Driving across the Nullarbor

Australia is a huge country and it can be easy to forget just how big it is when you fly from the west to the east coast in only three to five hours. Driving across the Nullarbor is humbling, breathtaking, at times boring and a great way to get to know the person or people you drive it with. The shortest route from Perth to Melbourne is 3420kms, though there are many detours along the way that I’m sure are worth the extra kilometres.

I have driven from Perth to Melbourne twice to transport our boat to competitions on the east coast. Even when driving the ‘shortest route’, you get to see the endless kilometres of bare Australian desert, the rugged southern coast line, life in rural Australia, kangaroos, emus, camels and dingos. The drive took us three days both times, though if you’re doing the drive to take it slow and explore Australia you could easily take a month.

Day 1

Perth to Cocklebiddy, 1154kms

The first day is spent driving over the Perth hills and across seemingly endless low lying land to Norseman before getting on the A1 Highway. For the first half of the day, petrol stations are relatively common as there are multiple rural towns dotted along the road. After Norseman, petrol stations become less frequent so it’s important to keep your eye on the fuel gauge and fill up often. If you left early in the morning you’ll arrive at Cocklebiddy just after the sun goes down. Cocklebiddy has a population of around 19 people and consists mainly of the Wedgetail Inn Roadhouse which is where you’ll be staying (it’s the only option). Rooms cost between $100 and $150 a night and are extremely basic. There is no Wifi but if you are there early enough, the restaurant serves a very simple Aussie pub style dinner which will fill you up after a long day on the road.

Day 2

Cocklebiddy to Port Augusta, 1230kms

Today is the day that you’re actually going to cross the Nullarbor. Starting early from Cocklebiddy, get back on the A1 and remember to turn the right way so that you don’t end up back in Perth. Towns are super sparse on this stretch and can be 300kms apart so make sure that you keep your eye on the fuel tank and fill up when you get the opportunity. The official South Australian border is just after Eucla at the Border Village Roadhouse. This is also around where the Nullarbor plain starts and is by far my favourite part of the trip. Half way through the day today the highway joins up with the coastline of the Great Australian Bight and you can see the ocean from the highway. There are multiple places to stop so that you can look out over the towering cliffs and off the ‘edge’ of Australia. At some point in South Australia there is a stop point where you have to throw out any fruits or vegetables that you have in the car for biosecurity reasons. Ending another long day just after dark you have hopefully arrived in Port Augusta. This town is much bigger than Cocklebiddy and there are a few options for accomodation. It might be worth booking ahead so that you definitely have something.

Day 3

Port Augusta to Melbourne, 1034kms

The final day of the trip goes past Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia, across the Victorian border and ends in Melbourne! Day three is a relatively uneventful day, though there are quite a lot of roads around rural Victoria so make sure that you don’t accidentally get guided off the A/M8 highway.

Preparation/Safety Tips

  • Phone Reception. The only mobile phone provider that has reception the whole way is Telstra. It is worth buying a prepaid SIM card if they are not your normal provider. If you don’t have Telstra, your phone service will drop out around four hours after leaving Perth and won’t come back until you are around Adelaide and Melbourne. There isn’t much wifi in the middle of Australia either so don’t count on having access to internet.
  • Food. Take your own food as much as you can. Petrol stations are pretty sparse and they often only sell greasy hamburger style food which can be pretty heavy when you’re sitting in the car the whole day.
  • Water. Take your own water and quite a lot of it. Again, the only place you can buy water is petrol stations and it can be astronomically expensive. We normally took either lots of water bottles or a big container that we could fill our bottles from. On the off chance that you break down or run out of fuel in the middle of no where, the last thing you want added on is having no water on a hot day.
  • Car Service. Get your car serviced before you go. Check your tyres too and make sure you have the tools to change a tyre if you have to. You just don’t want to get stuck on the side of the road in the middle of Australia.
  • Entertainment. Download lots of different music playlists and podcasts onto your phone. Three days of music is a lot. You will definitely get sick of listening to your own playlists and chances are you won’t want to listen to your bangers at 6am in the morning.
  • Kangaroos. Driving when it is dark or around dawn and dusk is pretty dangerous on these roads as kangaroos jump out across the road. Kangaroos do a lot of damage to your car as they can be really big. They are also quite hard to see and once they are in front of you, it is too late. To be safe, we stopped driving as soon as it got dark and when we were driving in the early morning or around sunset, both driver and passenger are on ‘Roo watch’.

A little story…

On one of our drives across the Nullarbor, we were 630kms from Perth in Widgiemooltha. We were in pretty desperate need for fuel because we hadn’t filled up for a while. We had driven through the previous town (Coolgardie 77kms previously) because all of the fuel stations seemed to be closed. It was a similar story in Widgiemooltha. We pulled into the petrol station because we had no other option. We were extremely pleased to realise that the diesel pumps were working so we could fill up but all of the petrol pumps were empty. We asked the worker what the story was and he said that a storm had run through a few days before and damaged the power lines in the area. All the towns in the area (including Coolgardie and the next town) had lost power and were running everything on generators which meant that the petrol stations had run out of petrol. The next petrol load wasn’t arriving for another three days. If we had have been driving a petrol car, we would have been stuck in that town for the next three days. The petrol station also had no internet which meant that their credit card machines weren’t working. We had no cash so we were lucky that we could organise a bank transfer by using someones personal hotspot. The point of this story isn’t about driving petrol vs diesel cars. The point is that anything can happen on your trip across the Nullarbor so it is best to be prepared and also to expect the unexpected. It is also helpful to carry a little bit of cash for emergencies (not too much though).

Detours Worth Taking

If you’re planning on crossing the south coast of Australia to take it all in, you’ll definitely need more than three days. You could easily stretch it out to two months and still feel like there is more to see. Here are a few detours worth taking:

South West, Western Australia

Instead of driving directly east from Perth, go south instead. Drive down to Bunbury, take in the surf and the wine region around Yallingup and Margaret River, around the coast to Albany, and all the way to Esperance. There will be separate individual blog posts about each of these regions coming so stay tuned. They deserve one to two weeks though. From Esperance go north to Norseman and then jump onto the A1 to cross the Nullarbor and reach Ceduna.

Port Lincoln

Once you reach Ceduna, there is a whole triangular peninsula that the main highway cuts off. I haven’t been to these places personally but I have heard that they are nice. The drive past Streaky Bay, all the way to Port Lincoln before turning back up to Port Augusta follows the rugged South Australian coastline and allows for much more sightseeing than the highway provides.

Adelaide

Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and the South Australian coast are all beautiful. Adelaide is the capital city of South Australia and has a long sandy coastline. Kangaroo Island and the South Australian coastline are areas that I myself have to visit. I won’t advise on them but definitely look them up when planning your trip.

The Great Ocean Road

This scenic stretch of road is from Warrnambool to Torquay in Victoria and is also definitely worth a detour. From the coast to the national park areas, there is lots to see and do along this drive and it is relatively easy to find information about the area.

The Nullarbor is an incredible experience and one you won’t forget. It is worth doing some research before you take the journey though as the middle of Australia lacks things that a lot of us city slickers take for granted (Wifi, phone signal, running water, reliable electricity and an abundance of fresh produce). With the right preparation though, a patient mind and good company, you will have a great time.

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