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.
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'
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.
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.
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
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.