Mini Guide to Western Australia: Empty Spaces, Open Shores

With downtown Sydney a throbbing hub of backpackers and sunset photos of Uluru featuring a thousand other tourists, visitors to Australia looking to find a small corner of serenity will have to content themselves with a very big corner indeed. Western Australia, the country’s largest state, is also its most isolated. In WA (as the locals call it) claiming a beach as your own is still possible. More than half the population of 1.8 million lives in the capital, Perth; most other towns have well under twenty thousand residents. Even the most touristy will still have that small-town feel.

A traveler’s biggest problem in WA will be transportation; crossing the huge blank spots on the map takes money and time, but beyond that itineraries are dictated only by interest. Outdoor adventure enthusiasts should head up the coast north of Perth to enjoy activities like wind-surfing, sailing, snorkeling, rock-climbing, hiking, scuba-diving…south of Perth the environment is a little less harsh, so bicycling, winery touring, and lazing on the beach may appeal. Inland is the outback, the world of sheep stations and “fair dinkum” Aussies. The only town of any note away from the coast is Kalgoorlie, an operational mining centre and home to a block of (also operational) brothels. You can take a brothel tour, if that tickles your fancy.

Accommodation is a little bit cheaper than at similar establishments in the eastern states ($20 a night at a hostel instead of $25) but food and other gear can cost a bit more because it has to be shipped so far.

Getting There
Flying is both the easiest and the cheapest way to get to WA. Virgin Blueand Qantas both fly in from Australia’s other major centers. Expect a one-way ticket to Perth from Sydney to put you back $250. To get from the domestic or international airport into central Perth, book onto the airport shuttle at the information desk ($10-$15); it drops off at hostels and hotels. There’s a shuttle to Fremantle but it’s $25. The other option is public transport: bus #37 departs the domestic airport and takes you into central Perth. To reach Fremantle, take the thirty-minute train ride from Perth Central Station.

If you have more time, or are interested in an overview of Australia’s landscapes, consider the Indian Pacific Railway, which takes three days to cross the continent from Sydney to Perth. A ticket in Red Kangaroo (sitting up, sharing a bathroom) would cost an adult $500; if you can show “backpacker” ID (a YHA card, for example), the fare could be as low as $250. The final part of the trip features some of the world’s most monotonous scenery, as the train barrels across the Nullarbor Plain (the name means “no trees,” and that’s what you get).

Getting to WA by bus is possible on Greyhound, but unless you’ve already got a pass with them and are intending to hop on and off as you cross the country, this isn’t recommended (if only for the butt-numbing factor). Going straight across will cost more than $500.

If you drive cross-country to Perth you’ll have to cross the dreaded Nullarbor; doing so is such a feat that drivers are issued a certificate of completion when they hit the other side. Between Sydney and Perth it’s almost three thousand miles. Carry extra fuel, water and emergency supplies in case of problems; it’s a long way between outposts of civilization on parts of this route. Again, not highly recommended unless you already own a car that you want to bring into WA.

Getting Around
Once inside state boundaries, all previous recommendations are off. Flights within WA are expensive; Skywest has a monopoly on the major routes. The exception is a flight between Perth and Broome, which you could find on Qantas for as low as $150; if you’re in a hurry, it’ll save you about four days’ travel time.

Taking a bus is a good way to get around; just sit back and let the driver worry about fuel, hitting kangaroos and navigating in the desert while you enjoy the changing scenery. Transwa runs buses to the southwest and central coast; Greyhound runs up the coast north of Perth, stopping at most towns on the way to Darwin; South West Coach Lines specializes in the southwest. A typical fare would be about $200 on Greyhound from Perth to Exmouth.

With a bus tour, you’ll hit the highlights with an informed guide, meet other travelers, and not have to worry about finding a place to stay. The downside is less flexibility. EasyRider runs a hop-on, hop-off service in the southwest and north as far as Broome, while Adventure Tours Australia heads out from Darwin, Broome and Exmouth with a camping/four-wheel-drive focus.

Driving gives you the most control; if a side road calls, you can take it. Team up with other travelers to fill all available seats so you can take the driving in shifts and split the high cost of fuel, which has recently hit $1.60 a litre in smaller towns. Don’t drive at night unless you want to wreck your car; kangaroos make seeming suicidal leaps across the road from twilight onwards. Remember to top up supplies frequently; forgetting to refill the tank when I left Coral Bay stranded me on the side of an outback road. I was luckily able to hitch a ride to the service station with a truck driver, but every year travelers taking “shortcuts” in the outback break down and die of dehydration before they’re rescued. If you’re just driving the main coastal highway this is less of an issue, but it’s still a long way between stops.

Renting a cheap car in a town for local exploration is easy and cheap. Finding a car for long-haul trips, if you don’t already own one or can’t hook up with another traveler that does, can be a pain. Try to find a rental company that will allow you unlimited kilometers, and ask around to see who has the best deal on one-way fees (something you’ll pay if you want to drive from Perth to Broome but not back again).

Major Services
Any town where you’re likely to stop will have a bank and a hospital with an emergency room. They’ll also have internet access, although they may charge as much as $10 an hour. Prices are much more reasonable in Perth ($3.00/hour on average), and that’s also where you’ll find most other services. There’s a travel medical centre on Mill St.; they can do a dive medical if you’re thinking of taking scuba lessons. The main post office is on Forrest Place, right outside the main train station in central Perth. Traveller’s Club is one of the best places for travel information and tours. Those interested in working in WA should ask at hostels.

Perth and Surounds
Perth is a lovely, modern city, with glass skyscrapers looming over the twists and turns of the Swan River. If you’re unlucky enough to visit during bad weather, the Western Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of Western Australia are free, and just diverting enough for a half-day visit; or try the Aquarium of Western Australia, $20 entry, $90 to snorkel in the shark tank. Otherwise, toss on the sunglasses and head outside.

Wander the trail along the banks of the Swan River; it goes all the way to Fremantle. Views of sailboats and rowboats plying the river, small beaches and the black swans the river is named for are highlights of the walk. For more views and trails, take one of Perth’s free city buses (in this case, a red one) to Kings Park, an oasis high above the city. Or take a trip to Cottesloe or Scarborough beaches for a dip in the green waters of the Indian Ocean.

Northbridge, a suburb just north of the city centre, is backpacker central and home to a number of good hostels, and, conveniently, also the best place to party. The Billabong looks like a university dormitory outside, but it’s got good facilities and plenty of space. If you want to stay right in the city centre, YHA has just opened a big place two minutes from the train station. Most hostels in Perth come in around $20 a night.


The Roundhouse, a convict-built building in Fremantle
The Roundhouse, a convict-built building in Fremantle
Fremantle, south of Perth, is the place to go for those interested in history (or coffee). This waterfront suburb has a strip of cafés and hip bars (along South Terrace), and it’s also got buildings still standing from Australia’s convict days. These stand out due to their walls of golden sandstone blocks. In the Shipwrecks Museum see the remains of the Batavia, whose wreck in 1629 off the WA coast lead to a bloody battle between the survivors. The Old Fremantle Prison started as a convict prison, became maximum-security, and finally, in 1991, closed to criminals and opened to the public as a museum. The best way to visit is as part of a night tour, where you follow your guide by flashlight and enjoy some “spooks” along the way. Wednesdays and Fridays only; it’s popular, so book ahead.

There are a number of hostels in Fremantle, most are around $17/night. The Sundancer Backpackers Resort has a hot tub and its own bar. Shop for food at Coles or indulge at any one of the restaurants along the cafe strip.

Rottnest Island
A beautiful escape from Perth is Rottnest Island, just offshore. The island pares Western Australia down its essence: a green eucalyptus interior, a ring of golden sand beaches, and coral-filled turquoise waters. Ferries run from Fremantle or Perth (trips from Fremantle are shorter and therefore cheaper). Information about the different ferry options can be found here.

Rottnest is closed to car traffic but wide, wide open to bicyclists. Rent a bike at the bicycle rental shop just up the hill from the ferry dock. Click here for up-to-date prices; shell out the extra bucks for an eighteen-speed. Those on single-speed bikes huff up the hills and spin wildly down. The loop around the island takes about three hours, if you somehow avoid the temptation to stop at one of the many lovely beaches along the way. Snorkel rental is available near the ferry dock and a perfect Rottnest day involves cycling from beach to beach with stops to visit the fish. The Basin, Parakeet Bay and Salmon Bay are some of the better beaches; the rental shop can provide a guide to snorkel trails. Avoid bicycling through the center of the island. Two salt lakes in the interior have a strong smell of sulfur and are covered in dirty white foam.

An empty beach on Rottnest Island
An empty beach on Rottnest Island
Since it’s a popular holiday destination for Western Australians, most of the cute wooden cabins and sandstone houses on the island are booked by lottery a year in advance. But don’t despair, last-minute planners! The Kingstown Barracks YHA hostel can be booked any time; call the Rottnest Island accommodation service, not YHA, to make a booking. Remember to check in and pick up your key at the accommodations building beside the dock before you take off for the hostel, which is a five minute ride to the left of the docks.

There are a number of small restaurants and a supermarket on the island, most of them in the “mall,” a small pedestrians-only spot on the hill above the docks.

The Southwest
Only three hours south of Perth, the southwest (the area around Geographe Bay and between Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste) is probably the most popular area in WA with visitors. Both the weather and the water are warm, and attractions will appeal to both luxury-lovers and adventurers alike.

Busselton, the area’s northernmost town, is also the largest (it has four supermarkets, unheard of in WA). The local hostel, Busselton Backpackers, is run-down but friendly. The main reason to stop here is the waterfront; the white sand beach stretches on for fifteen miles, with a shady walking and bicycling trail along the edge. Geographe Bay keeps the waters here calm, so it’s a great spot for swimming. Busselton’s jetty is more than a mile long; getting back to your childhood is as simple as cannonballing off the side.

Margaret River and Yallingup are smaller towns on the exposed coast south of Busselton; both are popular with surfers. Beginners can take lessons and the more experienced can rent boards in town. The Salomon Masters surf competition is held every year in March on a beach outside Margaret River; it’s a fun introduction to surfing as a competitive sport. Yallingup is the smaller of the two towns, basically just a handful of houses above a huge beach. Budget accommodation is limited to the caravan park. Margaret River is a ten minute drive from the coast, but there’s hostels right on the beach.

Besides water sports, the other major attraction here is liquid-based, too. Wine (and beer) touring in the area could fill a few days. The information centres in Busselton or Margaret River have a map of the local wineries, and roads have signposts informing you of upcoming vineyards. Wicked Ale Brewery, for beer lovers, has a tasting platter of fourteen different flavors of beer, including chili and chocolate. The wineries generally produce top-notch varieties, tastings often free, and a good bottle sometimes costs as little as $10.

If you want to get out of the sun for a bit, Margaret River is known for a number of excellent caves, including Lake, Jewel, and Ngilgi, some of which offer guided tours.

Shark Bay
World Heritage-listed Shark Bay is a beautiful peninsula eight hours drive north of Perth. Most visitors make their way here just to see the “tame” dolphins at Monkey Mia. Resist the urge to give in to the tourist hype. You’ll find better things to do in Shark Bay than join the hordes watching a volunteer toss fish into the sea. If you absolutely must see the dolphins, go to the last feeding of the day; it’s not as busy.

Make Denham, Australia’s most westerly town, the base for any exploration of Shark Bay. (Unlike Monkey Mia, it’s got a grocery store). Bay Lodge, the town’s hostel, is one of the nicest in the state; it’s right on the beach and each room has its own kitchen. The friendly owner takes guests on trips to some of Shark Bay’s secret highlights, so head into the office for a chat. While you’re in there you can book a day tour with a pearling company. For five dollars you spend a day on a pearling pontoon, and the family that runs it teaches you how to prepare oysters for pearl growth. It may be the most off-beat (and cheapest) tour in Australia.

The bay in Denham is a great place to try out sailing skills; the water is shallow for miles offshore and a calm wind will have you zipping about in no time. Some accommodation places rent little catamarans, but the town’s so laid-back that asking nicely may result in a free boat for the afternoon.

Francois Peron National Park is a good place to soak up the natural beauty of the area. Red sand dunes, eery desert scrub, steep cliffs and lonely beaches are great; better is the outdoor hot tub near the visitors center. The water’s from a natural hot springs. Put your bathing suit on, grab a beer, and spend the evening soaking under the stars.

The road into Shark Bay leads past two stops that are regularly mentioned as “worthwhile” by guidebooks. Shell Beach is a beach made of tiny white shells (instead of sand); the water’s knee-deep for thousands of yards offshore, so don’t expect to go swimming. It’s a nice side trip, but wear flip-flops to protect soft feet. The other attraction, the stromatolites, are an hour out of the way up a dirt track; yes, they’re historically important bits of prehistoric life, but it’s a long way to go to look at bumpy black rocks in the water. Do you really like rocks? No? Then don’t bother.

The Ningaloo Reef
Whether you choose to base yourself in Exmouth, Coral Bay or simply pitch a tent on the beach, the big draw on the Northwest Cape (fifteen hours north of Perth) is Ningaloo, not the towns. It’s the longest fringing reef in the world, which means it begins right offshore – a snorkeler’s paradise!

A trip here will probably put some pressure on any budget. Coral Bay is so small (pop. 200) that food costs are extremely high. Exmouth, at the northern end of the Northwest Cape, is larger and cheaper, but it’s on the east side of the cape, an hour’s drive from the reef. You’ll have to pay $20 to take the Ningaloo Reef bus (book at your accommodation) out to the reef for the day, or else rent a car in town. Split between two people, the car’s the cheaper choice.

Once you’re at the reef, the cheapest activity is snorkeling; good beaches include Turquoise Bay and South Mandu. Reef sharks (not a threat) and green turtles often come close to shore, and swarms of colorful tropical fish dart through the coral. A willingness to crack the wallet wider will grant access to a number of spectacular experiences; swimming with whale sharks or manta rays costs about $300 for the day, but sliding through the water beside a forty-foot-long fish or a flying ray is unforgettable. This is one of the few places in the world that whale sharks are consistently spotted. Kayaking, safari and turtle tours are all also available in season; inquire at the visitor centres in Exmouth or Coral Bay.

Hiking in the Cape Range, the red hills that form the spine of the Northwest Cape, offers good views of the reef from above as well as glimpses of rare black-footed wallabies in the depths of various gorges and canyons. The Milyering visitor center, inside Cape Range National Park (it’s $9 to enter the park, which you need to do to visit any of the reef’s best beaches), has information about the range.

Fortunately, cost-wise, there is cheap accommodation. Camp sites in the park can be booked through at the entrance to the park, and cost $10 for a two-person spot. (There are no facilities other than outhouses, so be prepared to rough it). The Ningaloo Clubin Coral Bay regularly gets glowing reviews. In Exmouth, the Excape Backpackers is a hostel attached to a nice hotel, allowing budget travelers access to two pools and a location right beside the town’s best pub. On Friday nights in the high season the pub runs a “dance club” (known locally as the Bimbo Bar) in a small back room. Options for food in Exmouth include a well-stocked supermarket on the main ring road; in the same complex there are pizza, Greek, and seafood restaurants.

Broome and The Kimberley
Vibrant Broome sits near Cable Beach, recognized by beach-lovers as one of the best in the world. A location closer to southern Asia than the rest of Australia gives this town an exotic, multicultural charm. Because Broome is popular with tourists, it has more high-end restaurants, hotels, tour operators and shopping than you’d expect from a town of fourteen thousand people. It’s also a good place to plan a tour of the Kimberley, a vast tract of wilderness to the northeast.

Highlights of a visit to Broome include lounging on the beach, riding a camel along Cable Beach (preferably at sunset), shopping for pearls, or watching an outdoor film on the big screen at Sun Pictures. Between March and October you can view the “staircase to the moon,” when the full moon makes the beach look like a glowing-red stairway. If it sounds like relaxing is the order of business in Broome, you’re right. This is definitely a resort town; if you have the cash, get into the spirit at the Cable Beach Club, the quintessential deluxe accommodation. If not, Beaches of Broome or the Kimberley Klub, in Broome proper, do a good job of replicating the experience on a budget.

Maybe it’s a good thing Broome’s so relaxing, since a trip to the Kimberley will involve a lot of effort. Driving yourself into this area of desert, steep rock escarpments and hidden waterholes requires twice as much preparation as driving anywhere else in the state; during the wet season (November through April) most roads are impassable. The Gibb River Road is the most popular driving track, but you may need a four-wheel-drive to negotiate it. A tour (out of Broome or Derby) may be the best way to experience highlights like Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek and Purnululu (Bungle Bungle) National Park (home to striped, beehive-shaped rock hills). Recently the option of taking a hop-on hop-off bus along the Gibb River Road opened up; it’s $260 to go the length. Accommodation in most of the area is limited to bush camping or top-end safari camps.

Other Attractions
Wave Rock & The Pinnacles

Ian and Donna, on a road trip along the WA coast, stop to marvel at the Pinnacles
Ian and Donna, on a road trip along the WA coast, stop to marvel at the Pinnacles
These are WA’s contribution to Australia’s “rock” tourism. Wave Rock is east of Perth on the road to nowhere, and while the wall of rock does look like a frozen wave, it’s a long way to go for a photo op. The Pinnacles are along on the coast north of Perth. This strange desert of pointy rocks requires a short jut off the main highway and into the tiny town of Cervantes (good stop for a fish ‘n’ chip lunch, at least) and then up a sandy back road into the National Park that houses them. They’re good for half an hour of wonderment and silly photos, but no more.

Karijini & Kalbarri
With similar names and similar terrain, these two areas are actually quite far apart; Kalbarri is on the coast south of Shark Bay, while Karijini is in the dusty centre, ten hours inland from Exmouth. Kalbarri, in essence, is Karijini-lite, with easier access and more options for accommodation. Both feature rock-climbing and hiking in deep, water-filled gorges. Unless you have a lot of backcountry experience, a tour is probably the best way to visit Karijini, but even that became controversial in 2005 after a rescue mission had to be mounted to bring out a tour group that was lost overnight.

Wind-surfers may want to go to Lancelin, where they can also try sand-boarding in the dunes; tree-huggers should hit Walpole, for the tree-top walk in a forest of tingle trees. In Carnarvon you can tour the mango and banana plantations. Considering that the Bungle Bungles were only “discovered” by modern civilization in 1980, Western Australia may have a lot of great places appearing on its map over the next few years.