The Nullarbor Plain – an endless treeless desert. Everything is quiet. You are alone on your bicycle riding into the setting sun. To the left you can clearly distinguish the silhouettes of a small group of kangaroos against the horizon, hopping alongside you at a safe distance. The darker it gets the louder you hear the crickets chirp. You close your eyes. That is it, you think. People all over the world dream of crossing the Nullarbor Plain – by whatever means: car, jeep, motorbike. However, you chose to do it the hard way: by bicycle. It’s what you always wanted, always dreamed of doing. The cigarette in your mouth slowly extinguishes, as you draw the last puff. Satisfied you go inside your tent. It’s been a good day…
However, back to reality. How is it truly like crossing the famous Nullarbor Plain on a bicycle? Do you really feel like as if you are in a movie when doing so or is there more to it?
In this article I want to cover some basic topics (based on our experience) that you want to consider before setting of. I will talk about , hoping that you may find it helpful on your own attempt of crossing the Nullarbor Plain.
We left Austria in April 2017, and after having travelled through way more dangerous and difficult sounding countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India (and many more) we were convinced that crossing the Nullarbor Plain (and for that matter all of Australia) would be a piece of cake. This couldn’t have been further from the truth, however. The Nullarbor Plain was quite easily the hardest leg of our trip around the world! There are reasons for this, as you will soon see.
The Nullarbor Plain is situated in Australia. One half of it lies in the state of West Australia, the other half in South Australia. What travellers usually mean when saying “crossing the Nullarbor Plain” is going from the town Norseman to the town Ceduna (or the other way round). The distance between these two towns is exactly 1200 km.
We crossed the Nullarbor Plain from 17th December 2017 to 1st January 2018, so in full summer. We assumed that the Australian sun and heat, together with the desert-like environment, would kill and dry us out. However, the temperature was incredibly cool most of the time (which was lucky). I don’t know whether that is usual there, or if this was a once-in-lifetime situation. Especially at night it was freezing sleeping in the tent! It was normal to wake up to 6 degrees Celsius in the morning.
You see, in winter the wind mainly blows from West to East, whereas in summer the wind goes from East to West. (In this blog you will find in-depth explanation why that is). That means that most of the days we had extreme headwind, from Perth heading east to Adelaide. Often the wind reached speeds of 30-40 km/h, for days in a row! That’s when we had to pedal with all our strength to even go 8 km/h.
While headwind is extremely frustrating, there is a benefit: it made our days in the Nullarbor Plain really cool temperature-wise. That is especially true since the wind brought cool air from the ocean in the south.
My advice: if you want to have an easier time crossing the Nullarbor Plain then adjust your riding direction to the dominant wind direction in that current season.
Keep in mind: more headwind means you will probably need more days to cross the Nullarbor. Which means you need to bring along more food. This brings us to the next section.
You will need to carry lots of food on your way through the Nullarbor Plain. And water. On the Nullarbor Plain there are no shops.
There are big IGA supermarkets on both ends of the Nullarbor Plain, in Norseman and in Ceduna. That’s where we stocked up food supplies for the long 1200 km ahead of us. Usually touring cyclists buy noodles and pasta, which they will cook on the road. This way they save a lot of space and weight in their panniers.
However, we didn’t have any gas burner or pot anymore. That’s why we stocked up huge time on cans of baked beans, corn and tuna. The following cans are what I bought in Norseman as initial stock:
Looking back I would have scrapped the corn and bought more baked beans instead, since they provide more caloric energy. However, having various types of cans with you is not a bad thing. Well, it’s up to you…
Pro-Tip: there’s a way of frying your tuna (in oil blend) without needing a cookset. Open the can, stir the oil and the tuna, put 3 or 4 sheets of toilet paper on top, let the paper soak in some oil, then light the toilet paper in one corner. The fire won’t consume the toilet paper, since it’s soaked in oil. After 30 minutes (usually more) the fire will burn out. Take the (now blackened) toilet paper off. Now you can enjoy the fried and crispy tuna (together with a can of corn and bread, or whatever you have). You have no idea how good this tastes! Furthermore, it may be the only warm food you will have in a long time…
Also, take lots of water with you to begin with (I had around 25 litres). While on the Nullarbor we refilled our bottles and canisters at the roadhouses: we just went to the public toilets there and used the tap. The tap water has a strong flavour sometimes, but is otherwise fine to drink (at least for us). Other than that, you can buy water from inside the roadhouses, but that will get really expensive. Just be aware of how far away the next roadhouse is, so you have enough water to get there safely.
In the end my bicycle weighed 85 kg when I left Norseman… which is a lot! I didn’t know you could overload your bicycle like this and still be able to ride a straight line. It’s difficult, but possible.
Roadhouses are little places of heaven on your trip through the Nullarbor Plain. They are gold. After seeing nothing but bush for a long time it’s such a great relieve to arrive back to civilization. We used roadhouses to have a shower once in a while, recharge our electrical devices, treat ourselves to a burger sometimes, and generally rest a bit inside the air conditioned building.
(At some roadhouses you can also buy food for the road. However, variety is very little and prices are exorbitant. I wouldn’t even consider buying food from there. On the other hand what I did was buy a loaf of frozen bread from the roadhouses to eat together with the baked beans to fill my stomach. That way I could “stretch” the cans so they would last longer.)
This is a quick subject: roadhouses usually have good 3G coverage, but only with a native Telstra SIM card. It’s not enough if your carrier operates on the Telstra network. Any non-Telstra SIM card won’t have any signal.
Between roadhouses, however, coverage is more or loss non-existent.
There are showers at every roadhouse. Simply ask at the counter how the showers work. Some even have a wash machine and dryer (i.e. we washed our clothes once at the Nullarbor Roadhouse). Showers usually cost between 3$ – 10$. Often, the showers stop after a few minutes (again: ask at the counter). So be quick!
Actual prices for showers that I remember:
Other than that, we used to wash at public toilets in all the little towns before and after the Nullarbor Plain, for free. The toilets contain no showers, but who needs showers if you have brains. Brains and bottles. Just bring an empty bottle with you into the toilet, lock the door, fill the bottle in the sink and pour it over you. Keep repeating until you don’t stink anymore.
All in all we had pretty little traffic. I don’t know whether this is normal or we had luck because it was Christmas season when we crossed the Nullarbor. Furthermore, we didn’t have any dangerous situation with cars or road trains. Sure, sometimes you hear loud engine noise and honking from behind. This is a sign that that particular truck will NOT overtake you with a safe lateral distance. In that case you have to take matters into your own hands and get off the street as fast as possible. Be sure to slow down before you get into the gravel, as you might risk falling off your bike (which is not the smartest thing to do when a huge truck is right behind you). Also, I wouldn’t dare crossing the Nullarbor Plain without a rearview mirror attached to your bike. It’s a MUST. (If you are a touring cyclist then chances are high you own such a mirror anyway).
Windy (Download from Apple AppStore)
This app is worth gold (and free)! It shows you wind direction and wind speed for any region all over the world, and it’s very accurate. Not only does it show that information for now, but also forecasts for tomorrow and specific times. It was especially useful on the Nullarbor: there are days when you are completely demotivated because of the headwind. However, imagine the moral boost when you discover that the following day you’ll get massive tailwind.
CamperMate (Download from Apple AppStore)
This app shows you public toilets, camping possibilities, parking spots etc. It’s a free app that we used quite a lot all over the place in Australia. A nice feature is that you can download the maps offline, so you don’t need to have internet connection all of the time (which is especially useful on the Nullarbor, as we now know).
Finally, I would like to wish you good luck with your own crossing of the Nullarbor Plain. It’s a mission for the brave, go for it because it’ll be worth it in the end and you’ll be massively proud of you. No money in the world can buy you that particular sense of accomplishment.
PS: our research before attempting the Nullarbor Plain consisted of reading this blog, which I definitely recommend for additional (and in-depth) details.
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