Named for Edward John Eyre, the first European to cross the Nullarbor by foot, the original Eyre Highway was nothing more than a rough track that followed the east-west telegraph line. Some years later it was transformed into a rough highway, before the current route was sealed in the early seventies.
The 470km section between Port Augusta and Ceduna, across the base of the Eyre Peninsula, is seen by many as a boring half day’s drive, but there’s far more to see here than most people realise.
Port Augusta sits at the head of the Spencer Gulf, at a crossroads of rail, road and sea routes across Australia. Major highways head east to Sydney and Adelaide, north to Darwin and Alice Springs, and west to Perth along the Eyre Highway.
With a hot, semi-arid desert climate and matching vegetation, the sparkling waters of the Gulf are a welcome sight. There’s a handful of places to check out if you’ve got the time, like the Matthew Flinders Red Cliffs Lookout, the Wadlata Outback Centre, and the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens.
The fifth largest city in South Australia sits on the Gulf at the base of the Eyre Peninsula. While it’s a bit of a trip from the highway, an alternate route back to the town of Iron Knob makes it a worthwhile detour. While known locally as the Steel City, for its steel workings, shipbuilding, iron ore exporting and industrial plants, it’s offset by some absolutely stunning beaches, as well as beautiful sunsets over expansive tidal flats.
The best swimming’s out at Point Lowly, where there’s some good cheap camping too. It’s a popular area with snorkellers and divers, due to the annual migration of Australian Giant Cuttlefish that frequent the waters around here. There’s a Maritime Museum to check out in town, and a caravan park right on the foreshore, with some excellent spots nearby to watch for dolphins.
The nearby Whyalla Conservation Park is worth checking out too. It’s a semi-arid area with some off-road driving and mountain biking, as well as the short climb up Wild Dog Hill.
About 70km from the mining town of Iron Knob, it’s easy to miss the turn-off to Lake Gilles Conservation Park, an arid expanse of remnant mallee forest and huge ephemeral salt lakes.
There’s a sparse and rugged beauty to the area, with a near-endless choice for some of the most remote, peaceful and isolated bush camping I’ve experienced. We didn’t see a single other car within the reserve, just the sandy rises, gypsum dunes, salt-bush fringes and the sheer unspoilt nature. Colourful dragons, native rodents and healthy populations of malleefowl and other threatened birds make it a hotspot for wildlife lovers.
There’s a scattering of small towns to stop at along the way, spread out along the grain belt. Kimba, Wirrulla, Wudinna, Minnipa and Poochera, historic pastoral settlements with old buildings, rich local history and unique stories. Kimba, marketed as the halfway point across Australia, makes a good stop for fuel and food. The Big Galah welcomes you to town, and there’s some beautiful silo art to check out, as well as some nearby caves and a lookout to explore.
Wudinna sits at the heart of the area’s granite trail, known for its quarrying and the huge monoliths scattered across the nearby farmland, while Poochera’s unusual claim to fame is the discovery of a rare and primitive ant, a living fossil, seen as a major draw for entomologists. There’s caravan parks at Kimba, Wudinna and Poochera, and a few roadhouses and small shops to keep you going.
Wudinna is the gateway to one of this region’s greatest scenic assets; the huge, weather-sculpted monoliths of grey stone scattered around the plains. Polda Rock, Little Wudinna and Turtle Rock are all well worth checking out, and they’re all encountered on the way to Mount Wudinna.
At 260m high, this huge slab is one of Australia’s largest monoliths (claimed to be both second and third), and rises from the rolling fields like a miniature grey Uluru. There’s a short walk that climbs to the top, to sweeping views across the agricultural plains all the way to the distant Gawler Ranges.
Pildappa Rock lies closer to the town of Minnipa, and while dwarfed in size by Mt Wudinna, the flowing wave-like patterns that form the grey and orange stone make for even more impressive viewing. There’s good free camping here too, as well as at the nearby Tcharkulda Hill, a collection of jagged boulders piled atop a small hill.
I’ve heard this national park referred to as the poor-man’s Flinders Ranges, and while I can understand the comparison, it’s so much more than that. A 40km detour from Minnipa, it’s a true outback park with the same rugged features as the Flinders, but you might just be lucky enough to have a good chunk of it to yourself.
Vast saltbush plains, rocky hills carpeted in spinifex, rocky red gorges and remnant woodland dominate the reserve. There’s great 4WD touring, a trove of European history and rich Aboriginal culture, as well as some amazing night skies. There’s a heap of campgrounds to choose from, and the open landscape makes it a breeze to go exploring on foot. Often dry, waterfalls carved through the red stone come alive after heavy rain. Yandinga Falls, Kolay Mirica Falls and the incredible basalt-formations of the Organ Pipes take on a whole other level.
Ceduna sits nestled on the shores of Murat Bay, and stands as the gateway to the vastness of the Nullarbor, and the desert tracks to the north. It’s an odd amalgamation of small coastal town and outback desert refuge. From Poochera, you can detour to the coast, and head to Ceduna past Streaky Bay, and the beautiful Wittlebee and Laura Conservation Parks. It’s a welcome last respite, with plenty of caravan parks, a foreshore lined with Norfolk Island Pines, and a beautiful historic jetty where you can catch some stunning sunsets.