Broome to Karratha by way of Karijini National Park (7 days)
These notes were written by Eric and occasionally amended by Jean. Eric took some of the photos and Jean took others. All photos were selected, cropped, and inserted into this file by Jean. Factual information was taken from various sources including tourist brochures; we do not guarantee its accuracy.
Click on a photo to see a full size version. Not recommended for readers on dialup connections — some of these files are between 1 and 2 MB.
Day 34, Broome to 80 Mile Beach, Thursday 8 July 2004
We got away a little after 8 a.m., heading southwest down the Great Northern Highway. We stopped briefly at Sandfire Roadhouse (latitude S19.46, longitude E121.06), which had a small caravan park and some cabins. This is the only place to refuel for several hundred kilometres.
Our aim was the Eighty Mile Beach caravan park (latitude S19.45, longitude E120.40, map ref. 26), run by Col and Jo Lewis. This is about 350 km down the coast from Broome, and about 10 km off the Great Northern Highway along a corrugated dirt road. We were anxious to get there not long after midday, because there is basically nothing else that sounded interesting in the 600 km between Broome and Port Hedland. There are certainly no towns. The caravan park has about 200 sites, a small bunkhouse for backpackers, and 7 cabins, plus one self contained cabin with ensuite. They had already run out of powered caravan sites (just as well we didn’t want one of them), so we felt lucky to have arrived in time to get a cabin — possibly the last one available.
We were pretty happy with the cabin, since it had ample room, a fridge and a microwave, cutlery and crockery, plus a barbecue and tables outside. Of course, there was no phone, and we were out of range on our mobile phones; and there was no ensuite, so we had to walk to the ablution block. They did however have a coin-operated internet machine, which we didn’t try. The major disadvantage of all these places is that you can invariably hear the generators from any place in the campground. (Jean claims not to notice generators.)
The beach was on the other side of the coastal sand dunes that protect the caravan park from the sea. The beach (and dunes) stretched farther than the eye could see in either direction. Also as far as the eye could see at high tide were fishermen, standing ankle deep in the water or on the sand, rods ready for a strike. They were spread out, about 20 metres apart, each with his or her (mostly his) own territory. Far up the beach were some 4WD vehicles, and every now and then another would drive slowly along the beach. The midwinter equatorial sun was still pretty hot, and the temperature must have been about 30C.
Later in the afternoon we took another walk on the beach. The happy fishermen were mostly packing up and walking back to the caravan park. We didn’t actually notice many fish being carried. In fact, none. We asked a few people, and discovered that all the ones we talked to had spent several hours feeding fish their baits, but not catching anything. They all seemed happy with their afternoon, despite this lack of catch.
This recalls a friend’s comment during a recent visit to the area, about fit and happy retirees in Australia (in contrast to those in England). No-one we saw here was ever going to get on the cover of some beautiful people magazine, showing lean, youthful and rich figures lazing on a tropical beach with a cocktail to hand and a waiter hovering respectfully. Most were in old clothes, most were about our age or older, most were a little overweight, most a touch sunburnt. However all seemed to have a cheerful word about their day.
We went fairly early to the caravan park store to buy dinner. They did old fashioned steak sandwiches and hamburgers with home made meat patties, lashings of salad, all on giant buns. Slowed us both right down, but it was one of the best hamburgers we’ve had this trip (and many country store hamburgers are really great).
The ablutions block here had some of the best designed showers we’ve seen. As well as the shower head pointing from the side (rather than out into the dry area as some do), the shower had real shower doors. Apparently they’d all been recently retrofitted with prefab shower stalls. The dressing area was thus kept mostly dry, and was well supplied with hooks for clothes, and a bench. The floor material was some sort of composite that seemed to dry very readily. There was a mop and squeege supplied in the ablutions block, so you could quickly disinfect and dry the shower area. Well done, especially for a place so remote from any competition.
Day 35, 80 Mile Beach to Port Hedland, Friday 9 July 2004
In the early morning, at low tide, the beach was stunning. The water was far away, and the wet sand was laden with myriad sea shells, many of them colourful. We went for a bit of a walk before we set out on the road again. A sign assured visitors that collecting shells was allowed (in contrast to the situation in National Parks and other protected areas), and we noticed quite a few people had made extensive collections.
Back on the main highway, we again saw the lady bicycle tourist we had first seen way back in Halls Creek. Slow and steady was beating our lengthy stays at any interesting place.
Pardoo roadhouse is just before the turnoff to the 12 km dirt road to Cape Keraudren Nature Reserve and Coottenbrand Creek. Camping is available on the beach for those staying for the fishing. We didn’t visit.
About 30 km further along, Pardoo Station homestead, 13 km off the main road, has accommodation and camping facilities, and offers a chance to experience station life. You do need to book ahead for these station stay facilities.
We reached Port Hedland (latitude S20.19, longitude E118.36, map ref. 27) in the early afternoon.
Port Hedland Port Authority is an iron ore export industrial centre for BHP Billiton and their Boodarie Iron. You can take a tour of the BHP Nelson Point iron ore facility, and also the Boodarie Iron hot briquette plant (by way of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and the School of the Air, plus the Cyclone Forecasting Centre). Dampier Salt produces sea salt for industrial purposes, and you can tour this plant also.
The town of Port Hedland supports the mining operations. The population of the area is about 15,000 people, and the spread out shire covers 11,844 square kilometres. We spotted a shire Welcome sign on the highway 110 km from the town. Local roads are somewhat scarce, with 177 km of paved road, and 380 km of dirt road. Shortage of space around the port led to an additional residential area being constructed at South Hedland. The only cyclone forecasting centre the Bureau of Meteorology operates in West Australia is on the road into Port Hedland, which seems to be frequently in the path of cyclones.
Captain Peter Hedland discovered the harbour in 1829, and the town served as a port for the Marble Bar gold rush after Port Hedland was established in 1892.
After settling in at a Great Western Hotel (since we needed access to a phone line), we went seeking lunch at the nearby shopping centre.
After lunch we drove into the port area, and to the Port Hedland Visitor Centre. We wandered around any historic buildings that had information signs on them, and also looked at the ships. You can see these from a small waterside parkland at the end of the main shopping street.
From any place along the shore you see giant carrier ships out to sea. Several were docked at the port, being loaded. These ships displace over 200,000 tons, and several were over 300 metres long. Not a small port at all, it is the second largest iron ore port in the world. Ore comes from the Newman area, over 426 km of railroad. The open air Dan Rhodes mining museum on Wilson Street features three restored locomotives.
Red dust was all over the town, only partly from the red soil. Every building, every roof, every piece of material in town had ingrained red. Even the pigeons wore red dust coats.
Day 36, Port Hedland to Tom Price, Saturday 10 July 2004
Sunrise was a spectacular sight, since iron ore dust is scattered through the air. Nothing like particulates in the air to provide wonderful sunrise and sunsets.
We tried to get on the road early, as we’re heading inland to Karijini National Park today.
We turned away from the coast after about 50 kilometres. The landscape alternated between very flat land, broken by dry river beds, and worn down hills. The land got more and more red, with more rocks exposed. The piles of boulders were not unlike smaller, more frost-shattered versions of the Devil’s marbles of the Northern Territory. The road ran past rolling hills, partly covered by spinifex.
Around lunchtime we finally reached the first sign of any facilities. This was the Auski roadhouse at Munjina, where we bought sandwiches for lunch. Auski have motel units in their caravan park, which is the only thing there apart from the service station. We decided against staying overnight, as Tom Price looked a slightly better base. It is, after all, a town. A side road leads from Munjina to Wittenoon and some gorges on the north side of the National Park. Wittenoon is infamous for its blue asbestos mine, long closed.
Soon after leaving Munjina we entered the Karijini (Hamersley Ranges) National Park in the heart of the Pilbara region, and came upon small interesting gorges. We stopped for photographs of the road cutting through Munjina Gorge. The cuttings through the rock showed the deep red layered strata rather well. The highway cuts across a corner of the national park, then exits the park, and continues to Newman. We had some excellent views of the gorge the road cuts through from a viewing area at the end of a dirt road marked with a photography sign.
We soon turned off on the Great Northern Highway for the road to Tom Price. This took us past the entrance to the Karijini National Park visitor centre, so we drove the 11 kilometres into there. The Visitor Centre is constructed of solid iron, with massive sheets of black iron stark against the rugged red landscape.
We wanted to ensure we could get a room for the night at Tom Price, so as soon as we had collected maps and descriptions of the park, we continued the 100 km to the town.
The Hamersley Iron (part of Rio Tinto) mining town of Tom Price (pop 3500, latitude S22.42, longitude E117.48, map ref. 28) is the support town for a gigantic open cut iron ore mine, at the base of the 1128 metre Mt Nameless, four kilometres from town. Tom Price is the highest town in West Australia, at 747 metres, and we found it can be cold at night. As with Port Hedland, the entire town is covered with red dust.
We got a room for two nights (all we could get) at the Tom Price Hotel Motel in the centre of town, and discovered that renovations had closed their food facilities over the weekend. A nearby fast food place provided a somewhat ensmalled evening meal. We should have taken the advice of the hotel and eaten at the other motel, the Karijini Lodge.
By evening it was obvious that Eric had again caught a cold.
Day 37, Tom Price, Sunday 11 July 2004
We got on the road early for a drive to the National Park, after refilling the car with fuel.
Unfortunately, we soon ran into light rain. By the time we got to the first entry road to the National Park, the rain was heavier. We could see that even heavier cloud covered many of the gorge areas. We didn’t attempt any of the lookouts, as it was plain that little could be seen. We turned around and returned to the hotel, having basically wasted a couple of hours. Now to see if we could get accommodation for another night.
We visited the local caravan park, in the shadow of Mt Nameless, however their cabins were booked out until Wednesday.
The helpful Tom Price Visitor Centre was open on Sunday morning, so we checked there about potentially using the private railroad service roadway to get back to the coast. This drops a potential 600 kilometre or more journey on sealed roads to a 250 kilometre drive on a dirt road, and cuts travel time from a day to about four hours. First we had to watch a safety video about the road. It was pretty standard stuff about driving in remote areas on gravel roads, but the constant reference to boggy creek crossings left us less inclined to see that road as an alternative, especially as heavy rain could turn it into a quagmire.
Back at the motel we looked for our warmer clothing, as it was turning unseasonably cold, despite an average winter high of 28C. We saw locals in woollen beanies. The renovations that had prevented any food service had also taken out the power until midday, so the room was quite dark as well as cold. We consoled ourselves by thinking that at least we weren’t in a tent.
Jean went out and battled with the elements several times during the day, to buy a newspaper and check the only other motel for a room (no luck). However, she did discover that their dining room looked a bit more modern than where we were staying, and they had a buffet dinner that evening, starting at 5 p.m., so we had a good evening meal. As we were leaving we asked again about rooms, and were able to get one for the Monday night. That gives us one more day to wait for the rain to clear up.
Day 38, Tom Price, Monday 12 July 2004
Another wasted day. It was cold and raining when we awoke. It was raining when we packed the car. While we waited at the Karijini Lodge bar for our room to be ready, we did see some patches of blue sky, but mostly it was overcast. While we were waiting Jean found someone who had been out to the National Park recently and said the roads were in good condition, so that was encouraging.
The room wasn’t actually ready when we eventually got the key. Jean contacted reception, and eventually housekeeping cleaned it for us. The room was a bit old and tired, and the lighting was entirely inadequate for reading. Other than that, it worked fine. (At least we weren’t in a tent.)
We had another buffet dinner at the Karijini Lodge, which serves copious quantities of good plain food, which we like. It was pretty obvious that many people there were not tourists, but workers at the mine. Both hotels, and the caravan park, seemed to have a lot of workers staying in them.
Day 39, Tom Price to Port Hedland, Tuesday 13 July 2004
The overpriced and somewhat tired room at Karijini Lodge at least includes a decent and huge breakfast buffet. You can tell they cater for the mine workers, as breakfasts start at 5 a.m.
Jean phoned and booked a room, for the first time this trip, back at the Best Western where we had previously stayed in Port Hedland. By this time it was obvious that she had caught a cold, probably from Eric.
We set off hoping for the clouds to clear, and we could see a fair bit of clear sky also. Luckily the park roads, mostly in undulating country, were still in great condition. We had no problems, and were able to travel at 70 kph on some of the dirt roads.
It was about 40 km from the turnoff from the highway to the Weano day use area. There we saw our first set of gorges, where we had a view of four gorges (Weano, Hancock, Joffre and Red gorge) meeting from Oxer lookout, and then from Junction lookout. They were pretty spectacular, hidden as they were in what didn’t seem to be rugged country.
Fourteen kilometres back down the road we took the next turnoff, which led to Joffre Falls and gorge. Again a great view of this enormous natural ampitheatre. The recent rain had provided at least a small waterfall.
Continuing along the same road for five kilometres, we pulled into the day use area car park, where we checked out Knox lookout, and got some good views there also.
Another 40 km on, and past the visitors centre, we checked the Dales gorge area, where there is a large camping area. We went straight to the Circular Pool lookout, and then followed Dales gorge rim a little distance to the Three Ways lookout, where you have a good view of another gorge forming.
On the way out, we stopped at the Fortescue Falls lookout, where there were numerous active people playing in the cold water at the Fern Pool, a long hike down from the rim. Most of these longer walks can take hours, and are better suited to those camping in the area. That is one problem with just travelling around in a car in remote areas, where a motel can be hundreds of kilometres away.
We mostly had sunshine, with some cloud cover. It only looked like raining a few times, but never did. All this tourist activity took time, despite us rushing through it. (We’d really intended to have at least one full day.) By the time we got back onto the Great Northern Highway it was after 1 p.m. We again stopped at Auski roadhouse, it being the only place on the entire length of the road to get snacks. A handwritten sign at the cashier’s station said they had 13.2mm of rain the previous day.
Back at the Best Western at Port Hedland, we arranged accommodation for Wednesday night at the Best Western in Karratha (we wanted several nights, but could only get one). Booking ahead isn’t our style, but as we are getting into popular tourist territory and school holidays are on, we don’t want to get caught in the rain without a roof over our heads at night.
Day 40, Port Hedland to Karratha, Wednesday 14 July 2004
We set off late, and stopped at the historic Whim Creek Hotel, 110 km south of Port Hedland on the North West Coastal Highway, which bills itself as the "pink pub of the Pilbara". This hotel was built in the 1890s and is now the last relic of a gold town. It is indeed a shocking pink, and rather battered after a cyclone some years ago. It’s still functioning well, however, and we had lunch at this interesting building. It is also the only place to get lunch in this stretch of coast.
We turned off the North West Coastal Highway and went through Roebourne, an old town dating back to 1866, with many heritage listed buildings. Then past the modern mining town of Wickham on the way to the side road to Cossack.
Cossack is basically an historic town, and about the only working buildings are those turned over to various art galleries. There are plenty of good places for fishing, and there is backpacker accommodation in the old police barracks. We were able to look at the old schoolhouse and the remains of an old train nearby. The 1890 Galbraith store now contains an indigenous art gallery and store. The 1895 Bond Store, which became a turtle soup factory in 1933, now holds the annual Cossack art award, held each August. The old jail, like that in Broome, is now also an art gallery. The Shakespeare-Hall Social History museum is in the old courthouse.
We also visited the Reader Head lookout, which gives an excellent view of the extensive Seattle’s Beach right past Point Samson through to the Robe River iron ore loading facilities at Cape Lambert. We could see numerous enormous ore freighters standing out to sea.
Back at the Roebourne Road, we continued up the peninsula to Point Samson. This small fishing town (pop 250) was a confusing maze of dead end streets, with several seaside lookouts.
We returned to Roebourne and continued on to Karratha (said to be a local Aboriginal term for good country), which is a major town (map ref. 29), and the newest in the Pilbara region. It was founded in the 1960’s to support the iron ore industry which had outgrown the available land at Dampier.
After we settled in at the motel, Jean phoned a bunch of other hotels in town, without finding anyone with a room for the next day, Thursday. She eventually located a room at Dampier, about 20 km further south. Meanwhile, Eric thought to ask reception at Karratha whether they would have rooms later in the week. We could get Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
We wanted this extended time because there is the Millstream Chichester National Park in the area that will take an extended drive to visit, however there is no accommodation any closer than here, unless you want to camp — and we didn’t. We figure we will be away driving on several of the days. And then we will want a day of rest!