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Trip List by Melnq8

Road trip: Perth-Exmouth-Perth: It's a Bloody Long Way!

10 Aug 2010  Well traveled expat; lover of food, wine and the great outdoors
4.5 of 5 stars based on 9 votes

A 4,059 kilometer, 17 day driving odyssey of the NW coast of Western Australia

  • 1. The Itinerary

    This trip was taken in early June 2010. Like most travelers, we'd agonized over how much time we needed to explore at a leisurely pace and how to divide our time. I've posted this itinerary with the hopes that it will help others planning a similiar trip.

    The following is the driving itinerary we came up with for our 17 day road trip:

    Perth - Kalbarri - three nights
    Kalbarri - Denham - three nights
    Denham - Carnarvon - one night
    Carnarvon - Exmouth - three nights
    Exmouth - Coral Bay - three nights
    Coral Bay - Carnarvon - one night
    Carnarvon - Greenough - one night
    Greenough - Cervantes - one night
    Cervantes - Perth

    In hindsight, what we'd have done differently:

    1) Spent less time in Kalbarri and Coral Bay, as we just weren't taken with either one.
    2) Spent another night in Exmouth, giving us more time to explore the diving opportunities.
    3) Spent more time at Carnarvon and Geraldton/Greenough, giving us time for a plantation tour.
    4) Spent more time exploring the coast and nature reserves near Dongara and Port Denison
    5) Spent a second night at Cervantes, to explore some of the walks we didn't have time for.

    What we'd have done differently if money wasn't a consideration:

    We'd have taken a flight from Perth to Learmonth, rented a car (maybe even a 4X4) and driven north to Exmouth, spending at least four nights at a beach front unit at the Novotel. We'd then work our way south, making all the stops that we did, but incorporating the changes outlined in 1-5 above.

  • 2. Destination #1: Kalbarri National Park
    Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia

    Approximately eight hours north of Perth (577 km), where the Murchison River meets the Indian Ocean, lies the seaside town of Kalbarri. Twenty-seven kilometers outside of town you'll find Kalbarri National Park, with it's deep red rock gorges, coastal cliffs and wildlowers (in season).

    The park offers an assortment of lookouts, including Nature's Window, Red Bluff, Pot Alley & Eagle Gorge. There's also a range of challenging walks within the gorges, including the Loop Gorge Trail and Z Bend River Trail.

    I recommend the Loop Gorge Trail* (10 km return from carpark) and The Kalbarri Hotel Bistro for good grub.

    *Hikers are advised to carry three liters of water per person per day as temperatures in the gorge can reach 50c during the summer, 10c hotter than along the rim. There's no way in the world I'd attempt this trail in warm weather - hiking in the low 20's is plenty warm for me.

  • 3. Destination #2: Denham, Shark Bay
    Denham, Western Australia

    Approximately 380 kilometers (six hours with stops) north of Kalbarri is the charming seaside town of Denham, the most westerly town in Australia. Denham makes the perfect base from which to explore the wonders of the World Heritage area of Shark Bay, including Hamelin Pool, Monkey Mia, Ocean Park, Shell Beach, Francois Peron National Park, Little Lagoon and Eagle Bluff.

    We absolutely loved Denham and Shark Bay.

    I highly recommend the South Peron Scenic Adventure with Quad Bike Tours, Ocean Park and the Old Pearler Restaurant - fantastic.

  • 4. Destination #3: Carnarvon

    Approximately 334 km, (~3-3/4 hours) north of Denham is the plantation town of Carnarvon, the heart of the Gascoyne region. It's the perfect spot for an overnight stay to break up the journey going either north or south.

    Carnarvon is often overlooked in NW WA itineraries, but we really enjoyed the town, and wished we'd had more time to explore the area. It's the gateway to Mt Augustus, "the biggest rock in the world", just a mere 450 km east of town (!)

    Carnarvon hosts a weekly Growers Market, held at the Visitors Center on Saturday mornings. Here you'll find fresh produce and an assortment of locally grown and produced jams, chutneys, relishes, condiments, etc.

    Not far from town is historic One Mile Jetty, one of the longest in the southern hemisphere and a popular fishing spot.

    North of town is the 49 kilometer detour (one way) to the blowholes and Point Quobba, a fish habitat protection area where looking down into the water is like looking into an aquarium.

    I highly recommend Wintersun Caravan & Tourist Park, The Coffee Cup near the Woolworth's for their souvlakis and flat whites, and The Old Post Office Cafe downtown for dinner.

  • 5. Destination #4: Exmouth

    Approximately 367 km north of Carnarvon is Exmouth (six hours with aforementioned detour to Quobba), situated on the North West Cape, some 1,200+ kilometers north of Perth.

    Exmouth was created in 1963 to support the US Naval Communication Station, jointly established by the Australian and United States governments, but today it's known for tourism and its proximity to the Ningaloo Reef.

    Exmouth is an odd little town, but it offers a wide assortment of activities, including the ever popular whale shark snorkel tours, various scuba diving sites, and Cape Range National Park, the entrance of which is located 52 km from Exmouth on the west side of the cape.

    Cape Range is home to the fantastic Milyering Visitor's Center, the slice of snorkeling heaven known as Turquoise Bay, Mandu-Mandu Gorge and of course, Yardie Creek.

    Visitors to the area might want to note that the drive from Exmouth to Yardie Creek takes 90 minutes, so plan well. The Visitor's Center alone could fill a day.

    I highly recommend the Whale Shark Tour with Three Island Marine Charters, the Milyering Visitor's Center, and MantaRay's Brasserie in the Novotel. Pinocchio's, the Italian restaurant located at the Ningaloo Caravan Holiday Resort serves up some good food too, but they should be ashamed of their service.

  • 6. Destination #5: Coral Bay

    The tiny hamlet of Coral Bay is located 152 km (~2 hours with stops) south of Exmouth. It's easy to incorporate stops on the east side of Cape Range National Park (Shothole Canyon & Charles Knife Road) on the drive down from Exmouth.

    Coral Bay is a wildly popular tourist and snorkeling destination, but like many touristy areas, we found it completely overrated. Scuba diving options were very limited (June), and dive staff at the only dive shop we could find were disinterested.

    There's very little to do in Coral Bay other than snorkel, dive and relax. For walkers, there are only two walk options - 1) the walk to Maud Point, which can be reached via the beach at low tide or via the dunes at high tide. This is a lovely five mile walk (challenging if done from the dunes, easy if done from the beach), and 2) the walk to the boat ramp, a popular fishing spot and the home of Merv, Coral Bay's resident groper.

  • 7. Destination #6, Back to Carnarvon

    The drive from Coral Bay to Carnarvon is 237 km and normally takes only a couple of hours, but thanks to a flooded river we were forced to detour to the only other road, which added 300 km, increasing our drive time to 5.5 hours.

    It's worth noting that the NW of WA is subject to flooding during the wet months, potentially causing highway closures that can strand travellers for days on end. Add to that cyclones, a lack of roads and long distances between towns and services, and you realize just how inhospitable the NW can be.

    Carnarvon is home to "the big dish" (OTC), a massive satellite dish perched on a hill overlooking town, offering some nice views of the surrounding plantations. The OTC dish had a pivotal role in the Apollo 11 moon landing and was used for tracking Halley's Comet.

    For those wanting to explore some of Carnarvon's plantations, Bumbak's Plantation offers tours. They also have a nice shop selling all manner of jams, sauces and condiments, but like many places we visited in the NW, they really should work on their customer service.

  • 8. Destination #7, Geraldton-Greenough

    Five and a half hours (approximately 478 km) south of Carnarvon is the city of Geraldton-Greenough, home to the HMAS Sydney Memorial and the Western Australia Museum, which overlooks the Indian Ocean. It's also the gateway to the Abrolhos, an archipelago of some 122 islands, which comprise one of Australia's most important seabird breeding areas.

    Geraldton has pretty Norfolk pine lined streets, an assortment of historic buildings and several beaches. Nearby Greenlough is a quiet little community and home to the 17 km Greenlough River Walk Trail.

    Like Carnarvon, Geraldton-Greenough is often overlooked by travellers, but they're both well worth some exploration.

    I highly recommend The Greenough River Bed & Breakfast and L'Attitude 28 cafe, home of the best piece of chocolate tuxedo cake I've ever had..

  • 9. Destination #8, Cervantes & the Pinnacles

    Some 258 km south of Greenough (3.5 hours with stops), is the tiny town of Cervantes, gateway to Nambung National Park and The Pinnacles.

    There are several places to stop and explore between Geraldton-Greenough and Cervantes, including the Irwin River Estuary, Fisherman's Memorial, and South Beach, all of which can be found in/around Dongara-Port Denison. There are also some stunning white sand dunes located on the Dongara Coastal Road.

    Indian Ocean Drive, the scenic coastal route toward Jurien Bay leads through the quiet seaside town of Leeman, where you'll find a scenic lookout offering some glorious ocean views.

    More white sand dunes and a large number of Norfolk pines can be found near the crayfishing town of Jurien Bay.

    There's not much to the town of Cervantes, but it's the ideal location from which to explore the national park. The Discovery Center (which closes at 4:30) and the entrance to Pinnacles Desert is a short 17 km drive from town.

    For those unfamiliar, the Pinnacles Desert consists of thousands of odd limestone formations that mysteriously rise from yellow sand. To say it's bizarre is an understatement. A loop trail through the Pinnacles begins behind the Discovery Center. This is an incredible place - all the more so as the sun goes down, drawing long shadows behind the pillars; it's a photographer's dream. And yes, there are plenty of flies.

    Other points of interest near Cervantes include Hansen Bay, where a 70 step climb leads to a lookout offering expansive views of town, Lake Thetis and some neighboring islands. There's a boardwalk at Lake Thetis that leads to a viewing area overlooking some stromatolites and a trail that circles the lake.

  • 10. Back to Perth

    The drive from Cervantes to Perth takes close to three hours. As of this writing a new road is being built (a continuation of Indian Ocean Drive) that will reduce the drive time by close to an hour.

    There are numerous places to stop in the Perth Hills before reaching the city, including the tiny town of Gin-Gin, which is a good place for coffee or lunch.

  • 11. Practicalities

    Driving in the NW of WA can be daunting. Don't underestimate the travel distances involved and the time it takes to get from place to place.

    Plan well yet be flexible, don't drive tired; stay off the roads at night and be ever vigilant for kangaroos, livestock and road trains.