Western Australia’s Coral Coast is beckoning, and the northbound looping trip from Perth to the iconic Karijini National Park is perfect for a motorhome sojourn, writes Tim van Duyl.
It is not always practical for an east coaster to drag themselves all the way to WA by way of roads and tracks. People doing their ‘lap’ will have it planned already 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 a motorhome provides but without the weeks of travel needed to traverse our distant coastlines.
Simple as can be. From Perth, up the coast to Exmouth with some time to stop on the way, then inland via Tom Price to Karijini and finally down the inland route back to Perth. Describing it that way does not do the circa 3000km trip any service. Visually we went from metropolitan Perth through its high-density farming outskirts, onwards through the lush wheatbelt, onto the coastal plains, through to the ocean oasis that is Ningaloo then to the red centre before heading back down the inland desert route.
Perth has seen a resurgence in recent years with the flow on from the mining boom showing up in some great new highways and of course the new stadium. If you decide to stay on in Perth, there is good food, plenty of accommodation, nearby Rottnest Island, probably some footy (they are mad for it) and options of modern and well-equipped resorts and caravan parks.
North of Geraldton, towards Eurardy, there is an abrupt change. Mallee scrub, sand, dirt tracks ducking off the main highway, road trains with years of stories to tell and inches of red dust caked on. Our goal for the end of the day was Shark Bay, the westernmost region of WA.
Perth - Karijini National Park
Best Time of the Year
- Ningaloo Reef
- Tom Price
- Karinjini National Park
Perth to Geraldton
Distance 415km - Driving Time 4hr 30mins
Although the wheatbelt extends past Geraldton, it felt like the natural border where the unexpected greens turned to my imagined reds. None of us expected the farmland 400km north of Perth to be so luscious. We could sense the dryness of the land. It was evident in the dust, the dried-out dead trees and the lack of wildlife yet here were hectares of green paddocks.
Stopping for a night in Geraldton, we took the chance to restock and talk over our Hema maps about the days ahead. Geraldton has a lot going for it but it is easy to pass by with the main road north skipping its edges to the east of the town.
Geraldton to Denham
Distance 408km - Driving Time 4hr 15mins
Our next camp was Denham in the centre of the bays. We decided to experience the most popular and populated spit of the bays, Francois Peron National Park. Denham was my kind of paradise. It is littered with people taking their time, sail boats moored in the bays and there is history all round. Take some time to head inland and a stop at the Peron Heritage Precinct to learn of the hardships of the past, which you can also see in the architecture of the buildings with their fortress look designed to handle fierce weather.
One spot we missed was Monkey Mia, a popular resort-style park that is popular with families. With dolphin experiences and a well-stocked bar and restaurant, it proved too popular for us and was fully booked. Next time hopefully.
Denham to Exmouth
Distance 683km - Driving Time 7 hours
Onwards and our next major port of call was Carnarvon but not without a stop at the Overlander Roadhouse at the turnoff to Shark Bay. Refuelling is a tip I know us campervanners are well accustomed to but once north of the Overlander, it becomes more important to know where your next stop is.
The excellent Ningaloo Lighthouse Holiday Park at Exmouth is great for an overnighter. The park had fuel, a great restaurant, surf shop, and good powered and non-powered sites.
We booked 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 by the Mildura shipwreck at the northern tip of the peninsula before heading down to the coast. A brief stop to allow patrons 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 are almost assured of safety, plus everyone looks equally ridiculous. For those not keen on the water, the glass-bottom boat offers a fantastic view of the reef and its surrounds while the staff are engaging, wise and entertaining.
Exmouth to Cheela Plains Station
Distance 460km - Driving Time 5hr 30mins
Travelling inland from Exmouth is very straightforward as the active mines there require access to the coast so the roads are well maintained. We plotted our course to Cheela Station, an hour and a half from Tom Price, the region's epicentre and accessway to Karijini. Following Nanutarra Road, when we saw the landscape darken to deep reds, almost purple in some lights, we knew we had made it.
Cheela Plains 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 added luxury of optional cooked meals, a bed and some guided touring. We booked two nights at Cheela Plains Station, an active cattle station with private gorges.
Proprietors Robin and Evan Pensini have actively managed the property to good health through renewable pastoral practices and while doing so, established the farm stay in 2015. Using a mix of existing station buildings, and some new, as well as employing some experienced locals, the stay is now a great haven for all kinds of traveller. Nights were spent near the massive fire pit or inside talking to the station staff, some of which were guns for hire overseeing the cattle. All had tales to tell.
Cheela Plains Station to Karijini National Park
Distance 160km - Driving Time 2 hours 15mins
Before reaching Karijini, we passed through the tough mining town of Tom Price, famous for the hugely oversized trucks that swallow the road (we passed a few). It’s the highest town in WA and has a great visitors’ centre. There were all the facilities we needed to refuel and restock the larder before pushing on towards the final destination - Karijini NP.
Karijini National Park
As Western Australia’s second largest park, Karijini already has cred before you arrive. But the rich-red cliffs and swimmable gorges are, quite simply, breathtaking. As part of the indelible Hamersely Ranges, Karijini is an oasis in what could be described as a tropical semi-desert climate. The traditional home of the Banyjima, Kurrama and Innawonga Aboriginal peoples, it is named after a translation of the Banyjima name for the Hamersley Range - Karijini. The cool waters of the gorges provided a welcome relief from the dust, even in the late stages of winter, and we saw just a hint of the incredible wildflower season that was just about to explode into colour. This is a magical place that should be on every traveller’s list.