Driving across the Nullarbor Plain

Driving across the Nullarbor Plain
Nullarbor Plain - A 1,200 KM long desert that connects East and West coast

When you drive from east coast (Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane & Adelaide) to west coast (Perth) or vice-versa, you'll drive across a desert called Nullarbor Plain for a distance of 1,200 KM.

In this post, I am going to tell you everything you need to know about driving across the Nullarbor Plain.

Table of Contents

Nullarbor - Drive Facts

Before jumping into details about Nullarbor, here are the quick facts about driving across Nullarbor Plain.

Route: Ceduna (SA) to Norseman (WA)

Distance: 1,200 KM

Drive Time: 12 hours and 20 minutes. It is driving time only. It doesn't include any break

Travel Days: I took 2 days to drive (on an average, 6 hours (600 KM) of driving per day)

States: You will drive across two States. They are South Australia (SA) and Western Australia (WA)

Time zones: There are three time zones across the Nullarbor. Hence, you'll need to adjust your clock two times during your journey

Road condition: You'll drive on Eyre Highway (A1) and it is fully sealed from Ceduna (SA) to Norseman (WA). The road is in good condition and well maintained. No gravel or mud at all. However, the entire highway is of two-way traffic

Required car: The good news is that you don't need a 4x4 (4WD). You can drive any car. You can even drive a small hatchback car across the Nullarbor

Car fuel, Food and Accommodation: Limited options and they are expensive. Roadhouses are the only source of fuel, food and accommodation. There is a Roadhouse with fuel station approximately every 200 KM. Hence, you need not carry any additional fuel in your car. However, fuel price on the Roadhouses is costlier by up to 50 cents per litre as compared to Metro cities. So, you'll pay more for fuel. Also, the accommodation is very basic and limited. There is no 5 star or luxury accommodation. So, book early

Longest distance without a fuel stop: 191 KM between Balladonia Roadhouse (WA) and Norseman (WA)

Mobile Phone coverage: Telstra phone provides coverage only near the roadhouses. There is no coverage on other areas. Out of 1,200 KM, you can expect coverage for roughly 100 KM only. That means there is no coverage for 1,100 KM

Quarantine Checkpoints: There is only one quarantine checkpoint where you must stop your car. If you are driving from Adelaide to Perth, then quarantine checkpoint is present at Border Village (border of South Australia and Western Australia). If you are driving from Perth to Adelaide, then quarantine checkpoint is present at the entrance of Ceduna in South Australia

Speed Limit: Maximum speed limit is 110 KM only

Entry fee: Absolutely zero dollars. You need not pay any entry fee on your way

Permits Required: No permits required. Some outback areas in Australia require a permit before you enter. But, the journey across Nullarbor Plain doesn't require any permits

Good time to drive: You can drive throughout the year. However, in December and January, check for Fire Danger Ratings (FDR), bushfire incidents & warnings, peak temperatures and road closure conditions before you drive

What is the Nullarbor Plain?

First, let us see some high-level geographic overview of Nullarbor.

Nullarbor Plain Geography
Both road and rail transport run across the Nullarbor Plain between east coast and west coast

Nullarbor Plain is a vast, flat, semi-arid, mostly un-inhibited desert area spanning across two States for a distance of approximately 1,200 KM.

When I say desert, don't think about sands and dunes. Nullarbor is predominantly made up of bushes and shrubs.

It's approximate boundaries are

  • East to West - Ceduna (SA) on the east to Norseman (WA) on the west

  • South to North - Great Australian Bight coastline on the south to the Great Victoria Desert on the north

Nullarbor is a connectivity passage between cities on the east coast (Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide & Brisbane) and west coast (Perth). Both road transport (Eyre Highway) and rail transport (Indian Pacific and other freight trains) run across the Nullarbor.

There is no civilisation across the Nullarbor Plain for 1,200 KM. There are a couple of small settlements and the remaining are roadhouses only.

Nullarbor Crossing

Colloquially, driving across the Nullarbor has been known as Nullarbor crossing. The reason for this colloquial name was due to past conditions.

In the past, the road on the Nullarbor was not sealed or partly sealed. There were no roadhouses between Ceduna and Norseman. So, the travellers had to bring their food, water, camping stuff, car fuel and other car mechanic kit to survive the distance of 1,200 KM.

Because of the above condition, driving across the Nullarbor was an adventure and a challenge. This brought the name Nullarbor crossing.

To tackle this situation, there were many books, guides, maps, articles, TV shows and websites with the title how to cross the Nullarbor?. They list the tips, tricks and checklist of items to be carried during the journey to cross the Nullarbor.

How to cross the Nullarbor?

You read about the condition of Nullarbor traveller in the past. So, how are you going to cross the Nullarbor in present condition?

Let us see in detail.

In present condition (as of 2018), crossing the Nullarbor is much easier. Thanks to the Roadhouses.

Yes. Roadhouses are your saviour to cross the Nullarbor without much hassle. They provide you with food, water, accommodation and car fuel facilities to cross the Nullarbor of 1,200 KM.

So, to cross the Nullarbor, what you need to know is about the Roadhouses across the Nullarbor Plain.

Roadhouses Across the Nullarbor Plain

I have created a separate and detailed post about the Roadhouses across the Nullarbor Plain. Here is the link.

Roadhouses across the Nullarbor Plain

Quarantine Checkpoint

There is only one quarantine checkpoint where you must stop your car.

I have created a separate and detailed post about Quarantine Checkpoint.

Here is the link. Quarantine Checkpoint

Traffic across Nullarbor

What sort of traffic we have across the Nullarbor? Are there any cars on the road?

The answer will surprise you.

Well. I didn't count the number of vehicles on the road. But, I observed a pattern.

You can see one vehicle approximately every 5 minutes. That means, at least 10 vehicles per hour. That is a lot of traffic considering the remoteness and outback nature of Nullarbor.

50% of the traffic is made up of trucks, road trains and oversize trucks. Remaining 50% comes from the travellers.

With this amount of traffic, you won't feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

Speed Limit & Highway Patrol

The maximum speed limit on the Eyre Highway (A1) across the Nullarbor Plain is 110 KM.

Just because this is desert and there are no civilisations around, don't think that you can drive as fast as you can above the speed limit. There are highway patrols across the Nullarbor at various places.

Hence, it is suggested to follow the speed limit for your safety as well as the safety of other travellers on the road.

Driving at Night

Are you planning to drive at night across the Nullarbor because you are in a hurry to get to your destination?

Think once again.

Across the Nullarbor, I didn't drive at night. I drove during daylight hours only. But, I can tell you what I heard about night driving across the Nullarbor.

Nullarbor is home to a lot of wildlife such as kangaroos, wallabies, emus, wombats, dingos, camels and many more.

Their activities are more in the night as well as at dawn and dusk.

A big sized kangaroo has the potential not only to damage your car but to immobilise it.

For decades, this advice has been given to the travellers and hence most of them don't aim to drive at night fearing roadkill and getting stranded in the dark.

Because of this mindset, it is mostly the trucks that drive across Nullarbor at night.

Driving in Summar

Are you planning to drive across the Nullarbor in December or January?

No worries at all. You can drive. However, check the following before you drive.

  • Fire Danger Rating (FDR)
  • Bushfire incidents and warnings
  • Peak temperatures
  • Road closure notifications

I have given some details about each of the points mentioned above to give some clarity.

Fire Danger Rating (FDR):

Have you seen a signpost on the highway like the one shown below?

Fire Danger Rating (FDR)
Fire Danger Rating (FDR) - crucial in summer months

Just check what kind of FDR is for the days you drive across the Nullarbor and follow the advice given by the local council and Police.

Bushfire Incidents & Warnings:

Bushfire is a very common incident in Australia during the summer months. It can be a small one or a life-threatening and evacuating one.

Just would like to give you an example of what happened in December 2016.

Eyre Highway (A1) between Border Village (border of SA & WA) and Nullarbor Roadhouse (SA) was closed due to bushfire near Cocklebiddy. Some of the images from the incidents are shown below.

These incidents may not happen every summer. But, it is good to be a bit careful.

Cocklebiddy (WA) bushfire incident December 2016
Cocklebiddy (WA) bushfire incident in December 2016 - captured by NASA Satellite (Photo credit: WA today)
Cocklebiddy (WA) bushfire incident in December 2016
Stranded trucks near Cocklebiddy Roadhouse (WA) due to bushfire in December 2016 (Photo credit: WA today)

Peak Temperatures:

Nullarbor is a very harsh place during summer. Peak temperature can go anywhere between 45°C and 50°C.

You'll need to decide if you are happy to drive at such scorching weather.

Road Closure Notifications:

Just check if any part of Eyre Highway (A1) between Ceduna (SA) and Norseman (WA) is closed due to bushfire incidents or for some other reasons.

Road Trains & Oversize Trucks

When you drive across the Nullarbor, there are two things that you need to be careful about. They are road trains and oversize trucks.

Road train across the Nullarbor
Road train
Oversize Truck
Oversize Truck

Road trains are very lengthy and hence you should be careful when you try to overtake them.

Oversize trucks can almost occupy both lanes of the highway. It means you may have to go off the highway a little bit just to give way to them. You should be careful about when you cross them.

What if your car breaks down?

Car breakdown is the last thing that should happen to you.

There are a few things that I would like to tell you.

  • If your car breaks down, that won't cost your life. So, don't panic

  • You are not alone in the desert. There are a lot of travellers on the way

  • If you have Emergency Roadside Assistance, contact your service provider and see what they suggest and approximate waiting time

  • If your phone doesn't work due to lack of signals, then wait for another car to pass by. I am sure there will be a car in 5 to 10 minutes in present traffic conditions. Ask for their help. Travellers on the Nullarbor are very friendly. I am sure you'll get helping hands

  • If they can't help due to lack of car mechanic knowledge, then at least ask them to convey the message to the nearest roadhouse

  • Roadhouses encourage travellers to contact them in case of an emergency. I am sure you'll get some help from the nearby roadhouse

  • Till the time your situation is sorted out, stay near the car. Don't try to go somewhere seeking help as that may cause some other issues

  • Keep some extra water and snacks in your car so that you won't be starving