Most Australians believe the Nullabor, known historically as the Oondiri, is a desert wasteland. In general one sparsely populated with people who would choose to live elsewhere, and they couldn’t be more wrong. The Oondiri is a fascinating place, with a human history that stretches back 18,000 years at the very least. Descendant’s of the ancient tribes who once sparcely populated the waterless plain are now mostly settled in desert towns such as Norseman and Kalgoorlie. They wander the plains no more and this is a choice they make, as do we the vast majority of us.
Their ancestors, some of who were those of the ancient tribal people, have passed into history and legend. As the European cultures of the colonial era a century and more ago, have now blended throughout this vast continent, so have the ancient tribes blended and we continue on our journey to become one people. This is what makes an Australian.
Our land has a blend of many languages, creeds and cultures, creating something uniquely Australian. This is also what you will find amongst the people who now live on the vast plains of the Nullabor. The old tribal warriors passed their Lore onto a remnant that were the northern desert tribes, those who still upheld the ancient ways. Their Lore was strict and it demanded things of the warriors and women, a dedication to cultural tenets that the majority chose not to continue to follow. It is a cultural tradition that is now largely lost, as the desert tribes are now disbanded into a blend of what is an Australian people.
The Nullabor in ‘our world’ supports services aimed at assisting other travellers across the Oondiri Plains. People of a different era and different needs. These are the road houses and small commercial concerns such as fishing and services and large pastoral leases which run cattle and sheep.
These industries are mostly populated by hard working people who are pioneers in bring commerce to this remote region, in a new world. Such as the folk of Mundrabilla Station, Madura and others in isolated and remote regions. Nobody owns the land anymore, I doubt anyone ever really did. It is on loan to those who hope to achieve something in a world hungry for food, resources and a want to simply survive. Be they International consortiums, mining industries or small family concerns. It is only to be hoped that our Australian governing bodies will show due duty of care with the lands careful management.
Many of the Nullabor residents are from pioneering families and/or cross cultural descendants from native tribes and other pioneers. They are born to this land, or they come from nearby regions such as the Eyre Peninsula and those regions of the Goldfields and the deserts on the sunset-side in Western Aus’. The Oondiri (or Nullabor) is a vast land, stretching out across the 1,4000+ klm east to west of what is a waterless plain, and it still draws many adventurers. They are adventurers such as a traveller Heidi, who we met along the way.
Heidi Hetzer is an adventuring Dame of the world and you have to admire her guts as she circumnavigates the world at an age closer to her 80’s than 70’s. She will admit that she easily gets lost, but she enjoys the many challenges, that circling the globe in her vintage car offer. We waved her off from Caiguna Road House assuring her if she stuck to the tar, then she couldn’t get lost. There is only one tar road on the Nullabor after all. A little alarmed we watched her turned west… back the way she had come, instead of east towards sunrise-side and Sydney some 3,000+ klm away. We met her further down the track, so all is well and I am looking forward to hearing more of her adventures.
Another character we met during our two-week journey across the Oondiri was a ‘dogger’. One of those intrepid gentlemen whose job it is to control the vermin in the deserts to manageable levels. I am talking of the wild animal imports, not native to this land. Those who decimate this delicately balanced environment. Wild dogs, cats, rabbits and foxes whose impact on the delicate native balance on the plains is nothing short of catastrophic. Having decimated the flora and the native fauna populations in these dry times, many of these vermin are being driven from the cooler caves and shelters they use. One dog is capable of torturing and killing up to 30 sheep in any given night. They harass and gut the stock, not for food but for sport and it is the kind of habit that the Oondiri can ill support. The ‘dogger’ will spend many days in isolation checking populations and baiting where necessary with meat baits carefully laced through 1080 poisons.
Pure bred dingo populations are the only native fauna affected by these baits and the purebred are almost non-existent on the mainland coastal and fringe regions such as the Nullabor. Instead we have a treacherous mixed breed of dog and dingo. One that doesn’t have the wary and careful nature of the pure bred dingo of legend and lore.
By far though, the most delightful of experiences we had, was exploring the beautiful colonial homestead of the Mundrabilla Station and the owners who we were able to spend some time with. The stations out on these waterless plains are of necessity vast and require careful balance in management. Mundrabilla is such a station and its managers have lived and grown-up within the heart of the plains. They have a keen understanding of resources and a wonderful knowledge of the history and management of the land, as one does when you have live nestled within its heart your entire life. The Nullabor is where their own family history and heritage is found. They are people of the great waterless plain. Regardless of your creed, race or culture, it is a land that is simply in your blood.
Managing such a vast holding is all time consuming and in having to deal with livestock and horses in distress, as they are trucked across the plain, is one of the more difficult of things they are called on to do. Because of this, they have set up spelling yards for animals in transit, allowing them to survive more easily the difficult crossing. It is just one of the many things the residents of the Oondiri do, because of their love of the land, animals and Country. The owners of Mundrabilla are also considering organizing and running guided horse trails along the beautiful shoreline of the Great Australian Bight. Perhaps in the near future it will be something truly special that will be available to the travelling adventurer.
There is a great deal written about the Nullabor, some of it fictional, some of it threaded with fact and much of it misunderstood. Such as ‘The Old Coach Road’ that runs up on the Hampton Tablelands some ways back, following the escarpment edge along the Roe Plain. This road was one incorrectly referred to by this name, and the name has become so popular that it appears on many maps. A name steeped in a contrived romance of the Nullabor. The truth though is that no coach, particularly a horse drawn one, ever crossed the waterless plain. This reality was born in someone’s imagination.
The dirt tracks that run along the top edge on the escarpment were used to service bores, rock holes and tanks by those who manage stock. But it’s a popular and romantic notion that coaches once plied along these tracks of what is essentially a waterless plain. The truth is that no horse would survive the rigors of the waterless plain. This is why the Afghan cameleers of the past century, having passed the Bunda cliffs, dropped down onto the Roe Plain at Eucla and used the tracks along the bottom of the escarpment.
It was here water could be found in the stone dams built precariously into the gullies of the escarpment also visiting the oceans freshwater soaks that can be found in the sand dunes. It is here water was found and in other places such as the many rock holes like Afghan Rock and Newman’s rock.
These two water reservoirs, which sit at the very western reach of the Nullabor are like the rock holes scattered across the plain that would capture and hold, for a time, the precious liquid of life. It is many of these same rock holes that now provide that valuable water for the wildlife and a safe camp for the travellers along the old routes across the waterless plain, that are still in use today. Many are dry, silted or their resource lost however, without the care the traditional tribes people afforded them.
There are many legends of the Oondiri. Many gallant achievements, others not so pretty, nor as memorable a tale as some. But crossing the Nullabor remains one of the truest adventures, if you only take the time to really immerse yourself into the land and discover its secrets.
My best memory though is of the caverns of the plains, and this is a future blog. But the memory that will stay with me is that of the graves of pioneers, facing a lonely vigil on the slopes of the escarpment. That of Thomas Kennedy and fellow pioneer of Mundrabilla, Annie McGill who died with her babe. These two look out over the great vast wilderness of the Great Australian Bite … for them, nothing will change as with other ghosts of the great waterless plain, Oondiri.
To find a listing of Jan’s blog posts on travel click up “Oldies at Large” and become part of the journey.
If you would like a anthology of blogs to carry with you in print or the e-book, “Discover Australia and Her Lore”, you will find this on Amazon.com the e-book is merely the price of a cuppa. I hope you enjoy the journey.