Straight, flat and long, the Nullarbor is an iconic touring route. When I needed a break from my hectic life, the idea of a solo unsupported desert ride was appealing. There’d be no phone, no internet, no people, nothing to do each day but ride. So I boxed up my bike and by combination of plane, bus and ute, got myself to Norseman in Western Australia to start my desert cycling adventure.
I was traveling eastwards to take advantage of prevailing winter winds. Excitement – or was it nerves? – coursed through me as I turned right from Norseman onto the Eyre Highway. I would follow the white line of this road 1200 kilometres across the desolate centre of Australia, travelling through the Nullarbor all the way to Ceduna in South Australia.
Unfortunately, I found myself riding directly into a tiring head wind. So much for prevailing winds! I hadn’t trained for this journey, except that I keep fit as a commuter and recreational cyclist, a fact that struck me as unwise now that I was on the road. Despite being an experienced tourer, my Surly Long Haul Trucker was heavier than usual, my Ortlieb panniers weighed down with ten litres of water in bags and lots of food, as well as the usual camping gear.
My first destination is a sheep station 100 kilometres from Norseman and, passing the 70km-mark, I already couldn’t wait to get off my bike. Day one pain! Dusk was falling as I turned off the Eyre and onto a dirt track. A short, slow bumpy ride later, I arrive at Fraser Range Station. I had ridden 105kms. Exhausted, I hit the showers, ate, and crawled into bed at 7pm.
Eating breakfast at 6.20am the next morning, the sky above me was an astounding electric blue. Rested and energetic, I set off, cruising easily if slowly for over 100 kilometres. I was riding to reach a rest stop marked on the free Nullarbor (car) touring map I’d picked up at Belladonia roadhouse, my only guide. (After all, on a single straight road, how could I get lost?) After a long day in the saddle, the final 20 kilometres are painful, my legs heavy and the bike slowing with each revolution. Finally, there’s the sign, one kilometre to go. The rest stop is basic, as they all are on the Nullarbor: a pit toilet and a few picnic tables. A handful of caravanners are also setting up camp for the night.
I’d ridden 145 kilometres and my hands were shaking as I swapped my lycra for jeans and a flannie. Camp set up was basic: pop up my one-man ‘coffin’ tent, inflate sleeping mat and throw it inside with my sleeping bag. The ground is too hard to hammer in pegs so I anchor the tent by affixing it via ocky straps to my pannier bags. Sleeping quarters ready, I turn my attention to dinner, lighting my little gas stove and cooking instant noodles with dehydrated peas and corn. Before bed I lean back and stare upwards. The night sky is a wonderland of stars dangling down towards earth, an astounding lightshow.
The rain started at about 3am. Getting up, I threw a plastic tarp haphazardly over my tent, to little effect. Rising two hours later, feet wet and everything else damp, I cursed as I packed down my wet camping gear. The rain had cleared but other challenges lay ahead.
The 90 Mile Straight is Australia’s ‘longest straight road’, a 146.6-kilometre marvel. Riding excruciatingly slowly in headwinds through a desolate landscape, I was intolerably lonely. At midday I ate a sad lunch of thickly-spread peanut butter and honey sandwiches, sitting next to an isolated emergency phone, miserable. During the morning I had averaged just 17.5km/hr. Just ride to that tree up ahead, I’d tell myself, then put my head down and mash the pedals til I got there. Then to the next landmark, then the next.
On a map it appears as though the Nullarbor has towns along the way, but most names represent nothing more than a roadhouse. Nevertheless, they were something to look forward to. Proper toilets, hot coffee and cold drinks are a treat – even if the coffee is Nescafe and the Gatorade $5.50 a bottle!
I pulled into Caiguna roadhouse at sunset on day three, 135 kilometres under my belt, and sat down in the diner, scanning the menu. Fresh food is scarce in the outback, and vegetarian food is also limited. Roadhouse menus feature fried food and grilled meats, hardly appetising for a hardworking vegan cyclist! Beans on toast, hold the butter, were my mainstay. This plus the noodles, dark chocolate and protein bars I carried saw me safely across the Nullarbor, but I had a constant craving for fresh veggies. (One day I was given an avocado, a remarkable gift from a passing motorist.)
In addition to stodgy food, the travails of the Nullarbor are numerous: the road is badly maintained, the harsh sun and lack of shade can be brutal even in winter, and the tourist and truckie traffic is unrelenting, and includes 100-tonne roadtrains travelling at high speeds. Not wanting to join the hundreds of eviscerated kangaroo carcasses on the side of the road, I kept an ear out for approaching traffic, moving far to the left when I heard something coming, often pulling right off into the gravel shoulder.
My progress along the great road was slow; a 75 kilometre ride into headwind had me crying in frustration on day four, and the following day I was sidelined after 95 kilometres thanks to an approaching cyclone. The first drops of rain fell as I checked into the Madura Pass roadhouse motel, but the worst of the storm passed overnight, while I was tucked up cosily in bed.
Finally I picked up a tail wind. Riding out of Madura Pass on day six, I was flying. The Nullarbor is not a sandy desert, rather, there are scraggly shrubs and orange dirt as far as the eye can see. Vast an unchanging for hundreds of kilometres, it’s beautiful. Coasting with the wind behind me, I watched wedge-tailed eagles soaring on the air currents high above. I was grinning, loving that special feeling of being in the saddle, cadence just right and the conditions perfect.
Pulling into a roadhouse for lunch, I’d ridden 115 kilometres and there was life in my legs still. The wind was furious and yesterday’s storm lingered, but, suspecting it would stay behind me, I kept on. It was as though a gentle hand was on my back propelling me forward, as my speed rose and rose – 32km/hr; 35km/hr; 38km/hr. The 75 kilometres to the small township of Eucla flew by.
Full of energy still, I paid for a campsite, removed my panniers and went joyriding. I pointed my bike down a dirt track that cut through a national parkland, and was startled when hundreds of kangaroos loomed, bouncing alongside me. I’d ridden 200 kilometres and was euphoric, high on a love of cycling!
Sunrise and sunsets in the desert create spectacular displays, with blue, orange and pink hues lighting up the land. Thus was the dawn on day seven, and I was particularly stoked because I’d had a latte at breakfast. (Remarkably, the café at Eucla harboured not only an espresso machine, but soy milk as well.) I pedalled towards the South Australian border, legs spinning, content. Clearing the quarantine station at Border Village, I settled in to ride another double century, cycling the length of the great stretching arc of the Nullarbor Plain in a single day.
After midday, and a hundred kilometers ridden, I was flagging. Despite taking on plenty of water I was panting uncontrollably, and my sunscreen-covered arms and face were burning with a prickly heat. There was no shade in which to rest so I kept going, a bit panicky. But as the afternoon passed and the sun slipped from the sky, my panic abated; I was ok. As dusk turned to night my legs grew weary. My front light, solar-powered, lost its charge. I pedalled furiously to avoid getting stuck riding in the dark. My legs were burning as I clicked over the final five ks. Finally I arrive at Nullarbor roadhouse, stiffly dismount and lean my bike against a wall. The roadhouse manager, asking where I’d ridden from, remarked that I’d come 200 kilometres. ‘201, actually,’ I correct him, proud.
Suddenly, I was approaching the end of my journey. On day eight the flat disappeared and I rode over 100 kilometres of rolling hills. The landscape changed utterly, desert became brown paddocks and tin windmills; agricultural land.
Riding into Penong on day nine I was startled to find an actual town, with streets and houses and shops – civilisation at last! The final 75 kilometre straight to Ceduna was beautiful, a red asphalt road cutting between green fields, but challenging. After 1200 kilometres of riding I was feeling the strain, and used all the tricks I had to keep my legs rotating: ride to the next tree, don’t look at the odo til you’ve done five kilometers, just put your head down and go go go. Finally, I arrived.
It barely felt real. I had ridden 550 kilometers in the first five days of my trip, and a further 700 in the final four. Remarkably, I’d had no mechanical issues, not even a puncture. Riding the Nullarbor is not the most scenic or difficult touring route, but it is a serious challenge. My odo showed 1250 kilometres and I was grinning. I had ridden across the Nullarbor!
This article was first published in Ride On magazine, Dec 2011.
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