Desert Exploration: Aussie Style - Australian Desert Destinations
Koonalda Homestead, Nullarbor National Park, South Australia
Driving 1,041 miles across the Nullarbor Plain catching glimpses of the Great Australian Bight is an extraordinary experience. The Nullarbor Plain is uniquely Australian and is actually the world's largest exposure of limestone bedrock and a place where many meteorites have been discovered. Temperatures in summer can be a scorching 122 degrees while in the winter have been recorded at an icy 19 degrees. It is extremely dry.
Drifting across this incredible expanse of flat area conjured up visions of the early explorers like Edward Eyre, the first European to successfully cross the Nullarbor in 1841. Since that iconic crossing there have been many who have crossed the Nullarbor by all methods, including bicycle, horse, camel, and on foot. As we travelled east, the wind buffeted our Toyota Land Cruiser 200GX and attached Conqueror Camper trailer as we watched the fuel consumption dramatically increase. Although extravagant, it felt like we had the perfect combination of vehicle and camper trailer to cross this iconic expanse of land. With the day coming to an end we started looking for the Koonalda Homestead, where we planned to camp for a few nights. We felt apprehensive turning left onto the dirt road from the safety of the bitumen, but it turned out to be well worth it.
It is not until you travel across Australia by road that you understand how vast it really is. We were travelling East on the Eyre Highway from Western Australia towards the New South Wales border, keeping an eye on the engine temperatures, the oil level, and the camper trailer as we drove along. Remarkably, the track off the Eyre Highway to Koonalda was substantial and even had a sign to mark the entrance of the Nullarbor National Park. There was low scrub on the dirt track, and it was good in dry conditions, easy to negotiate and short. At times there were smaller tracks off the main trail, but we continued on following directions on the VMS satellite navigation to Koonalda where we expected to find the Koonalda Homestead. We crossed the old Eyre Highway while travelling north and paused for a moment to reflect on what it would have been like to travel along the Nullarbor Plain before bitumen. The old highway is just a four-wheel drive track now, still in good condition and running from Border Village in South Australia to the Nullarbor Roadhouse. It is now a part of Australia's history, but some people travel along it just to feel a sense of adventure. It was amazing to think that travelers used to drive all the way across Australia on this dirt track!
After approximately 10 miles on the dirt travelling north from the Eyre Highway, we arrived at Koonalda Homestead. There was not a soul to be seen. It was dead quiet, except for the wind whistling through the trees and the old corrugated iron. There is essentially just a group of old buildings left standing; one day there were people and the next day they were gone. Everything was left still intact and nothing much has happened since that final day. It felt much like a ghost town. The homestead has since been restored and kept to a good standard by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. There are photos of the people and stories of the history of the homestead around the area, and many of the buildings are in good condition.
The mechanic's workshop behind the fuel pumps was small, but it must have been enough to fix the vehicles travelling across this vast stretch in the old days. The old petrol pump was still there with a shed for old spares. Some of the spare parts like globes and bits and pieces still remained. The dead cars in the yards around the homestead scattered into the distance. They were Fords, Holdens, and Valiants of many varieties, mostly from the 60s and early 70s. Because of the remote location, the cars were all in good condition with badges still intact. Over the years, Koonalda Homestead became a graveyard for vehicles that broke down in the harsh conditions on the Nullarbor, since it was less expensive to leave them there than have them towed back and repaired.
You can't help but respect the history of the Outback after seeing what is left behind and hearing the stories about this place. The information sign at Koonalda Homestead talks about the early settlers experiencing a feeling of isolation and working hard to make a living from this dry and lonely land. Since Koonalda Cave is less than 30 miles from the ocean, it has a deep underground lake, which was fortunately discovered in 1935. The Gurney family leased Koonalda Station from 1938 to 1988. It has been recorded that water for stock was pumped from Koonalda Cave lakes into above-ground storage tanks. There was no way they could have existed without that source of water.
The area has deep archeological significance too, with early Aboriginal rock art being estimated at around 30,000 years old at the cave. Additionally, old sleeper cars from the Trans-Australia railway were used to build Koonalda Homestead, and some recycled material from the old telegraph station at Eucla was brought here and used for building. Koonalda Homestead is a rare example of Outback construction. Before motor vehicles, the settlers used camel teams for transport of wool to port. The photos of women and children taken in 1905 at the homestead give an insight into this different life. The cottage next to the homestead was a bit more modern with power, a table and chairs, and a fireplace. There was water in the rainwater tank outside the cottage when we were there. The visitor's book inside told stories of groups of dingoes only three days earlier, but we didn't see any on our visit. It was windy and a little spooky at night with banging of corrugated iron in the wind. Overall, crossing the Nullarbor was an epic road trip, visiting Koonalda Homestead was a highlight and we all loved every minute of it!