The lure of the Big Nothing is strange, and by no means universal. Many will shudder at the thought of undertaking Australia’s most notorious drive; others will see crossing the Nullarbor Plain on the road trip from Adelaide to Perth as a quintessentially Australian challenge, and a humbling, epic adventure.

For those who want nature to make them feel small, and show them worlds with barely a sign of human influence, conquering the outback’s lonely highway quenches an almighty thirst.

Road versus rail is the first decision, and the experiences are very different. On the Indian Pacific train, the conquest is done in comfort, with lavish meals and complimentary drinks served on board while chugging across the Outback. There are also organised excursions built into the three-day trip, including dinner under the stars and a visit to the Nullarbor ghost town of Cook.

Driving from Adelaide to Perth — often cheaper done in a campervan than a car due to one-way rental fees — is considerably less pampered, although the first stages can lull you into a false sense of security.

Adelaide to Perth road trip

Approx. distance: 3,140km (1,950 miles)

Duration: At least 10 days

Suggested route: Adelaide—Barossa Valley—Whyalla—Port Lincoln—Baird Bay—Ceduna—Head of Bight—Eucla—Balladonia—Kalgoorlie—Perth

Aus Nullarbor Plain

Crossing the treeless Nullarbor Plains between Adelaide and Perth is a quintessentially Australian road trip

Adelaide to Perth road trip itinerary

Spend at least ten days driving this route broken up into the following suggested stages:

Stage one: Adelaide to Barossa Valley (75km, one hour)

Stage two: Barossa Valley to Whyalla (370km, four hours)

Stage three: Whyalla to Port Lincoln (270km, three hours)

Stage four: Port Lincoln to Baird Bay (280km, three hours)

Stage five: Baird Bay to Ceduna (160km, two hours)

Stage six: Ceduna to Head of Bight (285km, three hours)

Stage seven: Head of Bight to Eucla (220km, two to three hours)

Stage eight: Eucla to Balladonia (490km, five hours)

Stage nine: Balladonia to Kalgoorlie (400km, four hours)

Stage ten: Kalgoorlie to Perth (590km, six to seven hours)

Aus Vineyard in One Tree Hill

Vineyard in One Tree Hill, Adelaide Plains of South Australia

Highlights on the Adelaide to Perth road trip

Wine tasting in Barossa Valley and Clare Valley

Heading north from Adelaide, the Barossa Valley and Clare Valley line up like sirens determined to lead dedicated sailors astray. Two of Australia’s — and arguably the world’s — greatest wine regions have dozens of welcoming cellar doors, eager to host wine-tasting sessions.

The Australian way of doing wine tasting is arguably the best on earth. Most wineries will allow you to taste at least part of their range without charge, in the hope that you’ll like what you get and buy a bottle or two afterwards. There’s very little snobbery, although the cellar door managers will offer a little educational information as you go.

The two regions have different personalities. The Barossa is quite showy, specialising in big, bold reds, and playing host to some of the major international labels, although visits to the smaller wineries are often more rewarding. The Clare works the charm harder, is smaller scale, and has fewer wine tours available, with the star wines often being the Rieslings.

Aus cliffs near port lincon

Cliffs near Port Lincoln

Visiting the coastal regions of the Eyre Peninsula

Beyond the Clare, however, the endless plains of wheat abutting the dry outback kick in, and much of the Eyre Peninsula is farming country. The triangle-shaped peninsula is far more famous for its seafood than its cereal crops, however, and heading along the coast rather than ploughing straight across allows for a series of experiences to be built in.

In Whyalla, the tours of the gargantuan steelworks are weirdly fascinating, but Port Lincoln further south is the Peninsula’s most appealing hub. Known as the tuna capital of Australia, cruises head out to see the tuna farms and sea lion colonies — although the more adventurous can up the stakes with a shark cage dive. On dry land, the oyster farms in and around Coffin Bay are the highlights, with what are generally regarded as Australia’s best oysters available as fresh as they can possibly be.

The western coast of the Eyre Peninsula is more remote, but from the hamlet of Baird Bay, one of Australia’s most remarkable aquatic experiences is on offer. Two decades of trust-building have meant that the sea lion colony living here is happy flitting around playfully as humans snorkel alongside. They’re puppy-like and inquisitive, contentedly sharing their underwater home with flailing, splashing visitors.

Aus Head of Bight Nullarbor Plain

Head of Bight, Nullarbor Plain

The Big Empty — driving through the Nullarbor Plains

Ceduna, around 90 minutes northwest, marks the start of what can be regarded as the Big Empty. The true Nullarbor Plain comes around 300km further into the drive, but Ceduna provides the last drop of mobile phone signal for a few days, and it’s where the Nullarbor Links golf course starts.

This gloriously absurd project — 18 holes stretch 1,365km across the desert towards Kalgoorlie — is as much about keeping people interested as it is about keeping to the fairways. Most holes are outside the roadhouses that punctuate the drive every hour or two, with signs posted next to the tees explaining aspects of Nullarbor life.

The Nullarbor stretch can theoretically be tackled with one overnight stop, but realistically you need two. And because drivers have a choice of roadhouses to slot them in at, accommodation standards are surprisingly high. It’s usually simple but solidly decent cabins, plus pitches for campervans. Camaraderie builds at the bar at night, as the Nullarbor conquistadors share stories of roadkill and silly games invented to pass the time.

The surprising thing is how little such games are needed. The stops along the Nullarbor come with unexpectedly gripping oddities. There are the pink lakes near Cactus Beach, one of the world’s great remote surf spots. There’s whale watching from the cliffs at Head of Bight, where the visitor centre doubles as a fascinating museum about the Nullarbor’s wildlife and heritage. Eucla has the ruins of an old telegraph station and tales of the continent-changing telegraph line being built. And Balladonia has an exhibition about when it became home to an unlikely media scrum when the Skylab space station crashed nearby in 1979.

The landscape isn’t as flat and scrubby as many expect, either, particularly towards the western end where woodland takes over. But spending a few days crossing the Nullarbor has the effect of taking you out of the real world, to the point where getting phone signal in Kalgoorlie is jarring and almost disappointing.

Aus aerial view of Super Pit goldmine in Kalgoorlie

Aerial view of Super Pit goldmine, Kalgoorlie

Gold-mining and ‘super pits’ in Kalgoorlie

Going via the gold mining city of Kalgoorlie is the quicker, inland route to Perth, but there’s a coastal option too. This makes the back end of the trip a more traditional holiday, with impressive beaches and wildlife-filled National Parks around Esperance, whaling and World War I heritage in Albany, canopy walks and terrifying 65-metre tree climbs around Pemberton, plus caves, surf and wine around Margaret River.

Kalgoorlie, though, is different. Its star attraction is the giant Super Pit, where you can watch some of the planet’s biggest diggers spiral relentlessly into a deep cut hole. Elsewhere, museums and tourist mines tell the story of the gold rush, and the attempts to make life amongst the parched landscape workable.

One of these attempts — and a successful one — is one of the world’s great engineering projects. The 556km freshwater pipeline from Mundaring in the Perth Hills is a constant accompaniment along the side of the road on the way to Perth. It’s a symbol of man conquering the inhospitable Australian outback - and the perfect one to escort drivers coming to the end of their Nullarbor adventure.

About the author

The Best Adelaide To Perth Road Trip

David Whitley

David Whitley spent five years in Australia editing backpacker magazines and has visited twice a year since coming back to the UK. He works for major magazines and newspapers both at home and in Oz.

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