When Cyclone Seroja ripped apart the old One Mile Jetty in the West Australian coastal town of Carnarvon this week, it tore into the historical heart of this remote area in the State’s rugged North West, almost one thousand kilometres north of the State capital, Perth.
Carnarvon is unique. It is the only town in Australia where the central desert reaches out to the sea. It enjoys a sub-tropical climate, and is positioned between two World Heritage areas – Shark Bay and Ningaloo. Inland, to the east, is the stunning Kennedy Range National Park with spectacular gorges.
Its Heritage listed One Mile Jetty was the longest jetty in the WA north, built back in 1897 when Carnarvon reportedly was the first port in the world to load livestock aboard ships for transport to markets.
Improved alternative transport means it’s been a long time since ships pulled up at the jetty, but it has remained a favourite with tourists and locals for fishing, walking, and even jetty trips on the novelty ‘Coffee Pot’ train.
The Jetty was the centerpiece of the Carnarvon Heritage Precinct that included an impressive Interpretive Centre housing priceless museum artifacts and an extensive photographic collection. The Precinct has a Shearing Hall of Fame, a Railway Station Museum housing a steam train, a second small museum in a 1897 Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage and a restaurant with a view to the sea.
Of special interest is one of the lifeboats that brought ashore 46 German survivors from the famous 1941 battle between HMAS Sydney and the German raider HSK Kormoran during World War 11. Also on show is the anchor from the ‘Korean Star’ lost in a 1988 cyclone 120 k north of Carnarvon – its crew was saved via a flying fox in a remarkable 45 minute rescue.
You can drive to the Precinct, or walk or cycle to it via the old Tramway track cutting through wetlands with an abundance of birdlife, including white winged fairy wrens, brahminy kites, royal spoonbills and egrets. The first time I tackled this three km walk was in the afternoon heat. Not a good idea! Early morning is best, and worth the effort.
The Heritage listed jetty was closed to the public in 2017 when it fell into disrepair and judged structurally unsafe. The Carnarvon community rallied, campaigning for money to save it.
In January this year, it seemed the battle to save One Mile was over with the State Government pledging $4.5 million dollars to kickstart repairs. But any joyous victory cry died away with Cyclone Seroja this week. Photos online posted immediately after the Cyclone show the ocean end of the jetty and the land end still standing precariously – but the middle is gone. Time will tell whether that’s it for One Mile Jetty or is there still a slim chance of salvation still in sight?
One thing I know, Carnarvon has community resilience and backbone. This tough little Aussie outback coastal town has put itself back together many times in the past after devastating floods and other cyclones. Thankfully, the town escaped any major damage from this latest cyclone, and if there’s any possibility of rebuilding the old jetty, you can be sure this community will try to do it.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Carnarvon and have visited many times since the late ’70’s. Long known as the ‘Queen of the Gascoyne’, she has polished her jewels over the last decade and is giving big brother Broome, a tourist boom town further up on the North West coast, a run for visitor interest.
Carnarvon is also a major food bowl for WA, with its vast plantations famous for mangos, bananas and a range of other fruit and vegetables. On Saturday mornings during the tourist season from May to October, an arts, crafts and growers market is held in the Civic Centre courtyard outside the Carnarvon Visitor Centre. It’s a great place to stock up with locally grown fruit and vegetables, often picked the night before. The markets are plastic bag free, so BYO bags.
The town is above the 26th parallel by the Indian Ocean and provides the first real taste of WA’s far north as you travel up the coast from Perth. The dirt turns red here, and the Aussie winter weather is warm with an average of 355 days of sunshine a year. As the south of Western Australia shivers with the rest of the nation’s southern half, Carnarvon is shorts and t-shirt territory!
En route there on one trip, I got chatting to a truckie who advised me to skip the town. “Don’t bother with it, boring, drive on by!”
It has had that reputation in the past – a bit of a boring town. But it’s hard to drive past, given that the nearest town south on the North West Coastal highway is 428 km away, and the nearest north is seven hundred km away! But over the last decade, Carnarvon has smartened up with a handsome new inland harbour foreshore along its Fascine Bay in the town centre.
If you are a fish lover, then head over to its boat harbour where you can buy fresh seafood just in from the sea! Crays, fish, prawns caught by the local fishing fleet. Another attraction at the boat harbour is a little cafe called Harbourside. It might not look much, but it serves great locally caught fish meals and utilises the local fruit for amazing smoothies. Just milk and fruit. No syrup or artificial flavour rubbish. Being a mango smoothie connoisseur, I rate Harbourside’s the best I’ve had. I mention this only because I shudder at the thought that visitors could leave Carnarvon without trying one!
Carnarvon reminds me of one of those plain bespectacled girls in the movies, who throws off her glasses, smartens up and is revealed as the beauty she really is! But Carnarvon’s attractions are not handed out on a plate. As a visitor, be prepared to explore and discover!
A sense of Carnarvon’s history is retained with many buildings from the 1800’s and early 1900’s still in use. Colourful murals on some of the buildings provide windows into Carnarvon’s past as a Port and supply centre for the Gascoyne region.
One place you should visit is the old Gascoyne hotel, established in 1900 when accommodation included stabling for 30 horses! Here, you are likely to meet up with some real Aussie outback characters at the bar!
Dominating Carnarvon’s landscape is a huge Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) satellite dish, a clue to the vital role this outback town once played in the space race! Just outside of Carnarvon, a tracking station provided support for NASA’s Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. And in town, the OTC satellite earth station was part of the global satellite communications system.
Point your vehicle towards this massive dish, and you’ll discover the earth station is now an excellent space and technology museum, one of the town’s ‘star’ attractions. Its visitors have included Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon; Australia’s own astronaut Andy Thomas; America’s first man into space Alan Shepard; and the only person to fly with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, Wally Schirra. Space buffs will love the displays, interactive computers, a 50-seat theatre and a full size mockup of the Apollo command module with a video and surround sound experience.
On the road into town from the main highway is the Gwoonwardu Mia Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre, showcasing the vibrant history of local traditional owners through interactive technology, images, maps and audio. It is managed by the West Australian Museum in collaboration with the local indigenous community.
Carnarvon Shire is massive, covering 53,000 square km with immaculate beaches, great fishing, whale watching, surfing and remarkable areas to explore. So the town is great as an exploration base.
Just 50 km inland is the freshwater Rocky Pool on the Gascoyne River, a stunning outback landscape for picnics and swimming that captures my heart every time I visit. There are no facilities, and camping is not permitted despite what a lot of websites say. People staying the night risk a $100 on the spot fine – a risk some take to stay in such a beautiful place. The main road to Rocky Pool from Carnarvon is sealed. A short access road of a few kilometers is unsealed, but negotiable with care. Watch out for wandering livestock!
Seventy-five km north of Carnarvon are the Blowholes where powerful ocean swells surge through sea caves, creating spectacular spouts up to 20 metres high. It’s a rugged coastline where people have been swept off the rocks to their death. Note the warning signs. Note too that sharks frequent this area, even close to shore.
Caravan/camping facilities are at nearby Quobba Station, a pastoral station with 80 km of coast including the famous Red Bluff area.
One of the most impressive ‘local’ sights is Mount Augustus, rising 715 m from the surrounding stony red sandplain. It’s the world’s largest monocline and is twice the size of Uluru (Ayres Rock). It’s 490 km inland from Carnarvon, admittedly quite a distance. But this is the Western Australian outback where the locals joke that it’s a Sunday drive! You’ll want to stop over to savour the sights.
Take the sealed road from Carnarvon to Gascoyne Junction. This tiny place only has a few streets and was relocated in an $8m rebuild after it was destroyed by floods in 2010. The rebuild included an excellent new pub, store and caravan park with some upmarket chalets. Unsealed, but well maintained roads from here take you to both the Kennedy Range and Mount Augustus National park. The river here can still flood, so always check ahead that you can get through.
I suspect if ghosts exist, Australia’s most famous aviator, Charles Kingsford Smith pops in to visit Carnarvon from time to time! In the 1920’s, he worked here as a pilot for Western Australian Airways, and later started a trucking business – the Gascoyne Transport Company. His contracts included an 800 km mail run along rough unsealed tracks to Meekatharra via Mount Augustus.
By 1924 he and fellow pilot Keith Anderson had raised enough capital from the business to buy two Bristol tourer aircraft. Kingsford Smith would go onto international fame completing the first trans-Pacific flight from the USA to Australia. In a sense, you could say he was Australia’s first FIFO (Fly in/fly out worker), going to the West to earn money for his pioneering aviation adventures!
A surprisingly enjoyable day on one of my last Carnarvon visits was at the local horse races! My ‘racing’ interest is usually only slightly stirred by Melbourne Cup sweeps. But the meet was raising money for St John’s Ambulance, so I went along.
Country race meetings in Australia are now on my recommendation list. I had a great time. Didn’t win a bet. Didn’t place one. But loved the atmosphere! Jockeys and horses come from throughout WA’s North West and Mid West. A complimentary bus picks up from all caravan parks.
The Carnarvon Visitor Centre has some good tourist brochures, including one that lists ‘101 things to do in Carnarvon’. It has an excellent website that provides an abundance of up to date information on the area. You will find the website at https://www.carnarvon.org.au
The Carnarvon Shire Council website has a link to Main Roads reports on road conditions in its Shire, and information about approved camping/caravan sites outside of the main town. Check https://www.carnarvon.wa.gov.au/Home
The local library is also worth a visit as it often hosts good art exhibitions and has excellent public toilets!
Carnarvon caravan parks are popular, so book ahead at peak times. They get packed out. There are also some motels, but don’t expect any ritzy five star hotels. My experience has been with the Wintersun Caravan Park, with its 8 rink grassed bowling green and regular get togethers for people staying there. I’ve camped here, and also stayed in their upmarket chalets.
The Perth to Carnarvon drive takes around nine hours. It can be done in a long day, but there’s a lot of road train action and tourist traffic. So I’d advise at least a two-day trip, particularly if towing a caravan. There are free 24-hour camping bays along the Highway between Geraldton and Carnarvon, and onwards to Broome.
Don’t miss driving up to the top of White Bluff, besides the highway about 100 km south of Carnarvon and 50 km north of the Overlander roadhouse. It’s usually full of caravans by late afternoon! No facilities, but an amazing 360-degree landscape view. There’s also a resident tribe of gnomes!