The Perth to Broome drive

I got into the habit of writing about trips because my dad liked to read about them. He died last year, but I've kept the habit. And I have a few mates who like me to email them.

Here is the first bit of the drive I just did:

Week 1 – the first two stops.

NASA is going to want to talk to my wife Lisa one day, I reckon. The time will come when they will want to set up a colony on Mars and her advice will be invaluable. We took enough stuff to set up a colony on the west coast.

I’ve watched Lisa pack for many holidays over the years. It happens in stages. There is the first pass where things that are actually useful and needed get laid out. They sit there for a while and are gradually added to with things that probably won’t be needed. Then stuff gets put into bags. If there is any space left – even a teeny tiny one – she swoops on other things that were just lying around the house minding their own business and they get bunged in a bag. If there is any space in my bag (and there always is), it gets filled, too. When I opened my bag in Perth, I found a rug and a cushion that Mimi (the 9 year old) wanted to bring – she has her mother’s genes. I also found a large bag of cables for connecting and recharging gadgets, some of which I am sure we have not owned for years. Curiously, it seems we brought three hot water bottles. New ones. And we brought nine towels. The van came with four towels, so that’s thirteen towels, enough to open a sauna.
The next time we travel overseas and I get asked at customs whether I packed my own bag, I’m going say, ‘No.’

We went straight from the airport to the van hire place in Perth. We’re travelling with another family. They’ve got two kids, too, but far less luggage. Still, when they run out of towels, they’ll be sorry. Our van is some sort of Toyota – a Hiace, I think – with a blister on top where the kids will sleep. It’s the sort of van electricians use. Or the sort you might see zipping around the city delivering parcels. By the time we got all our stuff inside, it looked like a courier van. When we unpacked it looked like the inside of a big suitcase. I could see Lisa thinking, ‘Boy, I would love a suitcase this big.’

Brett got upgraded by the van hire mob. His van is one of those big boxy ones – the size they use for delivering large household appliances. The young bloke at the van hire place felt bad that he couldn’t upgrade both of us, so he agreed readily when I observed that Brett’s van looked a bit dorky compared with our zippy little parcel van. It also beeps, very loudly, when he reverses. And in caravan parks lots of people spend lots of time standing round doing nothing in particular, so a beeping delivery van is keenly watched. On the first night, when Brett was reversing, I stood watching (not helping) with another bloke who wandered up. ‘Loudest beep I’ve ever heard.’ He said. ‘Yeah, looks pretty dorky, too.’ I added.

We spent the first two nights at Cervantes, about 250klm north of Perth. The overnight temperature got down to 1 degree both nights. And we left Sydney to escape the cold. Pity the hot water bottles were buried somewhere. I suspect they won’t be found till we drop off the van in three weeks’ time.

Cervantes has about 500 people. I think the only reason it exists is that the Stromatolites and the Pinnacles are nearby. The visit to the Stromatolites on day two was much anticipated by everyone except me – I had seen them before. But I hadn’t seen the Pinnacles. Lisa said to me in the morning, ‘Do you know what the Pinnacles are?’ ‘Nope’, I said. ‘But I bet they’re things that stick up out of something.’ We resolved to not find out in case it ruined the surprise. But I steeled Lisa for the fact that they probably aren’t as impressive as the Twelve Apostles given I didn’t notice them when I rode up this coast twenty years ago.

I told the kids that the Stromatolites were very exciting. I lied. Well, the notion of them is exciting, but the things themselves look like large piles of cow dung. A sign boasted that the ones in Cervantes are the fourth largest deposit in Western Australia. I reckon if I was the local mayor I would have fudged it and at least said they were the largest in the state.

There are fossils up north that have been dated at around four billion years of age (apologies to any creationists out there) that are identical to the living Stromatolites in WA. They are formed by single cell bacteria massed together. These bacteria release oxygen and are credited with raising the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere to such a degree that other forms of life could develop. So the living Stromatolites in WA of course aren’t four billion years old, but they are identical to ones that lived four billion years ago. See, I told you the idea of them is pretty exciting.

The kids weren’t excited at all. And I have to admit that I was sort of hoping that in the twenty years since I had last seen them that they might have changed in some way and become more exciting. (I admit this was wishful thinking given they haven’t changed in four billion years.)

But the walkway out to the Stromatolites really was exciting. It was a black industrial grid laid on concealed hardwood bearers. I had never seen the stuff before. Brett was pretty impressed, too. And he’s an architect. He said it was carbon fibre. I reckon Cervantes should advertise itself as having the flashest tidal walkway in WA and then just add, ‘Oh, and we’ve got some Stromatolites, too.’

The Pinnacles were worth seeing – even the kids enjoyed running round them. I was right that they were things that stick up. Much smaller than the Twelve Apostles, but far more numerous. There were hundreds of them.

I wanderered round the van park at Cervantes before we left the next morning. It’s one of those ones where lots of people have vans set up as weekenders. There are some very solid, fixed annexes, some garden sheds, carports for boats. Camping is very much the grown-up equivalent of cubby houses. People try to duplicate their homes. But there must come a tipping point where people’s weekenders are more expansive and better equipped than their homes. I wonder if it feels like they are camping when they’re at home?

We left Cervantes and called into Geraldton to do some food shopping on the way to Kalbarri. There are two roads that go north from Perth. One goes straight up the middle, and the other one follows the coast. We’re on the coast road, but it’s still 100klms or so inland in places. Gee, it’s scrubby county to drive through. Lots of grey green scrub interspersed with patches of greeny grey scrub. It ranges from knee high to chest height. A few scrappy trees get to a couple of meters and then obviously figure there’s not much point going any higher. I thought when I was driving that what this coast needs is a mountain range, then I realized they probably had one and found it was made of stuff they could mine and flog.

Some rivers wouldn’t go astray, either. The lack of rivers is the most obvious difference between a drive up the east and west coasts. The east coast explorers had it easy. They would have hit a river every 70klm or so when heading north from Sydney. Inland explorers, or ones in the west, were the ones who died of thirst. It would have been ironic if any of those soft east coast explorers drowned crossing one of the rivers they hit. I bet there were loads of explorers apart from William Dampier and Dirk Hartog who found the west coast long before James Cook set foot on the east coast. I can imagine their excitement when the saw land, and their disappointment when they set foot on shore. ‘Bugger this.’ They would said. ‘Back on the boat boys.’

Kalbarri is about 250klm further up the coast. It’s got about four times as many residents as Cervantes – maybe 2,000 - so I’m guessing it’s got at least times as much stuff to do. It is very much a tourist town. It even has a river. Not a long one, but it’s something.

This is another town that survives on tourists. It’s a pretty place with a couple of caravan parks. They’re full of families – many of them from Perth. It’s school holidays over here. Curiously, we haven’t seen many grey nomads yet.

I wandered down to the van park office in the morning to see what local stuff there was to do and found a brochure for a Canoe Safari.

It worked out at $200 per family or four, but sounded pretty good, so we booked in and lobbed at the appointed time at the hire place for a briefing from Col, our guide.

Col had the easy, relaxed manner of a comedian confident in his material.
‘There are no crocs in the river….. The sharks ate them.’
Boom tish.
‘If you tip over in the river, just stand up.’
He had to do a life jacket demonstration, too. We were wearing ones the same as they have on planes.
‘If you end up in the river, slip the jacket over your head like this. Fasten it around your waist. Then pull on this toggle and the jacket will inflate. If you need to add more air, blow in this tube. Then walk to the edge of the river.’
It was pretty shallow.
He did make a point of telling the kids to not pick up any snakes and said that Bindi Irwin’s fondness for picking up snakes wasn’t great role model stuff.

Then Col drove us up river for half an hour on sandy tracks in his big 4WD bus thing towing a trailer with canoes. So we got the half hour ‘4WD bush tour’ thrown in. He dropped us on the bank of the very pretty Murchison River, and then scarpered downstream. We canoed about 4klms and there was Col on the riverbank with the barbeque going. He had cooked up a pile of sausages and onions and even buttered rolls. So we ate and drank, and then headed back down the river. Another 4klms downstream, Col met us with jam donuts of all things. Then it was another 2klm paddle and we were done. So we got the off-road tour, the canoe bit, a BBQ, jam donuts and Col’s comedy routine all for $200.

It was still bloody cold and that night a big storm hit us. It was the same one that smashed Perth. At 2am I was lying snug in the campervan breathing the fetid air filtered through four bodies and very happy I wasn’t in a tent. Then I heard a flapping noise just outside. ‘Bugger. The bloody annex.’ I forgot I had it up. So there I was at 2am wrestling a wet annex and stuffing it under the van. I was pretty wet myself then, so I wandered around to see if anybody else needed a hand.

The next morning I was doing some washing up in the communal kitchen. There was another bloke beside me and there was talk everywhere of the storm. I said to him ‘It’s good that us blokes do the washing and cooking when we’re camping, isn’t it.’ He agreed. Then I said, ‘Y’know, last night when I was out in the storm and giving a few people a bit of a hand, I didn’t see one woman outside pitching in.’ He agreed. I asked him whether he’d be game enough to bring it up with the missus next storm, but he said probably not.

The following morning I was washing up next to a local woman. She was a farmer from a place a bit inland and she had brought the kids to the coast for a week. I asked what was farmed locally and she said wheat, canola, cattle and some sheep. I asked her whether she had crops or animals. ‘Both.’ She said. ‘We thought we’d try to lose money in every way we could.’ I laughed, but she didn’t. Part of the problem is staff. Farmers can’t afford to pay what the mines pay, and the only people who can’t get a job in the mines are the ones who are too lazy to drive up there.

Day two in Kalbarri we drove out the see the local gorges. It was 28klm on a very corrugated red dirt road. Our zippy little parcel van handled it easily, much more easily than the large appliance delivery vehicle of Brett’s.

I like a good gorge. This one is a weathered red gash that drops to a feeble river – the upper reaches of the Murchison. It’s when you see these weathered gorges cut into the flat land that you realize how old this country is.

We know we’re getting further away from the big smoke because more drivers are waving. Well, not so much waving, as lifting a finger off the steering wheel. It’s a tricky thing. You can’t stick a finger up too quickly, or too vertically, lest it be misinterpreted. Equally, if you get carried away with the greeting and it’s not returned, you feel a bit silly. So the movement needs to be obvious enough to be noticed, but subtle enough so that it could also be an involuntary twitch. I’ve got it down pat. There are a few people who take their whole hand off the wheel and wave. They’d be European tourists. Behind that wave they’d be thinking, ‘Thank God. Another person.’

Next stop, Denham.
Bloody great read!

No wonder your dad liked hearing of your travels, written in such a wry Aussie laid-back way, he would've had many a good belly laugh from them.

Thanks again for sharing.

Safe travels!

Aaah Denham, Lovely place, hope you didn't eat at the bowlo, gees I was crook the next day, greasy chicken with lumps of something :(

Enjoying the read we toured last year :)
Just wondered if you realised what a long long drive it was from Perth to Broome?

Yeah. I did a lap years ago on a motorbike, so I had some idea. We were originally planning to do Perth to Darwin this time, but had a rethink and opted for Broome instead.

Macca, I think most bowlos serve greasy chicken with lumps of something. I've been caught out before.

I just adore your writing...I laugh out loud..I am sure the neighbours think I am on something!!!!

Thanks for a very enjoyable read

Glad I didn't just ignore that big lump of text! Very enjoyable reading - Scott, when you're sick of depreciating, I'm sure there are plenty who would appreciate your writings! ;)
Agree with everyone above....a great read, had a chuckle or two myself, As with some of your previous threads.

You've missed your calling :D
Thanks all. Glad you enjoy the musings. It would be a tough gig making a living from writing. I just do it because I enjoy it. I would probably enjoy it less if I had to do it to feed myself.

Have you thought of doing a family video...On the Wallaby???? a la Mel and Mal...would be a hit

Do you mean Mike and Mal Leyland? I loved their show when I was a kid. I channelled them when I got the parcel van bogged up near Exmouth.
Yes of course Mike and Mal...senior moment could have used some of those towels to get you out of a bog...would have been very useful :) Your wife was just planning ahead...

Thanks again

Week one – Denham (Monkey Mia)

I’ve got a theory about the absence of grey nomads. It’s school holidays and the van parks are packed with families. Having scarpered from their own families, the nomads probably aren’t keen on being surrounded by other ones. I suspect up the coast, off on a side road with no signposts, there is a huge holding area where they are all marking time waiting for the families to head back to Perth. Ian Turpie would be there doing his RSL Club act every night. There would be a bridge tournament. The blokes would do a lot of standing around checking out eachother’s annexes. Some enterprising locals would have mobile hearing aid and denture fixing outfits operating from a van.

We left Kalbarri and headed to Denham. So it was back inland a hundred kilometers or so the rejoin the coastal highway that doesn’t really go near the coast. We scooted up the highway for maybe 180klm, and then it was 80klms out to Denham on the coast. We’ve now covered close to 1,000 klms and it’s getting a bit warmer, thankfully.

Denham is another nice little town – Australia’s most westerly one, apparently. Population would be less than 2,000 people. Like all the towns on the west coast, it clings to the coast with the desert at its back door. It’s odd standing on the beach in these places looking out to sea and sensing the desert just over your shoulder.

Denham pitches itself as the gateway to Monkey Mia, where the dolphins come into shore to be fed. But it’s got more going for it than just those fish. The weekend we were there, it was the annual Denham Speedway race meet! There was much excitement in town. On the Friday afternoon, the participants had a parade down the mail street. The local cops led the way goosing their siren every now and then. The stock cars were on trailers, otherwise the cops would have been booking them for being unroadworthy. I reckon the whole town, and loads of us tourists would have been lining the road to watch the parade. There were whole families sitting inside the cars on the trailers – those cops would have been grinding their teeth at that behaviour, I thought.

I’m always up for a chat and get lots of advice from people at the communal kitchens in the van parks. I was washing up on the first evening next to a woman with kids about the same age as ours and asked her what was good for kids around Denham:

‘The dolphins at Monkey Mia. But they come and go bloody early, so get there first thing. The Discovery Centre in town is crap – waste of money. The Ocean Park just out of town is fantastic value. Great guys.’

So the Ocean Park it was. It didn’t bode well from the outside – looked like a couple of outdoor ponds and a covered area. But on the flyer I picked up in the van park office it said there was shark feeding every hour and that we would be able to ‘watch the raw fury of sharks feeding from the safety of the observation deck above the open water shark lagoon.’ Crikey, what a promise.

We went in – all eight of us. The first thing the young bloke said at the counter was that if he called us a ‘busload’ it would be cheaper. We would just have to pay in one lot and then divide it ourselves. I thought that was pretty good of him. It worked out at about $45 per family.

Then our guide Nick came out. I think he might have been Col’s brother, because he had a similar sense of humour. He took us round the outdoor tanks and spent ages talking about the fish, tossing them a bit of food, and answering questions. All the stuff in there they had caught themselves in the bay (Shark Bay) out front. They are apparently marine biologists and have licences and all that stuff so it’s all above board. I heard afterwards that the whole thing was set up by a handful of young blokes who hustled for grants to get it up and running. Nick would have been one of the young blokes. Good on them, I reckon.

After about 20 minutes, it was time for a bit of ‘raw fury’ at the shark lagoon. Nick grabbed a dead fish from a bucket, tied a rope to it, and started slapping it on the water. After five minutes or so, his sunglasses fell out of his pocket and sunk into the murky depths. ‘No worries,’ He said. ‘I’ll go down and get them tonight.’ I was pleased for Nick that the sharks save their ‘raw fury’ for opening hours. He must have slapped that fish on the water for at least 20 minutes while a dark shape circled below it. In that 20 minutes I reckon Nick probably told us everything he knew about sharks. He kept the patter up, and kept slapping that fish around. Finally, a shark came up to the surface, had a desultory suck on the dead fish, and slipped back down. I suspect it did it just so Nick would stop making such a racket on the surface of the water.

To be fair, they did have a tiger shark in there earlier this year, but they rotate their exhibits and if they sense one of them getting a bit stressed, they set them fee. I suspect if that tiger shark was still in the lagoon, Nick’s sunnies would still be on the bottom.

Nick spent ages around the indoor tanks with us. One tank didn’t seem to have anything in it, till Nick pointed out the stonefish sitting beside the rocks on the bottom. The kids still couldn't make it out, so he got a stick and poked it. Nick was obviously from the Steve Irwin school of marine biology.

Another tank had a squid in it and a few other things. Nick netted a little fish from the stonefish tank and put it in with the squid so we could all watch the squid stalk it. It was great to see it sneak up on the little fish and change colour as it got excited. The tank was pretty big – the size of a hot tub – but Nick said if the squid got spooked and let fly with its ink it would colour the whole tank really quickly (a bit like the way a fart can taint the parcel van in seconds).

There was a tank with a few small turtles in it. One of them they had picked up in a pretty bad state and were trying to recuperate it. For some reason it couldn’t submerge and stayed on the surface. They called it Bob, which made me smile.

Nick had a healthy respect for the moral eels and showed us the scar where one of them bit him earlier this year, so he didn’t poke them. But he did reach into a tank with net over it and pull out a big fat, blue sea snake. I didn’t realize they got that big. He said that species of snake was common in Shark Bay and that they were as venomous as a tiger snake because an adult carried sufficient venom to kill a dozen adults. Nick had told us earlier that very hot water was a great way to neutralise venom from sea creatures, so I was hoping that if he was going to be as encouraging with that sea snake as he was with the sharks, that one of the other boys had a jug on the boil out the back.

The last tank had a nice lobster in it. I quizzed Nick on the migratory habits of lobsters and how they would feel stuck in a tank. He knew where I was headed, but said that if the lobster hadn’t ended up in that tank it would have ended up in his stomach. We both agreed that things worked out reasonably well for the lobster. I’m pretty sure Nick licked his lips when he looked at that lobster again.

When I got back to Sydney, I sent the Ocean Park gang a feedback email via their site. They sent this in reply:

Thank you for your positive feedback and I am really happy you’ve had a good time with us. We always try to make the experience at Ocean Park as interactive and personal as possible! All the guides are really enthusiastic about their work and this is exactly what keeps the place running and makes it so special! We know how important word of mouth is amongst travellers I agree that a good buzz is the best marketing (especially for small businesses).
I’ll pass your message onto Nick and I am sure he’ll appreciate your comment.  And yes, the business is basically run by a bunch of young people who love the ocean and marine life. We have grown up with it and want to transfer some of our knowledge, enthusiasm and experience to our customers!

The second morning, it’s Monkey Mia and the resident dolphins. Monkey Mia.aspx

We got up at sparrows’ fart to get there around 7am. Gee, it was much more developed than it was 20 years ago. The road from Denham is sealed and there is a very flash visitors’ centre and a gate at the entry to an expansive restaurant, accommodation and shop area. There was nobody on the gate that early, but a sign advised of the entry charges and there were envelopes to put cash in and a hole in the wall to stick it. I’d say nearly everyone there would have done the right thing.

Down on the beach, there would have been 200 people. Nearly all of them Aussies. We like to think we are such larrikins, but those 200 people were stretched out in a line about 40 meters long, a meter back from the water. Nobody was creeping forward. Nobody was saying anything. Any talk was carried out in whispers. And the dolphins hadn’t even shown up. We stood there in the very cool dawn all facing east across the bay, and only speaking in whispers. It was all so oddly reverent. You know what it reminded me of? An ANZAC Day dawn service.

There were a couple of government wildlife people there with buckets of fish doing a bit of a spiel on the dolphins – and hoping the buggers showed up, no doubt. There are apparently 2,000 dolphins in Shark Bay, but only a dozen come regularly. Now, I know everybody goes on and on about how clever dolphins are, but they’ve been feeding them on that beach for at least 30 years and only a handful out of 2,000 have cottoned onto the fact that every single morning of the year there is free fish on offer? Or maybe they really are very clever and in a fish eat fish world nobody talks about where an easy breakfast can be picked up. Anyway, if they are super clever, they’re probably going to have a good sense of humour so they must **** themselves every time they see 200 people lined up to watch them eat some pilchards.

We left Denham the next morning. Halfway back to the highway, we took a side track to a place called Hamelin Pool. You’ll never guess what they’ve got there? Stromatolites. Loads of them. One of those companies in WA doing whale Shark tours or Pilbarra Adventure things should consider doing a Stromatolite Tour. These ones were very different from the ones at Cervantes. On the single cell bacteria scale, they were breathtakingly flamboyant, though still a bit turd like. Cervantes still has the edge on walkways.

There are fewer people on the road now as we head further north and the soil is getting very orange. I’ve been collecting it in sandwich bags. I remember going up the coast north of Sydney when I was a kid and buying those bottles of coloured sand, so I’ve got bags of different coloured sands to make some with the kids at home. They’re not the slightest bit interested, but I know in 30 years time when they’re moving house or something, they’ll find their bottles of coloured sand and Mimi will say to Lulu, ‘Hey, Lulu, remember that holiday when dad kept collecting sand in plastic bags?’ Lulu will say, ‘Yeah. He was a funny bugger, wasn’t he.’

Next stop, Carnarvon.
Last edited:
Hi Scott

Another vote for a ripper yarn. BTW i reckon we were in Kalbarri when you were - on our way back from Denham actually. We ran into that storm you speak of south of Geraldton on our way back to Perth - it got to Kalbarri that night. Might have passed you on the road.

We also did the family thing at Ocean Park (and Monkey Mia, Hamelin Pool, etc etc) and had pretty much exactly the same experience with the fish slapping / stonefish etc - reading that was another case of deja vu. The kids loved it. Spent a fair bit of time 4WDing up Cape Peron too.

Keep up the good work...