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The Nullarbor Plain, Australia

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The Nullarbor Plain is a huge expanse that sits at the bottom of the continent of Australia, straddling the border between Western Australia and South Australia. It's notable because it has no trees. The name is derived from the Latin nullus arbor, meaning 'no tree'. It serves as a physical and metaphorical barrier between Western Australia and the rest of the country. Crossing the Nullarbor is recognized as a rite of passage and something that you generally only do once.

Driving across the Nullarbor

One way to cross the Nullarbor is to drive. To do this, you traverse the Eyre Highway, the longest piece of straight road in the world. In fact, the Eyre Highway skirts mostly around the southern edge of the Nullarbor, following for the most part the Great Australian Bight, which is essentially a very big piece of water bordered by very steep and spectacular cliffs.

The most memorable thing about driving across the Nullarbor is the fact that there is not much to see. Once you've seen the cliffs for a few minutes, your interest will undoubtedly wane, and that leaves only fellow travellers, road kill, and the constant threat of big trucks bearing down on you as the only entertainment.

Civilization is spread fairly thinly along the route. Most towns consist mainly of a service station and some spartan motel accommodation, and can be several hundred kilometres apart. This also means that the service stations have a monopoly, so they can feel free to ask whatever prices they like for petrol - always exorbitant.

Survival Tips for Driving

  • Travel with people you like - Otherwise, it's a very long way to go and the chances of you actually getting away with pushing someone off the cliffs are fairly remote.

  • Take entertainment - 'entertainment' includes recorded music; radio reception is next to zero, so take more than one Spice Girls1 album, or your sanity can't be vouched for.

  • Eat your fruit - Not because there's a particularly high risk of scurvy, but because it will be confiscated at Norseman, if you haven't eaten it. The Nullarbor serves as a physical barrier to fruit fly, and the last thing the West Australian fruit farming fraternity wants is for you to bring them in on those oranges that have rolled under the seat.

  • Keep your eyes peeled - At dusk and dawn especially, kangaroos are wont to wander onto the road; and they'll make a jolly big hole in your car if you hit one.

Crossing by Train

The other way to cross the Nullarbor is by train. The Indian Pacific is so named because it runs between those two particular oceans, right through the middle of the Nullarbor on the longest straight piece of railway track in the world, 297 miles (478km).

The train journey crosses through the heart of the desert, where there's nothing but earth as far as you can see to the left and to the right of you... no matter which direction you're facing.

Between Kalgoorlie in the west and Port Pirie in the east there is not much to see at all. The train stops once in Cook, a remote village on the South Australian side of the Nullarbor; where everyone gets off the train and attempts to buy ice creams at the general store, only to discover that there are only three in stock... and they've been promised to a family who ordered them three weeks ago. Cook used to have a hospital, which advertised for clients with the extremely catchy slogan 'If you're crook, come to Cook'; but as the sign was actually in Cook, it failed to reach its target audience and the hospital closed down.

Survival Tips for Crossing by Train

Get a sleeper - Sure, it's more expensive than flying across the country; but at least you get to assume a horizontal position and have people serve you food, not like the others who have to spend four days and nights sitting bolt upright, eating re-re-re-reheated pies. If you don't get a sleeper, remember to take a blanket, because it gets cold at night; some cards, as someone will want to teach you a gambling game to relieve you of any excess cash; and food, because the cafeteria car will undoubtedly run out of food somewhere near Zanthus... and no, there's nothing there either.

Once you've crossed the Nullarbor in either manner, you have graduated; and so you will never have to do it again. From now on, you can do the civilized thing and spend three or four hours in an aeroplane, instead of 24 to 36 hours looking at naked earth.

1The Spice Girls were the UK girl group phenomenon of the 1990s.

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