On the Road: Exploring Western Australia’s Golden Outback
Whenever I travel through the eastern half of Western Australia – a vast area which stretches from the south-east coast north through the great mining towns and eastern wheat belt into the heart of the state’s vast deserts – I hire a car for the simple reason that this remarkable region needs to be experienced on a rolling drive.
It is a unique and diverse landscape where the sandy soils are bright red; the roads across the rolling wheat plains are edged by salmon gums and gimlet trees; and where the southern coastline is a wonderland of granite headlands and pristine white beaches.
Driving through the area, I am entranced by the myriad of tiny wheat-belt towns that can be seen, because of the huge white grain silos which mark them out, from a great distance across the plains.
I am fascinated by the mining towns where, towards the end of the 19th century, thousands of wild-eyed miners flocked hoping to dig up a fortune.
I love stopping, getting out, gazing up at the huge blue sky, soaking up the vastness of the plains and the deserts and slowly spinning my body around so that the horizon seems to stretch to the edges of my world.
Here are three of my favourite drives.
Western Australia offers more than just adventure challenges. Take this relaxing, sealed, 120km-long tourist route that crosses the eastern extremity of the State’s vast wheat belt.
Every time I drive this route I realise how easy it is to love this country – the endless fields of grain stretching to the horizon as you drive through stands of trees, the tiny rural towns with their wheat silos and solitary pubs. As I drive from Corrigin via Kulin to Wave Rock, I envy the wheat farmers who can be seen on the paddocks ploughing and sowing and harvesting.
Some 15km of the route is known, with suitable rural humour, as the Tin Horse Highway because it starts beside the “West Kulin Whoppa” – an amusing tin horse built by the locals – and is punctuated by tin horses made by local “artists” from “bits and pieces found lying around the farm”, as the brochure says.
The route ends at a magical piece of nature – the huge arching, wave-like piece of granite at Hyden known as Wave Rock.
If you want non-stop gasping and constant cries of “Wow”, an even shorter journey can be had on the Great Ocean Drive, a modest 38-km circular loop to the south of Esperance along some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the country.
It’s an amusing comment on Australians’ tendency to offer simple names for glorious views and landscapes that many of the beaches have names like West Beach, Fourth Beach, Nine Mile Beach and Eleven Mile Beach. Only Twilight Beach, once the winner of Australia’s best beach title and a shimmering study in white, captures the magic.
Part of the appeal of the drive is that after you have taken in the beauty of one beach, over a low headland there is another equally beautiful stretch of pure white sand. Two bonuses are the Ten Mile Lagoon Wind Farm (it was one of the first in Australia and responds powerfully to the onshore wind known as the Esperance Doctor), and the strange Pink Lake, although rising salt levels mean it is no longer the vibrant pink of its cousin, Lake Hillier on Middle Island in Esperance’s Recherche Archipelago.
The first time I drove this loop, I was overwhelmed by the entire experience. I drove west from Esperance, went over a hill and there before me, unforgettably, were beaches where the sand was whiter than I’d ever seen; the Great Southern Ocean was turquoise near the shore and turned darker and darker blue further out to sea; and, because it was quite late in the afternoon, there were white caps out to sea where the infamous onshore breeze, the Esperance Doctor, was blowing across the waves.
I had heard about this old coach trail but, not knowing exactly what to expect, I stopped at the Norseman Visitor Centre and picked up the brochure. That was fortunate because the Dundas Coach Road Heritage Trail starts at the end of Norseman’s main street, at the race course, and without the map I would never have found it.
In total, the trail is about 50km – 24km of dirt track winding through the bush from Norseman to Dundas – the town that never was – then 26km back on the main Coolgardie-Esperance highway.
Stopping at the 10 suggested locations along the way, you get an insight into what life was like on the WA goldfields during the 1890s boom. At the sixth site, I scratch my head because there, in the middle of the bush, is an old cement cricket pitch. Who would have thought the miners had enough leisure time to build a cricket pitch.
At other points there are the remnants of a dam (water was very precious); an old head frame where miners dug for gold; and a mine that was still being worked in the 1990s.
I laugh at the final site, the town of Dundas, which never really existed. The story goes that in 1892, two prospectors named Mawson and Kirkpatrick walked 200km through the bush from Coolgardie and discovered gold in the Dundas Hills.
Within weeks, prospectors came south from Coolgardie and north from the port at Esperance and by 1893, the government had surveyed a town site near Noganyer Soak south of “Mawson’s Reward”, as the gold lease had been named.
But someone else had found richer, better gold at Norseman, just 20km away through the bush, and so, Norseman became the new boom town and Dundas didn’t last long enough to come into existence.
One of the true heroes of WA’s Outback was a remarkable road builder named Len Beadell. He is one of this nation’s unsung heroes although many of those who travel the Outback know and admire him.
While much of Beadell’s work was in South Australia, in 1955, he started work on the Gunbarrel Highway, the Connie Sue Highway (named after his daughter) and the Anne Beadell Highway (after his wife) across the deserts of eastern WA.
All were graded dirt roads built at the rate of eight to 10km a day. They were roads which opened up the interior of Western Australia and today, although they offer travellers eager to experience the outback a unique opportunity to experience the beauty of the landscape – the hardy hay-yellow desert grasses, the stunted acacia bushes, the desert oaks, the saltbush, the blood-red, low-lying rocky outcrops and the spectacular displays of desert flowers.
There is nothing quite as beautiful as a roadside field of paper flowers or Sturt’s Desert Pea. And to gaze at the horizon and see it blackened by ominous storm clouds with misty showers tumbling down is to experience the desert at its most passionate.
The Gunbarrel Highway stretches from Victory Downs, a property near the Stuart Highway and south of Uluru in the Northern Territory, runs along the top end of South Australia, and travels a total distance of 1,350km to Carnegie Station, 418km east of Wiluna.
The experience is not about places of interest – although Len Beadell’s tree is a place deserving of homage – but rather to experience a landscape in all its harshness and desert beauty.