Why you should get off the bitumen and check out this historic trail
WORDS & images Colin Kerr
There is little doubt that to many travellers, a trip across the Nullarbor is one of Australia’s iconic drives.
Indeed, these days, with more and more Aussies out there exploring this great country of ours, doing the ‘Nullarbor Run’ has become a regular routine as they head off to explore all that is to be found over there on the other side of the country.
If you are quite familiar with (and a little bored of) the sealed version of the ‘endless’ highway and are now keen to see and enjoy some new experiences along the way, then an Old Eyre Highway adventure could be just what you’re looking for!
Regular Nullarbor travellers would already know that much of the Nullarbor Plain is a huge chunk of limestone – in fact, the largest piece of limestone in the world, covering around 200,000 square kilometres. With its origins of a vast seabed, the limestone here has been carved out over millions of years with underground streams, blowholes, tunnels, some sections of which these days have collapsed, forming spectacular caves and sinkholes.
During our ongoing Nullarbor research we have found that perhaps because of its past notorious reputation, its curiosity value, historic interest, scenic experiences or even just ‘because it’s there’, a number of travellers are these days taking ‘the road less travelled’ and detouring off the blacktop to see what the Old Eyre Highway (now abandoned and unmaintained since the 1970s) has to offer.
With all this in mind and with a couple of spare days available on our last trip across the country coming from WA, we decided to deviate ‘off the blacktop’ about a kilometre east of the WA/SA border (Border Village) and travel about 200km along the old trail to Nullarbor Roadhouse.
If you are towing an off-road camper-trailer or caravan (like we were) then all the better, as you can take this trail slowly and camp out along the way.
Remembering of course that much of this area is known as a ‘treeless plain’, we at first passed through some isolated pockets of low, very hardy eucalypts, which progressively gave way to the Nullarbor’s flat, open countryside covered with very low growth – a mixture of low salt and blue bush.
Much of this old highway is overgrown and is now no more than a single lane track with many sections somewhat eroded. There are quite a few slow rocky patches (limestone) and a few ‘by-passes’ around washed out sections. Overall, however, the track, which also included some bulldust patches, posed no real problems and with our off-road caravan in tow we were still able to average around 20km/h (maximum was around 40km/h) most of the way. A 4WD vehicle is desirable, but having a unit with high clearance is the most important requirement out here.
As the trail continues we passed a number of historic ruins and geological features, including the intriguing Bunabie Blowhole (right beside the road), the Coompana Rockhole (a sinkhole/cave), a couple more unnamed caves, the old Coompana water tank ruins and, nearby, the old Albala-Karoo Bore and water trough.
In some of the caves and sinkholes we could see old animal bones at the bottom; the remains of several poor critters that fell in and couldn’t get out. Over the years, in fact, scientists have found and identified a number of now extinct animals including marsupial lions, giant kangaroos, Thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) and others which obviously met a similar fate thousands of years ago. They would have indeed suffered a slow, lingering death – so sad!
Onwards we came across extensive sections of wombat holes, some of which we had to skirt around on the track to avoid a wheel (or two) falling into them. Based on the number of holes we saw, the wombat populations (which are declining in many areas) are well and truly thriving here on the Nullarbor.
Along the way we also saw a number of dingoes skulking in the bush (as they usually do) and at night, while camping, we could hear their eerie howling, which seemed to be quite close to our campsite.
Speaking of campsites, in this part of the country there are plenty. The whole place is pretty much flat and wherever you stop you are virtually guaranteed a good level site – sometimes right beside a cave, an old historic windmill, tank, cattle yard or ruin, which you’re sure to have all to yourself. Don’t look for shade however, as it is pretty hard to come by out here.
Around 100km along this trail and just 800 metres to the north is the now long-abandoned Koonalda homestead, an old ‘way station’, which in days gone by was a welcome piece of civilisation providing fuel, emergency repairs and services. Out the back here are several old vehicle scrapheaps – victims of the notorious Nullarbor crossing all those years ago.
The old shearing shed and outbuildings and the historic Koonalda Cave (another huge sinkhole 6km north of the homestead) are all worth checking out as well.
From here it is a matter of returning to the Old Eyre Highway and continuing eastwards towards Nullarbor Roadhouse.
An alternative here (from the Koonalda turn-off) if you are pushed for time or have had enough of this exploration trail, is to head south 13.6km to the bitumen on the new Eyre Highway approximately 97km west of Nullarbor Roadhouse. Of interest on this short trail, around 11.6km southwards, is a short track (600 metres) leading westwards to Clay Dam Cave – a fascinating sinkhole structure made of orange-red clay. Quite a strange sight indeed.
As we continued our trek eastwards on the old highway towards Nullarbor Roadhouse, our ongoing discovery adventure turned up more old tanks, a historic and rather photogenic disused stockyard, and near the old Cundalabbi Tank we found a track leading to the north, approximately 10km to the Knardna Rockhole.
Back on the main trail and passing a couple of old wrecked cars beside the road, the old highway crosses a well-formed road leading north (from the new Eyre Highway) to the railway settlement of Cook around 95km away. Here at this intersection is another piece of history – a section of the now unmaintained dingo fence.
Still heading eastwards, we then passed more old water tanks and a modern day solar-powered Optus communication facility that, as you can imagine, looked totally out of place along this historic trail.
All too soon we could see Nullarbor Roadhouse in the distance – a dot on the horizon of the flat, open plain, marking the end of our Old Eyre Highway adventure.
For those interested in checking out more caves and sinkholes, there is a track leading approximately 10.5km directly north of the roadhouse to the Murrawijinie Caves – a group of three caves, one of which includes some distinctive Aboriginal art.
Here at Nullarbor Roadhouse we were now back in civilisation and the hustle and bustle of highway traffic – a real contrast with our Old Eyre Highway adventure trail, along which, in two days of travel (and 200km), we hadn’t seen another person or vehicle. The isolation and the quietness as we explored the area’s natural features and relived some of the old highway’s fascinating history was an experience we will long remember.
Getting There: Turn off on the north side of the new Eyre Highway 1km east of the SA/WA border (at Border Village). Coming from the east, turn off the new Eyre Highway on the north side of the road at Nullarbor Roadhouse heading westwards. From either direction, the Old Eyre Highway travels pretty much parallel to the new highway and around 12-15km away to the north.
Remember, this is remote area travel and visitors must be fully self-sufficient, carrying plenty of fuel, water and supplies. A HF Radio or satellite phone is also desirable for use in an emergency. Many points of interest can be seen from the old highway, while others have tracks leading to them. Hema Maps have good detail on the area.
At Border Village/Eucla and Nullarbor Roadhouse, there are services and supplies available and accommodation including motels and caravan park facilities.