Friday, February 3, 2012

Nullarbor advice

I rode across the Nullarbor in November 2011 as part of my ride around Australia. In this post I'll be sharing a little bit of Nullarbor advice, talking about the distances between roadhouses, the water situation, about food and accommodation, and which way to travel and how to tell what the weather might be. I'll also be talking about the time zones across the Nullarbor and will provide a list of links to useful resources found on the web. Please feel free to ask a question if I haven't covered something, in the comments.

Image from (although Ceduna and Norseman are more than just "roadhouses", they towns)

Distances between roadhouses

People often go on and on about the distances between roadhouses on the Nullarbor (or Eyre Highway) but if you've already been across the top of Australia or down the west you'd have seen places with greater distances between services (Fitzroy Crossing to Halls Creek is 300 km, and Roebuck to Sandfire is almost the same). However, it can still be a couple of days between water.

(I've duplicated the list, one for each direction, for ease of reading depending on your direction)

West to East

Norseman to Balladonia 188 km
Balladonia to Caiguna 178 km
Caiguna to Cocklebiddy 64 km
Cocklebiddy to Madura 91 km
Madura to Mundrabilla 115 km
Mundrabilla to Eucla 65 km
Eucla to Border Village 12 km
Border Village to Nullarbor Roadhouse 182 km
(Nullarbor Roadhouse to Yelata 93 km, NOTE: no longer a roadhouse at Yelata)
(Yelata to Nundroo 76 km)
Nullarbor Roadhouse to Nundroo 169 km
Nundroo to Penong 76 km
Penong to Ceduna 75 km

East to West

Ceduna to Penong 75 km
Penong to Nundroo 76 km
(Nundroo to Yelata 76 km NOTE: No longer a roadhouse at Yelata)
(Yelata to Nullarbor Roadhouse 93 km)
Nundroo to Nullarbor Roadhouse 169 km
Nullarbor Roadhouse to Border Village182 km
Border Village to Eucla 12 km
Eucla to Mundrabilla 65 km
Mundrabilla to Madura 115 km
Madura to Cocklebiddy 91 km
Cocklebiddy to Caiguna 64 km
Caiguna to Balladonia 178 km
Balladonia to Norseman 188 km


Fill up for free as much as you can carry at Ceduna or Norseman. 

About 20 kilometres west of Yelata there is a concrete water tank painted green in a rest area which has the "may not be safe to drink" signage.

Photo credit

There are two rainwater catching sheds with tanks attached between Norseman and Ceduna. One is about 3km west of Mundrabilla roadhouse -31.831811,128.195515. The other is 35 k west of Caiguna -32.32097,125.075. There is apparently also a water tank at the Head of the Bight, the turn off for which is about 20 km east of Nullarbor roadhouse, but you need to take a 11 km sidetrack south to the cliffs to get there -31.472303,131.111698. These are not to be relied on as it depends on how much rainfall the area has received, obviously. It had been a wetter than average season when I went across so there was water available, however the tank closest to the Norseman end was nearly empty as it took ages to fill a bottle.

There is bottled water available in roadhouses, as well as softdrink and powerade/gatorade bottles. It's not cheap but its better than going thirsty (and in my opinion, sometimes better than inane conversations with people you're asking for water off, but hey that's just me). You can also scab off motorhomes and caravans who carry around at least 50 litres of water, simply shake your water bottle at them somewhere they can pull over safely and be nice and polite and stuff. I was carrying about 14 litres out of Ceduna and only needed to buy water a couple of times.

Food and Accommodation

It's important to realise that roadhouses in the Australian outback generally don't stock groceries and should not be thought of as small supermarkets at all. They have fuel, bottled water to buy, softdrink, packets of crisps, chocolate bars and roadhouse food like bacon and egg toasties for $8 and sausage rolls, but generally have no packets of oats, rice, noodles or pasta. What is available can be two or three (sometimes more) the price you'd expect in a supermarket. 

Your best bet is to stock up at Ceduna or Norseman with food such as rice, pasta. I tend to go for pasta such as small shells or macaroni so it doesn't take up much room, the foil packets of tuna or salmon (weigh a bit less than tins and are easy to pack), dried mixed herbs, fried shallots if you can find it, packet grated Parmesan cheese, and the pizza sauce sachets you can buy for 4 for $2 in the pasta section of supermarkets. I carried tortillas (flat already so you can't squash it much) instead of pasta because I didn't want to use water cooking and cleaning. I ate roadhouse fare for breakfast and occasionally for lunch. Peanut butter and wholemeal biscuits are good for snacking.

NOTE: you cannot carry fresh fruit and vegetables (including seeds and nuts) across the border at Border Village (where the quarantine is) so eat that stuff before you get there. You can carry across tins or sachets of processed stuff, and even dried herbs although you will be looked at strangely for carrying an entire bag of dried green stuff (I swear it was just mixed herbs) by Mr Quarantine. ewok.

If you're on a bicycle I'd recommend carrying four spare tubes as there are no bicycle shops along the way and sometimes you just can't patch a puncture. Also, have some cable ties, a couple of hose clamps, duct tape as a kind of versatile fixit kit in case something breaks along the way. See "other advice" below for nearest bike shops.

Norseman - supermarket, cafe, caravan park

Balladonia - roadhouse, caravan park, motel
Caiguna - roadhouse, caravan park
Cocklebiddy - roadhouse, motel, caravan park
Madura - roadhouse, motel, caravan park
Mundrabilla - roadhouse, caravan park
Eucla - roadhouse, motel, caravan park, shop with a small selection of expensive groceries
Border Village - roadhouse
Nullarbor - roadhouse, motel
Yelata - I think you can camp at the Yelata community with a permit
Nundroo - roadhouse, hotel, motel
Penong - roadhouse, shop (some groceries), hotel, caravan park

Ceduna - bike shop (Sportspower), supermarket, bakery, caravan parks

I go on about freecamping options a little further down the page... so scrolly down if that's more your style.

Which way to ride?

Firstly, lets explain the wind terminology. Westerly means from the west (so if you're riding west it's a headwind). Easterly means from the east.

"Summer", or more specifically, November to April, the prevailing winds are from the east or south-east i.e. riding from Ceduna to Norseman might be your best bet for tailwinds.

"Most of the time" May to October the prevailing winds are from the west or north-west i.e. riding from Norseman to Ceduna might be your best bet for tailwinds.

Wind roses from the Bureau of Meteorology show the mean wind direction plots for different months of the year at 9am and 3pm. A link to the wind roses available for Australia is here. The 'Nullarbor' specific wind roses are Ceduna and Eucla which you can select on the map or from the drop down list here. (Select month, time and location). An example of the output is here

However, this is just a measure of the average over many years. I went across late November/ early December (2011) and I had 4 days of southerly wind, 3 of easterly wind and 1 of westerly wind between Ceduna and Norseman.


Before heading across the Nullarbor, and especially if it is part of a bigger trip and you have time up your sleeve to wait for better wind, I highly recommend learning how to read synoptic weather charts. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology produces a four day synoptic chart that is one of the best things you can go by for what the weather will be like as you cross the Nullarbor, or travel in Australia in general. 

The link to the 4 day colour chart is Bookmark away.

If you can save the image to your phone/device in Ceduna and check each day if you have reception for the latest (released between 2 and 3 pm EST, which is "afternoon time" Nullarbor time)

The main weather systems to look at are the highs and lows. In the southern hemisphere, highs are anticlockwise, lows are clockwise. The wind follows the isobars around in anticlockwise (H for high) or clockwise direction (L for low). So if there is a high sitting in the Australian bight, you know you'll have winds east to west along the coastline (summer pattern). If the high is sitting up on the mainland, you'll more likely get the west to east direction winds. Lows tend to bring rain to some areas. Cold fronts tend to bring colder weather and rain. The charts will show a hashed area for forecast rain 5mm or more during the period 24 hours up to the chart time. The closer the isobars are together, the windier it is. A cold front can bring squalls, and waves. Basically you watch the weather charts while you are coming up to crossing the Nullarbor to get a feel for them and also to make sure you're not riding into something nasty. You may find you can read into them enough to know you will need to get most of your riding in early in the day as the afternoon will be against you, or vice versa. You may find that one day will be a headwind but the chart says tomorrow will be better so you have something to look forward to.

For more info see and is a more simplistic chart with arrows.

Time zones

As you cross the Nullarbor, you cross three time zones. There is the South Australian time zone (Australian Central Standard Time) and the Western Australian time zone (Australian Western Standard Time), but also the bizarrely unofficial but still recognised Eucla time zone named Central Western Standard Time. 

All three time zones across the Nullarbor switch to daylight saving time in summer. Daylight Saving Time (DST) begins at 2am (AEST) on the first Sunday in October and ends at 3am AEDT on the first Sunday in April. When it starts you wind your clock forward one hour (add an hour) and when it ends you wind your clock back one hour (subtract an hour).

To generalise, SA is 1.5 hours ahead of WA i.e. you need to move your clock back 1.5 hours when entering WA, 1.5 hours forward when entering SA... and Eucla is smack in the middle... 45 minutes difference from both WA and SA. Refer to the little image below for hopefully more make sense.

Norseman is WA time, Ceduna is SA time

Summer time / Daylight Savings Time

South Australia  GMT+10:30 (Greenwich mean time + 10.5 hours)
Western Australia GMT+ 8:00
Eucla GMT+8.45

Other times

South Australia GMT+9:30 (Greenwich mean time + 9.5 hours)
Western Australia GMT+7:00
Eucla GMT+7.45

Current time clocks SA | Eucla | WA can be handy when you get totally confused.

Mind you, time doesn't really matter unless you're having to check in at a certain time or get fuel before the roadhouse closes. Who cares!

Other resources

Sunrise and Sunset Times

It is best to not be travelling at dusk or at night because that's when the animals come out and are hard to see, which is dangerous no matter your form of transport. However, dawn is, in my opinion, the best times to be on the road, before most of the traffic and when it is the most amazing time of day bringing out the colours of the scenery. Dust is a great time to find a spot to camp and watch the sunset over the landscape or even over the southern ocean from the cliffs. Just keep an eye out for stray kangaroos if you choose to ride at dawn. 

Check the sunrise and sunset times when you have phone reception or in the paper. A good site for mobile internet is Weatherzone. It's also handy to know what time the sun goes down and comes up for stealth camping so you can time to be off early (set the alarm so you can be packed up and ready to go at first light) or at a particular spot just an hour before sunset to have dinner and put up the tent.

Freecamping options

(I've listed these in the order I traveled the Nullarbor, east to west. So I guess read it backwards if you're doing it the "usual" way west to east. I've added an asterisk next to the ones I camped at, the rest I cannot vouch for. I liked to get away from the motorhomes and caravans and their gasps and questions as I enjoyed embracing the peace of the outback camped in more secluded or private places. If you're not used to spending days on your own you might not do this every night and opt for rest areas as per 'snippet' below or the caravan parks/motels.)

10 km east of Ceduna there is a few dirt tracks either side of the highway. If you are careful you can get away with freecamping along property fencelines.  Just cover your tyre tracks over and hide among the Mallee. Latitude:-32.14841 Longitude:133.75626 *

Otherwise, pay for a camp site at Ceduna. I stayed at the Foreshore caravan park for its close proximity to town. I camped 10 km out then night before, then checked in early (9am) at this caravan park to get organised with food, bike parts, check out the jetty and have a bit of a rest the rest of the day. Wash your clothes and have a shower or two! It may be your last chance for a few days :) You can charge your phone at the powerpoint in the camp kitchen on the eastern end of the BBQ. *

69 k West of Penong or 10 km East of Nundroo there is a rest area. (I didn't camp here, so not sure what it's like. I managed to ride 170 km in the first day somehow.) 

There is another rest area  27 k W of Nundroo or 25 km E of Yelata. 

170 km from Ceduna, or 30 km east of Yelata there is a rest area on the southern side of the road. Plenty of space in the dirt. Latitude:-31.66072 Longitude:132.09413 *

Snippet of list of rest areas. Click to enlarge.

There is are three 'official' rest areas 'near' the Nullarbor roadhouse: 37 km east.  Sorry I need to look this up. 

Or a dubious free camp up a dirt track on Yelata land, 25 km from Nullarbor roadhouse, a few km west from the "Nullarbor plain" sign. I'd suggest only camp here if you are very stealth and only put the tent up at nightfall. At the location I camped there was a little bit of dirt just off the track. -31.39862,131.05576 There is also a stack site (see satellite image) just off the road but not sure if this is used by trucks so be very careful to not get run over at that spot. There are dingoes in this area but they didn't hassle me, just watched me from a distance. NOTE: THERE ARE NO TREES TO HIDE BEHIND HERE. (I had phone reception near here.)

Head of the Bight turn off -31.408227, 131.036510 about 20 km from Nullarbor roadhouse. If the gates are open you can ride down here (11 km) and camp. Might be able to slip under the gate if on a pushbike. May be able to camp at the gate otherwise? NOTE: THERE ARE NO TREES TO HIDE BEHIND HERE. 

114 km from the Nullarbor roadhouse -31.61925,129.58376 turn into the roadside bay and take a rough dirt track a few km south to the little turn around area near the cliff face - I had to walk some of this track it was pretty rough in sections, so take it easy. (Alternatively find a place to camp closer to the road and walk to near the edge to have a look). Be very careful near the edge - you don't know how badly eroded the cliff is under your feet! There is a small area near the cul-de-sac where you can erect a tent on the western side (see photo below). Camp at least 10 m from the edge. Be careful of strong winds blowing the tent away. There are some mice here so close up your food bag. Watch sunset over the southern ocean! 

About 35 km and 40 km west of Eucla there is a couple of rest areas, but there is also a stack site on the northern side of the highway -31.77454,128.49667 if you prefer to be away from the caravans and motorhomes. A great view of the bluff here and enjoy the different vegetation.

Have a $4 hot shower at the Mundrabilla roadhouse. Handwash your clothes in the basin. Lovely.

A rest area at Madura bluff, about 15 km east of Madura. Usually full of caravans and motorhomes.

Another dubious freecamp... 5 km east of Madura, not far west from a RFDS air strip and just east of the blue 5km to Madura "services sign" there is a track that goes up to a short mount of gravel, behind which is to a short wire (not barbed) fence you can try lifting your pushbike over (dubious). You can probably just hide behind the one bush beside the dirt track if its late enough in the day. Lovely soft spinifex vegetation and plenty of kangaroos hopping around to wake you up. -31.90723,127.07165

6.9 km west of Cocklebiddy roadhouse (no phone reception at Cocklebiddy by the way but there is a payphone), turn north up a dirt track and camp behind a mallee tree on the western side of this little track (you'll probably see the fireplace there). Watch the sun go down over the landscape -32.03073,126.02422

24 km east of Balladonia, some red dirt and Mallee to camp off the road. Don't camp under the trees if you don't have to, just in case. -32.40611,124.37965

70 km east of Norseman, Fraser Range. Plenty of spots off the road in the red dirt and Mallee to camp. Plenty of ants too! -32.06892,122.44769

20 km south of Norseman (on the way to Salmon Gums or Esperance) there are dirt tracks off to the west. Red dirt and mallee. Many many flies but you can put your tent up before sundown to escape them. Not much shade here however. Don't camp under the big trees in case they throw down a limb. -32.42328,121.72068

Map of free camps

View Freecamps Nullarbor in a larger map

Phone reception

If phone reception is important to you, invest in a 3G Telstra pre-paid phone with the blue tick symbol on the box. 3G or Next G on the Telstra network has the best coverage and a blue tick phone will have the best reception. Having said that, its really only the SA side of the border that you will have mobile coverage outside of the small townships, so most of the time you will have no bars at all. Even many of the roadhouses on the WA side don't have mobile coverage, I found. Ceduna and Norseman both have good mobile coverage. There are payphones at the roadhouses.

If you are really concerned (or family members are really concerned), invest in a SPOT satellite messenger, or hire a similar device or maybe a satellite phone. However, there are so many travelling this road that you'd be pretty unlucky to need help and not be able to find it within a short time. You'd be pretty unlucky to need help in the first place.

Dealing with trucks

You'll always get into conversations with grey nomads "how do you go with all the trucks". Trucks are fine. It's only 1% of truck drivers who aren't willing to share the road with bikes; but we have to be courteous in return.

Nullarbor truck drivers are pretty good. They don't want to hit you. They've deadlines. For some reason I've read a few books which go on about them driving with their feet and trying to run down everything. I'm pretty sure that's not true. Truck drivers have stories. I've had a lot of experience with trucks so maybe I'm immune now. 

But basically the advice I would give is this, for trucks: if there is nothing coming the other direction, no blind spot, no sun in your eyes, no corner coming up, no solid centre line in the middle of the road (a good indication of difficulty seeing whats coming on ahead for road users) then hold your spot on the road, as left as possible, but keep an eye on your mirror as the driver approaches. If he hasn't moved over to the other lane by the time he's 100 metres away from you, get off the road as quickly and as safely as you can, and signal that you're getting off the road if you have the time and its safe to do so. Be courteous. These guys are working out there. This is their workplace.

Pretty nice workplace though.

When they give you lots of room (which is most of the time), give a quick thank you wave while you can still see their mirrors, thumbs up, whatever you feel like. In the early morning when its just you and them on the road, smile and wave at trucks going the opposite direction. It makes it less monotonous for everyone. Good will and good vibes and all that. They might not wave back but that's ok, some do. Some will play a horn tune and you'll laugh. 

Later in the day, if you wave to them, they'll be over it usually. They'll just think "bloody tourists". At dawn however, its different. 

Being courteous also means reading the road. Always ask yourself Can that truck or car pass me safely? If there's something coming the other way and it might be near the truck, pull over. Can I see for miles ahead or is there a bend which means something might be coming that I can't see yet? If there is a solid centre line, a blind spot, a crest... indicate early and pull over and wave them on. There have been plenty of times I've done this when there's been nothing coming but also a handful of times when if I hadn't have pulled over I'd be in the road of a truck making an evasive maneuver. You don't want that! There's no big rush, so read the road, be overly courteous more than under. They appreciate it, even if they do think we're fucking wacko for riding a pushie. :)

Never assume its just one truck. Sometimes they draft behind each other.

If you see an oversize truck or a pilot vehicle for an oversize truck, a police car or ambulance with flashy lights, any of these, hand signal, and pull well off the road, grab yourself a drink and wait patiently with both feet on the ground so they can tell you've stopped. Give a quick wave to the pilot or oversize truck driver to let them know you've seen them; that you're not going to just pull out in front. Don't just pull out straight away after they've passed either. Make sure you let any congestion go as they impatient drivers will just not see you amongst all their grumpiness, plus they'll all be banked up so if you let them pass you've got some clear road after them. Always pull well off the road in case something big or someone stupid comes along and needs that shoulder.

Now, if there is a motorhome or a caravan coming up behind you, these guys driving are grandparents with old eyes and no professional training. You be careful of them! And there are a lot of them. The SA side of the Nullarbor has no sealed shoulder, only shitty gravel, so its particularly annoying. The WA side is awesome. Sealed, wide shoulder for the most part. Just keep an eye in your mirror. You soon get used to being aware of your surrounding road users and it becomes second nature to make judgement calls about when to pull off the road and when it is safe to stay put.

Be particularly aware of times when the sun is in drivers eyes in either direction. 

Very important: Wear a light coloured shirt, or hi viz vest if you haven't light coloured clothing. Put an bright orange cover on your rack pack or one of your rear panniers. The greater distance drivers can see you, the better they'll go around you and the nicer they'll be to you. In bad weather like fog or heavy rain, put on the hi viz just in case. If for some reason you must ride at night, light up front and rear, wear hi viz, and get off the road for any of the traffic (there won't be much). 

The most important thing for road safety is to have mirrors and use them. Use your ears, use your intuition. But use your eyes. 

Other bits of advice

Grab yourself one of the free WA/SA Nullarbor maps from information centres either at Norseman or Ceduna or thereabouts. They're not big on detail but give you a general idea, mark the roadhouses and some of the rest areas and water tanks in a vague kind of a way. Carrying a more detailed map as well is probably recommended, but I didn't.

I highly recommend buying a light coloured long sleeved button up shirt such as a technical fabric with wicking properties and UV 50. Sun protection, quck and easy to dry when washed, lightweight, it's actually a form of shade (less direct sun means you get less hot). If you are buying a helmet, get a white one. Buy a lightweight, wide brimmed light coloured hat for under the helmet. Wear sunscreen on your face and any other part of your skin that's exposed to sunlight (long sleeved and wide brimmed means you need to apply less sunscreen). Apply sunscreen around 9am and then again after lunch. This way you still get your vitamin D. Australia = skin cancer so don't be stupid. Wear sunglasses. I get a headache some days if I don't do this, from the road glare. They're also good protection from flying rocks and bugs and stop your peepers from drying out. 

If you have been travelling for a while and need new tyres, tubes or other parts, make sure you order ahead of time (15 days at least is recommended) at a "nearby" bike shop just so they have the things you are looking for. Don't count on these stores having the tubes or tyres you want at all times. They have bicycle mechanics, but don't count on them being completely useful* either, or having the bike parts you require on hand.

At the eastern end:

On the western end:

  • Norseman doesn't have a bike shop. 
  • Esperance - Dempster Sporting Goods – 65 Dempster Street, Esperance 08 9071 1823
  • Kalgoorlie - Hannan's Cycles - 44 Boulder Road, Kalgoorlie 08 9021 2467
* My experience with the Esperance bike shop was they sold me a new (but inferior) wheel instead of just replacing the cup and cone in the hub. 

Girls, buy yourself a she-wee or similar item (mine is called a 'travelmate') for the pee standing up freedom. There are times when it is difficult to find a tree to hide behind. Also, carry tampons even if you aren't due to need them.

Carry a head net for the bugs. Trust me, you'll need it one day at least.

Other Resources

Questions, Comments?

Please feel free to ask a question if I haven't covered something, or add some other advice, in the comments or on twitter @mareebiketouroz or via email mareebiketouroz [at] gmail [dot] com.


Paul Martin said...

Excellent summary, thank you.

Aushiker said...

Great write-up providing detailed advice. I have added a link to the post on my Cycle Touring Western Australia resource page.

Would love to read more about your ride from Darwin to Perth. Are you planning to write that up?

mareebiketouroz said...

@ aushiker

Yeah I'll try to add more detail to what I've already got up on the site.

Phil Newman said...

Hi Maree. Such useful information, thanks. Heading off in September, east to west. Saddle, what sort did you use , what dod you do for butt comfort?

mareebiketouroz said...

@Phil Newman Hi Phil,

saddles and butt clothing are personal preference probably and females are different from males down there so not sure on how good my advice is generally, but I do like my Brooks B17 and some comfortably chamois-ed inner shorts. If its particularly hot or humid or you suffer the effects of rubbing or saddle sores in the past, packing a small tube of lanolin can be a good safety net for a cranky butt. Have fun.