Old Eyre Highway, South Australia
For offroad caravanners, the Old Eyre Highway is a drive full of surprises.
Those who have driven across the Nullarbor will remember what an arid, isolated part of the country it really is. Even early explorer Ernest Giles described the area as a ‘desolate, God forsaken’ place.
Into the late 1800s, the old Morse code telegraph line, connected via a series of well-spaced telegraph stations, was still the only real east-west link.
Some years later, a rail link across the Nullarbor was completed and the old, rough, unsealed Eyre Highway was a very long, rough, dusty, endurance test for the growing number of travellers who took on the challenge.
Supported by a number of early pastoral stations, which also served as fuel and service centres along the way, this old highway provided a vital road link to and from the west for more than 40 years.
When this challenging trail between Ceduna, SA, and Norseman, WA, was realigned and fully sealed back in the 1970s, the old Eyre Highway became disused virtually overnight and, since then, has been totally unmaintained and has progressively deteriorated.
Perhaps because of its notorious reputation, its curiosity value, its historic interest or even just ‘because it’s there’, a number of intrepid travellers are now taking the detour off the blacktop to check out the old highway trail and take in some of the points of interest along the way.
If you are now quite familiar with the long, endless sealed version of the highway, have an extra day or two to spare, and are looking for some new things to see and do, then the Old Eyre Highway could be just what you’re looking for.
If you are towing an offroad caravan, then all the better, as you can take this trail slowly and camp out in far more comfort along the way than any of those who originally travelled along this historic trail.
On the Old Eyre Highway near Bunabie Blowhole
Regular travellers out here would already know that much of the Nullarbor Plain is a huge chunk of limestone – in fact, the largest piece of limestone in the world, covering about 200,000sq/km.
Dating back to when the area was a vast seabed, the plain’s limestone base has been carved out over millions of years with vast streams, blowholes, tunnels and there are even sections of the landscape which have collapsed, forming caves and sinkholes.
In recent years, a number of these systems have been subjected to studies by archaeologists, speleologists and others, including dive teams. They have followed some of the underground freshwater streams many kilometres from sinkhole access points that are scattered across the plain.
Off the blacktop
With all of this in mind, we decided to deviate off the blacktop about a kilometre east of the WA/SA border (at Border Village) to travel east along a section of the old original highway.
The Old Eyre Highway is now, in places, overgrown and no more than a single lane track, where it was once a wide, periodically-graded road. But the actual road surface was in surprisingly good condition for a trail that has not seen any maintenance for well over 30 years. With many sections somewhat eroded, some slow rocky patches and a few ‘by-passes’ around boggy or overgrown sections, the track posed no real problems at all and, with our offroad caravan in tow, we were still able to average around 20km/h most of the way. A high clearance vehicle (with offroad caravan/camper trailer) is probably the most important requirement out here.
As we progressed down the track, we passed a number of old water tanks (originally set-up beside the old road), which are now just historic ruins. About 25km from the start of the track, we came to Bunabie Blowhole right beside the road. On inspection of this small limestone hole, which measures only a metre in diameter, we could clearly hear and feel the rush of air as the cave ‘breathes’ with the rising and falling of air pressure inside the caves and tunnels beneath the surface. It was quite a strange experience, indeed!
Back on the main (sealed) highway, 5km west of Caiguna, the signposted Caiguna Blowhole provides a similar experience to the Bunabie Blowhole.
Further along the old road, we headed north 2km off the main track where we checked out Coompana Rockhole (a sinkhole/cave) which is a collapsed section of limestone opening up into a cave below. Not far away, on a track to the south, two more rockholes/caves were extremely interesting, with colourful growth around the edges of the collapsed limestone depressions.
Looking down, we were able to see some old animal bones in the bottom of the cave – the remains of some poor critter that fell in and couldn’t get out. Scientists have found remains and identified a number of now-extinct animals including marsupial lions and giant kangaroos in some of the Nullarbor’s caves and sinkholes. These animals obviously met a similar fate by falling in thousands of years ago and were unable to get out.
Further on, we passed the ruins of the Coompana Tanks before taking another detour north to the old Albala-Karoo Bore and water trough. This tank and water point is now in ruins, like the other, but is a little more substantial and of more photographic interest than the others we had seen.
Back on the main track (and directly opposite the Coompana Tanks turn), is another track (now some 58km from the start of our Old Highway diversion) which, according to our map, led to another unnamed cave.
We never found this one, but what we did find down there (and in a number of other places along the way) were many large wombat holes, some of which we had to dodge around on the track to avoid a wheel (or two) falling into them. Based on the number of holes and warrens we saw along this section of the Old Eyre Highway, the wombat populations (which are declining in some parts of the country) are alive, well and obviously thriving out here.
Eyre Highway camping
In this part of the countryside, there are plenty of campsites. The whole place is pretty flat and, wherever you stop, you are virtually guaranteed to find a good, level site. Don’t count on shade, though, as it is pretty hard to come by out here.
About 14km further on, we took another trail about 1.5km south to yet another sinkhole – they are all interesting and all different and each one we found was a good excuse to get out, have a cuppa and wander around.
Back in the days of the Old Eyre Highway, the Koonalda Homestead was one of a number of important way stations along the road, providing a rare piece of civilisation, fuel and emergency services. The old homestead is still in remarkably good condition, despite no-one having lived here for more than 20 years. It is great to see that it has not been vandalised and is now under the control of South Australia’s Department for Environment and Heritage (part of the extensive Nullarbor National Park).
It is even better to see evidence around the place that some recent restoration work has been carried out. You could easily spend a couple of hours here wandering around the old property, including the shearing shed, outbuildings and vehicle graveyard.
About 6km further north from the homestead (this track eventually leads to the old railway town of Hughes) is the very large and much researched Koonalda Cave, a huge sinkhole with a cave and underground stream system at the bottom.
There is apparently a lot of evidence of early Aboriginal visitation to this cave, with art and flints (for use in spears, etc.) found here. This cave and underground stream also served as a vital water supply for stock when the Koonalda Homestead was in full swing many years ago. Visitors are not allowed into this sinkhole and the main vertical access way has been locked off. It is still worth a visit, though, as you can still wander around the rim of the sinkhole (take care) and have a good look.
From here, it is a matter of returning to the Koonalda Homestead and resuming our Old Eyre Highway adventure east towards Nullarbor Roadhouse.
An alternative here, if you are pushed for time or have had enough of this exploration trail, is to head south 13.6km to the bitumen on the (new) Eyre Highway, about 97km west of the Nullarbor Roadhouse. Of interest on this trail, around 11.6km south, is a short track (600m) leading west to Clay Dam Cave – a fascinating sinkhole structure made of orange/red clay.
Continuing our trek east on the old highway towards Nullarbor Roadhouse, our adventure turned up more old tanks, a historic and quite photogenic disused stockyard (after 20km) and 21km further on, near the old Cundalabbi Tank, there is a track leading north 10km to the Knardna Rockhole.
Back on the main trail, the old highway crosses a well-formed road leading north (from the new Eyre Highway) to the railway settlement of Cook. At this intersection is another piece of history, a section of the now unmaintained vermin fence.
Still heading east, we passed more old water tanks that are now in complete ruin and at around 17.5km from the Cook road we came across a modern day solar-powered Optus communication facility looking totally out of place along this history trail.
The final 20km or so of the Nullarbor was quite notable for its lack of any trees at all and the stark, wide, flat landscape for which the Nullarbor Plain is world-renowned. Within a few kilometres of the Nullarbor Roadhouse, traffic can be seen in the distance travelling along the bitumen highway, which joins the old highway at the roadhouse.
Caves and sinkholes
For those interested in checking out more caves and sinkholes, there is a track leading 10.5km north of the roadhouse to the Murrawinjinnie caves – a group of three caves, one of which includes some quite distinctive Aboriginal art.
At Nullarbor Roadhouse, you’ll find civilisation and the hustle and bustle of highway traffic – a real contrast with our Old Eyre Highway adventure trail, along which, in two days of travel and 200km, we didn’t see another person or vehicle.
The isolation, the quietness, the exploration of the area’s natural features and the opportunity to relive some of the old highway’s fascinating history was an experience we will long remember.