From diving with sea-grass grazing dugongs to touring a historic ghost town north of Karratha, there’s an abundance of unmissable activities along the Warlu Way.
Western Australia’s Pilbara region has got it all – soaring ranges, endless stretches of uninhabited beaches, and a history rich with the stories of both the First Nations people and early settlers. Lose yourself in the sights and stories along the Warlu Way, a 3000-kilometre route that follows the path of the Warlu Dreamtime serpent as it wove its way through the ancient landscapes. The discovery route is doable in its entirety or easily broken into four sections: the Coastal, Inland, Manuwarra Red Dog Highway, and the East Pilbara Geoheritage routes. Whichever way you choose to tackle it, prioritise these nine activities.
1. Gorge hop in Karijini
Inland Route | 70km from Tom Price
Karijini is a national park of contrasts. Massive mountains rise from valleys, fertile waterways course their way through the semi-desert landscapes, and endless plateaus are divided by gaping gorges. Descend into their depths, where you’ll find deep, cool pools to plunge into after a challenging climb down. Kalamina Gorge is the shallowest and easiest to access; for the adventurous, there’s Weano Gorge’s Handrail Pool, a class 5 boulder scramble and one of the most challenging hikes.
2. Follow Red Dog’s Trail around Dampier
Coastal Route | 20km from Karratha
Do Dampier as its most famed resident did on the 10-kilometre Red Dog Trail. It’s an easy, grade 2 walk and the best way to see all that Dampier offers. Follow the signs through town to stop by the swaying palms on the foreshore, as well as Shark Cage Beach and Boat Ramp Beach, the latter two being the locals’ preferred swimming spots. The trail starts just out of town and is marked by a commemorative statue of the lovable, Pilbara-travelling kelpie, Red Dog.
3. Ogle at Murujuga National Park’s ancient art
Coastal Route | 34km from Karratha
When it comes to ancient Aboriginal rock art, the Ngarda-Ngarli collection at Murujuga National Park on the Burrup Peninsula delivers on all fronts, as it’s the world’s largest, densest and most diverse. There are more than one million petroglyphs around the park, each telling a story of the local life, flora and fauna of as far back as 47,000 years ago. Take the 700-metre elevated boardwalk at Ngajarli through the rock piles and mudflats to find them, stopping to read their stories at the interpretive signs along the way.
The Best Western Plus The Ranges Karratha offers a comfortable night’s rest.
4. Hook a big one off the Mackerel Islands
Coastal Route | 303km (plus a ferry ride) from Karratha
One visit to the Mackerel Islands off Onslow and there will be “it was this big” stories to last you a lifetime. The islands are a fisher’s haven with red emperor, Spanish mackerel and sailfish among some of the larger game fish found in the deeper waters. Plenty more fish – of the viewing, not eating kind – can be seen darting about the colourful reefs closer to shore. If you’re not into fishing, don a snorkel, paddle out and enjoy the kaleidoscopic display.
The Mackerel Islands are 22km off Onslow. Take your own boat across or catch the ferry, and bunk up for the night at one of the Thevenard Island Beachfront Cabins.
5. Cool off at Millstream Chichester’s Deep Reach Pool
Manuwarra Red Dog Highway Route | 121km from Karratha
Fertile, palm-studded wetlands are the last thing you expect to see in the middle of the Pilbara desert. What you’re seeing is not a mirage; it’s Millstream Chichester National Park. Fed by an underground aquifer, the national park is a hidden inland oasis split by the Fortescue River and studded with magical permanent pools. One of the most picturesque is Deep Reach (Nhanggangunha), the resting spot of the Yindjibarndi Dreaming Warlu serpent and a sacred site to the Yindjibarndi people. The water here is cool, calm and, unsurprisingly, deep – perfect for swimming and canoeing.
Accommodation is scarce along this route. If the Miliyanha and Stargazers Campgrounds at Millstream Chichester are fully booked, an overnighter at Karratha International Hotel or Dales Campground in Karijini is recommended.
6. Explore Cossack, a living ghost town
Coastal Route | 51km from Karratha
All that’s left of this once-thriving port town is a handful of quaint heritage bluestone buildings, a European and Japanese cemetery, and a chapter of colourful stories for the history books. Cossack played a vital role in the growth of the Pilbara region as the original pearling port before the industry migrated north to Broome. The opening of a jetty in 1910 in a town nearby dissolved Cossack, and by 1950, the town was abandoned entirely. Uncover more of the town’s fascinating history on a visit to the Cossack Museum – now in the old courthouse – and along the Cossack Heritage Trail.
7. Go for gold in Marble Bar
Geoheritage Route | 205km from Port Hedland
A century ago, Marble Bar recorded 160 consecutive days over 37.7°C, earning it the title of Australia’s hottest town. But the year-round heat isn’t its only claim to fame: seven kilometres out of town is the Comet Gold Mine, a relic of Marble Bar’s former heyday as a bustling gold rush town. Tour the mine to see the southern hemisphere’s tallest smokestack (it’s 75 metres high) and a colourful range of gemstones, rocks and minerals mined in the area. A big day of mining history deserves a celebratory beer, served ice cold at the Ironclad Hotel.
Pull the caravan up at Marble Bar Holiday Park or continue towards the quintessential outback stay, the Nullagine Hotel.
8. Dive the Dampier Archipelago
Coastal Route | 20km and a boat ride from Karratha
Whether you’re a regular scuba-fiend or are just getting the hang of snorkelling apparatuses, you’ll love exploring WA’s most biodiverse waters. Fringing the 42 islands, islets and rocks of the Dampier Archipelago is a colourful coral reef with spots of shallow, deep and everything in between. Strap on a tank and descend up to 30 metres off the outer islands to see barracuda, trevally and wobbegongs, or stay closer to the shallow reef on the inner islands for a chance at spotting sea turtles and rays. Cross your fingers and with luck a dugong or humpback whale might also cross your path.
Bring a tent and set up for the night on Angel Island, Gidley Island or Collier Rocks.
9. Muse at Port Hedland’s murals
Coastal Route | 200km from Karratha
Stark white salt piles in front of a glowing sunset and Cooke Point’s Staircase to the Moon are some of the most iconic photos you can get in the bustling port town of Port Hedland. But look at the town through a different lens and you’ll capture its colourful and culture-filled side too. Weave your way through Port Hedland’s laneways to uncover hidden contemporary street art by local and international artists like Beastman, Vans the Omega and Yok & Sheryo. The majority of the urban gallery is centralised around the Wedge Street area, with a lone piece fancying up a water tower along Wilson St.