How to prepare for your first campervan trip to Western Australia?

Why Australia is the perfect destination and what you need to know before going

Bay by Cape Naturalist lighthouse
Bay by Cape Naturalist lighthouse

Australia, or the “lucky country” as it is justifiably called, has over 25’000 kilometers of coastline and a landmass larger than Europe, but only a fraction of the population at 23 million. It has been a destination for immigration for over 200 years (initially forced immigration) and still today more than one in four Australians has been born in another country. These elements as well as the open and friendly population make the continent a perfect destination for travel with a focus on nature, sports, and adventure. As we have discovered and can confirm, it is also a perfect place for doing a campervan or camping trip. Australia offers amazing landscapes, forests and beaches with plenty of unique and out-of-the way spots, which can be best explored while cruising around for days or weeks with your tent or motorhome. Public infrastructure is top-notch and ensures that in your secluded dream spot by the lake, you will still have a good access road and toilet facilities. Even roads with very limited traffic in remote areas will be in good condition with all appropriate signs (we take this for granted, but it’s not the case everywhere). Finally down-under is safe, with very low crime rates, while the Aussies are a friendly bunch, happy to chat with a stranger and share a few tips about your current or past destinations.

WA will exceed your expectations

Campervan overlooking the beach in Gnarabup, WA
Campervan overlooking the beach in Gnarabup, WA

Being a particularly large country (sixth in the World) there is huge variety between areas which are as far as 4’000 kilometers apart. Our experience described below will focus on Western Australia where we had the pleasure to spend an amazing holiday of which 10 days were spent cruising around in a comfy campervan discovering amazing spots every day. Western Australia, or WA as it is commonly referred to here is the largest of the seven regions and its capital Perth is the most remote big city. Indeed the next closest big city is Jakarta, 3’000 kilometers away (Sydney is a little bit further away). Very friendly locals, blue skies and sunny weather, a wealth of natural sites guarantee a successful holiday. This part of Australia is somewhat “under the radar” for travelers with Sydney and Melbourne getting most of the attention. Although large parts of Western Australia are made up of a dry desert-like landscape most appropriate for mining minerals, there are also beautiful green forests, a breathtaking coast and the Margaret River valley popular with surfers and wine connoisseurs alike. Chances are that WA will exceed your expectations.

Preparation and Planning

4-wheel-drive with tent on top
4WD with tent on top

As you plan your first camping trip, you will have to decide if you prefer to go camping with a tent or in a campervan. If you want to sleep in a tent, them you can choose a smaller car (a car is essential in any case) for getting around. A smaller car is easier to drive and in some situations you may be able to park your vehicel and hike to a more remote location to setup your tent, which would otherwise be unaccesible by car. However the obvious inconvenience is that you have to setup your tent every time you arrive and then pack it before leaving. The campervan will require some basic preparations before leaving, but it’s a faster than packing a tent. Also, the campervan provides more protection at night – from the cool weather, rain and possibly bugs. There exists a hybrid solution with some four-wheel-drive cars offering the option to setup a tent on the roof.

Hitop Campervan
Hitop Campervan

A campervan is usually the more comfortable option – especially if you move around quite a bit you avoid the daily setting up and packing of the tent. You will then need to think about the type of campervan you would like to use during your trip. The classic campervan for a group of 2-3 people would be a hitop minibus – something similar to a converted Toyota Hiace shown here.

Hitop campervan - day and night layout
Hitop campervan – day and night layout

It has a mini kitchen, with a sink, fridge, gas stove, microwave and closets. There are a clean and one waste-water tank that you have to fill-up/empty every day or two (the only regular maintenance you’ll have to do really). There is also a foldable dining table and a foldable double bed, which once opened occupies most of the back of the van. You have the option of opening the back hatch and looking at the stars (which are really amazing in Western Australia and you can see the Milky Way) before falling asleep. You will only be able to use the microwave when connected to an external power source, but the fridge and water pumps use the car battery and work all the time. A gas tank in the back of the car connects to the stove. I would say this is the base setup for most couples or small groups. It is very comfortable for two people, although could also accommodate up to three, with the third person sleeping on a seperate bed under the roof of the van.

Motorhome
Motorhome

There are two alternatives to the Hitop – each alternative gives you access to certain sites, which are otherwise inaccessible. The first is a bigger campervan with a toilet (some even include a basic shower). Certain camp sites in Australia only allow “self-contained” vehicles, which means ones with their own toilet. We have come across several farms with animals and attached wineries, that we were unable to stay at due to not being “self-contained”. On the other hand, having the toilet means that you have to empty it and clean it – not your dream job. Also the vans with built-in toilets (sometimes called “motorhomes”) are bigger and tend to be more expensive. The other feature worth considering is going for a four-wheel drive car. Certain remote sites are only accessible to these 4WD vehicles, and in general you will be more confident on a variety of dirt or sandy roads. As far as I know these 4WD vehicles are generally smaller and don’t have toilets, so these two options are mutually exclusive. A road trip in a 4WD van will make certain remote spots accessible for camping and overnight stay. The choice of campervan is also somewhat related to the types of places you will be looking to visit. Broadly we could divide the types of camp sites into two groups – very close to nature but with limited facilities (ie only basic toilets) and the typical holiday camping sites with all facilities (hot showers, laundry, electricity, kitchens) but ultimately with a more holiday resort-like feel. The latter category of camp sites is typically larger and attracts families for a holidays whereas the former will usually be smaller and will attract nature lovers who seek a day or two in the wild.

campervan_interriorFinally depending on the length of your trip, you may consider if you would rather rent or buy your campervan. If you are planning a trip of more than 6 weeks and are somewhat flexible on the dates, it may be worth considering a purchase. Renting is more straight-forward, but is not cheap. For instance a Hitop van will cost A$ 5’500 – 6’000 for a two-month trip (with an extra A$ 2’000 if you wish full insurance – otherwise you need to post a A$ 5’000 bond) from Britz, while there are plenty of such campervans available for sale in the A$ 15’000-25’000 range, and some more basic ones below A$ 10’000. In the case of purchasing a vehicle you may need to pay for some additional equipment, maintenance and insurance that would be included otherwise, but with a bit of luck you should be able to recover most of the investment when you sell the vehicle at the end of the trip. We rented a van from Britz and it came fully equipped and included bed sheets, towels, plates, cutlery, curtains, a power cable, a hose for refilling the tank etc. You can simply show up with your personal belongings, sunscreen, mosquito spray and you are ready to go!

Our 10-day campervan route in Western Australia: starting and ending in Perth

Day 1: Potters Gorge, Wellingtom Dam

Facilities 2/5
Scenery  5/5
Overall  Rating 5/5

A road close to Potters Gorge
A road close to the camp site

Potters Gorge at the Wellington Dam is managed by friendly rangers/caretakers from DPAW/national parks and has been recently refurbished, located about half way between Bunburry and and Collie in the heart of the Wellington national park. The 54 sites are on a beautiful forested area, very close to the artificial lake created by the dam. There are barbecue pits, picnic shelters, drop toilets (essentially toilets without a flush). There are no showers, but the lake has crystal clear water and is perfect for a swim. The site is peaceful with great birdlife (we fed ringneck parrots by hand) and the camp sites are far enough apart to give you space. There is a scenic tour worth doing along a nearby creek (rapids, big rock, little rock) and stopping for a swim on the way. Gnomesville – a village of thousands of gnomes left by visitors is also a short drive away.

Lake view from Potters Gorge Camp Site
Lake view from Potters Gorge Camp Site

Day 2: Greenbushes Free Camping, Corner South Western Hwy & Blackwood Road, Greenbushes

Facilities 2/5
Scenery  3/5
Overall Rating 4/5

Greenbushes Pool (between Donnybrook and Bridgetown) is a small, free camp site and mini nature reserve that features a playground for children, a small lake suitable for swimming and several walking trails – long and short. There are normal toilets and sinks (but no showers) and there is one electric barbecue pit. As the site is free and maintained by the local community, it doesn’t offer access to electricity, but it is possible to refill your water tank with your own hose. A mine lookout is located within a few minutes’ drive from the site. It allows you to see the 300-meter deep mine pit of a tin and lithium mine from above. The mine is in operation and as you wake up in the morning you may hear a faint sound of machinery.

Greenbushes Mine Lookout
Greenbushes Mine Lookout

Day 3: Barrabup Pool, Brook Rd, Barrabup

Facilities 1/5
Scenery 5/5
Overall Rating 5/5

barrabup-pool2It’s a one-hour drive from Greenbushes to Barrabup Pool. You will pass through Nannup – a nice town amongst hills and forest with many heritage buildings, several cafes and a great pub. Barrabup Pool is a small, magical lake in an extensive forest about 10 kilometers west of Nannup. On days with good weather (and it’s almost always good weather in the summer) there is no better place for a splash from the boardwalk, a swim to the other shore, a bit of sunbathing on a water mattress or chilling at the shore and admiring it all. The camp site is a 5-minute walk up a narrow path (or by car on a dirt road) and only has sites for 5 campers, making the experience very exclusive. This area used to be a major center of timber production at the end of the 19th century and  a nice trail in the forest along an old rail line begins here. There are drop toilets but no showers but I can recommend a swim in the lake instead. A trail along the old Timberline Trail starts by the lake. It takes you to another camp site (Sleeper Hewers Camp), which is only accessible by foot.

The unforgettable Barrabup Pool
The unforgettable Barrabup Pool

Day 4: Turner Caravan Park, 1 Blackwood Avenue, Augusta, Tel: (08) 9780-5633

Facilities 5/5
Scenery 4/5
Overall Rating 2/5

We stayed here for one night, and despite its facilities (warm showers, electricity, laundry) and incredible location (on the Blackwood river riverside, close to the river mouth) we thought it was too crowded and there was little space between campers – or I should say holidaymakers. Maybe the experience would be better during the low season.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse
The nearby Cape Leeuwin lighthouse

Day 5: Canebrake pool – Rapids Conservation Park, Crossing Rd, Treeton

Facilities 1/5
Scenery 5/5
Overall 5/5

After a very civilized camp site in Augusta, we wanted to get back to nature and chose Canebrake pool, which is a 30 minute ride east from Margaret River. Admittedly the last 5 kilometers are somewhat uncomfortable as the road is very uneven (but 4WD is not required) and the entire contents of our campervan was trembling dangerously on that stretch of road. The camp site is in the forest and has limited facilities but you can find total peace and a nearby pool (lake) suitable for swimming. It only has 9 sites.

cane-break-pool
Cane Break Pool Camp Site

Day 6 & 7: Gracetown Caravan Park, 744 Cowaramup Bay Rd, Gracetown, Tel: (08) 9755-5301

Facilities 5/5
Scenery 4/5
Overall Rating 4/5

Gracetown Caravan Park is a compromise between a busy city camp site and a more peaceful location. It is located on 13 acres of bushland, provides good facilities (warm showers etc) and some privacy from other campers. It is also strategically located a few hundred meters from Caves Road, which makes it and excellent base for exploring Margaret River vinyards, wineries and other attractions. It’s also 2.5 kilometers away from the beach. Two kangaroos walked up to our campervan in search of food during the stay, which was a pleasant surprise.

Margaret River mouth
Margaret River mouth is a short ride away

Day 8: Point Picquet (parking lot by the beach)

Facilities 1/5
Scenery 5/5
Overall Rating 5/5

Point Picquet is not a camp site – indeed, it is illegal to spend the night there and we were reminded about it at 6:30 am as we got a knock from a ranger who gave us a verbal warning. Even if you are not not going to stay here overnight, it is a beautiful spot for a day trip or stop on the way to or from Cape Naturaliste. This beach is sandwiched between Eagels Bay and Meelup beach and features large, brown rocks on the sand leading into the water. It’s also a great point for whale watching during the September-December period.

Point Picquet Beach
The beautiful beach next to which we spent the night

Day 9: Logue Brook Camp Ground, Scarp Rd, Hoffman

Facilities 1/5
Scenery 5/5
Overall Rating 4/5

On the way from Point Picquet we stopped in Busselton – a relaxed seaside city which features the iconic 1.8 kilometer long jetty. Logue Brook is another great forested camp site with limited facilities (long drop toilets and BBQ pits – no showers), but the setting more than compensates for the lack of luxuries. The caravan park is located on the shores of lake Brockman – an artificial lake, the dam is visible on the far left. It is quite peaceful – even during the Australia Day week-end when we were there – and apart from the very pleasant swims in the lake it offers walking trails, cycling trails and an opportunity to relax in the shade with the pleasant sounds of the forest and birds. Water skiing is possible on the lake if you bring your boat (it’s quite common in Australia to take one’s boat along on a trailer for a week-end trip apparently).

Camp site overlooks Lake Brockman
Camp site overlooks Lake Brockman

Day 10: Woodman Point Holiday Park, Corner Cockburn Rd & Magazine Crt, Munster 6166, Tel: (08) 9434-1433

Facilities 5/5
Scenery 2/5
Overall Rating 3/5

On our last night, before returning the rental campervan and heading to the airport, we played it safe and chose a location close to Perth. It’s a large camp site with full-fledged facilities (hot showers, barbecues and kitchen, 220v electricity connection). It is located on Woodman Point – a small peninsula surrounded by beaches and several kitesurfing spots  – frequented by local kiters.

Kitesurfing in Woodman Point
Kitesurfing in Woodman Point

When is the next trip?

We don’t know, but the mobile home experience, being able to choose where you to spend your night instantly and discovering unique, under-the-radar places has left us with a desire for more. Australia is a big country, and this trip only covered a tiny, albeit very attractive, part of it. We will be back!