Quick Guide: How to Survive the Nullarbor

Quick Guide: How to Survive the Nullarbor

Written by Heather

Topics: Life in Oz

There were a lot of things I’d read about before my arrival in Australia, but the Nullarbor Plain was not one of them. Even after living in the country for eight months, no one had ever breathed a word of the nearly treeless landscape to me. Then, just a week before Adam and I planned to kick off the road trip, one of his family members said in a quite ominous tone, “Ooooh, you’re going all the way to Perth? That means you’ll cross the Nullarbor…”

The Nulla-what?! I looked at her with wide eyes and she seemed to look at me with a “good luck, you’ll need it” expression, all the while shaking her head slightly. “Heather, it’s the straightest, longest, most boring drive in Australia. People tend to break down during the trip. Take plenty of water and food. Be prepared to burn your tires in case of an emergency.” Hmm, just another road trip in Oz, right?

When I mentioned the Nullarbor Plain to Nicole for the first time, she thought it was something out of Lord of the Rings. For us, the name alone certainly evoked a sense of caution and potential danger. Would we enter the Bermuda Triangle of Australia and never be seen again?

Obviously I survived the Nullabor (twice at that!) and am happy to tell the tale. Hopefully there are some informative bits here for those embarking on this journey themselves. For everyone else, I hope a few anecdotes amuse you.

Tips for driving (and surviving) the Nullarbor like a pro

Like any road trip in Australia, pack water and snacks…only pack more than usual. If you are heading west, stock up in Ceduna. For those heading east, pick up supplies in the largest town you can before Norseman (which is the largest depends on which direction you’re coming from). We picked up enough food to supply all three meals for 2-3 days and bought plenty of ice for the esky. We had 20-25 gallons of water for drinking, washing dishes, and emergencies.

We left Ceduna on March 18, 2010 to head west!

Break up the driving with your road trip partners. We didn’t do a good job of that early in the road trip and that led to some fatigue and injuries. Nicole had her first go at Aussie driving on the Nullarbor and we switched off every 2-3 hours. Since the radio in Paul Heinz was busted, we rotated listening to one another’s iTunes playlists from our laptops.

Day 2 on the Nullarbor — camping, driving the longest straight road in the country, and arriving in Norseman

Select petrol stops wisely. Heading east, we filled up in Ceduna and topped up at nearly every station for fear of running out. Prices on the Nullarbor are already more expensive than average, and by filling up often, we paid some of the highest prices in Oz. Before heading west, an older couple gave us the names of the best places to buy petrol (of course these may change over time): Norseman, Mundrabilla, Caiguna, Nundroo, and Ceduna.

Figure out how much time you want to spend driving from Ceduna to Norseman. Between these two towns you’ll find petrol stops, a road house or two, and perhaps a few rooms to sleep in at one of the stops. I think we made the journey (going both east and west) in 2-3 days. We stocked up on groceries in Ceduna and when we finally arrived in Norseman a few days later, we created our own free camping spot just off the road, partially hidden by some trees near a petrol station. For $3, you can have a shower at the petrol station — a wonderful gift after several days of sitting in a van with no bathroom facilities!

Wave to your fellow Nullarbor travelers. Once you make it to the straight roads of this treeless plain, you’ll find that most people turn on their head lights and wave to everyone passing in the opposite direction. And you can pick your own style…I alternated between a one-hand, two-finger, and one-finger flip/raise. Adam preferred to wave both hands like mad and smile.

Take photos of the unique signs — and better yet, the uniquely decorated trees/bushes. Every so often we saw signs warning us to be watchful for roos, camels, emus, and other Aussie wildlife. What I loved even more were the trees that travelers had decorated at random, each with its own theme — Christmas ornaments, underwear, hats/caps, flip flops and shoes, CDs/DVDs, stuffed animals…even mattresses!

We always passed too quickly to take photos, but I finally managed to stop in time for this one, decorated with stuffed animals.
Nullarbor tree

Watch out for wildlife!
Nullarbor sign

Become comfortable going to the bathroom outside. In broad daylight. By this stage of the road trip, I was a champion of peeing outside in the middle of the night when there were no toilets available. One day on the Nullarbor, we pulled over at a rest stop (nothing more than a bit of bush-cleared land on the side of the road) for lunch. I knew it could be hours til our next step and our last stop was an hour or two behind us. When fellow travelers left the rest stop, I told Adam and Nicole to watch for cars in both directions and dashed to a nearby 1-foot tall bush, pretending it provided a bit of modesty. This was my first, but wouldn’t be my last, successful experience peeing in the bush in the middle of the day.

Obey the law at Border Village. Heading east, I was the lucky one in the driver’s seat when we made the mandatory stop at the quarantine checkpoint at Border Village (which is, surprise, on the border of South Australia and Western Australia). We knew better than to have fresh fruit and veg on us, so we passed through with no dramas. Just a few minutes down the road, I was stopped by two cops in the middle of the road for what I assumed was a secondary inspection. Instead, I was administered my first ever breathalyzer. No worries, I passed that one too.

Heading back west means crossing the Nullarbor…again

Pack plenty of entertainment. We brought several TV shows along with us, and every night of the 2-month road trip, we watched an episode or two once we’d picked our camp site for the night and set up shop. We kept up with the current season of Survivor, watched one of my favorite Aussie shows The Hollowmen, and watched one of Adam’s favorite shows Dexter. I’d never seen an episode of the popular series about a serial killer, and it caused quite a few tense evenings (just before going to bed, at that!), but when I think about the road trip, I hear the theme to Dexter in my mind.

Thankfully the Nullabor proved to be easier than anticipated, and we arrived on the other side relatively unscathed! Once we began exploring Western Australia, I fell in love with the state just as quickly as I had with South Australia. The road trip continues on in a future post or two about the stunning state of WA.

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19 Comments Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Megan says:

    Great tips! I would love to drive across the Nullarbor. Not sure if it’s your style of music, but have you heard of Kasey Chambers? She’s an Australian country singer-songwriter who grew up out there with her family – lots of her songs are about that part of the country.

    Haha that little wave is so classic of outback driving – it’s simply the law of the land that you must acknowledge anyone you pass once you get that far away from civilisation.

    • Heather says:

      I haven’t heard of Kasey Chambers but I do like country music :-) Didn’t listen to much of it in the last year but have been listening to every mix country CD I ever made in the last week — will be sure to check her out soon! Any songs/albums you particularly recommend?

      And you’re spot on with the wave — once you get far enough away from a fair sized down, you’re in it together and you gotta wave and create some camaraderie!

  2. Bill says:

    Nice commentary Heather…seems it would be worth it to go to Perth

  3. Nicole says:

    I was sure we were headed into the Bermuda Triangle of Australia when I first heard about the Nullarbor! Glad we all made it out of there alive – hahaha πŸ˜‰ It was great re-watching the videos & reminiscing about the Oz Road Trip.

    Well, it is almost my bedtime & now I have the Dexter theme song stuck in my head so you know what I’m going to be thinking about as I’m trying to fall asleep – thanks a lot Heather! πŸ˜‰

    • Heather says:

      I’ll try not to bring up Dexter tonight during our Skype call…though it’ll be morning for you and night for me, so I hope YOU don’t bring it up O:-)

      Thanks for driving it with me <3

  4. Jaime says:

    Damn this looks and sounds amazing. I think I would do the same and fill up at every station I see. Ahhh I get so jealous reading your blog post on the amazing road trips you did in Oz. Is this part of the Outback? Where is the Outback… isn’t that where everyone gets killed…lol well in horror movies at least?

    • Heather says:

      I think every state/territory on the mainland has some Outback in it (except Canberra) — people refer to the Outback in general, but someone might also say, “I live in Outback South Australia” to refer to the (obviously) Outback region within the state of South Australia. The Nullarbor is indeed part of the often dry, flat, dusty landscape. Last year, however, they had more rainfall than they’d had in YEARS and plant life was green. New vegetation brought animals and wildlife from miles and miles away (including this horrible little mice!).

      And I can’t watch those scary movies, but I think a few have used the Outback as the setting for murders. Eeeep!

  5. Dorothy says:

    Great Post! When we crossed the Nullarbor a friend of ours, who were towing their caravan, flipped over due to the strong wind. Nobody was hurt but they cross the Nullarbor a few times each year and something always seems to go wrong. Glad your trip was safe :)

    • Heather says:

      Wow!!! We saw a van or two that have flipped but no one was there, so we guessed it was an older accident and the van’s contents were still strewn about. How did you guys find it?

  6. Not so Nulla-boring by the sounds of it :)

    Now you know more about the Nullabor that most Australians do, or at least me.

    • Heather says:

      I’m really pleased with the ground I covered over the last year! I just wish I’d made it to the northern most coast and the past Perth in WA — there’s always a next time, right? I’m already daydreaming of return trips to Sydney, filled with eating at all of the places we brainstormed but I didn’t have time (or money) for.

  7. Camille says:

    It certainly sounds like Paul Heinz did quite well crossing the Nullabor – twice – after all his “issues” were fixed. You and Adam did a good job of picking him out. Seems that the three of you were well prepared with food, water, snacks and of course entertainment along the way. Good thing there were bushes with leaves on them to hide weeing. I am sure you have given some great tips to those who are planning to cross the Nullarbor and if given a second chance at it, it would be just as memorable for you as the first time!

  8. Oh memories. I loved our makeshift camp in Norseman — I still maintain that it was not in an aboriginal reserve!

  9. Andrew says:

    And I thought the stories of driving across Texas were bad.

    • Heather says:

      HA! I haven’t done a US road trip but it’s on my list. If I survived the Nullarbor, I think I can do most road trips :-)

  10. peter says:

    lm going to perth and on the gann train from aderlaid to Darwin and hopw to cross the nullabor for a trip of a life time

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