Hard to top Karijini but the week ahead did offer up a couple of great treats: a wonderful rendezvous with my brother and his wife just outside Marble Bar, a stopover in Port Hedland, and a delightful few days in trendy Broome.
Over the preceding months we’d remained in close touch with my brother, Ian and his wife ( Anne ) in the hope that, just possibly, our paths may cross in northern Western Australia. They habitually travel in these parts at this time and, as luck would have it, they’d reached their destination of Nullagine just a few days before we were to leave nearby Karajini. A rendezvous would indeed be possible and (Australia’s hottest town) Marble Bar ( more or less in between us ) would be the venue.
Spent a wonderful couple of days together trip planning, reminiscing and generally just hanging out – Anne, the camp pot was awesome ! Really nice to wind down and just be stationery after a pretty hectic previous week where we’d been constantly on the move. Delighted to be able to bring some diesel fuel to the rescue as well ( Marble Bar had not, technically, run out of diesel but the pump that delivers it was inoperable). Ian was able to reach us by phone just prior to us leaving Karijini to advise they could not get fuel in Marble Bar, so we threw a couple of extra fuel bags in the van. Problem solved ! Only thing worse than a “Pub With No Beer” in the outback is a fuel station with (effectively ), no fuel !
Port Hedland was the only place of note between us and historic Broome, the pearling capital of Australia. Not a town of any intrinsic beauty ( and coated in red dust from all the iron ore that is shipped through it ), it is though, veryinteresting to see the scale of mining in the area. Four privately owned rail lines pretty much constantly drop ore at the port and just as quickly it is loaded into giant bulk carriers for the blast furnaces in Asia. The scale is indeed immense – each train can be over 2kms long and the fully loaded ore carriers glide out of port every 15 mins or so. They proudly boast it’s the largest bulk loading port in the world in fact.
Almost 700kms north east along what had to be THE most boring stretch of The Great Northern Highway that we’ve driven, lies trendy Broome. None of that section of highway follows the coast and to make matters worse we battled a fearsome headwind and the acrid smoke of seasonal burn-offs for much of the day. Historic ( and now trendy ) Broome is the worthy reward for those long, lonely miles and it’s immediately obvious why Aussies ( and now many international visitors ) are flocking there- the climate is perfect, the setting ( on beautiful Cable beach) is stunning and the revitalized downtown is boutiquey with a vibe reminiscent of fashionable Byron Bay on Australia’s east coast. It seemed half the town walked to the beach each day to watch its famous sunsets. Really enjoyed the place.
It would have been a much smarter move in hindsight to have simply enjoyed one extra day relaxing in beautiful Broome , but, foolishly ignoring the advice of our camping neighbour we opted to make the 5 hour, 420 km round trip on to Cape Leveque. There are precious few places we regret visiting but the trip to “almost” Cape Leveque was all for nought – the final 5 kms of the road to the Cape ( the principal attraction ! ) was closed ! We should have listened to our Broome camp neighbour ( serves us right ! ).
Beyond Broome, it was a short hop to Derby, jumping off point for the legendary Gibb River Road. More on the legendary “Gibb” next week !
Working our way steadily up the Western Australia coast two things became readily apparent. First, there is, at this time of the year, basically a complete mass migration to the north-west coast of WA involving travellers from all over; Western Australians, Australians from the east, and – in very significant numbers- travellers from abroad, especially young European working holiday makers. Secondly, after the whale shark experience in Exmouth, everyone ( and I mean everyone) was heading to Karijini National Park. Following a pit stop at the very impressive Bullara Station ( a working station/ranch ), Karijini was top of our list as well.
Bullara gives travellers a taste of life on an Australian outback “station” ( North Americans would consider it a big ranch ) – complete with all the usual wildlife, farm stock ( principally cattle ), amazing “damper” and some of the best hot scones ( replete with strawberry jam and cream ) we’ve tasted in a long time. Far from any city lights it was an excellent place to star-gaze as well.
In addition to hordes of travellers descending on Karijini, the road is also shared with specialized heavy transport vehicles which carry very large pieces of mining equipment- some as much as 7.5 metres wide ( meaning it effectively blocks both sides of a two-lane road). Passing them is a challenge and we would soon be put to the test as we encountered just one such vehicle on the way into Tom Price. Our two way radio ( hitherto considered no more than a souvenir ) suddenly became indispensable as we communicated with the pilot car as to when and how to safely overtake. Needless to say overtaking a 7.5 metre-wide vehicle leaves precious little margin for error – see the next two video clips Lois captured as we made the maneuver:
Karijini is located just east of Tom Price. On the advice of the many, many people who counselled us about this park we set aside 4 days (3 nights ) with a plan to tackle all its major hikes and found we had time to do them all- certainly all the ones that we wanted to do. Some were tough, and tiring, but absolutely worth the challenge – it lived up to ( probably even exceeded in some areas ) the very lofty expectations we’d developed in the preceding weeks. It was, simply awesome ! I’ll say no more but leave our pictures and videos to tell the story:
Undoubtedly the best national park we have seen so far, we felt Karijini was truly impressive. The problem now – how do you keep raising the bar ? While we might not be able to raise the bar any further as far as national parks go, we just caught wind of a rather outstanding award bestowed upon a certain beach I was raving about last month when we visited Esperance ( in WA’s south west ) – Lucky Bay. Just named the most beautiful beach in the world. Can’t beat that !
Repacked as best we could at Billabong Roadhouse ( amazing how a male and female differ as regards what stuff needs to be more “accessible” 😊 ), the compass was set due north for Shark Bay. Like Kalbarri, Shark Bay ( and its many attractions ) loomed large on our itinerary – the dolphins at Monkey Mia being the first stop. En route one passes remarkable Shell Beach, a beach formed entirely with shells – the beach setting is stunning itself, perfectly crescent shaped with the “sand” not being sand but in fact tiny shells simply adding to its unique character.
At first appearance, very resort”ish” (and not our usual style), the RAC campground at Monkey Mia was a great attraction in itself. Right on the waterfront in the heart of Shark Bay, (and with emus walking freely all over the park), it had a very relaxed vibe with all features and services being first rate. The main attraction, the dolphins, did not disappoint and true to form turned up for their feeding at 7.45am just as the crowds formed. They would come again throughout the morning and some lingered, frolicking by the shore, well into the afternoon. Giant turtles could also be seen either from the jetty or when snorkeling, delighting adults and children alike. Lest folks be thinking it seems counter to conventional wildlife wisdom to “feed” dolphins, this is a very controlled experience – they are only given 10% of their daily needs to ensure they continue to hunt on their own. Indeed, the viewing experience itself was delayed while one dolphin aggressively chased a fish around the shallow waters until it was caught.
From Shark Bay it’s is a fairly easy drive north via Carnarvon where we overnighted and stocked up with supplies for the longer drive north on to Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef. Not a place folks usually spend a lot of time but it does have a nice waterfront and some of the major stores we needed to access that we wouldn’t be able to in the coming weeks. Locals told us had we been here a month earlier we’d have had the best viewing of a full solar eclipse in the Southern Hemisphere ! You can’t win them all I suppose, but not sure I’d go too far out of my way to see that anyway !
From dolphins and sea turtles at Shark Bay to whale sharks further north on the Ningaloo reef near Exmouth this week has literally been one marine extravaganza after another. Exmouth ( and nearby Coral Bay ) are renowned for the reliable appearance of giant whale sharks at this time of year. Feeding in the shallow, warm waters near the edge of Ningaloo reef, these marine leviathans lumber along just below the surface feeding mostly on shrimp and plankton. Despite their giant size and shark-like appearance, they are quite harmless. But, wow, are they big ! Technically the worlds biggest fish, a whole industry has been spawned ( if you’ll excuse the marine analogy ) taking snorkelers out to swim with the sharks. Probably the most popular attraction in the area, it’s not cheap ( $475/day ) but what an incredible experience it is . We were told not to miss it so stumped up our credit cards and went out for the day – very glad we did. An unforgettable experience to jump in the water, mask on, look down and see this enormous creature just slowly glide past you barely metres away. As the old MasterCard ad used to say – priceless!
If swimming with Whale sharks was not enough, Exmouth is right beside Cape Range National Park, home to some of the most beautiful white sandy beaches and first class snorkeling sights in WA. With the water so warm we sampled several, Turquoise Bay being our favourite.
Exmouth itself is actually a relatively “new” town. A base for certain military actions against the Japanese ( who then occupied Singapore and Indonesia ) during WW2, Exmouth really started to grow in the ‘60’s after the Americans set up a military base there – at one point over 2,800 active serviceman lived here. The VLF ( Very Low Frequency ) communications tower system, constructed back then is still actively used today, albeit with just a handful of US personnel and now mostly run by the Australian military.
Coral Bay, just down the coast offers the same whale shark adventures and one of the most beautiful beach settings on the peninsula – I’ve never seen more caravans ( trailers ) crammed into a coastal caravan park than we did in Coral Bay. A prettier beach would be hard to find and we enjoyed wandering the coastline and swimming in its crystal clear warm waters.
All good things must end, however ( as the saying goes )and our time on the coast with some amazing marine life would soon give way to other attractions inland – next week we’ll explore the canyons and gorges of one of Australia’s most amazing natural wonders – Karijini National Park.
“You doing the full lap ?”, we’re often asked when folks see our vehicle and realize it was shipped over from Canada. I’d not heard the term before but it’s “Grey Nomad” slang for one whose travel plans involve a full circumnavigation of the Australian continent. Essentially, some variation of Highway 1 all the way around, starting and ending in the same city. I suppose the answer is a qualified “yes” since we do hope to do that eventually but with a multitude of diversions along the way. One with less time might satisfy themselves with a “half lap” ( either the western or eastern half of Oz ) !
Speaking of Grey Nomads we’ve been astounded by how many we see – and it’s not even high season on the Western Australia coast yet. Western Australia in general is “hot” ( as in, popular) right now, especially the northwest and we are certainly excited to begin exploring that region, but first the “Coral Coast” beckons – the bit that starts in Perth and ends near Exmouth.
Heading north from Perth we noted how much the city had sprawled north over the years, certainly seems to be the area getting developed. Rather than taking the more direct inland route (Highway 1), we chose the slower, but more scenic option known as Indian Ocean Drive, passing though many small coastal communities – Yanchep, Cervantes, and Jurien Bay, among them, before the roads join up again just south of Geraldton with Highway 1. Sandy Cape, just north of Jurien Bay was a firm favourite- hard to beat a beachside spot at one of the area’s most popular campgrounds. Swimmable water ( as in not too cold ), a long, white sandy beach and classic West coast sunsets kept us anchored there for several days. Delightful.
Geraldton is the last bigger city until Broome ( still a long way north ! ) so we explored its sights and nearby beaches – the HMAS Sydney memorial was especially moving, reminding us all of the gallant service of the young men who paid the ultimate price in defending the freedom we all enjoy today. Tragically 645 lives lost in the sinking of that famous ship back in 1941.
As we planned out this trip around Oz, many place names were thrown around as “must do’s” – Kalbarri National Park, while not top of that list, was nonetheless one of those that came up often so we were keen to spend some time exploring the area. An impressive park for sure ( and very nice coastal town as well ), the hikes we did were inspiring but heavy rain cut short our final day preventing us doing the longer one ( note to self – don’t always “save the best for last” ! ). Rain, and – I should add – a moment of absolute panic when we briefly lost ALL power in the camper ( both AC and DC ). Seems one of those earlier corrugated roads had worked a major connection loose – fortunately the local Kalbarri auto electrician was able to identify and reconnect it ( sees the very same problem almost weekly, he said ).
Our time in Kalbarri cut slightly short, it gave us an opportunity to pick up some time and do one of our periodic serious clean ups and “repacks” – the latter involving stacking the storage crates in the van garage so as to ensure we always had what we wanted at our finger tips while the rarely used stuff was pushed further forward. Pulled in early to the legendary Billabong Roadhouse to do same. Not so easy – seems we can never agree on what needs to be at our finger tips !
Next week we travel to beautiful Shark Bay and beyond.
It’s an easy 2 hour cruise from Norseman down to Esperance, the latter being one place we’d consistently heard about as we headed west. Named for a French ship ( “Esperance” ) that explored the south west in the 1700’s, this city is famous for the beauty of its beaches. And they are, indeed, spectacular !
Readers will no doubt notice that we got a bit, ah, carried away with beach pics and videos this blog – with good reason. We were absolutely dazzled by the city beaches, located on Esperance’s Great Ocean Drive – (not to be confused with Victoria’s Great Ocean Road ) but even more impressed with those at nearby Cape Le Grand National Park – Lucky Bay, Thistle Cove and Hellfire beach were all stunning ( the latter especially warm, too ) but our personal favourite was Wharton Bay, just outside the park. While it’s not possible on all WA beaches, a few of these allow you to drive right on the beach ( though not camp there ). We enjoyed quite a few occasions with the van on the beach, sliding door wide open just soaking up what was a postcard like vista – the sand pure white and the water a pristine turquoise. Easy to see why the place is so popular and the park campsites booked out months in advance. We’d heard lots of hype about this area but it absolutely lived up to every story we’d heard. Just magnificent – not to be missed if one comes this way !
Albany is almost 5 hours drive west of Esperance and was our next port of call, but not before a stop and hike in the Porongorups National Park ( scenic, but hard work, hikers are well-rewarded with a beautiful cantilevered glass skywalk at the top). Our expectations were measured for this historic city once famed for whaling, but it surprised us. There’s also some interesting history, a quaint downtown, and a spectacular “walk” suspended over the edge of a sheer precipice right on the ocean’s edge- known locally as “The Gap” – definitely not for the virtiginous !
During our last visit to WA in 2016 we’d just missed catching up with my cousin David so we were determined to connect this time. David and Vicky are lucky enough to call Margaret River home, an area famous for great wines, and great beaches among other things – and just 4 hours from Albany. It’s on a fairly convenient loop to Perth – not direct, but not too far out of the way and with the advantage of some beautiful national parks to travel through en route. The combination of giant Karri forests and rocky coastal foreshores made for an enjoyable drive, albeit with visibility at time hampered by some heavy rains. Denmark and Walpole were a couple of the prettier places en route. David and I spent time catching up on family news and what had gone on in each others lives in the 40 plus years since we’d seen each other – it was certainly great to get together again !
Perth, WA’s capital, was just a few hours north now, so rather than take the direct freeway route we ambled up the more scenic ( but slower ) coastal route though Bunbury, Busselton and Mandura. Like many big sprawling cities you are suddenly “in” Perth before you realize it. Big, yes, but easy to navigate around and we really enjoyed our few days there. As the last city of any size before we would head north there was a lot of running around for us to do in Perth. Besides it’s obvious sights -nearby “Freo” ( Fremantle ) and it’s harbour and markets, the Swan River, and beautiful Kings Park, we needed some “van” matters attended to – a recall from Mercedes ( easily dealt with by MB Perth ) and a service matter with our fridge, also quickly and easily handled by the Vitrifrigo service agent near Fremantle. After the sights, some overdue shopping ( always fun in the big cities ! ), a couple of important items from Bunnings ( Australia’s equivalent to Home Depot ) and Costco and we felt we were now set for the long trek north – along with plenty of others we’d met who were all heading in the same direction !
We continue to be astounded by the number of people on the road in WA – and all are headed the same way as us – north !
Our excursion to the “Red Centre” complete, the Stuart Highway was our chosen route south. We’d pass back through Marla, Coober Pedy ( and stop in for 2 days ), Pimba and on to Port Augusta before turning west towards Western Australia where the plan was to spend the next couple of months.
Coober Pedy was a first visit for me but a revisit for Lois. The town, famous for opal mining and the fact that ( due to extreme summer heat ) many residents live ( and some businesses operate ) at least partially underground. We thought this may have been a thing of the past but were reliably informed that approximately 60% of residents still live in this way – a visit to a nearby museum showed exactly how that was ( is ) done – fascinating stuff ! Beyond opal stores, mines and museums the town is the base for visits to the nearby “Breakaways Conservation Park”, an area of unique landscapes and unusual rock formations.
From Coober Pedy south, only Pimba ( and nearby Woomera – famous for rocket testing ) stood between us and Port Augusta, a national crossroads of sorts. Whether by rail or by road, further south lies Adelaide, to the east, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, while to the west there’s really only one major city, Perth- the next place we were headed. There are, of course, many miles in between so rather than simply sit on the Eyre Highway we did a little exploring on the Eyre Peninsula. There was much more to see than we managed to but with a cold spell around there seemed little point exploring its famed southern beaches when we could not swim in them. Whyalla, Cowell, Lock, and Wudinna gave us a glimpse of the area before we meandered on to beautiful Streaky Bay and Ceduna.
Once in Ceduna thoughts moved to the long drive west. It’s the last major town before Norseman, over 1200kms across Australia’s famous Nullarbor Plain ( so named for the lack of trees ) and a good place to “stock up” – food, water, and ( reasonably priced ) fuel are scarce after Ceduna. The Nullarbor can be long and tiring but we broke the journey up by sharing the driving – a solid tail wind helped us push the van a little harder to soak up the miles. A few sights along the way but the most memorable would certainly be Fowlers Bay and wild camping on the Bunda Cliffs, the latter offering stunning views along the sheer cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. The cliff side camping spots are popular and practically everyone ( with a camping vehicle ) makes an overnight stop there.
Beyond the Bunda Cliffs, one crosses the West Australian border, sets the clocks back an hour and a half and gives up most fresh fruit and vegetables at the quarantine station – fortunately we came prepared being well coached in advance (thanks Ian and Anne !). Relieved only of some remaining lettuce we were free to enter WA. It’s here that one travels on Australia’s longest straight road; no corners for 144.6kms !
Norseman is the first town of any size in WA and it too, like Port Augusta, is a bit of a crossroads. Everyone, and I mean, EVERYONE heading west passes through it but then one decides whether to swing north ( via Coolgardie ) or south ( via Esperance ) on the way to Perth.
Esperance was our call, and a good one as it turned out, but more on that and our circuitous route to Perth next blog..!
We are Lois and Jeff, of Kelowna, BC, Canada. Recently retired with a serious overlanding travel bug, we hit the road in our truck camper in May 2019, initially tackling the Pan American highway. The PanAm completed in April 2022, and truck camper sold, we plan to continue exploring again later in 2022 in our Sprinter 4×4!