Nullarbor (Latin) Nullus/Nothing, Arbor/Trees
Travelling to Western Australia via the Nullarbor is an Australian driving rite-of-passage, a journey that in reality is only a recent confection, made in the spirit of build it and they will come.
And come they did, in their droves.
That intrepid explorer Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) was the first white-fella to traverse the Nullarbor on a year-long journey in 1840 and it almost didn’t happen.
Eyre left with a buddy named John Baxter and three indigenous assistants, one we know was named Wylie and the other two remain unnamed as they bolted with the expedition’s supplies after killing Baxter.
Now what led to that ruckus isn’t documented, but I’d surmise that maybe Eyre and Baxter were pretty hard taskmasters going by the later accounts of Eyre’s tenure as Jamaica’s Colonial Governor.
He seemed to like flogging the locals when they wouldn’t adhere to his rule of law, that seems, was the foment for major dissent when the locals rebelled in 1865 in the Morant Bay uprising. Nett result of that little contretemps was the deaths of 439 black peasants killed, another 600 flogged and 1,000 houses burnt to the ground as Eyre’s military garrison stomped all over the unrest.
If you’ve ever been in Eyre’s part of the Australian world, you’ll know that travelling in a modern vehicle and on the bitumen highway named after him is a piece-of-cake in the modern era, but imagine walking the nearly 3,000 kilometres from Adelaide to Albany with only what you could carry?
The word stoic springs to mind and that is exactly the same reference I’ll use for the struggling souls trying to maintain some semblance of business on the Nullabor at the moment.
Thanks to good-old Covid once more, another institution is being challenged, as the reduction in east-west vehicular traffic has likely signalled the death-knell of roadhouses that support our wanderlust heading west (or east).
Whilst the daily passage of road-trains continues ferrying the necessary supplies of the nation’s States, passenger car activity is at a standstill with the constantly changing Covid lockdowns and in particular, Mark McGowan’s Western Australian Government’s insistence on being the strictest on restricting interstate access.
Good friends of ours, Brian and Deb, have been hanging and hanging to head west to see their kids and grandkids who live in Perth, but since the peak of Covid in 2020 have been thwarted by the rolling lockdowns. But a window of opportunity just recently emerged for South Australians to get in there and they’ve bolted.
Brian kept me informed of the journey and his words are telling for any of you contemplating the trip anytime soon because it’s going to require some serious planning.
Both he and Deb have made the journey plenty of times before and the first thing they noted was just how many vehicles weren’t on the highway. It was quiet and in the space of an eight-hour day driving they saw only a handful of passenger vehicles, whilst the convoy of trucks rolled on unabated.
At the Border Village crossing they were glad they had checked all the entry requirements and had their permits in place because as Brian said, “whilst we were waiting our turn, around four vehicles from NSW and VIC were turned away, the families devastated that they had no recourse other than to head back and to almost certain quarantine”.
But the one concern Brian flagged that is really disturbing is that with so little traffic the townships and their roadhouses of Penong, Nullarbor, Mundrabilla, Caiguna, Balladonia, and ultimately into Norseman, have all experienced significant reductions in income through lost sales of fuel, food, and where offered, accommodation. Some are more affected than others, Penong in SA and Norseman in WA having a local community around them and still spending, but the ones in-between are caught in a Covid-trap and there’s no certainty when it will end.
If you’re running a diesel you’re in a better position. Those servos along the way keep distillate and provided they can stay open you’ll get your fuel, but bad luck if you’re running a petrol fourbie.
Brian and Deb’s Hilux and caravan combo was slurping diesel at between 13-16L/100kms with a largely tailwind, a reasonable figure when sitting at around 100km/h and able with their standard tank size to make the distances between roadhouses without range anxiety.
They were having a chat at a caravan park on the outskirts of Perth with a chap from VIC who had to leave Perth to drive back to Melbourne with his wife in their Dodge RAM and caravan to see their daughter who had just popped a baby. Seems like a responsible parent-kind-of-thing-to-do were it not for the fact that their RAM weapon was not of the diesel kind but instead the 5.7L V8 petrol that even with VVT likes a drink or two.
RAM man was decidedly nervous hearing Brian’s stories from the roadhouses of unleaded in any form being just about non-existent, a consequence of zero traffic and no demand and no desire to be left with an underground tank full of stale fuel.
You see the RAM when towing its van has a prodigious thirst, the owner quoting Brian a figure of 32L/100kms, meaning a range of maybe 300 kilometres from its 98L tank…
With a stock of jerry cans for insurance, we hope he was able to bridge the distances on his way home, but it begs the question about the viability of those poor businesses on that stretch of road once Job Keeper finishes and what of our prospects of doing the journey with any reliability anytime soon?
When vaccinations are commonplace and immunity is on the improve, you’d hope the border closures are dropped and travel once more becomes unrestricted. Maybe new owners will take over those businesses that fail and the Eyre Highway will be a journey that links east and west by a car once more.
*Pics thanks to Brian and Deb Rodda, Rose and David Wilson and Julia Cameron.