop off to sleep. Some time in the next hour, a wind began to blow, bringing some welcome relief, but also large amounts of fine red dust in our tent windows. Mr G ventured out to close all the openings to prevent a total dust bath and we continued to doze. The wind gained momentum and continued to do so for the following half an hour, loud flapping noises and shaking of the tent frame began, as Jake slept soundly on his blow up bed. Mr G and I wondered whether the tent would survive such force or were we all going to be literally blown away. Whether or not the fly would have helped at this point or simply got shredded, is now irrelevant, but we both knew if the wind did not relent soon, our tent was going to fail us. All I could think about was the reviews I had read, when deciding on which tent to purchase for this trip and recalled most saying ‘these tents are not for extreme snow or wind conditions’. We had not planned on camping in either of these environments, so no problem there I thought. How wrong we were! (in hindsight!)
Within the next few minutes the wind had gained such force, that we could hear corrugated roofing iron coming loose and many banging and crashing sounds going on outside around us. By now I was quite concerned and panic followed hard on the heels of my concern, when seconds later our tent gave up the fight. One of the frame support poles had popped from it’s socket and the whole thing collapsed on top of us. It should also be noted at this point in the story, that our delightful teenage son Jake, continued to sleep as turmoil surrounded us. Mr G swiftly exited the tent, whilst I remained inside holding up the tent in the middle, doing a poor impersonation of being a tent frame. Our kindly neighbour came out of his van to see if he could help, by offering rope, however his van door nearly flew off it’s hinges and his wife beckoned him back inside to safety. Mr G struggled to fight the wind, attempting to reinsert the pole back into the socket, as the fine red dust took up residence in his eyes, ears, nose, throat and any other available crevice. After a few minutes consistent effort, we realised it was a fruitless pursuit in such impossible conditions. Now with a real fear of being blown away or our tent, which was our only home for the next seven weeks being further destroyed, we had no other choice but to pack it up!
Waking Jake we instructed him, for his own safety to relocate to the back seat of the car and ‘stay put’ while we sorted things out. We then began the unenviable task of packing everything up, of course the wind, still not giving in and the accompanying dust storm persisting, made the experience very difficult indeed. A kind lady who lived in the nearby motel, (motel room….wouldn’t that have been a fine idea) braved the conditions to come over and offer help, asking us if we wished to sleep on her floor for the night, however we were all too flustered to consider such an offer, things were just a little tense by now and we declined. By midnight we had managed to shove everything back into the boot of the car or under the boat cover. Mr G and I then made ourselves ‘not very comfortable’ in the two front seats of the car, thankful to be safe and out of the wind, trying to rest until sunrise. I don’t think I have ever felt such gratitude or affectionate for our car as I did that night, it was our only refuge. The wind did eventually relent about an hour later.
The sun rose about 5.30am the next morning and one by one the caravans departed to continue their trek, either east or west depending on which way they were heading. We arose, dusty, tired and disheveled, not quite ready to laugh about the night’s events, but relieved it was over. In the calm of the morning daylight, Mr G was able to semi-repair the tent, good enough to use, until we could pick up a now needed spare part in Western Australia. Daylight also bought the revelation that just a few steps from our car, hidden to us in the dark of night, was a corrugated building, housing a laundry, with sink and washing machines. It also had ample floor space, had we known it was there, we could have dragged our air beds in there, escaping the wind and bunked down for the night, more hindsight.

After a scrappy breakfast of cereal and toast, we hit the road again about 7am, as we exited the camping area, we noticed a sign that had also been hidden from us in the darkness the night before, it said CAUTION - NO PEGGING, now all we could do was take a photo and laugh.

The town of Yalata, which once offered fuel, a roadhouse and camping ground, is now closed down to the public, this shell of a place was next along the Eyre Highway. Yalata is now an aboriginal community and mission three kilometres from the main road, only open to public with a permit from the local ranger. The only thing of note here really was the unique road sign we saw indicating ‘look out for camels, kangaroos and wombats’.

Ahead of us lay the Head of the Bight and the Nullarbor Plain. The Head of the Bight is one of the most spectacular whale watching sites in the world, with a cliff top boardwalk, leading to a viewing platform. This area is one of the major southern-right-whale breeding grounds, where migrating whales can be seen, as they make there journey from Antarctica each year. Although we were not visiting in whale season which is May – October, we still enjoyed walking the boardwalk, as windy as it was, to see the magnificent cliffs and coastline.

Not much further along the road we refueled the car and grabbed some lunch at the Nullarbor Roadhouse, which also offers motel accommodation and camping facilities. Behind the Nullarbor Roadhouse, fifteen kilometres north are the Murrawijinie Caves. Many of these caves need 4WD access and a ranger guide to accompany you these days. We didn’t bother with visiting these on either crossing, maybe next time! 
Next we saw the sign for the beginning of the Nullarbor Plain, we had now reached the beginning of the treeless plain or ‘nullus arbor’ loosely translated ‘no trees’. The Nullarbor Plain at it’s widest point, stretches about eleven hundred kilometres from east to west, across the border region between South Australia and Western Australia.

It is well worth pulling in at the signposted lookouts along the road, for breathtaking views. Each lookout is just a few minutes detour from the road, and did bring us welcome relief to see something different than the endless sealed road and monotonous landscape. The first lookout heading west, (also being the third lookout when heading back east), was my favourite, with amazing views of the eighty metre high Bunda Cliffs. 

At the final lookout we scoffed all our remaining fresh fruit, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, as we approached the SA/WA Border Village. 

There is a quarantine check point at the Border Village, where all fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cheese and honey cannot pass from SA into WA, mainly to avoid the trafficking of fruit fly from state to state. ‘Eat it, bin it, or declare it’ is their motto and fine you heavily they will if you don’t comply. Although we had nothing to declare, they made a pretty thorough search of our car and boat, before letting us drive on into WA.

The first town over the border is Eucla, we didn’t stop here on the way through, however we did have lunch here on our return trip and made time to drive four kilometres south, out to the original telegraph station building ruins, which is now half buried in the surrounding coastal sand dunes. In it's day this was the sole means of communication for Western Australia with the rest of the country and the world.
The stories this old building could tell!

Drizzling rain, meant the weather was not really conducive, to walk the extra fifteen minute walk on the sand track, down to the coast’s edge, to see Eucla Beach and the now derelict jetty. If you had a nice day and the leisure time, it would be a lovely place to cool off.

As you leave Eucla, the road winds down Eucla Pass and off the plain, as you head west.

Our next stop heading west was Mundrabilla for fuel, then onto Madura where we surrendered and booked into a motel room for the night. A basic room with a comfy bed and a very welcome hot shower, to wash off the Nundroo dust that was still lingering. As we drove out the next morning, heading further west, Madura Pass boasted spectacular views of the Roe Plains and an outlook towards the Southern Ocean from the lookout at the top of the pass. 

Each of the roadhouses options along the way have their own quirky signs, letting you know how far you are from pretty much everywhere!

From Caiguna to Balladonia is the longest stretch of straight road in Australia, carrying on and on for 145.6k's.
Our final day of driving across was really about just covering the distance as safely and speedily as we could, with stops at each of the roadhouses at Cocklebiddy, Caiguna and Balladonia for fuel, food and toilet stops, then finally onto Norseman, marking the end of our first crossing. We'd made it across reasonably unscathed.

Norseman would later prove to be our friend and miraculous place of supply, for a replacement spare tyre, when we blew a boat trailer tyre, on our return crossing some weeks later. We were enjoying the lovely stretch of gum forest between Norseman and Balladonia and feeling confident to cross the Nullarbor again, when there was a sudden bang, followed by a knocking noise and a bit of a wobble. Immediately we pulled over, thankfully without danger. It was certainly an unexpected mishap, that in 32 deg C heat, we had to unload the car to retrieve the jack and Mr G (with help from a lovely couple who had stopped to see if we were ok) worked to replace the tyre on the side of road, in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Norseman and Balledonia. 

This caused us a significant delay as we had to turn back and return to Norseman to replace our spare, as it was too much of a risk to take on the full crossing ahead, over one thousand kilometres with no spare tyre on board and no facility to source one on the lonely Nullarbor stretch. Apart from the flat tyre and a torrential rain storm on the actual Nullarbor Plain the second day, our crossing back east was reasonably uneventful. Stopping overnight at the motel accommodation at Balladonia and then the second night at the Nullarbor Roadhouse gave us much needed rest. We were glad to see and cross the border back into South Australia and travel on into more significant civilisation, we couldn't wait to stretch our legs, eat some fresh fruit and leave the epic Nullarbor Crossing behind us.

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