Chapter Thirteen

Out on the Nullabor Plain.

Before setting off out of Norseman I stopped by the local store and stocked up with fresh fruit, bananas, apples, peaches, tomatoes, bread rolls and a few onions. I then stopped into to a small service station that advertised the cheapest petrol in Norseman. I filled up with unleaded, added a squirt of lead substitute, checked the engine, gearbox and diff oil levels, crossed my fingers and headed off onto the Eyre highway towards Adelaide.

The signpost at Norseman, looking east.

I’d driven no more than a few kilometres when an awful knocking sound came from what at the time sounded like the gearbox. I let my foot off the accelerator and dropped Hewie out of gear - the sound stopped. I pulled over to the side of the road with my heart in my mouth. I shook the gearstick back and forth then slid Hewie into first and let the clutch out. Hewie took off without incident; the strange sounding noise had disappeared. I crossed my fingers – again, and kept going. About six months after arriving home the same noise started to appear again - but at more regular intervals. Finally that fateful day came when the engine started knocking louder. It sounded like a loose tappet, but much louder. I took the head off to find that the top two piston rings were burned out. A small piece of the  piston was embedded into the top of the piston. Thankfully this didn’t happen in Norseman.

After a four hour drive I came to the first roadhouse at Balladonia – 219 kilometers east of Norseman. I filled up with petrol again, at the cost of $1.46 a litre. There was the usual restaurant, but they baked their own cakes. Ah, if they bake cakes they must also bake bread. Bad luck - all the bread was trucked in. I was looking forward to a nice fresh bread roll with tomato and onion for lunch. I had settled for a fresh blueberry muffin. I made myself comfortable at a picnic ground set aside for travelers, set up my camp stove and boiled the billy for a cup of tea. As soon as I got the muffin, bananas and apples out the local crows descended and sat around the picnic table watching every mouthful of food that I ate. I threw them a couple of banana skins which they snapped up and fought over. Even the apple core I threw them was eaten in one quick gulp. It was hot and dry and not a blade of grass in sight. No wonder they weren’t fussy. Different to the sea gulls that hang around the picnic spots at popular seaside resorts. Now they’re beginning to get fussy, won’t eat apple or tomato, in fact many sit and wait for the wholly grail – warm salty chips.

The service station at Balladonia on the Nullabor, Western Australia.

Rest stop at the Balladonia service station on the Nullabor, Western Australia.

Back on the road again that afternoon the wind changed back into a north-easterly – a warm to hot headwind. Fifty kilometres out of Ballandra I passed a cyclist heading east, then another 100 kilometres I passed another. I pitied them pushing into the hot headwind, it was bad enough for me and Hewie but I’d hate to be on a bicycle in such conditions. It’d be very soul destroying. I wondered to myself why the cyclist just didn’t stop somewhere, set up camp and delve into a book and wait for the wind to change direction? Just like the old sailors did.

I passed a semi-trailer that had lost its load. It appeared to be a load of cotton and paper. Fifty kilometres further on I passed a police car. The officer was out of his car booking a motorist. That was a real surprise - police all the way out here! I was over 500 kilometres from the nearest police station and here’s a copper booking someone. That’s being keen to do your job!

The north easterly headwind blew harder and hotter as the day progressed. The best speed I could get out of Hewie had dropped down to 35 mph and that was with my foot almost flat to the floor. If you own or have driven a sidevalve Morris you’ll probably remember how they have a mind of their own. They seem to know what speed they want to run at, no matter how far down you press the accelerator.

Cocklebiddy was the next roadhouse and fuel stop. I set my tent in the campground here and settled on a steak sandwich and cup of tea at the snack bar for dinner. I  also enquired about the police being so far out from any police station.

Cocklebiddy

“They drive out here and stay at the motel here. They go right through to the border then turn back. So don’t think of going over the speed limit. They’re out there” he said. No problems about Hewie exceeding the 110 kph speed limit I thought to myself.

Overnight the northeast wind blew so hard that it felt like it was going to blow my tent across the dry, dusty and grassless camp ground. Even when I pitched the tent around sunset the wind was still gaining force. There was little shelter in the baron camp ground apart from a few trees that had just been felled. I pitched my tent in the lee of these tree stumps.

The next morning the headwind had calmed to a light easterly breeze. I’d hoped that it would blow itself out through the night but it was persisting. I set out early and reached and the next roadhouse, Madura pass, a distance of just 83 kilometers. I drove into the service station and topped up with the most expensive fuel I’d come across on the whole trip. Unleaded petrol was $1.49 a litre. There was a sign near the petrol pump that read Please do not ask for water as refusal may offend. I wondered how the cyclists behind me get on when they arrived here. The sign wasn’t exactly the most friendly welcome. I’d hate the thought of landing at an oasis after two or three days out cycling in the desert and being greeted with such a sign. I wondered why they just didn’t charge for water. If it costs them 10 cents a gallon to make using their desalination plant, why not just meter it out like they do with petrol for say, 20 cents a gallon. Madura pass was a change to the consitanly flat terrain I’d passed through since leaving Norseman. The settlement was built in a small hilly cutting. As I drove in I stopped at a lookout just west of the town to overlook the Nullarbor to the east. The word Nullarbor means “no trees” but there is a light covering of scrub and saltbush. Occasionally I’d see an emu or a kangaroo, usually early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During the day they find some shade and spend their time sleeping until the evening. All along the highway were dead kangaroos killed by the passing cars and trucks. Since leaving Norseman the smell of dead and rotting wildlife was constantly in the air. I’d often spoken with drivers who told me that they’d fitted roo whistles to their cars and trucks, which emanate a high pitched scream that humans can’t hear. They assured me that they work, one truck driver who crosses the Nullarbor weekly told me that since fitting the whistles to his truck, the kangaroos ran everywhere except into the front of his truck. In some stretches of the Nullarbor the kangaroo population is higher than other places. Even in the high population areas they stayed well away, he said.

The roadhouse at Mundrabilla on the Nullabor W.A

Moving along, the next fuel stop was 115 kilometers away at Mundrabilla. Like the rest of the stops, Mundrabilla was just a roadhouse with a restaurant. The difference with this one was that it was selling petrol at $1.19 a litre. How one place can sell the same product nearly a third cheaper than everyone else in the middle of nowhere was baffling to me. I’d heard different stories, but the one that fitted the situation the best was that a group of accountants owned all the roadhouses across the Nullarbor and put their own price on the petrol. The roadhouse at Mundrabilla was evidently the black sheep of the Nullarbor roadhouses. I filled up and tucked into a cheese and tomato sandwich and a pot of tea in their restaurant. On leaving I confronted the cashier and asked him why his price for petrol was much cheaper than the roadhouse just 115 kilometers up the road. He looked at me with a blank stare.

“I dunno mate,”

The wind had started to blow hot from the north east again. I was again battling a headwind. It was at times like this that I wished that Hewie was just a normal saloon with a nice rounded and wind resistant roof instead of the sail,  which the convertible hood behaves like when you’re pushing against the wind.

Hewie continued to beat to windward. The next roadhouse was on the border of South Australia and Western Australia at a town called Eucla, just 50 kilometres further on from Mundrabilla. But it was a tough 50 kilometers, the hardest since leaving Ballina. The wind blew so hard that Hewie was down to 28 mph with my foot flat to the floor. The northeasterly was blowing at gale force.

On arrival at Eucla I found a camp ground and set up my tent. Not just for the night but until the headwind died down. As I was paying the caretaker for my camp site two European cyclists came to the counter - a man and a woman, both in their thirties, tall, slim and both as fit as fiddles.

“I hope you’re not heading east in this wind,” I asked them

“We are, and it’s really tough going out there on the road. We’ve just finished lunch and not looking forward to pushing into the wind for the rest of the afternoon”

“Why don’t you just do as I’m doing and set up tent here until the wind subsides or changes into a westerly which will push you along. The wind doesn’t blow from the same direction all the time” They both looked at each other as if they didn’t realize the wind would change within the next day or two.

“Good idea” they said.

They then asked the caretaker could they fill up their water bottles. He said that he couldn’t fill water bottles, but if they went into the toilets they could fill their bottles from the basins.

Back at my tent I gathered up my dirty clothes and went over to the campsite laundry. There was a sign on the wall warning that the cold water tap was ill tasting bore water, not suitable for drinking. Obviously the management couldn’t run bore water through the hot water system as the minerals would quickly destroy it so they had to use expensive desalinated water for washing. I put my washing on and filled up my fresh water bottle with hot desalinated water. While the machine was turning I went into the bathroom for a shower. Two Japanese cyclists were standing at the basins both with plastic bottles trying to fill them with fresh water. The plastic bottles were far too tall for the shallow sink. They had the taps pouring out water but the bottles were only catching half the water. The rest was running down the drain. I suggested to them to use the taps over the large sinks in the laundry – but fill up with hot desalinated water. They were a little confused at first, but understood my Australian English enough to understand what I was talking about.

The showers required a dollar coin for 5 minutes of hot water rain water. Once I dropped the coins in, the water started pouring out of the shower rose. I soaped up quickly, washed my hair and rinsed off as fast as I could as I only had a single one dollar coin. But the shower didn’t stop, it just kept pouring out water. I tried to turn the taps off but they didn’t work. I stepped out of the shower and toweled myself over, the water was still running – it was poring out! It appeared that the coin operated water dispenser had a serious malfunction. I dressed, then gathered my washing and headed back Hewie parked next to my tent. I dropped off the washing and headed up to the caretaker to tell him the problem over at the men’s showers. He didn’t seem too perturbed, rather than jumping to attention and getting someone to go over and try to rectify the problem he stared to tell me the high costs the motel and campground had in making desalinated water and the problems they had in people trying to steal it or waste it washing cars.

The remains of the telegraph station at Eucla W.A

Eucla is the largest town, or settlement, on the Nullarbor boasting a service station, hotel, motel, caravan park, camp ground, hospital, flying doctor, police station and some government agencies. The town began back in 1877 as the site of a telegraph repeater station which lasted through till 1929 when a new telegraph line was laid near the railway line further to the north. The remains of the old repeater station built from sandstone still stands just a short walk from the camp ground where I was staying. I walked down and found the old sun-bleached building half covered in fine windblown sand. Even today it was a lonely windblown outpost in the middle of what felt like nowhere. But the old building and fine white sand created a beautiful setting. I took out my camera.

Later I headed back to a restaurant which was a part of the hotel, motel, camp ground for dinner. After dinner I headed back to the tent. During the night the wind continued to howl in from the east as I lay there with the sides of the tent flapping away in the wind. There was no grass in the camp ground, I was camped on a hard clay like surface. The wind whipped up a fine white dust which came into the tent through the insect screen. Next morning I awoke before sunrise, the wind had calmed to a very light easterly. It wasn’t the westerly gale I wanted but it was a chance to get some miles under Hewie.

The first stop was for a quick cup of tea at the BP roadhouse at the Western Australian and South Australian border just 15 kilometers to the east. It was appropriately named the BP Travellers Village.

Nullarbor National Park

The coast alongside the road on the Nullarbor, Western Australia.

Getting ready for the 90 mile straight.

I was now in South Australia, the road ahead also passed through the Nullarbor National Park and for the next 180 kilometers.
Much of the time I could see the sparkling blue ocean on my right hand side and the dry dusty desert to my left. There were numerous turnoffs down  to the ocean where I stopped and looked over the cliffs to the surf crashing on the rocks below. The ocean right next to the desert gave me a sense of an eerie loneliness. Like between a rock wall and a hard place, I thought to myself as I looked down at the ocean and turned to look at the barren land behind me. I reached Nullarbor just after 11am that morning and stopped at the solitary roadhouse there for some petrol, another cheese and tomato sandwich and a cup of tea. I filled up with petrol at the old Nullarbor price of $1.49 a litre. Back to reality as far as petrol prices go. Most major service stations in Australia accept credit cards even for the  smallest of transactions, but not always on the Nullarbor. Many of the restaurants in the roadhouses only accept cards for large purchases. I rarely carry a lot of cash and my supply was now getting low. At the Nullarbor roadhouse I filled up with petrol and paid the attendant. I then walked into the restaurant and ordered a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea and tried to pay with my credit card. There was instant refusal as the price of my purchases came to less than the minimum which was ten dollars.

“I’m getting low on cash” I told the waitress.

“That’s OK. What we do here is, you can buy ten dollars in cash, or more if you wish using your credit card. Then you can pay for your sandwich and tea in cash”

“Tell me that again?” She then repeated what she told me, with a straight face. I then asked her.

“But wouldn’t it be easier to just put the amount on the card rather than going through all that rigmarole?”

“Your bill is only seven dollars fifty and our limit is ten dollars” she said.

I gave up and gave her my card. She took it away and came back with an old fashioned credit card slip with ten dollars handwritten on it. I signed it for her and she placed the change of two dollars fifty on the counter.

I took a seat next to an elderly man who was sipping on a cup of tea.

“You’re in the Morris? Don’t tell me you’ve come all the way from Perth in that have you?”

“Actually, Ballina via Darwin and Perth,” I said.

He then looked out the window at Hewie again, shook his head a little and changed the conversation.

“I’m from Melbourne. We’re heading over to Perth, our car is about 40 kilometres further west from here. My wife and I are travelling in tandem with some friends and we stopped for a few minutes in a rest stop. We all stood around stretching and talking, and when my wife and I got back into our car, I tried to start it, nothing happened. I lifted the bonnet and went over everything. There must be something wrong with the computer that controls the ignition system I thought. I got a lift here to get a mechanic to come out and have a look at it. I’ve just got off the phone to the mechanic. He has to come out from Penong which is about two hours drive away. He reckoned that I’d broken down in probably the worst and most barren place on the main highway around Australia. Anyway he’s on his way out here now. My friends and my wife are out there.” he said.

As he spoke some people were leaving the restaurant and he handed them a large bottle of Coca Cola and asked him to drop it off out there to his wife and friends and tell them that help was on the way.

Outside sitting in front of the roadhouse was a road-train carrying a load of sheep. Sitting at the table opposite us appeared to be the driver of the truck. I asked him if the sheep get thirsty on a long trip across the Nullarbor, especially in this hot weather. It must have been close to the mid thirties Celsius outside.

Trucks at a Nullarbor truck stop, W.A.

“Do you hose them down along the way?” I asked.

“It’s three days from the time I pick them up in South Australia and drop them off in Western Australia and they go that time without a drink of water,” he said.

“No, they survive it though. Very few die, in fact the ones that do are probably sick or weak even before they get on the truck.”

“You’d think they’d cook out there in that heat and being so close to each other.”

“No they feel just like us with clothes on.”

“I wouldn’t last long out there in that heat without a hat and some water. And those poor things battle it out for 3 days. They must be thirsty when they get there!
“Which way are you headed?” he asked.

“East,” I said

“If you’re heading down into the Eyre Peninsular, stop in Ceduna and try the oysters there. They’re twice as big as the ones you buy over on the east coast and they’re delicious!”

I was now well over the hump of crossing the Nullarbor. Civilization was less than a half day drive away. Civilisation to some people can only be somewhere like New York, London or maybe even Sydney, but when you’ve been out in the bush for a few days the word civilization takes on a different meaning. For the moment it simply meant an ice cold draught beer and a dozen oysters that I could sit and open myself. Ah, if life could always be that simple! As I drove off down the Eyre Highway I pictured the glass of beer sitting on the bar and the oysters sitting on a bed of salt on the plate.

The Western Australia, South Australian border.

The flat treeless Nullarbor Plain soon gave way to trees again. After an hour and a half’s drive I arrived at the Yalata roadhouse. I continued on for another two hours and the trees soon gave way to wheat and grain country  which brought me into the small town of Penong where I  pitched my tent for the night on a grassy spot in the local camp ground and caravan park. Numerous windmills that pump water from an underground basin surround the town and supply it with water. The town is also the junction where the road to the famous surfing spot Cactus Beach meets the highway. The main industry in the town is grain storage and wheat silos tower over the town. Next morning I drove down to the silos where trucks were arriving to discharge their cargoes of wheat. I got talking with the workers there. None were born in the area, most had moved there and got a job so they could surf at Cactus beach.

“Where’s the turn off? My map says there’s a turnoff close to town. I’ve not found it,” I told them.

“You won’t. If you go about a kilometre out of town you’ll see a signpost with a big blotch of brown paint on it. Turn to your left there. The locals don’t want great hoards of tourists and other surfers heading down to Cactus Beach so they defaced the sign. Each time the council comes along and repairs the sign the locals just come back and paint it out again”

The turn off to Cactus Beach. The locals have painted over the Cactus Beach part of the sign to keep the free of tourists. They didn't fool me!

“What’s the road like going down there” I asked.

“It’s not good. It’s dirt all the way, but take it slow – you’ll make it.”

I set off down the road which was not only rough but had no sign posts. I got to one T – intersection and sat there trying to work out which route to take. Fortunately another car came along and gave me directions. The road continued along through the middle of a  large salt pond.  When I finally arrived, I found a lonely outpost of a settlement. A couple of houses and a very simple camp ground with a few caravans. I stopped at the parking lot and walked down to the quiet windswept beach. There was no one around and the place seemed deserted. But there were no waves, I can image the place would become packed with cars and people once the surf came up.

The camp ground at Cactus Beach, South Australia

Pink salt pond near Cactus beach, South Australia.

I continued on the rough road past the simple campground with pit toilets and bore water down to a small bay called Port le Hunte. Here a jetty ran out into the bay that once served the ketches that sailed around from the Spencer Gulf, to load and sail back with cargoes of wheat. But that would have all finished in 1915 when the railway came to Penong. But like so many other small ports in South Australia the wharf is still there. There is an enclosed area for swimming so I took quick dip and enjoyed the loneliness and isolation before continuing back to Penong along the rough unsealed road.

Port Le Hunte, South Australia.

Memorial to an 11 year old attacked by a shark in Port Le Hunt bay in 1979.

Half way back the sound of the exhaust got louder. I stopped to inspect it and found that the exhaust pipe had broken off just behind the muffer. The noise wasn’t bad enough to attract police attention but bad enough to annoy me. Hewie didn’t have that nice back pressure sound that Morris’s have when you take your foot off the accelerator and let the back pressure slow you down. This was the first unsealed road which I’d ventured onto since the start of the trip. I’ve always had it in mind that there probably would be enough problems in driving a 50 year old car around Australia on sealed roads so I’d avoided the dirt.

Windmills at Penong.

Back on the highway at Penong I headed for Ceduna, two hours drive away. On arrival at Ceduna I looked up at a sign post that read Norseman 1208 kilomtres. I had crossed the Nullarbor in 3 days at an average of 400 kilometers a day and enjoyed every minute of the trip.

On entering Ceduna there was an overall sense of cleanliness, as if it was too far away from the rest of the Australian population to have any pollution problems. Norseman to the west is the nearest town of any size and it isn’t too big. The next big city was Port Lincoln on the southern tip of Eyre Peninsular. Both towns seemed isolated from the rest of the country by the desert to the west and the Spencer Gulf to the east. The main industry in Ceduna is wheat. Large grain silos at the port at Thevenard a few kilometres away from the centre of town, ship out up to a third of the Eyre Peninsular’s wheat crop. The other industries are salt, gypsum fishing and of course oyster farming. As I drove into town I spotted a small shed on the side of the road with a large sign overhead saying “OYSTERS”. I stopped by and purchased a dozen unopened oysters from the woman running the store, who told me that the store was organized by the local oyster farmers and run by their wives and families. I then stopped by the local pub for a couple of cans of beer, found a cabin at the local camp ground, and sat on the verandah and celebrated the crossing of the Nullarbor Plain.


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