The Old Eyre Highway, A Journey Back Through Time

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The Old Eyre Highway was notorious. Mile after endless mile of choking dust, corrugations, huge bull dust holes and endless limestone rocks.

Ill-equipped cars being smashed to pieces on this epic journey across the bottom of Australia. 

A 1950's American car that has obviously rolled. Old Eyrte Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
Another rollover. This 1950’s Vauxhall Cresta was yet another victim of the brutal road (thanks to David Glazier for identifying this car!).

Massively overloaded, underpowered and infamously unreliable British trucks pounding their way along, stopping constantly to change shredded tyres or sometimes to rebuild a gearbox by the side of the road.


The Old Eyre was brutal. In summer, radiators boiled and tyres popped like balloons.

In winter, the rains would turn it into a sea of vehicle-sucking mud and freezing winds.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine just how insanely challenging this road was. However, you can still get a glimpse of the past.







A Time Capsule


In fact, you can still drive along the Old Eyre Highway between Nullarbor Roadhouse and Border Village. We drove it west to east.

As soon as you cross the WA/SA border into South Australia from the west, turn left off the Eyre Highway into what looks like a dirt rest area. It’s directly opposite the roadhouse. Follow this for a few hundred metres and you’ll see the Old Eyre Highway in front of you.

The Old Eyre Highway is now overgrown. However, you can still drive along it with a suitable vehicle.
At the beginning of the Old Eyre Highway at Border Village.

It’s overgrown now, with trees and shrubs growing out of the road. You can still drive it, you just have to dodge the trees!

The surface is rough and rocky, as you’d expect.

Reefs of limestone poke through the surface and there’re plenty of sharp limestone rocks waiting to damage your tyres. Just take it slowly and you’ll be fine.

The Old Eyre Highway is no just a track in some places. The limestone reefs of rock make it a rough trip in places. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
The road surface is still rough and rocky. Hardly surprising… topsoil is a rare commodity out here!

Be aware this is a remote track, even though it’s not that far from the Eyre Highway. Be prepared and preferably carry a satellite phone in case you run into trouble. You’ll need to be entirely self-sufficient.

And don’t even consider this road in the wet or the heat of summer. Caravans? No way! A quality off-road camper trailer will be okay though.

The Old Eyre is like a museum or a time capsule from the fifties and sixties. The occasional car body, plenty of shredded tyres and thousands of old tin cans.

A shredded tyre and rim beside the Old Eyre Highway.
This is a completely destroyed rim, tyre and tube on the side of the road. We lost count of the number of shredded tyres and tubes.

The most popular of these are tin beer cans. It looks like many people drank their way across the Nullarbor! Hardly surprising the Old Eyre was notorious for rollovers…

Lots of old tin beer cans are lying along the edge of the Old Eyre Highway. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
Just one of thousands of old tin beer cans along the Old Eyre.

You’ll find old cans everywhere. It looks like people camped by the roadside, had their canned dinner and left their rubbish behind. Some things never change.

And you don’t have to look far to find badly shredded cross-ply tyres and shredded tubes. In fact, you’ll find a bit of everything… mufflers, parts of exhaust pipes, broken rubber bushes. We even found a speedo cable!

A speedo cable beside the Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
This speedo cable would have shaken or been ripped out of a car or truck at some stage.

This road must have been hell to drive in its heyday.

We camped on the road, keen to soak up the atmosphere. Like at Koonalda Station, it’s easy to imagine old Holdens and Fords rattling past in a plume of white dust or an overloaded Albion truck lumbering towards you, bellowing angrily at the torture track.

Camped on the Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
We don’t get to camp ON a highway very often!

I take my hat off to the truck drivers who did this route. They must have been extremely resourceful bush mechanics and expert tyre repairers.


A Refuge


As we approached Koonalda Station, we could appreciate just how welcome this place would have been to weary travellers. Koonalda couldn’t have come too soon for those low on fuel or down to their last spare tyre.

Koonalda Station on the Old Eyre Highway, showing petrol bowser and shed.
This old petrol bowser at Koonalda Station would have been a welcome sight to many travellers anxiously watching their fuel gauge.

Koonalda Station has been left marooned by the new Eyre Highway further south for many years now. It’s full of ghosts. You can easily see the old cars limping in, broken and desperately in need of repair.

Equally, we wondered how many people drove out from Koonalda, dreading what the Old Eyre was going to throw at them next.

How many anxious people would have been wondering if their battered car would make it to Eucla… or worse, east across the roughest section to Nullarbor Roadhouse?

Note: Parts of this were filmed using a Go Pro Hero Black. Camera House have a large range of GoPro cameras and accessories.


A Brutal Track


The Old Eyre deteriorates east of Koonalda Station, even now. We were thoroughly spoilt… strong radial tyres, good quality shock absorbers, air conditioning and no vinyl seats to stick to.

Yet it was obvious this part of the road would have been hell on earth. The reefs of limestone across the road get bigger, the long stretches of low-lying boggy sections are still obvious and even now, there’s still a few small patches of bulldust!

East of Koonalda Station, the country opens out to sparse saltbush country. Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain, SA.
East of Koonalda Station, the Old Eyre crosses vast tracts of saltbush plains. This loose dusty ground turns to mush after any rain.

Not only this, but the low trees give way to the open expanse of the Nullarbor proper. Vast expanses of flat, open ground as far as the eye can see. We could only imagine how thick the fine choking white dust would have been.

This was truly a brutal stretch of road.

Screenshot showing how to use our interactive map of fuel stops across the Nullarbor.

Fuel Stops

So where you can get fuel on the Nullarbor? Our Interactive Map of fuel stops across the Nullarbor will give you all the info you need.


Points of Interest


If you’re thinking this a simply a drive across a bare desert plain, think again. There’s plenty to see along the way.


Holes In The Ground


If you’re into caves, then you’ll love the Old Eyre Highway trip. There’s caves and sinkholes dotted along the road. 

Some are right beside the road while others are several kilometres off the road.

Our favourite blowhole was Bunabie Blowhole. This is right beside the road and easily missed. This blowhole disappears deep into the ground and would be a fantastic spot to camp and listen to the blowhole breathing.

According to the Mirning people, this sound is the magic snake Ganba. He thrashes around on the surface and creates dust storms, he drinks the water, eats the trees and eats people. Ganba is the reason why the Nullarbor Plain is as you see it today.

Bunabie Blowhole beside the Old Eyre Highway. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
Bunabie Blowhole breathes when the air pressure changes.

Our favourite cave was Koomooloobooka Cave. As you approach, it looks like a jumble of limestone rocks. When you stop and walk around though, you’ll find several sinkholes.

The surface of Koomooloobooka Cave looks like a jumble of limestone rocks. However, there is a cave system under the surface. Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
The surface of Komooloobooka Cave appears to be nothing more than a random jumble of limestone rocks… until you start walking across it.

And they’re slightly scary!

Looking down, they open into a large chamber way below your feet. Then it occurred to us… we were walking on the roof of a large underground chamber. By now we were feeling quite a bit less secure, yet fascinated by the view down the sinkholes.

One of the shafts at Koomooloobooka Cave. This opens into a large underground chamber. Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
These sinkholes on the surface of Koomooloobooka Cave open into large chambers beneath the surface. They’re actually quite forbidding.

Take care around these sinkholes. It wouldn’t be difficult to slip into one, never to be seen again.

We wondered what secrets these caves hide and completely understood how cavers get hooked on caving. After all, you’re exploring a whole other world down there, an underground world just waiting to be explored.

If you’re not all caved out by the time you reach Koonalda Station, then drive north past the homestead to Koonalda Cave. This cave is enormous and hides a whole other world, closely linked with the First People.


An Unexpected Mine

About 23 km west Of Koonalda Station is an abandoned mineshaft, about 300 metres off the road to the north. On the Hema 4WD Maps app, you’ll see Albala-Karoo Bore on the topo map. If you take this track, you’ll see the mine clearly off to your right. (Go here for Hema 4WD Maps for iOS or here for Hema 4WD Maps for Android).

An old mine shaft beside the Old Eyre Highway. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
Whoever dug this old mineshaft must have been hardy. Temperatures are extreme on the open ground of the Nullarbor Plain.

Just what they were looking for we have no idea. How anyone could mine out here by hand in this harsh environment is totally beyond comprehension.

A stone’s throw from the mineshaft is the grave of Herman Johnson who died in 1889. His must be one of the loneliest graves on Earth.

The lonely grave of Herman Johnson who died Dec 1889. Beside the Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
A lonely grave.

A big thanks to Jane Lett for contacting us and passing on links to details of Herman Johnson. According to accounts on an Eyre Peninsula Family History Facebook group, Johnson was most likely a cook with a Government drilling crew.

They were drilling what is known as Diamond Bore. The diamond drill tip snapped off and remains trapped in the dry bore to this day.

He is variously described as being aged early 20s or 36 and dying of appendicitis or septicaemia. Whatever his true age and cause of death, Mr Johnson died a painful death at a young age… and days away from the nearest doctor.

The grave of Herman Johnson beside the Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Plain SA.
I love the caption hand-etched underneath, “Erected by his mates”.

If any of you have more details on Herman Johnson, please send us an email or contact us here.


Cars

You’ll see a few cars on the side of the road, invariably stripped after rolling over.

The old car wreck on the side of the Old Eyre Highway. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
Not much remains of this FJ Holden (thanks to David Glazier for identifying this one).

We encountered remnants of an FJ Holden, a mid ’50s American car, a HQ Holden and what looked like a Chrysler Centura on its roof. You’ll continue to see old kerosene tins, oil drums, car and truck tyres and tubes, plus hundreds of miscellaneous bits and pieces fallen off all manner of vehicles.

Wreck of a HQ Holden beside the Old Eyre Highway. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
Like most cars along the Old Eyre, this HQ Holden has been stripped for parts.

At the intersection of the Old Eyre Highway and the road to Cook, there’s a pile of interesting car and truck parts. It looks like people have collected them and left them there for whatever reason.

An assortment of car and truck parts at the intersection of the Old Eyre Highway and the Cook Road. Nullarbor Plain SA.
An interesting collection of car and truck parts at the intersection of the Old Eyre and the road to Cook.

Personally I think they should be left untouched by the side of the road. It’s a bit of history for all to see.







Dingoes and Fences


At the intersection of the Old Eyre and the road to Cook, you’ll see a falling down fence running north-south.

This is the vermin-proof fence. It was originally built as a rabbit-proof fence. However when that plan failed it became a dingo fence to keep dingoes out of the eastern areas.

Now though, this part of the fence is falling over and was obviously abandoned many years ago.

We saw three really healthy looking dingoes along the Old Eyre and a mother with a partly grown pup close to Nullarbor Roadhouse. These highly intelligent creatures are best left alone and you’ll definitely need to stow away any rubbish at night.







The End Of The Road


After the Cook road, the Old Eyre Highway becomes quite corrugated. And of course, the ever-present limestone reefs add to the “atmosphere”!

Yet another old trye on the Old Eyre Highway. Nullarbor Plain, SA.
Yet another discarded tyre along the road.

We encountered a heavy shower of rain about 15 kilometres west of Nullarbor Roadhouse. The road instantly turned into a slippery slush, with us going sideways a couple of times.

Light showers near Nullarbor Roadhouse instantly turned the Old Eyre Highway into a slippery muddy slop.
Just a few light showers were enough to turn this road into a slippery slush.

It was a reminder of how treacherous this road would have been in the wet. In fact, it would rapidly become impassable with the slippery clay and deep powdery bulldust holes back then.

There we were in a highly capable 4WD truck, sliding around after one small downpour. Back then though, it would have been 2WD cars and massively overloaded and underpowered trucks with skinny cross-ply tyres.

I had recollections of growing up on a property in the steep mountains of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Mum behind the wheel of our Valiant up steep clay pinches, expertly guiding the Old Val as we slipped and slid our way to the top… loaded stock trucks caught on steep pinches after a smattering of rain and Dad hooking our beaten-up Land-River to them, trying to help them over the pinch.

As we were driving along, I could almost see the ghosts of the old British trucks labouring through the slush, slewing sideways in the mud, waiting for someone to come along and hook on, trying to tow them through.

Long distance truck driving across the Nullarbor must have been a tough gig.

Finally Nullarbor Roadhouse appeared and soon enough we were driving parallel to the tarred highway. What a contrast!

We were bouncing over the rocks, slushing through the slop while just 50 metres away cars and trucks were thundering past at a comfortable 100km/h.

Upon reaching the Roadhouse, quite a few travellers gave our truck curious glances. They were probably wondering why it was covered in mud from top to tail. If they only knew!

At the end of the Old Eyre Highway at Nullarbor Roadhouse, SA.
At the eastern end of the Old Eyre Highway at Nullarbor Roadhouse, looking west.


Final Thoughts

So, yes reaching Nullarbor Roadhouse was kind of like crawling out of the Seventies into the present day. It was a world away.

And it was an appropriate way to end the trip.

A wild dingo is dwarfed by two huge trucks at the end end of the Old Eyre Highway, Nullarbor Roadhouse SA.
Modern trucks like this are a far cry from the underpowered British trucks that took on the Old Eyre. Notice the wild dingo on the left. Nullarbor Roadhouse.

It’s so easy to be immersed in the past as you travel the Old Eyre Highway. You can’t help but be transported back to the days when cars and trucks were unreliable, and roads were no more than an endless ribbon of rough dirt.

How easy it is to imagine these old bangers punching their way through the choking dust. The ghosts of these cars and trucks continue ply the Nullarbor on their endless journey across the continent.


The Old Eyre Highway is on Mirning Country.


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6 thoughts on “The Old Eyre Highway, A Journey Back Through Time”

  1. (Note: This is a comment Mick emailed to us. He has some interesting recollections of the Eyre Highway and Nullarbor Roadhouse. Andrew).

    Did you note where Ivy Tanks was? That was a pretty good place to get water when others had run out or were running low.

    The bitumen was completed on the South Australian side in 1976, prior to the completion of the bitumen, work was being done and sections unrelated to each other were being bituminised. So you could have terrible conditions one minute then a beautiful smooth road for some kilometres. I seem to remember that work on bituminising the remaining dirt sections on the SA side of the Nullarbor plain started in earnest around 1974, I know it was completed in 1976 as I watched the official opening party passing our camp to open it; even though it was open.

    You are correct, whenever it rained, traffic just stopped. Mostly people just camped alongside their vehicles, or slept in them. The best part was the wind, it dried out the road quickly, but it was usually biting cold.
    People often camped near tanks if possible, with many doing repairs of some sort before the light faded.

    Fuel at Nullarbor station was around 1 km from the road and pretty much alongside the station house, whereas today, the road house at Nullarbor is on the highway pretty much where the cattle grid at the station entrance used to be.

    Reply
    • Ivy Tanks is between Nullarbor Roadhouse and Yalata. Unfortunately, this part of the Old Eyre Highway is no longer accessible to the public. After doing some research, it looks like Ivy Tanks was indeed a popular stopping point for travellers.

      Reply
    • Ivy Tanks was an interesting place with sharks and other fish life pickled in jars and on display as well as business cards form those passing through. They were almost the wallpaper. I travelled that initially in 1968 when we went east to compete in a Rothmans Car Rally out of Sydney. When the decision came to move to Sydney I was 6 months pregnant with my 5th child and my husband went ahead by plane and train while I packed up the house and the children, sold my rally car and purchase a Ford Fairmont wagon and set off with 4 kids, a dog, ca and a bird and drove through to Sydney. I then drove back to Perth in early December to give birth. The next time I made the trip my 6th was born in the back of the car at Eucla but I pushed on to Perth where the news made the front page of the West Australia relegating the footy Grand Final to the back page and since then have travelled that road 21 times by myself with the kids although the last time I did it was in Chrstimas 1979 and I had 8 kids on board and did the Sydney/Perth trip in 52 hours. Spent 4 days in Perth and returned to Sydney. That trip was all bitumen by then and it was much better that circling the bull dust that one always had to be careful of because if you hit a patch and went in hard you broke the front end. It was great for the kids growing up as they got to see what a huge country we live in

      Reply
      • Hi Carol,
        Thanks for adding your recollections, they’re fantastic. You would know the road like the back of your hand! I can just picture a carload of kids in the Fairmont, sticking to the vinyl seats in the summer.
        Cheers, Andrew

        Reply
  2. Drove from Melbourne to Perth and back again in june 1972 in a EK Holden stationwagon
    Great trip with no problems
    Three guys slept in the car

    Reply

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