Crossing the Nullarbor Desert – Part 3

22 November 2019

A few people have commented that cycling across a desert must be boring – in fact a slang name for the Nullarbor is the ‘Nullarboring’, but we’re not too sure where this comes from as we have found it to be very interesting. Perhaps it is the speed at which we are travelling? In a motorised vehicle people will whizz along and miss all of the things we notice, but at 15kph (12kph with the head winds we have been battling at times!) we see all of the nuances that the desert has to offer…the very small yellow flowers on a plant, the shingle back lizard basking in early morning sun, kangaroos bounding away into the distance, etc. The scenery has changed as we have progressed – the treeless Nullarbor plain is, in fact, quite a narrow strip in the middle…

…and the landscape on either side of it changes on a km-by-km basis. Now that we are nearing the end of this part of our journey we can say that we have really enjoyed it. Physically it has been pretty tough (more on this in a moment) and I’m not sure either of us would want to do it again, but it certainly hasn’t been boring!

It may be this time of year (or perhaps global climate change?), but the weather in this part of Australia is just bizarre. I don’t think anyone cycling the Nullarbor expects an easy ride and the wind is a major factor.  We’ve had our fair share of headwinds during our crossing – in fact if you didn’t have some headwinds you’d probably feel a bit hard done by! But it’s the temperature changes that are the weirdest thing – in a single day it can be in chilly single figures at night and then baking in the 40s in the afternoon. And on a day-by-day basis it can reach the low 20s one day, high 40s the next and then back down to the 20s again 48 hours later. There doesn’t appear to be any pattern.

As you would expect in a desert, fresh water is scarce and the few people living out there are very protective of what they have. All of the roadhouses, bar two, have let us fill up our water bottles (we have been carrying 10 extra litres each) when needed. In Nundroo  we had to pay – $5 for 1.5ltrs – ouch! No filling up from the taps there as it is saltwater and not desalinated.

Monday 18 November 19 – Nullarbor Roadhouse to Nundroo – 144km

To keep with the weather theme, we’d noticed that there was a batch of 3 hot days heading our way – the forecast went something like this…

– Monday max high 40-42 degrees with a head/cross wind turning to a slight tail wind.

– Tuesday max high 38-40 degrees with a slight headwind.

– Wednesday max high 42-45 degrees with 60kph cross/tail wind.

– Thursday max high 21 degrees with a head wind.

So, with a forecast like that for Monday, it wasn’t the sort of day to go breaking our ‘most kilometres cycled in a day record’.  However…

We were up and out before the sun was up and so it was really nice to watch it rise in front of us as we peddled east…

Martina was wearing her buff around her face to stop her burnt lips getting worse and to allow them to heal as high SPF lip salve wasn’t working.

There was a sign which said that we’d reached the eastern end of the treeless plain although there still weren’t that many trees even beyond that point. It was a pretty nice environment to cycle in with just a few grey nomads and the odd road train out there with us. And this is an odd thing – as we have travelled east, traffic has definitely decreased – especially the number of grey nomads – so where did they all go? Perhaps it’s the start of the run up to Christmas and there’s fewer people on the road?

Our planned journey from the Nullarbor Roadhouse to Ceduna, which is the end of the desert, was 4 days.  That would mean bush camping a couple of times before getting to Penong where there was a proper campsite. And we weren’t particularly looking forward to bush camping in high evening temperatures, especially after a sweaty day on a bike.

From the start of today we could tell it was going to be a hot one and by 10am it must have reached mid-30s. The wind didn’t cool us at all, just merely dried our sweat a few seconds after it formed. To add to the mix there were lots of long slow, not particularly steep, but energy-sapping hills to push up. It was at about 75km when we were going up one of these hills that we met Jean-Pascale (JP), a Canadian cyclist, coming in the other direction. About 20 seconds after meeting him a weird thing happened to me – I went a bit dizzy, thought it would pass, but it got worse. Martina caught up with us, at which point I passed out. Between Martina and JP they tried to catch me, but I just toppled over. I’d been feeling absolutely fine coming up the hill and then this happened, so not too sure what it was all about. We continued to chat to JP, who is on a cycling tour of Australia, for the next 20 minutes-or-so whilst I recovered in the shade of a tree and drank loads of water. By then I was feeling fine again, so we said our goodbyes to JP, parted company and continued our journey.

Obviously we kept a close eye on how I was feeling, but really I was back to normal very quickly. As expected, the heat kept notching up and we kept an eye out for bush camping sites. At 95km we came to one we’d earmarked and after a discussion decided to push on – this would leave us less to do in the next couple of (hotter) days and we were making the most of the slight tailwind that we had. It was Wednesday in particular that was concerning us as the forecast was for temperatures up-to 45 degrees with a strong wind.  This was not going to be pleasant riding and if we could avoid cycling in it then we should. At 117km we saw another bush camping spot and although it looked good, again we decided to keep going. It was mid-afternoon, baking hot and it is very difficult to articulate to how uncomfortable the conditions were – but to put it into context my iPhone had a caption on it saying that it was too hot and would only work when it had cooled down! We realised that the Nundroo Roadhouse was ‘only’ 30km away and the thought of cold water made us decide to push on yet again. We were both feeling fine – I’d had no problems since leaving JP hours ago. About 10km down the line however (at least an hour from Nundroo) I was starting to struggle. Martina seemed to be strong, but I had very little energy left, but struggle on we did – the last 15km were pretty painful for me and even Martina was feeling it by the time we finally reached Nundroo Roadhouse. We’d covered 144km which, in essence, is almost two normal cycling days in one.  At this point we were due a very expensive ($5) bottle of cold water!

The thought of setting up our tent in 40 degrees was quickly abandoned and we opted for their budget (air-conditioned, hurrah!) room. We were both pretty exhausted by this point so just chucked our things in and chilled out for a while.

As we’d cycled nearly two days in one we now had a day spare! We did contemplate staying at Nundroo for two nights but looking at the weather forecast again, tomorrow looked the lesser of two evils as Wednesday was the day we really wanted to avoid cycling. Penong was 80km away, and though we didn’t relish the thought of getting back on our bikes straight away after such an epic day, we decided that we should aim for the campsite there that had air-conditioned cabins so that we could sit out Wednesday’s stinker.

Tuesday 19 November 19 – Nundroo to Penong – 79km

I can’t say that we exactly sprang out of bed, but we were still up and out before the sun was up so that we could make the most of the coolness of the early morning.  Remarkably neither of us were that tired and felt reasonably strong after yesterday’s exertions. 

We believe that we cycled through a wombat cemetery today. We are quite accustomed to seeing dead Roos at the side of the road (154 on the Nullarbor to date!), but today they were largely replaced by wombats. We had no idea that they are so big!

Even through our tiredness the previous afternoon we’d noticed a few signs of human activity that we’ve not seen for at least 12 days – fields of crops and farms. These continued for most of today as did the long sweeping hills. However, with ‘only’ 80km to cover we were confident of getting to Penong and a safe haven for a couple of nights to keep out of the scorching temperatures. In Penong we found the campsite and our cabin, which was perfect to recover from all the cycling, keep cool and do very little! We were even early enough for an afternoon snooze – oh the difference 24 hours makes!

In the early evening we went for a look around Penong and also to pick up some provisions – we could cook a proper meal as our cabin had a stove. Horrah!  After stocking up at the grocery store we then popped across the road to the hotel bar to pick up some beer. The bar was much more like we’d imagined an outback Australian bar to be – not the motorway service stations that we experienced at the Nullarbor roadhouses, which we were very disappointed in.  This bar had some locals and the barman wanted a chat, so we stayed for a beer to soak up a bit of atmosphere.  It was great fun with a load of banter going on, some of which was even directed towards us!

Wednesday 20 November 19 – Penong – 0km

”It’s gonna be a stinker”.  This time it was me saying this and not an Aussie – you can tell I’m getting the hang of the lingo! When we went in search of fresh bread at 9:30am it was already baking hot outside and the strong wind was very dehydrating.  So if we needed any justification for our decision to stay put then this was it! An additional hazard that we hadn’t anticipated was the dust and sand being blown around, which meant that going outside gave us instant exfoliation! As it has been so dry, the strong wind was blowing clouds of this dust into the air making the visibility very poor in places, which would have been quite hazardous on the road.

Whilst out and about we also took in the windmill museum – doesn’t sound interesting? Well, actually it was…

It’s a community-run project which shows a whole load of different windmills that are used to pump water from the ground.  These are still used today and we have seen loads of them on our travels. The windmills on display included Australia’s largest windmill…

…and some other, more quirky, versions such as this ‘swing pump’…

 

But to be honest that was it for our day – when it’s 45 degrees outside with 60kph wind the best thing to do is keep out of it. On the evening news, there was a report that said that it had been South Australia’s hottest ever November day! It’s also sparked a load of bush fires, some of which are east of us and near our onward route, so we will be keeping a close eye on them.

We did some forward planning, watched some crap telly and not much else. One thing we did find out was that we’re not very good at doing nothing! We also looked online for news on the two girls we met who are trying to beat the record for cycling around the world on a tandem. They had cycled in the morning and evening, which must have been hellish and something we’re glad we didn’t even have to contemplate. I suppose that they are on a much tighter schedule than us and we wish them luck in their attempt.

Thursday 21 November 19 – Penong to Ceduna – 72km

The temperature started to drop quite dramatically at about 8pm last night and by the time we were getting up in the morning it was positively chilly. You just wouldn’t believe that only 16 hours ago it had been 45 degrees. Quite remarkable! Of course this made getting packed up and on our bikes enjoyable and we had a good ride to our destination of Ceduna. There was more traffic on the roads today and we reckon it was because quite a few people has kept off the roads yesterday because of the heat, wind and dust.

Ceduna is the unofficial end of the Nullarbor and we made it by midday.  It’s certainly a tough endurance test and we’re glad we are through it.  It has definitely been one of the highlights of our journey so far and we feel quite proud of ourselves. Martina even got a bit emotional and had a little cry when we arrived in town.

Then having recovered very quickly we had some cake to celebrate…

We must say thanks to Will back in Mandurah for his advice, especially on sending a food parcel ahead to Eucla and for his regular weather forecast updates – both were invaluable!

In Ceduna we camped in a great site right on the foreshore and once we’d settled in we decided to go for a supermarket sweep of food for a couple of barbecues we had planned  – basically trying to regain the weight we have both lost!

For once we are looking forward to Christmas food….not just for the taste, but also the calories!

Friday 22 November 19 – Ceduna – 0km

We had a very nice day in Ceduna which is a lovely little town on Murat Bay….

The eating theme continued with a monster breakfast so that we had enough energy to complete the enormous 3.5km walk to Pinky Point, just along the coast! Though the flies were a bit of a pain the walk was very nice with some lovely views of the bay…

There were also a few information boards saying that the nearby port support the grain, salt and gypsum industries. Plus Johnathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels was based on an island just off the coast here.  There are my nuggets of information for the day!

We chilled for the remainder of the day.  We are definitely getting better at not doing too much on our days off. Martina managed to get her hair cut and I got some of our kit ready for starting out tomorrow – and that was it.

We have managed to bump into Sue, our fairy godmother, on numerous occasions over the past two weeks. The latest of these was in the campsite here in Ceduna and we finally got a picture with her…

on her birthday! Happy Birthday Sue – we will no doubt see you again soon!

Some more notes on Australia’s trucks…

Apparently, according to Sue who knows about these things, the driver is known as a ‘Truckie’ and the engine/sleeping area, etc at the front is known as a ‘Prime Mover’. A prime mover and one trailer is known as a ‘Semi’. A prime mover and two trailers is known as a ‘B Double’. A prime mover with three or more trailers is a ‘Road Train’. Got that? We’ve seen road trains with up to 4 trailers…

…but apparently up in the northern parts of Australia (known as ‘the top’), for example in the Northern Territory, they can have up to 6 and can be 80m long. They don’t have them in New South Wales, Queensland or Victoria. There are also double-decker versions that carry livestock, which we have seen.   Truckies aren’t allowed to drive the whole vehicle in towns, which is why we sometimes see the trailers unhitched and parked up so that the prime mover can be driven on its own. Who would have known that trucks could be so interesting??!

A non-truck related observation – though it’s late November there is very little sign of Christmas either in the shops or on television. In the U.K. we can assume it’s all in full swing, but it’s refreshingly absent in Australia.

6 comments

  1. Comment by Debbie Boyd

    Debbie Boyd Reply 26 November 2019 at 4:24 am

    OH MY GOSH!!! You guys are something else. We haven’t checked in for a while and just flashed on where you might be and viola!!! There you are in Aussie land. And out in the middle of no damn where. Oh I was so worried when Nigel, you passed out!! Stop riding in that dang hot weather you guys. You’re making us all nervous. I need to go back and read where you started from in Australia. How much longer will you be traveling do you think? It seems so very long ago we saw you in Plovdiv, Bulgaria!! We went to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia this last year. An awesome trip for sure. You guys keep on going and going. My goodness your lives will never ever be the same after this incredible adventure. Take care and we’ll stay in better touch. Debbie and Jerry in Oregon

    • Comment by Martina

      Martina Reply 28 November 2019 at 7:53 am

      Hi Debbie and Jerry, really lovely to hear from you and yes it feels like a lifetime since we were in Plovdiv together. We started our Aussie journey about 5 weeks and over 3000km ago! We are now no longer in the middle of nowhere and the temperature is dropping, so things are looking a little bit nicer to ride in. Your latest trip sounds very interesting, so we need to meet up again and hear all about it!

  2. Comment by lani

    lani Reply 22 November 2019 at 10:25 pm

    wow impressive. what in the world will you do with your life once you are returned to life in England? have loved traveling along. thank you

    • Comment by Martina

      Martina Reply 28 November 2019 at 7:55 am

      Hi Lani, that is a very good question! We talk about how we might reintegrate when we return home and I’m not too sure that we have an answer yet to be honest! Hopefully things might become clear the nearer we get to the end.

  3. Comment by Will Colquhoun

    Will Colquhoun Reply 22 November 2019 at 9:58 pm

    Hi Nigel & Martina,
    Huge effort, you are now part of a small group of people who have cycled across the Nullarbor. I estimate it is well under 10000 probably under 5000, talking to Roadhouse’s along the route back in 2015, they said only about 20-30 cyclists come through per year.
    Congratulations and thank you for the acknowledgment. I only gave advice, you both did the hard yards. Enjoy the rest of your tour.
    Will & Jenny

    • Comment by Martina

      Martina Reply 28 November 2019 at 8:26 am

      Thanks Will and Jenny, hopefully you will both be back on two wheels again soon too! Thank you for your continued support

Leave a Reply to Debbie Boyd Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Go top