DC Down Under Dispatch #2: Catching a Charge at the Loneliest Rest Stop in Australia

We were firmly on dry land, but the experience was akin to being completely at sea.

byLewin Day| PUBLISHED Aug 18, 2022 1:45 PM
DC Down Under Dispatch #2: Catching a Charge at the Loneliest Rest Stop in Australia
James Gilboy
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We’d been on the road to the Outback for two days, and it had been smooth sailing so far. After journeying through highway towns and regional hubs, though, it was now time to hit the desert proper. On the morning of Day 3, James and I saddled up the EV6 and prepared ourselves for the barren lands of the Nullarbor Plain ahead. 

You can read about a desert plain all you want, but until you’re actually traversing it, nothing prepares you for how utterly desolate it truly is. There’s just so much nothing for scores of miles around. When you finally roll up to the one speck of humanity that’ll serve as your hotel, restaurant, charging station, and space to meet other sentient life all in one, you wonder why in the hell anyone would ever journey out this far.

The Kia EV6, as we left Penong via the Windmill Museum. Lewin Day

[Welcome to project DC Down Under, where The Drive is sending the indomitable Lewin Day and James Gilboy across 1,700 miles of the Australian Outback over the span of five days in a Kia EV6. Electric cars in 2022 thrive in places where there's a healthy number of public chargers; doing so across the Nullarbor Plain is another matter altogether. Follow along with Lewin and James' journey on our Twitter and Instagram accounts with the hashtag #DCDownUnder and watch this space for updates. This is the fourth story in the series. You can read parts one, two, and three here.]

Stopping here for a charge only exacerbated that feeling of isolation. Here, the typical silence of an EV boomed louder in more ways than one; it made us more keenly aware of the pure nothingness that now surrounded us. We’d truly reached the Nullarbor Plain.

The Highway Toll

In the days leading up to reaching the Plain, the EV6 continued to revise its range estimates the further we drove on the highway. We’d started with a healthy 298 miles on Day 1 when we left the city. However, by Day 3, the Kia had learned we were going long and hard and told us we could do 236 miles on a full battery. 

That didn’t trouble us too much, as Day 3 was a bit of a milk run. We would only drive 136 miles to reach the Nullarbor Roadhouse, where we would rest and recuperate for the night. Our drive was easy and uncomplicated, and we enjoyed taking in the sights of the Nullarbor Plain. True to its Latin name, there really were no trees to be seen. Only small, scrubby bushes populated the terrain, none more than a foot high at most. We could see clear to the horizon in every direction. It’s almost disorienting, and one could easily imagine driving a long way in the wrong direction without realizing it from the total lack of landmarks. The sun is your guide in places like this.

Despite the many signs warning us of wild kangaroos, wombats, and emus, once again, we saw no land-borne wildlife apart from our fellow drivers—none alive, that is. We did, however, enjoy the sign marking our entry into the Nullarbor area, though were shocked to find so much trash littering the adjacent scrub.

Welcome to the Hotel Nullafornia 

Rolling into the Nullarbor Roadhouse drove home the fact that we were far beyond civilization. There was no small town or rural community. The roadhouse itself is just a petrol station with a bar and restaurant attached and some rooms out the back to house weary travelers. 

Barring the dirt airstrip which serves a few sightseeing aircraft, the entire facility lives on a gravel pad less than 700 feet in diameter. Take a few steps away from the pumps, and you’re on the edge of the ring, looking out on sheer nothingness. No animals, no buildings, no activity. Just scrub to the horizon, as far as the eye can see in every direction. 

Power is provided via a diesel generator that runs around the clock. Water is drawn up from a bore in the ground. Signs warn visitors not to drink from the taps as it can be microbially or chemically unsafe. A solitary red light on a skinny metal tower shows you your one connection to the rest of humanity: a 4G cellular tower that connects to civilization via a 13 GHz microwave backhaul link.

The Nullarbor Roadhouse sits in the center of the image—you can see the round patch of white gravel below the airstrips. The highway passes through the image left to right. Google Maps

If you’ve ever wanted to experience a liminal space, this is perhaps the ultimate example. At the edge of the gravel, there’s a highway: you can choose to go east, or you can choose to go west. Until then, you’re simply killing time at a gas station.

It’s a place that evokes a strange eeriness, boosted by the roaring desert wind that is both deafening and silent all at the same time. There’s nothing stopping you from walking outside the perimeter and entering the scrub beyond, but the thought inspires pure madness. You’d be taking a step into infinity, and only a fool would expect to find their way back. 

Dragon Ball Z

It’s a place that recalls the Hyperbolic Time Chamber from Dragon Ball Z. If you're not familiar with the popular anime, it included a time chamber that consisted of a small training facility surrounded by an endless white void, with the blank expanse promising to get you lost if you’re silly enough to wander away. Inside the chamber, a whole year would pass while only a day went by outside. The parallels with the Nullarbor Roadhouse were too obvious to ignore. 

In a typical car, you'd barely notice, of course. You'd simply fuel up and be on your way in a matter of minutes. In fact, it’s possible to hop across the whole Nullarbor Plain in a day without too much trouble. 

When staying at the Roadhouse with the EV6, though, one line continued to ring out in my mind: “You’re here for the duration.” The EV was making our experience an entirely different one. 

There was nothing to see within a 100-mile radius but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We effectively had no transport for several hours at the bare minimum. In fact, when you’re this far out, you’re playing by fighter pilot rules when your tanker’s gone AWOL. If we’d left the Roadhouse, even on an errand, we’d need to make sure we had enough battery to cover the trip out and the trip back. Even on a one-way hop, you’d need a minimum of 140 miles of range to make it to Eucla or Penong. East or west, it doesn’t matter. In between, there’s not a socket to save you.

Making an exit in an emergency wasn’t even on the cards. We’d have to beg, borrow, or barter for a ride if time was a factor.

It’s no slight against the EV6, which has a range far beyond many of its rivals. This was all just simple facts of charging an EV in a remote dusty nowhere. Until the car was charged, we would rely on the facilities of this haven on the Plain. 

James’ Take: We Stabbed It With Our Steely Knives, But We Just Couldn’t Cut the Beef

You know, for a place with as many wildlife warning signs as the Nullarbor, it’s a remarkably lifeless place. No kangaroos, wombats, emus, camels, koalas, wallabies, or cassowaries did we see. Just some whales on a brief detour to the cliffs, and even then we mistook them for rocks at first.

The proximity to the seaside makes the Nullarbor all the more dissonant, one inhospitable environment bordered and contrasted so sharply by another. I remember Lewin remarking how ironically island-like the Roadhouse and its surroundings felt; they were the only oasis for over a hundred miles in either direction.

The food was serviceable—perhaps a bit undersalted and very overcooked—but it was pricey even by Australia’s high standards. Not that I had much appetite to begin with, having stumbled across a discarded jar of yellow liquid by the roadside. I’ve played enough Team Fortress 2 to know what’s going on here.

However, it's not like the Roadhouse gets hourly deliveries of fresh supplies and it is surrounded by nothing. (And now that I'm thinking about this more, I'm not actually sure where its staff makes their permanent homes. Do they do a daily commute? A weekly commute? We weren't able to get an answer.) But we were just grateful for an actual cooked meal rather than some high-sodium roadside snacks.

Crunching the Numbers

Seeing as we only needed to cover 136 miles to get to our stopover at the Roadhouse, we were able to travel at the full speed limit of 68 mph, making our journey in two hours flat, minus a few stops for photos. We arrived with 74 miles of range in reserve, around 25 miles lower than we’d expected. Calculations showed our maximum range was 211 miles on a full battery given the energy we were using. 

This put just a little concern in our minds for the following couple of days, where we’d planned two 230-plus-mile stints. However, we wrote off the car’s conservative mileage returns as a function of the cold conditions we’d seen that morning, and didn’t let it worry us further.

We once again hooked up the EVSE.com.au charger to the three-phase socket and were able to charge at 11 kW from the Roadhouse's onsite diesel generator. Despite Australia’s newfound love of solar power, in places as remote as this, dinosaurs (local slang for generators) are often the most reliable source of power available. That would give us a full battery somewhere around midnight. We’d elected to leave the next day at 6 a.m., as we had 571 miles to cover the next day over three stints. As we hoped to minimize driving at night, the early start was essential.

664 miles covered, 1,009 miles to go. Google Maps

Overall, we had 1,000 miles left to cover in two days, with six charging stops in the mix. The next time we went wheels down, it would be all about endurance—for both us and the car.

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