Thursday, November 12, 2015

So nice, she rode it twice

The biggest delight while riding across the Nullarbor would have to be the early mornings and late afternoons, where the angle of the sun brings out the best colours on offer.

The sun is starting to set as we ride out of Madura roadhouse towards my "secret spot" to camp 5 km down the road. There is no rush, so we dawdle along stopping to take photos of the brilliant display of blue bush in front of the Madura Pass range. Just at the sign on the other side of the road that says 5 km to Madura, I duck down a track that leads to a low, wire fence without any barbs. We wait for no traffic and get our bikes and gear over the fence to hide behind shrubs, emerging only to take photos of the sky's dying light. There is this unremarkable dead tree here that comes back to life as the star of pictures, its silhouette contrast against the bright sunset colours. We make camp as the birds twitter their evening gossip and flitter amongst the shrubbery.

Earlier this day we descended the Madura Pass which is a steep descent down the side of the Madura shelf, overlooking the Roe Plains dotted with shrubs, to drop down to that level. The road has not a safe shoulder, being narrow and eroded -- if you left the asphalt you'd hit some rubble and kiss the gravel -- so you just hope you've been lucky enough to time it so no truck or caravan is going to try zooming past you at the same time. After the exhilarating descent we visited the bar at Madura for a calming beverage and hung about for some dinner.

Six days earlier we left Kalgoorlie-Boulder to ride the 190 km to Norseman, chased by storms that threatened to break on us, but didn't manage it, only sending us a handful of heavy raindrops to let it know who was boss. We clicked over 8000 km just as we left Kalgoorlie. One night we camped in the fly-ridden mallee of a remnant bush reserve south of Kambalda nestled in amongst all the mines, and the next, a fly-ridden recently burnt section of scrub 30 km out of Norseman. We headed into Norseman early on Monday morning to fill up all our water bottles and stock up on food for the trip across the Nullarbor Plain.

The nullarbor is the world's largest limestone plain landscape, covering 270,000 square kilometres -- the SA section alone is about the size of Tasmania, and that's only one-third of it, with the majority is on the Western Australian side. Most people are aware of the latin roots of the name 'nullarbor' meaning 'no trees' but there are popular misconceptions about this 'Australian icon' and scene for your quintessential Aussie pilgrimage. While it evokes scenes of thousands of kilometres of nothing, the truth is the Eyre Highway between Norseman to the west and Ceduna to the east is 1,200 km of landscape that varies from mallee forest with red soil to myall acacia open woodlands to heathland to the treeless plain around the Nullarbor roadhouse (a stretch of 20 km of highway with only low saltbush (Atriplex spp), bluebush (Marieana or Bassia spp) or stunted wind-shaped Eucalypts hardly recognisable as gum trees at all) to salmon gums in salmon-coloured dirt to sheep pasture and wheat fields.

The bluebush and saltbush characteristic of the plains around Nullarbor and Madura are highly adapted arid species that can actually get water from the air through their leaves. With a slow cycle across the Nullarbor you notice the diversity of flora, including the threatened species of Eremophila, the Nullarbor emu bush which has grey furry leaves similar to saltbush. There is also plenty of sandlewood and also some rare clusters of quandong which were in fruit. Underneath the plain there are about 250 limestone caves, of which unusual fauna inhabit. The scenery on offer also include the spectacular cliffs over the southern ocean, up to 75 metres high with chocolate brown tops and white below like some kind of delicious two tone lamington of limestone, towering above the brilliantly blue water which pounds on the coastline to take more of Southern Australia away along with the southerly wind. There are stunning views along the ragged coastline for 200 km at a time on the southern edge of Australia's mainland. There are places where there is a cliff set in from the edge, where a higher water level eroded this cliff face at another epoch. Around Eucla you even find brilliant white sandhills, which you can spot in the distance as you climb Eucla pass.

Under the expansive nullarbor plain there is an underground water system where the ocean may reach as far as hundreds of kilometres inland, making itself known as blowholes where you'd not expect them, and some of the caves have clear water at their base. Surface water is extremely scarce. Norseman gets its water from Perth via pipeline. West from there the water is sourced from bores down to the underground water table and requires desalination to drink. Only during wet times do the dolines (circular depressions, or sometimes holes down to caves) and rock holes contain water, and even then it evaporates quickly unless shaded by vegetation. There are no towns between Norseman and Ceduna, only roadhouses to service travellers and residents with fuel and meals. On the Western Australia side there are two rain shed fed water tanks to assist the bicycle traveller, if you are lucky enough they may have some water in them. The SA side does not seem to have any tank available.

The plain itself is ancient sea bed, having raised from the sea 3 million years ago. Curiously, as you travel along you can sometimes see shells in the roadbase shoulder next to the road, and when you are close to the coastline you can see shells amongst the bushes, even though you are 60 metres above the ocean.

Some of the wildlife along this stretch of Australia include kangaroos, (Australia's largest populations of) southern hairy-nosed wombats, dingoes, 86 reptile species including the Nullarbor bearded dragon (and we had a few blue tongues poked out of bobtails), and one lonely frog species, all joined by pests such as camels (saw one carcus), wild dogs, foxes, feral cats (saw one 'Nullarbor puma' that was a kitten) and thousands of rabbits. Along the coast you might see whales (in great numbers, Southern right whales give birth near the head of the bight between May and October), seals and albatross.

Birdlife includes wedgetails working in pairs to hunt down emu, mallee fowls, galahs (we noticed one of the pair was a deeper pink than the other), major mitchell cockatoos, the endemic Nullarbor quail thrush, plains wanderers,  Naretha blue bonnets, ospreys, white-bellied sea eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels (saw many of these), sandpipers (we saw one looking for grub on a road shoulder?), tawny frogmouths (saw one dead one, crushed on the road shoulder where it was probably sunning), a hundred tuneful brown song larks, and rainbow bee eaters (a couple darted in front of me near Balladonia, quite possibly in pursuit of bees). I was disappointed to not see any flocks of budgies.

The stretch of highway along the Nullarbor is littered with broken down cars of various decades either rolled or smashed or simply ran-out-of-fuel and stripped of parts before they got more fuel.

As we crossed the nullarbor over a period of ten days, we saw electrical storms and rain in the mallee before Balladonia, putting precious water in the tanks ahead of us. We camped in a quagmire of mud on the first night, 120 km from Norseman because we couldn't find a site more suitable before dark. We made it to Balladonia roadhouse for lunch with the Melbourne Cup horse rangling showing on the TV (the burger was delicious) and then rode another 150 km day to camp in some bush on the 90 mile straight (At 146.6 km long, Australia's longest straight road). Another roadhouse burger at Caiguna (also delicious), and then the lovely ride out of Caiguna with white limestone rocks sprinkled in chenopod shrubland and scattered mallee. We found a lovely isolated camp up a track, within riding distance in the morning for breakfast at Cocklebiddy, and no clouds finally so we could see the outback stars and make before dawn for the planet and crescent moon alignment to the east. Next night was 5 km from Madura. The following a camp beside a range similar to the Madura camp, after riding 100 km into a headwind that ranged between 30 km/h and 50 km/h. The camp was just across the road from the rain shed (which had water in it, yay) and 5 km from Mundrabilla roadhouse where we had breakfast the next morning. We climb up Eucla Pass and cross over the border and onto South Australia's shitty version of highway 1 which lacks a road shoulder despite the oversize traffic. Now we are close to the Bunda Cliffs so we duck down tracks every now and then to have a glimpse, and click over 9000 km doing so. We camp amongst some shells and shrubs about 600 metres from the edge as the sky grows dark with a storm that never reaches us. Next day we ride to about 30 km from Nullarbor roadhouse, just before the treeless plain starts. Breakfast at the roadhouse the next day, but not until after we have a coin operated $1 shower - the first shower in a thousand kilometres and well enjoyed - and wash our disgusting clothes. For another $1 coin we filled up our bottles with desalinated water from the coin-operated tap there. After the treeless plain ends and trees start appearing again, you've got your last "typical nullarbor vegetation" before it goes back to mallee sitting in salmon dirt around Yalata. We were riding the hills around here on a day that got to 38 degrees in the shade around 2pm, where we decided to get off the road and sit in the shade for an hour and not bake. We camped on the edge of an abandoned farm (with limestone brick farmhouse ruins in the background) before riding 30 km into Nundroo the next day. There was a roadhouse at Yalata but there is a sad story of how it was shut down because of structural issues with the building and has never been replaced due to lack of funds, despite the good it brought to the community and to travellers. Now the country is wheat and sheep farms as far as the eye can see. And we have a 50 km/h sidewind/headwind to content with all day, limiting our distance to 100 km. Another night camping in remnant scrub, and within ride-to-breakfast-distance to Penong, and then the last 71 km stretch into Ceduna, where we arrived for check-in time to a motel. I think the most tiresome thing was attempting to share the road with oversize vehicles when there was no safe shoulder. If South Australia/Federal infrastructure payed for a sealed shoulder on this SA side of highway 1 everyone would be able to get along a lot better and the roads would be safer for it. As it is, you have to get off onto the shoulder at a slow speed and at a certain angle otherwise you simply cannot keep the bike upright, and because the road has no buffer and a lot of oversize vehicles and large caravans on it, you have to be ever vigilant with mirrors and whats coming up to keep safe, which is heroically tiring. But nothing has changed in the four years since I travelled this way last, so I'm not holding my breath.

Madura Pass

I'll be updating my Nullarbor advice page with errata and new things I picked up this time shortly.

1 comment:

Peter H said...

Wonderful pics Maree. Others might have told you though they are not of the Nullarbor. Teh Nullarbor lies further North where it is drier and there are, as the ltin name suggests, no trees. You are so right about how much more you see on bike thoguh.