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Australia: Nullarbor Desert

Highway One
Highway One as it crosses the flat but strangely fascinating Nullarbor plain

Wednesday marked the beginning of my journey west towards Western Australia and, ultimately, the state capital Perth, on the other side of the Nullarbor Desert. I spent the day driving the 415km to Wudinna, a convenient stop at the north of the Eyre Peninsula, where I met some guys from England who had just arrived from Perth. I got some handy driving tips off them, which helped me feel a bit more confident about driving such huge distances through the outback.

No Trees

A warning sign for camels, wombats and kangaroos
Watch out for camels, wombats and kangaroos... not to mention spiders, snakes, scorpions and plenty of others

Someone comes up to you in the street and says, 'Desert.' What's the first thing that comes into your head? 'Sand' maybe. Or perhaps 'very hot'. How about 'dry'? Or 'yellow'? Maybe even 'lemon meringue pie', if you're hard of hearing.

Aboriginal Land

A sign showing the location of emergency telephones
You are here... in the middle of absolutely bloody nowhere

One aspect of Australia that is more apparent in the desert is Aboriginal land. There are a number of large areas of Australia that have been given back to the Aboriginal people – mostly unproductive desert areas, it has to be said – because they have managed to prove that they were there first (this is intriguing: the guidebooks always go on about how Aborigines lived everywhere, but of course they never get given the good parts, like the cities or the bits of land sitting on large mineral deposits). A number of important sites, like Uluru and Kakadu, are now Aboriginal lands, but are leased back to the government for use as National Parks; however, most areas aren't leased, and you can't go into them without a permit. One such place, Yalata, is crossed by the Eyre Highway (the road across the Nullarbor) though as long as you stick to the highway, you don't need a permit.

Sights of the Nullarbor

A sign warning of the Nullarbor's dangerous cliffs
This sign pulls no punches about the Nullarbor cliffs, even if it is riddled with disdainful buckshot holes

There are lots of strange things about crossing the desert, and one of the most obvious is the road train. Imagine a large lorry, and add another similar-sized lorry onto the back, and you've got a road train. They go ridiculously fast, and I got three cracks in my (new) windscreen courtesy of road trains coming the other way and stirring up stones from the side of the road. They're quite a sight.

Cliffs along the Great Australian Bight
The cliffs along the centre of the Great Australian Bight are as rugged as hell and seem to go on forever and ever...
A sign proclaiming the longest stretch of straight road in Australia
The longest stretch of straight road in Australia ends with a very gentle bend and huge warning chevrons, no doubt there to remind you how to steer

Desert Rules

Distance signs at Eucla
Eucla, where South Australia meets Western Australia, is truly isolated

Because it's a wilderness, the Nullarbor has its own rules. The most obvious one to a driver is the Waving Rule, another nicety of Aussie culture that I think I got the hang of, but I'm not sure. The idea is that, because the desert is so empty, you wave at oncoming traffic to say hello. That's easy enough, surely. Then why did only half of those to whom I waved wave back? Did they spot my Victoria number plates and think, 'Bloody Victorians, I hate them' and ignore me, or was it more sinister? And why, whenever I decided that enough was enough and I wasn't going to wave to these ungrateful buggers who didn't reciprocate, did someone then wave at me? The solution: just wave at everyone but don't look at them, so it doesn't matter if they wave back; you're being polite, end of story. The only problem is that when you're back in civilisation, you have this urge to wave at every living thing, and that doesn't really work when you're driving through a busy town centre.