Since we entered Western Australia just over 12 months ago, the Pilbara was calling to us for various reasons – travel and work in the south and the wet in the north. We decided to put off our pilgrimage into the area until the wet, and the humidity of summer, had gone. Our journey north started in earnest in autumn, arriving in the Pilbara area early in May, and our time spent cruising the Coral Coast only whetted our appetite for what was to come next.
We left the Coral Bay area early in May, heading into the Pilbara, an ancient land of “The Dreaming”, via Burkett Road. Almost as soon as we started heading west, we could see the colours changing, right before our eyes. To the east dust was rising, but luckily, as they’d had recent rain, it did not develop into a storm. We could see spinifex outcrops dotting the landscape, a few shrubby plants, but not much else in the way of vegetation.
Our first stop for the night was at Giralia Station, where, for $20, we camped in the Giralia Bush Camp. Water and limited power was available, along with hot showers and flushing toilets. The station, with easy access to Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Marine Park, offers outback homestead hospitality that includes bush camping and cottages. For guests who enjoy fishing, a 4WD track down to Giralia Bay gives access to a white sandy beach and mangroves for fishing and crabbing. Several marked bushwalks on the property give you the opportunity to witness the amazing bird life.
With the Pilbara calling us, we moved along from Giralia in search of a freedom camp for the night. The grey North West Coastal Highway, flanked on either side by red earth, was like a ribbon weaving amongst the jump-ups and mesas as we headed towards Nanutarra and the turn-off to the east and Tom Price. We found a delightful overnight camp 62km from the Nanutarra turn-off along the Nanutarra/Wittenoom Road. House Creek Bridge Rest Area is small, but the few RVs there for the night were far enough away from each other so as not to impose. We spent a quiet happy hour with Russell and Michelle from Mandurah, whom we had previously met in Kalbarri National Park.
Thinking back to primary school days, when I learned about Western Australia and the new iron ore mines opening up, I clearly remember my teacher talking about Mt Tom Price. To visit such a town, previously closed to all but the mineworkers, had to be a priority on the bucket list. The road to Tom Price takes you past some pretty spectacular scenery, and on arrival at Paraburdoo, you start to see evidence of the mines. Lestok Tours operates bus tours of the Rio Tinto Iron Ore Mine Site in Tom Price, one of the world’s largest open cut iron ore mines. Experienced guides with good local knowledge give a detailed commentary while you enjoy the ride in an air-conditioned coach or bus.
A visit to Tom Price has to include a drive up to Mount Nameless, which incidentally does have a name. The aboriginal name is Jarndrunmunhna, meaning ‘place of rock wallabies’. At its peak, 1128m above sea level, this is the highest accessible point in Western Australia. About 30 minutes’ drive on a gravel road gives access to the summit (4WD recommended), or alternatively, a walking trail from the base takes approximately three hours return. Once at the summit, some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding ranges of the Pilbara greet you, including the Tom Price Mine Site and township, and the rolling hills of the Pilbara – a great spot to watch a Pilbara sunset, or phone home!
We stayed at the Tom Price Tourist Park, at the base of Mt Nameless. The park features powered and unpowered RV sites, chalets, cabins, backpackers’ accommodation, disabled ablutions and a pool. The town is a modern and fully serviced, designed to blend with the natural environment.
The Pilbara called again, Karijini National Park being the most vocal. Not far from Tom Price, and bitumen all the way, it would have suited us for a day trip, but we chose instead to camp at Dales Gorge Camping Area. There we found well-set-out campsites, with six different camping areas, two of which are dedicated generator sites. With close to 100 private camping bays, the camp hosts are kept busy fending off questions from eager visitors, taking camping fees, and in general maintaining the area.
Within walking distance of the camp are the beautiful Fortescue Falls, and a little further into the gorge is the peaceful Fern Pool, a sunken garden fringed with sedge-type grasses, far from the arid plains above. A refreshing swim here is your reward for the gruelling clamber down the class three and four hike. Further afield from Dales, there are more gorges to greet you, Joffre and Knox, Hancock and Weano. Some are only a 10-minute walk to a lookout; others are a class four and take two hours to negotiate only three kilometres. The gorges are all definitely worth a visit, if only to wander to the lookouts.
We stayed in the national park for 6 nights, taking advantage of the beautiful weather to hike in and around the area, before setting off once again. We joined the Great Northern Highway just south of the Auski Roadhouse, and headed towards Port Hedland. The camp host at the national park had recommended a stopover at Indee Station, 25km short of the North West Coastal Highway. After negotiating the gorges and ravines of the Munjina Gorge, the heavy iron ore trucks on their way to Port Hedland from Newman mines, and long wide loads of mining machinery negotiating the curves, we finally reached the turnoff to Indee.
Indee Station, 9km along a sandy dirt road, across the Turner River, offers typical outback hospitality. You are greeted at the homestead by owners Colin and Betty Brierly and offered tea or coffee. The camp site, an easy walk from the house, has level shady sites and clean amenities: hot showers, flushing toilets, and a washing machine that requests a gold coin donation towards the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a small price to pay to catch up on the heavy laundry, linen and towels. Happy Hour each night is at the homestead, where Colin, who has lived on the property for 50 years, and his wife Betty, supply nibbles and excellent lively and interesting conversation: you just bring your own drinks.
A 10km 4WD track (mud map supplied by Colin) takes you to Red Rock, where, after a 300-metre climb, you can see some indigenous rock engravings, and enjoy a 360-degree view of the Pilbara plains and the mountain ranges in the distance. Nearby, there is a memorial to the crew of a Viscount plane that crashed back in 1968, standing as a silent reminder of what happened on that fateful day. The memorial was moved from its original site in 2004 due to mining activity in the area. It now stands at a beautiful and serene location, with a Pilbara backdrop, in memory of those who died. Colin tells us that he was the first to arrive at the crash site back on New Year’s Eve, 1968.
Moving forward (like Red Dog, the Pilbara Wanderer) the coast called us again, so we left Indee reluctantly after only two nights, with promises to return on our next lap of this great country. We headed towards Port Hedland, where we needed to fill our tanks with diesel, before heading to our last freedom camp in the Pilbara. As a reminder of our proximity to the mining areas of the Pilbara, the highway became busy with road train after road train filled with iron ore. Wide loads jostled for ownership of the bitumen and we had long waits at railway crossings while 2 ½ km-long trains made their way to the port. It was with some relief that, after filling our tanks, we turned back to find our coastal camp between Roeburn and Karratha.
The Nature-Based Camp at Cleaverville Beach found us camped high on a dune with views out over Indian Ocean. The site has no facilities apart from a natural boat ramp and sullage disposal points. You need to bring plenty of drinking water as there is none available.
Sturt Desert Peas were flowering in abundance; it was hard not to walk on them as the quaint little red flowers spilt over into the sand dunes. On the beach, the receding tide left rock pools with gems like coral, sea cucumber and small fish, waiting for the return of the next tide.
Cleaverville is the perfect central camp due to its proximity to Dampier and Karratha to the west, while to the east is Wickham, Horrocks Beach, Port Sampson and Cossack.
Dampier, famous for the Pilbara Wanderer, Red Dog, is the gateway to the Dampier Archipelago, offering sheltered sandy beaches and brilliant sunsets. Hearsons Cove is one of the few sites on the Indian Ocean where you can view Staircase to the Moon, a phenomenon occurring only eight times a year, at low tide when the moon is full.
Day side trips to the east include the villages of Wickham, Port Sampson and Cossack. The first township you pass through is Roebourne, where, with a brochure prepared by school students from Millers Well Primary School in Karratha, you can take a walk around the significant buildings of the village, built around the 1880s to cater for the gold rush. The Visitors Information Centre is based in the old Roebourne Gaol. Cossack, with its early pearling and gold history is next on the agenda, and the 6km heritage trail of Cossack offers a glimpse into its colonial past, taking you past sites and original stone buildings, eight of which have been restored.
The village of Port Samson was established at the turn of the century. Large vessels were unable to travel into Cossack due to heavy silting around the port, so a new deep-water port was required. Today, Port Sampson is one of the largest volume fishing and prawning ports in Western Australia. Walking trails in the area include the John’s Creek Harbour, Sam’s Creek and the Popes Nose Bridge, a favourite fishing spot at the turn of the tide for the Port Sampson locals.
The Pilbara red stains everything it comes into contact with. Our 4WD, normally metallic blue, is tinged with red; the champagne-coloured caravan is tainted with red, our mats, shoes, tyres – everything is stained with red! Even the short-beaked white corellas carry the red of the Pilbara. But the red of the landscape and the green of the spinifex after recent rain is quite breathtaking.
Our Pilbara adventure came at an end, as we headed towards Derby, the launching point of our next adventure.
The best time to visit the Pilbara is April to October, when the climate is milder. Top maximum temperature is about 32 degrees, however in winter it is not unusual to have a minimum of 0 degrees. November to April is the wet season in the North West of Western Australia, along with the risk of tropical cyclones. If travelling during the wet, tune into local ABC radio for updates and alerts, and be prepared to change your itinerary at very short notice.
- Drive or walk to Mt Nameless (Jarndunmunha), Tom Price for sunset and stunning views
- Swim in the cool grass fringed water at Fern Pool in Karijini National Park
- See Indigenous Rock engravings at Red Rock on Indee Station.
- Visit the North West Shelf Visitors Centre for information about Karratha and the LNG project
- Tour the old Roebourne Gaol, via Roebourne Visitor Centre, Ph. 08 9182 1060
- Fish at the Popes Nose, near Port Sampson on the turn of the tide.
- Tour the Rio Tinto Iron Ore mine site at Tom Price. $30.00 per adult. Book at Tom Price Visitor Centre or Lestok Tours. Tours operate most days between April and October.
Ph: 08 9189 2032
- Set yourself up at sunset to watch “Staircase to the Moon”, date- and location-dependent.
- Drive to and walk in the various gorges at Karijini National Park – bitumen road from Tom Price to Dales Gorge – National Park entry applies, $12.00 per vehicle (concessions apply)
HOW TO GET THERE
Perth to Nanutarra turn off, via Brand Highway and Great West Coastal Highway, 1375km. Perth to Port Hedland via Great Northern Highway, 1650 km.
Tom Price Visitor Centre
Central Road, Tom Price.
Ph: (08) 9188 1112
Karijini Visitors Centre
Banjima Drive, Karijini National Park
Ph: (08) 9189 8121
North West Shelf Visitors Centre
Burrup Peninsula, (open Mon-Fri)
Ph: (08) 9158 8292
Roebourne Visitor Centre
Old Gaol, Queen Street, Roebourne.
Water available for caravans, cost: gold coin donation.
Ph: (08) 9182 1600
Karratha Visitors Centre
Water available for caravans – charged by the litre.
Ph: (08) 9144 4600
WA 381: House Creek Bridge
62km East of Nanutarra on the Nanutarra/Wittenoom Road. Long Drop toilets, 24-hour max stay.
WA 460: Dales Campground
Karijini National Park, Dales Campground, Banjima Drive. $13.20 per couple per night (concession) plus National Park entrance fee. Water available, long drop toilets.
WA 394: Cleaverville Beach
$7.00 per night or $45.00 per week. Ph: (08) 9186 8555
Giralia Outback Experience
Burkett Road (between Exmouth and the N.W. Coastal Highway
$10.00 per person night for powered site.
Ph: 08 9942 5937
$10.00 per person per night. Hot Showers and flushing toilets, water available.
Ph: 08 9176 4968
Tom Price Tourist Park
Ph: 08 9188 5488