“The frightful, the appalling truth now burst upon me, that I was alone in this desert…”– Edward John Eyre
The Nullarbor Plain is the very definition of the Middle of Nowhere. This flat, treeless, arid region of Australia is the largest exposure of limestone bedrock in the world – an empty expanse that stretches over an area of 200,000 square kilometres.
The Nullarbor Plain was considered to be almost uninhabitable by European settlers, although it was used by the semi-nomadic Wangai and Spinifex aboriginal peoples. These days in the East you will find some towns such as Ceduna, Wudinna and Kimba but the Western three quarters is mostly devoid of any civilisation.
Driving down this endless straight road feels like crossing an ocean of land, a huge sea of dry rock that stretches to the horizon in all directions.
Edward John Eyre’s Difficult Crossing
When you visit Nullabor and experience how vast it is, it’s hard not to be in awe of the tenacity of the man who first crossed it.
Edward John Eyre was the first European to traverse the coastline of the Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain by land in 1840. He made the nearly 2000 mile trip to Albany, Western Australia in 1840. He had been conducting many small expeditions before this in South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales.
His goal was to discover good sheep country and through his explorations he opened up much of South Australia for settlement. On this particular trip he planned to open up a route between South Australia and Western Australia and then find good land. He originally led the expedition with his Aboriginal companion Wylie, John Baxter and three other aborigines.
This was no easy journey, he hacked through dense scrubland and lived off the land, killing lizards, snakes and wallabies to eat. There are very few trees on the Nullarbor Plain, so their days were spent with no relief from the burning sun and very little water. Some aborigines they met showed them how to suck water from the roots of gum trees, which helped them to avoid death by dehydration.
It was difficult for the horses to move through the sand, so Eyre made the decision to leave behind the horseshoes, firearms and some clothing. At one point food became so scarce that they had to eat one of the sick horses, although this made Eyre and Baxter very ill.
One night Eyre heard a gun blast. The two aborigines had killed Baxter, stole his supplies and abandoned the journey. At this point Eyre and Wylie were desperate. They had no water and they still had nearly 1000 kilometres of arid, barren landscape to traverse. Eyre could not even give Baxter a proper burial – as the ground was solid rock.
Eyre and Wylie travelled on, becoming delirious with hunger and thirst. They finally found a waterhole seven days later and they survived by eating kangaroo and even a dead penguin they found.
Eyre and Wylie were only able to make it out alive because they had a chance encounter with a French whaling ship that was commandeered by an Englishman in a bay near Esperance in Western Australia. Captain Rossiter provided the weary explorers with food, rest and clothing and they stayed for two weeks until they were healthy enough to continue.
They kept on going towards Albany through cold weather and rain. When they finally reached the end of their journey they had been travelling for four and a half months.
Who Was Edward John Eyre?
Eyre was an English explorer of Australia as well as a colonial administrator. He came from Bedfordshire and he moved out to Sydney as a 17 year old rather than going to university or joining the army.
For his epic journey across the barren no-man’s-land of Nullarbor, Eyre received a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society. Despite the physical hardship he went through, he lived to be 86 and he went on to be a governor in various countries in the West Indies as well as Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand. He finally retired in England and died in 1901.
The Nullarbor Plain in Recent History
These days the Nullarbor Plain remains mostly uninhabited. When the British did nuclear tests at Maralinga in the 1950s they forced the Wangi to abandon their homeland. They have been awarded compensation since and many have returned to the general area. Along the Western Australian fringe of the plain there are some sheep stations and in 2011 South Australian Premier Mike Rann gave a huge area of the plain Wilderness Protection Status.
Protecting this ecologically significant area doubled the amount of land in South Australia under official environmental protection. It contains 390 species of plants as well as many other rare birds and animals.
Crossing the Nullarbor is considered to be one of the essential “Australian Outback” experiences and it is attempted by many visitors to the country. The highway that connects Norseman to Port Augusta was created in 1941 and was named the Eyre Highway, after the famous explorer.
Visit the Nullarbor Plain
These days it is possible to experience the remote and rugged beauty of the Nullarbor Plain, although in considerably more comfort than Eyre and Wylie. Nullarbor Road House offers off-the-beaten-track accommodation with fresh food, cosy rooms and friendly service in this stunning part of Australia. Contact them to learn more.