I bet there aren’t many couples that wake up on their 5th wedding anniversary in a donga (portacabin), sparsely furnished with a single bed and a plastic crate. We were immensely grateful for even this smallest of luxuries when we opened the door and let the early morning sunlight stream in. It was one of the coldest mornings we had experienced in Australia and I’m not sure the $20 K-Mart sleeping bags would have stood up to the test had we been in the tent. We were grateful for the cold in one respect, it meant there was a southerly wind blowing in, straight from the icy Southern Ocean which would help us on our way north to Norseman and the start of the Nullarbor crossing.
Every Australian knows about crossing the Nullarbor, it is one of many iconic road trips in this vast country. From Norseman in the west to Ceduna in the east, it is a distance of around 1,200km. Although the whole stretch is referred to as “the Nullarbor”, only a small section of the journey actually passes through the far south of the Nullarbor desert. There are, however, no towns or villages along the way to break up the journey, just the odd roadhouse (aka petrol station) usually with hot food, showers and accommodation for weary truckies, Grey Nomads and the occasional crazy cyclist.
Every person we met in Western Australia said, “you aren’t going across the Nullarbor are you?” in absolute horror and proceeded to tell us how desolate it was, how bored we would be, how they wouldn’t even drive across it in a car etc. but they all finished with the same advice, “make sure you carry lots of water” and “watch out for the road trains”.
The enjoyment of this part of the journey, even more than usual, would be mostly down to our luck with the wind. It is notoriously strong and can blow consistently in one direction for days on end. The prevailing wind is from the west in winter and from the east in summer. The change over period is around September/October – we were just praying that it hadn’t turned yet!
After a leisurely stop in Norseman for yet more pies to build up our strength and a dash round the last supermarket for over 1,200km, we wobbled out onto the Eyre Highway. Our bikes were as heavy as they had ever been and we could almost hear them groaning under the weight of additional kilos of porridge oats, tins of beans and stew and around 26 litres of water.
With the early evening sun warming our backs, we had the road, usually busy with road trains and caravans, almost to ourselves. This time of day quickly became known to us as “the golden hour” for the fantastic cycling we would experience once everyone else was off the road. The road was endlessly undulating and as we reached the crest of each undulation we had fantastic views out over the never-ending vastness of the Great Western Woodland. At 16 million hectares it is the largest intact temperate woodland left on earth and is full of beautiful gum trees. We were lucky enough to spot a pair of Wedge-tailed eagles – Australia’s largest bird of prey – perched high in a treetop. These are truly majestic creatures, which unfortunately have a tendency to come to a grisly end, hit by cars while feasting on road kill.
As we started to hunt for a suitable camping spot for the night, we came across a parking area at the side of the road with sandy trails snaking off from it into numerous clearings in the bush. There were a handful of caravans already tucked away in the trees so we followed their lead and found ourselves a private clearing away from the road to set up our tent. As a special treat we fried up some steaks on our little gas burner but other than that it was pretty standard evening while wild camping and we were both ready for bed as soon as it was dark.
As I took my last trip outside before wrapping up in the sleeping bag, I looked up at the stars as I always do. For some reason, the effect of being in a clearing surrounded by huge trees looking up the magical spectacle of the Milky Way made me feel particularly small and insignificant. It was a strangely comforting feeling.
On the Nullarbor, the roadhouses were our saviours. Providers of warmth, coffee of varying quality, a vast array of unhealthy food options and most importantly, company of other humans. We planned our days around the roadhouses, aiming to hit at least one per day just to give us a break from the never-ending road.
It was at our first roadhouse; Balladonia, that we met Will and Jen – two Aussies from south of Perth who were cycling to Adelaide. We shared breakfast and stories before they continued on their way and we stayed to fix a puncture. We were confident we would catch them in no time but we didn’t factor in all the people who would want to chat to us. It took 20 minutes to mend the puncture but almost two hours before we finally managed to escape the endless questioning. By this stage we realised we had no chance of making the distance we had hoped but the wind was behind us as we turned onto Australia’s longest straight road so we were quite happy. We made it roughly halfway along the straight before calling it a night, pulling off the road into the bush and enjoying a peaceful sleep.
The next morning we were up early and happy to find that the wind was still in our favour. We smashed through the remaining 90km and arrived at Caiguna roadhouse at the end of the straight road in time for lunch. Reluctant to get back on the bikes, we wasted time chatting to some friendly Grey Nomads from Adelaide and a Kiwi girl working behind the counter, who said to Steven, “who would have thought, a boy from Waiuku making it all the way to London!” which we thought was quite funny given the number of people from Waiuku that even I know who have made it all that way.
As we finally left, we bumped into Will and Jen just arriving at Caiguna (we had passed them early that morning before they had emerged from their tent). They thought we were totally mad when we said we were going to try and push on to the next roadhouse for the evening. We sort of agreed with them but couldn’t pass up on the very inviting tail wind and so continued on, arriving at the quirky roadhouse of Cocklebiddy just as the sun was setting. Sunsets (and rises) are magnificent out here as the whole horizon to the west becomes ablaze with fiery oranges and the colours linger for an age before finally giving way to the darkness.
The next morning we were slow to get going. We had our usually breakfast of porridge and honey washed down with a cup of tea at our tent, chatted to a few other campers before deciding to have a coffee at the roadhouse just to delay our departure even longer. Once on the road we wished we hadn’t been so slow to get going as the wind was still helping us along at a good pace. Since China we had been talking about trying to break the 200km barrier in one day and we wondered if this was the day to try it. We still weren’t sure at lunchtime but we decided it was probably now or never. We were unlikely to get such good conditions again; overcast, tailwind, straight road, light traffic… and so we went for it.
There was nothing exciting about that afternoon, it was all about chipping away at the kilometres, breaking the distance down into manageable chunks, only thinking about the next 10-20km rather than the full daunting distance. As the sun started to set in what was already quite a gloomy sky we started to have second thoughts about whether we could finish before dark. We pushed on harder than ever. As the evening approached, huge numbers of kangaroos appeared out of nowhere in the bush on either side of the road. They bounced across our path every now and then making us very nervous of a bicycle/kangaroo collision.
But it didn’t happen; we made it to 200km without any kangaroo related incidents just as dusk was approaching. There was no time for celebration though; we needed to find somewhere to camp quickly. We thought we would have to continue another 12km to the next roadhouse, as both sides of the road were covered in small bushes and impossible for camping. Just as we resigned ourselves to another half an hour of pedalling in the darkness we saw a sign for a rest area and the welcome lights of campervans, caravans and campfires glowing through the trees. We gratefully pulled in, found ourselves a good spot, set up and shovelled down some food before getting some well-earned sleep.
It was only around 10km to the next roadhouse in the morning. We stopped in even though we didn’t really need anything but ended up coming out with some delicious homemade cake. We also met another cyclist here, Laraine. Over the next few days we were to keep bumping into this inspirational sixty-nine year old who was cycling solo from Perth back to her home in Newcastle, New South Wales. Not only was she doing this, but in the past decade or so she has also cycled John O’Groats to Lands End, climbed Kilimanjaro, skydived, travelled the world, studied for a PhD and become an expert in her field. All this at an age when most people are thinking about slowing down. She has a couple of philosophies that I really like. Firstly, taking risks almost always pays off – she strives to do things that she finds scary such as striking up a conversation with a stranger or heading off on a solo adventure as good things will invariably result. Second, our bodies are much tougher than we give them credit for and we rarely push ourselves to our full potential so most of us have no idea of what we are capable of. Laraine set out ahead of us from the roadhouse and we didn’t catch her all day. We did bump into her good mate Ivan, who was acting as her support crew on his motorbike for the most remote section of her journey.
That afternoon we arrived on the edge of the Bunda cliffs; a sheer wall of rock that tumbles straight down into the wild Southern Ocean. There are some fantastic viewpoints where we could look out along the cliffs for miles but the wind was driving in straight off the sea, bringing occasional rain showers so it was not a day to linger out in the open.
Unfortunately, cover was hard to find and as the day drew to a close we were hard pressed to find anywhere that was going to give us some shelter from the elements. Up in the distance towards the cliff edge we noticed something moving. There was a large mound of gravel there so we thought that perhaps we could hide our tent behind it out of the wind. As we got closer we realised we had finally caught up with Laraine and Ivan. They had already set up their tents behind the mound of gravel and were happy to have us join them. There was nothing but ocean between us and Antarctica. The wind raged fiercely for most of the night and we really did feel like we were on the edge of the world.
We were both feeling a bit low on power and Laraine immediately offered some of her Glucodine. We were immensely grateful for this the next day when we were faced with our first full on head wind of the Nullarbor. It was a soul-destroying day, with no roadhouse to revitalise us part way through. We survived on honey sandwiches sprinkled with Glucodine powder and fantasised about meat pies, juicy burgers and salty chips (standard roadhouse fare).
We only had around 20km to go to the Nullarbor roadhouse and were finally feeling like the end was in sight when suddenly there was a loud bang. Steven’s tyre had blown out. This was a new tyre that we had purchased in Perth. Given we still have one tyre that has lasted all the way from the UK, this was not good going. It was difficult to motivate ourselves the final distance once we had replaced the tyre but finally we could see the roadhouse up in the distance like a shining beacon guiding us in. On arrival, our first priority was food and we both wolfed down a steak pie without it even touching the sides. We put our tent up in the growing darkness before heading back inside the roadhouse for calorie consuming part two.
There was a merry group in the corner of the restaurant and they soon invited us to join them. They were four-wheel drivers from Adelaide who had just reached relative civilisation after a week in the outback. Among them were Ross and Betty, keen cyclists who were eager to hear all about our adventures. Before long they had invited us to stay with them when we made it to Adelaide a few weeks later. We had warmed to them immediately and had no hesitations about taking them up on the offer.
The next day we took a little detour to the edge of cliffs and the whale lookout at Head of Bight. During May-October, Southern Right Whales come into the calm, shallow waters of the bay to mate, give birth and allow their calves to build up strength before migrating back to Antarctic waters. It was right at the tail end of the season but there were still four whale mothers with their calves basking in the emerald coloured water. The boardwalk jutted right out over the ocean and it was just a beautiful spot to rest and watch the birds. Seeing the whales just topped it all off.
After this very leisurely morning, it was a struggle to get back on the bikes and pedal the rest of the Nullarbor. The next three days were extremely undulating as we gradually approached civilisation again. The scrubby bush and eucalyptus forests gave way to cultivated fields although there was still very little sign of human life. Almost every day we would pass Laraine and Ivan or they would pass us. We would stop and chat for a while before saying goodbye, thinking this would be our last meeting.
After meeting them at breakfast in a roadhouse in Penong on the final day of the long haul to Ceduna we really thought it was our last goodbye. We were stopping in Ceduna and they were planning to continue another 20km or so up the road. It was a bleak and windy day and yet again we were unable to keep up with the blistering pace Laraine set up and down the hills and she soon disappeared from view. We were very relieved to finally arrive in Ceduna; oyster capital of Australia. We pulled up at the foreshore campsite and checked in. The man at reception mentioned there had been another cyclist arrive just a few minutes before us. We were happy to discover it was Laraine, who had decided that she had had enough for the day. We were very happily reunited at the next-door pub, which was doing $20 three course all-you-can-eat Sunday roasts. I’m not sure they knew what had hit them when us ravenous cyclists turned up.