Marie Lecocq - 2010-10-04
Thousands of kilometres of virtually pristine coastal wilderness, an ochre landscape nearly as endless as the horizon... who hasn’t dreamt of participating in an epic Australian adventure? Dreamers beware: the Great West is a challenging territory that is best conquered in a 4x4.
When it’s time to buy a car in Oz, four-wheel drive isn’t just another option. 4X4 or 4WD is basic equipment which becomes an absolute necessity on some Aussie roads - not to mention on the beach or in the bush. Visitors who are used to driving on the right side of the road back home may find driving on the left challenging, especially in town, but breezing along the wide-open routes of the Australian West does not require too much vigilance - not during the day, in any case. Little-used because of the enormous distances, those endless strips of tar are laid wide open for visitors in quest of unforgettably vast panoramas. At night, however, driving is generally not recommended. See those big bull bars on the front of 4WDs and SUVs? They are there for a reason: to protect against contact with the kangaroos, camels and the other night creatures of the outback.
Ready to roll? Don’t forget to take along a jerry can filled with petrol; it may well come in handy, if only to help a group of fellow travellers who’ve run dry. You can never quite count on the ‘servos’ - that’s what they call petrol stations - to be open when you need them. Far less frequented than Australia’s East Coast, the immense Wild West can only be conquered by taking the time to get to know it. If you’ve been yearning for wide open spaces, you’ve come to the right place.
Across the Nullarbor
The journey begins in the legendary Nullarbor Plain, pronounced ‘Nalabo’, a vast desert whose name means ‘treeless’ in Latin. The Aborigines have another name for this inhospitable land: Oondiri, ‘without water’. While you may be able to survive without trees, you’ll surely need to bring plenty of water along with you, as the road west through Nullarbor is about 1,200 km long and takes at least two days to complete. Take as many breaks as you fancy, and while you’re at it enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean from atop the impressive cliffs that line the coast.
This magical initiation to Australia’s South West leads to the national parks. At the wheel of a 4x4, Oz is your oyster. Unpaved roads, the bush, dunes, beaches: it certainly feels like freedom - all you have to do is respect Australian laws, which are strict yet permissive. Strict because all sorts of sanctions await those who break the rules; permissive because they are truly designed to allow visitors to take full advantage of the generous, fragile environment. Some areas allow driving along the beach, which is virtually unheard-of in Europe. Cape Le Grand National Park has a 25-kilometre stretch on the sand which you can enjoy as long as you mind the tides. Caution: rally driver skills are required!
A sequence of protected areas
Fitzgerald River National Park, recognized by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve, is famous for the diversity of its flora: over 1,800 species! In spring, a patchwork of brilliant colours blankets its charming curves. As is often the case, certain areas are only accessible via 4x4, such as the entrancing little beach called Quoin Head protected by extravagant cliffs which lend the feel of a pirates’ lair.
Further west, the Valley of the Giants is peopled by the giant red eucalyptus called tingle trees which can reach 80 metres high! In Walpole-Nornalup Park - Nornalup means the ‘place of the black snake’ - you can discover the forest canopy by walking along a lightweight bridge which winds through the trees... 38 metres above ground.
A few more kilometres and you will have reached the shores of the Indian Ocean. Between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin, in the very lovely region of the Margaret River, it is time to park the car and take a bus from winery to winery. Yes indeed, this region is where some of Australia’s finest vintages are produced!
You will already have arrived at the inviting, peaceful city of Perth, located approximately 4,000 kilometres from Sydney. Around 250 kilometres north, in Nambung National Park, you will find the unexpected landscape of the Pinnacles Desert: a stretch of yellow sand surrounded by white sand dunes and peppered with limestone pillars which arose from the desert floor aeons ago. It is a surrealistic setting which 17C Dutch explorers mistook for the ruins of an ancient civilization. Before heading back to Perth, you may want to drive east to visit Kalgoorlie, the Australian gold mining capital. You may not find the nugget that makes you a millionaire, but you will definitely get a glimpse of the genuine Australian outback.