Exploring Australia's South West - Perth To Esperance Road-Trip.
Australia's south west with Apollo
This article was written by James Vodicka. You can view the original article HERE.
The spectacular coastal route that hugs the edge of Australia’s South West corner is lush, wild and quite simply – gorgeous. The rugged and rocky sea cliffs of Dunsborough and the Margaret River region blend into the pristine natural havens of Albany’s secluded golden bays, before the white sandy beaches and turquoise seas of Esperance and Cape Le Grand emerge for a true sense of Australia’s coastal wilderness.
The natural attractions of Australia’s South West might be the pulling power that convinces travellers to traverse its coastline, but it is the lifestyle of the Australian road-trip that will convince them to return. There is nothing quite like the elation that comes from journeying through vast landscapes of sunburnt country, uncovering secluded swimming spots and falling asleep under the stars to the sounds of the ocean. The South West is home to some of the best coastal camping spots in the country, and is the closest I have come to finding Australia’s perfect road-trip destination.
DAY 1 : PERTH TO BUNBURY
Beginning the trip in a grey and rainy Perth, we met-up at the Apollo Motorhomes branch in High Wycombe, just near the airport. Our plan was to pack the X-Terrain* and head straight out of the city, set for a late afternoon arrival at a campsite in Dunsborough, three hours South of Perth. Flights were delayed and we knew the rain would slow us down on the roads, leaving us to set up camp in the dark. A less than ideal prospect to begin the trip, we began brainstorming alternatives.
Travelling up front beside me for our first stint of the road-trip was Ed, one of my close mates from school, back for yet another wild West Australian road-trip. A few years ago we had hired a car in Perth with a few other friends and headed North towards Exmouth. A couple of broken tents, wild nights by the campfire and a missed Whale Shark tour later, the trip was all over way before we knew it. We were back for more.
Sitting in the back behind us were Natalie (Nat) and Jasmine (Jas), dangerously in charge of the bluetooth playlist and throwing curve ball suggestions from the get go. Nat is an incredibly talented fashion photographer I met on a Tourism New Zealand shoot in Auckland – high on banter and spontaneity, Nat’s stool (a photographic prop she picked up in Perth for $15 off Gumtree) quickly became a popular point of ridicule and hilarity. We must have stopped more often for stool photos than traffic lights. We met Nat’s friend Jas, a Sydney-based fashion model, for the first time in Perth. Quickly uncovering her vulnerability to motion sickness, mosquitos and the cold, what a wild ride the next 10 days were shaping up to be.
We headed South with the windscreen wipers on rapid, and the prospect of a golden sunset very low on the horizon. Learning from the lessons of our last trip, we downloaded the Campermate App to help plan our campsites and make a new game plan for the night. With the light quickly fading, we needed to find a spot likely to have availability and preferably somewhat scenic, settling on Belvedere Campground at Leschenault Peninsula Conservation Park, 160km South of Perth. Pulling in just as twilight made way for darkness, we slid into a vacant spot by the water, had the tents set-up and were asleep in no time at all.
DAY 2 : BUNBURY TO BORANUP
Waking up to sunshine and an inquisitive Kookaburra, we packed up and launched straight into adventure-mode. Curling around the coastline, sunshine turned into cloud and we hit the wild shores of Dunsborough under 40km/h gale winds and storm clouds that threatened the prospect of a sunny day of beach hopping. Aiming to end up in Margaret River for the night, we stopped at Yallingup Beach, Canal Rocks and Injidup Beach to marvel at the raw power of the ocean and tides smashing the ochre rocks along the coast. I had read that Injidup Natural Spa was an incredible spot for a swim and snorkel, but it looked more like a washing machine when we pulled up to find wild waves cascading across the rocks and filling the pool with surging, swirling currents.
We would have also stopped by Meelup Beach, Cape Naturaliste Beach and Sugarloaf Rock, but with the revised itinerary and poor weather, decided to jump back in the car and continue South in search of some respite from the rain. Escaping from the winds battering the coast, we headed deep into the Boranup Forest of Margaret River in search of ‘postcard corner’, an elusive landmark that boasted an incredible viewpoint overlooking a vast forest of Karri trees, one of the world’s tallest tree species with some in the forest reaching heights of more than 60 metres. We would spend the night in an eclectic bush cabin in Boranup, complete with an outdoor long-drop toilet and compost garden.
DAY 3 : BORANUP TO DENMARK
After all queuing for the hot shower in the bush cabin, not knowing when we might see one next, we were back on the road once again. Our first emus were spotted as we ploughed onwards to Hamelin Bay, known for its friendly population of stingrays that spend their days greeting travellers in the shallows. The interaction on the shoreline with the rays, some of them over 2m wide, was incredibly exhilarating. I have seen hundreds in the wild on the reefs around Australia, but never had I been this close, feeling their slimy skin drag across my ankles as they swam by.
Further South, Elephant Rocks is a spectacular natural haven in William Bay National Park that should be high on the list of anyone travelling the South West coastline. It is named after its gathering of huge, round boulders in the shallows of the bay that bear a resemblance to a herd of elephants at the edge of a watering hole. Unfortunately closed for redevelopment, we headed to camp eager to set up before dark. Parry Beach was one of the best campsites of our trip, set back in the canopy of the trees behind the dunes. Campfires are permitted here, and the caretaker even sells firewood on-site. Compared to the drive North of Perth to Exmouth, many more of the scenic beachside campsites in the South West do not permit campfires, likely because they mostly lie within protected National Parks. So be sure to make the most of the spots that allow fires, they’re few and far between.
DAY 4 : DENMARK TO TWO PEOPLE’S BAY
This is where the trip really began. The sun finally came out, and we were headed to some of the spots that had fuelled our very first attraction to the South West. Stopping by Denmark for a full English breakfast and coffee at Mrs Jones Cafe, we were ready for the day ahead. First stop was just down the road in Torndirrup National Park. Unlike anywhere else we stumbled across on the trip, the landscape of Torndirrup is rugged, wild and completely unforgiving. It was quickly obvious that even in the calmest of conditions, this isn’t a spot for swimming. Tales of shipwrecks etched into the granite cliff faces tell a sombre reality of the locale’s brutality. The Gap and Natural Bridge are the two must-visit spots in the park, looking out to Eclipse Island and the thousands of kilometres of menacing Southern Ocean beyond it.
We wished we could have stayed to explore the National Park a little longer, but with the skies clearing and temperature rising, we were all eager to hit the beach for a swim. Passing through Albany and into Two People’s Bay Nature Reserve, the landscape changed dramatically. Protected from the elements, Little Beach and its hidden neighbour, Waterfall Beach, were calm and overwhelmingly inviting. Small crystalline waves lapped the sand as we strolled down the beach looking for a spot to drop our towels – we had it all to ourselves. Was this a dream?
Spending the afternoon photographing, fishing, exploring and swimming, we were ready to call it a day just as the setting sun cast shadows across the sand. We took a gamble and headed to East Bay campground in search of a spot for the night. Arriving in darkness, the campsite was a hub of activity. Campers set up wherever there was spare space, with dinners cooking, new friends deep in conversation and communal sunset drinks on the beach. We squeezed into a gap behind a French couple’s van and set up for the night.
DAY 5 : TWO PEOPLE’S BAY TO ESPERANCE
By this point we were really starting to settle into the trip, the daily routine well-rehearsed. Wake up, brekkie, shower if there was one, pack-up the tents, clean and leave. The X-Terrain* was becoming our home, and we loved it. Not long after leaving East Bay, the rain returned with a vengeance. We had originally planned to stop somewhere before Esperance to break up the journey, most likely Bremer Bay or Fitzgerald National Park, but with the weather only getting worse two hours into the drive, we pushed on to Esperance.
We had nothing better to do, and at least we stayed dry – the Yummylicious Candy Shack and painted silos in Ravensthorpe the highlights of the 450km trip. Checking out Twilight Cove on our way into Esperance, we ventured down onto the beach in the hope the clouds would clear, but no luck. Back in the car, we retreated to Bather’s Paradise Caravan Park for a hot shower, puzzles and an early night.
DAY 6 : ESPERANCE TO CAPE LE GRAND
After a few wrong turns and photographic detours, we pulled into a grey and windy Cape Le Grand carpark just before 11am. There are two very popular campsites in the National Park, with online bookings absolutely essential. Hearing about this from friends before the trip, I was lucky to snag one night at Cape Le Grand and two nights at Lucky Bay, booking just a couple of weeks ahead. As the first of the day’s new arrivals at Cape Le Grand we were offered the choice of three vacant spots in the campground, opting for the one closest to the beach. Surrounded by scrub and separated from other campers, it actually felt quite secluded – like we were on our own out there. It was cold, wet and windy – less than ideal beach weather, but we didn’t let that stop us from exploring.
Donning windbreakers & board-shorts, we walked a kilometre down the beach watching dolphins in the waves and rescuing starfish from the shoreline. Unknowingly and out of pure boredom, we scrambled part way up the Coastal Walk Trail behind the beach for some epic views back toward Esperance. It really had been a slow few days, but luckily the forecast was predicting a sunny change for the rest of the trip. After scouting out Hellfire Bay and Frenchman’s Peak in the late afternoon, the rain stopped and dinner under the stars marked the beginning of a few jam-packed and sun-filled beach days to come.
DAY 7 : CAPE LE GRAND TO LUCKY BAY
Waking up early, I made the most of a peaceful morning by enjoying breakfast on the beach with a pair of nonchalant kangaroos. It wasn’t long until the others woke up eager to pull on the cozzies and hit the beaches. Arriving into Hellfire Bay just as a pair of dolphins jumped from the waves, we knew this was the place for us. Getting there early, we had most of the beach to ourselves and set up the umbrella with plans to chill out, swim and soak up the sun for a couple of hours. Ed went fishing off the rocks for Salmon while the girls practised hand stands on the beach, before hunger eventually took over and we retreated to the car for lunch.
Connecting to the Hellfire Bay carpark is a track that leads to the lesser visited Little Hellfire Bay, a 30 minute return walk. Eager for a little exploring, we grabbed our towels and charged up the track, jumping rocks and weaving through the thick scrub over the headland before popping out at a beautiful, empty beach. Nestled at the bottom of a sweeping, rocky headland, the bay was protected from the wind and perfect for relaxing, with not another soul in sight. The glistening water too tempting to resist, we all jumped in for a swim and were greeted by a pair of curious dolphins who came almost within touching distance. Popping the umbrella on the sand, we spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and mucking around in the waves, convinced we had found our own patch of paradise.
DAY 8 : LUCKY BAY
I woke up with an idea the others weren’t so sure about. Cape Le Grand is a long beach stretching kilometres down the coastline back towards Esperance, and it is 4WD accessible. We didn’t have any way to let the air out of our tires, but the sand was firm and I was confident the car could handle it. Creeping down the access road, we rolled onto the sand, kicked the car into 4WD and accelerated down the beach. No worries at all, we were driving on the beach. About 2km down the coast, we pulled in towards the dunes and set up the awning and tents for another relaxing morning in paradise.
Realising the limited time we had to explore the rest of the National Park, we packed up before midday and headed to the fifth and final beach – Thistle Cove. We followed signs from the carpark to Whistling Rock, but concluded it must be BYO whistle, before scrambling down the rocks onto the white sand of the sweeping cove. It looked similar to Hellfire Bay, and just as inviting. You’ve probably guessed already, but towels down and relaxing was yet again the story of the afternoon.
Dodging kangaroos on the drive back to camp, Ed and I spontaneously decided we should hike Frenchman’s Peak to try to catch sunset. Giving ourselves 30 minutes to reach the top of a 2hr return hike, we raced up the rock-face barefoot, with our hats and sunnies strapped tightly into our backpacks. The winds were ferocious and unforgiving, but with the colour building in the sky we knew it would be worth it. Reaching the summit just minutes before the sun dropped below the horizon, we marvelled at the 360 degree view, the stunning landscape drenched in golden light. Without a doubt, this has to be one of the best views in Australia’s South West.
DAY 9 : LUCKY BAY TO WAVE ROCK
Reluctant to leave the coastline, we said farewell to Esperance and our kangaroo brekkie-buddies to head straight into the middle of nowhere, four hours into the heart of the Australian outback. The heat rose as quickly as the ocean breeze disappeared, our windscreen dusty and aircon on high as we ventured deeper into the red dirt landscape. Rolling into Wave Rock Caravan Park, we were swarmed by flies and retreated into the reception and gift shop. Lined with touristy souvenirs and knick knacks, it was like stepping into a movie set from the 80’s, True Blue shop attendant and all.
After helping an English family park their freshly rented caravan trailer, we headed to the rock to see what all the fuss was about. As one of the South West’s top natural attractions, I was hoping for a pleasant surprise from my skeptical expectations. Learning of the rock’s 2700 million year old age, I was blown away to see it in person, more out of a respect for nature’s persistence than the impressiveness of the rock’s current state. It sure is undeniably fantastic to admire, but the unfathomable age is what impressed me most.
I wouldn’t drive 4 hours into the middle of nowhere just to see Wave Rock, but as a half-way stopping point on an already planned journey, it gets top marks as an attraction. We spent the afternoon mucking around on the rock before climbing to the top of it to watch the sun set over the surrounding bushland. As it was our last night of the trip, we stayed up gazing at the stars and telling stories of the antics of the last 10 days – the perfect end to another incredible Aussie road-trip.
DAY 10 : WAVE ROCK TO PERTH
Along with about 700 flies, we climbed back up to the top of the rock to watch the sunrise, wrapping ourselves in doonas to keep warm. A quick stop at the gift shop and nearby salt lakes, and we were back on the road bright and early, not too keen on hanging around to experience the heat of the mid-day sun. The drive back to Perth from Wave Rock is about four hours, which left us with plenty of time to return the car to Apollo and head to the airport for our flights back to Sydney. Originally we had planned on visiting Rottnest Island, Perth’s local island playground, to round out the trip. It is one of my favourite islands in the country and boasts over 70 beaches and bays that differ incredibly from any we have on the East Coast. Hearing government advice to get back home before the states went into Corona virus lockdown, we changed our flights, choosing the safer option of an early return.
We left Western Australia with a mixture of emotions, reluctant to leave yet overjoyed by our experiences of the previous 10 days. Stunning coastal roads, a mixture of idyllic and wind-swept beaches, oceanside camping spots and outback landscapes that left us in complete awe of the Australian continent – the South West Edge has to be up there as one of Australia’s best road-trip routes.
* James and the guys took out the Apollo X-terrain which is no longer available, we recommend you take the Trailfinder or Adventure Camper to replicate this journey.