Nullarbor Plain

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"Nullarbor" redirects here. For other uses, see Nullarbor (disambiguation).
NASA – Visible Earth, Nullarbor. The true Nullarbor is the light tan semi-circular area adjacent to the coast. Image acquired by the Terra on 19 August 2002

The Nullarbor Plain (/ˈnʌləbɔr/ NUL-ə-bor; Latin: nullus, "no", and arbor, "tree") is part of the area of flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast with the Great Victoria Desert to its north. It is the world's largest single exposure of limestone bedrock, and occupies an area of about 200,000 square kilometres (77,000 sq mi).[1] At its widest point, it stretches about 1,100 kilometres (684 mi) from east to west across the border between South Australia and Western Australia.


Historically, the Nullarbor, considered by Europeans to be almost uninhabitable, was used by the semi-nomadic Aborigines, the Spinifex and Wangai peoples. It was used for thousands of years before that by prehistoric Aborigines.

Despite the hardships created by the nature of the Nullarbor, European settlers were determined to cross the plain. Although Edward John Eyre described the Plain as "a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams", he became the first European to successfully make the crossing in 1841. Eyre departed Fowlers Bay, South Australia on 17 November 1840 with John Baxter and a party of three Aboriginal men. When three of his horses died of dehydration, he returned to Fowler's Bay. He departed with a second expedition on 25 February 1841. By 29 April, the party had reached Caiguna. Lack of supplies and water led to a mutiny. Two of the Aborigines killed Baxter and took the party's supplies. Eyre and the third Aborigine, Wylie, continued on their journey, surviving through bushcraft and some fortuitous circumstances, such as receiving some supplies from a French whaling vessel anchored at Rossiter Bay. They completed their crossing in June 1841.

In August 1865, while travelling across the Nullarbor, E. A. Delisser in his journal named both Nullarbor and Eucla for the first time [2]

On 25 December 1896, after an arduous journey of thirty-one days, Arthur Charles Jeston Richardson became the first cyclist to cross the Nullarbor Plain, pedaling his bicycle from Coolgardie to Adelaide.[3] Carrying only a small kit and a water-bag, he followed the telegraph line as he crossed the Nullarbor. He later described the heat as "1,000 degrees in the shade".[4] During their three-year cycling trip around Australia between 1946 and 1949, Wendy Law Suart and Shirley Duncan became the first women to cycle across the Plain.[5]

The first person to walk across Australia, Henri Gilbert, crossed the Nullarbor Plain on foot, with no support team or stock, in the middle of summer. His walk across Australia was achieved between August 1897 and December 1898 (Fremantle to Brisbane).[6]

A proposed new state of Auralia (meaning "land of gold") would have comprised the Goldfields, the western portion of the Nullarbor Plain and the port town of Esperance. Its capital would have been Kalgoorlie.

During the British nuclear tests at Maralinga in the 1950s, the government forced the Wangai to abandon their homeland. Since then they have been awarded compensation, and many have returned to the general area. Others never left. Due to their isolation, the government was not able to reach all of the people to warn about evacuating before the testing.

Some agricultural interests are on the fringe of the plain including the 2.5 million acre Rawlinna Station, the largest sheep station in the world, on the Western Australian side of the plain. The property was established in 1962 by Hugh G. MacLachlan, of the South Australian pastoral family, the station has a comparatively short history compared to other properties of its type around Australia.[7] An older property is Madura Station, situated closer to the coast, it has a size of 1.7 million acres and is also stocked with sheep.[8] Madura was established prior to 1927, the extent of the property at that time was reported as two million acres.[9]

In 2011 South Australian Premier Mike Rann announced that a huge area of the Nullarbor, stretching almost 200 km from the WA border to the Great Australian Bight, would be given formal Wilderness Protection Status. Mr Rann said the move would double the area of land in South Australia under environmental protection, to 1.8 million hectares. The area contains 390 species of plants and a large number of habitats for rare species of animals and birds.[10]

Cultural significance[edit]

Road sign

"Crossing the Nullarbor", for many Australians, is a quintessential experience of the "Australian Outback". Stickers bought from roadhouses on the highway show "I have crossed the Nullarbor", and can be seen on vehicles of varying quality or capacity for long distance travel. The process of "beating the crowds" on overbooked air services at the time of special sporting events can also see significant numbers of vehicles on the road.

Crossings in the 1950s and earlier were significant, as most of the route then was a dirt track. Round-Australia car trials (the Redex Trials)[11][12] used the Nullarbor crossing for good photo shoots of cars negotiating poor track.

Geography and climate[edit]

Another road sign

The Nullarbor Plain is a former shallow seabed, as indicated by the presence of bryozoans, foraminifera, echinoids and red algae calcareous skeletal that make up the limestone.[13] The region is also the location of "Nullarbor limestone" and it has a reputation as a significant karst region with Oligocene and Miocene cave formations.[13][14]

The sequence within the limestone includes five formations:

  • the upper formation is the Nullarbor Limestone which is early middle Miocene in age;
  • the Mullamullang member of this formation is a paraconforming member, being separated by 5 million years;[13]
  • the third member is the Abrakurrie Limestone that was formed in a central depression of the earlier formation; this is late Oligocene to Early Miocene in age and does not reach the edge of the plain;[13]
  • the last two formations are conforming formations; the late Eocene Toolinna Limestone lies on the Wilsons Bluff Limestone which is mid to late Eocene in age; and
  • the Toolinna Limestone does not cover the whole Nullarbor and is extant only in the extreme east beside the Abrakurrie formation which lies in a depression.
Tree full of shoes in "the middle of nowhere", the Nullarbor, Western Australia.

One theory is that the whole area was uplifted by crustal movements in the Miocene, and since then, erosion by wind and rain has reduced its thickness. The plain has most likely never had any major defining topographic features, resulting in the extremely flat terrain across the plain today.[13]

In areas, the southern ocean blows through many subterranean caves, resulting in blowholes up to several hundred metres from the coast. The Murrawijinie Caves in South Australia are open to the public, but most of the Nullarbor Caves on the Western Australian side can only be visited and viewed with a permit from the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

The Nullarbor is known for extensive meteorite deposits, which are extremely well preserved in the arid climate. In particular, many meteorites have been discovered around Mundrabilla, some up to several tonnes in weight.[15]

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Nullarbor's soils are considered to be mainly aridisols.[16]

Rainbow over the Nullarbor Plain.

The Nullarbor has a desert climate, with arid to semi-arid conditions. Inland, summers can be scorching hot, with daytime temperatures close to 50 °C (122 °F), while in winter nights can drop well below freezing. Closer to the coast, the temperature is milder with more rainfall in the winter months. The mean annual rainfall at Cook is 184.1 millimetres (7.25 in), with most rain falling between May and August. Summers are very dry, with rain falling mainly from sporadic storms, however occasionally decaying tropical systems can cause heavier rain in the summer months.[17] Temperatures on the plain have ranged from 49.8 °C (121.6 °F) at Mundrabilla which is the 4th hottest recorded temperature in all of Australia, to −7.2 °C (19.0 °F) at Eyre, which is the coldest recorded temperature in Western Australia.[18]


The need for a communications link across the continent was the spur for the development of an east–west crossing. Once Eyre had proved that a link between South Australia and Western Australia was possible, efforts to connect them via telegraph began. In 1877, after two years of labour, the first messages were sent on the new telegraph line, boosted by eight repeater stations along the way. The line operated for about 50 years before being superseded, and remnants of it remain visible.

The Trans-Australian Railway railway line crosses the Nullarbor Plain from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta. Construction of the line began in 1917, when two teams set out from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and Port Augusta in South Australia, meeting in the centre of the Plain at Ooldea, an uninhabited area noted for a water supply. This original line suffered severe problems with track flexing and settling in the desert sands, and journeys across the Plain were slow and arduous. The line was entirely rebuilt in 1969, as part of a project to standardise the previously disparate rail gauges in the various states, and the first crossing of the Nullarbor on the new line reached Perth on 27 February 1970. The Indian Pacific is a regular passenger train crossing the Nullarbor from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide.

The Nullarbor Plain viewed from the Indian Pacific. The featureless terrain made navigation difficult for early explorers.

The Eyre Highway, which connects Norseman in Western Australia to Port Augusta, was carved across the continent in 1941. At first it was little more than a rough track, but was gradually sealed over the next thirty years. The last unsealed section of the Eyre Highway was finally sealed in 1976.[19] Unlike the railway, though, it crosses the plain at its southernmost edge rather than through the centre.

The railway line has the longest straight section of railway in the world (478 km, 297 mi),[20] while the road contains the longest straight section of tarred road in Australia (146.6 km, 91.1 mi).

Most of the inhabited areas of the Nullarbor Plain can be found in a series of small settlements located along the railway, and in small settlements along the Eyre Highway that provide services to travellers, mostly spaced between one and two hundred kilometres apart. The town of Cook, in South Australia, was formerly a moderately thriving settlement of about 40 people, with a school and a golf course. The reduction of railway operations at the town resulted in its virtual desertion, and it now has a permanent population of four. The Tea and Sugar Train operated until 1996 supplying provisions to the town along the railway line.


The IBRA regions, with Nullarbor in red.

Nullarbor is a biogeographic region under the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) [21][22] and the Nullarbor Plains Xeric Shrubland ecoregion of the World Wildlife Fund.[23]

Vegetation in the area is primarily low saltbush and bluebush scrub. A large part of the Nullarbor Plain is now a National Park.

The fauna of the Nullarbor includes communities of crustaceans, spiders, and beetles adapted to the darkness of the Nullarbor Caves and the underground rivers and lakes that run through them. Mammals of the desert include the southern hairy-nosed wombat which shelters from the hot sun by burrowing into the sands, as well as typical desert animals such as red kangaroos and dingoes. An elusive subspecies of the Australian masked owl unique to the Nullarbor is known to roost in the many caves on the plain. The grasslands of the Nullarbor are suitable for some sheep grazing and are also damaged by rabbits.


Frequently The Nullarbor is expanded in tourist literature and web-based material to loosely refer to all the land between Adelaide, South Australia and Perth, Western Australia.[24]

Crossings by foot[edit]

19th century crossings

See above for notable crossings prior to 1900.

20th and 21st century

In 1998, runner Robert Garside ran across the Nullarbor without a formal support crew, as part of an authenticated run around the world.[25][26] Unconventionally, Garside obtained water and other support from "passing traffic" who would leave water cached ahead for him at agreed drop-offs, to achieve the feat.[27] In 2010, columnist Dan Koeppel ran the 200 mile heart of the Nullarbor with a friend the same way, to vindicate Garside.[27] Garside commented in his diary, that "the key to running the Nullarbor turned out to be Australian hospitality",[27] and Koeppel concurred that "[F]rom an armchair it is completely impossible to run the Nullarbor. Once you're out there, however, there is a way. Robert Garside discovered it. So would I".[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Across the Nullarbor Plain". Kevin's Wilderness Journeys. 7 June 2004. Archived from the original on 10 October 2007. 
  2. ^ Journal of the Great Australian Bight Expedition, May–October 1865, recording the exploration and naming of the Nullarbor Plain. Written in pencil and ink, the journal covers the dates 1 May to 5 October. Both volumes include mounted and identified botanical specimens, with some since lost or deteriorated. Book II includes a sketch plan entitled "Bight Country -The two catacombs near Kuelna [Colona?] July 16 Sunday −1865". This volume appears to contain the first written use of the name Nullarbor Plain under the date Friday 18 August 1865. – see
  3. ^ Fitzpatrick, Jim, "Richardson, Arthur Charles Jeston (1872–1939)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, Melbourne University Press (1988), p. 379
  4. ^ Fitzpatrick, p. 379
  5. ^ Steger, Jason (22 November 2008). "Around the country with bags and swags and bicycles, too". The Age. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Rawlinna". Jumbuck Pastoral. 2012. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  8. ^ "Madura". Jumbuck Pastoral. 2012. Retrieved 21 February 2013. 
  9. ^ "Madura Station – 2,000,000 Acres". The Sydney Mail. 20 July 1927. Retrieved 22 February 2013. 
  10. ^ ABC News, 25 March 2011
  11. ^ "Nullarbor present Redex hazard.". The Advocate (Burnie, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 17 July 1954. p. 2. Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  12. ^ "Redex men on the Nullarbor.". The Argus (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 17 July 1954. p. 1. Retrieved 28 December 2013. 
  13. ^ a b c d e John A. Webb & Julia M. James (2006). "Karst evolution of the Nullarbor Plain, Australia". In Russell S. Harmon & Carol M. Wicks. Perspectives on Karst Geomorphology, Hydrology and Geochemistry – a Tribute Volume to Derek C. Ford and William B. White (PDF). Geological Society of America Special Paper 404. pp. 65–78. doi:10.1130/2006.2404(07). ISBN 978-0-8137-2404-1. 
  14. ^ Stratigraphic Search – Full Results – Geoscience Australia
  15. ^ The Meteoretical Bulletin, No. 77, 1994 November
  16. ^ "Global Soil Regions". United States Department of Agriculture. November 2005. Retrieved 14 September 2013. 
  17. ^ "Climate statistics for Australian locations". Bureau of Meteorology. 7 March 2013. Retrieved 10 March 2013. 
  18. ^ "Rainfall and Temperature Records: National" (PDF). Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 14 November 2009. 
  19. ^ "Road links to the East". State Library of Western Australia. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  20. ^ Vincent, Peter (27 September 2006). "Railroaded Into Fun". The Age. Retrieved 25 January 2008. 
  21. ^ Environment Australia. "Revision of the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) and Development of Version 5.1 – Summary Report". Department of the Environment and Water Resources, Australian Government. Archived from the original on 5 September 2006. Retrieved 31 January 2007. 
  22. ^ IBRA Version 6.1 data
  23. ^ "Nullarbor Plain xeric shrublands". Terrestrial Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund. 
  24. ^ A tourist map of the Nullarbor Plain Perth to Adelaide Scale 1:2,250,000 (E 116°00’ --E 139°00’/S 30°00’--S 38°00’) Unley, S. Aust. : Carto Graphics, ISBN 0-9579060-4-8
  25. ^ "Man's record run around the world". BBC. 27 March 2007. Retrieved 14 October 2010. 
  26. ^ Hughes, Paul (26 March 2007). ""Runningman" makes it into record books at last". Reuters. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 
  27. ^ a b c d It took over ten years to get this story published: Redemption of the Runningman - Dan Koeppel's blog, Bananas, Los Angeles, and Transit Geekery, 2012-07-13 ( copy); full PDF of the writing is also linked from the blog post; it is also republished in The Best American Sports Writing 2013, Ed. Stout & Moehringer, ISBN 0547884605 | 978-0547884608.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bolam, A. G. (Anthony Gladstone), 1893–1966. The trans-Australian wonderland Melbourne : Modern Printing, (many editions in the early 20th century)
  • Edmonds, Jack (1976) Nullarbor crossing : with panorama photographs by Brian Gordon. Perth. West Australian Newspapers, Periodicals Division. ISBN 0-909699-09-7

External links[edit]