Crossing the Nullarbor
London to Prague; New York to Chicago; Paris to Rome. Each of these are journeys around 1200 km in length. The Nullarbor Crossing is another. 1200 km from Norseman in Western Australia, to Ceduna in South Australia. The big difference is, that between Norseman and Ceduna there are no towns, and only 11 shops or “roadhouses” as they are known here. Indeed there are several stretches over 150 km with no human habitation whatsoever. Remote is an understatement.
So, it was with a sense of understandable trepidation that I rolled out of Norseman. The morning had started badly. Having carefully packed enough food for the trip (including 1 kg of pasta, 1 kg of oats and 500g of rice) I realised the containers of sauces I had prepared had leaked into my bag. I was seriously annoyed, but with a bit of help, I got everything cleaned and resealed. Eventually I was underway. In addition to the normal weight of my kit and food, I was also carrying 8 litres of water, enough to hopefully get me to my next guaranteed water source at the Belladonia roadhouse, 196 km to the east. The first day out of Norseman takes you through the Fraser Ranges. This is a beautiful stretch but the emptiness of the environment strikes you immediately. The hills roll nicely and there is one turnoff to a ranger station with a small shop. This is down a 2 km unsealed road though, so I decided against this. The highest point of the entire crossing comes just to the east of the Fraser Ranger Station and the views of the hills are beautiful. I still had plenty of water but coming to a rest stop I spotted a caravan and decided to see if I could top up. In the first of a series of generous acts, not only were the couple happy to fill me up, but also gave me some tea and cake before I was on my way. A few kilometres later, with the sun setting, I spotted a couple of kangaroos and having covered 157 km decided to find a place to sleep for the night. My first night was spent on the edge of a hill, set back from the road. The views were beautiful as the sun set. I cooked some pasta and settled in for a night in the bush. A few nearby noises throughout the night set me a little on edge but generally the remote and hidden nature of my location left me feeling safe.
Day two started early, as I woke with the rising sun and I got on my way to the Belladonia Roadhouse. A second breakfast set me up for the day though they wouldn’t let me fill my water bottles from their supplies. They did have enough for their swimming pool though! I also received my first experience of the legendary rudeness from roadhouse staff (thankfully rare after this). On enquiring about the weather I was told it would be “fine”. And the wind? “Windy”. Really helpful. Thanks. I bought some water and was topped up by some other travellers and was on my way. I pushed on into a slight headwind and came to the start of the infamous “90 mile straight”; the longest straight road in Australia. I would spend a whole day of life covering this 146.6 km stretch. At first I kept thinking I was heading towards the top of a small hill but soon realised that it was just the horizon. It was mind-numbing. The scenery didn’t change and it was hard to feel like you were making any progress at all. I did have one great experience; meeting another cyclist coming the other way! Adam had cycled from Poland to Madrid, flown to South America, then crossed that continent and was in the process of cycling from Sydney to Perth. I felt pretty soft in comparison! He was an awesome guy and after a few photos we went our separate ways. His next plan is to head to Asia and see how far back to Poland he can get before flying home for Christmas. What a cool trip! As I hit the 150 km mark for the day, I approached another rest bay and again approached a couple to ask for water. This request was happily met and I also received a coffee and the offer of use of their WiFi to email my parents. This was too good an opportunity to turn down, so I set my camp up there and joined them for the evening. Not only did I use the WiFi but I also received a chicken leg and some pumpkin to accompany my pasta and an evening of great company. It was all fantastically generous. I would have survived across the Nullarbor alone, but the people really made it a fantastic experience. I’m incredibly grateful to everybody that helped me out.
With 50km of the straight still to go, day three brought a very tough headwind. It’s not as if there were any bends to turn out of it slightly! After another morning of cycling, I finally hit a curve in the road. It was a very surreal feeling to have finally come through this stretch. This also meant that I had made it to the Caiguna Roadhouse! It was great to get out of the wind, get some company and recharge myself with some food that I hadn’t had to cook. As an extra treat, I would pass a second roadhouse later in the day. Cocklebiddy was a further 65 km down the road and I grabbed a large dinner there before heading out into the bush to find a place to sleep for the night. I had heard on the news at the roadhouse, that there would be a lunar eclipse that night. The sky was perfectly clear and the scene was stunning. Moments like this are why I’m doing this trip. There was nobody within 10km of me. The moon was turning dark red and the lack of bright moonlight meant the sky was huge. I stood looking at the sky, watching shooting stars, staring into the Milky Way and seeing the shadow of the Earth slowly move across the moon. It was magnificent. I reluctantly climbed into my tent, knowing that I had another long day ahead.
Day four started like most others, with an early alarm and a bowl of porridge. But as I stood eating in the bush, a little excitement swept over me as I felt the wind coming from the opposite direction. Finally, I would have the tail wind that I had planned for at this time of year. I hit the road in high spirits and made excellent progress but soon noticed a new noise coming from the bike. You get to know the usual sounds, but this was something different. The back brake turned out to be rubbing on the wheel. The cause; three broken spokes meant the wheel was no longer true. I panicked slightly, realising that I was almost exactly halfway between the closest bike shops, 700 km in either direction! With no option but to carry on, I kept my fingers crossed that I would not have to hitch-hike off the Nullarbor, I got back underway towards the Madura Pass and accompanying roadhouse. The tail-wind meant that I covered 85 km in under 4 hours, including a stop to enjoy views of the stunning and seemingly endless Roe Plains. After a cruise down the Madura Pass, I grabbed lunch at the roadhouse and with the help of some other travellers looked to see if it would be possible to mend the spokes. As any experienced cyclist will know, you need specialist tools to change rear wheel spokes and I didn’t carry these. I didn’t realise just what was required to do the job. It seemed like bad luck, and my own naivety would surely end my Nullarbor Crossing adventure early. With a heavy heart, I set off from Madura, waiting for the crack that would signal further and critical damage. I was gutted that it seemed likely that my first sighting of the Great Australian Bight would be from a caravan or truck. But the snap never came on day four. I ploughed on with the wind and late in the afternoon, I came across something that I had been waiting for, for a couple of days. There was a Japanese guy, pulling a cart, walking along the side of the road! I stopped for a quick chat and a couple of photos. It turns out he barely speaks English, despite having walked across America and half of Australia. He has also been across Central Asia and China. A total of 18000 km. I felt pretty humble. And the most ridiculous thing; he has done it all wearing flip-flops! Mental! We shared some sweets and I headed on. What an incredible guy. I hit a rest bay full of travellers just after dark and decided to stop having covered 194 km. I started chatting to the Duthie family, and as I set up my tent they asked if I would join them for dinner. I was delighted! I was very tired but had to eat, so it would have meant I had to get my stove out and start cooking. To not have to do this was a real treat. The company was great, the spaghetti bolognaise delicious and after a day of very mixed emotions, it was fantastic to finish it off playing with Lego with grandson Patch. They really picked me up when I needed it and what an excellent way to spend an evening.
Day five started just 10km from the Mundrabilla Roadhouse, so I skipped breakfast and made my way down the road for a bacon and egg sandwich. I carried on out across the Roe Plains, a huge expanse of flat land backed by a steep, rocky ridge line. The wind was now across me, neither helping nor hindering and by lunch I was approaching the Eucla Roadhouse. The only issue was the Eucla Pass, a very steep climb taking me up from the plains on to the cliff top. It was slow going but the distance was thankfully short. I dragged myself up and grabbed a snack at the roadhouse, easily my favourite, and covered the 12 km to the WA-SA Border stop. There was another shop and I stocke up for the following day, as there was 186 km to the next stop. Shortly after entering South Australia, I got my first glimpse of the Great Australian Bight. The cliffs are stunning, 90m high in places and under clear skies, the sea was bright blue. I stopped a couple of times to enjoy the view and the remaining 50 km flew past with the road often running close to the edge of the cliff. I put some music on and cruised for the rest of the day, singing my head off to Enrique Iglesias. It would appear that my definition of “normal behaviour” has altered somewhat! There was a lack of shelter for camping but there was nothing I could do, so I found a spot about 10m back from the cliff and set up for the night. I cooked a dinner of pasta and stood there eating, with the sun setting along the cliff line. The view was just magical. This is living to me. I felt completely exhilarated. I went to bed with the sound of the waves crashing below me feeling like I had beaten the worst of the Nullarbor Crossing. How naive this thought would prove to be!
After a windy night on the cliffs and the usual breakfast of porridge, I managed to get packed up and hit the road with a long day ahead. It was still 140 km to food and water. The day was uneventful to say the least. There were barely any trees as I approached and crossed the actual Nullarbor Plain, the road barely undulated, and unfortunately, moved back from the cliff so there weren’t even any nice views. It was a day for accumulation of kilometres and trying not to lose my mind. I reached the Nullarbor Roadhouse in mid-afternoon and followed my usual routine of grabbing some food and a sugary drink. I was, however, noticing that my diet of carbs that I cooked, and mainly fried food from roadhouses was keeping me fuelled, but left my stomach feeling awful. I was desperate for some fruit and veg. I intended to visit the Head of the Bight viewing platform first thing the next morning, with the hope of seeing a few whales, so I planned to camp on the road down to this for the night. I reached a spot where there were a couple of caravans clustered around some buildings. If found one of the rooms unlocked and dry so decided to sleep in there for the night. It was better than putting a tent up, and other than a very startled owl, there didn’t seem to be any wildlife to worry about. I just put my mat on the floor and set up for the night. I got chatting to a couple in one of the caravans and had a great evening of company. They also warned me that I would have to deal with large, biting March flies over the final 300 km of the Nullarbor. I was a little dubious. I had been regularly covered in hundreds of flies on the previous days, but had only a few problems with bites. The majority of flies just crawl over you and while it isn’t very nice, but you just deal with it. They were insistent that I would have problems, so for once I listened to the advice. I accepted an unwanted pair of trousers and a fly net, assuming that I would ever actually need to use them. I headed to bed in my abandoned shed looking forward to some beautiful views in the morning and hopefully, two relaxed days to get off the Nullarbor.
On day seven I woke to beautiful weather, hit autopilot for packing up and cooking breakfast and headed 10 km to the viewing platforms. It was ground I would have to retrace, something I am usually very unwilling to do, but I hoped the cliff top walks would be worth it. For some reason, I was feeling extremely lonely though, so it was quite a tough start to the day. It had been a week without any proper contact with friends or family so I assume this was the issue. I reached the Head of the Bight visitors centre and although the whales had left for Antarctica the week before, the views alone were worth $7. I even saw a couple of dolphins. As I headed back to the road, my spirits had lifted slightly. I had 150 km to get to the Nundroo Roadhouse but had already added 20 km to my day. The last 300 km of the Nullarbor packs a surprising kick with some pretty long tough hills. Add to this a slight headwind, temperatures around 35 degrees, and day 7 was looking more difficult than expected. After only a few kilometres back on the highway, I noticed a couple of large flies buzzing around me. I switched to a long sleeve shirt, but soon I was being swarmed by hundreds of March flies. These are about an inch long and seriously hurt when they bite. I was scrambling in my bags for the fly net, trousers and insect repellent. What should have been a steady day was turning into a nightmare. I had to carefully manage my effort levels up the hills so that I didn’t overheat and run out of water. In the past there was a roadhouse halfway to Nundroo called Yalata, but unfortunately this had to close after problems with alcohol abuse in the local aboriginal community. It was my first experience of the issues in modern Australia of conflicts with the indigenous population. It is a very complicated problem, with no obvious solution and is one I hope to write about further at some point. I pushed on for the rest of the day to Nundroo, into an increasing headwind, and was completely exhausted as I crawled to a standstill at the roadhouse. I had covered 170 km. The kitchen was not yet open for food, so I gave in and decided to stay there for the night. It only cost $8 but it wasn’t easy to find a sheltered pitch. The roadhouses clearly realise they have a captive market so don’t really seem to care about the quality of service they provide a lot of the time. A lovely Swiss couple living and travelling in Australia insisted on cooking me dinner which was great, and as I joined them to eat I realised they had cooked specially for me. Another stunning act of generosity!
Day eight! 150 km to Ceduna. I had averaged 150 km a day and my body was exhausted and my mind was fried, but I had just one more day to push through. The headwind was brutal but I just kept slogging forward. My average speed was very low and the huge grain trucks that would come past on a regular basis really shook me up but I had to get to the end. I reached Penong Roadhouse at about 14.00, two hours behind schedule, and grabbed a final roadhouse meal. By now my stomach was feeling awful. I had been dehydrated to various levels for over a week and had eaten terribly. The final 70 km were just a battle. If it hadn’t been the last day, there is no way I would have covered 150 km. I eventually ground my way in to Ceduna at nearly 19.00. I had made it. The bike had made it. It felt like a minor miracle that the wheel hadn’t given up. I found a campsite and was too tired to even eat properly. I had some chocolate and milk and collapsed in to bed. I would eat healthily for the next few days, but for the time being I was done. My body had had enough. I finally allowed it to give up. I think it deserved it.
The Nullarbor Crossing is one of the most incredible and ridiculous experiences of my life. I’m so proud of myself for making it and it turns out my body is capable of some pretty remarkable things when pushed. There were some staggeringly good moments. The night skies, the views and the generosity of the people. But on the Nullarbor, there are such incredible distances between them, especially on a bike. It really left me struggling to relax and slow down for the next stretch of my trip and I was almost nervous to return to society. I’m glad I did it; it has given me an awful lot of confidence for the future, but it would take a lot to get me to do it again anytime soon. But I’m delighted that, for the rest of my life, I will be able to say, “I have cycled across the Nullarbor!”