It’s been awhile. Mostly because this blog post overwhelmed both of us any time we thought of it. It’s a bit long. It’s probably more than a bit rough. But we had to get it posted.. otherwise, we may never post again. Without further ado: Western Australia, via Campervan.
For those of you that don’t know, #vanlife is a thing. Or more aptly, it is a lifestyle, man. Just ask Google / Insta / Outside Magazine. At a high level it means living in a van and enjoying the adventure that this freedom permits. Now, there are huge ranges in what people will spend on their vans and van lives, from the dirtbagger who buys a cheap van on Craigslist, guts it, and builds the interior to suit their needs and their budget, to the weekend warrior who spends gobs of money to get the top of the line van (Mercedes Sprinter, usually) with all the perfect convenience storage space (slot for the snowboard? check. small washing machine? check. fold down granite table for 6? check.
We were somewhat familiar with the #vanlife culture prior to our Australia trip, but more of a Facebook friend level of familiar. Like, if #vanlife were a person we would know if they had a baby but we didn’t KNOW #vanlife…you know? But once we rented a campervan for our Australia trip we realized how awesome #vanlife could be. As in, we’re still considering buying one for adventures here in the states. Why? Because #vanlife is AWESOME and we want to join the hoards of people living this way. (Because most of them really are awesome and it would increase our street cred).
Okay, back to Australia. Western Australia does not have much public transportation or affordable lodging options. To be fair, public transportation doesn’t make much sense when there are 2.6 million people spread across an area 3.6 times bigger than Texas. With the van, we were able to drive to all the random beaches and cliffs we wanted and then able to pull off and cook and sleep along the way. We probably paid for lodging (as in, a campsite) every 3-5 nights, and that was mostly to recharge the van (and get warm showers). Most other nights, we stayed in free rest stops. The rest stops ranged from what you would imagine in the US, with a parking lot and some toilet facilities, to huge open rock pits, to areas along the beach (Flat Rocks Beach – recommend!), to open areas on cliffs with gorgeous views. It is important to note that there are many places you CANNOT pull off and sleep, so your options are somewhat limited when it comes to free campsites. Free sites are usually out in the middle of the bush, but when you are driving considerable distances they are easier enough to find and plan around.
We were able to find free hot showers in a couple places, and there were cold showers and restrooms at most beaches, so it really wasn’t hard to get by without a camp spot many nights. Another money saver was that we were able to cook out of the back of the van. Breakfast and dinner would be eaten wherever we stayed for the night (because you couldn’t drive after dark unless you wanted to risk hitting a huge kangaroo and ending your trip), and for lunch or coffee breaks, we’d stop at a rest stop and have a nice little lunch or coffee (S) or wine (D) break.
General Itinerary and Preparation
We drove from Perth to Darwin, with a couple day detour down to Margaret River, in 18 days. 18 days – 4,423 kilometers. A few key things to note:
- (Western) Australia is huge. I did not realize how big Australia was before our trip. It is enormous. And Western Australia is the largest state.
- (Western) Australia is not heavily populated. There are more people in California than the entire country of Australia. Crazy, right? Furthermore, only 2.6 million of these folks live in Western Australia.
- 18 days is cutting it. We pushed it a little bit to get to Darwin in time. There is a ton to see and I wouldn’t recommend going for any shorter amount of time.
And now I am pleased to introduce you to our beautiful companion for our adventure. Blog readers, meet Donkey Punch.
The feeling I have right now trying to describe Donkey Punch is that feeling you get when you are trying to describe a friend or co-worker to another friend or co-worker when you know the friend/co-worker in question is probably going to make a bad first impression…”trust me, he is a really good guy when you get to know him. He just has a few….peculiarities.” That’s our Donkey Punch. What a van!
We rented Donkey Punch through the Traveler’s Autobarn in Perth. Highly recommend. They had great customer service and provided great advice on cool places to check out.
We did some general preparation after picking up Donkey Punch (getting SIM cards, buying an Aeropress (because priorities), and getting groceries (Aldis just opened up in Perth and Aussies are PUMPED), etc.
Another recommendation that highly improved the quality of our trip is the app “WikiCamps“. You get 30 days for free, and then you have to pay. If you have to pay, it’s worth it. Don’t mess with that stupid book that you get with your rental, the app is so much easier, with insight into where to stay and what to check out. It will make your life so much easier.
Highlights of Trip
Arriving in Perth
Our first reaction when we arrived in Perth was something like this: “EVERYTHING IS SO MODERN! THIS BUS IS SO CLEAN! CROSSWALKS AND LAWNS! IS THAT A WALK SIGN?! IS THAT CAR STOPPING TO ALLOW ME TO CROSS AT THE CROSSWALK?!?!?” Verbatim. This is not to say that we didn’t love Southeast Asia, but hot damn it felt nice to be somewhere more familiar after 5 months.
This modernity comes with a price, however. Compared with Southeast Asia everything was super expensive. The hostel we stayed at (Witch’s Hat) was $45 USD, and we weren’t very impressed with it. $45 would have paid for a palace in Southeast Asia. Another fun note: we went to Subway for dinner as a budget option. Overall, we really liked the vibe of Perth. It was too expensive for us to enjoy everything it had to offer (budget travel problems), but it reminded us of a mix of Denver and a coast city like San Diego. Overall, good vibes.
This was Danielle’s favorite part of Australia. It is like Napa (in that it is a wine region) but wayyy less crowded. Rolling hills, green pastures, kangeroos, wine, beautiful forests, coastline, and amazing food options. We spent two days in Margaret River and only tore ourselves away because we knew we needed to drive a million miles to get to Darwin. Some of the highlights of these two days:
- Busselton. This is a seaside city in between Perth and Mararet River. We did a short 3 mile run here- cool shoreline, jetty and boardwalk. Fun town.
- Yallingup Bakery. Bakery in the woods surrounding Margaret River. Difficult to find, but worth it. Simple operation. you just pick a loaf of bread off a a table behind this guy’s house/bakery and pay on the honor system. The fruit bread was on point. I was a BIG fan of the fruit bread.
- Aravina Winery. Beautiful estate, pond and vines and green grass. Ate cheese in the back of our van in the parking lot because we are classy.
- Churchview Estate Winery. Good wind, great service. Wine in the $35 to $90 per bottle range. The owner gave us two small wine glasses to take with on our journey because he couldn’t stand the thought of us drinking wine out of plastic cups. Fun experience.
- Margaret River Dairy Company. CHEESE AND YOGURT. We bought some aged cheddar and a pint of vanilla bean yogurt and both were so good we considered legal action.
- Warncliff Mill Eco Campsite. We stayed here one night in order to recharge DP’s batteries. Good place. Close to town, nice amenities.
- Yahava Coffee. Coffee roasting operation with tastings and beans for sale. We did a tasting and bought a few bags for our trip (the Aeropress wasn’t going to use itself). Delish latte.
- Hamelin Bay. We visited Hamelin Bay in an attempt to see sting rays. Supposedly, this is a sting ray hangout in the morning. We may have been too late or the conditions might have been too rough (it was quite windy) but the end result was no sting ray sightings for us.
- Boranup Forest. We drove through Boranup Forest on the way back to Perth. Big trees (eucalyptus?) creating a canopy over the road. Gorgeous drive.
- Nougat factory. Nougat good, liquer better.
- Chocolate Factory and Providore (gourmet food). Both meh.
- Beautiful landscape. Rolling hills of green filled with sheep and goats and cows (dairy!) with the ocean in the background and big beautiful trees. Not what we had in mind when we thought about Western Australia.
The Pinnacles are a popular destination north of Perth. We visited first thing in the morning. Hiked around for a bit and then drove the 4k loop. Awesome. The pinnacles themselves aren’t that impressive individually, but they go on FOREVER. Strength in numbers. Just fields of them forever in all directions. Pretty neat.
Another small, clean, coastal town. One nice thing about coastal towns – great running paths. I got in an 11 mile run here. Perfect weather. Cruise ship port town. One was docked while we were there, so lost of folks walking about.
Kalbarri National Park
Drive from Geraldton to Kalbarri National Park was gorgeous. We stopped to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean…amazing. Actually, I watched the sunset. Danielle watched a mob of kangaroos instead (yes, multiple kangaroos are referred to as a mob) because Danielle loves kangaroos (and wallabies). The cliffs and rock formations along the coast are beautiful.
Kalbarri National Park is known for its gorges. Unfortunately it was rainy the day we were there. We visited a few of the gorges. They were small gorges. Grand Canyon would eat them for snacks. Really small snacks. Also saw some emus. Emus are cool. Changing landscape – small shrubs and red soil.
Carnarvon is known for its blowholes. Blowholes, besides being fun to say, are rock formations along the coast that when hit by large waves emit a stream of water up into the air…like a whale. The carnarvon blowholes were pretty cool. Super powerful waves.
On a less positive note, the town of Carnarvon was pretty depressing. It has a large aboriginal population and seems quite poor when compared with the other coastal towns we visited. It reminded Danielle of being on the Indian reservation back home in Cloquet, MN. There were several employment agencies, legal services, shoddy buildings, and lots of folks milling about.
On a brighter note, there was a lot of produce in the area. Mostly banana and mango plantations. We stopped at an organic farm just North of town that sold delicious frozen chocolate mango/banana sticks (among other things). The Aussies called them “lollies”. Silly Australians.
Coral Bay has had some very positive blog-0-sphere press in the past decade. Nomadic Matt had this to say about it in 2010. If you are too lazy to follow that link I’ll paraphrase: Coral Bay is your access point to the Ningaloo Reef which, historically, has been the overlooked younger brother to the Great Barrier Reef (located on the Eastern coast of Australia). Unfortunately, this could be changing due to the much publicized coral bleaching that has destroyed some portions of the Great Barrier Reef. So far the Ningaloo Reef has escaped a similar fate.
Unfortunately, we only had one day in Coral Bay and that day happened to be windy, rainy, and cold. We arrived in town in the early AM with the intention of finding a camp spot and then snorkeling for the rest of the day. That didn’t happen. We waited in the van for a few hours but the weather was just terrible. At one point I decided to try and snorkel anyway. I started to wade into the water (in the rain) but couldn’t go more than a few steps before turning around. I gave myself a pep-talk and tried again a few minutes later but still couldn’t get more than a few steps into the water.
We felt bad about missing Coral Bay, but conditions and weather can’t be controlled and we were on a tight schedule. We spent the rest of the day driving and cursing the rain. Kind of a shit day. Everything in the van was damp and gross. We had a wine and cheese pity party in the evening which made things slightly better.
Paraburdoo isn’t a tourist attraction, per se, but we thought it was a fascinating town to visit because everything in the town is owned by Rio Tinto (the multinational mining company). We stayed at a cheap campsite in a parking lot type environment that also serves as a barracks for Rio Tinto employees. Perks included free laundry and hot showers. It was crazy to see what a modern mining town looks like. Coming from Colorado, we see relics of old mine towns, but a modern mining town…super interesting. The red plateau cliffs just outside of town reminded us of Grand Junction, CO.
Karijini National Park
Another national park. More gorges. We visited Dale Gorge, the Circular Pool, Fern Falls, and Fortescue Falls. You could easily spend several days exploring everything in Karijini. Unfortunately, due to several days of rain most of the dirt roads were mud roads and we didn’t feel confident that Donkey Punch could make to all of the attractions the park has to offer. If we had more time we also would have enjoyed hiking up Mt. Bruce, which you do not need 4WD to access.
We stopped here briefly after a big driving day. Best part about our Port Hedland experience? A super fancy public toilet. This thing talked to you, played music, dispensed toilet paper at the touch of a button. It was awesome.
This is the most remote portion of the trip. Large expanses of nothing. While it can be a bit boring during the day, at night it is awesome. We have never seen as many stars and the milky way as clear as our time in Western Australia. We even got to see the International Space Station go by – we nerded out on that quite a bit.
Broome was the biggest city we’d seen in awhile, and we were excited to check out some civilization. Unfortunately, we were there on a Sunday and almost everything was closed. It was still an enjoyable afternoon walking around and imagining how fun it would have been if everything was open!
You know what else Western Australia has? Birds. Lots of birds. Big birds, little birds, colorful birds. Huge hawks. Green parrots. Stork looking guys. White cockatoos. All the birds, all the time.
There are two types of people in camper vans in Australia (at least when we were there). Young bucks (do we still count as that?) or older folk. I guess all those people with kids can’t travel as easily in a camper van or the kids were in school or something. But almost every place we stayed, we had a retiree talk to us about how they spend 3-4 months a year just driving around Australia in their vans! So cool! We heard lots of cool stories about their experiences (and they told us all the best places to go! score!).
You know what else Northern Territory has? Crocodiles. A whole lot of them. Holy bajeesus, they scare the daylights out of me. We didn’t see any on our own, but we did do a crocodile tour… I know, it’s really not up our alley, but it was SUPER COOL. I would totally recommend it. I mean, yeah, they feed the crocodiles, but they say it’s not enough to actually mess with their instincts and what not. I don’t know.. I’m pretty “to the left” when it comes to animal rights, and this didn’t bug me a whole lot. And I thought it was pretty darn cool.
We did some other cool things in the NT, but if you go, you’ll probably research them on your own anyways. Litchfield and Catherine Gorge also come to mind. Check ’em out.
Aboriginal people. We struggled to understand the dynamic between the aboriginal people and the non-aboriginal (i.e. white) people in Australia. To us, it seemed like the majority of homeless people were aboriginal, and upon some Googling, it sounds like there’s some real social issues / problems in their communities. There also seemed to be a bit of racial tension between the non-aboriginal (again, white) folks we talked with and the aboriginals.. we definitely don’t pretend to know the whole story here. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has thoughts.. to us, it seemed like a pretty tough and complicated situation.
Mining is YUGE. We almost got driven off the road by all the huge road trains carrying mining goodies back and forth across the country. Mining is everywhere. Most of the towns we drove through wouldn’t exist without mining.
Sam had to drive the stick shift with his left hand. He said it was super confusing, and he almost killed us a few times.