18 July 2012 by David Warne
Australia may seem a long way to go for a two-week holiday, but the quickest flights to Perth take less than 19 hours - not much longer than some indirect flights to South East Asia - and Western Australia shares the same time zone as Singapore and Malaysia.
All of which makes a two-week holiday to Western Australia perfectly feasible, says David Warne, Commercial Director of Wexas. Here he recounts his recent trip to some of Western Australia's iconic attractions.
Although I have visited Australia several times in the past I've never managed to get to Western Australia (WA), and this seems to be true of many travellers who visit Australia. First time holidaymakers are understandably attracted to the classic Sydney, Rock and Reef combination, but a large proportion of visitors get back to Australia again and again.
Needless to say returning visitors are spoilt for choice. Every state offers uniquely Australian experiences, but as the largest state - taking up around a third of the entire country - WA arguably has more than its fair share.
Perth is currently the only international entry and exit point in WA, although rumours abound of a direct flight from Singapore to Broome, which would certainly make the northern regions of WA more accessible. Perth is a relaxed and enjoyable city in its own right, but as space is limited here I will be focusing on the experiences that make WA genuinely unique. And by unique I don't just mean in global terms; even Australians consider parts of WA such as the Kimberley to be remote (flying from Melbourne to Kununurra via Perth or Darwin takes over 10 hours, for example) and exotic.
My itinerary took me from Perth to Exmouth to swim with whale sharks, to Broome for a bit of beach time, into the heart of the Kimberley for horse riding on a working cattle station, and concluded with a visit to the remote wilderness of the northern shores of WA. Quite a mix of experiences.
The flight north from Perth to Exmouth takes almost two-and-a-half hours, which is a telling introduction to the distances involved when travelling in WA.
Ningaloo Reef is widely known for being the best place in the world to swim with whale sharks, but the coastal region here - centred on the Cape Range National Park - is also one of the most pristine and beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world.
The beaches, edged by wonderful sand dunes, are jaw-droppingly beautiful here and many are completely deserted. The colour of the sea graduates from pale turquoise to a deep blue that is rivalled only by the cloudless blue skies that we enjoyed throughout our time in WA. Just inland from the coast, kangaroos, emus and lizards abound in the national park and are easy to spot.
Our accommodation in the park was the eco-resort of Sal Salis, which offers just nine African safari style tents spread among the sand dunes, 50 metres or so from the beach. While not luxurious in a traditional sense the tents are comfortable (the beds supremely so) and have en-suite facilities.
In order to minimise the impact on the environment in this remote spot, the camp is ‘off the grid'; electricity, provided by solar panels, is limited, water rationed to 20 litres per guest per day and toilets are ‘natureloos' (don't let that put you off - they are cleverly designed, so this isn't a ‘festival' experience).
The real highlight of Sal Salis is the location; essentially you pay for the privilege of experiencing one of the most beautiful spots in the Cape Range National Park. Activities around the camp make the most of the location. Days at Sal Salis are spent snorkelling on the reef just off the beach and taking guided walks through the spectacular canyons and limestone gorges that dramatically scar the landscape.
Our first day at Sal Salis ended with drinks and canapés at a great vantage point for the spectacular sunset. This set the tone for the entire trip - sundowners seemed to be ‘de rigueur' at sunset throughout our travels in WA.
Swimming with the whale sharks off Ningaloo Reef was the experience I was most looking forward to on the whole trip and it certainly lived up to the hype. Snorkelling with these beautiful creatures was a genuinely exciting and humbling experience.
It nearly didn't happen at all though; our trip was in doubt the morning we were due to embark, due to high winds. Departure was delayed by an hour or so while the skipper assessed the conditions - and the willingness of participants to brave choppy seas - but I was relieved when the decision was made to go out after everyone accepted that the trip might be shorter and ‘bumpier' than normal.
As it turned out our trip was no disappointment. Despite the conditions, we swam with no less than six whale sharks, often for extended periods. These graceful fish swim at a surprisingly dignified pace, so keeping up with them was relatively easy.
Ocean Eco Adventures were highly organised, with a comfortable and spacious boat. Having their own spotter plane means they are often able to find whale sharks away from the other boats. As a result, sightings are virtually guaranteed during the season (usually April to July each year).
However, as some trips do get cancelled due to bad weather it is worth planning an itinerary to allow an extra day in the area. Our itinerary didn't allow an extra day and I would have really regretted it if we had not been able to go out on the one day we had booked as this was one of the real highlights of our trip.
Our itinerary then took us north to Broome. Unless you are tackling the huge distances on a self-drive basis it makes sense to plan a Western Australia itinerary around the once a week (Sunday) flight from Exmouth Learmonth Airport to Broome. This convenient Skywest flight took just over 90 minutes.
Broome still retains some of the feel of its frontier-town origins. The town was built on the pearling industry, but has now become a popular resort town with good accommodation options.
The nearest resort to Cable Beach (no resorts have direct beach access) is the Cable Beach Club. This is a classic resort hotel with all the facilities you would want, designed in an unusual mix of Outback Australian, Chinese and contemporary style - but it all seems to work. As the name suggests, the Sunset Bar at the resort here is the place to go for sundowner drinks and we duly obliged after taking the iconic camel ride on Cable Beach itself.
Our next destination was the remote Eco Beach Resort, located some 80 miles south-west of Broome. Access by road is relatively straightforward despite the remote location, but other transport options include boat, light aircraft and helicopter. We were lucky enough to enjoy the latter, which involved a spectacular scenic flight of around 30 minutes along the coast and a truly memorable beach landing.
The previous incarnation of Eco Beach Resort - a budget beach resort - was completely destroyed by Cyclone Rosita in 2000. The resort was rebuilt with the aim of being a truly sustainable tourism development worthy of its name and interesting ‘sustainability' tours of the resort are available to guests to highlight the efforts made.
Huge one-bedroom villas are well equipped and exceptionally comfortable. Accommodation is also available in comfortable tents with en suite facilities. Interestingly the design of these tents has even impressed the Omanis, who have started importing them - which somehow seems like selling sand to Arabs.
The new resort has a stunning location on a slightly elevated position, just metres from a seemingly endless beach. Indeed, there can't be many places in the world where you will find such beautiful beaches that are almost completely deserted.
As with many parts of Australia you have to ask before jumping in the sea, but marine stingers are not present for the best months to visit the area - May through October - so we could enjoy the ocean to the full during our trip.
A group of us enjoyed the rather tongue-in-cheek ‘mud and bubbles' experience, which involved exfoliating with beach sand and then coating ourselves in mangrove mud (which apparently has healing properties) from nearby Jack's Creek - followed by a glass or two of bubbly, before washing off in the sea.
We later visited the beautiful sand bank at Jack's Creek - a 15-minute drive along the beach in open back 4WD vehicles - for another of WA's incredible sunsets, yet more sunset drinks and a spot of fishing for Barramundi.
The remainder of my trip took me into the heart of the Kimberley for two very different experiences. First up was a true outback experience at a working cattle station, after which we flew to the extreme north of the Kimberley to a brand new coastal wilderness resort near the Berkeley River.
Home Valley Station is located just off the famous Gibb River road, which is one of Australia's classic outback self-drive road trips. Self-drives in this region are popular with adventurous Australians and an increasing number of visitors, but such trips require quite a bit of time - and serious planning.
For our relatively short stay in the Kimberley I was pleased to be collected from Kununurra and transferred by a Home Valley Station 4WD vehicle. The journey took around 90 minutes during which we drove through rivers (literally) and along corrugated dirt roads edged by Boab trees and the dramatic Cockburn Range, which features prominently in the Baz Luhrmann film ‘Australia'.
Stockmen settled the wild country around here and set up cattle stations in the region. Although still operating as a cattle station, Home Valley Station is popular as a stopping off point on the Gibb River Road self-drive.
Today Home Valley Station is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), which offers sustainable employment opportunities and an on-site training academy for the traditional indigenous owners of the land. Eight well-equipped and comfortable ‘Grass Castles' have recently supplemented camping and simple accommodation facilities. These accommodation units have a lovely setting on Bindoola Creek and offer a higher standard of outback lodging, with en suite facilities, flat-screen TVs and fridges.
Experiences at Home Valley Station are appropriately centred around horse-riding and cattle mustering and other activities include fishing, bird watching and walks.
Our half-day ‘mini-muster' involved a crash-course in horse riding (the group was largely composed of first-timers) followed by a trail ride through the bush to locate and round up a herd of cattle and then guide them back to the station. Apart from being great fun it provided a brief insight into the life of a ‘Jackaroo' and the workings of a cattle station.
Other excursions we experienced included a station tour by four-wheel drive to Bindoola Gorge and the inevitable sunset drinks. Watching the Cockburn Range gradually turning from amber through to red -with a cold beer in hand - was another classic Kimberley experience.
It seems like almost everyone at Home Valley plays the guitar, so evenings have a suitably ‘cowboy' feel - the present-day equivalent of songs round the camp fire after a hard day in the saddle. All of which complemented excellent - and large - Home Valley fillet steaks.
The clear, cloudless skies in the Kimberley at this time of year mean that this is one of the best places to see the night sky, and we enjoyed a fascinating talk on the stars and constellations.
The Kimberley - Berkeley River
From Home Valley we took the Gibb River road back towards Kununurra and boarded a seaplane (or ‘floatplane' as the locals refer to them) bound for the extreme northern coast of WA.
The fact that the new Berkeley River Lodge can only be reached by floatplane hints at the remoteness of the location and this was soon confirmed during the 50-minute flight over the dramatic, inhospitable landscape.
On arrival at the mouth of the Berkeley River the floatplane pulled right up to the beach and we stepped directly from the plane on to the sand - quite an arrival.
To find such a shiny (literally) new resort among the sand dunes came therefore as something of a surprise. Located at the point where the Berkeley River meets the sea, the new lodge offers a contemporary twist on the traditional Australian corrugated iron-style used in resort construction around WA.
Twenty individual suites are spaced out along a small ridge, each offering triple aspect views from the bedroom, terrace and outdoor bath and shower. Stunning views are available in all directions from the rooms and particularly the central building that houses the bar, restaurant and pool.
This is a wild and beautiful stretch of coast, which is uninhabited for miles around. The presence of saltwater crocodiles means that this isn't a beach resort in the traditional sense - swimming in the sea is clearly out of the question - it's really a wilderness lodge that happens to be on the coast.
Other than the location itself, the main attractions are boat trips up the Berkeley River, fishing, selected walks and croc spotting (don't walk close to the edge of the sea, we were warned!). We enjoyed a spectacular afternoon river cruise up the river, looking out for crocs and watching the ochre-coloured rocks of the gorge turning progressively darker as the sun began to set. All accompanied, of course, by sundowners and canapés. The sunset colours continued to evolve throughout the early evening and as we arrived back at the resort the deep blue sky we had left hours earlier had transformed into a cool pink.
Dining is a particular feature of the experience here. Tasty tapas-style lunches with freshly baked breads and produce from the resort's own gardens give way to five-course dinners in the evenings. After our river cruise we enjoyed a mushroom and truffle soup, organic artichoke risotto and a melt-in-the-mouth three-hundred-day grain-fed black angus rib fillet - followed by desserts and cheeses.
Keeping the wine cellar stocked here requires planning; deliveries of heavy items only arrive about once every three months by barge, which made the selection of premium Australian wines all the more impressive.
The combination of dramatic wilderness, comfort and great dining - not to mention the scenic floatplane flight - make this quite an experience that is sure to become a Western Australian icon in its own right.
As I flew back to Perth for my flight home I reflected that although I had enjoyed an extraordinary range of experiences in a relatively short time I had hardly scratched the surface of this vast state.
I hadn't done justice to Perth and its surrounds, visited the winelands of the Margaret River or flown over the Bungle Bungles to name but three of Western Australia's many other attractions.
With such a large land mass the climate varies widely from north to south, so it would be impossible to visit everywhere at the ‘best' time of year anyway. Or looking at it the other way there is always somewhere in WA where the climate is right for a visit. Roughly speaking, the north is best visited in our summer (Australian winter) and the South is best visited in our winter (Australian summer).
As far as travelling is concerned the huge distances in WA mean either long drives or flights between key centres are needed. While self-drives are feasible - and very popular with Australians - no one should underestimate the time required, the distances or the degree of planning needed. For most holidays a degree of ‘mix and match' probably makes most sense - i.e. flying some of the longer distances such as Perth to Exmouth and collecting a car in each region. We actually found that an itinerary can be done without hiring a car; transfers and guided excursions were readily available everywhere we visited.
However you do it, a trip to Western Australia can't be seen as a cheap holiday; the distances alone ensure that transport costs will mount up. However, the sheer range of experiences on offer means that any visit will be varied and rewarding, even if you only have two weeks to spare.