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Until 1983, when it was accidentally stumbled upon by a film crew, only the local Djaru and Kija people knew of the existence of the Bungle Bungle Range (2013 marks the 30th anniversary of its discovery). Now a World Heritage-listed site its fame has reached far and wide, not least due to its starring role in the 2008 movie, Australia. The Purnululu National Park, a nearly 2,500 square kilometre adventure playground that is home to the Bungle Bungles, is accessed via the Kimberley’s Great Northern Highway. Popular sites in the park, such as the 1,000m long Echidna Chasm and the overhanging natural amphitheatre of Cathedral Gorge can be easily accessed on foot. Alternatively, you can take in the park’s abundant natural wonders, including the distinctive beehive-like domes of the Bungle Bungles, from the air; local operators in Halls Creek and Kununurra offer ‘flightseeing’ tours by both light plane and helicopter.
From the Bungle Bungles in the Kimberley to the Pinnacles Desert in Cervantes, Western Australia boasts an impressive portfolio of geological marvels. Wave Rock, 340km east of Perth, is perhaps the most famous of all. Made of granite, the rock is 15 metres high, 110 metres long and, give or take a millennium or two, believed to be around 2.7 billion years old. But what’s remarkable about Wave Rock is not what it’s made of or even that it was here before the dinosaurs. It’s remarkable because, although it’s a work of nature, such is its resemblance to a wave of breaking surf it could easily be mistaken for a work of sculptural realism. The rock lies 3km from Hyden, a tiny farm settlement in the heart of the WA Wheatbelt that can be reached from Perth by car in just under four hours.
King’s Park is so much more than a park. As well as being one of the largest inner city gardens in the world, it’s also one of the most diverse; acres of wild bushland sit next to manicured lawns and exotic botanic gardens. Visitors can meander between a tree-top walk, one of Perth’s finest restaurants and a relaxed outdoor cinema. Few people know the park better than Greg Nannup head of Indigenous Tours WA. Accompany him on a 90-minute guided walk and he’ll explain why it’s always been the spiritual heart of Perth – a place of meeting, marriages and magic. He’ll also share dreamtime stories, bush skills and botanic medicine insights passed down over thousands of years. And while you’re learning all about Perth’s Indigenous heritage, you’ll also get to enjoy stunning panoramic views of its contemporary skyline.
Australia’s sunniest state capital. Within the Perth metropolitan area there are a remarkable 19 beaches (such is the abundance of sandy real estate, several strips of coastline are reserved just for people who want to walk their dogs!). The city’s most iconic and fashionable beach is Cottesloe, its slew of bars and restaurants making it a favourite hang-out of Perth’s buff-bodied andwell-heeled. Trigg Beach, north of the city, is the number one spot for surfing while more tranquil swimming is available at nearby Mettams Pool, a sheltered bay ideal for mums, dads and bucket-and-spade enthusiasts of all ages. Other beach destinations include City Beach, Scarborough, Sorrento, and Fremantle’s Port Beach. Whichever you choose, be sure to stick around until dusk and watch the sun melt silently into the Indian Ocean – a light show you’ll never forget.
West Australians have been using Rottnest Island (‘Rotto’ for short) as a recreation destination since the early 1900s. It’s now one of the state’s most iconic locations, annually attracting close to 500,000 visitors, mostly locals who continue to flock here (it’s just a short ferry ride from Perth or Fremantle) to enjoy its picturesque scenery, marine life and unspoilt bays and beaches. Except for a hop-on hop-off bus service there are no vehicles on the island. Most visitors choose to get around by bicycle (wheels can be hired for under $20 a day); you can ride the entire circumference (24km) of Rottnest in about 2.5 hours.
Wildlife, especially the marine variety, can be notoriously elusive. Not so the dolphins of Monkey Mia on WA’s Coral Coast. Bottlenose dolphins have been rocking up here daily for over 40 years, making it one of the most reliable encounter sights in the world (dolphins have failed to show up on just four days in the last five years). With dolphins typically approaching the shore up to three times a day, interaction is almost guaranteed. Under the supervision of a park ranger you may even get the chance to present your new bottle-nosed buddy with a fishy snack or two.
British sculptor Antony Gormley (Angel of the North) has created one of his most striking works in the goldfields of Western Australia. On the salt plains of Lake Ballard, 51 silhouette sculptures – life-sized steel casts of people from the nearby town of Menzies – appear ghostlike on the horizon, shimmering in the heat. “I’ll never forget the approach to the lake,” said Gormley of his first visit. “The feeling of being at the edge of endlessness – being on the lip of the edge of the world.” Hire a 4WD to make the two-hour journey north of Kalgoorlie or join a day trip.
The Pinnacles Desert might only be 270km north of Perth but it feels like another planet (guidebooks are fond of describing it as a “moonscape on earth”). Its otherworldly ambience is undeniable; spend just a few hours at the site and you’ll almost certainly find yourself fantasising about piloting your own spaceship or becoming a Jedi Knight. The landscape here is strictly a one-time deal – a freak of climatic and geological circumstance having combined to form thousands of individual limestone pillars, some reaching as high as five metres. Sunrise and sunset are considered the best times to visit (if gold is your favourite colour then you’re really in for a treat), but whatever time you arrive you’ll be glad you did. For many years the site was only accessible by 4WD; today it can be reached and explored in a standard hire car. Moon buggies are welcome too.
Egypt may have cornered the market on pyramids but Australia, believe it or not, is home to the world’s largest population of wild camels. In WA these ‘ships of the desert’ roam the outback in herds up to 100-strong. Approaching them in the wild is not a good idea; they can be a tad unpredictable. But in Broome, a resort town in WA’s tropical northwest that was originally founded as a pearling port in the 1880s, you can hop on the back of a domesticated camel and take a sunset ride along Cable Beach. Frequently listed among the world’s top ten by travel writers, the 22km beach is famous for its white sands, turquoise waters and ‘staircase to the moon’ (a naturally occurring column of iridescent colours created by the moon’s reflection on the sand.
Enjoy a good walk? Got a head for heights? Then the Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk in Walpole is a must for your WA ‘to-do’ list. Suspended 40 metres above ground in the canopy of a giant tingle forest, its walkway spans a total of 600 metres, giving you a unique perspective from which to admire the foliage, the abundant birdlife and the view (and secretly pretend you’re Indiana Jones on a brand new adventure). Towering forests abound in the south west of the state; in the national parks around Pemberton visitors can walk among (or even climb) giant karri trees rising to over 60 metres in height.
With over 12,500km of coastline, it’s not surprising that WA has a reputation as one of the world’s top watersport destinations. Surfing is to many West Aussies what ice fishing is to Eskimos: a way of life. It’s not a sport you can master quickly, but you can certainly have a lot of fun trying; visitors can sign up for lessons at licensed surf schools up and down the coast. Margaret River, three hours south of Perth, is the state’s undisputed wave-catching capital and has conditions to suit every skill level – from gnarly tubes for the experienced rider to friendly beach surf for beginners. Prefer a board with a sail attached? Then head five hours north of Perth to Geraldton, a Mecca for windsurfers of all levels thanks to its consistent winds between October and March. It’s also noted for its seafood. After a day’s surfing get stuck into the lobster – a local speciality.
Karijini National Park is a 600,000 hectare site famed for its dramatic gorges that slice through the Pilbara’s Hammersely Range. Sheer-sided chasms plunge up to 100 metres deep, with spectacular views of the red rockface, two billion years in the making and glinting with iron and gemstones. Hook up with a guide for abseiling and rock jumping or shoot down naturally formed slides that end with a splash into a cooling rock pool. For something more tranquil drive to Dales Gorge, the most accessible of the park’s canyons. Here white-trunked gum trees peer down from the red terraced cliffs onto emerald streams and waterfalls. Don’t miss Fern Pool, where you can float for hours gazing up at the timeless landscape.
No visit to Australia would be complete without some quality time spent in the company of a kangaroo (or two) – and WA won’t let you down. ‘Skippies’ are abundant state-wide, both inland and on the coast. At Lucky Bay in Esperance, a day’s drive south of Perth or 90 minutes by air, the local roo population can often be found sunning themselves on the beach. Join them on the sand, swim, fish or explore the bush walks along the rugged coastline (from where you may even spot a migrating whale or two). Take your best sunglasses; Lucky Bay is regularly named Australia’s whitest beach.
For six months of the year WA comes alive in a blaze of colour and fragrant scents – an exhibition laid on by its native wildflowers. Over 12,000 species come out to carpet the state, from lollipop-shaped everlastings to jewel-coloured orchids. Head north in June or July, where early rains coax desert roses and yellow-flame grevillea from the Pilbara’s red earth. In November the South West takes its turn to bloom. Explore this floral phenomenon on a self-drive trail, or join a tour and let someone else watch the road while you count the colours. And don’t miss Perth’s wildflower festival in King’s Park each September.
Annually, from late March to early July, WA’s World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Marine Park lays on an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet for whale sharks. The world’s largest fish congregate here to chow down on the local zooplankton, giving snorkellers and divers a chance to experience the thrill of looking them in the eye as they mooch by, propelled by a gentle swish of their supersized tail fins. Whale sharks can grow up to 18m long and weigh up to 30 tonnes. But they pose no threat to humans; their giant mouths, large enough to accommodate a family hatchback without collapsing the wing mirrors, are primarily designed for filtering microscopic nutrients. Boat and snorkel tours are operated out of Coral Bay and Exmouth and run daily when the whale sharks are in town. During the height of the season it’s not unusual for tours to encounter multiple sightings – which is good news if, like many visitors, you’re just too excited to operate your underwater camera when the first fish comes looming at you from out of the blue.