I love the first morning on the road of a camping trip as the sun rises over the road ahead. After weeks of planning and days of packing and organising, it is a magical moment full of expectations. But after a long day’s drive it is a relief to find a campsite at the end of the day, especially when it is free!
Western Australia is vast. To comfortably drive from one end of the state to the other takes at least six to seven days. From Augusta to Kununurra via the North West Coastal Highway and Great Northern Highway is a total distance of around 3,682 kilometres or via the inland route about 3,536 kilometres. Incredibly it is possible to free camp all the way.
Fatigue is the silent killer on Australian roads and Main Roads Western Australia encourage rest stops every two hours. They have developed a network of 24-48 hour rest areas across 17 major routes, providing a few basic facilities like tables, shelters, and toilets. Their downloadable map outlines these rest areas and facilities. I suggest you bring your own toilet paper, and be aware there may not be internet or mobile phone coverage.
As well as the security of camping with others, these camps can be a great place to meet other travellers and gather current information about other free camps, places to visit or road conditions.
Please be aware that “truck bays” are provided for heavy-haulage and long-distance road-trains. You need to ensure you leave plenty of room as some of these trucks have three trailers and are over 54 metres long. Long distance truck drivers rely on these truck bays and don’t take kindly to caravanners taking over their overnight stops.
Pre-planning is important. Be prepared for long distances between towns and roadhouses. Do your research before you leave home, working out how far you intend travelling each day, where you can refuel and stock up on supplies, and where the possible campsites are. There is a number of useful publications which list and describe free campsites.
The on-line Wikicamps Australia app is also a great resource. Downloadable to your phone it shows distances from your location to campsites and facilities provided, as well as comments from other travellers. We found it very useful on our last trip.
Not all rest areas are equal in regard to accessibility and facilities. Some are just basic roadside pull-overs, whilst at others it is possible to pull off the road a bit further behind a belt of trees or next to rivers. These give you more protection and also cuts down road noise. On our recent trip north via the coastal route, we found that road noise dropped considerably around 9-10pm. This was not the case on a previous trip on the inland road at Bea Bea rest area between Auski Roadhouse and Port Hedland because of 24-hour road-train ore haulage. Trucks passing every 10 minutes does not help for a good night’s sleep!
We usually try to arrive at our camp around 3.30-4pm, not only to find a good spot, but to allow us to set up camp and start cooking dinner before dark. There is nothing worse than night descending and you still haven’t found somewhere to camp. We also believe it is important to go for a walk after a long day on the road.
Below are the campsites we utilised on our last trip north, there are of course many other options.
DAY 1 – AUGUSTA TO BUNBURY – 168 kilometres
If you want a short easy first day to get yourself used to the road and towing again, you can camp at one of Bunbury’s three designated 48-hour free camps. All situated in public parking areas and connected to the city by cycle and walking paths, two are located along the beach front on Ocean Drive, within walking distance of the city centre, whilst the third is a little further out between a residential area and the coastal dunes. There are BBQs, picnic areas and ablution blocks.
Campers must be fully self-contained and collect a permit from the Bunbury Visitor Centre located in the old railway station, and display this on their caravan. If the Visitor Centre is closed, select your spot and collect a permit the next morning.
Alternatively you can camp at the JOHN TOGNELA Rest Area 68 kilometres north of Bunbury on the Forrest Highway, or MOORE RIVER BRIDGE Rest Area 133 kilometres north of Perth.
DAY 2 – GALENA BRIDGE – 527km north of Perth – 693km north of Bunbury GPS: 27 49 39 S 114 41 24 E
With a short day first day, day two is much longer. However leaving early from Bunbury we still had time for an early lunch on the Jurien Bay foreshore and reached Galena Bridge around 4pm. Situated on the Murchison River, about nine kilometres north of the Kalbarri turnoff, the campsites are on the eastern side of the highway, north and south of the river. Like many free camps this is very popular. The southern side tends to get crowded early, so we chose the north side of the river. Follow the gravel track along for sites further away from the road. We arrived about 4pm and had time for a stroll along the river.
Facilities include, toilet, picnic tables, bbq, and dump point.
82 kilometres to the north is NERREN NERREN 24 hour site which is also very popular.
DAY 3 – LYNDON RIVER – 548km north of Galena Bridge GPS: 23 28 58 S 114 16 32 E
Not far south of the Tropic of Capricorn, this is a relatively small site, close to the road and bridge, on the western side of the highway, accommodating about 12 vans. Arriving around 3pm, we found a site, and had time for a pleasant walk along the dry river bed. Despite being so close to the road we had a quiet night as the road trains stopped around 9pm. Facilities include a toilet, a couple of picnic tables, rubbish bins, picnic shelter and dump point.
We had camped here previously, but noted that the station owner has since fenced off the camping area from his land, no doubt due to people abusing the privilege, pushing further onto his land and leaving rubbish behind.
We fuelled up at Carnarvon, and topped up again at Minilya Roadhouse, just south of the Exmouth turnoff.
109 kilometres north of Lyndon River is the BARRADALE REST AREA, on the west side of the highway with plenty of space to set up.
DAY 4 – PEAWAH RIVER – 592km north of Lyndon River, 92km south of Port Hedland – GPS: 2050 51 S 118 04 06 E
We fuelled up at Karratha early afternoon before arriving at Peawah about 4pm. Again, relatively small with limited space, and seemed to be very popular, but we managed to squeeze into a spot close to the road. This river was also dry, but made for a pleasant late afternoon walk. There is also space along the access road in.
Facilities included, toilet, picnic shelter, bbq, and dump point.
30 kilometres north is the YULE RIVER rest area which had some shady trees and water in the river.
DAY 5 – GOLDWIRE – 562km north of Peawah – GPS: 18 36 14 S 121 57 59 E
On day 5 we took a side trip for a couple of days rest and recuperation at BARN HILL STATION STAY on the coast. However, I suggest your next free camping spot could be Goldwire rest area, 121 kilometres south of the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse/Broome intersection.
The Goldwire Rest Area is situated approximately 200 metres off the highway and is a large open area with a dirt surface. Facilities include a toilet, picnic tables, BBQ and rubbish bins and dump point.
DAY 6 – MARY POOL – 663 km east of Goldwire on the Great Northern Highway. GPS: 18 43 37 S 126 52 19 E
When you reach the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse you can turn west towards the coast to Broome, 36 kilometres, if you need to stock up supplies, however we turned eastward towards Mary Pool, fueling up at Fitzroy Crossing.
This is a longer distance than the previous days but by leaving early we arrived around 3pm. Mary Pool is very popular with plenty of shaded sites on the south side of the highway beside the Margaret River. Facilities include toilet, picnic tables, bbqs, rubbish bins, and dump point.
Located about one kilometre off the highway, the entry road has been upgraded and relocated to the western side of the causeway which is at risk of collapse. It is possible to fish here, but avoid swimming due to the presence of freshwater and possibly saltwater crocodiles. Do not be too complacent. It is a good area for bird watching and you may see bowerbirds.
DAY 7 – KUNUNURRA – 488km from Mary Pool
From Mary Pool it is an easy drive to Kununurra through a landscape of termite mounds, spinifex, rocky outcrops, boab trees, road kill, and one lane bridges. We arrived around 2pm with plenty of time to get the washing done and stock up on supplies for the next leg of our adventure.
Driving the 3,682 kilometres from Augusta to Kununurra (3,346 kilometres from Perth) gives you some appreciation of the size of Western Australia and the diverse landscapes of the state. Planning ahead is crucial to managing fatigue on long trips and to safely enjoy your journey.
Things to Remember
- Please note: distances in this article are approximate
- Plan ahead and work out how far you are going to travel each day, where you can refuel and stock up on supplies, and where you are going to camp. Be prepared to change your plans.
- Bring your own drinking water.
- Bring your own firewood so as not to denude the site. Take away your rubbish.
- There is no power at these sites, and possibly no internet or mobile phone coverage.
- Campsites in the north-west are often on station country. Be careful camping near rivers that you don’t block access of cattle to the river.
- Don’t drive tired. Be aware of the symptoms and stop immediately. Take a 10 minute break every two hours, and a longer break every four hours.
- Avoid driving at dawn or dusk and at night because of possible stock or wildlife on the road. Station country is often not fenced.
- Never attempt to pass a road train unless you are 100% sure you can see the road ahead. Road trains can be 54 metres long. You’ll generally need several kilometres of empty straight road to be able to safely overtake a road train. Give them plenty of room and don’t cut back in.
- Use headlights even during daylight hours.
- Be aware of dog baiting if travelling with dogs.