Welcome to Western Australia

A passage through Ningaloo Reef, viewed on a scenic flight with Norwest Air Work.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Our Travel Editor has spent 30 years travelling around WA. Here, he reflects on the State's five diverse tourism regions.

The distinctive blue canopy of the Western Australian sky is there, whether you are looking up through the tingle trees of the South-West or the palm trees of the tropical north. Whether it is a slot between the modern glass towers of Perth city or merging with the steel-blue of the Southern Ocean.

The massive mantle of the sky crowns this wide, red land.

It is the thing that overseas visitors remark upon most, and it gives us the dominating sense of space. It gives us freedoms.

The pale light of morning gives way to a bleaching deluge through the day. Then the milky softness of sunset before it bursts blood and peach.

We all know those moments, from Ocean Beach to Eighty Mile Beach, Nanga to Nullagine.

It is all remarkable.

Western Australia is the vast third of Australia, on the trailing edge of the continental plate. Travellers can happily fossick around in our 2.5 million square kilometres of landscape and along the 12,889km of WA’s coastline.

It’s about feeling at home in a place so big that, if it was Europe, Perth would be in Spain and the Kimberley’d be in Norway. Ha! Imagine that. Our backyard.

Experience Perth

“You could be in the Greek Islands.” I said it in an intimate bay round the back of Rottnest Island, just as I have at Point Peron and regularly do in little rocky bays and coves on the Swan River anywhere from Mosman Park to Resolution Point in Dalkeith.

It’s not that the Greek Islands are any better than Perth, but more that they are a measure. They are a dream, and that means we are living a dream.

For even here, with the towers of the city just over the brow of a hill, there are many spots where you can be out of the sight of everyone, surrounded by limestone, capped by blue sky, water shushing with wind and wake at the gravely lip of the Swan River.

Last weekend I watched ospreys in a nest being buzzed by a peregrine falcon. Imagine that, here, in a capital city. Then sipped morning coffee on a bench, mesmerised by the oil-paint sheen of still river.

Experience Perth – that’s what the tourism region from Lancelin down past Mandurah and up the Avon Valley past Northam and centred on the city’s called. Yes, I really experience Perth.

It’s good to see it through the eyes of others, too. Ask visitors what they like about the place and they’ll tell you it’s the big, blue sky that hangs above it all, cerulean.

They’ll tell you it’s the space and cleanliness, the river and the parks – particularly King’s Park, which remains the State’s most visited tourist venue. They’ll stroll through the Western Australian native flora beds and across the walkway, 50m up, and get a different perspective on the place. And up there, we can see it all through fresh eyes, too.

And then on down the hill into the canyons of commerce, where coffee shops puff aromas and their chatterers sprawl out on the pavements.

No, it’s not a big, fast, dirty, noisy, crowded city, and thank goodness for that, too. There are plenty of them. Perth’s Perth, and that’s why we’re here.

Fremantle’s Fremantle and that’s why people love it. For me, it still has the scent of square riggers coming in, and Mediterranean migrants arriving later and making the brew it is today. More pasta than you can poke a stick at, and the markets to wander through for their pulse.

Some friends just took the kids to one of those bigger, faster cities, and still had a few days’ holiday left when they got home. They spent every one of them on the beach 10 minutes from their home in Fremantle. “We got coffee, went down there and sat under an umbrella reading books and swimming from 9 to 2 everyday – and realised what an incredible place this is.”

Scourfield’s picks

Australia’s South-West

The snaking bitumen of Caves Road suddenly plunges over an edge and winds down through the bleached pencils of Boranup’s karri forest. This is the furthest west that karris grow, and they pass like a pale railing.

I turn off the road and onto a 4WD track pointing towards the coast. And then, after a few kays of rocks and sand, I stop, pull to the side, turn off the engine, then step out into the cathedral of the forest. It is choral with birdsong; the musky scent of litter rises like incense in the warming day.

Australia’s South-West tourism region stretches from north of Bunbury to the Margaret River and Augusta capes, across through Walpole and Denmark and way out east of Albany, but I think of this spot in Boranup first.

There are the trees, the birds, the sense of leaving main roads for the thin old road between Yallingup and Augusta, and then even off that. And with that, a sense of adventure. And then there is the coast – this spectacular coast of the South-West.

Cape Leeuwin is the cusp. North of that, it’s Indian Ocean, then out to the left of it, to the east, it’s the Southern Ocean, careering unchecked round the globe, licking the three great capes – here, Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.

All bets are off. The changing ocean affects the mood of the coast, but swimming out in Greens Pool, you’re safe behind the elephantine granite that shelters this emerald jewel in Williams Bay, near Denmark.

The town itself clings around the Denmark River, which has the mildest of demeanours, and helps to encourage the slower pace.

Wineries and eateries, sure, but I wouldn’t miss Denmark market. Running since 1981, there’s everything from veggie samosas to beanies, jarrah spatulas to olives.

And I wouldn’t miss the eclectic little second hand book shop up the street, where authors jostle against one another, ready for holiday reading.

These are the lazy days of the South West, where a surf at sparrow’s gives way to a soporific lunch and then the drift of holiday makers off to nooks for a couple of hours’ quiet before the business of afternoon tea and muffins, and then the roar of evening burgers and board-games.

In Augusta in the morning, we end up with a takeaway coffee and vanilla slice for the bakery for breakfast. It’s holidays, after all. Sitting out on the grass at the end of Georgiana Park, looking out in the Hardy Inlet, watching families getting to grips with the day.

Two dads have taken toddlers off to potter about in the shallows, herding tiddlers. And the men are back in their childhoods, too.

“Look,” one calls, shinning up on a boulder and holding his arms out wide. “A shag on a rock.”

His mate just shakes his head and smiles. “More like a dag on a rock,” he reckons.

Scourfield’s picks

Australia’s Coral Coast

I walk south, sandy toed, fringing the fringing reef of Ningaloo, and looking out from the west coast’s blonde, beachy necklace across azure water to the breaking white where swell pushes in and dissipates over coral.

And then, frog footed and flapping, walk backwards into the calm Indian Ocean, all finned up and roaring air through the snorkel, spit smearing the inside of the mask.

This is Turquoise Bay, on the outside of North West Cape, just over the range from Exmouth. And this is surely one of the most intoxicating snorkel locations you could imagine.

Drift snorkelling. Swim out, just a few strokes, over shoaling fish that flash silver as a mirror-ball, and then let the current carry you up to the sandy point. Crawl out of the water, walk back down and do it all again until you’re drunk with it.

Then sit in the warm sand, towel wrapped around your legs against the still-strong falling sun, digging your toes in, hugging your knees, watching another unutterably slow sunset the colour of cut flesh.

This is the essence of Australia’s Coral Coast tourism region. Coral Bay, Shark Bay, Gnaraloo, Quobba. Fishing from tinnies, surfing left breaks, paddling sea kayaks, divers in full kit, black as sealions, kids with floaties. It touches the salty essence of the Western Australia psyche. Mates on wave safaris, families soaked in simple pleasures.

Then down to Kalbarri, Northampton, Geraldton, Dongara, Jurien Bay and Cervantes.

This is the sort of coastline that the rest of the world dreams of.

It is remarkable, but perhaps nothing is as dramatic for me as staring at lumps in the still waters of Hamelin Pool.

They are living stromatolites, which first colonised here between 2000 and 3000 years ago, though the organisms that built them were the earliest forms of life on Earth. Fossilised stromatolites, virtually unchanged, show a lineage dating back 3500 million years. The beginnings of life on Earth.

Imagine that. Here I am, looking down at the first oxygenators, which started making this such a good planet.

And then, even closer to Perth, thousands of limestone pillars rise out of the yellow sand in Nambung National Park. Some Pinnacles rise up to 3.5m. Some are like tombstones. Composed of seashells in an earlier epoch rich in marine life, they may have taken thousands of years to form, but were exposed only a few hundred years ago.

We rode there once on trail bikes, up the tracks and beach. Had a ball. Dressed in motocross gear – a big, ribbed chest deflector, plastic elbow and knee protectors, awesome boots and those Darth Vader helmets.

And my mate clacked around the Pinnacles in the late light with a jerky, robotic walk and Pommie accent. “I say, have you seen R2D2? I seem to have lost the little chap.”

Nailed it.

If, anywhere on Earth, there was a desert like something out of Star Wars, surely this is it.

The other bloke with us caught a fish and we cooked it up and ate avocadoes out of their shells with a spoon. And then we camped, companionable, on the beach and woke up in Hangover Bay.

Scourfield’s picks

Australia’s North West

I’ve arrived in Broome dozens of times and in all sorts of ways. By plane, of course, and usually from the south, feeling the massive landscape gradually taking over as the chocolate-rock and golden spinifex of the Pilbara inches by, then tracking up Eighty Mile Beach, wheeling out over Roebuck Bay and bursting onto the land. Sometimes from the east, out of Kununurra, mesmerised by the ancient Kimberley story revealed through the window, beneath me.

I’ve arrived after a few days in the vehicle, voyaging the land, pushing up through the Pilbara, stopping off in Karijini National Park and dipping into its gorges, a night and watching the karaoke at the Pier Hotel in Port Hedland, then hitting the long straight after the Sandfire Roadhouse. And I’ve arrived on the motorcycle, rolling off and sleeping in a swag on the roadside.

And it just doesn’t matter how you arrive. The impact is the same. To arrive in Broome is like falling against a palette of oil paint that has just two colours. There is the red earth — a colour as dense as raw muscle — and, above it, the turquoise of an ocean that blends up to the bleached sky.

It is pure drama.

Broome was always our secret – our winter getaway - but it’s grown up a bit, and now it caters for the well-heeled as well as the sandy-footed. Ritzy resorts, congenial caravan parks, back at the backpackers’.

And then I’m on up the road, crossing the Fitzroy River at Willare road bridge and rolling into Derby, surrounded by the massive, crazed brown frame of the dried-out mudflats.

Then in past Mowanjum its arts centre and I’m on the Gibb River Road, heading east, calling in at stations, stopping the night in homestays, swimming in gorges, swagging it. Whatever. I’m here, rolling in the red of the Kimberley dust.

Mt Elizabeth half way, Home Valley all tizzed up, over the Pentecost River and mesmerised by the Cockburn Range burnished by last light.

I knew El Questro before it was developed for tourists, when they paid a dollar for each of the million acres of it. It always was a place where things came together. All those rivers – the King, Pentecost, Chamberlain, Salmond – with permanent water and gorges.

Kununurra is infused with fresh water, too, all held back in Lake Argyle and trickling through its arteries. And further up, the pulse of the tides in Wyndham.

Scourfield’s picks

Australia’s Golden Outback

Two old photographs come to my mind when I think of the Goldfields. One is of sandalwood piled up ready to be shipped – canyons of it, as high as a house and the length of a suburb. The other is of the wood lines that fed timber to the mines during the first mining boom, after Paddy Hannan rode into Coolgardie with 3.1kg of gold in 1893 and the richest goldfield in Australia was found.

During those years in which the history of the Goldfields was forged, the forests around and north of Kalgoorlie in particular took a hammering.

But those historic pictures are in stark contrast to how the area looks today.

Now my mind is filled with the silver and green flicker of waxy eucalypt leaves in a desert wind. I see ribbons of bark trailing off their trunks and the red grit earth and sometimes a grey, shrubby undergrowth.

The area between Hyden and Norseman, and Coolgardie and Ravensthorpe, has one of the best woodlands in Australia, pitted with natural salt lakes, granite rocks and the vein of human history running diagonally along the Holland Track, established long ago by hopefuls walking to Coolgardie and on to the Golden Mile.

To camp at McDermid Rock and wake to the brisk breeze and chirp of white cheeked honeyeaters is to really feel the landscape.

To drive on up to Coolgardie and walk its cemetery and old streets, and see the boards explaining their former, bustling glory, and then on up to Kalgoorlie, which feels it still, is to touch a history both past and being made.

The Goldfields themselves might be the heart of Australia’s Golden Outback tourism region, but it sprawls off to the north through the Murchison and the inland range country, out east into the deserts, through the Wheatbelt to its west, and down to the squeaky white beaches of Esperance and the feeling of being deluged by light and oxygen.

In each you can find something that cuts to part of the essence of the Australian psyche.

I like driving a highway punctuated with big tyres painted white, their signs pointing in to stations.

I like fossicking through Wheatbelt towns; conceived in confidence, born in hope, often clinging to a main road and rail line. Machinery stores, op shops and the pub. Wide back streets and weatherboard houses.

I like the early morning light in their straight-as-a-die salmon gums.

I like the plunge southwards, whether it’s down the Hyden Lake King Road, or perhaps through Widgiemooltha, skirting Lake Cowan, and Norseman on the Coolgardie Esperance Highway.

And then you’re there, on the south coast, an abrupt tear when the continent ends and the rollicking Southern Ocean passes in smooth swells like pulled rich blue and turquoise toffee.

Scourfield’s picks


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