A Tour Down Under: Driving Around Australia

Ellie Hattersley


In our third hour of trundling across Australia’s south that day, we finished the first rotation of our road trip car playlist. By the fifth hour, we’d polished off a whole packet of Oreos and a sharing-sized bag of crisps. When it came to hour 10, we were no longer sure where the sky ended and the desert began; our eyes fuzzed over from the monotony of a landscape of endless repetition.

The day in question, we had decided to take on the Nullarbor desert, and several hundred miles of highway either side into the bargain. The real challenge of the undertaking lay in not going out of our minds with boredom.

Australia is a country of contrasts. Its big cities repeatedly get voted among the most liveable in the world, yet the vast majority of its interior is barely habitable: hot, dry, dusty.

The best way to acknowledge and experience this reality is to drive across it. And that is precisely what we did: all the way from Melbourne to Perth.

Another major divergence Down Under is the disparate ratio of space to city. For example, it takes more than 10 hours to drive from Sydney to Melbourne – a tiny blip on the southeast corner of the map. It takes so long to get between the state capitals that you almost have to take a plane in order to make the most of the time spent there, else you may just find that you’ve spent more time looking at the grey speckled walls of a bus interior than the skyscrapers of Sydney or the markets of Melbourne. And Perth, Western Australia’s major city, is commonly cited as the most remote in the world, standing at over 1,000 miles away from the next reasonably sized metropolis. From Perth, it’s cheaper and quicker to fly to places in Indonesia than it is to hop back over to the East Coast.

However, oftentimes flying is a mistake, not just a convenience. Australia is far more than just the sum of its cities. To understand the whole, you have to live the vast distances between towns, the remote service stations, and the abundance of kangaroos hopping about the desert. The only true way to explore Australia is by road.

For a girl from a tiny village in the UK, population 3,000, the sheer scale of Australia is difficult to fathom. It isn’t just that it’s a big country by numbers – more than 7.6 million km² by area – it’s that there is so much vastness in between the places of note. Australia is interconnected by a series of endless highways between cities. And once you get more than an hour outside of a city, you start to see a country characterised more by a lack than a presence.

A lack of water, of vegetation, of populace. There is often no phone signal, few road users, fewer still distractions. This is why it’s difficult to grasp the true scale of Australia if you’re just hopping between towns with a short flight.

The route along the south coast is perhaps the best way to get a sense of Australia’s true size and diversity. The road from Melbourne to Perth is a lesser explored one. Most road trippers in Australia elect to see the east or west coasts, seeking out the oft-talked about beauty of the Whitsundays off the coast of Airlie Beach, the Great Barrier Reef up in Queensland or Ningaloo Reef in the West.

The south still has its beauty, of course, but much of it is more challenge than direct appeal.

The route I took spanned a total of roughly 5192 kilometres. That’s just a number, though: to put that into perspective, it’s like driving from the UK to Russia, or from California all the way up to Canada (I’m talking Montreal, not just Vancouver). It took us four long weeks, and for much of the time we shared the road with nobody but truckers, road trains and rangers.

Some of it is beautiful. Much of it is not.

Our route took us from Melbourne, in the southeast corner of Australia, along the famous Ocean Road and then up into the leafy shade of the Grampians National Park. We then headed back down towards Adelaide, lost ourselves amongst the rugged red land of the Flinders Ranges for a few days, then headed along to Port Augusta, from where the Eyre Highway begins – the Eyre Highway, wherein lies the Nullarbor Plain.

The Nullarbor is spoken of in hushed tones by Australians. Roughly 400 miles wide, straddling the states of Western Australia and South Australia, the name comes from Latin: it literally means ‘no tree’. Even its title gives an eerie sense of emptiness.  To traverse the Nullarbor, everyone will warn you that you need to be prepared. Fill up on gas, take an extra jerry can, bring plenty of water and food with you in case you get stuck out there. Take no chances.

The odd thing is that in the southern route, which traces roughly along the south coast, the Nullarbor desert itself is just one long stretch of a multitude of long stretches. It was hard to really tell the difference between that particular desert and the countless other landscapes that appeared broadly similar.


This particular section, though, is somehow special. It plays host to the 90-mile straight, one of the longest straight stretches of road in the world. It’s a 145.6 km expanse that feels a like a never-ending simulation of what you’d imagine a dry desert road to be; nothing but road and dirt and scrubby bluebush as far as the eye can see. You certainly feel a sense of achievement once you have completed the traverse – in part owing to the prominent sign announcing that you have reached the end of the treeless plain. But maybe there is something more in it, too.

The Nullarbor is an otherworldly place. It is fascinating in its strangeness. It is home to camels – brought in to assist with the building of the railways in the 19th century, left to roam once the building was complete, and still thriving today – as well as emus, wombats and, of course, kangaroos. It is the site of reportedly the world’s longest golf course, the Nullarbor Links – which takes several days to complete. It makes your eyes ache with its featurelessness, which in itself invokes a feeling of wonder – at least for the first half hour. Edward John Eyre, the first European to travel across the Nullarbor, called it, ‘a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams.’

It invokes intrigue for some, fear for others, and utter disregard for still more.

In the end, thought, the Nullarbor is just a microcosm of the south coast road trip. Strange and full of mystique; unfathomable until you pass through it;  utterly different from the fashionable, cosmopolitan cities.

Either side of the Nullarbor, there are more mysteries. Rusty-feeling toy towns line the highways, crouching at crossroads like something out of a Western movie; stuck somewhere around the 1800s, quaint yet kind of creepy. Towns with strange, homely names, like Keith and Millicent; towns with bizarre attractions like ‘Cheese World’ and ‘Fire World’, hoping desperately to ensnare the bored road-tripper.

These stand in stark contrast to the southern route’s other attractions: the whitest sand beach in Australia, stunning national parks, whale watching and pods of dolphins playing near the Head of the Bight. This is the Australia you imagined; the Australia from internet pictures and Google searches. But then again, a few more miles down the road, you might see burnt-out cars, or the battered corpses of kangaroos steamrollered by road trains.

This is why road is the best way to explore Australia: it’s the only way to truly understand its diversity, its polarity. Not just for the romance of the open road, and the aching appeal of wide skies and abundant nature. For an honest picture: a closer look at the truth.

The Nullabor Plain may have been a fleeting 400 miles of a much longer journey. But it left a lasting impression, given just as much by what we did not find there as what we did.



Author Bio:

Ellie Hattersley is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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