Lara Dunston | 22 March 2011
Travel blueprint: Western Australia
From its wildly beautiful coastline to its raw, untrammelled interior, Australia’s ‘other half’ is one of the world’s great adventure playgrounds.
From its wildly beautiful coastline to its raw, untrammelled interior, Australia’s ‘other half’ is one of the world’s great adventure playgrounds.
Few ‘Easterners’ – as Western Australians call their compatriots from the eastern seaboard states – make it over to the West. It’s a long trip across the desolate Nullarbor Plain – four to five hours by plane, three days by train, even longer if driving.
Yet it’s this remoteness, this sense of isolation and the state’s sparse population (comprising just 10% of the country’s people), that make the colossal state of Western Australia so intriguing and so compelling.
Quintessentially Australian, the West is considered a paradise to those who were born there – and to those who have emigrated.
The state has seen an influx of British expats and Easterners in recent years, making it Australia’s fastest-growing state, with the country’s strongest economy thanks to the mining boom.
When foreigners think of Australia they imagine endless white-sand beaches lapped by crystal-clear waters; red cliffs pounded by crashing waves; rugged bushland inhabited by curious-looking creatures and marked by strange formations; and arid Outback deserts blooming with weird and wonderful wildflowers, and populated by even more wonderful characters.
Well, the West boasts all this and more, often side by side, and it’s these remarkable contrasts and startling juxtapositions that make the scenery so jaw dropping and a visit so rewarding. Take Broome – one of Western Australia’s most remote yet most beloved destinations. In no other part of Australia can you ride a camel along a creamy beach while gawking at striking red rock formations that skirt the sands, and then swim in an aquamarine sea.
In many ways Broome epitomises the typical Western Australian town with its ‘Wild West’ spirit and frontier-town past (its fortunes made from the pearling industry), its multicultural population and intriguing Asian heritage, and an indigenous population responsible for producing some of Australia’s finest Aboriginal art. The town has an easygoing nature, vibrant cultural life, and great Aussie pubs, cafés and restaurants. It also provides the perfect platform for leaping into other less-ventured areas of the state, such as the beautiful Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque, accessible only by 4WD along a rough, corrugated pindan (red sand) road.
Like Broome, laidback and low-key towns such as Kununurra, Exmouth, Carnarvon, Kalbarri, Margaret River, Albany and Esperance are not only fantastic places to spend a few days, but make great bases for exploring the surrounding coast and country.
The choice is yours in the West – you can discover the region by car, bus, train, boat or on foot. But no matter which way you choose to wander, if you go home having only visited Western Australia, you can do so with a sense of satisfaction that you’ve experienced the best that the country has to offer.
Duration: four days (long weekend)
Perth – Busselton – Dunsborough – Margaret River town – Augusta – Pemberton – Walpole – Denmark – Albany – Esperance – Perth
Western Aussies boast they’ve got the country’s best beaches – the widest and longest stretches of sand, the finest grains, the fairest colour, the clearest and cleanest sea. Once you’ve experienced them you’ll find it hard not to agree. Just don’t admit it to an Easterner – and probably wise not to reveal you’ve ridden waves at sublime surfing spots, indulged in brilliant wines and gourmet meals, walked pristine bush tracks, watched whales, climbed the country’s tallest trees and kicked about on deserted beaches in the company of kangaroos.
A taste of the south-west is possible in a long weekend, but add a few days and you can decelerate to a slower, Aussie-style pace. Like the rest of Western Australia, the region is better discovered if you’ve got your own wheels.
From Perth, zip down the highway and hightail it to sleepy beachside Busselton for fish and chips by the wooden jetty before hitting Dunsborough, a dreamy spot with picturesque rocky coves and white shores. Explore the rugged coast between here and surfing mecca Margaret River beach, following whatever side road or dirt track takes your fancy. Stop off for bushwalks and swims along the way, before heading inland to sample the local wines and gastronomic delights of Margaret River town.
Next day, wind your way along the scenic coastal route via gorgeous Augusta to Pemberton, and climb a ladder up an old karri tree to a lofty 60m for breathtaking vistas. Nearby, at Walpole, you can follow the Tree Top Walk through the Valley of the Giants, a stand of veteran tingle trees. Cruise the coast via Denmark to Albany, an atmospheric seaside town with fine heritage buildings where you can watch whales from July to October, and go diving and swimming between November and June.
The following morning, take the South Coast Highway from Albany to Esperance and Cape Le Grand National Park, where the Bay of Isles’ enormous camel-coloured rocks contrast beautifully with the cobalt sea. Enjoy beachcombing with kangaroos or visit the islets, home to sea eagles, penguins, dolphins and fur seals.
Backtrack to Albany to take the Albany Highway to Perth or add a few days to walk some of the 964km Bibbulmun Track that wends its way through aromatic bushland from Albany to Perth. You can arrange drop-offs and pick-ups with local B&Bs en route (www.bibbulmuntrack.org.au).
Insider tip: Joanna Koeyers (Drysdale River Station, off Gibb River Road)
"The roads get corrugated up here and it’s easy to lose control. Two spare tyres are essential – you’re a long way from a mechanic and a hospital!"
Duration: one week
Perth – The Pinnacles (Cervantes) – Jurien – Dongara-Port Denison – Geraldton – Kalbarri – Denham (Monkey Mia) – Carnarvon – Coral Bay – Exmouth – Cape Range National Park
Aussies love to pile into the car at sunrise for an early start but noon is a more fitting departure time for a week-long drive along the laidback central coast. This way you’ll arrive at the Pinnacles just in time for a sunset meander through this sandy moonscape. Soon after the sun goes down, dine on fresh crayfish in Cervantes town; locals eat early here.
The leisurely drive north takes you through gorgeous lush-green countryside, blanketed with wildflowers. Call into low-key fishing towns such as Jurien and Dongara-Port Denison for tranquil harbours and breathtakingly beautiful beaches. Geraldton, with its typical old porticoed pubs and excellent shipwreck museum, makes a fine overnighter.
Cruise the coast to Kalbarri. It’s a popular family spot during school holidays (which should therefore be avoided), but a somnolent seaside town at other times. Beloved for its superb swimming, body surfing and fishing, it can be hard to leave town, but nearby Kalbarri National Park and Murchison River should tempt you with golden cliffs, deep river gorges and excellent hiking, climbing and canoeing opportunities.
Leave Kalbarri at the crack of dawn for the long drive to Denham, Shark Bay World Heritage area and Monkey Mia. Don’t miss the wildlife on the way – eagles, emus, kangaroos and wallabies. At Monkey Mia, battle the crowds to feed the dolphins, sail out to see dugongs, loggerhead turtles, sea snakes and more dolphins, or do a bushwalk with an indigenous guide. With a 4WD you can tackle the uneven sandy track to François Peron National Park for dramatic scenery and camping under the stars.
Set the alarm clock for an early start. Crunch over a metres-deep layer of miniature cockleshells at Shell Beach to swim in transparent water and gaze at ancient stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. Lunch at Carnarvon, famous for its farmers market and fresh seafood, then push on to Coral Bay and Ningaloo Marine Park for snorkelling, diving and swimming with whale sharks.
Next day, make the long haul to Exmouth to snorkel and explore remarkable gorges at the Cape Range National Park. Fly/drive back to Perth or, if you’re up for more, start the next itinerary...
Insider Tip: Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell (Indigenous guide, Shark Bay)
"When bushwalking, understand that we share this ‘Country’ with other living spirits, animals and plants. Walk softly, don’t break plants and sticks, and leave Country how you find it."
Duration: two weeks
Exmouth – Nanutarra Roadhouse – Tom Price – Karijini National Park – Wittenoom – Millstream-Chichester National Park – Port Hedland – Broome
Pack a tent for a camping adventure in the ruggedly beautiful Pilbara region. Leave Exmouth early for the long drive on the North West Coastal Highway before heading inland at Nanutarra Roadhouse for the desolate journey to Tom Price, where you should pick up supplies before venturing into Karijini National Park.
Make the Dales Gorge campsite your base for exploring Karijini’s astounding chasms and stunning waterfalls. Spend a few days walking the sheer ravines and swimming in the natural rock pools. The trails are signposted, but you can also do guided walks with rangers who can identify the wildflowers and birdlife and tell you where not to tread – yes, there are snakes!
From Dales Gorge you can climb down to Fortescue Falls, tranquil Fern Pool and Circular Pool, and walk around the cliff tops. Another walk takes you deep into Kalimina Gorge, where another peaceful pool awaits you. Knox Gorge offers spectacular vistas of Joffre Falls, while Oxers Lookout offers the most jaw-dropping view of all – the junction of four gorges: Joffre, Hancock, Red and Weano.
From Karijini, bump across the dusty road via ghost town Wittenoom, shut down long ago after an asbestos scare (keep the windows up!), to the 2,000 sq km Millstream-Chichester National Park. The drive takes you through dramatic landscapes of basalt ranges dotted with table-top mountains and plateaus similar to those in the USA’s Monument Valley.
After the long drive, stretch your legs on the 7km Murlunmunyjurna Trail then reward yourself with a swim in a natural rock pool. Choices include the serene waterholes of Chinderwarriner Pool and Crossing Pool, dotted with lilies and shaded by palm trees; or Python Pool, surrounded by golden cliffs and palms. There are bushcamps at Snake Creek, Deep Reach Pool and Crossing Pool.
Overnight at Port Hedland before doing the day’s drive north to Broome, where you can stride into the ocean from Australia’s best stretch of sand at Cable Beach. Enjoy superb fresh seafood at fabulous pubs and restaurants, and get inspired by colourful Aboriginal art at local galleries.
Insider Tip: Laurette Davey (manager of Dinka’s Café, Kooljaman camp)
"A beautiful time of year to visit Cape Leveque and the Dampier Peninsula is between mid-July and September to view the migrating humpback whales."
Duration: one to four weeks
Broome – Dampier Peninsula – Cape Leveque – Buccaneer Archipelago – Derby – Gibb River Road – Drysdale River National Park – Kalumburu – Kununurra – Purnululu (Bungle Bungle) NP
It’s all about good preparation on this trip through the raw, but beautiful, Kimberley region. This tour can take anything from one to four weeks depending on how adventurous you are. From Broome, rumble along the 4WD-only track to the Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque. Camp beside pristine shores and azure waters, backed by red cliffs, and take crab-catching lessons with the indigenous locals.
Drive on to Derby to see the big silver boab trees and feast on delicious seafood overlooking the enormous wooden pier where the big boats that help along Australia’s mining boom dock. From here, hop on a flight to the Buccaneer Archipelago where you can take a boat ride through the natural phenomenon of Horizontal Falls (also possible from Broome).
Stock up on supplies of water, food and fuel before hitting the 645km Gibb River Road, the ultimate Outback adventure that sees few locals, let alone foreigners, taking on the challenge of this ribbed dirt track. Your efforts will be rewarded with beautiful bush landscapes, magnificent deep river gorges that carve through golden-red cliffs and natural rock pools. Just pay attention to the ‘no swimming’ signs – this is crocodile country.
Unmissable diversions off the Gibb River Road include the spooky bat caves at Tunnel Creek, a glide along tranquil Geikie Gorge for wonderful wildlife-spotting and ancient Aboriginal rock carvings, and treks through Windjana Gorge. Sleep under the stars at bushcamps and friendly Outback cattle stations en route.
Those skilled at 4WD-ing can take the rough-as-guts road north to Drysdale River National Park and Aboriginal-owned Kalumburu. The track can disappear in parts after the wet season (November to April) so check road conditions with the Derby tourist office first, where you can organise entry permits.
Stop in for some crocodile-watching at Wyndham before heading on to Kununurra, a good base for boat trips on the awesome expanse of Lake Argyle or flights across the remote landscape to see the colossal striped domes of rock that make up the Bungle Bungle range at Purnululu National Park.
Insider Tip: Andrew Coldbeck (MD, The Job Shop)
"If staying on a station, be prepared for long days in hot, dusty conditions. Must-haves are work boots, a wide-brim hat, long-sleeve shirts and trousers."
Driving on a rough, red-sand track through the Outback is a truly memorable experience. The desolate, arid landscapes have a unique beauty. The sense of isolation from driving all day without seeing another soul, the clarity of light and the silence are unforgettable. You’ll soon understand why city dwellers are increasingly ‘going bush’ and why indigenous people love to ‘go walkabout’.
Gibb River Road, from Derby to Kununurra, through the heart of the magnificent Kimberley (impassable in wet season when rivers swell).
Canning Stock Route, a 1,700km cattle-droving trail from Wiluna to Halls Creek, crossing the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert (cooler months only; should only be attempted by experienced drivers in a convoy).
Tanami Track, 1,100km from Halls Creek to Alice Springs (very sandy road). With few available facilities, hiring a well-equipped 4WD with GPS and a long-range fuel tank is essential, as is plenty of fuel, food and water.
Coastal towns The towns dotted along the state’s endless shoreline are great places to try a wealth of water activities: from surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing to swimming and scuba diving.
Fishing Crabbing with the indigenous people at Cape Leveque is a wonderful experience, while fishing is also fun, especially if you can cook up your catch at your campsite barbie. You’ll rarely meet a local who doesn’t have a rod and fishing tackle in the boot of his car and who’ll be happy to share some fishing tips.
Paddling Try canoeing the Kalbarri National Park gorges and kayaking treks with indigenous guides in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area.
Sailing Don’t miss short cruises through the stunning Geikie Gorge and Windjana Gorge. Or splash out on a more luxurious, three-day cruise aboard a beautiful yacht in the King Sound and Buccaneer Archipelago, including an exciting, edge-of-your-seat trip through the Horizontal Falls, a natural phenomenon created by tidal movements where water rushes through a gorge – yep, you guessed it – horizontally!
Diving & snorkelling The Ningaloo Marine Park is the jewel in the crown. More than 500 species of fish are found here, including whale sharks (March-June) and turtles (pictured, nesting and hatching November-March), as well as profuse coral (see it spawning March-May).
To truly experience the Outback, a stay on a station – a colossal cattle or sheep farm, up to thousands of square kilometres in size – is a must. Many operate B&B-style accommodation in beautiful old farmhouses or provide camping facilities. There are some fantastic stations in WA, operated by real characters, such as Drysdale River Station on the Gibb River Road.
State capital: Perth
Population: 2.1 million (1.4 million in Perth)
Time: GMT+8 (GMT+9 Oct-Mar)
International dialling code: +61 (area code +08)
Money (at the time of writing): Australian dollar (A$), currently around A$2 to the UK£
Visas UK nationals require an ETA (Electronic Travel Authority). Download application forms at the Australian Department of Immigration website or organise visas at any Australian embassy or consulate. Tourist visas, valid for stays up to three months, cost A$20 (£10).
When to go WA is a massive state so climate varies remarkably. When it’s winter in Perth and the south (June-August), the north is warm and sunny. In the north, the seasons are divided into wet (November to April) and dry (May to October).
Getting there There are no direct flights from UK to Perth; most stopover in the Middle East or Asia. British Airways and Qantas code-share via Singapore; Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong; Emirates via Dubai; Air Mauritius – appealingly – via Mauritius. Journey times average 20-24 hours; fares cost from around £670.
Greyhound Australia and Transwa run bus services throughout the state; Greyhound offers excellent passes. All major car rental companies (Avis, Budget, Hertz, Thrifty) are in Perth. Britz Rentals is good for fully equipped 4WDs and campervans, while Wicked Campers offers painted Kombi vans, although these aren’t suitable for Outback tracks.
Cost of travel Your biggest costs will be car rental, fuel and accommodation. Due to high fuel costs, bus travel is not necessarily cheaper. Budget travellers bunking down in backpacker hostels, self-catering and sharing 4WD vehicles can manage on around £40-45 a day. If staying in mid-range to superior accommodation, eating out and hiring a 4WD, budget for about £150-200 a day for two. Hire a Britz van and self-cater and you’ll reduce costs considerably.
Health & safety An Australian mobile phone is essential for Outback travel. Check road conditions with tourist offices or police stations and make sure someone knows your itinerary. Distances between fuel stops are great: always plan ahead, calculate fuel consumption and carry a spare jerry can of fuel. Also take plenty of water and food. Aside from dehydration, your greatest dangers in the bush are insect and snake bites; watch where you step and carry a first-aid kit. When swimming on beaches watch out for strong tides and in Outback rivers look out for crocodiles; always heed warning signs.
"Don’t miss snorkelling with the whale sharks (from Exmouth) and a helicopter ride over the Bungle Bungle NP. Both are expensive trips but well, well worth it. Top of my beach list is Lucky Bay down near Esperance." Miche1979
"If you’re doing the south-west circuit, stop at the Dunsborough Bakery – it’s been dishing up the world’s best sarnies since 1941." Jol Flynn
"Spend the night in Fremantle. There’s lots to see, like the old jail, and it’s a shorter, cheaper boat ride out to Rottnest Island." Philk
"For something a bit quirky, visit New Norcia – a Benedictine monastery in the Outback. Even more bizarre is Hutt River Province – a principality ‘ruled’ by Prince Leonard. He is truly borderline genius/madman." Vinoz
Get the very best of Wanderlust by signing up to our newsletters, full of travel inspiration, fun quizzes, exciting competitions and exclusive offers.