We are driving form Darwin to Albany via Perth about 5,000 km in a cosy two berth Campervan for a month. We have tried a couple of different size vans but think the two berth is ‘not too big and not too small ……it’s just right’.
Darwin: Flying out of Brisbane early, we enjoy our in-flight breakfast the toast seems just a little too toasty, but the plunger coffee makes amends as we fly across the savannah through the channel country on over the ocean and across the mangroves and land in Darwin.
Edith Falls: We skip the campervan briefing, load supplies from the supermarket and head south to Edith Falls just short of Katherine. On our last trip here, two years ago Edith Falls was a small secluded out-of-the- way camping spot in Nitmuluk National Park, this time as we arrive at dusk the park is full. We spend the night under the ‘No Camping’ sign in the Tourist Bus parking lot. Next morning the ranger charges us a $17.60 camping fee and explains that during the peak season the ‘overflow facilities’ are often in demand.
WA Border: Rested and refreshed we leave early and head to Katherine then turn west and head out along the Victoria Highway to the WA border, Kununurra and the Ord River. The landscape is ruddy, pimpled with ant hills and all topped off with an unkempt medusa of green grey eucalypts.
It’s about 470 kms of flat straight highway with plains that go on forever, we are distracted by the technology when the van’s CD player has an argument with the MP3 collection. Then we are distracted again as the escarpments start slashing the scenery and the Boabs begin to punctuate the vista. At the WA boarder the van is strip searched as we watch on.
Kununurra: Moonlit night over the lily lagoon at Kununurra, dawn is announced by a chorus of a thousand birds. Nearby a swarm of bees decides to move house giving concern to a couple of caravans that have only just moved house themselves. After much speculation the bees move on and it’s back to the business of camping and caravanning.
Lake Argyle: We head to Lake Argyle for the night about 70kms to the south. The lake feeds the Ord irrigation system and boasts some 25 times the volume of Sydney Harbour. The local catfish has been rebranded ‘Silver Cobbler’ and is a big local winner. A big wind blows in and sends tents, annexes and chairs flying. We wake next morning both suffering from stuffy heads. Back in Kununurra the chemist advises that our symptoms are an allergic reaction to the abundant pollens and dust blown around by the winds, very common but seldom mentioned in tourist brochures – ‘yuuooo donth sthay’.
Bungle Bungles: Another 250kms onwards we reach Turkey Creek – a roadhouse and small camp ground near a dirt track that is the access point to the Purnululu National Park. Established in the 1980’s, the park is home to the famous beehive shaped Bungle Bungles which have breathed life into the Turkey Creek roadhouse. There are no camp sites left so we stay in the ‘overflow’ – a rough car park at the side near a few Dongas. The roadhouse is out of unleaded fuel so several cars are also ‘camping’ waiting for the tanker to arrive.
The morning is chilly but it’s down right cold as we skim over the horizon in a helicopter with no doors. The Bungle Bungles were always well known to the locals but it was not until a local helicopter pilot took a film crew out at dawn to make a documentary that they reached national and international status. Now tourists in 4×4, off-road buses and helicopters travel out to see the escarpments, gorges and bee hives and fill their memory sticks with their own documentaries.
Back on the highway a tank full of diesel we travel through landscape of sparse grass, termite mounds and mini Uluru’s. We’re looking for a crusty baguette for lunch we slow down but don’t bother stopping at Halls Creek and push on to Fitzroy Crossing a further 290kms but there are no baguettes.
Roast Pumpkin: Fifty kilometres outside of Fitzroy Crossing, on the roadside we finally see what we had been looking for ‘The Great Fitzroy Crossing Pumpkin Disaster of 2008’. A few days earlier we had heard on local radio about the disaster. It seems a road train loaded with pumpkins from the Ord caught fire just out of Fitzroy Crossing. The quick thinking driver had time to pull over grab his laptop and mobile and jump from the truck’s cab before the entire truck and load of pumpkins were roasted. And there it is – 40 tonnes of roasted pumpkin piled on the roadside and not a lamb or pack of frozen peas in sight!
Fitzroy Crossing: Before the new bridge Fitzroy Crossing was a hangout for travellers waiting to cross the swollen river. Now, it just seems as good a place as any to have a rest. The large caravan park east of the river is out of town and full of nomads but there is plenty of space and no need for ‘overflow’ here. The nomads and travellers are in neat rows of assorted accommodation and rigs from the luxurious fifth wheelers to the miniscule pup tents. We watch the comings and goings of the park, visit the historic sites and the famous crossing and take a boat trip up through Geikie Gorge.
Derby: We head west to the coast to Derby, on the way the termite mounds change from tall and red to dumpy and beige. We negotiate 12kms of road works and make town in time for the Saturday CWA market where we buy tea cake made by Marie and a Boab tree seed pod carved by Eugene.
Derby is a small struggling town in the shadow of Broome but it has a nice feel. We stroll the town, visit the sites including the Boab prison tree, the Myall Bore ‘longest cattle trough in the southern hemisphere’, BBQ couple of nice steaks from the local butcher and watch the sun set over the mud flats.
Horizontal Falls: Next morning we take a small 1961 De Havilland Beaver seaplane out over the Buccaneer Peninsula to the ‘Horizontal Falls’. The Horizontal Falls is a phenomenon caused by a couple of narrow headlands and very high tides. The plane lands in Talbot Bay where we are transferred to the luxury Kimberly Star Cruiser which usually does Kimberly tours but is having a few days off.
Here we ride the speed boat through the ‘Falls’, then its back to the Kimberly Star for lunch and our flight back to Derby. The Buccaneer Peninsula and the Horizontal Falls are pretty amazing and are well marketed and presented as is much of the Kimberley. We notice the pilot Barry is Canadian, the Captain of the Kimberley Star is South African, the speed boat pilot is a Pom, the cook is Indonesian, the stewardess is an Irish lass from Donegal, and the guests are from the League of Nations.
Broome: We push on to Broome another 220kms across the Dampier Peninsula. They are just getting over the ‘Broome Cup’, there are no park vacancies but we fluke one night at the famed Cable Beach Caravan Park. We spend a little time observing the minutiae of caravan park life…. Most request a shady site then spend the morning raking up any leaves that fell the night before and define their site boundary with make- shift fencing and then cover the dusty sites with faux grass in a range of Kimberley colours – green, beige or red. Then there is the daily ritual of coupling and decoupling the vans and trailers as one set of nomads move on and a new set of nomads move in.
They say Broome is a bit like Noosa but Noosa has nothing to worry about. Our view is it is the best oasis going in an otherwise pretty inhospitable country. While many love it we find it a jumble of a town, Cable Beach is a separate beach resort area, but we’re a bit spoilt on the Gold Coast when it comes to beaches and resorts. Downtown has had a ‘make over’ to show its tourism best – resulting in sophisticated pearl shops sitting side by side with cheap souvenirs and cafes, all occasionally interrupted by some historic buildings. Amid all this is a discount music store so we give up the MP3 debate with the CD player and invest in Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield, Dire Straits and Santana.
We watch the proverbial sunset over the water as the camels do their march past and miss the chance to watch a movie in the famous open air theatre ‘Desert Heart & Sisters, Pearls and Mission Girls’.
Late the next morning we head to the Broome Bird Observatory in Roebuck Bay, 20 kms of cooooorrrrrriiiiiigations, into a rustic camp site. This is one of the world’s major migration stops for shorebirds that fly from as far away as the Arctic Circle to this holiday destination. At the observatory the group is provided with pad and pencil and go off for a couple of hours spotting. On return sightings are officially recorded, and grouped as one with the last item on the list ‘non birds’.
Sandfire Roadhouse: Down the highway 323 kms from Broome we reach the Sandfire Roadhouse. If you think of the swish service centres with fast food on the highways in the south well they’re nothing like that. They have their own distinctive dusty, faded and tired character with attendants who have developed that ‘special attitude’ – a truckie asks for a pie, the response: “do ya want it hot?”
We pay for petrol and ask for a phone card, a special sneer appears which has been practised over many years. We wait politely as a social conversation that we had interrupted is finished. We make lunch under a tree beside the roadhouse and watch as other hapless travellers confer with the attendant.
80 Mile Beach: We turn down a dusty road to ‘80 Mile Beach’ – previously ‘90 Mile Beach’ until someone measured it. The caravan park belongs to the Wallal Downs Station, it’s a huge park right on the beach its almost full and they are all grey nomads with vans, fishing equipment, dinghy’s and a sea of satellite dishes all tuned to the Olympics.
The attendant seems to have done the same customer training course or may well be a sibling of the Sandfire attendant. We’ve arrived in time for the free weekly evening entertainment. A couple of residents who have clearly stayed too long hook up their electric organ and speakers and start singing and doing recitals, as others join in – it’s a knee-slapper with half of the park bringing their chairs, rugs, rug-rats and Coolabah Casks to the open air concert. We glance at each other and wonder if the park water has been medicated.
With the songs from last night’s concert still reverberating in our heads we head out early back to the highway and turn south tracking the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. Not much on the horizon the occasional red hillock covered in Spinifex. Given its tenacity in adverse conditions Spinifex seems an unsung hero worthy of more attention or at least a country and western song named after it.
Pardoo Roadhouse: About a 100 kms south of 80 Mile Beach a roadhouse appears on the horizon. It has the same look and feel as the Sandfire and Cathy suggests there may be a corporate style manual for outback roadhouses. For $5.00 John buys ‘the best sausage roll in the world’ the cheery attendant claims they are selling faster than she can make them (probably one a day) later Cathy cruelly suggests John’s indigestion is from the road kill in the sausage meat.
We push on through flat and dry country and then celebrate when we cross the De Grey River, this is the first bridge we have seen since the Fitzroy River back at Broome, and soon after we roll into Port Hedland.
Port Hedland: A mining town of little character and with little to offer us, so we restock and head inland 300kms to the Karijini Desert National Park. The park is on the Great Northern Highway that leads to Tom Price. Late in the afternoon the sun puts on a slide show as we and it converge as we wind through the Hamersley Ranges.
Karijini Desert NP: Another roadhouse stop at ‘Auski’ and on to the NP. We reach the visitors centre half hour after closing time, so we spend the night in the Visitor’s Centre car park in the middle of the desert under another ‘no camping’ sign. It’s a beautiful chilly starry night, a dingo hovers at a distance no doubt looking to share some of our pesto pasta.
Early morning and a spectacular sunrise over the desert. We head off to Dales Gorge where we surprise all the four wheel drive wagons with off road caravans and camper trailers by rolling up in our ‘you can’t take it off road’ little campervan. We sneak a great campsite, walk the Gorge and then back to the visitor’s centre and pay $2.00 for a cold shower. We settle down to a gourmet BBQ, a mate of the other dingo gets the word and lingers behind a couple of bushes.
Tom Price: We head into Tom Price a small neat little town. At the Visitor’s Centre the Mine Tour is especially popular, but our purpose is more functional we need a permit to drive the Pilbara Rail Access Road, so we fill in a form, watch the video and tick some boxes on a multiple choice quiz. The PRA Road is 140kms of gravel dust and corrugations which follows the rail line to Dampier. It’s a private road that is mainly used for maintenance of the line, for us it looks like a shortcut to the Millstream Chichester NP and Karratha, however we know from experience shortcuts inevitably have a catch.
Millstream NP: After layers of red dust, corrugations and iron ore trains we reach Crossing Pool camp ground in the Millstream NP it is well occupied. We cheekily fluke a spot by the waterhole again with a sideways glance from a camp full of 4×4 wagons with off-road trailers in tow.
Later that night our neighbour takes revenge by playing Johnny Cash just loud enough to drown out the silence of the desert. We can’t believe it – 3,000kms to a remote desert NP on a dark starry night, camped next to a water hole only to listen to Jonny Cash sing ‘A Boy Named Sue’. Where do these people come from and why did they choose here?
Dampier: The next morning we decide to move on – more red dust, corrugations and iron ore trains. We head to Karratha for Cathy’s birthday and a hot shower. Karratha is a mining boom town with little accommodation, all van sites are booked by permanents and there are no van sites available for a month.
At the Visitor’s Centre we are lucky to get a site at the Dampier Transit Park 20kms down the road; it’s a small 17 site park reserved for overnight travellers. Our van is full of red dust from the PRA Road and as we had promised not to take it off road we spend Cathy’s birthday cleaning the evidence from inside the van. The Pilbara red dust is in the cupboards, the bedding and our clothes, and we are not even game to put a cotton bud in the ear!
That evening it’s time to celebrate the birthday, while the local Dampier Chinese is recommended, we opt for the ‘Bill Dampier Beer Garden and Bistro’ at the William Dampier Hotel and Motel. For $20 we get a buffet of steak, chops, sausages, rissoles, chips and micro waved three vegies, ‘No red wine luv, only beer or cask white’.
We do not dine alone, the bistro is well patronised, a table of local girls celebrate a birthday and several workers in blue collars with fluoro trim and safety boots make repeat visits to the buffet. The next day we take a rest day and watch the sunset over the salt pans, visit the Burrup Peninsula and the North West shelf Visitor’s Centre and then we wait at a railway crossing forever as Cathy counts a 232 carriage long ore train.
It’s time to move again so we restock at Karratha. On the way out of town we notice a sign proudly announcing a new 423 site sub division, it appears to have been quickly sold out, Karratha only has about 12,000 people and we calculate the 432 lots at 2.5 person per house would accommodate a 10% boost to the population.
Exmouth: 550 kms of more flat dry desert and Spinifex after 300 kms we take a rest at Nanutarra Roadhouse. We notice a little more traffic as we head south but at about 80% caravans and 20% road trains it’s still not enough for a game for car cricket. Later in the day as the road turns towards the south the flat horizon becomes broken by the occasional sand dune and flocks of green budgies swoop past our van in the afternoon light.
The drive up the NW Cape to Exmouth is flat and dull so we get excited when we spot a few emus and some roos. Exmouth is a long way from anywhere, but tourists flock here to see the Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Marine Park, snorkel the coral reefs of the beaches, swim with whale sharks the biggest fish in the world and watch the migrating whales. In town we are warned the 90 odd camping sites in the NP are full and the daily queue for them starts from 5.00 am.
We opt to stay at the Light House caravan park at Vlamming Head on the very tip of the cape about 20 kms north of town. We go to sleep listening to the reassuring sounds of surf crashing on the shore – we haven’t heard that for a while. We spend the next day in the NP swimming, sunning and watching others – snorkelling fishing and beaching, at the end of the day we walk up to the light house and watch the whales float past as the sun goes down.
Coral Bay: On the road early we drop into Coral Bay for a coffee break and look-see. Coral Bay is grey nomad caravan heaven – a bit like ‘the Hervey Bay of the West Coast’. It’s a stunning sheltered bay with snorkelling straight off the beach over coral reefs. Around at the boat ramp there is traffic chaos as the nomads jostle for a position to launch their tinnies for a day’s fishing.
Carnarvon: Back on the highway to Carnarvon the road and the horizon is flat; we pass the Tropic of Capricorn sign and stop for a pic. The umpires declare there may be enough vehicles for the first innings of the Car Cricket Test, (road train 6, small truck 4, car 1, car and trailer 4, caravan 6 and you’re out), we roll into Carnarvon and Cathy declares at eight wickets for 200 runs.
Carnarvon is a fruit bowl town, irrigated bananas, tomatoes, melons, papaws etc, the local Woolies notes ‘local produce’ on its F&V. After an overnight stay we restock with fresh provisions and move on early to Kalbarri, a small coastal town off the highway. John’s innings begins but as there are always more caravans on the roads in the morning by the time we reach Kalbarri he is all out for 160 runs.
Kalbarri: A small pleasant hamlet set on a turquoise bay at the mouth of the Murchison River. Down through the Kalbarri NP wild flowers first sparsely dot and then abundantly cover the road side. The NP has no camping facilities so we stay at the downtown park overlooking the bay. In the morning we watch the surf and then wait on the beachfront for the ‘Pelican Feeding Daily at 8.45 am ‘No Dogs Please’ but few locals see the humour and bring fish and cats which is what pelicans prefer anyway. We spend time walking the wild flower trail where we spot plenty of flowers, the odd wallaby and one White-cheeked Honeyeater.
From Kalbarri we head south and after 34 kms we pass the infamous Hutt River Province turn off, and note the breakaway state is now formally recognised with a road sign. We push on to the historic town of Geraldton more wildflowers, the landscape has now clearly changed, green farm land with sheep, cattle and canola and the straight flat roads has given way to undulating curves the van tilts and rolls until adjusts to the new environment.
Geraldton: An historic town undergoing massive restoration and foreshore works, we drive the town and visit the lighthouse at Point Moore but in the end decide to move south to find a small village on the beach along the aptly named Indian Ocean Drive.
South of Geraldton the Indian Ocean Drive leaves the main highway and hugs the coast through small villages down to Cervantes where it cuts through the Nambung NP. Sounds like a plan but the drive is disappointing the landscape is dry limestone country and the small villages are either out-off-season crayfish shanties or Nuevo-rich crayfish towns.
Jurien Bay: We stay at Jurien Bay a village of a few thousand people with a crazy mix of McMansions and fishing bungalows set in a dry dusty coastal landscape. It boasts a pub, petrol station, Caravan Park, an IGA, a fish coop, the obligatory new subdivision and would you believe a Bendigo Bank – a very long way from home. In the town’s support during crayfish season and summer holidays it probably sells a lot of suntan lotion and fish and chips.
That night ‘The Buzzard’ a bearded 60 plus poor man’s Slim Dusty strums some country and western in the camp kitchen a dozen people turn out and he passes the hat around, having a chat later he tells us that during summer he can have a hundred strong audience – we resist the urge to tip him off about 80 Mile Beach.
Cervantes: Next morning we head to Cervantes and the Nambung NP – ‘Pinnacle Dessert’ has thousands of sandstone pillars that are carved by the winds and sand, like McDonalds it is a very practical ‘drive-through’ NP which saves your legs and ankles from getting sandblasted into look-alike pinnacles.
This is a high wind area, as we move south we come across the Emu Plains wind farm, the farm was built to complement the desalination plant and supplies enough electricity to the grid to compensate the power the plant uses.
New Norcia: We move away from the coast and head across to New Norcia 130 kms north of Perth and Australia’s only monastic town. In the historic Benedictine town everything is available and everything is brand-named from tours, bread, oil, wine, rosary beads, and blessings. We treat ourselves to a night in the 1927 hotel it’s a musty affair but we are blessed by yet another buffet dinner and a choice of Abbey Ale, New Norcia – Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz. All the staff are European travellers on working stints saving money before they move on.
Busselton: We take the Perth Bypass and head south to Bunbury stopping to view the lighthouse at Casuarina Point, the visitor’s information centre and buy a beanie and warm socks, then we move on down the coast road to Busselton.
A popular holiday town in summer, Busselton’s Kookaburra Caravan Park has plenty of sites available in August – ‘all our older residents go to Broome or Coral Bay this time of year’ the attendant advises. We dine out overlooking the famous 2km long jetty but the menu reads better than the meal tastes. Next morning we take a walk along the jetty but the wind comes up and we only make it half way.
We move on to Dunsborough, ‘tidy town’ winner in 2007, more new subdivisions, and tour the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, then onto Yallingup – a popular surf break for morning tea and watch a pod of whales scare a pod of surfers as they swim past.
Augusta: We’re now in Margaret River Country which is both a region and a town and both are awash with vineyards and wine tastings. We stock up on a couple of bottles of red and head for Augusta at the very tip of the south west. It is cold and windy we find a nice little caravan park at Flinders Bay no need to book here and we are the only customers and can pick whichever site we want.
Flinders Bay: Named after Matthew Flinders who started his circumnavigation of ‘Terra Australis’ here. Later it was a major whaling and then timber port now it’s a pristine southern ocean’s hamlet. Around the corner we visit the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, the tallest in Australia and right on the point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet.
Beedulup National Park: We make our way along the southern highway into tall timber country. Karri and Tingle forests abound. We take the Karri Forest Explorer Drive visit Beedelup Falls in Beedulup National Park and find the ultimate secluded NP camping site next to a creek. The next day on the way to Denmark, we tackle the treetop walk 40 metres up in the Valley of the Giants treetops.
Denmark: We find a tiny van park in the back of someone’s farmlet on a river bend. Cathy goes bird spotting and in turn is accompanied by the inquisitive Dolly the sheep who prefers the company of humans to other sheep but is pretty useless at spotting birds. Denmark is an upcoming Maleny with wineries, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants; so we have trendy Japanese noodles for lunch.
So far the south-east has been great, cool but sunny with few other travellers but by Thursday afternoon the weather comes in. At first a few teasing showers but then the wind comes up and the temperature drops and we listen to rain on the roof during the night and early morning instead of the happy dancing feet of the new Holland Honeyeaters.
Albany: We quickly cover the 50kms to Albany, head down to Frenchman’s Bay to photograph the Cave Point lighthouse, drive around the historic town, have coffee and cake in a cosmopolitan café that could be in downtown Melbourne, take in a glimpse of the Saturday morning markets and then leave town on Highway 30 for the 400 kms drive north to Fremantle.
Fremantle: The weather clears and the road is good, late afternoon we stop at Woodman Point 12 kms south of Freemantle to photograph the Woodman Point Lighthouse and decide to stay at the comfortable local van park.
We spend the day wandering the streets of Fremantle, photographing the red and green lighthouses at the harbour, visiting the Sunday Markets and having the obligatory coffee and cake in the cappuccino strip.
Our last day we drive to Perth and enjoy one of the great pleasures of campervan hire we hand back the keys after giving it a good 5,000 km thrashing and catch a cab to the airport!