Balladonia and the space station

On to Balladonia.

We passed the Western end of the Nullarbor Plain and celebrated with a photo and a happy dance before heading on to Balladonia 🙂

Nullarbor sign

And neared the end of the Ninety Mile Straight.

straight road

Balladonia at the Western end of the 90-mile straight seems an unlikely place to host a well set up museum including several large pieces of the SkyLab space station which de-orbited over the Nullarbor in 1979. The roadhouse looks much like many others, with a restaurant, fuel pumps and ablution facilities and of course a bar. But the surprise comes when you go inside.

Redex Trials

The concise, neat museum is well laid out, with serious thought given to the displays. Amidst the old tools and wool press, a car seems to be caught in the act of crashing through the wall into the museum. This marks the REDEX Trials display. In the 1950s an endurance round-Australia car rally was staged, sponsored by the manufacturer of Redex oils. The cars were unmodified standard street cars – which everyone could relate to – and the event attracted some big-name racing drivers of the time.

Redex car at Balladonia

The Nullarbor road at that time was unsealed and presented significant challenge to the cars of the day. You can still see remnants of the original road near the modern sealed highway – a daunting prospect!

Original Nullarbor Highway


And so to the space station. Balladonia seems an unlikely place to be associated with a piece of space history, but such is the case! Skylab, America’s first purpose-built space station was launched in 1973. The space station included a workshop, a solar observatory, and other systems necessary for crew survival and scientific experiments.

Skylab’s useful life concluded in 1974 after three manned missions, but it remained in orbit until 1979 with plans for the forthcoming Space Shuttle to boost it into a higher orbit to enable operations to be extended. But delays to the shuttle program sealed Skylab’s fate. So NASA decided to bring it down in a controlled de-orbit rather than let it decay and fall randomly. It was set tumbling in the hope that it would break up as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.

But it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t breaking up as planned and this meant the intended splashdown into the ocean would not happen. It finally came down in a spectacular display over Australia with debris spread between Esperance and Balladonia and further afield. Miraculously,  no-one was hurt despite several large pieces weighing several tonnes reaching the ground. Two large pieces are on display at Balladonia.

Skylab fragment


Balladonia, like Eucla, was settled in 1879. Balladonia was one of the repeater stations on the Perth-Adelaide telegraph line. As with Eucla, the telegraph station operated from 1897 to 1929, when the line was relocated further north along the railway line. It was said that the coastal line was being short-circuited by salt spray from the Southern Ocean.

The supply of fresh water is still limited, providing a stark reminder that this is an arid country.

drought sign

At the museum, we read newspaper accounts of the Redex Trials – which included an account of one of the cars having an extra passenger – the driver of an abandoned burnt out citroën. Fortunately, on today’s road, our citroën was behaving faultlessly and was taking the distance in its stride.



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Caiguna – start of a long straight

It’s easy to romanticise the truckers – ‘knights of the road’ – as they carry the nation’s goods from east to west and back again. There is no doubt they are skilful drivers and their job is a tough one. While these days they have power steering and air conditioning and CCTV to see behind them, it is still a very physical job. I watched one driver in a roadhouse literally jumping on the end of a two-metre-long wheel wrench to ensure everything was still tight after the vibrations on the road.


But the real strength is in their mental stamina – being able to keep awake and alert on long boring stretches of road.

Caiguna roadhouse and motel were built to service people travelling to the Perth Commonwealth Games in 1962. It is a good place to stop and stretch before setting out on the 90 mile straight.

Caiguna roadhouse

The 90 Mile Straight (roughly 146.6km) between Caiguna and Balladonia is one of the longest straight stretches of road in the world. And this is where you will test your mental stamina. Many times we saw vehicles – including trucks – gradually veering to the edge of the road then straightening up at the last moment, only to repeat the sequence. It is a bit scary driving a small hatchback and watching three-trailer road-trains doing this!

90 mile straight sign

We talked a lot about our forthcoming trip to Europe and the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. A lot of time and words about why do a pilgrimage, and reviewing and previewing our life together over the past 36 years. And of course we stopped periodically to stretch our legs and take another photo of the straight road 🙂

90 mile straight

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Caiguna Blowhole

Around 5km west of Caiguna on the Nullarbor Plain, you will see a blue sign pointing the way to the Caiguna Blowhole. The sign breaks the monotony of the view 🙂

Straight road

The Caiguna blowhole is disturbingly close to the highway, being only about 20m from the road, and it marks an entrance to the vast underground limestone cave system that lies beneath the Plain. And I briefly wondered how solid was the road foundation – a thought quickly put aside as hundreds of heavy hauling road trains criss-cross over it daily.

Caiguna Blowhole

Caiguna Blowhole

Blowholes are a result of weathering of the ground surface through to a cavity. The cave beneath the Caiguna Blowhole is between 0.5m – 1.5m (1.6 feet – 5 feet). Some blowholes on the Nullarbor have been measured with a wind speed of up to 72kph. Caves breathe out when the air pressure falls, and breathe in when the air pressure rises. The speed of air flow is dependent on the size of the cave entrance and the volume of air contained in the cave.

Some of the caves beneath the Nullarbor have been mapped for several kilometres, and many of them contain large reservoirs of water that collectively form the artesian aquifer. This aquifer supplies the region’s bores and wells with fairly fresh water.

Caiguna blowhole is one of an estimated more than 100,000 blowholes scattered across the plain and it is certainly one of the most accessible. I noticed that someone had tied a piece of cloth to a stick placed at the bottom of the hole to show the air movement, so I made a short video…


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