Western Australia Coral Coast road trip: Red-hot desert fun

"I need to warn you," I say to my friend Emma as we pull into the campsite. "Some of the people in here are going to be intense."

"How do you mean, 'intense'?"

"Well, they're camping. They're 'in tents'."

Emma groans. I've been treating her to A-level dad jokes like these for a few days, and they're beginning to grate. But you can't have a road trip without dad jokes, just as you can't have a road trip without servo lollies,  sing-alongs to bad '80s pop, and tiffs over directions.

Our road trip has featured all of the above. 

And what a road trip it is. If there's romance in the open road, then there's a whole lot of romance in Western Australia. This is a state with seemingly endless highways and byways, those that are arrow-straight and cleave the flat red earth, and others that wind through old-growth forests and rolling hills. Drivers still wave when they meet another car here, a sure sign that they haven't seen anything but trees and kangaroos in hours. It can be lonely country, but it's beautiful and ever-changing, a kaleidoscope of colour and texture. Perfect for a road trip.

Emma and I are travelling more than 1000 kilometres from Dunsborough, in the Margaret River region, north to Shark Bay on WA's Coral Coast. Along the way, our campervan of courage will be calling in at Cervantes, Denham, Kalbarri and Billabong, a dusty town that is little more than a roadhouse and a shed.  

Our biggest disagreements so far have been about what constitutes acceptable accommodation. I would be happy to pitch a tent and slum it under canvas. Emma requires nothing less than a five-star hotel with an attached day spa.

We've reached a compromise, of sorts, in the form of an Apollo "Euro Tourer" campervan. We've got a toilet and shower on board, a full kitchen, and a couch that converts into a comfortable bed. 

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We're beginning the journey having spent a few days in a fancy hotel in Dunsborough before hitting the road and heading north. Our first stop is Flametree Wines cellar door  right near Dunsborough, so we pull in to grab a few bottles of cab sav.

The road up north to Perth is a busy one, mostly dual-lane highways that increase in density as we approach the state capital. We stop at a supermarket for  provisions – "This was your idea," Emma tells me, "so you're cooking" – before again pointing our way north to the coastal town of Cervantes. 

This is Emma's first experience in a campsite. "They're all very close together," she says as we pull into Pinnacles Holiday Park and survey the tents and campervans amassed inside. 

"What did you expect?"

"I don't know. I guess I thought everyone would be all spread out."

The campsite is right on the beach in Cervantes. This small fishing town attracts tourists wanting to see The Pinnacles, a group of thousands of limestone towers that dot the desert floor in nearby Nambung National Park. One of the great WA experiences is heading up to the Pinnacles at sunset, watching the reds of the desert glow and then fade in the dying light. 

We spend a few hours in the national park, taking photos and staring at a stunning sunset, before heading back to camp and making use of the Euro Tourer's kitchen. We crack a bottle of that cab sav and I whip up every camper's favourite meal, spaghetti bolognese, on the gas stove. 

"Aw," Emma says, at the end of the meal, "you know what the worst thing is?"

"What's that?"

"We have to do the washing up now."

"Well, that's not strictly true."

"It's not?"

"No. I cooked. So you have to do the washing up now."

Them's the rules of camping. 

After a night's sleep in airconditioned comfort (the campervan has aircon – that's not roughing it in my book), we hit the road nice and early, headed north for the biggest drive day of our trip. We're hoping to make it to Monkey Mia, about 650 kilometres away.

This is where the countryside begins to open up, as the rolling hills give way to the barren red sands of the central interior. We make our way slowly up the coast, past Geraldton, before making a turn to follow Highway 1 inland. 

It's hot. To keep ourselves amused, we watch the thermometer on the campervan's dashboard climb up and up. 

"I bet it gets to 45."

"No way! It'll stop at 43."

We're both wrong. As we drive further north the temperature hits 45, and then 46, and then 47. It's an incredible 48 degrees by the time we pull into the roadhouse at Billabong and feel a blast of searing, dry heat when we open the van door.

The woman behind the counter in the servo isn't fazed. "You reckon this is hot? It got to 52 the other day."

Quite rightfully, Emma is now beginning to question my wisdom in booking this trip during summer; however, as the road bends back towards the coast, the mercury drops and has reached an almost comfortable 40 by the time we get to Monkey Mia, having drunk about four litres of water each, gone through three packets of Snakes Alive, and listened to the entire Serial podcast on the radio.

"This is about the time I'd really like to have my own room with my own shower," Emma mumbles as we pull into the campsite at Monkey Mia, yet another coastal abode, this time abutting the beautifully clear and dolphin-filled Shark Bay.

"But this is even better," I say. "If you go to the toilet blocks you get a choice between about eight showers."

She's not convinced. Instead we decide to wash away the grit of the road in the ocean. We've been in those warm waters for about a minute before I spot a dorsal fin coming our way. Wait, two dorsal fins. We sit there in the bay, dumbstruck, as a pair of dolphins glides right past our legs. Amazing.

We've got a non-drive day here in Shark Bay, and choose to spend this time with Darren Capewell, an Aboriginal guide who runs tours of the area through his company Wula Guda Nyinda. We go with him to check out nearby Francois Peron National Park, where red earth from the desert meets the white sands of the Coral Coast. It's a stunning place, made all the more interesting by the  snippets of indigenous culture passed on by Darren. 

The next day we  head back south, this time to the coastal town of Kalbarri, about five hours' drive away. There's more open road today, vast tracts of flat, dry land that eventually lead back to the deep blue of the Indian Ocean. We eat dinner in the local pub, and watch the sunset over the beach while nursing our last Margaret River red.  

The final stretch takes us all the way back to Perth, where we head down to Cottesloe Beach for one last spectacular WA sunset, resting road-weary limbs on the grass promenade. 

This will be our last night of campervanning luxury. I get the feeling even Emma will be sad when it comes to an end.

(Update: she was not sad.) 

Five things to do on WA's coral coast

GO HORSE RIDING

At Big River Ranch in Kalbarri you can jump on board a trusty steed and explore the surrounding countryside. All ages and abilities are welcome. See bigriverranch.net.

GO BUSH WALKING

There's no shortage of places to go for a hike in WA, and one of the Coral Coast's best is Kalbarri National Park. The "Loop Walk" is a challenging hike that meanders through deep gorges eroded by the Murchison River. See kalbarri.org.au.

FEED THE DOLPHINS

It feels a little touristy, and you'll have to share the experience with hundreds of others, but there's still something pretty amazing about watching wild dolphins come in to the beach for feeding at Monkey Mia. See monkeymia.com.au

SUNSET CRUISE

One of the best ways to experience Shark Bay is aboard the Monkey Mia Wildsights catamaran. There are usually dolphins around – and plenty of other sea life – as the boat cruises the bay while the sun sets. See monkeymiawildsights.com.au.

KAYAK TOUR

At Francois Peron National Park, near Denham, visitors can spend the day kayaking through crystal clear estuaries with Darren Capewell, an Aboriginal guide who shares plenty of local knowledge and stories. See wulaguda.com.au.


Trip notes

MORE INFORMATION

See westernaustralia.com; apollocamper.com

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia has direct flights from the east coast of Australia to Perth. See virginaustralia.com.

TOURING THERE

An Apollo Motorhomes "Euro Tourer" van, which sleeps two people and has airconditioning plus a shower, toilet, kitchenette and two couches on board, as well as an outdoor dining table and two chairs, costs from $120 a day.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia and Apollo Motorhome Holidays

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