To travel Across The Nullabor is an aspiration and the adventure of a lifetime for many Australians. It is a tour we have done a few times, quite a few, in the last decade or so and it is a tour that I love. Currently we are parked up on the edge of the Nullabor preparing to do the trip again. It is 1500klm of adventure along the longest stretch of straight road in the world, any bend becomes a talking point. I once wrote a small travelogue on our first adventure … it was just so much fun and it has continued to fascinate me each time we embark out from the edge of the Nullabor.
Even the name, of which there are many versions in the spelling, is a complexity. The Latin version is ‘Nullarbor’ but we ain’t latin, this is Aus’. The colonial version, used in many older text and records is ‘Nullabor’ but my preferred title is Oondiri, this is the ancient time honoured name used for thousands upon thousands of years. But when I say ‘The Oondiri Plain’ no one knows about where I mean as the ancient language from where the name was drawn has fallen into history. However, here I will use the colonial version … this is after all Aus’.
Historically, the Nullabor, considered by Europeans to be almost uninhabitable, was a traditional hunting ground used by the semi-nomadic Aboriginal tribes or clans who lived on their traditional estates over long periods. They inhabited these lands for thousands of years as with the prehistoric megafauna in a time when the Oondiri Plains were more habitable. These days the Oondiri Plain is crossed by travellers following the stretch of tar known as the Eyre Highway, or sitting aboard the trans-continental Indian-Pacific train whose track runs well north of the road. The Nullabor is actually two plains, the Roe Plain which skirts the Great Southern Ocean to the east and the Hampton Tableland that sits up over the escarpment that separates the two. The Eyre Highway cuts down onto the Roe Plain at Madura and skips back up after quite a drive at Eucla, near the border between WA and SA. The ‘Old Coach Road’ (known locally) travels just back from the escarpment of the Roe Plain staying off the lower plain all together and is considered something of a fun run for 4×4’s and scrambler’s.
They began to build the Eyre Highway officially in 1941, almost 100 yrs after it was first crossed on foot by a whitefella and his blackfella companion. It also has a lesser known historical nick name of ‘The Crazyman Highway’. That name though has now fallen into history since they finished tarring the thing some 35 years later in 1976.
It even has its own golf course, which boasts 18 holes and is the longest in the world, some 1,365klm in length. The Man is playing the thing and it is a good stretch between drinks let me tell ya’.
Edward John Eyre’s ‘Whitefella’ crossing was in 1841 – his journal can be downloaded from the Gutenberg Project catalogues for free and makes for an interesting read. He of course took along a Aboriginal tracker and other helpers, who turned out not to be entirely much help as they thought him mad to want to attempt the crossing, and maybe he was.
The Oondiri Plain (Nullabor) though, holds many secrets. There are the blowholes and the vast lakes deep beneath the surface in sacred places. Then there are the Serpent of legend who live in this haunting landscape such as the legendary white Kajoora serpent.
I wrote about the Kajoora serpent in Book 4 of the Dreaming Series, Caverns of the Dreamtime. They inhabit the little known caves of the Oondiri Plain along with many other snakes and serpents in these dark worlds. These caverns, mostly collapsed Dolines are generally found to within 50 klm of the Eyre Highway and there are about 100 which have significant passage lengths that have been carved out by time where water and wind has eaten into their soft limestone. This vast land here is well known to breathe at times with wind speeds reaching incredible strengths along the narrowed passages and blow holes, sucking at the unwary and drawing many to their deaths.
Or perhaps it is the serpents below, drawing a large breath, such are the legends of the Oondiri caverns. Cave collapses are prevalent as the limestone is poorly cemented and structurally weak collapsing readily. The arid climate, which promotes weathering, also weakens the limestone further. Cavers have died exploring this subterranean world.
These caves are largely wild caves, many offering the cave divers a world not commonly visited, and one remote and forbidding in its dangers. On July 1st 2015 the caves on the WA side of the Oondiri Plain will come under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife for good reason. On the SA side they are protected by the Nat. Parks and Wildlife service there and are classified under the ‘Nullarbor Plains National Park’. There are a dozen caves within this park, most classified as ‘Wild Caves’ ie.. largely unsupervised. One or two are fully protected and locked against vandalism and exploration by unskilled travellers. You can however gain access on appeal.
Diverse fauna, including troglophile insect species, mainly cockroaches, beetles and crickets inhabit the vast cave systems. Peregrine falcons are known to nest in some caves while mummified Tasmanian tiger carcases, one dating to aprox. 4600BP have been found in several caves as well as bones of the Tasmanian devil. Other caves contain bones of Pleistocene megafauna, including giant kangaroos as well as such rare finds as a complete skeleton of the marsupial lion (thylacoleo). It is truly an adventure to visit these vast catacombs of the Oondiri Plain and one that should not be taken carelessly or lightly.
Aboriginal use of the caves was usually restricted to camping, artwork and rituals in the entrance sections or overhangs. Dark zones were avoided except in times of deep ritual. However Koonalda cave saw extensive mining for flint nodes well into the dark zone. These were used for trade across the land, following the songlines of an ancient people in their traditional routes. The stone was used in tool and weapon manufacture throughout Australia having been traded along traditional trade routes thousands of kilometres long for millennia.
So as we head out across the Oondiri Plain we have carefully planned our journey. Son No.3’s comment was … “How can you take 2 weeks to cross the Nullabor? There is not a lot to see or do?” I laughed and then gave him a more informed ear full. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is now planning his own extended trip ‘Across the Nullabor’.