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The Nullarbor Plain (// NUL-ə-bor; Latin: nullus, "no", and arbor, "tree") is part of the area of flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast with the Great Victoria Desert to its north. It is the world's largest single exposure of limestone bedrock, and occupies an area of about 200,000 square kilometres (77,000 sq mi). At its widest point, it stretches about 1,100 kilometres (684 mi) from east to west across the border region between South Australia and Western Australia.
Historically, the Nullarbor, considered by Europeans to be almost uninhabitable, was used by the semi-nomadic Aborigines, the Spinifex and Wangai peoples. It was used for thousands of years before that by prehistoric Aborigines.
Despite the hardships created by the nature of the Nullarbor, European settlers were determined to cross the plain. Although Edward John Eyre described the Plain as "a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams", he became the first European to successfully make the crossing in 1841. Eyre departed Fowlers Bay, South Australia on 17 November 1840 with John Baxter and a party of three Aboriginal men. When three of his horses died of dehydration, he returned to Fowler's Bay. He departed with a second expedition on 25 February 1841. By 29 April, the party had reached Caiguna. Lack of supplies and water led to a mutiny. Two of the Aborigines killed Baxter and took the party's supplies. Eyre and the third Aborigine, Wylie, continued on their journey, surviving through bushcraft and some fortuitous circumstances, such as receiving some supplies from a French whaling vessel anchored at Rossiter Bay. They completed their crossing in June 1841.
On 25 December 1896, after an arduous journey of thirty-one days, Arthur Charles Jeston Richardson became the first cyclist to cross the Nullarbor Plain, pedaling his bicycle from Coolgardie to Adelaide. Carrying only a small kit and a water-bag, he followed the telegraph line as he crossed the Nullarbor. He later described the heat as "1,000 degrees in the shade". During their three-year cycling trip around Australia between 1946 and 1949, Wendy Law Suart and Shirley Duncan became the first women to cycle across the Plain.
The first person to walk across Australia, Henri Gilbert, crossed the Nullarbor Plain on foot, with no support team or stock, in the middle of summer. His walk across Australia was achieved between August 1897 and December 1898 (Fremantle to Brisbane).
A proposed new state of Auralia (meaning "land of gold") would have comprised the Goldfields, the western portion of the Nullarbor Plain and the port town of Esperance. Its capital would have been Kalgoorlie.
During the British nuclear tests at Maralinga in the 1950s, the government forced the Wangai to abandon their homeland. Since then they have been awarded compensation, and many have returned to the general area. Others never left. Due to their isolation, the government was not able to reach all of the people to warn about evacuating before the testing.
Some agricultural interests are on the fringe of the plain including the 2.5 million acre Rawlinna Station, the largest sheep station in the world, on the Western Australian side of the plain. The property was established in 1962 by Hugh G. MacLachlan, of the South Australian pastoral family, the station has a comparatively short history compared to other properties of its type around Australia. An older property is Madura Station, situated closer to the coast, it has a size of 1.7 million acres and is also stocked with sheep. Madura was established prior to 1927, the extent of the property at that time was reported as two million acres.
In 2011 South Australian Premier Mike Rann announced that a huge area of the Nullarbor, stretching almost 200 km from the WA border to the Great Australian Bight, would be given formal Wilderness Protection Status. Mr Rann said the move would double the area of land in South Australia under environmental protection, to 1.8 million hectares. The area contains 390 species of plants and a large number of habitats for rare species of animals and birds.
"Crossing the Nullarbor", for many Australians, is a quintessential experience of the "Australian Outback". Stickers bought from roadhouses on the highway show "I have crossed the Nullarbor", and can be seen on vehicles of varying quality or capacity for long distance travel. The process of "beating the crowds" on overbooked air services at the time of special sporting events can also see significant numbers of vehicles on the road.
Crossings in the 1950s and earlier were significant, as most of the route then was a dirt track. Round-Australia car trials (the Redex Trials) used the Nullarbor crossing for good photo shoots of cars negotiating poor track.
The Nullarbor Plain is a former shallow seabed, as indicated by the presence of bryozoans, foraminifera, echinoids and red algae calcareous skeletal that make up the limestone. The region is also the location of "Nullarbor limestone" and it has a reputation as a significant karst region with Oligocene and Miocene cave formations.
The sequence within the limestone includes five formations:
One theory is that the whole area was uplifted by crustal movements in the Miocene, and since then, erosion by wind and rain has reduced its thickness. The plain has most likely never had any major defining topographic features, resulting in the extremely flat terrain across the plain today.
In areas, the southern ocean blows through many subterranean caves, resulting in blowholes up to several hundred metres from the coast. The Murrawijinie Caves in South Australia are open to the public, but most of the Nullarbor Caves on the Western Australian side can only be visited and viewed with a permit from the Department of Environment and Conservation.
The Nullarbor is known for extensive meteorite deposits, which are extremely well preserved in the arid climate. In particular, many meteorites have been discovered around Mundrabilla, some up to several tonnes in weight.
The Nullarbor has a desert climate, with arid to semi-arid conditions. Inland, summers can be scorching hot, with daytime temperatures close to 50 °C (122 °F), while in winter nights can drop well below freezing. Closer to the coast, the temperature is milder with more rainfall in the winter months. The mean annual rainfall at Cook is 184.1 millimetres (7.25 in), with most rain falling between May and August. Summers are very dry, with rain falling mainly from sporadic storms, however occasionally decaying tropical systems can cause heavier rain in the summer months. Temperatures on the plain have ranged from 49.8 °C (121.6 °F) at Mundrabilla which is the equal 4th hottest recorded temperature in all of Australia, to −7.5 °C (18.5 °F) at Eyre, which is the coldest recorded temperature in Western Australia.
The need for a communications link across the continent was the spur for the development of an east–west crossing. Once Eyre had proved that a link between South Australia and Western Australia was possible, efforts to connect them via telegraph began. In 1877, after two years of labour, the first messages were sent on the new telegraph line, boosted by eight repeater stations along the way. The line operated for about 50 years before being superseded, and remnants of it remain visible.
The Trans-Australian Railway railway line crosses the Nullarbor Plain from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta. Construction of the line began in 1917, when two teams set out from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and Port Augusta in South Australia, meeting in the centre of the Plain at Ooldea, an uninhabited area noted for a water supply. This original line suffered severe problems with track flexing and settling in the desert sands, and journeys across the Plain were slow and arduous. The line was entirely rebuilt in 1969, as part of a project to standardise the previously disparate rail gauges in the various states, and the first crossing of the Nullarbor on the new line reached Perth on 27 February 1970. The Indian Pacific is a regular passenger train crossing the Nullarbor from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide.
The Eyre Highway, which connects Norseman in Western Australia to Port Augusta, was carved across the continent in 1941. At first it was little more than a rough track, but was gradually sealed over the next thirty years. The last unsealed section of the Eyre Highway was finally sealed in 1976. Unlike the railway, though, it crosses the plain at its southernmost edge rather than through the centre.
The railway line has the longest straight section of railway in the world (478 km, 297 mi), while the road contains the longest straight section of tarred road in Australia (146.6 km, 91.1 mi).
Most of the inhabited areas of the Nullarbor Plain can be found in a series of small settlements located along the railway, and in small settlements along the Eyre Highway that provide services to travellers, mostly spaced between one and two hundred kilometres apart. The town of Cook, in South Australia, was formerly a moderately thriving settlement of about 40 people, with a school and a golf course. The reduction of railway operations at the town resulted in its virtual desertion, and it now has a permanent population of four. The Tea and Sugar Train operated until 1996 supplying provisions to the town along the railway line.
The fauna of the Nullarbor includes communities of crustaceans, spiders, and beetles adapted to the darkness of the Nullarbor Caves and the underground rivers and lakes that run through them. Mammals of the desert include the southern hairy-nosed wombat which shelters from the hot sun by burrowing into the sands, as well as typical desert animals such as red kangaroos and dingoes. An elusive subspecies of the Australian masked owl unique to the Nullarbor is known to roost in the many caves on the plain. The grasslands of the Nullarbor are suitable for some sheep grazing and are also damaged by rabbits.
See above for notable crossings prior to 1900.
In 1998, runner Robert Garside ran across the Nullarbor without a formal support crew, as part of an authenticated run around the world. Unconventionally, Garside obtained water and other support from "passing traffic" who would leave water cached ahead for him at agreed drop-offs, to achieve the feat. In 2010, columnist Dan Koeppel ran the 200 mile heart of the Nullarbor with a friend the same way, to vindicate Garside. Garside commented in his diary, that "the key to running the Nullarbor turned out to be Australian hospitality", and Koeppel concurred that "[F]rom an armchair it is completely impossible to run the Nullarbor. Once you're out there, however, there is a way. Robert Garside discovered it. So would I".
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