Cycling the Nullarbor: headwinds and horizons
“Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?”
It was never ending. My mind would wander; my grip on reality loosen. I was losing it. Long roads jetting into the distance to unreachable horizons, any crest breached would reveal yet another endless, daunting vista. Balancing on a narrow ribbon of asphalt stretching through this arid world I plugged in and switched off, escaping in music as the tedium rolled past. Every now and then I’d be jolted back into reality as a thunderous road train roared past. This was the Nullarbor.
Difficulty: Hard – long days, few services, windy
Surface: Paved road
Map: View full page map
Day 1: 170km, via Fraser Range Roadhouse
Leaving behind the gold rush town of Norseman, I headed east; 1,200km of scrub stood between me and the next recognisable settlement. Roadhouses dotted the route at intervals of up to 200 kilometres or more, but rumours of outrageous pricing had me well stocked with supplies. I carried 10 days of food and only six litres of water.
From the Latin for ‘no trees’, the Nullarbor is often referred to as a desert. The truth is that the 'treeless plain' is a one-hundred kilometre stretch centred on the hamlet of Nullarbor, but an utter lack of habitation has extended the label to the entire crossing from Norseman to Ceduna. It's my only hope of making it east as it's the only road along the southern part of Australia.
My first day proper on the Nullarbor started at 7am, there wasn’t so much as a place to lean my bike against for the first 70km before arriving at an outback station at Fraser Range. I stopped for lunch, topped up my water bottles and got back to it. My only company a never ending loop of Queen’s ‘Greatest Hits’, the only surviving music after losing my iPhone a few weeks earlier.
With nothing to punctuate the distances, I felt stationary, only the light breeze on my face hinting at motion. As darkness approached (there really wasn’t much else to report in between!) I ducked off the road 5km before the first road house at Ballodonia. One hundred metres into the trees was enough to remain camouflaged without feeling completely disconnected from the world. “God knows how long it’d take for someone to find me if anything happened here,” I pondered.
Day 2: 192km, via Ballodonia Roadhouse
In the morning I popped into the roadhouse, I was still fully stocked but thought I’d test the waters and try to score a water top-up. To my surprise the staff wouldn’t even fill a bottle for an, apparently desperate, cyclist. Insisting instead I pay $6 for their chilled bottled water. I declined their kind offer and spotted a caravan outside, which after a short chat generously topped me up.
There seemed to be a remarkable and unexpected torrent of caravans heading west across the Nullarbor. Chatting to the retired ‘Grey Nomads’ as they are delightfully referred, they explained how everyone was heading north for winter. I imagined David Attenborough’s slow drawl narrating the story:
“Today we witness the great migration of the Grey Nomads...
Stocked up with jam scones and cups of tea, these unusual mammals tour the plains in search of quaint villages, obscure country museums and more cups of tea...
In the achy cold of winter, these elderly explorers flock north in search of warmer climes, leaving a trail of crumbs and biscuits in their wake.”
Some of the Grey Nomads would hop from caravan park to caravan park, whilst others, like me, scoffed at the high prices and would camp in rest areas and car parks. The one thing common to both was their kindness and eagerness to help as I plodded my way along.
After 50km of more monotony, the road took a turn to the east. It would be the last directional adjustment of the day as a sign informed me it was “Australia’s longest straight road”; 146km of completely straight tarmac. As luck would have it, a light westerly wind converged on my bearing, pushing me along nicely with a bipolar mixture of angry horn blasts from road trains and cheery waves from caravans keeping me awake.
I sang along at full volume to the empty expanse.
“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for meeeee,
I got a bit caught up in the moment and my Wayne’s World-style head banging startled the next passing caravan, which I didn’t quite notice in time to act normal.
“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eyeeeeeee!
So you think you can love me and leave me to diiiieeeeeee,
Ooooohhh baby, can’t do this to me baby,
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here!”
Darkness once again fell, but flying along at 30kph to the sounds of Queen still rocking in my ears, it seemed a shame to waste the tailwind. I pushed on guided by moonlight until I reached another sign informing me of the next roadhouse. I didn’t want to pay to camp so set up in a rest area just before. I’d covered 192km and was in high spirits.
“At this rate I’ll be across in seven days, or less,” or so I thought.
Day 3: 160km, to Madura Pass
Wake Up. Put oats on to cook. Pack up. Dismantle tent. Eat oats. Load up bike. Cycle. I was becoming a well oiled machine feeling as if i was automatically following instructions from a an existential source. Cycle. Cycle. Stop. Eat lunch. Cycle. Cycle. Wave at caravan. Cycle. Cycle. Get tired. Stop. Put up tent. Cook. Eat. Too tired to read. Sleep.
I made it that night to Madura Pass and camped on top of the lookout where I had an infinite view of the expanse of the Roe Plain.
Day 4: 143km, via Mundra and Mundrabilla Roadhouses
The next morning I rolled down the pass with a smile on my face, the first downhill in days, skipped another roadhouse and joined yet more straight road. I reached the next roadhouse at around 3:30pm. My electronics were all running low on battery. My phone and laptop weren’t a problem, but I was keen to keep my GPS alive so I could continue to track the trip. Opening my wallet for the first time I bought a $5 Aussie pie and sat in the cafe for an hour recharging my electronics. It was frustrating to watch time slip by, but I didn’t have a choice. I asked a couple of truckers how far the next rest stop was, wanting to free camp again that night. Answers of 8-10km filled me with confidence in the fading light... 25km later in complete darkness I arrived at the rest stop – never trust distance estimations from drivers!
Day 5: 107km, via Eucla and Border Village
The next morning I was low on water. I rounded a corner and spotted a group of vehicles on the horizon. Parked on a Royal Flying Doctors airstrip was a police checkpoint. A tall policeman waved me down. I told him about my trip before he ran back to the police van to grab a few bottles of water and send me on my way.
“Big climb ahead,” he shouted as I rolled away.
The ‘big climb’ was Eucla pass, at around halfway across the plain it was a significant milestone but with tired legs and a heavy load, the steep hundred metres of elevation was slow going. At the top I turned around and was treated to another incredible view extending forever across the plain and out to sea.
There were a few tourists at Eucla who offered me water and food. I cleaned up in the restrooms and charged my electronics some more – it was proving a ridiculous waste of time, but lonely days and evenings in the tent had me draining batteries listening to music and watching movies on my laptop.
Back on the road it was just 12km to Border Village, marking the border between Western and South Australia. Despite being on the road less than an hour, I took a second food stop. I was exhausted and getting nowhere battling a strong headwind. I resolved to get back on the road and was treated to my first views of the impressive coastline along the Great Australian Bight. The Bunda Cliffs are 90m high at points and I was more than happy to use the frequent view points as excuses to rest against the relentless headwind, inching as close as I dared to peer over the edge.
The wind continued all afternoon and looking at the time I wasn’t anywhere near where I’d aimed to be. A depressing average speed of 14kph stared back at me from my GPS. Again low on water, I targeted a rain water tank marked on my map at about 20km down the road. I tucked down, but with all the panniers on the bike it felt like cycling into the wind with a parachute dragging me back.
To my despair the water tank had been shut off. I had no water and there was still 60km to the next roadhouse. The rest area adjoined to the water tank extended towards the cliffs and in the distance I thankfully spotted another caravan. Seeing me approach, the friendly owner came out to greet me and filled my bottles. Exhausted, I decided to call it a day. I pitched my tent in the gale force winds, sheltering behind a small pile of stones. The tent flapped in the wind all night, creating a loud annoying noise inside. Nevertheless, I soon collapsed to sleep, waking before sunrise to pack up for another day on the endless road.
Day 6: 134km, via Nullarbor Roadhouse
The wind was still howling in the morning. At times I would push up on my pedals and try and break through and at other times aimlessly spin in a low gear feeling useless against the awesome force of nature. Either way, I seemed to make no progress whilst inputting huge amounts of energy. I was slowly burning out. A kilometre could take anywhere up to 10 minutes, a depressing increase from the usual three!
I became frustrated at the smallest of things. The wind was so strong it blew out my headphones. When I finally came up with a way of keeping them in it proved fruitless because I couldn’t hear anything over the wind. By now I knew the words by heart anyway and continued my angry song to the wind.
“I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go, a little high, little low,
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me.”
Actually you know what Freddy, I thought. It really does matter which way the bloody wind blows to me.
I barely looked up all day. Waves and smiles from passing caravaners went unreturned. I rolled into the Nullarbor Roadhouse after dark. Exhausted and after four days on the road I decided a shower wouldn’t go a-miss. It would be $20 to pitch my tent. “Does that include water or a shower?” I tried. “Nope”. I set up my tent on the hard standing, my tent pegs failed to penetrate the ground. “What a rubbish camp site.”
I undressed and lathered up in soap in the cubicle beforehand, not wanting to waste valuable hot water time; it was $1 for three minutes and it would be my first shower all week. My soapy hands dropped the coin into the shower machine… *clunk*…nothing. Naked and covered in soap, I didn’t have another coin. “Arse!”
“Try this one, mate. I’m done,” came a shout from the next cubicle. “No worries, mate,” he continued, a soggy hand appearing above the door offering out three dollar coins on somehow overhearing my predicament. “See you in the bar later!”
Returning to my tent, semi-clean, a friendly caravan couple offered me dinner and water and a few minutes later I was eating a delicious meal chatting outside with both of them. I headed to the bar to return the mystery shower guy’s $3 and charge my electronics, yet again, but he refused the money and bought me a beer. After a hard day’s cycle, I went to bed with another smile.
Day 7: 128km, via closed Yelata Roadhouse
The next morning the wind blew even stronger; I was reluctant to get back on the road. About 20km down the road was the turnoff for the Head of the Bight, where whales had been spotted in the bay. It was a 12km detour, but having done nothing of interest in days, and happy to take a perpendicular turn out of the wind, I headed south to the coast.
“You just missed the Whales!” I was informed. The cliffs were impressive enough, but I felt a little short-changed by my detour. A friendly young couple of backpackers offered to give me a lift back to the highway. I concluded it wasn’t cheating and somehow we squeezed the bike inside their touring station waggon. “Sure, you don’t want a lift to the next town?” Mike asked. I sure wasn’t enjoying myself, but stubbornness won through and I declined the kind offer, cursing the decision all day as I battled on into the crushing wind.
The road rolled up and down, slowing my progress further. I ran low on water again but couldn’t find anywhere to top up. By early evening my last hope was the Yelata Roadhouse. I pushed on into the evening yet again, but found the roadhouse abandoned. I had under one litre of water left. I cycled in the dark for another hour before realising I was too far from anywhere, all rest bays coming up empty in my search for more caravaners. I set up camp and cooked some noodles, drinking the water I’d cooked them in and trying to sleep.
Day 8: 170km, via Nundroo Roadhouse and Penong
In the morning I woke up dehydrated and hungry. Not enough water to cook oats, I saved the last 200ml to ration throughout the morning.
On the road at sunrise it was bitterly cold, I struggled to circulate blood around my hands, shaking and rubbing them together vigorously, which is quite tricky whilst cycling! The GPS temperature reading was 1° Celsius.
Eventually I made it to the Nundroo Roadhouse. A scruffy place, I put the prices aside and ordered a breakfast sandwich and some milk, “$17?! ouch!” I pushed on making it to the village of Penong at lunchtime, which to my surprise had a general store where I bought some overpriced snacks to keep me going. The afternoon was slow and again I was on the road at dark. I was just 7km from Ceduna, dreaming of food and a warm bed after eight days of repetitive food and camping on the Nullarbor. But I soon remembered my dwindling budget from 12 months on the road and, since I still had food, I pitched camp 5km before town. I could see the lights of Ceduna flickering on the horizon. So close, but still in a tent in the bushes!
I rode the 5km to Ceduna in the morning. First stop was the supermarket and a *HUGE* breakfast of cereal, fruit and yoghurt followed by a big pack of chocolate biscuits. Appetite temporarily satisfied I had a look around town, but there was no real point in stopping and at 100km to the next village, it didn’t seem to be any less remote post Nullarbor.
I was exhausted. I’d tested my body and come out more or less intact, but less could be said for my mind. The cycling had become a boring chore punctuated by lonely nights in the tent and repetitive meals. That was the Nullarbor.
Facts for cyclists
Water: I drank about 3-4 litres of water a day in the cool winter temperatures. Rainwater tanks were few and far between and the ones in SA were actually all switched off. Roadhouses would not top up water bottles, but expensive drinking water was available. It was possible to top up water in some toilet blocks, this water was usually marked “non-potable” though. Caravaners are a handy back-up source. In summer temperatures, it may be necessary to drink double the amount I was drinking, or more.
Wind: Everyone told me that in the winter months the wind prevailed from the west. This was true for a couple of days as a southwesterly blew, before the wind turned around. With nothing to break the wind in any direction, I think whichever way you go you have to be ready for at least a few days of huge headwinds.
Tips: Transport WA has put together this handy PDF on how to cycle the Nullarbor safely. Note: Yelata Roadhouse is closed.
This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on jamesdesmond.com.
About the author
James Desmond is an English cyclist who has just spent one year cycling the globe and raising funds for SolarAid, a charity that helps develop solar power in remote parts of Africa that are off the grid. You can read about James's adventures on his website or donate to SoalrAid on his fundraising page.