5 surprises along Australia’s Great Northern Highway

Western Australia

The Great Northern Highway is the longest highway of Australia (3.198 kilometers), it’s Western Australia’s most important road and it’s the longest most remote paved road in the world. And according to some, it’s also the dullest…   Fair enough, a few stretches here and there are monotonous and somnolent, but these five highlights will surely keep you awake. 

After our journey on the Gibb River Road, it was time to reunite with an old friend that we had briefly met in Kununurra; the Great Northern Highway. It takes you from Wyndham up north, all the way down to Perth in the south. We covered about a third of the road, from Derby to Karijini National Park, approx. 1000km. The epitome of dullness? I think not… This what we saw!

1. Derby’s prison tree

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The strangely curved branches, the dark crack in the tree trunk, the fence around it that keeps you from peeking inside and the eerily quiet surroundings: it all adds up to a very strange and uncomfortable feeling when you’re standing in front of Australia’s most infamous prison tree, 5 kilometers from Derby’s city center. In the 19th century, Aboriginal prisoners were locked up inside the hollow trunk over night, awaiting further transportation to Derby for sentencing.  A beautiful tree with an ugly history…

2. The sunset in Broome

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Broome has the appeal of a forgotten university city where the forever young show off their fancy cars and their bodies during the day and hang out in overpriced sports bars during the night, because there’s nothing else to do and no other places to go to. ‘Slipping into Broometime’ is supposed to be charming and relaxing, but if your car urgently needs to be fixed (one of the bars of our folding roof was damaged after the long off-road drive through treacherous pits and stones and there were no other cities ahead for another 600km), the faded glory really isn’t all that. Still, our forced overnight stay turned out to be a blessing in disguise: the sunset at Cable Beach was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The clouds painting the sky and the ever changing colors: it was a truly mesmerizing spectacle. The tourists, all packed on the same stretch of beach, gave the atmosphere that little bit extra.

3. The 80-mile beach

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The next part of the Great Northern Highway, from Broome to Port Headland, separates the beach on the west and the Great Sandy Desert on the east. The beach is nicknamed 80 mile beach but in fact, it’s 140 miles long. Even though the highway runs very close to the coastline, you can’t actually see the ocean from the road: the fields overgrown with spinifex and mulga block the view. One of the few side roads leading directly to the beach is also the exit to the Eighty Mile Caravan Park. You hop over a sand dune and there’s the endless stretch of sand right in front of you. You could literally drive your jeep into the ocean here. We seized the moment, made a few circles in the white sands and took dozens of photos, while trying to avoid the giant red jellyfish that dominate the bare seashore. I don’t care how extremely dull people say the landscape is along the 80-mile beach, this experience made it all worthwhile. Where I come from, you don’t get to steer a jeep on a seemingly endless beach every day! Be sure to check the tide though, before you drive along 😉

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The ‘dull’ Great Northern Highway road along the 80-mile beach

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Red jellyfish on the beach

4. The Pardoo roadhouse

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Roadhouses are as common as dirt in Western Australia, but this one is special. Not because of the tavern or camping, but because of the many road trains (= huge trucks pulling several trailers) that you’ll see when you spend the night here. The reason for their growing presence is the proximity of Port Headland, a huge industrial mining city. Since the road is straight and endless and the landscape is flat, you can spot a road train from a very far distance after dark: the high beam headlights softly fill up the sky, like a fireball floating in the darkness. Very soothing before bedtime… if you remember to cover up your ears as the giant trucks pass you by 😉

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The Pardoo Roadhouse
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A road train driving away in the sunset at the Pardoo Roadhouse

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5. The Pilbara mining landscape

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Port Headland ain’t pretty, no discussion about that. We never would have stopped there it wasn’t for the stone chip in our windscreen, caused by a passing road train. We could see the crack grow as we were driving… But once back on the Great Northern Highway, heading further south, the landscape changes from dull, flat and colorless to up-and-down wavy, rugged and fascinating.  “Warning: next explosion scheduled on …”  We’ve entered iron ore mining territory and even though you can’t see the actual developments, you don’t need a lot of imagination the see the scars it leaves behind on the scenery. Still though, the Pilbara region here in the north of Western Australia, is absolutely gorgeous, rising all expectations for our next stop: Karijini National Park.

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More of the Pilbara landscape

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