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Articles Blog

The Great Australian Bight

Karyn Planett

The Outback Of The Seas

Let’s start with a definition. A bight is, at its simplest, a bend or curve in a geographical feature usually occurring between land and water. Early explorers defined a bight as a bay they could sail out of without tacking. Now, one could be excused for not knowing the true definition and merely assuming that naming the Australian Bight was merely a matter of looking at a map of the coastline and imagining a bite taken out of it by some giant continent-eating sea monster. Whatever!

And, it’s tempting to say of this nearly uninhabited part of Australia that there’s no there there. But, in fact, there is a great deal of interest here both at sea and ashore.

The Roaring Forties

The Great Australian Bight opens into the Southern Ocean, newest of the world’s five oceans and the only one unbroken by any land mass. It’s been known for centuries as the Roaring 40s because of the prevailing westerly winds that howl constantly along this band between 40 and 50 degrees south latitude. These are the winds that have made the Tasman Sea, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Drake Passage such storied bodies of water. The part of the Southern Ocean we sail in today is considered the roughest and most dangerous body of water for competitors in round-the-world yacht races like the Vendee Globe. That’s really because a yacht in trouble here is quite far from any land-based assistance. We’re bigger. We’re fine.

A Marine Desert

The seabed at the Bight is relatively shallow but has little of the rich marine life that characterizes most continental shelves. Home to many sharks and whales, it nevertheless lacks the kind of abundance that supports commercial fishing. The seabed here is actually an extension of an inland desert known as the Nullarbor Plain. What little rain falls inland runs mostly away from the sea so there is none of the natural fertilization that takes place around similar continental shelves. Even so, the coastline here features soaring cliff faces up to 100 feet high jutting straight from the sea seemingly guarding the mysteries of the Nullarbor Plain beyond.

Crossing The Nullarbor

The Nullarbor Plain is the world’s largest single piece of limestone, encompassing 77,200 square miles, and spanning over 700 miles at its widest point. The highway that traverses it has a ninety-mile long straightaway and crossing it has become the ultimate outback experience. To early settlers of the Australian continent, the plain was impassable and formed a natural barrier that isolated the towns of western Australia from the rest of the country.

In 1841, Edward John Eyre, who described the Nullarbor as “the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”, made the first harrowing but successful crossing. Setting out from Fowler’s Bay in South Australia with a companion and three Aboriginal men as guides, Eyre endured more than just the natural hardships. Two of the guides killed his companion and made off with all the expedition’s supplies. But Eyre and the remaining guide were able to complete the journey and give heart to later travelers, the telegraph, and eventually the Trans-Australian Railway, which has its own record-breaking stretch of over 300 miles of dead straight track. 

The Nullarbor Nymph

Lightly settled, harsh environments like the Nullarbor give rise to more than their fair share of losers, legends and lunatic behavior. Towns such as Cook, once a thriving railway stop along the straight bit but now a ghost town harboring its last four citizens, are the typical stories. At Marilinga, a place of spiritual significance to Aboriginal peoples, there were seven nuclear tests conducted in the 50s. No one is sure whether contamination still exists, and no one is sure whether all the inhabitants were cleared out before or after the testing.

Eucla lies astride the Eyre Highway and is the only location with a direct view of the Australian Bight. In its early days Eucla was one of the most important telegraph stations on the line. In the 1890s a plague of rabbits ate most of the indigenous vegetation destabilizing the sand dunes, which soon began to swallow the town.

By the 1970s, Eucla had a population of only eight but received worldwide attention when photographs were published of a half naked blonde girl who had gone “bush” and was living with the local kangaroo population. By the time the press had quadrupled the town’s population, it became clear that the ruse had been perpetrated by the owner of the town’s only hotel and restaurant, and the blonde girl on film turned out to be a 17-year-old model. Chalk it up to another classic tale of the Outback.