David Piper

This was no place for a white-faced city-boy. I could hear the rescue teams now, talking over my desiccated body, "Bloody idiot! Didn’t he read the signs?" or worse still my charred remains possibly never found having been caught in a raging bushfire.


I’d been asking around in Esperance about the dirt road leading north to Balladonia but only received conflicting reports, no one seemed to know about the state of the road, or even that it exists - even though it cuts out 100 km off the drive from Esperance to Balladonia, so I loaded up with supplies including 8 litres of water and set off. The early miles of well-graded grit were quick enough, but the road, known ominously as ‘The Track’ soon became less distinct with rocky sections and harsh corrugations that beat and rattled me as I rode along. I wasn’t daunted by the distance, but as time wore on, stories of souls lost in the outback played on my mind. I kept thinking that a ripped tyre, a broken chain or buckled wheel could leave me stranded and in some serious danger. There had been no phone reception since leaving Conningup, and as my progress slowed over the deteriorating track I realised that 8 litres of water was nowhere near enough.

The only way of navigating was by the sun and tracking distance on my bike’s computer. At 124 miles I should have emerged on the main highway, but by 126 it still wasn’t there. By 128 I was beginning to panic, with a mouth dry as dust and still no sign of any human influence to indicate I was getting closer to civilisation. This was no place for a white-faced city-boy. I could hear the rescue teams now, talking over my desiccated body, “Bloody idiot! Didn’t he read the signs?” or worse still my charred remains possibly never found having been caught in a raging bushfire.

Finally I spotted a telegraph pole and within the next painfully slow mile I was back on the asphalt, and never have I been so glad to see a petrol station, and no petrol station attendant has ever looked so surprised than the one that saw me emerge from the darkness of the track covered in red dust, stagger to his fridge and proceed to down a large bottle of water before saying a word. When I explained myself, he simply said, “Bloody idiot!”

As a barely populated dot at the western edge of the desert, Balladonia doesn’t appear to offer much of interest but it holds a curious claim to fame being the crash landing site of the Skylab space station in 1979. With typical Aussie humour the local council issued NASA with a littering fine, and were rewarded with a personal apology from President Carter himself.

So, looking out for space debris I headed down Australia's longest straightest road - all 146.6 kilometres of it. For those of us who are metrically challenged its more common name is the "90 Mile Straight", and there’s a big signpost just in case you hadn’t noticed not changing directions for a while and folk (usually the ‘grey nomads’ – oldies that have retired and are travelling about in campervans) like to stop to have their photo taken by the sign.

This morning’s wake-up call was the flapping of the tent in a stiff westerly wind so I was up like a dingo up a didgeridoo to be pushed along all day, watching the almost imperceptible changes in landscape as the desert approached. The miles racked up rapidly with my fastest ever century coming in at five hours and nineteen minutes.

The wind that helped me so nicely all day became a curse leaving me wrestling with my tent after dark and scrabbling round for rocks to hold it down and hammer the pegs into the stony ground. Against advice to the contrary I left my shoes and socks outside of the tent overnight as I couldn’t bear to be in their company any more. I figured that any snake or spider stupid enough to want to venture too close to those repulsive stinkers would be too stupid to want to bite me.

I shiver with the cool of the early morning dew, and feel the power of the sun on my back in the middle of the day. And when that same sun sets in the western sky, I can truly say I have felt the earth move under my wheels












David Piper

David Piper has been piecing together a circumnavigation of the globe by bike in stages since 2004, having now covered nearly 30,000km and crossed 31 countries. You can read more of his travels at

Many people assume that Nullarbor is an Aboriginal term but it’s a corruption of the Latin meaning treeless. In fact it’s only a small part of the eastern end of the plain that’s treeless, but most regard the area between Norseman and Ceduna to be the Nullarbor. For thousands of square kilometres the land is as flat as 'roo under a road-train’ and relentlessly barren. Just glowing red soil, tussocks of bluebush, clumps of spiniflex and scattered ochre rocks.

After the buzzing metropolis of Eucla (population 86), Border Village (population 0) seemed a little quiet. It turns out that it’s not a village at all, and only serves as a quarantine point between South Australia and Western Australia, and a place to lose an hour and a half of your life entering a new time zone. The quarantine is rigorously enforced to prevent non-native species being imported, and just after the checkpoint a car waved me down and passed me a bag of fruit that they wouldn’t have been able to cross into WA with.

At home I'm used to sharing every square mile of space with about 700 other people, so the previous summer I relished my times exploring the sleepy backwaters of the USA where the population is only one tenth as dense, but in the whole of Australia there are just six people per square mile. Consider then if you discounted the five largest cities this number would fall to less than one human for every ten square miles. If you could define the middle of nowhere this could be it. More than a thousand miles to the nearest city east or west, to my south Antarctica and to my north just one railway line and not a single paved road or habitation for nearly two thousand miles. Take the Sahara, the Gobi Desert and Outer Mongolia added together and they would still be smaller and have more people in than the Australian Outback, making this least populated place on earth either side of the two Poles.

At the roadhouse campsite I was pitching my tent when the couple in the caravan next door struck up a conversation with me. After the usual pleasantries and listening to him complain about what a long drive it was, he said, “How do ya manage with the boredom mate? I mean there’s just nothing out there."

“Well”, I replied. “On the bike I can feel the rush of the wind on my face, hear the birds singing their morning chorus and smell the wildflowers. I see the emu and the kangaroo because they don’t see me first. I shiver with the cool of the early morning dew, and feel the power of the sun on my back in the middle of the day. And when that same sun sets in the western sky, I can truly say I have felt the earth move under my wheels”

He looked at me, silent and slightly out of focus for just a moment, turned to his wife and said, “Come on Mavis, ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ is on the cable in a minute”

I’d been diverting off the road quite frequently as this stretch runs close to the edge of the Australian Bight, the towering cliffs that plunge vertically into the roaring Southern Ocean below. There was one diversion that I’d been looking forward to more than any as its here that huge Right Whales come to nurse their calves before heading south to Antarctica for their summer hols. I’ve seen some incredible sights on my travels, but nothing has brought a lump to my throat so swiftly as this. It’s by far the most serene and beautiful thing I have ever had the privilege to witness.

I think the solitude was starting to get to me as by the time a few rolling hills came near the restricted Aboriginal lands of Yalata, Id taken to singing loudly, accompanied by Toto, my invisible dog. In space no-one can hear you scream and on the Nullarbor no-one can hear you sing.

Contrary to my poetic repose, the Nullarbor was beginning to get to me. Heat, cold, wind and rain were all taking their toll, but perhaps worst of all was the distances between stops, even the chance to simply sit down at a layby with a picnic table would only present every 100km or so, and even then I’d be pressured by the need to arrive at the next roadhouse before closing time. Stopping would only allow a swarm of black flies to plague me anyway. I longed for a climb, if only to see a horizon more than a mile distant, and prayed for that horizon to be different from that which inevitably came. More scrub, more bush, more plains, more red-brown earth. Once part of the ocean floor, it’s a piece of limestone covering 200,000 square kilometers up to 300 meters deep, making it the world’s largest patio slab. Mile after mile of it, baking under the antipodean sun by day, then freezing cold at night. Even Eyre himself described the Plain as "a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams".

Apart from a few brief exchanges at campsites, I’d been alone all week. The experience certainly focused my mind on what social beings humans are. To be denied communication even by the proxy of a text message, email, radio or TV for such a relatively short space of time had taught me why solitary confinement was used to such great effect in the Second World War.

Back in Der Kooler, the Kommandant had other plans turning the wind against me, and trying to foil our own great escape. By Penong the first signs of habitation came with a few broken down fences and ruined farm buildings of those who had tried and failed to tame the Nullarbor. Finally the end came into sight. At first houses, then a village shop and wonder of wonders a pub. I’d made it. This had been my Everest, my cross Channel swim, my Marathon Des Sables. I’d done it in six days, which is no kind of record but none too shabby all the same. I was shabby it’s true. Dirty, aching, hungry and tired too, but all I really wanted to do was speak to people.

Sign up to receive free updates from Sidetracked here.

Next Story