It’s been about 30 years since I was last on the Nullarbor Plain, rattling along in the back seat of white mini minor, sandwiched between our worldly possessions and a farting Labrador. Needless to say, it does not conjure up particularly fond memories. But the lure of the 200,000 square kilometre Plain is such that I’m prepared to give it another shot. But this time, I’m doing it in a bit more style, and hopefully a lot less flatulence.
Rather than drive all the way from WA, I sign up for the Wheels and Whales tour with Chinta Air, a self drive tour that starts in the coastal town of Ceduna, about a 1 ½ hour flight from Adelaide. After touching down, we hop in the hire car and start the three hour drive back west toward our destination: the Nullarbor Roadhouse.
The first thing that strikes me is just how green the Nullarbor is. Considering its name translates to Nullus, meaning ‘no’, and Arbor meaning ‘tree’, I expected to see little more than miles of sand and the odd bit of tumble weed blowing along the side of the Eyre Highway. Instead, I’m amazed to see hectares and hectares of bright green crops. I’d never considered the fact that people actually farm out here. And judging by the abundance of green, they do it very successfully (although we are later told this year is a bumper crop).
A couple of hours out of Ceduna, the terrain changes to be much more like what I expected: a vast, open, scrub-covered expanse under a piercing blue sky, the vegetation buffeted by relentless winds.
We arrive at the Nullarbor Roadhouse just in time for lunch and I’m pleasantly surprised when we get fresh salad. A wander around the Roadhouse provides material for some iconic photos, with the old corrugated iron roadhouse building still standing, the antiquated petrol pump waiting stoically out the front.
Looking around at the miles of sand and scrub, it seems incongruous with the landscape that we’re actually here to see whales. They’re just a few minutes flight to the south at the Head of Bight, where they come for two reasons: to give birth and to mate. After they give birth to their one tonne babies, the mothers recuperate at the Head of Bight for several months, while they wait for their calves to build up enough strength to swim back to Antarctica. Between July and October, the area is basically a whale day care centre, where the Aunties of the group also hang around to help give the mothers a break and protect the calves from the threat of hungry Great White Sharks.
Once the Aunties have fulfilled their babysitting duties, they’re free to mate with the young males. They’re likely to be back here themselves next season to give birth, while the new mothers won’t return for another 3 years.
When I see the plane from which we are to view this incredible whale circle-of-life, I’m a little less enthusiastic about it all. It’s tiny. And by tiny I mean it’s about the size of my car and has one of those propellers on the front that looks like you need to wind it up. It's a minor understatement to say small planes are not my favourite mode of transport.
When I meet the pilot, my enthusiasm does not increase. He doesn’t even look old enough to drive a car, let alone hold my life in his hands. But, I’m captive in the back seat of this plane-no-bigger-than-a-car and before I know it, we’ve done a textbook take off from the dirt runway.
We spend the next half an hour flying over the Nullarbor Plain and the Bunda Cliffs, spotting whales below. The sand is flour-white and the contrast of the azure ocean is striking. The whale childcare centre is full of Southern Right whales, and we see several mothers and calves.
The Bunda Cliffs are spectacular, and we can make out the white stripe that runs along the coast, just above the pounding Southern Ocean. The stripe is Wilson Bluff limestone, which formed as part of the ancient seabed about 65 million years ago, when Australia began to separate from Antarctica.
The Bunda Cliffs form part of the longest uninterrupted line of sea cliffs in the world, and run from the western part of SA to the south eastern corner of WA. The Cliffs look like someone came along millions of years ago with a giant carving knife and cut an enormous jagged line through the earth to set the Antarctic plate adrift.
This is the kind of landscape that is so ancient and so vast, it makes you feel insignificant.
After we do another textbook landing which cements my confidence in the pilot despite his apparently tender years, we pile into the car to have a look at the cliffs from the ground. The wind is absolutely howling when we arrive at the Head of Bight, which makes selfies quite the challenge…
But we’re here to see the whales anyway, and we get a fantastic view. Several mothers and their calves come so close to the coast, you could almost reach out and pat them…
They tease us for ages, only swishing their tales above the surface for that iconic shot we’re all waiting for every time I put my camera down. This is the best I could do…
After getting well and truly wind burnt, we head back happily to the Nullarbor Roadhouse for a drink, to compare whale-watching notes and have dinner. The next morning, we’re up again and back in the car, heading to Fowler’s Bay, which is about a 2 hour drive back towards Ceduna.
Here, we meet Rod and Simone Keogh from Fowlers Bay Eco Tours, who are going to take us out on their boat so that we can see the whales from another perspective. It doesn’t take long before we come across a mother and her calf, the youngster happy to bob up for photos, but never fully jumping out of the water. We’ve been blessed with perfect conditions, with open blue skies, a calm ocean and barely any wind (a welcome relief after yesterday’s buffeting).
After watching the whales frolic for quite some time, we head to the western tip of Fowler’s Bay, where we see a playful sea lion who pops its head up several times to say hi. (It’s about now that I come to the full realisation that I’m never going to make it as a wildlife photographer. Despite several chances, I catch only the sea lion’s head disappearing under the water).
After the whale watching tour, it’s a quick lunch out on the lovely sunlit deck looking back out over Fowler’s Bay. I’m wishing we could stay for a few more days, drinking beer on this deck, but instead, we opt for a quick run up the sand dunes to get a better view of the bay. And it’s certainly worth the shoes full of sand to make it up there…
We jump back in the car and head for Ceduna where we’re going to catch the evening flight back to Adelaide. But we can’t drive through the small town of Penong without stopping to admire its newest attraction – a windmill museum featuring about 20 restored windmills, one of them believed to be Australia’s Biggest!
Luckily once we get back to Ceduna, we have time for one more stop off – the Ceduna Hotel – for a crisp glass of wine and an exceptional cheese platter. This region is famous for its oysters, and even though I’m vegetarian, when I see them, it’s one of the only times I wish I ate shellfish. But, instead of joining the rest of the group in downing oysters, I pop out the front for a quick photo shoot as the sun starts to set.
We make it back to the airport just in time for our flight back to Adelaide with a new appreciation for why so many people choose to take on the epic journey across the incredible Nullarbor Plain (presumably minus a farting dog).
The Whales and Wheels Tour with Chinta Air runs from 1 July – 30 September. See: www.chintaair.com.au
If you want to stay in Ceduna, there are some lovely eco cabins at Shelly Beach Caravan Park, or the Ceduna Hotel also has recently refurbished rooms.
In Adelaide, we stayed at the Ibis Hotel, which has modern, clean rooms and is in a great location.