Great Australian Bight

Ron and Viv Moon — 24 May 2018

The strip of soft sand I was travelling on was more of a narrow ledge than anything else, set slightly above the jagged twisted spires and clumps of sea-eroded limestone rock that threatened on my immediate right, while the wave-tossed sea just a little further out was downright intimidating. To my left was a steep scrub-covered ridge of sand that effectively barred any deviation that way. Suddenly the sandy ledge gave out completely and the Discovery lurched sideways into a fettuccine-like porridge of sand and weed.

I thumbed the gearshift paddle back to second, the low range box growling in time with the increased rumble from the V6 turbo engine. The only real response though, as forward motion came to a quick end, was a plume of sand thrown through my open door window; 'Bugger', I thought as I hit the window 'up' button.

I clambered out the partly opened door and surveyed the situation; it wasn't a great place for a recovery, but you can't really pick and choose the spot where the situation goes belly up; you just do the best you can. With a flurry of activity, a couple of Maxtrax and a bit of digging, I scrambled backwards onto more level territory out of the way of jagged rocks, wind and waves — and then breathed a big sigh of relief.


We had left Esperance nearly a week previously where you hit the sandy stuff right on the outskirts of town and within a few minutes be climbing Wylie Head. This dome of granite rears upwards in an unbroken curve of unblemished rock and for first-time devotees it can be a daunting experience as you nudge your vehicle up to the rock-face and then, in low range, drive up the steep slope with only sky to be seen through the windscreen. 

From the lofty crest of granite we dropped down onto the sand of Wylie Beach and travelled the sweep of coastline all the way to Cape Le Grande and delightful Lucky Bay before wandering on to Rossiter Bay.

You can't travel this long section of coast between here and Streaky Bay in South Australia and not be aware of Edward J Eyre, the first European to explore this coast in 1840. His faithful native guide, Wylie, has his name perpetuated in the beach and headland we had just left, and Rossiter Bay takes its name from the captain of the ship, Mississippi, who by sheer luck was anchored in the bay when Eyre and Wylie staggered along this long stretch of sand. It was one of the most fortunate meetings in Australian exploration history and the two tattered and worn explorers stayed on board for 12 days repairing body and soul and equipment before continuing the gruelling trek to Albany, another 500km west.

We had it a lot easier but even so a few soft sections along the beaches saw us using a snatch strap and the Maxtrax to keep us all mobile and reaching our camp site for the evening at Membinup Beach - a shire maintained camping spot outside of the nearby national parks. 

Next day we passed through Cape Arid National Park, which has a plethora of places to visit, sandy beach drives and some pleasant camping areas. Sadly, the old Overland Telegraph Track through the park to Port Malcolm is generally closed so the other option is via Fisheries Track, which leads through the adjoining Nuytsland NR to Israelite Bay.

Eyre had passed this spot on his epic trek from east to west but didn't name the bay. That was left to the Dempster brothers, white pioneers of the district, who in their travels in 1863, noticed that the area around the bay seemed to be the boundary between Aboriginal tribes who did and did not practice circumcision. Think the bible, the Israelites and you get the connection!


The bay then became the important site of its historic telegraph station that operated there from 1877 to 1927 and helped link Perth, via the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), with the eastern states. The current building dates from 1896, while nearby is ‘Glencoe’, a small stone cottage built in 1883. Built around the same time as the grand new telegraph station was a timber jetty to help load the increasing volume of wool that was being produced from the sheep properties in and around the bay. Two small cemeteries not far away also date from those pioneer times and can be easily visited. These days Israelite Bay and the surrounding coast is best known for its great fishing while it also attracts keen four wheelers and campers wanting to get away from it all.

Next morning we bypassed the first section of beach directly north of Israelite Bay because of the deep seaweed that covers the shore; in four trips along this coast I've never been able to burst through this southern section of beach - even though we've given it a good go!

Instead, we followed the old OTL Track that parallels the beach, occasionally ducking between samphire covered flats and across dry shallow, billiard-table flat lake beds, before winding our way onto the beach for the run north.

The history of the OTL is often obvious when you drive this route across the Great Australian Bight. In fact, in places the lone wire that once carried the telegraphic signals of a nation across it lies along the track, acting something like a breadcrumb trail in your GPS and letting you know you are on the correct route, east or west. At other times solitary poles from those bygone days (this OTL line closed in 1926 to be rerouted along what is now the Trans Australian Railway line further inland) can be seen, as well as the ruins of old telegraph stations.


Close to where the Wylie Scarp meets the sea, just west of Point Culver, the Bilbunya Dunes crowd up to the near sheer escarpment. The prevailing southerly winds have built these white masses of sand into some of the tallest dunes in Australia, their peaks sitting atop long, sinuous, almost sensuous, ridges of steep-sided sand. They were mightily impressive and we pulled up at their base a few hundred metres inland from the sea and called it a camp.

The long sheer and impressive cliffs of the Great Australian Bight start just east of here at Point Culver and a track climbs from near our camp up the Wylie Escarpment to begin its slow and tortuous way east either across harsh limestone outcrops or through mallee scrub that only changes in density and the amount of scratches it can deliver to a passing vehicle.

Along the cliffs, this stretch known as the Baxter Cliffs, you pass miniscule Toolinna Cove and further east, just inland from the cliff-lined sea edge, the monument to Eyre's friend and 2IC, William Baxter, who was killed near here by natives.   

After two near full days of, 'the horror of the limestone', as I call it, we dropped down the escarpment and wound our way through low dunes to Twilight Cove, certainly the remotest beach camp you can find along the south coast of Australia between Brisbane and Perth. 

On our latest trip we stayed here for a couple of days it was so enjoyable and then headed for the Eyre Bird Observatory – once an OTL station and the only one in anywhere near its former glory ... and that's where my narrow strip of sand almost brought us and the Disco undone.  

Three days later after taking the OTL track east and a short drive along the fantastic beach at Eucla we crossed the SA/WA border just back from the cliffs of Wilson Bluff. Then taking the Old Eyre Highway we stopped at the ruins of the Koonalda Homestead, once an important stopping point on the dirt road crossing of the Nullarbor and now in the Nullarbor NP. After camping near the Bunda Cliffs, south of the Nullarbor Roadhouse, we passed through the Yalata Aboriginal Lands, where with a permit you can access the beach and some remote campsites. This is one of the top mulloway beach fishing spots in the country and some giants have been landed here.


From the Aboriginal lands we passed into the Wahgunyah Conservation Reserve where the Dog Proof Fence that stretches for thousands of kilometres across outback Australia makes its final run to the sea and the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. That evening we camped amongst some dunes east of Dog Fence Beach where a rocky headland jutted out into the wind swept sea. East from our vantage point amongst the high set dunes, a long sweep of beach stretched away eastwards into the sea mist.

Over the next couple of days as we pushed east we went from the Ocock Sandhills to the vast expanse of the Wahgunyah Sandhills and then into the Chalgonippi Sandhills, the names a separate identity on the map, but in reality a continuous mass of white peaks paralleling the coast with the dune fields varying in width from 100 metres to over a kilometre. 

The track through here is often hard to follow due to the constantly shifting sands but finally we came out on more defined tracks and set up camp just east of the spectacular coastline of Cape Adieu. Next day after more beach driving and cliff crawling while passing Cheetima Beach, Wandilla Bay and Mexican Hat we found our way onto Scott Beach for the long drive around the sweep of sand. Our exit from the beach was hard to find and wound amongst some steep sided dunes as we drove onto yet another beach that led to the small hamlet of Fowlers Bay. 

Our remote adventure was nearly over as we came into a more popular stretch of coast but there was still plenty of beaches, four wheel driving and great camping to enjoy as we pushed onto Ceduna, Streaky Bay and Baird Bay, where we had an appointment with the delightful Australian sea lions that congregate here. There is no better place in Australia to interact with a group of friendly, playful seals than this place and their friendly attitude and captivating antics win over even the hardest sceptic and you are soon trying to keep up with these aquatic mammals as they dive and cavort around you. It was a fitting end to our latest trip along this wild, little visited coast! 


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