Sunday, December 8, 2019

Australia - The Nullarbor

The 90 mile straight, a section of the Nullarbor which has no bends or corners at all. Not that there are many corners in the rest of the 1500 km or so... 
Dreaded by many and the grave of many vehicles over the past 100 years or so, crossing the Nullarbor Plains can be one of the harshest roads to cross. Temperatures can soar to 50°C, no trees to find shade and if you break down you'll find that it's a long way from anywhere. In fact the only 'settlements' you'll find sparsely dotted along the road are roadhouses… Once you leave Norseman and head East, the first town of any description is some 1200km away… while the road in between is long, flat, straight and through a landscape which doesn't change much...

Parts of the Nullarbor double as a landingstrip for the Royal Flying
Doctors. Here's Mike on the beginning of one.
If your bike breaks down there, it'll be seriously expensive to get it recovered. Mobile phones are useless as there is no reception. Meanwhile the relentless heat strains each component of the bike, bikes which in our case had already taken a beating over the last four years through the most inhospitable terrain. The Yamaha XT660 had passed the 110,000 km mark and was in a pretty bad way to be honest. The high oil consumption had returned and was at such a rate that Mike had to strap a 5 litre oil can to his XT to make it to the other side… The Bonneville had seen a hard 150,000 km pass under its wheels but seemed fine in comparison.

The lifeline for the Outback, RoadTrains and Road Houses.

We had a long strap with us just in case… But even if the bikes would survive, what about the tyres? The Nullarbor is notorious for blown tyres, a combination of heat and the very abrasive bitumen used in Oz has claimed quite a few casualties, even on new tyres. Yet the Avon TrailRider rears we had fitted had already been through Thailand, Laos, back through Thailand, Cambodia, again Thailand and then Malaysia before having been punished on the Outback 'roads' of western Australia. 

But it's not just strain on vehicles that's a concern. Riding 1200 km through extreme heat and isolation is dangerous for the rider too. Along the way we found plenty of evidence of drivers who had lost their concentration on the monotonous road. Cars turned over, camper trailers and caravans smashed to bits. And all these had been in air conditioned luxury of course while we had our heads in a plastic bucket which quickly resembled an oven… Wouldn't want to swap with them though. I have been over the Nullarbor in a car but prefer a motorcycle.

Camels roam around in the Australian Outback too. Unlike most introduced animals, Camels are one of the few that don't damage nature.

While the long and virtually straight road ahead will tempt most to open the throttle in an attempt to make it shorter in time at least, we decided to take it easy instead. Time was not a concern, getting there in one piece was. We stopped regularly for a drink and truth be told enjoyed it much more than I had thought. If you take the time there is quite a bit to see too. True, it is a vast and tree-less plain. I had read about another record breaker claiming it was boring and dry, which is why he went through it as quick as he could… He clearly doesn't understand this place, which was further emphasised by boasting about high speed riding from dusk till dawn and beyond. As any Australian with a little Outback experience will tell you, riding at dusk or dawn on a motorcycle is suicidal in areas like these as Kangaroos are particularly active that time of day… why do you think Australian Roadtrains have those huge Kangaroo bars fitted? Not for the neighbours dog, that wouldn't even damage the paint, but a 90kg Kangaroo hurtling towards you at 70km/hr will kill you! For some reason they are attracted to headlights, which not only means they aim for your headlight… it also means that if they miss, they will come back and try again!

Just a couple of clicks to the south of the vast and dry Nullarbor
plains you'll find this stunning coastline
To truly experience where you are you have to give it time. Travelling slowly makes you appreciate how incomprehensibly big this place actually is. Hour after hour, day after day, nothing but seemingly dead and boring plains. No mountains, no trees… and yet… let it sink in and you'll find it's beauty. Veer off to the north for a bit and you can hear the silence. Absolute silence… while your eyes wander across the horizon, knowing that what you see before you will continue for thousands of kilometres. Yet if you veer off to the south for a bit you'll find one of the most spectacular coastlines Australia has to offer. And as for being lifeless, you'll be surprised how much life there is if you know where to look. Some years before we started on this trip I had lived and worked at an Outback Station in far north Queensland. That seemed lifeless too when we arrived, yet we learned quickly that there was plenty of life to be found. I vividly remember driving in a flat and virtually tree-less plain, hours from anywhere and clear views to the horizon all around me, when I was suddenly engulfed by thousands of small birds… they seemed to have come out of nowhere and yet with so many that I had to stop the car as I couldn't see where I was going. They encircled the car for minutes and then suddenly disappeared, again into seemingly nowhere.
There were plenty of wild pigs, kangaroos, snakes, wild cats and all sorts of birds too.

Designed for Britain it somehow met its maker in the Australian Outback

Broke down 70 or so years ago, still there though!
Talking of an outback station, places like the abandoned Koonalda Homestead are not only a great place for a stopover, they also give a fascinating insight to what live was like for the early settlers. Today we can escape the heat via an airconditioned home, back then there was no such luxury, nor the power to run it. Koonalda Station was used by the same family from 1938 to 1988 and hadn't changed much over the years. No telephone, no internet, no mains power, no mains water and whatever broke down they needed to be fixed by themselves. Hardy folks and fully self sufficient. Today Koonalda is virtually as they left it in 1988, including the car wrecks from stranded travellers which still sit there in a field next to the house.

Camping at the abandoned Koonalda Roadhouse

When you want to see it, Australia is a beautiful place… even here, or perhaps especially here! We enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to make the trip along the Nullarbor a bit longer and take in the Gawler Ranges too… and I'm glad we did.
Every Roadhouse has accommodation options a plenty, as long as you don't expect to find 5 star luxury. Having said that, we enjoyed million stars luxury, sleeping out in the open every night under the clear Australian skies. One of them was at the Koonalda Homestead.