The West Coast of Australia... Wow- where to begin? There really is SO much out there (Quite literally, considering that Western Australia is over FOUR TIMES the size of France). Perhaps Australia’s best-kept secret, the West Coast is an amazing part of the country that somehow remains obscured and overshadowed by the more popular East Coast (A direct result of many Australians’ desire to keep it that way). Considered a mythical, far-off place by many; often the backdrop for tales of giant fish, bedouin camel trains, and mile upon mile of untouched beaches- all of which turn out to be true, by the way- the West Coast is an immense expanse of raw wilderness and boundless adventure, just waiting to be explored.
The West Coast is MASSIVE- the coastline alone is 8,000 miles long- so if you’re going to visit, it is best to have a travel plan in mind before setting out. This will help determine your starting point, allowing you to plot out your onward adventures from there. Perth is probably the most common initial destination for those headed west, though Darwin and Broome are good places to start as well- it all depends on if you want to travel up the coast (Start in Perth, working your way north up to Broome or Darwin) or down (Start in Darwin or Broome, and then heading south towards Perth). Either way, you can’t miss.
Such wide open spaces in Western Australia set the scene for an EPIC road trip. Self-drive or ride-sharing is the way forward here, giving you and your group the freedom to move along at your own pace. (NOTE: Many of the best spots are only accessible with 4WD, so take that into consideration when looking for vehicles or considering a ride-share.) Even if you’re not much of an ‘outdoorsy’ type, don’t be afraid to rough it a little- get into some of the national parks and reserves along the way, set up camp, get the fire going, and lay back to marvel at the wonder of the nighttime sky in WA- an authentic Outback Camping experience you will never forget.
There are buses that run along the WC, and you can get package deals as well, so if you can’t get a group together to go in on a car, there are other options. However you do it, the West Coast is sure to prove itself well worth the effort it takes to get out there.
- Perth & Freemantle: Perth- the capital city of WA- is somehow, someway, even MORE laid-back than it’s other Aussie urban counterparts (Sydney, Melbourne, etc.). Situated just inland from the coast along the Swan River, Perth is famous for its sprawling parks, the ‘Sunday Session’, and lots and lots of sunshine. Take the train to the seaside suburb of Freemantle to find countless cafes, amazing markets, and some of the best spots for sundowners in the entire city.
- Southwest Coast: A treasure trove of national parks, marine reserves, rural outposts, renowned vineyards, and kitschy little towns, the SWC (Between Esperance and Perth) has enough to keep you busy for a few weeks all on its own. Some of the highlights: Cape LeGrand NP, Cheynes Beach, Middleton Beach, Denmark, Ocean Beach, Albany, Pemberton, Margaret River, Augusta- really, the entire area is a ‘highlight’. Even if you only give it a few days, the SWC is worth a visit.
- 4x4ing between Lancelin and Cervantes: Welcome to a 4x4 lover’s playground- HUGE sand dunes, awesome tracks, and miles upon miles of open beach. This place is AMAZING. Spend the day romping around in the sand, get off the beach before high tide, and make sure to get to the Pinnacles (Just outside of Cervantes) for sunset. A great day for photos- just don’t get sand in your camera!
- Shark Bay and Monkey Mia: Amazing sunsets, incredible 4x4 tracks, swimming with wild dolphins, and waking up to an emu sticking its head into your tent- who could ask for more? The Shark Bay World Heritage area has it all- check out Francois Peron NP (4x4 only) for the chance to spot an elusive dugong, and get up-close and personal with wild dolphins at Monkey Mia.
- Exmouth: One of the most popular destinations along the WC, Exmouth offers an amazing variety of activities, both on the land as well as off the beautiful beaches. Most visitors come with one purpose in mind- the chance to swim alongside the largest fish in the ocean- the majestic whale shark. The Ningaloo Reef sits just offshore from Exmouth, and is one of a handful of places worldwide that serve as seasonal feeding grounds for these giants of the deep (March-June). Hop on a charter boat, and get ready for a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ type experience. After you’ve exhausted yourself chasing whale sharks around the reef (They swim FAST), hit up Turquoise Bay to relax on the beach, grabbing a mask and some fins for some of the best snorkeling in all of Australia. If you’re a scuba diver, the Navy Pier dive site is a MUST- one of the best in all of AUS, if not the world. AMAZING.
- Karijini National Park: A gem of a park located well in-land from the coast, it is worth the long drive to get out to it. Situated in an unending stretch of red dust and scrub brush, the park’s hidden secrets lie below ground level- deep gorges, carved out over millions of years, scar the landscape, creating amazing ravines full of streams, waterfalls, slot canyons, and swimming holes. After the long, hot, dusty drive, a dip into an immaculately crisp and clear natural pool is the perfect remedy. You can easily spend a few days exploring the gorge system, taking in the wonders of Weano Gorge by day and camping out under a million stars at night. It is an incredible place.
- Broome: Another top spot along the WC, Broome is an ideal place to take a few days to relax and rejuvenate before continuing your adventures in WA. Originally established as a pearling outpost, Broome is now known for its gorgeous beaches, quaint shopping district, and sunset barbies on Cable Beach. Don’t miss the world’s oldest outdoor movie theater- Sun Pictures- a great way to enjoy a warm evening in Broome.
- Gibb River Road: Not for the faint of heart (Nor the flimsy vehicle...), the GRR is a rugged 4x4 track that runs through the Kimberley region of northern WA between the towns of Derby and Kununurra. Famous for the amazing gorges and beautiful natural scenery dotted along its route, as well as for its bone-rattling corrugations, the GRR is a risk v. reward endeavor- while many a 4x4 has met its end along the road, many feel the risk of being stranded in The Outback is worth the reward of visiting some of the most remote attractions in the entire country. Some of the highlights include Windjana Gorge, Galvan’s Gorge, Tunnel Creek NP, Adcock Gorge, and the King Leopold Ranges. There are outposts and ‘stations’ along the road, along with numerous campsites. The ‘road’ is closed during the wet season (Nov-Mar), so if you’re keen on taking it on, plan accordingly.
- Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park, and Litchfield National Park: incredible gorges, sparkling swimming holes, cascading waterfalls, scenic hikes, kayaks for hire, and great camping areas, these parks are all well worth a visit. Nitmiluk also has a great swimming pool at one of its more popular campsites. Get there early to get a spot...
- Darwin: The capital city of the Northern Territories, Darwin is a tourism hub for those visiting the surrounding national parks. Check out the Nightcliff area, and be sure to hit up the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets (Thurs/Sun during the dry season, April-Oct). Make sure you check local signage before going for a swim at a beach- the Northern Territories are infamous for the presence of giant saltwater crocodiles. Speaking of, if you want to get a close-up view of these dangerous animals, sign up for one of innumerable ‘croc cruises’ that run continuously on the nearby Adelaide River- you’ll be sure to stay out of the water after this excursion...
- Kakadu NP and Arnhem Land: Perhaps Australia’s most famous national park, Kakadu- well within reach from Darwin- is almost indescribable. A vast natural wilderness (The park itself covers almost 5 million acres- half the size of Switzerland), full of huge waterfalls, magnificent rock formations, billabongs and estuaries, and flora and fauna found nowhere else in Australia. Kakadu has also been the home of and cultural center for aboriginal peoples for over 40,000 years. The park’s natural and cultural significance was recognized in 1992, when the entire park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Needless to say, if you’re visiting Darwin and the Northern Territories, Kakadu is a CAN’T MISS destination. Innumerable companies run guided trips of varying lengths out of Darwin, or you can opt to explore the park on your own. Either way, you’re sure to find Kakadu to be one of the most amazing places on earth. It is INCREDIBLE.
Traveling along the West Coast is a 4x4 lover’s dream- an amazing experience unique to Western Australia. Sure, there are buses, and you could hop in a car with a group of fellow backpackers for a great road trip along the bitumen, but honestly, to see and experience the REAL West Coast, you have to have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. There are SO MANY areas that are only accessible with a 4x4- amazing parks, hidden swimming holes, gigantic sand dunes- places that you will miss out on otherwise, as they are inaccessible without 4-wheel-drive. Rent one, buy one, go in with a group on one- whatever it takes- get in a 4x4, and get off the pavement. The REAL Wild West is found along its extensive network of dusty 4x4 tracks...
- Pay attention to the seasons, and plan your trip accordingly. You don’t want to be visiting Darwin and Kakadu NP during the wet season (Dec-March), as much of it may be flooded and access to various sites restricted. Also, if you want to swim with a whale shark, make sure your timing is right- whale sharks visit the Ningaloo Reef between March and June.
- If you are taking on the Gibb River Road, make sure you take at least one spare tire (AT LEAST...). If you get a flat along the road and don’t have a spare, you will pay a PREMIUM to have one delivered.
- Find a spot in Freemantle for a ‘Sunday Session’- Perth’s Sunday arvo institution. There are ample spots to settle in, grab a cold drink, and watch the sun slowly sink into the Indian Ocean.
- If you’re self-driving the WC, be sure to ask the locals for info on some hidden spots that might not be on your map. They’re always happy to share, and they know the secret spots.
- If you’ve got a 4x4 for the road trip, pitch in to get a 4x4 atlas of WA- it will have all the 4x4 tracks, along with campsites, service stations, and everything else you’ll need to know to make your trip a success.
- Try a ‘Mrs. Mac’s’ meat pie- despite their pre-packaged look, they are DELICIOUS, and a great snack on the road. So good...
- Try to get a ‘package deal’ on your activities in Exmouth- if you do everything through one operator- whale shark, snorkel gear hire, scuba dive, etc.- you may be able to get a substantial discount. Turn on the charm...
- When visiting Monkey Mia, keep an eye on the shallows- the resident dolphins can often be found swimming near the shore, even after the morning feedings have ended. If you’re lucky, one might just come up and give you a nudge...
- Don’t be afraid to interact with the locals- you never know who might invite you over for fresh lobster and an EPIC AC/DC experience in their garage-turned-pool hall-turned-local pub.
- If you like to fish, the WC is a great spot to throw a line in. Grab some cheapo gear at a local shop, ask for directions to a good spot, and get into it. Just pay attention to local signage- some areas of the coast are ‘No Fishing’ marine reserves.
- Stop in Whale World- just outside Albany- for an interesting look into the old whaling industry along the SW Coast. Massive whale skeletons, tales that would put Moby Dick to shame, and an actual whaling ship- Whale World is a great look into the history of the whaling industry and why it came to an end.
- Stop off at the innumerable ‘attractions’ along the way. You never know what hidden gems you might find- secluded spots you may have all to yourself for the entire afternoon.
- Beware when running the ‘Kangaroo Gauntlet’ in Cape Range National Park, just outside of Exmouth. When leaving the park at sunset, be careful, as there will be numerous grey kangaroos hopping across the road. The last thing you want to do is hit one of these animals- not only will you hurt the animal, but you could do serious damage to your car as well.
- Give yourself enough time to enjoy the trip- WA and the West Coast are HUGE, and it will take a significant amount of time to be able to see everything. You don’t want to feel like you have be rushing from place to place, as some days, there may be hundreds of kilometers to your next stop. Plan ahead, take your time, and enjoy the trip. Trust me- you will be glad you did.