Drives: North West (8 days)

This is a long trip - 4,331 km - that's like driving from Los Angeles to New York and halfway back again, but through some of the most inhospitable and isolated country in the world. Eight days is also a relatively short time to cover such a vast distance; in reality it will very much be a flying visit. It can be done in that time, as I've done it myself, but it is preferable to treat the 8 days as the minimum amount of time required to do this trip. Not only will increasing the duration of the trip make it safer for those travelling, it will give far more time to visit more places 8 days allows.

The Pilbara region receives periods of torrential rainfall and is very hot between November and May, therefore travelling this route during those months is to be avoided. July to October are the recommended travelling months.

Python Pool, Chichester Range

This drive shouldn't be attempted without a great deal of thought and preparation if you are not used to driving such long distances and over such isolated territory. The latter part of the drive is on the Great Northern Highway. It is among the remotest sealed roads in the world. Some sections are several hundred kilometres in length without so much as a roadhouse, so when you see a roadhouse, fill up there even if your fuel tank is not empty as you might not make it to the next fuel stop.

The coastal road sees a reasonable amount of traffic, but when travelling on some stretches of inland road, yours may well be the only vehicle on it! There will be no mobile phone service available for the greater part of the journey either. The towns on the way are not what most people perceive a town to be; they are often small settlements with no more than a handful of people living there.

Be assured, however, that if you are in trouble, they are always more than willing to help. If you have a breakdown and need replacement vehicle parts, these have to be brought in by road and can take anywhere from a few days to a week to reach you, depending on how isolated your location is. If you follow the instructions given here, you will be travelling on sealed roads all the way, except to visit some geographical features. To avoid getting lost, bogged or broken down, stick to the main roads and avoid taking shortcuts. Many outback tracks marked on maps disappeared years ago through lack of use, so don't be tempted to take one, even if it looks fine.

The inland roads in particular present several major hazards to travellers. Stray cattle and other grazing animals are particularly dangerous and prevalent throughout the Pilbara as potential roadkill. Camels, kangaroos and wedge-tailed eagles, although smaller, are also very dangerous, with wedge-tailed eagles particularly immobile after gorging on other roadkill. Driving at night is best avoided; being equipped with a good frontal roo bar and driving spotlights can help slightly, but is still very dangerous.

That all having been said, a drive like this is the best way to see the Australian outback, and if you plan your trip well, making sure the motor vehicle you take is capable of covering this distance, and you follow the advice given here, chances are you will have a fabulous, event-free trip that will remain in your memory forever.

Wesley Church, Greenough

Day 1: Leave Perth via Great Eastern Highway. At Midland, turn left into Great Northern Highway. Follow the highway to Muchea, turning left onto Brand Highway towards Geraldton. There is very little to stop and look at before reaching Dongara and Port Denison on Brand Highway, but there are roads to numerous coastal townships of Cervantes, Jurien, Leeman and Green Head along the way. All these coastal settlements known for their fishing, swimming, surfing and diving.

The unique Pinnacles Desert of limestone monuments is located at Nambung National Park, near the beachside settlement of Cervantes. Access to Park is by 4-wheel drive vehicles only. The formations are actually the skeletal remains of trees that grew thousands of years ago. Cataby is the traditional stop for travellers, about 250 km north of Perth, with two roadhouses.

Near Cataby is the Salt Lake and the Yandin lookout that (in good visibility days) offers views of surrounding countryside. Rega's Ford is a nice picnic spot on the banks of the Moore River about half-way between Perth and Eneabba. The twin towns of Dongara & Port Denison, to the south of Geraldton, are well known for their crayfishing, fishing, wildflowers (from July to October) and provide a welcome stopover for travellers.

Ellendale Pool

Ellendale Pool, near Walkaway, is a natural freshwater pool formed by Greenough river and fed by underground springs. Between Dongara and Geraldton, the highway passes across the Greenough plains. Numerous buildings in the ghost town of Greenough have been brought back to life by locals and tells the story of the rise and fall of the Greenough community.

The trees on Greenough Plains are unusual in that they have been so blown by prevailing winds, their trunks bend over and touch the earth. Geraldton is now known as the 'Sun City' because of the average of 8 hours sunshine per day and a warm dry climate. The port for the surrounding region, Geraldton is well known for its kilometres of long white beaches which attract swimmers, windsurfers and fishermen as well as those who just love beach walking. 424 km.

Cliffs near Kalbarri

Day 2: Drive north from Geraldton, passing through Northampton on the way to Kalbarri. Off the highway, Kalbarri is coastal town located on the mouth of the Murchison River. Kalbarri is on a stark but beautiful stretch of coastline with red coastal cliffs and gorges. Inland is Kalbarri National Park where the Murchison River winds its way through colourful gorges, which can be viewed from above or from within the gorges themselves. Bushwalking, canoeing the river and fishing are popular activities here.

From July until November the park is transformed into a mosaic of colour with over 800 species of West Australian native wildflowers. Whales are often seen from the cliffs during those months. Return to the highway, and proceed north to Shark Bay; take Shark Bay Road. One of only a handful of regions in the world to gain World Heritage Listing, Shark Bay is teaming with a multiplicity of wildlife - it is at Shark Bay and Monkey Mia where wild dolphins interact with humans.

Be aware that the stark and somewhat desolate-looking landscape can be disappointing to those who go to Shark Bay expecting something else, but if you go expecting to see nature at in its wildest, untamed state, you'll leave fulfilled. Spend the night at Denham. 560 km

Goulet Bluff, Shark Bay

Monkey Mia, Shark Bay

Day 3: Return to North West Coastal Highway via Shark Bay Road, turn north and drive to Carnarvon. Known as the tropical gateway to the North, Carnarvon is a large and thriving town surrounded by banana plantations. The town also is the centre of an area which grows avocados, coconuts, dates, jojoba, macadamia nuts, mangoes, pawpaws, pecans, tomatoes, pineapples, melons and various varieties of beans.

It is widely recognised that the biggest event in recent Carnarvon history was the establishment of the NASA tracking station in 1964. Its importance was based on the fact that it was the base which gave the command for the Trans Lunar Insertion (TLI) which actually sent the Apollo missions in to land on the moon. Perhaps its greatest moment came on 20 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped out of Apollo 11. His famous words 'One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind' were relayed to the world via the tracking station at Carnarvon. It was finally closed down in 1974 because it became outmoded.

North of Carnarvon are some of the most interesting sights on the whole of the Western Australian coast. These include The Blowholes, Quobba, Lake Macleod and the wreck of the Korean Star. Take the road to Exmouth at the junction after Minilya Roadhouse. Coral Bay, the southern gateway to the Ningaloo Marine Park, is roughly midway between Carnarvon and Exmouth. Attractions around Exmouth include Ningaloo Reef offshore and Cape Range National Park 40kms south, with its deep canyons and panoramic vistas across Exmouth Gulf from clifftop lookouts. 687 km

Charles Knife Canyon, Cape Range National Park

Day 4: Proceed south from Exmouth on the Learmonth Minilya Road. Turn left at Burkett Road, then left onto North West Coastal Highway. Midway to Karratha is the road leading to Onslow, a quiet sleepy little town that has been all but obliterated by cyclones more times than the locals care to remember. It is home base to a major offshore natural gas and oilfield and the step-off point to Thevenard Island, Direction Island, Barrow Island and the Montebello Islands.

After World War II Onslow became an important strategic centre for the atomic experiments on the Montebello Islands. Add an extra day to the itinerary if you add Onslow to the drive. Proceed to Karratha. 566 km

Millstream

Day 5: Use the morning to see Dampier and Karratha before commencing the 5 hr. journey to Tom Price. Take the road to the Hamersley Ranges, passing through the Roebourne, one of oldest towns in the Pilbara. On the way to Tom Price, stop off at Python Pool and Millstream. An attractive and modern mining town in the heart of the Pilbara, the town of Tom Price is literally sitting atop a mountain of iron ore. 337 km

Kalamina Gorge

Day 6: You will need a whole day (and plenty of fuel) to get a good look at the gorges of Karijini National Park. Make sure you are well prepared with at least a map of the area so you can travel as quickly as possible from one fabulous looking gorge to the next. There is plenty of variety in the scenery; make sure you visit the visitor centre at Tom Price before you leave to make the most of your day in the Park. Return to Tom Price at Night. 200 km

Mt Tom Price iron ore mine

Day 7: Leave Tom Price early enough to complete the 8 1/2 hour drive to Meekatharra before nightfall; the road is long with few breaks or stops along the way. Newman, that other major iron mining town of the Pilbara, is 275 km down the road and is a good stopping place for a break and a bite to eat. The town's Museum, located in Kurra Street off Newman Drive, has an interesting display of relics from the town's brief history including the first Haulpak used at Mount Whaleback.

For a view of the mine visit Radio Hill Lookout. North east of Newman is Rundall River National Park, which consists of spectacular desert land, but has no facilities. At 1,283,706 hectares, the Rudall River National Park is the largest national park in Western Australia and one of the largest in the world. It is also one of the most remote places in the world. The park sits on the boundary between the Great Sandy and Little Sandy Deserts. After leaving Newman, the only point of interest on the journey is the mountainous Collier Range National Park. 695 km

The Granites, near Meekatharra

Day 8: The drive to Perth from Meekatharra is an all-day one; allow 9 hours travelling time plus stops. If you'd prefer to break the day's journey up into two days of travel, overnight accommodation is available at some of the wheatbelt town you pass through, like Dalwalinu (248 km from Perth) and New Norcia (132 km from Perth). The first stop on the journey to Perth is Cue, the town at the centre of the Murchison Goldfields a century ago.

Almost a ghost town these days, Cue's fascinating history is reflected in the town's surviving buildings. Further down the road past Lake Austin is Mt. Magnet, another mining and service town on the edge of the desert. The Granites, a rocky outcrop spread over several hectares to the north of the town, have some striking Aboriginal art. Anthropologists believe that Wilgie Mia ochre mine, 70 km north-west of Cue, first started operating about 30,000 years ago.

Walga Rock (48 km west of Cue) is a monolith 5 km around the base and 1.5 km long, the second largest in Australia. It has the largest gallery of Aboriginal rock paintings in Western Australia, including the mysterious rigged sailing ship. The origin of the painting is unknown, one theory says that it has been made by a Dutch sailor shipwrecked on the coast and looked after by aborigines, another - that it was made by an Afghan camel guide, as it contains what appear to be Arabic writing.

Renowned for its glorious carpets of wildflowers during the season, Paynes Find is also recognised for its Gold Battery, which was established in 1911. It is the only working battery in the State. 292 km down the highway is Australia’s only Monastic Town - New Norcia. An extraordinary and unusual Spanish-influenced religious settlement in the middle of the dry, vast wheatbelt, New Norcia was established by Benedictine monks in 1847. They named it New Norcia after Norcia in Italy, the birthplace of the founder of the Order - Saint Benedict. 762 km

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