It's not always practical for an east coaster to drag themselves all the way to WA via roads and tracks. People doing their ‘lap’ will have it planned out, but for a lot of us, work, family, those bits of life we cannot pause indefinitely, get in the way. So we planned a retreat, still with the freedom that a caravan or motorhome provides, but without the weeks of travel needed to get to one of our most underappreciated coastlines.
We talked to Kea campervan rentals who operate near the Perth airport, WA’s newest Trakmaster retailer and camper trailer rental agent Dirt & Beyond as well as WA stalwarts, Coromal and market-leaders Jayco about joining us on a 2500km loop north of Perth and back; to our happy surprise they all agreed.
Our crew was made up of staff and industry individuals sharing life between three caravans and a motorhome for seven days. Yes, only a week. See, there is some glamour in what we do, but we also need to balance the books so to speak, plus most of our guests had desks to sit at and plan out their eventual return to WA.
What we intended was to showcase that you could do it yourself, be it as a fly-and-drive or as part of your lap. What we came away with, was a new love for the pace of life and remoteness of WA’s mid-coast, and the edge of the red centre.
Simple as can be: from Perth, up the coast to Exmouth with some time to stop along the way, then inland via Tom Price to Karijini NP and back down the inland route back to Perth. Describing it like that doesn't do the 2500km trip any justice.
Visually, we went from metro Perth, through its high-density farming outskirts, through the lush wheatbelt, on to the coastal plains, to the ocean oasis that is Ningaloo Reef, to the border of the country's desert heart, before heading south inland, roadhouses and all.
Yawn. I shouldn't be so hard on the start of the drive, Perth has seen a resurgence in recent years with the flow-on from the mining industry showing up in some great new highways and, of course, the brand new stadium.
If you decide to stay on in Perth, there's good food, plenty of accommodation, nearby Rottnest Island and options of modern and well-equipped resorts and caravan parks — and of course west coast sunsets over the water, a real treat for easterners.
Although the wheatbelt extends past Geraldton, it felt like the natural border where unexpected greens turned to imagined reds I dreamt of before traveling over from Melbourne.
None of us expected the farmland in the 400km north of Perth to be so lush. We could sense the dryness of the land, evident in the dust, the dried-out dead and dying trees and the lack of wildlife yet here were hectares of green paddocks.
The wheatbelt is densely farmed but doesn't rely on as much water as other crops, so it does well on the dry coastline.
Stopping for a night in Geraldton, we restocked and talked over our Hema maps about the days ahead. Geraldton has a lot going on, but it's easy to pass by with the main road north skipping its eastern edge. Head in and there's still a vibrancy. Money is clearly harder to come by for its inhabitants, but there's still charm and history if you take the time to explore.
GREEN TO RED
North of Geraldton, towards Eurardy there's an abrupt change. It was a single rise of a gently rolling hill that once crested, overlooked what I expected WA to be: mallee scrub, sand, dirt tracks ducking off the main highway, errant emu, road-trains with inches of caked red dust and years of stories to tell on.
It was surreal; I talked to our photographer Cam, who was raised in Fremantle, WA about the landscape through the wheatbelt. Mallee scrub was what he grew up with, the wheatbelt and its green hue was not the WA he knew.
Our goal for the day was Shark Bay, the westernmost region of WA and we rambled in as the sun cast shadows of coastal dunes across the plains.
We didn’t make it on to Dirk Hartog Island, the westernmost point of Australia, so our next camp was Denham in the centre of the bays. The trip to Dirk Hartog is 4X4 only, requires the use of a barge and an adventurous, well-prepared crew. We could make it, all piled into the tow vehicles, but time was short, so we decided to stay in the bays and to experience the popular Francois Peron National Park.
Denham is my kind of paradise. It's littered with people taking their time to enjoy the warmth and long days the latitude affords. There are sail boats moored in the bays and history all around.
Take some time to head inland and stop at the Peron Heritage Precinct. You'll learn of the hardships of the past, see it in the architecture of buildings with fortress looks, designed for fierce weather.
One spot we missed was Monkey Mia, a popular resort-style park popular with families. With dolphin experiences, a well-stocked bar and restaurant and highly recommended by all we met, it proved too popular and was fully booked. Next time, hopefully.
Onwards to Carnarvon but not without a stop at the Overlander Roadhouse at the turning to Shark Bay. I love roadhouses, but my doctor tells me to pass on the bain-marie. Caravanners are well accustomed to refuelling, but once north of the Overlander, it becomes important to know where your next stop is. Stopping here is advised and if you're using a Hema Navigator, keep an eye out for the fuel stations, and maybe plan around them.
Next was a late-night arrival into Exmouth then a quick skirt of the tip, past the unmissable Harold E Holt Communications station to our eventual rest at the excellent Ningaloo Lighthouse Holiday Park. When booking our night there, I didn’t expect it to be as well set up or as well run as it is. The Park has fuel, a great restaurant, surf shop, good powered and non-powered sites and some cool retro cabins. Here, under the Vlaming Head Lighthouse, are some awesome examples of defending against mother nature. The Park’s most popular accommodation is an arc of cabins set high on a hill overlooking the water. Their design is almost bunker-like.
WHEN IN ROME
A good decision was to book on to the Ningaloo Ecology Cruises Glass Bottom Boat for a tour of the Exmouth coast and Tantabiddi reef.
We chose the half-day Coral Viewing, Snorkelling and Coastal Explorer tour at $80 per person. It departs Exmouth, stopping at the SS Mildura shipwreck at the northern tip of the peninsula before heading down the coast towards the Tantabiddi boat ramp.
A brief stop to don rash-suits and the boat heads out again to the reef. Yes, WA has stingers and some are dangerous, but stings are rare and with the full-body suits, you're almost assured of safety, plus everyone looks equally ridiculous which helps create a fun atmosphere.
From the boat ramp it is a short ride to the start of the reef, we were in the water less than 2km from the boat ramp, it is that close. For those not keen on the water, the glass-bottomed boat offers a fantastic view of the reef and its surrounds while the staff are engaging, wise and entertaining.
The company also offer longer dive days where customers are taken to multiple spots as well as offering the chance to swim with whale sharks, something definitely on the list next time. Our stay in Exmouth, though two days, was too brief. I was just becoming accustomed to the over-water sunset and the sea breeze that followed, but the red centre beckoned.
Travelling inland from Exmouth is straightforward as the active mines need access to the coast, so the roads are well maintained. We plotted our course to Cheela Station, 90 minutes from Tom Price, the region's epicentre and accessway to Karijini National Park.
Following Nanutarra Road our eagerness to see red dirt and rocks meant the change didn't seem as abrupt as the transition from wheat to mallee scrub. When what we could see in every direction had darkened to become deep reds, almost purple in some lights, we knew we had arrived.
But why Cheela Station? I wholeheartedly recommend farm stays. To me they are right up there with campsites for meeting new people and sharing stories but with the luxury of optional cooked meals, a bed and some guided touring. For our trip, we booked two nights at Cheela Plains Station, an active cattle station with private gorges.
Cheela, formerly part of a larger station, has had tough times in recent years, like much of the Pilbara. After destocking during the 2009/2010 drought, it has only recently come back to a sustainable number of head. Proprietors Robin and Evan Pensini have actively managed the property to good health through renewable pastoral practices and in doing so, established the farm stay in 2015.
Using a mix of new and existing station buildings, and employing some experienced locals, the stay is now a haven for all kinds of travellers along the coast. In our stay at the station we met many different types, from an expedition-ready Unimog-like truck travellers to backpackers tenting on the watered lawns.
All shared excellent amenities and tales of places been and dreams of what's to come. Nights were spent near the massive fire pit or inside talking to the station staff, some of whom were guns for hire overseeing the cattle. All had tales to tell.
Out on the red dirt we found what we came for, from a filming point of view. Cheela is low-lying and rocks underfoot are smooth, polished to the point the red looks painted on. We travelled around the station, across its massive plains and were given directions to the private gorges. Guests are welcome to self-tour or take a guided look. If you are a day-tripper, be sure to pay a small fee and leave a bond for keys to the gates.
Near the gorges we came across signposted campsites and even showers, though they are rain filled and sun-heated. The gorges are wet year-round so they attract cattle and all sorts of critters. We were lucky to see wedge-tailed eagles nesting high above scattered boneyards. We didn't see any snakes, but care is advised, as is insect repellent for wetter months. Camping near Cheela’s gorges offers a rare opportunity in the region — campfires. Karijini National Park is littered with campsites but all have year-round fire bans, but not so Cheela.
HISTORIC TOM PRICE
Travel 112km further along Nanutarra Rd (State Route 136) and you reach historic Tom Price. Still a mining town, it has seen the highest highs and lowest lows of regional economics as demonstrated in its diverse buildings. Interestingly, Tom Price is the highest town in the Pilbara at 747m above sea level and you can feel it, too. Nights can be chilly with sub-zero not uncommon, but the days, wow, the clear air, bright blue skies and red dirt combine to make it one of the most beautiful places I've been.
As the tourism hub for the region, as well servicing mines, there's lots of support in the few thousand-strong community: a full-sized supermarket, plenty of engineers and mechanics and good supplies for the off-grid life, as well as helpful guides and info on the many gorges that bring in flocks of tourists, local and foreign.
We were short on time to fully explore the region, stopping only at Fortescue Falls for a swim and lunch. Fortescue is a popular location for nomads and driving tourists. It has large car parks, easily accessible lookouts and a well-made and safe stairwell into the depths of the gorge. It is still a decent hike of about an hour to cover the 800m of steps and some water and supplies are suggested.
With more time, the nearby visitor centre is a great starting point, with insight into the traditional owners’ interpretation of the landscape, its value to them, plus guidance on where to go and what to see. Plus, for our visit at least, a welcoming cup of coffee. But soon, it was time to return to Perth.
We always expected this half of the drive to be less visually exciting than the run north, but that shouldn’t dissuade you, as the Great Northern Highway has a charm all of its own.
We turned south-east, setting our Hema HX-1 navigator for Newman, our lunch stop. Skirting the town, we saw the contentious Kurra Village, the large prefab sprawl built to accommodate BHP workers flown in and out of the region.
The town has lots of infrastructure but it feels closed to the outside. It's interesting to see how mining works at a human level, but it's not what we came for.
Kumarina roadhouse was our destination, a fuel stop, dinner and overnight location all rolled into one.
Here we met some working-holiday visa holders from Italy. We all wondered how and why they chose Kumarina, seemingly in the heart of nowhere, but the attraction of Karijini has a long reach.
Although we didn’t stop, Meekatratha, south of Kumarina is another all-in one roadhouse and even has a motel and a Coles Express, should you need space and supplies. We passed by, only stopping for fuel with our sights set on the Swagman Roadhouse for lunch and Dalwallinu for rest. This would be our final group run, as from Dalwallinu the roads were back to suburbanism: daily commuters and local deliveries.
It was here that the difference the Great Northern Highway has over neighbouring urban and suburban roadways became apparent. Gone were brief delays stuck behind overwidth mining trucks or slowing to watch some wildlife.
They were replaced with traffic lights and other road users. Red dirt was replaced with concrete, and wide dirt verges disappeared under gutters and footpaths.
Gone were conversations about destinations and sights with other ‘vanners at roadhouses, replaced with robotic transactions at fast-food joints.
The pace seemed to speed up even as our road speed reduced; it is this attitude to the land and what it offers a traveller is what I will miss the most.