Driving Across the Nullarbor: A How To Guide
Driving Across Australia's Nullarbor Plain
Driving the Nullarbor plain of Australia is one of those things you just have to do once in a lifetime. Its an accessible adventure, which unlike many other of Australia's iconic drives doesn't require a 4WD - but it isn't a Sunday drive either.
I've given all distances in this hub in kilometres - 100km = 62miles (google "km to miles" for a quick conversion). You need to get familiar with kilometres and your car's petrol consumption if you are going to do this trip safely.
Lets Talk About Distance and Time
Australia is big, very, very, big. And empty - Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world so the rest of this huge country is empty, very empty. Get off the main road here and you can literally die expecting someone to rescue you so make sure you have some basic survival skills. Between Norseman in the west and Ceduna in the east its 1209km there are road houses every 200km or so - but nowhere has a population larger than 20 in my guide book and most are pop=nom. There is an 1.5 hour time difference from the western to the eastern side of the Nullarbor.
Where is the Nullarbor?
Many people think the Nullarbor is everything between Perth and Adelaide - that's not true. The Nullarbor Plain is a remote limestone plain, which because of the porous nature of the rock has no surface water, but a lot of caves and some blow holes. The name comes from bad Latin meaning "no trees" but in fact there is vegetation, this is not the Sahara, most of the way you will see low scrub, but yes there are no trees!
Alternative Ways To Cross the Nullarbor
There are a number of ways to cross the Nullarbor: lets consider them in order of increasing levels of insanity.
Fly Across the Nullarbor.
Check out JetStar or Tiger Airways- they will sell you a one-way ticket Perth-Adelaide for under A$200 - this is the cheapest and quickest way to cross the Nullarbor. The flight will take around 3 hours. It is after all, a long way!
Catch a Train Across the Nullarbor
The Indian Pacific train crosses the Nullarbor, in fact does the whole 5000km from Sydney to Perth. The Perth to Adelaide leg takes 2 nights and a day. The train is famous and there is no competition on the route - its therefore expensive. You can however take your car with you which means if you are going to drive you only have to do it once! The train crosses the centre of the actual Nullarbor Plain between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie and is nowhere near the road which is several 100kms to the south. The train is expensive: a seat will cost $300 while taking a car plus 2 people in a second class sleeper will give you no change our of A$2000 - that's after a A$800 discount for being a Youth Hostel Association member. The membership is less than $50/year - no brainer that one!
Cycle Across the Nullarbor
People do, people need to have water dropped to them. I am neither a cyclist nor insane enough to comment further!
Drive Across the Nullarbor
If you have less than a week its going to be a rushed trip and all you will see is a lot of very straight road. There is a road house every 200km which will offer fuel and food and some form of shelter: basic rooms and always a camping area. There will be toilets and paid showers.
There will be no free water for windscreens or for drinking. The price of fuel will be a lot higher than the city.
There are also designated rest areas all along the highway most of which will have camping areas and toilets, maybe picnic tables, never any water. In fact you can camp practically anywhere you like except for Aboriginal land on the South Australian side.
Getting to the Nullarbor from the West.
Driving from Perth you can get to the western edge of the Nullarbor in one long day's driving to Norseman - 798km. Leaving Perth is not like driving out of Sydney and there is little traffic and good roads through the Perth "Hills" - once you hit York at around 100km out of town its all flat until you get to Adelaide.
If you can't quite manage that distance an overnight stop in Kalgoorlie (595km) - an interesting historic and working gold mining town is worth a look.
If you have the time you could easily spend 10 days driving the longer and far more interesting route from Perth through the Margaret River wine area to the spectacular south coast and the via Albany and Esperance where you turn north to get Norseman.
Norseman at 2000 people is the biggest town until you get well into South Australia. It its another gold and nickle mining town but but also has a small tourist industry. This is your last best hope of a supermarket, reasonably priced (not cheap) petrol and a choice of accommodation.
Getting to the Nullarbor from the East
On the South Australian side of the Nullarbor the small town of Ceduna (4000 pop) is the last "big" town before Norseman. Its also the first time, coming from the west you have a choice in sealed roads - heading straight east for another 500km will see you in Port Augusta - or you you hug the coast going south around the Eyre Peninsular and Port Lincoln for a much more interesting drive. From Port Augusta its only 3 hours south to Adelaide.
Actually Driving the Nullarbor
Driving east is more comfortable than driving west - you don't have to drive into the sun in the afternoon. That's why shipping a car on the train from Perth to Adelaide is half the price of shipping it from Adelaide to Perth.
Getting on the road an hour after dawn makes sense as this is the coolest part of the day, but don't drive within an hour of sunrise or sunset - that's when the wildlife is most active and hardest to see.
Don't drive at night unless you have very good spot lights on the car. Most Australian animals are nocturnal so you are more likely to hit one then. The warning signs which are available on postcards are not just for the tourists: they are for real - kangaroos may be cute but they are also stupid and a roo will easily write-off a car.
Road trains are the legendary huge semi-trailers of Australia which can over 50m long, 2.5m wide and travel at over 100 km/hr. Avoid passing them unless you are very sure that you have kilometres of clear road. Road trains are responsible for most of the road kill you will see on the roads - and even dead a kangaroo can flip a car if you hit it wrong.
Driver fatigue is the biggest problem driving the vast distances involved. Don't die to keep a date - pull over and sleep if you have to. The heat haze can play tricks on your eyes and its often hard to judge distance because of the lack of landmarks.
Driving in summer you will get temperatures of well over 40C. Driving in the winter you will get temperatures below freezing overnight. Either way its dry: take lots of drinking water for you and the vehicle. Keep drinking too to avoid dehydration even in an air-conditioned car.
Useful Nullarbor Links
- Nullarbor Net
Good detailed information from Norseman to Adelaide. Lots of links
- The Super Pit | Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines
Visiting Kalgoorlie huge open cut gold mine
- Another suggested Nullarbor Itinerary
Sample Nullarbor Driving Itinerary
Day 1: Perth-Kalgoorlie coinciding with a day that you can visit the SuperPit on a tour. (595km)
Day 2: Kalgoorlie-Eyre Bird Sanctuary (640km). The Bird Sancturary is remote, another ex-telegraph station which is now a bird sanctuary and study centre. Its 4WD access only but they will meet those in 2WD.
Day 3: Eyre-Nullarbor (462km). Taking in the caves and blow holes on the way. Crossing the border puts the clock forward 1.5hours and means we have to surrender all fresh fruit and vegetables.
Day 4: Nullarbor-Ceduna (300km). Short day as we want to buy some food for Christmas - because our Christmas in Australia will be in Ceduna!
As I publish this we haven't done the trip yet so the photos aren't all mine: they are if there is no credit on them! i'll be adding a lot more photos and details on what's worth it and what's not when we return in the New Year!