The Deal with The Nullarbor
When we told people we were going to drive the Nullarbor to get to WA, most of them shuddered in terror. Grant it, there’s no other way to drive across the bottom of Australia, so this shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise, but nevertheless people looked at us like we told them we were riding dinosaurs to the moon. We were warned about the Nullarbor’s emptiness, how few and far apart the roadhouses are, and how tough the terrain would be. People told us to carry spare fuel and water, to make sure the car was in excellent condition, to buy a SAT phone in case something happened. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I knew I was dreading it. I pictured one long, straight road that we’d drive for days without seeing another soul. I pictured vultures pecking at skeletons and breaking down in a desert, rationing our water, hallucinating in our dehydrated state, waiting with the car for days until help arrived… Once we were on the road, it didn’t take long to realize that this passage doesn’t quite deserve it’s terrible reputation.
So, what’s the deal with the Nullarbor? The deal is, there is no deal. It’s exactly like most of Australia. Kind of disappointing, I know, but also kind of amazing when you’re driving it. I think it’s important to get the truth out there, debunk the myths, and give people realistic expectations for this part of the world. So here’s a list of my (a 26 year old American who’s spent most of her life in cities) observations of the Nullarbor.
First, it’s paved. This is a big deal. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven in Outback Queensland, or inland from the West Coast, but I can tell you that paved roads are a luxury a lot of Australia does not have. So the fact that the entire Eyre Highway is sealed and smooth is wonderful.
Given the name Nullarbor, I assumed there would be a sufficient lack of trees for the duration of the drive. That’s just not the case. There are lots of trees. And in the Nullarbor National Park, where grant it there aren’t tall trees, there are shrubs and bushes and short trees. The drive is actually pretty green all the way across.
There are people everywhere. When someone suggested we get a satellite phone just in case we break down, and then went on to tell us that if that happens, to stay with the care because, and I quote, “they’ll find the car before they find you,” I freaked out a little. I thought we’d drive for days without seeing another car, and went on to conjure up the image of us being stranded in the desert. But no, there are cars and people everywhere; in the case of an emergency, you wouldn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for someone to drive by. You might even be lucky like us and make friends along the way!
There’s a lot of cell service. You have to have a Telstra SIM card, (everyone knows Telstra is the only provider that works outside of cities anyway) but we’ve had service, at one time or another, every day. In fact, the name of our campsite last night was “Near Telstra Tower.” I would recommend purchasing a pay as you go Telstra SIM card over a satellite phone any day.
Wildlife. There's a lot of it. There are signs everywhere for camels, emus, kangaroos, and wombats, some of which you might see wandering around and all of which you'll definitely see lying on the side of the road. Luckily, the only thing we hit was a bird, but hitting a roo, or a camel for that matter, would be devastating on the Nullarbor. These animals are most active at dusk and dawn, so unless you have a bull bar, try to avoid driving at these times. TIP You're not guaranteed to see a wild camel, so stop in at Fraser Range Station where they have a super friendly camel looking for pets from visitors.
The road houses, i.e. gas stations, are all relatively close together. Our tank has never been below the half way mark, and our gas guzzling SUV gets a top up at almost every opportunity. Although you wont run out of gas between road houses, the price of fuel is very expensive. So if you’re really on a tight budget, filling a canister before you hit the road and topping up your tank as you go would save you some money. Plus it's a good idea to have spare fuel anyway, just in case I guess. Also download WiKiCamp’s fuel app so you can view up to date fuel prices before pulling into a gas station blind.
Flies. A decent amount of the drive is inland and through the bush. And the flies are abundant. Luckily, we met a very nice couple who told us to buy fly nets before we started the drive. For the very low price of $15.98, we bought ourselves the ability to remain comfortable outside. Even though eating with the fly mask on is very difficult, drinking works quite well. So we sit and drink while we wait for the flies to go to sleep, and then we cook and eat in the glow of our twinkle lights, and without the company of a million flying guests.
Wind. The part of this drive that isn’t inland is coastal. We chose to camp near the beach every chance we got. We loved the fact that there weren’t flies near the ocean, but we hated the fact that there was always wind. And unlike the flies, the wind doesn’t disappear with the sun. Our awning became a sail and our gas cooker struggled to stay lit. There’s not much you can do about wind besides brace yourself for it. So now you know, the Nullarbor is windy. TIP: You don't have to pay to see the Head of the Bight! There are a few FREE places to stop and view just beyond the visitor's center, so skip the entrance fee and check out the cliffs for yourself. You can't see quite as much, as there's no walkway down, but the views are stunning nonetheless.
Contrary to my original beliefs, the longest straightest road in Australia is only 90 miles of the Nullarbor. That’s still a very long straight line, don’t get me wrong, but I thought we’d be driving that straight for days at a time. There are indeed a few bends in the road.
The World’s longest golf course is the Nullarbor Links. To help keep drivers alert, entertained, and moving, somebody spent $1.6 million to build 18 holes along the Eyre Highway. I’m not a golfer, but this as been one of my favorite parts of the drive. Each hole is totally unique, un-manicured, dusty and hilly, and usually overgrown with shrubs and trees, making for a very interesting game. You have to provide your own equipment, so go to a few opp shops before you hit the Nullarbor and pick up some second hand clubs. As far as balls go, buy a lot. You will lose a few along the way, but then again, you’ll probably find as many as you lose. Lastly, it does cost money to play. We didn’t realize this until the very last minute, but in order to get the score card you have to pay $70 (per person!). If you’re a backpacker like us and look like you don’t exactly have $140 to throw down for a game of golf, the ladies might take pity on you and let two people play on one card. It was definitely worth the $35 it ended up costing each of us.
Download WiKiCamps and its fuel finder app. It’s the best way to find campsites along the way, all of which have been free (SA is amazing for free camps, they get fewer, farther between, and less picturesque in WA, which is very unfortunate). You can stay at most of the roadhouses if motels are more your style, but I recommend pitching a tent and doing it for free! And as I mentioned earlier, the fuel app shows you up to date prices at nearby gas stations so you can pick and choose where you stop. We saved 13 cents a liter one time!
What is the deal with the time zones?! I haven’t been this confused about what time it is since I was in Brazil and time traveling every few days. We changed our clocks at the WA boarder, but a few hundred KMs up the road there are signs saying to change them again! To set them back another 45 minutes… However, when we were in service, our phone times didn’t change. Basically, be prepared to never know what time it is. We’re still not sure.
The boarder crossing is quite intense. You can’t carry any fresh fruit or veggies, or even honey, between WA and SA. We knew this and only had to toss left over cole slaw. Although an unopened bottle of honey was also confiscated at the boarder because Will felt guilty trying to smuggle it in and confessed immediately. So just be prepared for that, because throwing out fresh food sucks.
It’s probably best if you don’t speed. It’s tempting to let that speedometer creep up, but don’t. We got pulled over one morning and only got away with not getting fined because we’d run into this particular police officer previously. The day before, Will filled up our tank, asked the cashier where the nearest golf hole was, got back in the car and drove about 10km on a dirt road to the hole. We started playing with another couple, but it wasn’t long before a police car came into sight. We joked about them coming for us, but it wasn’t so funny when they stopped, windows down, right next to Will. One of the officers asked if we had just filled up at the road house and then informed us that we didn’t pay and had in fact technically stolen fuel. It had obviously been a mistake, so the coppers let us finish our game and trusted we’d go back to pay for our stolen goods, which we did. The next morning, when we got pulled over, the officer leaned down to our window and said “we have to stop meeting like this!” It was the same officer who caught us mistakingly stealing fuel 12 hours prior. We were only going 5km over the speed limit and it was obvious we were the worst criminals in Australia, so he let us off. Moral of the story, don’t break the law (accidentally or purposefully) on the Nullarbor because you will get caught; there’s not much for the police officers to do out there.
Despite everything I said about the Nullarbor not being as bad as I thought it would be, it’s still a long, and mostly boring, drive. We took our time, woke up late, stopped early, and played golf, so it took us 4 days to get across. By the end of day 4, Will had finally had enough (he drove the whole thing). Most people power through and drive 2 long days start to finish. I think 3 days is probably the right amount of time you should take to drive the road in its entirety. Download lots of music, podcasts, and movies, because you'll need the entertainment. But don't worry, it's not that bad!