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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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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 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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
You’ll see a few cars on the side of the road, invariably stripped after rolling over.
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.
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.
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”!
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.
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!
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.
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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