High adventure on Highway One

Special to The Times

The outback seeped into our hotel room with the dawn.

It announced itself first with the guffaws of kookaburras, then a screeching chorus of a hundred white corellas. They were teasing us, luring us out of modern downtown Perth and into the bush.

Jim and I, friends since long before his hair turned gray and my laugh lines became wrinkles, were in Australia to mark the 25th anniversary of our first epic road trip. We’d bounced along on broken seat springs for 5,000 miles around eastern Australia, emergency fuel cans and extra tires in the back of our temperamental station wagon.

Older and theoretically wiser — and less poverty-stricken — we nonetheless wanted an appropriately challenging sequel. We found it in Western Australia: 975,000 square miles of assorted deserts with a tropical coastal fringe.

We would follow part of Highway One, the road that encircles the continent, from Perth to Darwin. Although the route is paved, it would still be an adventure through some of the country’s most remote regions. Western Australia is the country’s biggest state — more than six times the size of California — but is so sparsely populated that it averages fewer than two people per square mile.

We agreed that 18 days in a tent was not the appealing option it was in 1979. We settled on a four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser converted by Britz Rentals into a home-on-the-road complete with sink, stove, refrigerator and two comfy fold-down beds.

The SUV was pure luxury compared with our first trip, when we set off on a year’s journey through Asia and Australia to try to establish ourselves as travel writers. The stories we gathered propelled us into careers as freelance travel writers. Jim now lives in Bangkok, Thailand, and I in Montreal, and it was a rare treat to find the time to take on an adventure together. We were both toying with new writing projects. This part of the world had inspired us once, we figured. It might just do so again.

We drove slowly up the coast north of Perth through vineyards and farmland, stopping to buy fresh fruit from roadside stands. In the wind-swept seaside communities, the gum trees grew sideways. and windsurfers dotted the waves like neon dragonflies. In lush Kalbarri National Park, we hiked through the river-cut gorges and the eerie limestone spires that sprout from sandy desert.

On our second day, we took our first detour off Highway One. We turned off at the Overlander Roadhouse for Shark Bay Marine Park, a protected zone for the dozen or more native shark species. But the draw to this remote area is a pod of dolphins that arrives each morning and afternoon for a fish handout on the beach at Monkey Mia. In the ‘60s, a local woman noticed a dolphin following her during her beach walks, and the place became a mecca for dolphin lovers. As hundreds of visitors shuffle excitedly in the shallows, nine “regular” dolphins arrive like clockwork.

We stayed overnight at Monkey Mia and were glad we did. At dawn, before the crowds arrived, we had our own private pair of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins following us as we jogged along the beach. In the afternoon, we took a catamaran cruise over crystal water, peering into the shallows at several dugongs — relatives of the manatee — as they gently fed on sea grass.

Deserts are my favorite ecosystems on land. But if I’m not bolting down a sand dune, I’d rather be underwater. So on our fourth day, now 800 miles north of Perth, we veered onto the North West Cape, a finger of land jutting into the Indian Ocean. I made a beeline with a guide from Exmouth Diving to an abandoned U.S. Navy pier encrusted with brilliant multicolored coral. I saw more marine life than I’d seen during any single dive on the Great Barrier Reef: clouds of lion fish, giant potato cods and groupers, and all manner of barracuda, parrot fish and strange wobbygong and toadfish.

The cape’s headline attraction is a much bigger fish. From mid-March to mid-May, the seas are a magnet for the harmless whale shark, which sifts the plankton-rich coastal waters like an aquatic vacuum cleaner. That’s what I kept telling myself as I clenched my jaw on my snorkel and watched a speckled 30-footer drift casually beneath me, mouth wide open.


Plagues of epic proportion

Our sixth day was one you can have only on a road trip in the Australian outback. It started right at midnight. We left Exmouth late, heading back onto Highway One and into a kangaroo plague. Every 20 yards or so, another ‘roo popped out of the bush. For an hour we drove slowly, watching carefully.

Unable to find the campsite marked on our fly-spattered map, we simply pulled over, utterly exhausted. Dawn brought to light a surreal scene when we drew back the curtains; we stared out at the tottering ruins of a bridge with collapsed pylons and a twisted road deck leading halfway across the river, the rest of it swept away in floods. We made our way over a temporary crossing and spotted the sign for our campsite; it pointed to a road partly collapsed and refilled by a sand dune.

“They got the full Monty here,” a trucker said over breakfast at the nearby Fortescue River Roadhouse. Cyclone Monty had roared through two weeks earlier with winds of 156 mph. “Another one’s on its way,” he said, matter-of-factly, pointing his fork at a warning notice pinned to the wall.

In Australia’s north, there are only two seasons: “The Wet,” from November to March, and “The Dry,” between April and October. We took a risk setting off in mid-March, when monsoons and cyclones can flood and wash out roads. We crossed our fingers that Cyclone Fay, spinning off northern Australia, would hold its offshore course.

We rounded the hump of northwestern Australia and headed into the humid finale of the wet season. This region, the Pilbara, is known for two things: iron ore and heat. The thermometer outside the Whim Creek Hotel read 109 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

Inside the corrugated iron-clad bush pub we ordered lunch from a blackboard list of “counter teas” — pub food. Later, I headed for the outhouse, pushed open the stall door and froze. A giant rabbit — or was it a rat? — lay sprawled on the floor. I gasped, then realized it was a baby kangaroo. I moved to the next stall. “There a ‘roo in the loo,” I whispered to Jim as I slipped back onto my bar stool.

“Oh, that must be Rudy,” cooed the waitress. “He comes in from the bush to cool off in there.”

“What’s next?” I asked Jim as we re-entered into the punishing heat. Without hesitation he replied, “Plague of locusts, I believe.”

When the first locusts struck our Land Cruiser we thought something was amiss beneath the hood. Then the air filled with a yellowish cloud of grasshoppers, each about the size of a disposable lighter. They pelted the windshield in a rhythmic staccato, hundreds of them. I had to get out at intervals to scrape them off; then, back in the SUV, I had to pluck them from my hair. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. had warned us that morning that the Mandora cattle station had reported a 2.5-mile front of locusts, but nothing could have prepared us for the nauseating fishy smell of baking bugs.

By the time we pulled in that evening at Eighty Mile Beach — the halfway point of our trip — we felt we’d earned the barbecue and chilled bottle of West Australian wine. I don’t know if we deserved to have the beach all to ourselves at sunset, but we enjoyed that too.

A couple of days later, we were in Broome searching frantically for Little Creatures — a divine microbrew from Freemantle, near Perth. Such small treats feel like big luxuries on the road, and our arrival in Broome (population about 10,000), the biggest town on our route, meant we could restock. We loaded up on kangaroo steaks and emu sausages, Cherry Ripe chocolate bars and Lamington sponge cakes.

Broome is a funky, laid-back tropical outpost, erstwhile center of a thriving pearling industry. The Japanese and Chinese pearl divers who passed through between 1880 and 1910 gave the city a lingering Asian flavor. As usual, I was keen to get in the water, but between the “stingers” — potentially deadly box jellyfish — and crocs that can grow to 23 feet, I was nervous. I settled for a long walk out to sea at low tide.

While Jim hosed off the Land Cruiser, I checked road conditions in our next destination, the Kimberley. When it’s dry, the Kimberley’s rough roads are an adventure in four-wheel drive. “Gibb River Road: Closed. $800 fine for trespassing,” said the alert from the highway department. “Leopold Downs Road: Closed. Floodways and creek crossings flowing.” To boot, Cyclone Fay had changed course and was now a Category 5 storm. Time to stick to the highway and head east.


Aborigine country

The Kimberley is an ancient range of gnarled red rock, and Highway One follows its southern edge, far inland. We headed into the bush where we could. In Geikie Gorge National Park, we hiked along the bank of the Fitzroy River, which carved through a coral reef that was under the sea 350 million years ago. Driving south on the Tanami Track, we reached the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater, the second largest in the world.

At a flooded creek near a stand of pot-bellied boab trees, we exchanged sign language with a cluster of Aboriginal kids swimming directly beneath a “No Swimming” sign. In this remote northeastern part of Western Australia, Aboriginal law and traditions are stronger than almost anywhere else in the country. So is the tradition of Aboriginal art. Each outpost and roadhouse had a space for artists to sell their work. One of the best-organized sites was the Yarliyil Arts Centre in Halls Creek where Tiny McCabe, whose work has been shown in posh galleries in Sydney and Melbourne, sat cross-legged on the lawn and painted dots on canvas.

The 400 miles of Highway One between Fitzroy Crossing and Kununurra weren’t paved until 1986, primarily because it was often washed out in wet seasons. We inched through shallow flooding at Cockatoo Crossing, Emu Creek and Dingo Springs but had to wait when we faced a torrent at Telegraph Creek, where the water didn’t drop until after dark. We pulled over in the outskirts of Kununurra well after midnight, quickly dropped the bunks and fell asleep.

We’d wanted to drive into Purnululu National Park to see the strange eroded formation called the Bungle Bungles, but the brutal 35-mile dirt track was closed. In Kununurra, though, we found a small plane that took us soaring over the bizarre cluster of striped domes.

We were settled into our routine by the time we crossed into the Northern Territory. We rose in the cool of early morning for breakfast cooked on our Coleman stove. Sometimes, we camped on beaches; other times, we pulled into campsites for a hot shower and to do laundry.

At Joe’s Creek in Gregory National Park, we hiked amid the Livistonia palms up to an escarpment that ducked behind waterfalls. Surrounded by flocks of sulfur-crested cockatoos, we traced the Aboriginal paintings of emus, turtles, frogs and snakes along the cliff walls behind the curtain of water.

We had one more stop, in Litchfield National Park, for a few days of picnicking among the waterfalls and swimming in their pools. Then, suddenly, the suburbs of Darwin were around us and we were navigating a wilderness of overpasses, roundabouts and traffic lights after logging 3,522 outback miles — about the distance from Seattle to Miami.

It felt strange, after 18 days on the road, to be in an air-conditioned hotel room again. I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave. But as I unzipped my duffel bag, a small lizard leapt out and bolted across the carpet, and the outback started to slip away.



Outback trek


From LAX: Qantas, Singapore and Air New Zealand have connecting (change of planes) service to Perth. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,182.


To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (country code for Australia) and the local number.


Britz Rentals, 471 Great Eastern Highway, Redcliffe, Western Australia; 3-8379-8890, . Also has nine other locations in Australia. Rents cars, vans, campers and full-size RVs. The writer’s air-conditioned four-wheel-drive bush camper cost $140 per day, plus insurance.

Exmouth Diving Centre, Payne Street, Exmouth, Western Australia, 6707, (8) 9949-1201, fax (8) 9949-1680; . Whale shark trip, $225 with snorkeling equipment supplied.


Tourism Australia, U.S. number: (800) 333-0262, .

— Margo Pfeiff