Test your golfing skills at the world's longest course
Australia's Nullarbor Plain demands some very long drives
Saturday 16 January 2010
Thock! That deeply satisfying sound of golf club striking golf ball is one that I have rarely produced in my life. Lack of skill, however, didn't stop me accepting a challenge to play a round on Nullarbor Links, the world's longest golf course which opened in southern Australia in late 2009. The distance from first hole to last: 1,365km.
Named after the Nullarbor Plain, which straddles Western Australia and South Australia, this 18-hole par-72 course is strung out along the Eyre Highway, the lifeline that connects Perth – the world's most isolated big city – with the rest of the nation.
With its Astroturf tee-off areas and "natural terrain fairways" sprung with Outback surprises, Nullarbor Links offers a unique golfing challenge that covers some of the harshest terrain on the planet. "You don't get the lush greens and beautiful bunkers of the Royal Melbourne," says Al Caputo, general manager of Nullarbor Links. "This is a real golf course."
To play all 18 holes represents a four-day thwack-and-throttle epic that wraps a golfing thrill with a driving experience inside an Outback adventure.
The idea behind the course is to slow down the 24,000 tourists who race across the Nullarbor Plain every year. Emblazoned with names drawn from local myth and history – Silver Lake, 90-Mile Straight, Nullarbor Nymph, and so on – the 18 holes evoke the hardships that the Australian pioneers endured, and the qualities that these hardships instilled: determination, ruggedness, generosity, esprit de corps, humour and a wit even drier than the Outback itself.
In the spirit of Edward John Eyre – who in 1841 became the first European to cross the Nullarbor – one golfer has pledged to play the entire course on foot, a 30-day game. Alternatively, Perry Will of Ceduna Boat Charter is offering clients the chance to play all 18 holes in just three days, travelling by air. For some players, the time set aside to play the course depends on the price of fuel versus the price of beer at the various roadhouses (equivalent to service stations in the UK) on the way.
Anyone can pay A$50 (£29) for a scorecard and tee off. Each hole is either part of a local golf course, or is a single bespoke hole attached to a roadhouse. You can hire clubs at each hole for A$5 (£2.90). Instead of a Pringle jumper, pack stout boots, thick socks, a brightly coloured top should you get lost, and gloves to pick the goannas off the tees.
I played the course in reverse order, travelling west-to-east. First, I picked up a set of classic golfing wheels in Perth. "Whatever you do," cautioned the Mercedes dealer, "avoid wombats. Imagine hitting a cement-filled water trough. You get the picture. I've seen a good wombat strike write a car off."
I fired up my car and set off for Kalgoorlie, 700km east of Perth for my Nullarbor Links debut, eyes peeled for suicidal wombats.
Sitting on the world's richest seam of gold, Kalgoorlie is mine, all mine. Its Golden Mile has yielded more than 50 million ounces since prospector Paddy Hannan stumbled on it in 1893. The main mine, the Super Pit, is a giant bunker, 1.5km by 3.3km by 530m deep. It operates around the clock every day. In 2008, it accounted for one-third of Australia's entire gold production of 219 tons.
With gold selling at more than 1,100 dollars an ounce, the locals prefer digging holes to playing them. Kalgoorlie Golf Club was empty when I found it. If you are accustomed to sculpted fairways, iridescent greens, water features and fascistic hierarchies, you're in for a shock. Kalgoorlie's clubhouse is a hovel, and the greens are brown. The rest is untamed bush. This must've been how the pioneers of golf played. After four swings, I managed to get off the tee.
One hour and several golf balls later, I packed away my clubs, said goodbye to Kalgoorlie and headed east into the Outback. Ignoring the published volumes of dos and don'ts of outback driving (which recommend tool kits, spare parts, shovels, air compressors, tow-ropes, emergency beacons and winches galore), I packed spare spare tyres, water, sunblock, cash and maps, then loaded up my golf-pod with the Best Songs For Golfing in the Outback.
"Outback is an Aboriginal term meaning 'place with no shops'," said David Morley, Australian car pundit and my travelling companion. In fact it's a contraction of "Out Back of Beyond": any place more than one day's drive from the nearest city qualifies.
"Place with no cell phone signal" might be more appropriate. Outback driving can be dangerous for reasons that hardly apply in Europe. Fatigue, heat and dehydration are the killers, abetted by extraordinarily persistent flies.
Australians whinge about English weather, but theirs is so much worse: aggressive, exhausting, damaging and frankly dangerous. "If you break down, the last thing you do is walk," said Morley. "From the air, a vehicle is easier to spot than a person. You can set fire to a tyre. You have shade in a vehicle and water in the tanks. Distances are deceptive. What looks like one kilometre is 10km. You walk, you die."
Then there is the sheer ennui. There are three types of Outback scenery: prairie, desert scrub and gum forest. The Eyre Highway scythes through the world's largest eucalyptus hardwood forest of blackbutt, salmon gum and gimlet trees. It's all rather beautiful, like English parkland, but repeated for hundreds of kilometres. Hypnotised by the sameness, you lose track of time. Your sense of distance plays tricks with you. You hallucinate and start to see ... camels?
Camels are not an optical illusion. They really do roam the Outback. Introduced by Muslim camel herders known as "Afghans" in the mid-19th century to transport goods, the dromedaries were eventually supplanted by railways but have adapted so successfully to the Outback that they are now classed as vermin. Still, it is a good idea to brake if one gets in the way.
Kangaroos are particularly dangerous at dawn and dusk. They become confused by headlights and leap in front of cars. "If Skippy smashes the windscreen and joins you in the driving seat, you hope he's dead," said Morley. "Because if he's alive, he won't be best pleased. An angry 'roo can open a bloke up."
From its size, colour and emptiness, you'd think the Outback was twinned with Mars. Some sheep and cattle stations here are larger than European countries. At 24,000sq km, Anna Creek Station in South Australia eclipses Israel, Slovenia and Cyprus.
At Lake Lefroy near Kambalda, 55km from Kalgoorlie, I thought I really had arrived on another planet. A thick blanket of snow seemed to stretch to the horizon, except that it wasn't snow, but salt: hundreds of square kilometres of pure salt. My kidneys ached at the sight of it. The water table here is seven times more saline than the sea. Lefroy is one great evaporation pan. Fans of land sailing will recognise Lefroy as the setting for several land-speed record attempts.
Next hole: the mining town of Norseman. The local Ngadju tribesmen welcomed us with a dance routine enacted on the green of the tough par-four hole. "Ours is the oldest living culture on Earth," said James Schultz, their leader. "We are proud to portray it. We are also very happy to have a golf course on our land. I play a lot myself." Schultz showed me two types of boomerang: the homing type and the hunting type which doubles as a putter.
"I remember a sonic boom and a magnificent kaleidoscope of colours like fireworks," said Gary Prendiville, whose family owns Balladonia Motel where the 175-metre hole is a tricky snake-infested par three. One night in July 1979, Skylab flamed Earthwards. Balladonia lay in its path. The local shire ranger gave Nasa a littering ticket and President Carter rang to apologise. Meanwhile, Miss America, in Perth for the Miss Universe contest, posed for pictures.
Balladonia is the western gateway to the Nullarbor Plain itself. The plain is a desolate 200,000sq km waste slightly smaller than V C Great Britain. Utterly flat and covered with spinifex grass, it looks like the ocean floor, which it once was. The Nullarbor is the world's largest block of limestone. Its thin topsoil cannot support trees, hence its name (Nullabor means "no trees" in Latin).
That great 19th-century explorer Edward John Eyre described it as a "blot on the face of Nature". Eyre's trail remained a potholed camel track right up until the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 when it was finally patched up. The road wasn't sealed until 1977.
This part of Australia was opened up by the road train, not the car. Now, all sorts of vehicles cross the Nullarbor: the wackier the better. Nearing the end of our journey, we arrived at the Nullarbor Roadhouse to find a gyrocopter refuelling at the pumps.
Alan Seeby, manager of the roadhouse, listed some of the wheels that pull in. "Lawnmowers, rollerblades, wheelbarrows, caravans, pushbikes and cycles ridden by Japanese people," he said. "In Japan cycling is the new golf."
I teed off at the Dingo's Den hole (538 metres, par five), as road trains slid along the horizon like targets in a shooting gallery. I skilfully avoided the wombat-hole "bunkers", but before my ball came to rest a crow swooped and flew off with it in his beak. "He does that all the time," sighed Seeby. "One family lost eight balls."
The southern fringe of the Nullarbor Plain ends abruptly with a 60-metre cliff drop into the Southern Ocean, as if part of Australia had broken off and sunk. This is the beginning of the Great Australian Bight, that gentle concavity on the southern Australian coastline, celebrated for whale migration and surfing. Near the town of Penong, Cactus Beach is reputedly one of the world's greatest surfing spots.
With rollers queuing up to crash on to the white sand beaches, Cactus Beach is a magnificent sight. In summer, however, it attracts up to 500 young surfers from all over the world who camp here without power or water.
"It's every parent's worst nightmare," says Perry Will of Ceduna Boat Charter. "But few sensations match surfing for pure uncut speed. It is a lifestyle and an obsession."
"Cactus Beach has four different types of wave all within walking distance," says Andrew Brook, a local surfer. "The winds tend to blow offshore which holds the waves up. You always have good surf."
With the blue ocean, the golden sand and the white breakers, Cactus Beach looks enticing, but do take care. Great white sharks have taken five people in these waters in the last 10 years. Also dangerous are the surfies, who sometimes come on very territorial, both on and off the water.
If the great whites and the surfies don't get you, the March flies certainly will. In or out of the water, you're a target. And let's not mention the king brown snakes.
I scoured the road as we neared Nundroo, home of the largest population of Southern hairy nosed wombats in Australia. I could almost hear the price of car insurance popping as I crept along.
We arrived intact at Ceduna, the end of a heroic odyssey. Besides a few unlucky golf balls, I had hit nothing. But I had learnt much about the Australian spirit. In order to "get" Australia, you need to experience what one Australian I met described as the "epicness of so much nothingness". Nullarbor Links is more than a round of golf. It is a journey into the Australian psyche.
*The writer travelled with Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.com ), which flies from Heathrow to Perth via Singapore; returns start at £613 for travel between 16 April and 20 June if booked by 2 February.
*Flights to Perth are also offered by Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.co.uk ), Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com ) and Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.com ), via their hub cities.
*To play the course from west to east, buy a score card at Kalgoorlie Visitor Centre, Town Hall, Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia (00 61 8 9021 1966; kalgoorlietourism.com ).
*To play the course from east to west, buy a scorecard from Ceduna Visitor Centre, 58 Poynton Road, Ceduna, South Australia (00 61 8 8625 2780; cedunatourism.com.au ).
*Scorecards are also available at all roadhouses along the Eyre Highway.
*Nullarbor Links tours are offered by Ceduna Boat Charter, c/o Perry Will, Ceduna, South Australia (00 61 8 86 252 654; cedunaboatcharter.com.au ). Two-day tours start at A$2,750 (£1,569) per person, including three nights' B&B, transfers and play. Three-day tours start at A$3,250 (£1,854) person.
*Tourism Australia: australia.com
*Tourism South Australia: southaustralia.com
*Tourism Western Australia: westernaustralia.com
*Mercedes E-Class: mercedes-benz.co.uk
Hole-by-hole: The world's longest course
You can play Nullarbor Links travelling either west-to-east or east-to-west. Here is a brief guide to all 18 holes starting in Ceduna in South Australia and finishing in Kalgoorlie Western Australia.
Hole 1, Oyster Beds
Par 5 (485m)
Ceduna Golf Club
Of all the holes, the two at Ceduna are the most "orthodox" in so far as they have fairways which are covered in grass for most of the year, although the greens are not made from actual grass but from a mix of sand and oil called "scrapes". Ceduna is a municipal golf course in the charming seaside town of Ceduna. The hole is named after the nearby 85-hectare oyster beds of Denial Bay which produce Pacific oysters for export.
Hole 2, Denial Bay
Par 4 (370m)
Ceduna Golf Club
This hole is on the site where the first settlement in this part of Australia was founded in 1880; the settlement has evolved into present day Ceduna.
Hole 3, Windmills
Par 4 (260m)
Penong Golf Course
A picturesque cluster of 26 windmills, known locally as "Windmill Flat", has developed over many years to give the people of Penong access to water in one of the small underground basins close to the township.
Hole 4, Wombat Hole
Par 5 (520m)
The holes are in isolated parts of the bush and fairways consist of sand, scrub and thick undergrowth, punctuated with big animal holes. Nundroo is home to Australia's largest population of hairy nosed wombats.
Hole 5, Dingo's Den
Par 5 (538m)
A rough fairway pocked with rabbit holes. Dingo's Den is a misnomer. Stone the Crow! is more appropriate. As you tee off, a crow swoops, grabs your ball and flies off with it. The crow has filched several hundred balls since the course opened.
Hole 6, Border Kangaroo
Par 3 (160m)
The tee is a patch of Astroturf in a roadtrain park next to a 5-metre model of a kangaroo.
Hole 7, Nullarbor Nymph
Par 4 (315m)
Eucla Golf Club
The Nullarbor Nymph, a mythical naked Sheila who lived with kangaroos in the desert, was dreamt up in a bar in 1971 and spun to a gullible media which turned it into a world story with TV crews scouring the Outback.
Hole 8, Watering Hole
Par 4 (330m)
This hole is named after a nearby sheep station in Mundrabilla which was settled in 1897. Australia's biggest gold meteor was discovered nearby, weighing more than 10 tons – proof that someone out there in the Universe was playing celestial golf.
Hole 9, Brumby's Run
Par 3 (125m)
Madura Pass Motel
The midway point between Adelaide and Perth, Madura Station was first settled in 1876. The Eyre Highway climbs from the coastal Roe Plain upwards some 100 metres on to a huge plateau, the Hampton Tablelands.
Hole 10, Eagle's Nest
Par 4 (347m)
An ex-Aboriginal mission, Cocklebiddy lies on the southern edge of Western Australia's sheep grazing belt where, given sparse rainfall, the normal population density of sheep is just 8 to 10 sheep per square kilometre. Nearby is one of the world's largest cave systems. Cocklebiddy Cave has been explored to a distance of 6.5 kilometres.
Hole 11, 90 Mile Straight
Par 4 (310m)
This hole celebrates Australia's most famous stretch of highway, the 90-mile straight. At the easterly end of it, Caiguna Roadhouse was built to assist traffic crossing for the Commonwealth Games in Perth in 1962.
Hole 12, Skylab
Par 3 (175m)
Named after the Skylab space research laboratory which crashed 40km to the east in 1979, this is a difficult "fairway" of arid desert woodland with tough grasses, gravel, sand and dense undergrowth.
Hole 13, Sheep's Back
Par 3 (141m)
Fraser Range Station
On the western edge of the Nullarbor Plain, Fraser Range is home to the world's largest Eucalyptus Hardwood Forest which includes more than 20 species. Classic Australian scenery.
Hole 14, Golden Horse
Par 4 (436m)
Norseman Golf Club
A conventional layout, but with little grass. The hole is in the goldmining area of Norseman which has yielded 5 million ounces of gold.
Hole 15, Ngadju
Par 4 (354m)
Norseman Golf Club
The land of Norseman belongs to the Ngadju people who will delight you with their boomerang dance. Near the golf course is Warrarnbunna lake, a huge salt flat.
Hole 16, Silver Lake
Par 4 (392m)
Kambalda Golf Club
This hole is near Lake Lefroy, a 510 sq km salt flat among the world's finest land-sailing venues due to the texture of its surface.
Hole 17, Golden Mile
Par 4 (339m)
Kalgoorlie Golf Club
Bare red earth fairways and oiled-sand "greens". This hole commemorates the Golden Mile, one of the richest seams of gold on the planet on which the town of Kalgoorlie stands. The Golden Mile was discovered in 1893.
Hole 18, C Y O'Connor
Par 4 (365m)
Kalgoorlie Golf Club
One of the driest places on Earth. To sustain the mining community during the gold rush of the late 19th century, water was shipped in via a pipeline that C Y O'Connor built between 1898 and 1903. It is still in use.
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