From Nullarbor Roadhouse it is easy to see that we are right in the middle of a great plain once covered by ocean. The land is salty and the topsoil is quite thin, making it pretty useless for intensive agriculture. The bedrock beneath is limestone and beneath that is a vast underground sea which forms the artesian basin from which bore water is drawn for use by the few homesteads that operate in this region.
The Plain really gives you a sense of space; a sense of the true scale of this country. And it has its share of surprises.
Fast forward (at the speed limit and with due care and respect around road trains) to around 70km west of Nullarbor, where a treat lies in wait. Lookout #1 overlooks the Bunda Cliffs. With a sheer 60-120m (200-400 feet) drop to the southern ocean, these are spectacular to say the least. There are warnings about the unstable cliff edges so it is important to stay within the marked path to the lookout.
When I first visited many years ago there was only a warning about strong winds and not standing too close to the edge.
And the view is very much worth it!
It is quite something to stand there with a cool offshore wind knowing that nothing lies between you and Antarctica. It is like standing on the edge of the world – something I plan to do at a place literally called ‘the end of the world’ – Finisterre in Spain. The Bunda limestone cliffs form part of the longest uninterrupted line of sea cliffs in the world, running for over 100km.
Around 30km further along to the west is Lookout #2.
Seriously worth a visit!
We slowed for Penong – home to 26 windmills, a roadhouse and a silo complex – and made our way to Nundroo. Nundroo, situated 152km from Ceduna, has a roadhouse and motel. The roadhouse is only open until 11.00 pm so if you are running short and it’s late at night, you might have to camp until 08.00 am when they re-open. I was almost caught that way on one of my crossings, so I have learned to refuel at every opportunity.
There are cattle grids on the road past Nundroo – between Nundroo and Yalata – which marks where the so-called ‘dog proof fence’ crosses the highway. It is one of the longest continuous fences in the world, and was designed to keep out dingoes from pastoral lands.
Yalata was once an Aboriginal mission station, and used to boast a roadhouse. When I first crossed the Nullarbor in 1976 I refuelled my motorbike there. I noted at the time that there were indigenous children staggering around sniffing petrol from soft drink cans and plastic bags. It was a truly sad sight. Today the roadhouse is long abandoned and there are no facilities for travellers.
Despite the signs we saw no camels, wombats or even kangaroos, but there is a special treat at the Head of Bight.
At Streaky Bay we were told that a large pod of whales was currently calving off the coast in the Great Australian Bight. And Head of Bight is the place to see them. The southern ocean is a highway for migrating Southern Right Whales. When calving, the whales come close to shore with their new-born calves where the currents are calm and the mothers can teach the new-borns how to handle the sea and when to surface to breathe – they are mammals after all. And their breathing holes are at the top of their head so when they surface they forcefully exhale to clear their ‘noses’ of any sediment and ensure they are not about to breathe in water and drown.
They are an amazing sight!
At times they launch themselves clear of the water in an exuberant display – perhaps a dominance display to improve their mating chances – or maybe they’re just having fun! This move is called ‘breaching’.
Sometimes whales want to check out what we humans are up to, so they perform a manoeuvre known as ‘spyhopping’ in which they will push their snout far enough out of water, enabling them to see around them at the surface – like a person treading water – perhaps they are checking the weather, or perhaps just curious at what is going on in the world of the air breathers. Some say it is so they can hear better near the shore and use the sound of the breaking waves to ensure they are still on the right migration route. But I reckon they’re just being tourists – inquisitive about the world around them.
We watched a seal zooming around between the whales – sometimes doing a slalom around the whale group – but always keeping a wide berth as it was completely dwarfed by even the young whale calves. And it certainly wasn’t going to take on an adult whale.
Coffee at the Head of Bight visitors centre saw us heading back to the highway to complete the 7km to Nullarbor Roadhouse. The old Nullarbor roadhouse (pictured below) has long been superseded by a modern new one.
The new roadhouse boasts a motel, cafe and caravan park and a toilet block with showers. A real oasis after a long drive!
The local air-strip runs just behind the roadhouse and although the plane is there mainly for emergencies, you can book scenic flights over the Nullarbor and go whale spotting from the air. Airport security is tight – you need to beware of spiders if you want to open that gate! Ignore the no entry sign at your peril…
Time to head on towards the Western Australian Border…
Streaky Bay to Ceduna
From Streaky Bay it was time to fuel up and head back up the road around 90kms towards Ceduna. Ceduna itself is a sizeable town with some 3500 inhabitants. As a larger regional hub, it has plenty of services – and is the last comprehensive town before the Nullarbor Plain.
We knew immediately that we were back on the main highway as the road trains grew larger.
Ceduna is also a major fuel stop for traffic heading out on the plain or returning. We stopped for some breakfast to refuel ourselves, and then refuelled the car for the next leg. While far from low on fuel, it is worth topping-up at every opportunity, because you never know if the place you’re aiming for might be closed for some reason. Besides, it provides an opportunity for a leg stretch and toilet break every couple of hours.
The tiny Citroen was running well, despite varying fuel quality and octane rating, and soon we saw Ceduna recede in the rear view mirror.
As we headed somewhat inland through agricultural land that was surprisingly green – a function both of recent rains and a successful land management campaign – we could see signs that the land was not always so healthy as we passed ruined homesteads that told of the vagaries of drought between the good years.
The road straightened and the wildlife warning signs became more exotic showing a procession of camels, wombats and kangaroos.
I would be worried if this sign was to scale as wombats can best be described as a cute fur coat wrapped around a large granite rock. They can burrow holes into clay harder than cement, and their capacity to blend in with the landscape makes them easily as dangerous on the road as a kangaroo or a camel – especially to those of us in a small car.
Fortunately, as they are nocturnal, we would be unlikely to encounter a live one on the road. A camel or kangaroo, on the other hand, would present a substantial risk. I hoped our wildlife whistles would deter them from approaching too closely.
Soon, however, we noted a warning sign of a completely human hazard. Did I mention the road was straight? How about straight enough and wide enough to be an aircraft runway?
The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides the fastest means of getting medical help to someone in an isolated part of Australia. So in the event of an accident or someone being taken seriously ill – perhaps bitten by a snake or spider of which there are several deadly species in residence – then the flying doctor service provides their best hope for survival. To that end, several sections of the highway are reinforced and maintained as airstrips, with landing markers painted on the road. So if your passenger yells ‘Duck!’ then given the scarcity of ducks in this region you might want to consider diverting off the road to avoid a landing aircraft. It is a salutary reminder that we are in a challenging environment.
Dawn at Streaky bay was spectacular. Up early for some photos and took in some of the historical walk to get the circulation going and hunt for a bakery.
Streaky Bay itself was established as a town amazingly early in terms of Australia’s European history. It was recorded in the log of Dutchman Peter Nuyts in 1627 from the ship Golden Zeepard. Then 200 years later, Capt Mathew Flinders rediscovered and named the place ‘Streaky Bay’ from the reflections off the seaweed in the water during his mapping of the South Australian coastline from his ship, the ‘Investigator’. In 1839 Edward John Eyre – an early explorer – established a camp in the area, where he discovered fresh water in a local waterhole.
Just ten years later, Streaky Bay was operating a whaling station and by 1854 the area was opened up for agriculture. The town was originally called ‘Flinders’, and the name was officially changed to Streaky Bay in 1940.
Considering the hotel we stayed in was built in 1868 we felt a tangible connection to an early part of Australia’s European settlement. And the place is still popular today with the recreational fishing community.
After refuelling at Kimba, we returned to the long straight road. The road trains were impressive, thoroughly dwarfing our little red car, and passing them was quite the experience! But the plucky Citroen didn’t miss a beat. At times there were oversize loads coming the other way – a few of which took up the entire road, and for those we demurred to the shoulder and stopped to take photos and give the truckies a friendly wave – some would sound their air-horns in appreciation.
Despite the signs warning of camels, wombats and kangaroos we saw remarkably little of the advertised wildlife. But there were emus. And always above us hovered kestrels, kites, Falcons and the occasional wedge tailed eagle. But they kept their distance as though shy of cameras – or perhaps of our whistling car. We had fitted whistle deterrents to the car so as to announce our presence with an ultrasonic shriek – it seemed to work because nothing approached us on the side of the road.
This roadhouse has a particular poignancy for me as it marked the site where my motorbike broke down during my 1976 crossing – the year the bitumen surface was completed. The exhaust had blown out of the cylinder head and I made a make-shift repair from fencing wire that lasted all the way to Perth and back to Adelaide.
Then Sharon had a stroke of genius – rather than go to Ceduna for the night, why not take a detour and try Streaky Bay. I had heard of the place as a draw-card for surfers and fishing types, but assumed there was not much there except perhaps the odd tumbledown fishing shack. What a surprise, then, to find a delightful small town with a long established history, beginning way back in the 1860s with the telegraph stations. The old pub had modern motel units behind, so we checked-in for the night and set off on foot to explore the town.
The motel room was clean, comfortable and the food in the hotel was exceptional. The hotel itself is beautifully restored, sensitive to its heritage from 1860 when it was first built to support the community that had grown around the telegraph and postal service and local fishing industry. This place is surely one of Australia’s best kept secrets as a place to visit.
The jetty stretches out into the ocean and is lined with memorial plaques commemorating local personalities or people who had spent their lives coming here on fishing holidays. The sea-front is breathtakingly beautiful and the town has really learned to tell their story through a historical walk with informative paragraphs at markers throughout the town. This is definitely a great alternative to Ceduna and a refreshing rest after the arid landscape in both directions.