Nullarbor Plain

The Nullarbor Plain is Australia's most well known and most frequently travelled stretch of desert. Though the whole area of flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country immediately north of the Great Australian Bight is often referred to as "The Nullarbor", the plain itself is only a part of this area.

It is in fact the world's largest single piece of limestone, and occupies an area of about 200,000 square kilometres. At its widest point, it stretches about 1,100 kilometres from east to west between South Australia and Western Australia.

Crossing the Nullarbor Plain by Rail

A single railway track crosses the Nullarbor Plain. Construction of the 1,692 km standard gauge railway, from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta across the Nullarbor Plain, commenced in 1912. Completed in October 1917, the single line, complete with numerous spur lines and sidings to allow trains travelling in opposite directions to pass, has been used by goods and passenger trains ever since. The switch from steam to diesel powered locomotives began in 1951.

The present Indian Pacific service was inaugurated in February 1970 when the standard gauge Trans Continental line was extended west to Perth and east to Sydney (the original Trans Continental rail service only ran between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta; passengers then had to change trains to complete their journey, travelling on a narrow gauge line to Perth, or first a narrow gauge line to Adelaide, then broad gauge to Melbourne, which was the line's original eastern terminus).

Today, the Indian Pacific has two scheduled passenger services each week in each direction from September to March and one each week from April and August.

The train makes only one scheduled stop between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta - at Cook, though stops to pick up mail and/or passengers do occur at other sidings if required. At Cook, passengers have around an hour to stretch their legs, wander around the tiny settlement and buy souvenirs while the train takes on water midway through its journey.

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Crossing the Nullarbor Plain by Road

Driving across the Nullarbor is for many the quintessential experience of the Australian Outback. Bumper stickers bought from roadhouses on the highway proudly declare 'I have crossed the Nullarbor' as though it were a rite of passage in becoming a 'real' driver.

The Eyre Highway is the only road by which to cross the Nullarbor Plain from east to west or vice versa. It was hastily built during World War II should a road link have become necessary for the transportation of military equipment and personnel at that time.

Crossings in the 1950s and earlier were significant, and those who made the journey literally took their lives into their hands, as most of the road back then was at best an unsealed dirt track. Round-Australia car trials (The Redex Trials) utilised the Nullarbor crossing for good photo shoots of cars negotiating poor tracks. The last section of road to be sealed - around 200 kms of highway up to the state border on the South Australian side - was opened in 1977.

Though the Eyre Highway is dotted with roadhouses, the Nullarbor is still a remote area and when travelled by road you can expect to pay high prices for fuel and food. Make sure your vehicle is reliable before crossing the Nullarbor as mechanical repairs will be expensive and time consuming - especially if parts have to be freighted in. Transport costs are high this far away from civilisation!

It's a long journey but the Nullarbor Plain is by no means devoid of things to see along the way. Between Ceduna and Norseman, which is the most isolated stretch of the journey, there are a few surprises in store for those unfamiliar with the Nullarbor.

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Crossing the Nullarbor Plain by Air

Anyone who has flown between Perth and the Eastern States and either followed the route on the aircraft's flight path simulator or looked out of the window will know that aircraft on this route fly over the Great Australian Bight and miss the Nullarbor Plain altogether.

Forrest airstrip

As a safety measure, however, an airstrip built for military purposes during World War II at Forrest on the Trans Australian railway line, has been upgraded and equipped to function as the main emergency runway for commercial aircraft flying east-west, should they encounter situations that require a landing midway through their flight. The airstrip is capable of taking aircraft up to the size of a Boeing 747; it has two runways that are both sealed and lighted. The airstrip's traditional arched hangar and runway can be seen from the Indian Pacific train.

Forrest boasts a resident population of just three, but it's not a lonely outpost, with up to 10 light aircraft refuelling every day and the transcontinental railway line only metres away bringing supplies and delivering mail. There's also a steady flow of 4WD adventurers through the town as they follow the transmission line across the plain.


Skylab space debris

Balladonia, which is the last roadhouse on the WA side, had its five minutes of fame in 1979 when the Skylab space station crash landed over the Nullarbor plain. It spewed lots of debris into the bush around Balladonia. The locals collected the largest pieces and it is now on display at a museum attached to the Balladonia Roadhouse. Amusingly at the time, the local Dundas Shire Council presented NASA with a littering fine, and President Jimmy Carter even rang the Roadhouse to make his apologies. The whole issue was something of a good natured diplomatic event with Canberra’s American Ambassador visiting the region to inspect any damage that may have been done.


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Whale Watching

Not far from Nullarbor Roadhouse on the Eyre Highway is the turn-off to the an ocean lookout at the head of the Great Australian Bight. As well as offering views east to seemingly endless sand dunes, and west along the face of the Bunda cliffs which line the shore for 200 km right to the WA border, it also offers to opportunity to see Southern Right Whales carving between May and September. For some unknown reason, Southern Rights have chosen this spot for that purpose and travellers have the privilege of viewing mothers and children at close range. A small entry fee is charged for access to the whale viewing platform. During the non whale watching season entry is by gold coin donation only.


The World's Longest Golf Course

The Nullarbor Plain is not the home of Australia's longest gold course, it is the world's longest golf course. In a bid to make travellers slow down and spend more time there, a few enterprising business people along the Eyre Highway have created a golf course which takes the length of the Nullarbor to complete.

The eighteen holes are spread over 1,365 km of outback terrain; a game of golf can take as long as seven days to complete - longer even, if you keep on hitting your balls into the scrubland or suffer the indignity of having them stolen by an errant dingo or chewed by a feral camel.

The idea is that after playing one hole, you drive to the next ... and then the next. The only difference to any other golf course is that the next hole is generally 100 km further down the highway. It's a par 72 course, and bright yellow warning signs alert golfers to wayward wombats and even kangaroos on the way. Golfers can tee off at either Kalgoorlie or Ceduna, depending on which direction they are travelling.


Limestone caves

90m under the sun scorched red dust of the Nullarbor lie some of the worlds largest underground cave systems, spreading for mile after mile of cold cavernous darkness. These caves have been formed over thousands of years out of the limestone that lies under the plain. Once you leave the glare of the sun, the caves are awesome. Weebubbie, the main entrance is more like a quarry than a cave and, Cocklebiddy are among the largest tunnels in the world, and they lead to enormous subterranean lakes.

This is a hot, dangerous remote place to be and is the kind of place people have passed over for years but never explored. The caves you enter are a long way from medical help and some extend over 5 km into dark tunnels, often interrupted by high dry chambers it is easy to get lost in.

The preliminary descent into the cave mouth is relatively easy, there are ladders and hoists for your gear and you can still see the sky and feel the warmth coming off the orange rock, it’s once you suit up and get into the literally crystal clear water and darkness that it gets challenging. Most visitors make it to the Rockpile, a dry pocket about 1 km in and admire the clear water, the boulders and the interesting shapes of the tunnels then turn around, but if you go deeper you’ll see more of the worn limestone sculptures of the earth’s interior.

If cave diving is now the world’s most dangerous sport then the Nullarbor caves must be some of the world’s most dangerous places.


History of the Nullarbor Plain

The Nullarbor was inhabited by the semi-nomadic Spinifex Wangai Aboriginal people. European settlers were determined to cross the plain, despite the hardships created by the nature of the Nullarbor. Although Edward John Eyre described the Plain as "a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams", he became the first European to successfully make the crossing in 1841.

In 1866 E. Alfred Delisser surveyed the Nullarbor Plain and noted a marked absence of trees. Contrary to some popular opinions the word Nullarbor is not of Aboriginal origins. In fact the local Mining people referred to the area as "Oondiri" which is said to mean "the waterless". Delisser derived the term Nullarbor from the Latin "nulla" for no, and "arbor" for tree. Hence the term Nullarbor meaning no trees.

In the 1870s and 1880s vast areas of the Nullarbor were leased to sheep graziers with many sheep stations later being incorporated into the vast Fowler's Bay run that stretched from Streaky Bay in the East to areas even further west of Nullarbor Station - a distance of over 400 kilometres! Today just about all that remains are abandoned homesteads. Koonalda homestead is one such abandoned site that the traveller can visit and use as accommodation, or as a base to explore nearby Koonalda cave and other limestone sinkholes within the area.

A new state of Auralia (meaning "land of gold") was proposed in the 1890s which would have comprised the Goldfields, the western portion of the Nullarbor Plains and the port town of Esperance. Its capital would have been Kalgoorlie.

In the 1950s, the Wangai Aboriginal people were forced to abandon their homelands during the British nuclear tests. Since then they have been awarded compensation and many have returned to the general area. In fact, many never left. Due to their isolation it was impossible to warn them all about the testing.

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