Crossing the Nullarbor as a solo woman and what to do when things go pear shaped - Part 1
Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Brave is the word most people uttered when they heard I was intending to drive from Western Australia eastward across the Nullarbor plains into South Australia, on my own.
I did not necessarily think I was brave. I felt very prepared for the crossing. Research had been done, I had packed plenty of water in both my car and caravan. The vehicles had been serviced. A playlist of audiobooks was ready on the stereo to relieve boredom. “What could go wrong?” I pondered.
I was soon to find out.
Let me start by saying that crossing the Nullarbor is a right of passage for travelers, both Australian and overseas alike since Edward John Eyre became the first European to cross it in 1841. In Aussie lingo you can say “I’ve done the Nullarbor” with a great sense of pride and gather admiration from those who have not “done” it.
This is one of the foremost outback travelling accomplishments to make. Nullarbor means place of no trees, which is mostly true. This journey passes through 1700 kms of mostly straight road. Indeed, between Balladonia and Caiguna is the world’s longest straight stretch of road, the 90 (146.6k) Mile Straight.
There is a sense of freedom as you drive through this wide open space. I passed by adventurers travelling the plain on pushbikes, motorbikes, cars, caravans, campers, trucks and one intrepid soul was walking the entire way. Once you step foot upon this stretch of Australian Outback you can take pride in your success as you move through this vast, lonely and seemingly endless road.
I had driven this road, east to west, a year and a half previously with my friend Judy from the USA. At that time it was the middle of summer and we planned to drive across as soon as we could. Our goal was to arrive in Western Australia and explore there further. As all well laid plans can sometimes do – we were trapped in Eucla near the South Australian/Western Australia border for a week, due to bushfires making the drive inaccessible. Until we were escorted through by police and emergency services. Read more about that story here
However, that was coming across the country east to west and with a valued friend. This time I was driving west to east, solo, and towing a caravan. Very different. Foot to the floor, the journey can be done in around 24 hours, but this does not allow you time to admire the beauty and uniqueness of the trip.
Norseman marks the beginning of your journey westward. The town is tiny and there is not much to see or do here. Fill up your fuel tanks and spare fuel containers (just in case), grab a few drinks and snacks, crank up your tunes (or audiobooks in my case) and set off.
With great excitement I let out a whoop of delight as I started my drive. This is it, on my way!
There is a reason it is drilled into all Aussie drivers to stop every two hours. Apart from the numb bum syndrome, staring at the bitumen for endless periods of time can be boring. Of course, you must also be alert for the feral camels, kangaroos and emus who want to run and jump into the road just as you are about to drive where they are. On the way over to the west I had hit an emu on the road. Instinct tells you to swerve to avoid, but if there are trees or an incline on the side of the road, you could be injured or worse. It is best to slow your vehicle and brace for the contact. It isn’t pleasant and if you can do nothing else but hit the animal, it is better their life than yours. This is one of the reasons you will find a lot of cars and trucks in Australia with bull bars mounted on the front of their vehicle – to save damage to the vehicle.
Be aware of the intrepid brave tourists on bicycles and the road trains. The very long giant semitrailers are used to driving this road and will sweep past you at almost terrifying speed.
The cliffs of the Great Australian Bight are some of the longest in the world and there are around 6 places to stop on the Nullarbor to see them. Stunning is how I would describe how the land comes to an abrupt halt and a 90 degree cliff plunges into the ocean.
My first day I was just over 350kms from Norseman and my car felt strange. I pulled over as far off the road as I could and discovered the passenger’s side tyre on the caravan was absolutely shredded.
Luckily I know how to change a tyre. Even luckier was when a young man stopped to help. Before too long I was back on the road with the shredded tyre where the spare had been. Just a bit further down the road I pulled into a free camping area for the night. There was a toilet block there and plenty of off road parking. Other caravanners greeted me as I stopped and we all chatted the usual, “where are you from, where are you going?”
It was very peaceful that night. The sky in the outback is unhindered by light pollution from the cities so the stars are magnificently bright and awesome. It is quiet here with only the sound of passing vehicles to disturb the silence.
The next morning I stopped 20 kms down the road at the Balladonia roadhouse for fuel. Balladonia became famous when chunks of the Skylab crashed to earth nearby in 1979. There is a museum there which provides information on the Nullarbor’s environment, but this was closed on the day I went through, due to COVID restrictions.
Another 50kms of driving, I felt something not quite right with the car again. So, I pulled over into a parking area and got out and did a walk around both the car and caravan to see if there was anything out of the ordinary. As I looked at the tyre I had changed the previous day, I heard a pop and the tyre slowly deflated in front of my eyes. Well, bugger me! I had used the spare the day before and only had one spare for the caravan. The car spare tyre would not fit. A phone call to the Royal Automobile Club (roadside assistance) advised me that this was not covered. It would cost $1440 for a tow truck to bring my caravan to Eucla where I could change tyres.
Wanting to save money, I decided to take the tyre off myself, drive the 470kms to Eucla, pick up two new tyres, drive back and change them. This would be add around 1000kms and a day to my trip.
As I was installing the anti theft device to the hitch at the front of the caravan, the jack slipped. As the wheel was already off the caravan, it fell onto the wheel rim. Unfortunately, the anti-sway bars I had installed on the van were on the draw bar and as the caravan fell, the metal of the bar ripped through my right jean leg and 45cms down my thigh. This is when I felt despair, they were my favourite jeans. Well, that and the blood that was flowing from my wound. As I tried to hold my leg to stem the bleeding, I spotted a traveler parked a few metres away. I hobbled to the vehicle, banging on the window with my free hand and calling out to the occupant to help me. The driver was an elderly lady who was able to assist me in opening up my first aid kit and wrapping my leg to stop the bleeding. She also gave me some painkillers that helped. This was THAT moment. The moment when you just want to sit there and cry. But that would not accomplish anything. I had survived a serious car accident just a few months before (read more about that here). "This new incident was not that bad", I thought. "Breath deep, " I told myself. Closing my eyes I visualised what I want to accomplish and what my future plans were. Then I took the action that I could in that precise moment. Another phone call to the RAC roadside assistance was made. They now advised that this event was covered and that they would send the tow truck driver that afternoon. The operator was lovely and asked if I needed the Royal Flying Doctor Service to fly in and assist me with my injury. As it did not look too deep and the padding seemed to have stopped the bleeding, I opted to drive myself to the Nursing Aid station at Eucla, 470kms away. After all, it was my accelerator leg, and would be in one position most of the time. Remember, straight roads, no traffic lights on the Nullarbor, so my leg would be straight most of the time.
Caiguna reminded me of a weird hotel from an American horror film. From the outside, I have never checked out the inside accommodation. I had to make a stop here to refuel. As I went to pay, I must have looked a sight. Fairly dirty from changing the tyre, ripped jeans and blood soaked bandages covering my right thigh. As I went inside to pay a large truckie was in front of me. He took one look at me and exclaimed, “Geez love, what bloody happened to you?”
Once I quickly explained he said, “You go in front of me darl, and get back on the road quickly”. Oh, bless his kind heart.