We had heard so much about the next stretch of our travels – the size, the danger and the difficulty of crossing the Nullarbor Plain. We had readied ourselves for the undertaking, filled water tanks, brimmed both the fuel tank and canister, and had enough food to wait out a week should the worst happen. We were also well drilled on the danger of backpackers stopping for strangers as many a grey nomad had dealt out a stern lecture to us roadtrip innocents. So with all of this front of mind, we set off.
Our first stint was a short one as we had left late in the day. We made it as far as Fowlers Bay, which was lovely to look at but stunk to high heaven from the seaweed massed upon its shore. The caravan park was eco friendly, using rain water, solar power and bore water to power the amenities. We arrived about an hour before sunset and decided to walk down the beach and try and spot some whales. We had been hunting for whales since December, in whale hangouts like Warrnambool and the Tasman Peninsula with no success. It was now breeding season, and Southern Right Whales were calving in the shallows of Fowlers Bay. But we were unlucky again.
Fowlers Bay, like most of the whale spotting destinations we had visited, were former whaling stations. Shelley reasoned that whales had long memories and probably remembered (given whaling only stopped in the 1970s in WA) when the beaches were stained red with their blood. That’s why they were hiding from us.
The following morning we took off along the Nullarbor, overtaking grey nomads as they dragged their caravans well below the 110km limit. We stopped at the Head of The Bight, with fingers crossed, buoyed by the sign on the fence that had the whale count for today at 169.
Finally! Whales ahoy! The moment we glimpsed the water we could see their black silhouettes, all mothers with calves. We counted around 30. In the distance you could see the larger whales, waving their fins and slapping the water with their tails. Apparently, this is a form of communication, but also just a bit of fun, like the whale version of dancing to Derulo. We focused on two pairs parading near the coast, seemingly putting on a show for the crowd.
Southern Right Whales are smaller than other species like the Humpback and Blue Whale, but they leave a big impression. Shortly after arriving (we were there gawping in amazement and snapping away like paparazzi for hours), we noticed an albino calf with black freckles that was rather playful. It was fin slapping the water, rolling over the top of its mother and resting between her fins as she floated on her back, only to get bored after a few minutes and dive deep, coming up with a happy breach, getting big air as she flipped. It was a sight that left the crowd cooing and aahing as they watched what was simultaneously the cutest and most awe-inspiring thing ever. We were just as bad, observing the ritual several times before leaving, snapping away like proud parents.
Back on the highway, we were keen to get to the WA border, but when we did we were greeted by a huge quarantine checkpoint. No fruit or vegetables could pass through the border, and we had quite a stockpile. So we found a camp in the scrub for the night, just before the border and had a big cook up, which involved slicing potatoes, onions, mushrooms and eggplant, frying it off in oil, and seasoning with salt, pepper, basil and a helluva lot of butter. This may have obliterated the health benefits of our veggie stack but it tasted ‘hell good’ (as the West Coasters say).
The following day we crossed the border, reluctantly handing over our honey to the cheerful quarantine guard (why honey??) and moved into much anticipated Western Australia. Nullarbor literally means ‘no trees’ and it is truly a treeless, flat landscape as far as the eye can see. There are a couple of shrubs pretending to be trees, just to create controversy for those playing ‘I spy’ as they drive. But the only other landscape feature is long grass, with the occasional abandoned car, smashed in by Nullarbor bogans. It’s quite amazing in a way, while also being completely boring after a couple of days on the route.
Residents of the Nullarbor once got so bored that they created the myth of the ‘Nullarbor Nymph’. It must have been soon after One Hundred Years came out came out as she was a blonde, buxom lass of about 21 who lived out on the Nullarbor plain with the kangaroos, and (incongruously) lived off them, using their skin for her only item of clothing – you guessed it, a mini skirt. This nymph attracted global attention, with the American and British papers flying out correspondents to track her down. Makes sense, she was essentially the first Page 3 girl. After a long laugh over tea and lamingtons, the locals finally admitted to the hoax.
The Nullarbor Plain is a whopping 1,700km and houses the longest straight road in the world. Arriving at the 90 Mile Straight, Gareth put his driving gloves on, hoping to be the only person on L plates to have ever driven it (We’ve heard nothing to the contrary so far, so we’re putting it down as a win). There is not a curve in the road for 90 miles (145km). Nor is there any trees, hills or other points of interest. It makes the journey something of an ordeal, if you’re planning on driving it prepare to have your eyes wozzled, as you scan bitumen for hours and hours.
90 Mile Straight complete, we turned left at a rest area and stumbled across the end of the earth. Walking along the path, Australia suddenly fell away, revealing a huge set of cliffs and Southern Ocean below. You could understand how our ancestors, who ate less genetically-modified chicken and had smaller brains, could think that the world was flat and were worried that you could walk off the end of the planet. Looking directly south we were aware that the only land out there was roughly 2500km away, Antartica.
Felling quite remote, we travelled on to Balladonia, stopping briefly to check out their museum. The ‘museum’ was the size of a large garage, and it seems that the only thing to have happened in Balladonia of note was in in 1978-79 when ‘Skylab’, a NASA project similar to the international space station, broke apart and scattered its bits over the area. This landing was unintended, so President Carter rang around the local community to apologise for nearly killing them. There was a competition to find the largest piece which made the area a hotspot for a few weeks. The largest piece found was put on display at the Miss Universe event in Perth (naturally), but the weight of it collapsed the stage! Ahh the 70s, what a golden era.
We slept soundly that night in the knowledge that the Nullarbor was almost complete, Norseman, the Western border town to the Nullarbor, was only two hours away. We had heard stories of people taking six days to cross the Nullarbor, and we had done it in as good as three. While we had seen some incredible sights along the way, we were perplexed as to how anyone could have taken six days. Unless you’re playing every hole on the Nullarbor Golf Course, the worlds longest golf course, there’s not many things to tourist at. Don’t bother with the Caiguna blow hole btw.
We’re convinced that the danger and the challenge of the Nullarbor that older generations recall is a relic of the past, relegated to history the moment the bitumen was laid and the ‘cuppacino’ machine arrived at the Eucla roadhouse.
Highs: Whales, clearly
Lows: WA Quarantine refused to confiscate our chia seeds (still can’t work out how to cook them properly)