Crossing the Nullarbor

28 July 2010

Crossing the Nullarbor is one of Australia’s great road journeys.

They say the road is boring, but I beg to differ, as there are actually quite a lot of scenic wonders along the way. Spectacular limestone cliffs of the Great Australian Bight and the ruins of the Telegraph Station in Eucla are two of the most notable.


The Eyre Highway, for the most part, is squeezed between the Nullarbor Plain and the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. Nullarbor comes from the Latin ‘nullas arbor’, which means no tree. For part of the crossing the name fi ts, but fi rst-timers are often surprised at just how many trees there actually are.


Heading west, Ceduna is the last major town for 1213km. From then on, it’s all roadhouses until Norseman in Western Australia. Ceduna has a wellstocked supermarket and restaurants, before food choice becomes restricted to the roadhouse variety. Seafood is Ceduna’s specialty and their oysters come highly recommended by yours truly.


Before heading off, Ceduna is a good place for a vehicle check-up. Here, service stations carry a better range of spare parts and car mechanics, along with the cheapest fuel. Tyres, the engine cooling system and brakes should get a big once-over. Unlike the old days, there is no need to take extra fuel with you, as the roadhouses are no more than 200km apart.


However, I would suggest that unless you have long-range tanks, fill up at every opportunity, especially if driving a big 4WD towing a caravan. Heading west, you will be more than likely driving into the mother of all head winds, and believe me, it makes a huge difference to fuel consumption.


Well before the advent of vehicle travel, explorers like Eyre nearly died of thirst on the Nullarbor. Many decades later, when the Nullarbor Highway was nothing more than a dirt track that took days to negotiate, water was more precious than gold. Today, not much has changed, at least regarding water.


Take at least 20 or so litres in the car, preferably in separate water containers, in case one leaks. It may not be as life-threatening as doing, say, the Canning Stock Route, but in the event of breaking down, it might be a thirsty wait in the heat for help. Don’t rely on roadhouses along the route to happily supply you with endless amounts of their precious drinking water. Water is a limited and expensive commodity out here.


When people talk about crossing the Nullarbor in summer, the word ‘hot’ often crops up. True, it does get hot as hell out here. Eucla, on the WA side of the border, gets up to 50°C in the water bag. But actually it can be just as often cold. Climatically, the Nullarbor is a place of extremes, so pack something warm.


There are a couple of really good reasons driving should be a daytime activity when crossing the Nullarbor. The region teems with wildlife such as wombats and kangaroos, to name a few. They are big and like hanging out on or near the road at night. Don’t just photograph or video those unique-looking warning signs, but take heed of what they are saying.


Another good reason for daylight travel is the fact that you miss the sights that make the Nullarbor a unique part of the world. Take note of those signs indicating turn-offs to scenic sights, as there are more than you might expect and usually not far off the main road. Not only do they lead to particularly attractive and interesting places, they provide a welcome rest stop on the long journey. Driver fatigue causes more deaths than anything else on the Nullarbor.


Heading west from Ceduna for 110km, you come to a sign indicating Fowlers Bay, a small place big on history. Explorers Edward John Eyre and Ernest Giles used this secluded bay as a place to stock up the camels for the trip west. Today, it is a tiny fishing holiday spot with a long jetty to drop your line off.

Nundroo Roadhouse is the first in a long list of service stations to stop at on the journey west. About 150km from Ceduna, you may not need fuel, but a stretch of the legs and a coffee hit for the driver is always worth pulling in for.


Yalata Roadhouse is the next one, 52km down the road. But don’t rely on it being open. Yalata was an Aboriginal community-run roadhouse, where you used to be able to fuel up and find out about whales. Not any longer. About 90km west of the roadhouse, on Yalata land, is the Head of the Bight. From May to October, huge southern right whales visit the south coast to breed.


Once at the turn-off, a dirt road takes you past the ranger’s outpost, where you buy tickets for the whale-viewing area. The car park is caravan, tour bus and motorhome friendly and there are toilets.

The lookouts are a series of wooden walkways and platforms that hug the limestone cliffs. This is the beginning of the Great Australian Bight. To the left are sand dunes and to the right are the beginnings of sheer walls of limestone dropping into the Southern Ocean.


We arrived in late September to see roughly 15 females and their calves frolicking in the cold water. Leave some time for this excursion off the main road, as the whales are captivating and hours seem to drift by. The start of the Great Australian Bight also borders the Nullarbor National Park.


The Nullarbor Hotel and Motel is on the easterly edge of the park. For the next 180km there is an endless expanse of land and sky. The Nullarbor Plain is the world’s biggest slab of limestone. It is roughly 50 million years old and was formed when Antarctica broke off from Gondwanaland.


In Nullarbor National Park, there are half a dozen or so regularly spaced parking spots where you can view magnifi cent Bunda Cliffs. They plunge so abruptly into the Southern Ocean it can be quite a shock. Hang on to the kids around here.


As the cliffs get smaller, the South Australia/Western Australia border looms. This is where travellers may get an intense dose of vitamin C. On the border is a quarantine station. No vegetables, fruit or honey will pass through this gateway in case eastern states’ bugs enter WA, causing havoc to their fruit and veggie crops.


On the border, it’s not unusual to see travellers tucking into fresh food bought in Ceduna to counteract that roadhouse stuff. But six mandarins each is a bit too much. We know from personal experience.

At Eucla, only 12km from the border, the time zone is unique. Eucla splits the difference between South Australian time and West Australian time. Eucla was once a telegraph station and the ruins of the infrastructure are now slowly being swallowed by white sand dunes. It is eerie seeing walls and windows half covered by progressing sand.


As pointed out earlier, driving along the Nullarbor around dawn, dusk or night time is a risky business. With treeless plain replaced by mallee scrub, those animals that go bump in the night are even harder to spot.


It is now a steady stream of roadhouses (Mundrabilla, Madura, Cocklebiddy and Caiguna). Spaced between 60 and 120km apart, there are plenty of fuel, food and toilet stops. Each roadhouse offers camping facilities, including powered sites. They also feature motel-style units for those not dragging their home behind them.


From Caiguna, you get a feeling that nothing is changing much. That is because you are now travelling

the longest straight stretch of road in Australia, 183km of no bends, corners or deviations of any kind. Road trains frequent the Eyre highway regularly, transporting everything from cars to food. The road trains are those three-trailer jobs, so take care.


Once you reach Balladonia, famous for its close encounter with Skylab, you are on the home stretch. When we last crossed the Nullarbor, we spent a night at historic Fraser Range Station located 100km east of Norseman. For us it was the highlight of our journey across the Nullarbor.


Set amongst tall gimlet and salmon gums and surrounded by spectacular ranges with a high point of 579m, the station is well worth staying at for a night or two at least. For caravanners and camper trailers, there are powered sites. There is also an assortment of cabin-style accommodation.

Just 191km further west is the cross roads town of Norseman, the end of your Nullarbor adventure. From here, the choice is to go either north to Kalgoorlie or south to Esperance.


The Nullarbor is more than just a flat-out hard drive. We took three days to enjoy the outback experience, so take your time.




Start at Ceduna, SA, on the A1 if you’re heading west. Going east, head to Norseman, which is on Highway 1 if you’re coming from Esperance in the south, or Highway 94 if you’re coming from Kalgoorlie in the north.




All year, but can be extremely hot on occasions in summer. It can also be chilly, even in summer. Strong headwinds from the west, especially in early summer, can play havoc with fuel consumption when towing a caravan. Best time for whale watching is between May and October.




Tourism Eyre Peninsula

Freecall: 1800 067 739



Whale Watching at the Head of the Bight

White Well Ranger Station

Ph: (08) 8625 6201


Western Australia Tourist Centre

Cnr Forrest Place and Wellington St Perth, WA 6000

Local Call: 1300 361 351

Fax: (08) 9481 0190



Norseman Tourist Bureau

Ph: (08) 9039 1071


Fraser Range Station

For enquiries and updates, check out their informative website:





All food, supplies and vehicle servicing.


Nundroo Roadhouse

Service station


Yalata Roadhouse

Not always open


Mundrabilla, Madura, Cocklebiddy and Caiguna Roadhouses with camping and powered sites




Fowlers Bay Historic village with fishing jetty


Yalata 90km west is whale watching along the limestone cliffs


Nullarbor National Park See the Bunda Cliffs and various lookouts


Caiguna to Balladonia Longest stretch of straight road in Australia


Fraser Range Station Spectacular scenery, camping and powered sites




- Pack warm clothes, even in summer.

- Temperatures can vary wildly.

- Always carry extra water - at least 20L – in separate containers to minimise loss due to leakage or contamination.

- Always take advantage of fuel stops and keep well topped up. It is easy to chew through much more than you think if you cop a nasty headwind.

- Don’t drive at night - the chances of hitting wildlife are greatly increased.

By Michael and Jane Pelusey