Murrawijinie Cave 1

Cook to Murrawijinie Caves to the Great Australian Bight

From Trains to Caves

Vic’s idea of visiting Cook was excellent (credit paid where credit’s due) and we highly recommend it if you’re travelling along the Eyre Highway near the Nullarbor Roadhouse. We decided to head back to the roadhouse as we wanted to visit the Murrawijinie Caves nearby.

We’ve crossed the Nullarbor about five times before, making trips to WA from Adelaide and Melbourne to visit Leonie’s sisters in the South West. So we’ve known and read about caves along the Nullarbor but never visited. So this was our chance. This time we’re not racing across the Nullarbor overnight from Adelaide to Perth, we’re doing it slow and seeing what we want to.

It’s best to ask about the condition of the road at the Nullarbor Roadhouse first. There’s a signposted dirt track leading to the caves accessible just west of the roadhouse. Head about 10 km in on a very bumpy dirt road, best accessed with a 4WD. A 2WD would be ok in the dry only, though you’d need to be careful of some of the larger rocks. The going can be slow, and it took about 30 minutes to get there, stopping for more photos of course!

We stopped at an old windmill (minus the actual blades) where a bird had built their nest. Then at the site of an old rusted out Valiant car to add to our Carcasse collection.

Bloody Hands

Murrawijinie is aboriginal for “bloody hands”. According to the information displays, there are ochre hand stencils painted on walls in two of the three caves. We didn’t venture into them so didn’t get to witness these, but in hindsight wished we had. This is why you need to do your research beforehand. Further reading after leaving the site reveals that the third cave contains the hand stencils just inside the caves entrance, and to bring a torch.

We were warned of sightings of snakes in the caves at the roadhouse, but as we were the only ones there in the sweltering 40C heat didn’t think it a good idea. Tempting as it was to venture into the caves where the temperature was probably 10 degrees cooler, we hadn’t planned on extra cave activity.

All three caves are within close proximity to each other. The most scenic is the third, where you can see right in and up through holes in the limestone.

Caving is dangerous!

As a side note, there is a large cave system north of Cocklebiddy but it is closed to public entry. It was the site of the world’s longest cave diving expedition in 1983 where a world record of 6.25 kms was set. Not far away is the Pannikin cave in which an expedition in 1988 nearly turned to tragedy. Cavers became trapped as a freak storm arrived with wind gusts of around 100 km/h. Heavy rain and hail caused a deluge of water to enter the cave and create a landslide, trapping 13 cavers under the rocks.

This event inspired an Aussie movie in 2011 called Sanctum written by Andrew Wight and John Garvin, with executive/producer James Cameron (writer/director of Avatar and Titanic). Andrew was an Australian screenwriter and producer who was on that expedition in 1988. We have yet to watch it, but it’s on our must see movie list. Tragically, Andrew died on 4 February 2012. He was killed in a helicopter crash at Jaspers Brush near the town of Berry in New South Wales, Australia. The crash also claimed the life of American filmmaker Mike deGruy.

We headed back continuing along the same track which takes you a short distance further north then does a U turn and heads to the roadhouse. It completes a loop and a chance to see different scenery. Back at the roadhouse, we enjoyed an eager shower for only $1 for about 4 minutes. It felt great after a few days in 40C heat.

The freezer is struggling in this heat

Our ARB 47L Fridge/Freezer which we’re using as a freezer was at -11C and was struggling to stay at its -14C setting. So we bought some bottled waters to freeze as it was not completely full and having something occupy empty space would help to keep it cool. Plus, you can never have enough cold water! It’s probably not the fridge as it was on the second car battery the last few days and we suspect that the battery is not holding charge, despite installed the fancy Alternator-S Fuse in Adelaide. We’ve been chasing this issue of a red error light coming up on the ARB for a while when it’s been on batteries for several days. This also happened at Cockatoo Lake. We suspect it’s the battery and will keep monitoring it.

The spectacular Great Australian Bight never ceases to amaze

Leaving the roadhouse, we continued our journey west along the Eyre Highway. We were on the lookout for an overnight stop hopefully with a view over the Great Australian Bight from the top of the cliffs.

Every time we cross the bight, Vic insists on stopping and taking photos of the spectacular cliffs. Like he hasn’t got enough already from previous trips! A decade ago you could drive down any of the roads to the many viewing points where the Eyre Highway nears the cliffs, park your vehicle and take great photos. All the great viewing spots have now been blocked off from access. Graders have made large mounds at the entrances and dug deep scrapings in the roads making it difficult to access even if you got past the entry. The reason is for people’s safety as the cliff edges are very unstable and often hollow under where you stand so they have been blocked off. The other reason is to preserve the vegetation which also helps to keep them stable.

However, if you know where to go, there are a few spots that you can access from side roads, park in a safe spot and walk to. We’ve added a map of one viewing point which has a great view back east along the cliffs. It’s at these GPS co-ordinates. But be warned, go there at your own risk!

Latitude: 31° 35’ 4.638” S
Longitude: 130° 22’ 30.882” E

Camping on the Bunda Cliffs

We continued our journey west along the Eyre Highway, on the lookout for an overnight stop. We pulled into some roadside stops marked on WikiCamps but it was hot around 35C and thick with flies. Driving around looking for a campsite, our Redarc Electric Brake Controller flashed a yellow error condition with two reds indicating an error with the wiring. After turning the engine off, unplugging connections, spraying in some electronic cleaner it was fixed. Possibly some dust had got in.

Finally we pulled into a free site called In Between the Dunes (search in WikiCamps), 123 kms East of Border Village. We found a nice spot nestled amongst the dunes, not far away from the cliff of the bight, 61m/200ft above the sea (we know that because photos contain a GPS reading with the elevation!). It had great views of the Bunda cliffs from the escarpment looking east and west, and the sunset was spectacular. The wind picked up during the night so we were glad to be tucked away in this spot. There is Telstra mobile coverage and our mobile phones automatically turned back one hour. There were only two other vehicles parked when we arrived, then another pulled in later. It’s a big site with many places to park, even for large vans.

It was a warm and humid night, and we were glad to awaken to a fresh breeze in the morning, albeit a very cloudy day.

Don’t bring Honey into WA!

The next stop was at the quarantine station at Border Village, where you cross borders from South Australia into Western Australia. We surrendered cores of apples we’d been eating as well as some other fruit. We always joke about crossing quarantine stations that we won’t get scurvy for a while as we finish gorging down all our excess fruit. We didn’t have any honey as we knew you cannot bring it across. We noticed a big box full of all sorts of honey surrendered by people not knowing that. We wished we’d taken a photo. This would be a good place for Humphrey Bear to live!

From Border Village we passed through Eucla with our destination set for Newman Rocks, west of Balladonia. If you have time, visit the old Telegraph Station and Jetty not far from Eucla. We’ve been there before, and although it’s worth visiting again someday we kept driving.

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Sunset looking east at Cook

Cook, the Middle of Nowhere

Leaving Poochera and the Dinosaur Ant behind, we continued our journey to Cook along the Eyre Highway and refuelled at Penong where from past experience we know fuel is usually comparable, if not cheaper to the larger towns. It was $1.42/L, similar to Port Augusta. Having travelled 434 Kms from Pildappa Rock, we decided to pull into a roadside stop west of Yalata, but still in the Yalata Conservation Reserve, only 37 Km before the Nullarbor Roadhouse.

It’s called Rest Area 222km Peg, has 4 stars on WikiCamps and there are many tracks leading into the bush to tuck in to so we drove out the back onto a relatively flat sandy patch. You can just see the large sand dunes on the Great Australian Bight in the distance about 20Km away. Only a caravan and another car pulled in later near the entrance.

The wind picked up to moderate keeping the flies off our dinner. It was a peaceful camp with only a gentle roar of semi trailers passing through the night. It started to drizzle around 4am and then gentle rain through to about 7am but then eased off allowing us to pack up and head off. The wet compacted sand was easy to drive out of. Large ants enjoyed the moisture congregating around damp spots on the sand.

The day has finally arrived, Cook here we come!

With Cook as our destination for the day, we left our roadside campsite and stopped at the Nullarbor Roadhouse to check on the road condition into Cook. The manager there didn’t know and hadn’t heard otherwise but said they’d been a lot of rain to the north. We decided to go as we could find no evidence of much rain around there, and like that was going to stop us! The price of fuel at the Roadhouse was $1.87/L. We didn’t need any as we had refuelled at Penong for $1.42/L and could do another 550Km.

The turn off onto Cook Road is 42 Km west of the Nullarbor Roadhouse. Turn right and head on a straight dirt road for 107Km. The road condition was quite good, with only some puddles and damp spots and could be done in a 2WD easily despite warning signs saying 4WD only. However if it had been wet it would have been quite different, evidenced by the many dry deep ruts we saw. A few kilometres up the road there’s a sign saying we’re driving along a vermin proof fence. Given the state of the fence, it didn’t look like it would stop much!

We didn’t meet any other vehicles along the way and it took about two hours because guess who kept stopping to take photos of the amazing saltbush landscape and distance markers, of which there were the old triangle post ones and the 10 Km marker on an old rusty steel cabinet. Eventually we saw signs of a building getting larger and larger in the road ahead of us with a large telecommunications tower on the left rising out of nowhere.

We’re in Cook!

Arriving in the town around mid afternoon, we stopped near the tower, not far from the train line at a site with a large blue sign marked number 9 which was the site of the Bishop Kirkby Memorial Hospital, built and operated by the Bush Church Aid Society of the Anglican Church of Australia.

On the sign it read: In 1932, Sydney’s Archbishop made a public appeal for a doctor to head up a brand new bush hospital to be built at Cook. “A munificent salary cannot be paid,” he warned. “But the man who accepts the post will be provided with an aeroplane.” The new hospital was to be named after the late Bishop Kirkby, who had laid the first plans to build a medical centre on the Nullarbor Plain to serve a district spanning more than 800 kilometres. The Bishop Kirkby Memorial Hospital opened its doors in 1937 and served the community for six decades. In any given year, it treated more than 900 patients from Cook and its surrounds. For many years, the building doubled as Cook’s weather station, with nursing staff keeping the official meteorological records.

If you’re crook, come to Cook!

“If you’re crook, come to Cook. Our Hospital needs your help, get sick”, was a slogan hand painted on an old rusty steel box near the old school and on another old box near the train line. It was a catchy phrase to try and get people to use the town’s hospital, in order to prove its viability and existence. The phrase is also on one of the blue information signs. There are 10 such signs located around the small town all containing interesting snippets of information.

Sign #10 is titled “The Middle of Nowhere” and reads “Welcome to Cook, the Queen City of the Nullarbor, postcode 5710, population four. You are standing alongside the longest stretch of straight railway in the world, spanning 478 kilometres. According to Australian astronaut Andy Thomas, the rail line can even be spotted from space, looking like “a very fine pencil line across the desert”. You are on the western extreme of South Australia on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, a barren desert plateau twice the size of England. The nearest major town, Ceduna, is approximately a five hour drive away and the closest major sealed road, the Eyre Highway, is an hour’s drive away. How remote are you? Adelaide – 1138km, Port Augusta – 826km, Kalgoorlie – 854km, Perth – 1523km, Sydney – 1984km, Darwin – 2017km.”

We’ve revealed the contents of three signs and will leave it up to you to go there and read them all. If you don’t think you’ll ever get there, and want to know what they say, email us and we’ll send you photos. They are fascinating!

Where are all the townsfolk…all four of them?

So the sign says we’re in a town of four. Ok, where are they? We saw and drove to some dongas a bit further east up the train line and spotted a man and woman. It turns out they were half of the town’s permanent population who maintain the town and clean the dongas used by train drivers who stay a night or two crossing over shifts between Perth and Port Augusta. At any time there could be up to 15 people in the town!

We asked the caretakers where the most appropriate place to park our camper would be and they said to go behind the old school, which was the building we saw in the distance when approaching the town. There is a toilet we could use next to the train line that is used by the passengers from the Indian Pacific when they stop. It was about 35C with a moderate to fresh wind which kept the flies at bay. We setup camp behind the school next to a couple of red ghost gum trees with a view towards the tower and train line to the west and the train line, town manager’s houses and dongas to the east.

The first thing you notice about the old area school is the amazing tribute painted on the side of the water tank next to the school to Cook’s longest serving railway worker of 28 years, Murray Sims who died at Cook. There’s also a mural of a train painted on the front of the school.

Driving trains across Australia

While we were gazing at a sunset, a train driver staying over for the night came over to see us as he was surprised by our presence. He said “We don’t usually see people here”. He also said Cook is used as a changeover point for drivers from Port Augusta in South Australia heading west, and for drivers from Perth heading east. Apparently, the South Australian drivers never get to drive the locomotive to Western Australia, nor vice versa which we found most absurd. Not only would the drivers be craving for different scenery, but it seems obvious of the advantage of having drivers get familiar with the terrain and conditions east to west in case they need to fill in for any reason. If anyone thinks we’ve got this wrong or knows more, please comment below.

Asking him what interesting sights he’s seen on his journeys, he mentioned that camels are often on the track and sometimes get hit. “We have to stop the train and check. The smell can be rancid!” he said.

The first freight train arrives!

For the record, we’re not trainspotters, but we did nerd out a bit over trains during our stay at Cook.

Not long after setting up, we heard the rumble of a freight train arriving from the west, so we rushed to the line to take a close look. After all, there’s not much else to do, and it’s what we came here for! It was the Pacific National NR2 arriving with a load of shipping containers. It stopped for about an hour then headed on its journey east. The different colours of the containers look great from a distance watching the train go through. Some storm clouds approached, and we witnessed a 180 degree rainbow over the saltbushes to the south.

Not only trains, but dingoes too!

According to OzTowers, a great website we use to find out what phone towers are nearby, the 123m tower hosts a Telstra 850MHz 3G Antenna with good 4 bar reception on our phones. During a FaceTime call with our friends Kim and Leo, a tan coloured dingo and a black wild dog ran past our camp not 100m away, had a good look at us and kept running south towards the saltbush.

Later that night, and even more so on the second night, we were entertained by many dingoes howling around us. On the morning after the second night, we found fresh dingo tracks all around our camper as we had heard them close by that night. The sound of dingoes at night in the middle of nowhere is both exciting and can also set the fear of death into you as they progressively howl from one direction to another, getting louder and louder. They’ve never been a threat though at any of our camps. One of the dingoes sounded like he had a cold as his voice crackled as he changed down in pitch while howling!

Awesome sunsets and sunrises and more trains

The sunsets and rises were amazing and the skies at night were amazingly clear. The first night it was very still with no wind so you could hear trains from a long, long way away.

We awoke early Friday morning to the sound of a freight train arriving from the east around 7am. The glimmer of the sun shining on it was incredible so Vic grabbed his camera and ran over to the track. It was another Pacific National, the NR67. This one was much longer than last nights train, and was loaded up with both single and double decked shipping containers. It was massive!

The Indian Pacific arrives

We expected the Indian Pacific that was heading west some time after lunch. But it caught us by surprise, not having the same big sound as the freight trains, so we had to scramble to get over to the track. It was the Pacific National NR35. It arrived about 13:45. We estimate a couple of hundred people disembarked and wandered around Cook for about 45 minutes, reading the information signs like we did on our arrival. We chatted to a few of them who were surprised to see us there.

Vic met the onboard singer/musician Tim McArtney who wanders up and down the train singing and playing guitar, and also performs during the stopover at the next town, Rawlinna for a few hours at sunset. An interesting way to get paid to see the country and meet people from all walks of life. We’ve added visiting Rawlinna to our next lap around.

As people boarded the train and sat in their comfortable seats, sipping on their wine and being served afternoon tea, we gained their curiosity out of their windows that we were staying and filming their departure. Teasingly, they held up their glasses and saluted to us as we sweltered outside in the 40C heat. In retrospect, we should have setup a table under the tree with wine and beers and cheered them on!

It’s busier than you think in the middle of nowhere!

It’s definitely not a boring small town if you don’t mind the odd train or three coming through daily. That night, another freight train came through from the east about 7pm, the Pacific National NR6 and on Saturday morning, the NR77, another massive freight train loaded with double decked containers. We didn’t see or talk to anyone else after the Indian Pacific left. The place is so peaceful, apart from the rumble of trains and the occasional dingo howl. We loved it. Cook was definitely a highlight of our travels and highly recommend it.

Our train spotting adventure over, we left Cook Saturday morning and headed south back to the Eyre Highway, and returned to the Nullarbor Roadhouse. Along the way we spotted an Australian bustard, or bush turkey in the saltbush and stopped to look at three birds nests in what looks like an old windmill or possibly an old trig point. There was a big black crow in one of them who wasn’t impressed by our visit who squawked and flew off. We also stopped at the Blow Hole marked with an old tyre, though there’s not that much to see apart from a hole in the ground.

Back at the Nullarbor Roadhouse we enjoyed a nice, but short shower courtesy of the $1 showers they provide. The Nullarbor is renowned for its caves, so we decided to go visit the Murrawijinie Caves not far away.

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