The appeal of this trek is the ease of which four wheel drivers can visit the ghost town settlement of Cook on the Trans Australian Railway line, and along the way see caves, sinkholes, blowholes, bores, tanks and various ruins that typify the Nullarbor plain north of the main Eyre
Highway today. To see these relics you quickly appreciate how hard life must have been for those who lived out on the Nullarbor plain in a not-so distant past.
Cook lies at the centre of the Nullarbor, in the harshest of climates. There is nothing but flat saltbush plains 360 degrees around. Even the Eyre
Highway is 105km away to the south. Adelaide and Perth are more than 1000 kilometres away on either side. The nearest town is Ceduna, but it's a five-hour drive away.
Despite Cook being a ghost town, it is still a stopping point for all trains crossing the Trans Australian Railway Line today. It is the only place on the TARL with a permanent caretaker, employed by the railway. The Indian-Pacific (today's Sydney-Adelaide-Perth passenger train operated by Great Southern Railways), stops here 4 times a week and freight trains also stop to refresh their crews.
Other than that, few people come to Cook. The tracks only get used from time to time by Telstra engineers maintaining and checking the fibre optical cable, which has replaced the Telegraph Line. Event the few independent visitors in 4WD vehicles who would follow the service tracks alongside the east-west railway line stopped coming when the line was privatised by the Australian Government. The new owners (Australian Rail Track Authority) declared all tracks between Lyons to Rawlinna officially closed to the public in 2000 and no request for access are considered, with threats of hefty fines (Editors Note: we have never yet heard of anyone being fined).
But for Eyre
Highway travellers that are well equipped for remote exploring, this trek note will enable you to make a relatively easy trip to reach Cook, which remains an interesting place to visit.
Please note that tracks to the north of the railway line enter Maralinga Tjarutja Lands and entry is forbidden without permits and only then on approved tracks. For further information, contact Maralinga Tjarutja Permits office in Ceduna, phone 08 8625 2946 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
This trek will take you from the Nullarbor Roadhouse on the Eyre
Highway to the north-west along dirt roads, sometimes only single wheel tracks, to Cook via Knowles Cave.
Knowles is just one of the many caves in this karst limestone environment, however Knowles is a worthy visit as it is one of the more accessible caves in the entire region and will give you a good sense of the what lies beneath the seemingly empty barren plains. Many of the caves on the Nullarbor are very dangerous and impossible to access without permits and specialised caving and abseiling equipment. Knowles Cave however is an easy walk-in, being an elongated doline. The whole Nullarbor is one giant piece of limestone and anywhere that you can find a bit of limestone you will find karsts. At Knowles Cave, you will easily see these karsts, which appear to have fossilised marine life trapped within. Embedded into the rocky entrance to the cave look out for shells locked into the rock, along with imprints where the shell used to be.
Also not to be missed, is the short side-trip to what is marked here as "Bore & Tank". At the time of publication, we have been unable to determine the history and therefore name of what was clearly once an important station watering hole. The bore hole plummets to an astounding depth and is lined with limestone blocks to create a massive well that has to be seen to be believed. A timber hut houses an old fireplace and these relics lined against the vast Nullarbor backdrop make for spectacular photographic subjects within themselves.
How to Use this Trek Note
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The vast Nullarbor Plain
is the world’s largest limestone karst landscape covering an area of 270,000 square km. Over time crystal weathering erodes the fragile limestone plain producing special landscape features. Dolines, or large circular depressions, are found through out the Karst surface. Over 250 caves are recorded, in some caves the ocean flows up to several hundreds of metres from the coastline forming underground river systems and creating blow holes. Rock holes
are another karst feature, which are important for conservation and cultural heritage
. They are the only place that surface water can collect within the dry plain.
The Nullarbor plain
is covered with bluebush and saltbush plants, that are hardy, drought-resistant and salt-tolerant. The outer edges of the Nullarbor include open woodlands
of Myall acacias. 794 vascular plant species have been identified within the Nullarbor, along with 56 mammals, 249 bird species, 86 reptile species and 1 frog.
One of the most obvious animals you're likely to notice here is the southern hairy-nosed wombat, and bird-watchers should look out for the Nullarbor Quail and Nareth Blue Bonnet.
The ghost town of Cook was established to service Australia
's east-west railway line, the Trans Australian Railway. Completed in 1917, the locomotives were initially steam driven. On no other railway in the world were the supplies of underground water more deleterious to locomotive boilers than those on the Trans Australian Railway. To facilitate the maintenance of the line, small settlements of six houses per siding and 30 km apart were built along the most isolated sections of the line on the Nullarbor Plain. Some remained tiny settlements, others, like Cook, were developed as bases for maintenance gangs along the line or to accommodate changeover railway crews, and became thriving towns.
Cook was one of a number of the sidings that were named after early Australian Prime Ministers. Cook honours Prime Minister Sir Joseph Cook (Period in Office 24 June 1913 to 17 September 1914). It has a 3,939 m loop, low level platform, triangle, sidings, fuel sidings and spur lines. It is on the longest stretch of straight railway in the world, at 478 km which stretches from Ooldea to beyond Loongana. When the town was active, water was pumped from an underground Artesian aquifer but now, all water is carried in by train.
In Cook's heyday, a special train serviced the settlements beside the Trans Continental railway line. Known as the Tea and Sugar Train, it was in reality a mobile shopping centre, with everything from hardware, household goods, foodstuffs and even a butcher's van that brought fresh meat to the settlements. The Tea and Sugar Train's last trip was made on 30th August 1996 ending a colourful chapter in railway operations in Australia
The switch from steam to diesel powered locomotives in the 1960s improved conditions for the train crews considerably, but heralded the beginning of the end for the Nullarbor railway townships. Diesels locomotives shortened the time taken to serve the remaining camps, although the distance was still the same.
In the 1980s railway engineering advanced rapidly and with some urgency adopted a range of low maintenance materials that essentially eliminated the need for local maintenance gangs. Most notably the use of highly durable concrete sleepers was adopted, and together with the ability of modern diesel locomotives to travel very long distances without refuelling, the staff along the line dwindled away. Settlements along the Trans Australia
line ceased to exist and the families from these communities were settled elsewhere.