Crossing the Nullabor Plains in the 1950's

East West to Perth

gurneys overland club badge

A Gurney's overland club badge (windscreen sticker) seen above, as issued for a  Nullabor vehicle crossing - circa 1956.

This unique sticker was only available from Gurney's petrol stop at Koonalda homestead on the original Great Southern Highway in South Australia.

At least two styles of metal vehicle badge with different graphics were also issued - many thanks to Sandy Smedley for forwarding this.

Gurney's car badge - metal type


And to 
Dr Ben Balzer for this version - circa 1955.


Gurney's Overlanders Club badge


These confirmed to other drivers that you had battered your way across the limestone coast, via the rugged east west crossing.

In 1956 a drive from Adelaide to Perth included 1100 miles (1800 km) of unsealed dirt road, with very few supply points along the way.

It was an epic journey for the average motorist to undertake and took four days to complete if travelling conditions were favourable.

Conditions varied with the weather and how recently the grader had been by.  

A view below of the highway looking west across the Nullabor Plain - only 1500 km to go.

Great Eastern Highway

If you look closely you can see the large corrugations in the limestone road surface - these made travelling a teeth rattling experience at times.

While the corrugations could be levelled off, this was only a short term solution as soil compression ridges continue downwards for up to 3 metres - making them impossible to eliminate.

Bigger than normal pot holes often had a bush or tree branch placed in them by some unlucky driver, to indicate you should go around them.

Fuel was a scarce commodity, generally only available by driving into the few remote homesteads along the way.   If their reserves were low you could be in trouble.

Super grade sometimes had to be mixed with standard to get you to the next destination.

Petrol pumps at Koonalda and most outback fuel stops were ancient hand operated units with a large glass reservoir in a mesh cage on top, and a gallon measure up the side.  Fuel was pumped up, you saw what you got, and you were mighty glad to get it.  

Mains electricity was non existant and the old pumps did a good job.

Small 32 volt DC windlight generators were used at some homesteads for lighting.

Any food that could be purchased came in a tin can.

A distant view of Koonalda homestead on the treeless plain below, seen from the highway.

Koonalda homestead and surroundings

Balladonia homestead was another extremely isolated point - seen from the highway below.

Balladonia homestead

4x4s were virtually unheard of and travellers made the crossing in the family car - ours was a 1948 Holden sedan.   People living in the bush in those days did it all with two wheel drive.

Traveling to Perth you slept under the stars each night, beside roadside water catchment tanks situated at intervals along the desolate highway.  These were the only public water and rest amenities to be had.   Motels and roadhouses didn't exist back then.

Ivy Tanks stop over did provide some rough accomodation,  but it was so crude and bug ridden that few travelers were prepared to stop at this remote outpost.

Mallabie rainwater catchment tank seen below.

Mallabie catchment tank

You shared the camp site with a few hardy truck drivers, numerous starving rabbits, plenty of flies, and countless discarded empty food tins rusting away.  

Driving after sunset was not recommended.

Suspension smashing pot holes, scattered limestone boulders, and an over abundance of suicidal wildlife made night driving extremely hazardous.  It was unlikely you would get very far.

Breaking down or damaging the vehicle was not an option.  Medical assistance was also extremely limited.

Even truck drivers would not risk it and pulled in for the night.  They were away at first light, roaring off to make the most of the cool travelling conditions.

A catchment tank and hut between  Balladonia homestead and Madura is seen below at dawn.

catchment tank near Balladonia homestead

You can see from the photo how few vehicles actually travelled the highway.  In this case only four or five used the stop over.  Generally you were on your own.

Apart from a few hardy travellers going in the opposite direction, the only other visible human life was an occasional grader driver and his nearby camp.

Life was tough out there.  The original telegraph station at Eucla is seen below being covered by shifting sand.

Eucla telegraph station

 In 1969 when I went back, virtually nothing remained above the white sand.

Approaching Eucla below.  1n 1956 only one building was not inundated with sand.

Eucla telegraph buildings visible in 1956

Abandoned vehicles appeared at regular intervals along the way.  Dumped a short way off the road, they were grim reminders of the seriousness of any breakdown.   Help could literally be hundreds of miles away.

Stripped and abandoned, they represented a history of Nullabor motor crossings from earliest days.  Some vehicles would have been collectors items if you could have transported them away.

Rusting and riddled with bullet holes, they bore mute testament to the unforgiving nature of the desert road.

A piece of motoring history gone by, unlikely to be repeated.

By 1969 the road was largely sealed and the remaining (later to be by-passed) dirt section well maintained.   High average travelling speeds could easily be maintained.

Most of the water catchment tanks were in disrepair and unused, as modern fuel stops with motel accomodation had appeared.

The replacement Eyre Highway was completed in the 1970's.  It is a totally new sealed road which travels much closer to the coast line.  It offers spectacular tourist views of the sea along the way.

Stark contrast to the Great Southern Highway which went through the centre of what is now the Nullabor National Park.  A harsh and much more barren area.

In 1956 a few scenic lookouts over the Great Australian Bight did exist, but they were well off the beaten track, and so remote that few travellers ventured out to see them.

I found this transfer and photographs stored away, and thought they may be of interest to modern day travellers going that way, and to travellers of an earlier era who passed that way when conditions weren't so easy.

At the top of the page is a scan of the original transfer bought at Gurney roadhouse before it's demise - artwork diameter 11.5 cm.

Also images
of the metal car badges forwarded by readers (oval shaped circa 1955  - dimensions approx 10 x 6 cm.)

I doubt there are many still in existance.




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South Australia

2019