Nullarbor Plain 2021
and commentary: copyright Jonathan C Nevill, 2021, unless otherwise credited.
Camera: Samsung Galaxy S7. The two noted images are copyright to Selina
The Nullarbor Plain is the largest semi-arid deposit of karst (limestone) in the world, according to the South Australian (SA) National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The outline of the plain can be seen easily from space. It is crossed in an East-West direction by a single road, the Eyre Highway. I used this road during my road trip from Adelaide to Perth. Driving from the east, the town of Ceduna (in SA) marks the start of a journey through a largely deserted landscape (from a human's point of view), while the town of Norseman (in Western Australia - WA) marks the finish of that journey.
This relief map of Australia shows how large the Nullarbor Plain is. It's clearly delineated on both the southern boundary (the sea cliffs) and on the northern boundary, through a sharp change in relief (elevation). Comparing it with Victoria, it's almost the same size.
Note also the huge area of Australia drained by the Murray-Darling river system. It's a national tragedy that this once mighty river system has, most of the time now, stopped flowing at it's mouth, thanks to over-use of its waters for agriculture. This is the result of short-term thinking, the power of people with money, and spineless politicians and public servants. None of these factors seem likely to change, in my opinion.
In between Ceduna and Norseman lie around 1200 km of high quality sealed road (one lane each way). This road is largely straight, as the terrain is flat and requires little need to change direction. The longest perfectly straight section is 148 km. Roadhouses provide travellers with fuel, food, and a place to rest.
The surrounding landscape on the SA side is mostly conservation reserve, with a few reserves owned by aboriginal communities.
On the WA side, the land is mostly agricultural leasehold.
On the eastern side the vegetation is largely woodland, with a predominance of mallee and mulga. This gives way to "the Great Treeless Plain", which in turn (on the WA side) gives way to "the Great Western Woodland".
The limestone terrain is generally flat for two reasons. First, the sediments which make up the limestone were laid down over a long period of time in a shallow sea, giving rise to flat horizontal stratification. Second, after uplift caused by tectonic plate movement, the limestone saw little terrestrial weathering from water or wind, given that fractured limestone tends to provide for underground water passage rather than surface streamflow.
Over the last century, small townships (supporting communities around properties ["stations"] based on low-intensity grazing), grew up and then died away.
Koongawa (above) was one such town. Most of the town's ruins have almost disappeared, with building materials either disintegrating, or salvaged for other purposes, leaving just a scattering of foundations amongst the scrub.
The small Bookabie School, although marked as a historic site, is crumbling away, with no protective measures taken..
The year it closed I was 11 years old: probably the same age as a few of the school's last pupils. I wonder where they are now, and what memories they have of growing up in a wild and isolated land.
The ruins of the Balladonia Homestead. Some of the stonework is crumbling away, while the stonework on the main veranda wall remains in good condition, with beautifully finished pointing. There's still a wood fired stove and a kerosene-powered fridge in the kitchen. Some of the timber flooring is in good condition where it's been protected from the weather.
Note the colour scheme: white ceiling with pink and green walls. Note also the interior panelling, not of plaster, but of corrugated iron.
Why 92 km? There doesn't seem to be any logic behind this sign. And 90 km down the track, there's another identical road-sign labelled "Next 258 km".
I didn't see any camels, or wombats, or kangaroos (apart from three or four roadkills, which is not much on such a long road).
How do these animals dig burrows in the hard limestone? Photo: SA NPWS.
One thing you do see a lot of: road-trains. I saw no motorbikes or bicycles; few ordinary passenger vehicles; and lots of grey nomads towing caravans or camping trailers. I did see one runner: with no support vehicle, he was pulling a small trailer, which presumably held food, water and shelter. Running across the Nullarbor alone is not something I would even contemplate. Overall there was little traffic, with vehicle counts probably a hundred times lower than Australia's east coast A1 highway. The speed limit is generally 100km/hr for heavy vehicles, and 110km for vehicles under 12 tonne. In the 1970s, the road-train I travelled on in the Northern Territory had four trailers rather than three which is the limit today on the Eyre Highway (the specific limit is 42m).
A typical piece of the Eyre Highway.
From the driver's seat. I mostly aimed to maintain a speed of 100km/hr, as this seemed comfortable and safe.
From a traveller's point of view, a drive across the Nullarbor has two or three points of special interest: cliffs, whales and caves.
There is a whale viewing station at "Head of Bight". The station has an entry fee. It's been professionally set up, with plenty of well-presented information on the Southern Right Whale. The area is used as a calving ground by this species. When I was there (June 23) I saw two mothers with calf, in shallow water not far from the cliffs. I was not able to obtain a good photo. And I could not obtain a clear image of the poster below, unfortunately.
Scenically, the sea cliffs are very impressive, usually dropping 50 to 100 m vertically.
These cliffs can be accessed through numerous unsealed roads, often unmarked, heading off the highway in a southerly direction.
Like this one. No signpost, but the right direction...
This is the view (below) from the Head of Bight whale watching platform.
I was very lucky to meet a wildlife photographer, Selina Guckenbiehl. My photo (above). Selina's photo below. Great detail in her work!
Selina gave me permission to use two of her photographs. Below is a image of a Southern Right Whale mother and calf.
You can just see the calf's white tail fin! Every whale has a slightly different colour pattern.
There are four other lookouts which are well-signed, and close to the highway.
It seems to me that the cliffs are constantly falling into the sea, both in small pieces and in very large pieces.
Yet the power of the sea takes away the rubble... it just disappears into what is presumably reasonably shallow water.
This crack, or fault, ran for about 200m roughly 20m back from the current cliff edge. Perhaps a very large chunk of cliff will eventually break cleanly away.
If the cliff here is 80m high, that's a chunk 80x20x200m. That's a lot of rock.
There's a nearby sign: "Keep away from here". Whoever wrote this sign must have had me in mind...
While the cliffs appear to stretch into the distance forever, in fact there are beaches at some places.
There are memorials at some of the cliff lookouts.
I stood beside the cross, wondering who Kylie Parker was, and what was her story...
Kate died at 48 years old. Her memorial held many short messages of love and appreciation. There were memorials to two other women at this site, aged 50 and 70 years.
Soon after leaving the whale watch station, heading to the west, you reach The Great Treeless Plain'.
The Nullarbor Plain contains many caves. Some are of great scientific interest, partly as they contain important climate information, and partly as they contain the remains of animals which are now extinct. Presumably these animals fell accidentally, and could not get out again. Due to the semi-arid climate, their remains have been preserved to some extent. According to Professor Jon Woodhead, the caves were formed 3-5 million years ago, during a period when the climate was wetter than it is now. Only a few caves are marked on tourist maps. One such cave is the Murrawijinie Cave (below).
Photo: SA NPWS. This cave looks interesting. The sign on the road from the Nullarbor Roadhouse said "11 km of rough track".
I drove for 2km and then turned back... it seemed just too risky. If I got stuck, I would be totally out of cellphone range, and I was travelling alone, in a vehicle specifically designed for sealed city roads. I don't know how I would ever get there now.
As you drive, the roadside vegetation is constantly changing. This is true of the entire 1200km crossing.
Past the Great Treeless Plan, the Great Western Woodlands provide a welcome change.
The woodlands contain many different vegetation communities.
The colour and texture of the Salmon Gums is almost startling! And the saltbush, here a pale colour, in real life has a distinctly blue appearance which my camera did not capture.
The woodland contains lots of small shallow ponds. I would like to know more about these features. Maybe they are saline?
These 'ant holes' also remain a mystery to me.
They are big: there were dozens at this site in woodland. Freshly maintained, but no sign of ants. And why would ants construct such a large entrance? presumably large enough to allow a predator to enter...
And so we reach the end of a long drive....