That laconic steering wheel wave, common in country areas throughout the world, acquired greater significance as we travelled the often empty highways of Western Australia. The glinting metallic dot on the horizon, slowly taking shape on the long straight road, a momentary human contact quickly disappearing in the rear view mirror, emphasising the vast open spaces and sparse population in this mostly flat, always intense landscape.
And WA really is big. A third of Australia’s land mass, 980,000 square miles, and if you exclude Perth and it’s surrounds, containing a population significantly smaller than the North London borough we call home; it’s hard for us city folk to comprehend.
We had said final goodbyes to our Melbourne friends (for this trip anyway) and spent a few weeks relaxing and planning in an Airbnb near the beach between Perth and Fremantle. Freo was laidback, Perth pretty anonymous and Rottnest Island idyllic, but this blog is about the vast beauty of the WA outback, so just a few pictures for now.
Up North – Broome
Originally we intended to drive a campervan on a one way rental from Perth up to Broome, but realised we could save $1000 by flying to Broome and driving South – the route less travelled.
From our hostel in Broome we made final arrangements for the big road trip and decided to spend a day in a 4WD exploring the Dampier Peninsula. Well north of the Tropic of Capricorn, bitumen quickly turned to hard red dirt and we began to appreciate just how big and empty the place is. And the sheer intensity of colour, red green and blue under a harsh northern sun burnt the landscape into your eyes.
Perhaps it was overconfidence in a 4WD, and the packed solidity of the dirt roads, but the decision to drive on to the beach at James Price Point, and then on to the white sand, following other tyre tracks, was a big mistake (mine). Soon we were stuck in soft sand. Digging out, lugging rocks into position underneath the wheels and deflating the tyres didn’t work – the car was buried to its axles. Anne noticed a vehicle on the other side of the bay, and I headed over to see if they could help with a tow. The young couple had only stopped briefly for the view and a drink, but they were the only people we were to see all day. Unable to help extract us, they left some water and headed off, promising to ring for help as soon as they got a signal – a good long drive south.
Hours spent in heat and an eerie lonely silence, getting mobbed by flies and contemplating your own stupidity is probably good for the soul, but it certainly made the sight of a tow truck appearing very welcome. The rental people Broome Broome who sent the truck were great and reassured us that had they not got the call (thank you Alanna & Robbie) they would have come looking for us the next day. Now that would have been a long long wait. Lesson learned.
On the Road
The campervan had a few important comforts – toilet, galley with fridge and a BBQ, and at 7m long, there was plenty of space for two. Our roadtrip of 4,500 kilometres began with a ‘short’ 370km drive to 80 mile beach, long enough to get used to handling the vehicle and negotiating the Road Trains, an iconic feature of life out West.
Although we had come across Road Trains down South, these were of a different order. Thundering up and down the Great Northern Highway at a steady 100km, carrying all manner of goods. Iron ore, petrol, food, building supplies, houses or massive mine equipment – they sometimes linked up at a railway, or at a roadhouse siding to swop loads.
Driving into Port Headland, we saw glimpses of the economic powerhouse in the region – mining. A 20 minute stop at a railway crossing to wait for an iron ore train stretching as far as the eye could see.
So much of this activity exists unseen, way off the beaten track. After an overnight stop and a beautiful sunrise in Port Headland, we headed for the national parks.
Karijini National Park
The campsite in the heart of the national park, with no electricity or running water is accessible by sealed road. It’s tropical, semi-arid climate, mixed with a distinct geology marked it out as a special place in our road trip. The ancient banded iron formations of sedimentary rock, cut open with deep dramatic gorges hiding shady rivers and rockpools are ideal for walking, swimming and scrambling over. And at night the sky is alive with stars.
That night, we watched a bright full moon rise and went to bed to the sound of dingoes howling at the moon. This really is the outback.
After two days we had to head out of Karijini, but stopped off to walk Joffre Gorge.
We drove on to the town of Tom Price, to replenish our water and power, and here we saw some gallahs belie their reputation for foolishness by turning on a camp tap to gain access to water.
It was over 600 km to Coral Bay, still just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and we headed there for some diving on Ningaloo Reef and snorkeling with Manta Rays. In truth the diving was not that great, with surges around a shallow reef, but we saw reef sharks on a cleaning station, a cuttle fish and schools of snapper and trevally. The snorkelling with Mantas in a shallow bay was fantastic though, as these pictures show. Credit to Peter Wandmaker for the underwater shots.
Exmouth is not a town that recommends itself, flat, spread out, vacant lots, with the odd craft brewery in mitigation. We had booked a campsite in town, but quickly moved out to the Lighthouse, at the tip of the peninsula, and caught up with the intrepid campers, Innis, Nat and Callum, who we had first met in Coral Bay. These were real campers, with tent pegs, ropes, canvas and a trailer. Callum was clearly in charge, issuing instructions, pulling up pegs and having a great time, as only a two year old can.
Whale Sharks are regular visitors to the peninsula between March and August and the chance to see them had been on our list from the start. However a South Westerly was pushing rain up the coast and the winds were too strong to snorkel outside the bay on Ningaloo Reef, so we were landlocked for a few days. No worries though, Cape Range National Park was pretty much on our doorstep.
The place was bursting with wildlife, and during our walk in Yardi gorge we came across black footed rock wallabies clambering the rocks and feeding on the spinifex.
Not to be confused with Roos, Emus and Dingoes ..
My enthusiasm to spot indigenous Australian wildlife led me to jump on the brakes when I spotted an Emu while driving the camper van through the Cape Range NP. Unfortunately a slab of beer stored under the bed, came sliding down the van and collided with the fire extinguisher. As a can exploded, spraying beer throughout our ‘home’ I was already out of the van, camera in hand chasing the large, shy elusive bird through the scrub. Whoops.
Our boat trip with Three Islands – snorkeling with Whale Sharks – set out on a cool morning, with grey skies but good visibility under the water. The briefing and organisation was professional and friendly and soon a spotter plane had located an adolescent male whale shark in the bay. We spent the maximum allowed time, one hour, taking it in turns to enter the water and swim alongside the oceans biggest fish. Magical.
And thanks to Dave from Three Islands for the shots.
We also had the chance to snorkel with other creatures on the reef, including some rays and the local, but weird, black sailfin catfish.
After a farewell dinner with Nat, Innis and Callum, we replenished supplies in Exmouth, and headed out of the North West Cape and down to Wooramel, a station just off the coastal highway, where they had stayed on the way North. Great spot.
At around 1,500 square kilometers, Wooramel Station is not large by Australian standards – the largest is bigger than Wales. It is impressive enough though, with an ‘upside down river’ that only comes to the surface two or three times a year when it rains inland.
It also has hot baths (33°C) from artesian wells where you can sit and admire the Milky Way at night in all its glory. Special.
The next day, on our way down to Kalbarri NP, we took the fascinating detour to Shark Bay and Hamelin Pool to see the Stromatolites – the largest living fossils on Earth. We also stopped over in Monkey Mia – famous for its, now heavily regulated, dolphin feeding event. Much more our style was the sailing boat Shotover that cruised the bay looking for dolphins and dugons – and we saw quite a few as the breeze rippled the sails.
Dolphins in the bay were busy mating, with two bulls coraling a female, it seems there is no choice for the female – who may have to abandon her calf if she falls pregnant. Not so cute.
On shore we came across some eccentric looking Pelicans, and a thick-billed grasswren, a rare and endangered species.
And in Kalbarri, we were soon climbing down gorges again – perhaps not as impressive as those up north, but a beautiful National Park, with a spectacular and varied coastline. Still pretty special.
Perhaps that ‘special moment’ in Kalbarri though was when Anne and I were walking the coastline by Island Rock and a majestic Humpback Whale breached the surface, turned and disappeared into the deep. Wonder full, but alas no photograph!
Just over 200km north of Perth, and the final stop on this epic roadtrip, our visit to the Pinnacles was rushed, but also wonderfully timed. Walking the Kalbarri costal cliffs had delayed our departure (but we did see that whale) and with a 250km to drive, we would be lucky to get there before sunset.
As we approached Nambung, the sky turned all manner of colours, the windscreen was smeared with large drops of rain and swarms of insects began to spatter against the glass. It all added to the atmosphere as we arrived at this sand dune desert with striking limestone columns whose origin is unknown.
And after that, the drive to Perth, the red-eye overnight flight to Sydney, a few goodbyes to dear friends – and some huge memories of an epic roadtrip.
And now we’re in Fiji.
But that’s another story.