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Nullarbor wandering

23 January, 2013

Riding solo across the Nullarbor is not everyone’s idea of fun, but as Lisa Dempster discovers, the adventure is worth it. 

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Straight, flat and long, the Nullarbor is an iconic touring route. When I needed a break from my hectic life, the idea of a solo unsupported desert ride was appealing. So I box up my bike and by combination of plane, bus and ute, get myself to Norseman in Western Australia to start my desert cycling adventure.

I travel eastwards to take advantage of prevailing winter winds. Excitement – or is it nerves? – courses through me as I turn right from Norseman onto the Eyre Highway. I follow the white line of this road 1200 kilometres across the desolate centre of Australia, travelling through the Nullarbor all the way to Ceduna in South Australia.

Unfortunately, I find myself riding directly into a tiring head wind. So much for prevailing winds! I haven’t trained for this journey except for keeping fit as a commuter and recreational cyclist – a fact that strikes me as unwise now that I am on the road. Despite being an experienced tourer, my Surly Long Haul Trucker is heavier than usual, my Ortlieb panniers are weighed down with ten litres of water stashed and lots of food, as well as the usual camping gear.

My first destination is a sheep station 100 kilometres from Norseman and, passing the 70km-mark, I already can’t wait to get off my bike. Day one pain! A short, slow bumpy ride later, I arrive at Fraser Range Station. I had ridden 105kms. Exhausted, I hit the showers, eat, and crawl into bed at 7pm.

Nullarbor sign

Photo by Lisa Dempster

Eating breakfast at 6.20am the next morning, the sky above me is an astounding electric blue. Rested and energetic, I set off, cruising easily, if slowly, for over 100km. Finally, there’s the sign – one kilometre to go. I’d ridden 145 kilometres and my hands are shaking as I swap my lycra for jeans and a flannie. Camp set up is basic: I pop up my one-man ‘coffin’ tent, inflate the sleeping mat and throw it inside with my sleeping bag. Sleeping quarters ready, I turn my attention to dinner, lighting my little gas stove and cooking instant noodles with dehydrated peas and corn. Before bed I lay back and stare upwards. The night sky is a wonderland of stars dangling down towards earth, an astounding lightshow.

The 90 Mile Straight is Australia’s longest straight road, a 146.6-kilometre marvel. Riding excruciatingly slowly in headwinds through a desolate landscape, I am intolerably lonely. I am miserable. During the morning I have averaged just 17.5km/h. Just ride to that tree up ahead, I’d tell myself, then put my head down and mash the pedals until I got there. Then to the next landmark, then the next.

On a map it appears as though the Nullarbor has towns along the way, but most names represent nothing more than a roadhouse. Nevertheless, they are something to look forward to. Proper toilets, hot coffee and cold drinks are a treat – even if the coffee is Nescafe and the Gatorade $5.50 a bottle!

I pull into Caiguna roadhouse at sunset on day three, 135km under my belt, and sit down in the diner, scanning the menu. Fresh food is scarce in the outback, and vegetarian food is also limited. Roadhouse menus feature fried food and grilled meats: hardly appetising for a hardworking vegan cyclist! Beans on toast, hold the butter, are my mainstay. This, along with the noodles, dark chocolate and protein bars I carry sees me safely across the Nullarbor, but I have a constant craving for fresh veggies. (One day I was given an avocado, a remarkable gift from a passing motorist!)

As well as stodgy food, the travails of the Nullarbor are numerous: the road is badly maintained, the harsh sun and lack of shade can be brutal even in winter, and the tourist and truckie traffic is unrelenting, and includes 100-tonne roadtrains travelling at high speeds. My progress along the great road is slow; a 75km ride into headwind has me crying in frustration on day four, and the following day I am sidelined after 95 kilometres thanks to an approaching cyclone. Finally I pick up a tail wind. Riding out of Madura Pass on day six, I am flying.

Lisa's bike

Photo by Lisa Dempster

The Nullarbor is not a sandy desert; rather, there are scraggly shrubs and orange dirt as far as the eye can see. Vast and unchanging for hundreds of kilometres, it’s beautiful. Coasting with the wind behind me, I watch wedgetailed eagles soar on the air currents high above. I am grinning, loving that special feeling of being in the saddle, cadence just right and the conditions perfect.

Pulling into a roadhouse for lunch, I’ve ridden 115 kilometres and there is life in my legs still. The wind is furious and yesterday’s storm lingers, but, suspecting it would stay behind me, I keep on. It is as though a gentle hand is on my back propelling me forward, as my speed rises and rises – 32 km/hr; 35km/hr; 38km/hr. The 75km to the small township of Eucla flies by.

Sunrise and sunsets in the desert create spectacular displays, with blue, orange and pink hues lighting up the land. Thus is the dawn on day seven, and I am particularly stoked because I’ve had a latte at breakfast (Remarkably, the café at Eucla harbours not only an espresso machine, but soy milk as well!). I pedal towards the South Australian border, legs spinning, heart content.

After midday, and a hundred kilometers ridden, I am flagging. Despite taking on plenty of water I am panting uncontrollably, and my sunscreen-covered arms and face are burning with a prickly heat. There is no shade in which to rest so I keep going, despite feeling panicky. But as the afternoon passes and the sun slips from the sky, my panic abates; I am okay. As dusk turns to night my legs grow weary. My front light, solar-powered, loses its charge. I pedal furiously to avoid getting stuck riding in the dark. My legs are burning as I click over the final five Ks. Finally I arrive at Nullarbor Roadhouse, stiffly dismount and lean my bike against a wall.

Riding into Penong on day nine I am startled to find an actual town, with streets and houses and shops – civilisation at last! The final 75km straight to Ceduna is beautiful, a red asphalt road cutting between green fields, but still challenging. After 1200 kilometres of riding I am feeling the strain, and use all the tricks I have to keep my legs rotating: ride to the next tree; don’t look at the odometer until you’ve done five kilometers; just put your head down and go, go, go. Finally, I arrive.

It barely feels real. I have ridden 550km in the first five days of my trip, and a further 700 in the last four days. Remarkably, I’ve had no mechanical issues, not even a puncture. Riding the Nullarbor is not the most scenic or difficult touring route, but it is a serious challenge. I am grinning – I have ridden across the Nullarbor.

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Distance: 1,250km over nine days

Kind of bike: Surly Long Haul Trucker tourer

Scenery: Scrub desert, vast open plains, straight roads and not much else!

Difficulty: Hard

More information: www.nullarbornet.com.au

Transport WA have a brochure on riding across the Nullarbor, available at their website www.transport.wa.gov.au

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Howard Coats permalink
    27 January, 2013 6:35 pm

    Loved reading about the trip—am contemplating riding from Perth to Melbourne — not sure
    If this helped me to have a go or not but would like to go supported as at 63 I may flag

  2. 13 February, 2013 6:33 pm

    Love it… Its my ambition to ride it as well..Put your story on the crazyguyonabike web site… Cheers

  3. 13 February, 2013 7:02 pm

    Great read and well done.

  4. June Mason permalink
    13 February, 2013 11:21 pm

    Having driven by motorhome across the Nullabor twice & looked admiringly on the few lone young men & women we’ve passed cycling, I loved this article & can appreciate how tough the journey is.

  5. 14 February, 2013 10:38 pm

    Congratulations, nice achievement! Enjoyed your story.

  6. Ben permalink
    8 June, 2014 12:26 am

    This is amazingly written, and an inspiring trip. I was independently planning on doing this trip myself although starting at Port Augusta. Thank you for writing this up, so I know what to partially expect.

  7. Spikey permalink
    2 July, 2014 11:16 am

    Thanks for sharing your story and the encouragement(??). Five of us are planning to do the ride in September from Fremantle to Kiama on road bikes with a support vehicle. Hoping for a month of those tail winds you had some of the time.

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