A road trip right across Western Australia, travelling as the locals do, is a lot more fun than a flight – just make sure your wheels are working.
We’re in Perth ready to set off on our road trip back to Broome. The journey is around 2200 km away, not exactly a Sunday afternoon drive. While many might loathe the idea of being stuck in a car for that, I relish the opportunity to explore the ever-changing landscapes of Western Australia.
Exploring Fremantle, Western Australia
Every other day has been blue-sky beautiful, but today in Perth it’s raining cats and dogs. Maybe it’s fortuitous, giving us time to do the last bit of mechanical tweaking on Reddy, our red 2004 Falcon XR6. During our stay in Fremantle we enjoyed live music, markets, galleries, Cappuccino Strip and Point Peron, an important feeding ground for the endangered Little Penguins. I’ve also toured Little Creatures brewery, which pioneered the craft beer movement here, knocking back their Pale Ale and some other brews. But we’re ready now to head into the wide, sparsely settled north, in the air-conditioned car we swapped our 1989 Suzuki Vitara for in Meekatharra – it’s sure to be a smoother return ride back to Broome, than our drive down here to Perth.
Port Hedland and the Great Northern Highway, WA
There are two main routes between Perth and Broome: The North West Coastal Highway (or ‘coast road’, as it’s known in this neck of the woods) and the slightly shorter Great Northern Highway (or ‘inland road’), preferred by locals. I flew into Broome just after Cyclone Hilda swept through. The road is dry as Arnold and we leave town on New Year’s Eve for Perth. We hear a police siren, realising it’s us they’re tailing. “Is there any reason why you’re driving 60 kilometres per hour in a 110 zone?” the policeman asks. “I can’t talk and drive that fast,” says Arnold, a Yawuru musician, carver and bush mechanic from Broome, explaining we have a lot of catching up to do.
When I first drove from Perth to Broome in the late 1970s, this next 610-kilometre stretch was a rough, red dirt road edging the Great Sandy Desert. Today it’s bitumen, but most travellers still stop at Sandfire Roadhouse for petrol, a shower or frozen mangos. At Port Hedland, Australia’s largest bulk export port, we watch the giant ore ships coming in and out of its busy working harbour, and trace history on Wedge Street through the timber home stopped with corrugated iron roofs. Rounding out the historical feel, there’s the Pier Hotel, the Old Methodist Church and the Courthouse-turned-art gallery, as well as Dome cafe, housed in a heritage building.
Road Trip troubles at Mount Tom Price and Karijini National Park, WA
The trip’s going well until just north of the Munjina (Auski) Roadhouse, before the Mount Tom Price and Karijini National Park turn-off, I have my foot flat to the floor when the car won’t push past 80 kilometres per hour. There’s something wrong; Arnold thinks it could be the spark plugs.
“What’s a spark plug?” the backpacker working at the roadhouse asks.
Further down the road we clamber down into a bushfire-blackened gulley, walking through the soft ash to strip some bark off the burnt gum trees. Arnold is excited; the bark is perfect for making yarrvidji, the Yawuru term for ‘flat plate’.
We change the spark plugs at the mining town of Newman, but 80 kilometres out of Meekatharra the speedo keeps dropping until it’s down to 50 kilometres per hour.
Making mates in Meekatharra, WA
It’s 43 degrees Celsius and we’re laughing at our bad jokes, but I’m worried.
And then a 4WD HiLux drives along beside us.
“What’s wrong?” the driver and passenger yell.
“Spark plugs,” Arnold yells back.
It’s a father and son, both called Patrick, just knocked off from a long shift at a nearby mine. When they can’t sort out the problem, the Patricks tow us into town. He asks if we’d like to swap our Suzuki for a little red Ford they have in their garage. It’s a matter of Aussie lateral thinking. They want a bush car for hunting and fishing (and they have a spare engine) and we want a car that will get us to Perth.
Patrick Senior is sympathetic; he was once stranded in the desert with his wife and baby girl. He’s typical of the friendly locals in these parts of the country, like the chef at the Royal Mail Hotel in Meekatharra who left his kitchen to swap veggies for Arnold’s barramundi.
Cue, Horrocks and Lynton Convict Hiring Depot, WA
We leave town early to make it to Perth before dark since Reddy’s headlights don’t work, but not far out of Cue – the ‘Queen of the Murchison Goldfields’ – I brake suddenly.
“Is there something wrong with the brakes now?” Arnold asks.
I point at a male emu and four chicks crossing the road. Broody males are known for their sole-parent duty.
And so, after finding spare parts and fixing the headlights, we’re on the coast road north, turning off at Northampton towards the small coastal town of Horrocks. I love its colourful beach shacks and the pontoon that bobs in the sea. Locals fish off the jetty as we watch a giant orange sun sink into the Indian Ocean.
Road trips are about discovering mysterious sites, and past White Cliffs Road, a spectacular shortcut heading north to Kalbarri, we stumble across the Lynton Convict Hiring Depot. Established in 1853 to supply labour to the Geraldine Lead Mine on the Murchison River, the site is scattered with sandstone ruins – and it’s eerily quiet. As we inspect the area, we’re reminded of the harsh and isolated life the early settlers would have led.
A swimming hole in the Pilbara region, WA
We think we have a swimming hole between Nanutarra and Roebourne all to ourselves but, as I swim out through the reeds towards a river island, I see two girls on lilos catching a few rays. We soon have front-row seats to theatrical displays of electrical storms flashing above the vibrant Pilbara scenery as we drive towards Port Hedland.
Cyclone Joyce has hit in the meantime and locals have been using tyre levers to catch barramundi washed across Roebuck Plains, 30 kilometres east of Broome.
“Keep your eye on the yellow line,” Arnold says as water splashes all over the car. “If it disappears, we’re too deep!”
But with Arnold’s skilful driving, Reddy just glides on through and we arrive safely back in Broome, rounding up our road trip.