Our Insane & Epic Three Week Road Trip in Western Australia

It was part of our Australian itinerary from the get-go: an epic west coast road trip via campervan up the country’s less explored coastline. 

We were ready for deserts sunsets, endless rust colored highway, deserted beaches, and sleeping in the back of a car for three weeks. We weren’t ready for the lack of gas stations, sweltering heat, or the monumental distance between Perth to Darwin. 

Many people travel to Australia to embark on this very road trip, and every journey is different. Ours went a little like this.

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The Logistics

Finding a Car or Campervan

Where We Rented: Traveller’s Autobarn

Would We Recommend: Yes, but you get what you pay for. The vans are OK, but old, and we had a few customer service issues. We mostly recommend them because when we dropped it off the representative was extremely understanding about the issues we had with the camper and gave us a smaller car for a few days, free of charge, to make up for it.

This is arguably the easy part. Because the west coast is almost exclusively explored via car or campervan, there are many options. 

We opted for a campervan because we figured it would be a fun experience. Many people choose a car simply because you can save a lot of money on the rental and gas. The cheapest way to do it is definitely by car, provided you’re using a tent instead of paying for hostels or hotels every night. It depends on your budget and what kind of experience you want. 

We rented a campervan from Traveller’s Autobarn, a budget rental company, and opted for their most popular Kuga campervan. For two people, this was perfect. It says it sleeps/seats 3, but from experience that would be crowded unless that third person is a child. 

Regardless of what you choose, here are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding your car/campervan:

  • Gas is EXPENSIVE and gas stations are few and far between. Fill up every chance you get, no matter how full your tank is. You can use the app maps.me to help you find gas stations along your route (it will work without service so long as the maps are downloaded). Keep in mind: the bigger the vehicle the pricier the gas.

  • Most rentals are MANUAL. We learned this the hard way when we got dealt an old school ’08 manual camper when we expected an automatic. Luckily, MJ is a champ with manual and I knew enough to get the hang of it, but if you need an automatic make sure you’ve signed up for one.

  • Insurance doesn’t cover idiots who get stuck in the sand. You will be hard pressed to find someone to help you if you drive off road and get bogged down because you wanted that perfect shot of the sunrise (yes, we were those idiots). We ended up taking an hour to get our heavy camper out of the sand after multiple calls to tow companies and roadside assistance told us we were on our own. Do yourself a favor and stay on the pavement.

  • If you opt for a camper, you will need to charge it, refill the water, and refill the gas. Ask where the hose/charging cables are in your camper BEFORE you leave…(we didn’t find our hose the whole time and had to get creative).

  • Take the insurance, just don’t get bogged.

  • Drive during the day whenever possible. Driving at night might be your favorite thing to do (me) but you will never forgive yourself if you add to the roadkill death toll on Australia’s west coast highway. MARSUPIALS ARE NOCTURNAL. You would be too if you lived in the desert, let’s be real.

  • Knowing how to change a tire is a life skill that’s great to have before you make this journey.

  • Bring your own charging cable and aux chord and DOWNLOAD your music (a lot of it) before you leave. Maybe even some audiobooks if that’s your thing. You’re in for a lot of driving and not a lot of service.

  • If they offer you a fan, TAKE IT. This was a lifesaver during the night.

Celebrating getting ourselves un-bogged in the desert (!!!)

Celebrating getting ourselves un-bogged in the desert (!!!)

 

Supplies

Whether you start in the north or the south, stock up on supplies in the biggest city you’re starting in. Once you hit the road, all the prices go up as the average population goes down. Supply and demand baby. 

Stock up on:

  • Food. Try and stick to the easy stuff. Also a plus if it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Unless you’re opting for a big camper, you’re going to be very tight on fridge space.

  • Water and booze. Both get more expensive as you head out of town.

  • Bug spray and sunscreen. Both are necessary and, again, prices go up.

Here are a couple things we were really happy we had:

  • Headlamps. Can’t stress enough how many times we’ve been happy to have headlamps on this trip. Endlessly useful.

  • Ziplock containers (for leftovers) and garbage bags.

  • Sleeping bags. They provided sheets for us but having to make the bed every night was super annoying. These were just easier.

  • Table and chairs. We rented these from the rental company. They were great to have when we wanted to get out of the camper for dinner or just to enjoy our beach reads in the shade.

  • A speaker. I always carry at least two on me because there’s nothing worse than listening to music from an iPhone speaker. Our campervan was so old we didn’t even have an aux plug, so we ended up using a speaker the whole time.

  • Cameras. We each have one and carry it with us everywhere. If you’re thinking of investing in a better one or are unsure whether or not you want to bring yours, this is the sign you’re looking for. BRING IT. You will see so many beautiful things and it’s worth documenting properly.

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Planning Your Route

It’s a little more than 4000km from Perth to Darwin on the shortest route. That’s about 43 hours of driving, which doesn’t cover the driving you do to get to the actual highlights of your road trip. We had an amazing time, but not enough of it. Our last three days of driving averaged about 10-12 hours of driving per day. BE BETTER THAN US. 

Give yourself the time to enjoy the west coast properly. Opt for a shorter route, like Darwin to Broome or Perth to Broome, or, if you’re in it for the long haul, give yourself 4-6 weeks to enjoy the trip from Perth to Darwin. 

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Our Highlight Reel from the West Coast

Many of these stops we’ve written about in more detail, but here is the short list of what we loved about our 3 week adventure.

Perth, Fremantle and Rottnest Island

Where We Stayed: Bambu Backpackers Hostel
Would We Recommend: Yes

Can’t stress this enough. This city and the surrounding areas are beautiful and absolutely worth starting or ending with. Perth is a vibrant city with unbelievable beaches, a great and cheap transportation system, and so much to do.

Spend a day at the beach, spend a weekend in Fremantle, and spend a perfect day with the quokkas on Rottnest Island

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The Pinnacles

Where We Stayed: RAC Cervantes Holiday Park
Would We Recommend: Yes

No one is entirely sure how this natural wonder happened, but boy is it beautiful. Just off the road near Cervantes, the Pinnacles are a must stop for those looking to get that perfect sunset picture. Drive your car through the park or get out and walk among the thousands of stone pillars. 

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Pink Lake

Where We Stayed: Linga Longa at Lynton Station
Would We Recommend: Yes

Instagrammers - DON’T MISS THIS ONE. I saw pictures of Australia’s pink lakes years ago when planning and knew this wasn’t something we could skip. We had a blast doing our cheesy little photo shoot at the pink lake near Hutt Lagoon. Definitely worth the stop (you’ll be happy you packed that camera).

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Nature’s Window

This was so cool. A 45minute drive in from the coastal town of Kalbarri, Nature’s Window is one of the main attractions in Kalbarri National Park. This iconic attraction is a literal “window” in the rock that perfectly frames the river behind it. It’s a short 1km walk into the Loop, which is a larger walk you can opt for to see more of the beautiful national park.

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Sharkbay World Heritage Site

Where We Stayed: Denham Seaside Tourist Village
Would We Recommend: Yes

We camped out here for a few days because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave this little slice of heaven. Perfect beaches, natural wonders everywhere and a great place to take your first break on your crazy road trip. Enjoy a trip to Monkey Mia to visit the dolphins, stop at Shell Beach for a quick dip in crystal clear water, and take in the Hamelin Pool Stromatolites that give Shark Bay its World Heritage title. 

While you’re in Shark Bay, take the time to learn about the community’s fascinating initiative to combat community waste.

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Exmouth

Where We Stayed: Potshot
Would We Recommend: Yes (in high season, BOOK EARLY. The town triples in size.)

Divers! You already know you need to stop here. We missed the whale shark season (March-Sept), but we were just in time for sea turtle mating season, which definitely made up for it. The diving here is out of this world, so if that’s your thing DON’T MISS IT. Navy Pier alone was worth the extended stop. 

We dove with a company called Dive Ningaloo and they were EPIC. Definitely recommend.

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Broome & Cable Beach

Where We Stayed: Tarangua Caravan Park
Would We Recommend: Yes

Broome is amazing coastal city. Unfortunately, when we went it was hot and so, so humid that we spend our entire time there doing one thing and one thing only: Cable Beach. This beach is worth the trip alone. It’s massive and is perfect for lounging the day away or watching the camels walk buy with some sundowners. 

Tip: Skip the camel ride, they smell bad and the pictures you’ll get with the camels in it are cooler than the ones you’ll get from the camel’s back.

Tip: If you have a car (NOT a camper), you can drive it down to the beach! It’s very flat and the sand is packed down, very low risk of getting bogged.

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Lake Argyle 

Where We Stayed: Lake Argyle Resort & Holiday Park
Would We Recommend: SO MUCH.

Our final stop before Darwin, this resort of Lake Argyle was everything we could’ve hoped for. Not only is a lush and green, a welcome break after weeks in the dust and sand, but it has an unbelievable infinity pool looking out over the lake. We camped out here until they literally had to kick us out when it got dark. You can take a tour of the lake by boat as well, but we didn’t have time. 

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Darwin

Where We Stayed: Darwin YHA aka Melaleuca on Mitchell
Would We Recommend: Yes, if you’re looking to party

We weren’t prepared for how much we would love Darwin. It’s not a huge city, but if you’re a backpacker looking to meet some cool people and party/celebrate the end of your insane three-week road trip, it’s everything you need. Don’t miss out on this hostel, we had the time of our lives during our weekend in Darwin.

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Get Up for Sunrise, Make Time for Sunset

It doesn’t get more beautiful than it does on the west coast of Australia. We started our longer driving days at 4am so we could enjoy sunrise out in the middle of the desert. Highly recommend it.

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What We Wish We’d Had Time For (AKA Our Regrets)

No trip is perfect (unless you have 6-7 weeks to do it), so here are some places we’re going to have to come back for (and some super fun ideas for you when you go cause we’ve totally sold you on this road trip!!).

  • Karijini National Park

  • More Time at Lake Argyle

  • Diving with Whale Sharks in Exmouth

  • Diving in Coral Bay

  • Gibb River-Wyndham Road (southwest of Darwin)

  • Emma Gorge (southwest of Darwin)

  • Kununurra (near Darwin)

  • Kakadu National Park (near Darwin)

  • Wine Tasting at Margaret River (south of Perth)

  • Serpentine National Park (near Perth)

  • Lancelin Sand Dunes (near Perth)

Exmouth

There were many things that inspired us to road trip Australia’s western coast, including the remoteness, the national parks, and the romantic idea of driving an empty road in the desert. No single motivator was quite as strong as the desire to dive Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth. 

Exmouth is a tiny, tiny town about 13 hours and 1,247 kilometers north of Perth. It originated as a United States Communication Station in the 1960’s and while the base has since been turned over to the Australian government, the town has been there ever since. Now, Exmouth is famous for one thing and one thing only: some of the best diving in all of Australia, maybe even in the world. 

The area garnered this reputation from two key attractions: Ningaloo Reef and the persistent opportunity to dive with whale sharks, which migrate up Australia’s coast through Ningaloo every year between March and September. While we were disappointed to have just missed the chance to see these fantastic giants, we did manage to arrive just in time for sea turtle mating season, which kind of made up for it. 

On our way in to town we stopped at our chosen dive shop: Dive Ningaloo. We cannot recommend this company enough - we did a total of five dives with them over the course of three days and loved the experience. We also got the chance to dive Navy Pier with these guys, which is listed as one of the world’s top 10 dive sites (totally deserved).  

Navy Pier

Navy Pier is a dive site that is directly under and around the jetty on the active military base in Exmouth. Dive Ningaloo has exclusive rights to dive on these premises, another key reason we chose to dive with them. There are many rules and regulations in place due to the nature of the base, so if you choose to do this dive make sure you listen to what they have to say!

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The dive is shallow and easy, only about 15 meters, and there isn’t much current. Typically, visibility can be quite low on this shore dive, but we got extremely lucky and had unusually high vis. Before we even could jump in the water we were watching dolphins play around just under the jetty. Then we got to jump in…

 

No fishing and lack of human visitors has made this dive site truly remarkable in its diversity. In the 45 minutes we were underwater we saw everything from grey reef sharks, sting rays, enormous groupers, fantastically colorful nudibranchs, flat worms, wobbegong sharks, and the largest hawksbill sea turtle any of us, including our guide, had ever seen. 

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We both agreed it was one of the best dives we had ever done. If you get the chance to dive in Exmouth, DO NOT miss this dive. YOU WILL REGRET IT AND FEEL FOOLISH IF YOU MISS THE CHANCE TO DIVE THIS DIVE. Friendly advice. 

Also, keep your eyes open for the BFG (big friendly grouper) who lives under the jetty. This is the single largest fish I have ever seen in my life and he’ll come right up and say hello if you let him. 

Murion Islands

Our first day trip with Dive Ningaloo was to the Murion Islands. These two deserted islands offer an unbelievable amount of coral, micro life (like our friends the nudibranchs), and tropical fish. We didn’t catch a glimpse of any when we went, but you can also spot big rays and whale sharks out there when it’s the right time of year!

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One thing we did manage to see is a ton of turtles. You couldn’t miss them because they were everywhere. Remember how I said it was sea turtle mating season when we went in October/November? The Murion Islands seem to be a personal favorite of theirs. We stopped for lunch and were able to snorkel to the beach to get a glimpse of them up close and it became a game of who could see the most. There must have been over 25 around that beach alone. 

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Take away: if you visit Exmouth and are bummed that you’ve also just managed to miss whale shark season, stick around for the turtles and they’ll more than make up for it. On our last night in town I managed to get up close and personal with a female digging her nest on the beach near the Jurabi Turtle Centre - it was sensational! 

If you do decide to pay the ladies a visit during this season, be respectful and keep noise to a minimum and white lights off. It disturbs them and then you’re that asshole who ruined it for everyone else trying to catch a glimpse of the magic. Don’t be that guy. RED LIGHTS ONLY!! 

Ningaloo Reef

Aside from the whale sharks cruising through during the winter season, the main diving attraction of Exmouth is definitely Ningaloo Reef. The entire Ningaloo Coast is listed as a protected World Heritage Site and is both the largest fringing coral reef in Australia and the only large reef in the world found so close to land. You can snorkel or dive this reef right from the beach if you want!

The most popular way to see the reef is to hop on a boat for a day (or two) from either Coral Bay or Exmouth. You see slightly different sides to the reef and we were told that you’re more likely to see big mantas from Coral Bay. 

We didn’t get to see any of these gentle giants since we got our first stroke of bad luck and had a particularly windy day that made diving too far out in the reef impossible, but we still got an eyeful with sharks, rays, an octopus (!!), and even a sea snake streaking towards the surface above us. 

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Exmouth is a sensational place to dive and to stay. The town absolutely explodes with activity during peak season, so if you’re interested in heading there during whale shark season make sure you book in advance - it does fill up! As for us, I think it’s safe to say that the only thing we can do, since we missed them this time around, is find our way back to the west coast another time. 

Shark Bay Heritage Site

Shark Bay is a peninsula located on the West Coast of Australia, 850km north of Perth. The World Heritage Site is known for its unique ecological features including the Shell Beach, Hamelin Pools, Francis Peron National Park, and the marine wildlife of Monkey Mia.

 

Shell Beach

Shell Beach is not your average white sand beach. While it might look that way against the endless blue sky, the white rolling dunes of the beach are actually made up of tiny shells! These shells are all from a single species, an echinoderm known as the Shark Bay cockle - Fragum erugatum for my fellow biologists out there.

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The water is only ankle-deep for most of the way out, so it’s easy to wade in the ocean and appreciate the beach from afar! 

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Hamelin Pools

The Hamelin Pools are what credits the Shark Bay area for the second criteria of a World Heritage site. The flat “pancakes” are an ancient type of stromatolite that has been around for 3500 million years!

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Enjoy a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk as you float above the starkly colored landscape. If you’re lucky, you can listen to the birds chirping as they dance in the sun. Check out this brochure if you’re interested in bird-watching throughout the area!

 

Denham

Denham is the first town upon entering the heritage area. It’s striking blue waters welcome you immediately upon pulling into the town centre.

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The town has a rich story of sea exploration, and is themed after the historic shipwrecks off the coast. Two of the significant shipwrecks have been memorialized in the town center: Dutch merchant ship named Zuytdorp (1712), and a Norwegian whaler named Gudrun (1901). Read more about the local history on their website!

There are plenty of accommodation options in Denham, from the Heritage Resort to the variety of holiday parks along the beach. Be sure to stop by the Discovery Centre in town to check out the gallery of awe-inspiring local photography!

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Monkey Mia

Monkey Mia is home to the friendly bottlenose dolphins. Every morning, the dolphins are treated to a free continental fish breakfast! For just AUS$12, you can get up close and watch them from the shore. The park is a marine reserve, so your fee is supporting a great cause. 

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The operations at Monkey Mia have a long history of caring for the dolphins. Wildlife biologists have studied the local pod extensively, and have built the Monkey Mia experience to be as ecologically sustainable as possible. The conservationists take exceptional care to ensure that the dolphins do not feel threatened, and that their natural behavior is kept a priority. The dolphins are only there because they choose to be. There are strict guidelines for being a part of the magic, so please listen to your hosts carefully - they are professionals, and they know what’s best for the dolphins. 

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If you’re lucky, you might even be chosen to help the volunteers feed the dolphins!

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There are accommodation options in Monkey Mia if you’re keen on living with the dolphins for a few days. Otherwise, Denham is an easy 30-minute drive away.

There’s plenty to do in Monkey Mia. Enjoy an early morning coffee before the feeding, or grab some lunch at the Boughshed beachfront restaurant. Be careful of the pesky seabirds - they are not shy! 

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Before leaving, say a quick hello to the giant pelicans roaming the beach! But don’t get too close, they’re stronger than you think! 

 

Francis Peron National Park

Francis Peron is a wild, remote National Park covering the entire northern half of the Shark Bay peninsula. It’s an easy drive to the homestead, but beyond that requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Hiring a tour is the best way to see the vast wildlife haven. They can show you the best landscapes without you having to worry about getting “bogged” in the sand! Stop by the Visitor Centre in Denham to book, or check online.

Exploring Fremantle, Australia

The “Brooklyn” of Perth.

Fremantle is a charming community on the coastal southwest of Perth, only a 30-minute train ride from the CBD station.

Fremantle Market

Immediately upon arrival, our hosts at Bambu Backpackers made it incredibly clear that Fremantle Market was a not-to-be-missed attraction of Perth. As most travelers would agree, markets are a great way to browse local culture. 

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Every stretch of the warehouse is crowded with stalls, each one bursting with delightful distractions. Between the handmade leather bags and the obscurely colorful crafts, the Fremantle Market will make anyone feel like a kid again.

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Upon stepping into the sunlight-flooded food court, the bustling excitement alone will make you want to buy a treat. The smells of pan-frying and slow simmering will surely tempt you into one of the stalls. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your hot food and absorbing the lively atmosphere under an upside-down field of dried flowers.

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Marine Parade Park

If you walk to the edge of Fremantle, you’ll empty out of the quaint neighborhood streets into a big open park. Along the edges of the well-loved community space, grand towering pines hide the bright red, bedazzled ferris wheel. It’s the perfect place to soak up the sun, pick up a game of football, or even take a swing at the skate park. 

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You don’t even have to take a ride on the ferris wheel to appreciate it’s beauty. It’s unassuming location behind the pines grants it an air of humbleness, but when the afternoon sun blazes behind it, its presence shines throughout the park. 

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Little Creatures Brewery

Just across the train tracks from the sunny park, right on the water's edge sits the Little Creatures Brewery. The giant industrial brewery features a glowing pizza oven (an obvious attraction for us), only overshadowed by colossal fermentation tanks lining the warehouse.

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Little Creature’s “Bright Ale” can be found on tap at most bars around Australia, but an afternoon on their outdoor terrace can’t be beat. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a casual lunch by the water, or even just an afternoon cold one.

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City Streets

The streets of Fremantle could be pulled straight out of a book. The pastel storefronts and godly white columns are reminiscent of childhood stories, and the slow-paced aura of the town will make you feel like you’re living in one.

Be sure to make a stop in one of the magical bookstores to really solidify that feeling of wandering through a fairytale.

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