Immerse yourself in one of Australia's most beautiful locations at WA's Kalbarri National Park, where the best thing to do is admire the roaring rivers, incredible wildflowers and sandstone plateaus.
I can’t tell you the exact moment it happened – maybe it was the shock of facing the mighty Murchison Gorge for the first time or a particularly tasty prawn enjoyed under fairy lights on a cool evening. Who knows? But I start wondering about holiday-home prices in Kalbarri, on Western Australia’s Coral Coast. We’ve already clocked 2000 kilometres in a motorhome on this trip and I’m considering whether a 46-hour drive from Sydney would be that bad. Cut it to six-and-a-half if we throw in the five-hour flight to Perth. Oh, it’s just two hours from Geraldton? I’m calculating deposits.
In defence of my magical thinking, Kalbarri pops up like a perfect pair of boots in my size just when I think I’ve got the best out of the Boxing Day sales. With Ningaloo as the main draw on our road trip, we’ve already swum with whale sharks, dolphins, turtles and manta rays; watched the sun settle itself into the Indian Ocean; and seen emus, eagles and endless horizons. We’ve loved travelling with everything, including a kitchen sink, fridge, beds and a shower. Minds well and truly blown, we’re in purely bonus-points territory when Di at the Murchison River Caravan Park cheerfully takes my phone booking, warns us to watch for kangaroos on our twilight drive into town and adds, “You can’t miss us, we’re right on the river.”
And what a river it is. The second-longest in Western Australia, the Murchison meanders 820 kilometres across the outback, having relentlessly carved its path through what were ancient sandy plains. Now, Kalbarri National Park is 186,000 hectares of spectacular land formations – to the south, coastal cliffs that face down crashing surf; north-east of the town, a plateau slashed by the river, its harsh zig-zag exposing 400-million-plus years of striking red and cream Tumblagooda sandstone. It’s a layer cake of history topped, in wildflower season, by rainbow sprinkles of native blooms.
The region’s original inhabitants, the Nanda people, believe Beemarra, a Dreamtime serpent, followed the river course towards the sea but was frightened by the pounding surf and turned back. In the bright light of our first morning, I understand why she might have been put off – past the river mouth, perilous-looking whitecaps obscure the horizon. But the broad, winding waterway forms the spine of a coastal holiday town long beloved by Western Australian families.
“Now, you know you have to take your own drinking water into the park,” warns the staff member at the Visitor Centre in town as we pick up a permit. There’s a newly opened kiosk in Kalbarri National Park but, as it happens, in our motorhome we have to take everything anyway as we trundle towards what sounds like a nice viewing spot called Nature’s Window.
Perched high above the gorge, Nature’s Window is a hole in the layered rock that seems sculpted with an artist’s hand to frame a bend in the Murchison. Down below, a family is cooling off in the serene water, their footprints scoring an otherwise pristine sandy bank. On a day that’s both still and sparkling, laughter and splashes echo up the cliff face, the perfect soundtrack to this masterpiece.
The intrepid gang has taken one of the park’s hiking trails – some only for the experienced, others easy strolls to another highlight. You can’t find a shabby vista in this landscape and, since June, visitors have also been able to gaze directly into the gorge’s 100-metre depths from the new Skywalk’s cantilevered platforms. They’d get a polite “No, thanks” from height-averse me, as would the giant scorpion-like thing responsible for fossilised scuttle-marks across the rust-coloured rock. These early arthropods scurried from pool to pool, among the first type of creatures on earth to venture onto dry land.
Kalbarri’s more modern residents include funny-looking thorny devils, emus, echidnas, kangaroos and up to 200 species of birds. But between July and October (and depending on the rains), WA’s famous wildflowers – more than 1100 species in this region alone – are the headliners, creating a breathtaking carpet that’s like a living dot painting of pink, purple, red, white and yellow. Tiny Kalbarri spider orchids sprout near ground level, fuzzy kangaroo paws emerge on stalks and unmistakable banksias stand to attention against the clear blue sky. In fact, as many as 60 per cent of WA’s 12,000 species of wildflowers are found nowhere else on earth. And if your knowledge of botany goes no further than whatever can be identified from an Australiana tea towel, the Kalbarri Visitor Centre can provide details of the latest sightings, along with a Kalbarri Wildflowers booklet.
At night we go in search of tastier offerings in the form of seafood. There are two pubs in town plus unpretentious, friendly eateries such as the Pickled Pelican and Dirt Dust & Diesels. A more high-end proposal is Upstairs Restaurant but we’re in casual holiday mode and opt for Finlay’s Kalbarri, a local favourite billed as an outdoor seafood restaurant and microbrewery.
Entering the fairy light-sprinkled garden, we know we’ve struck gold. There are chairs around a fire, a guy in the corner is playing guitar and behind the tables there’s a timeline of vintage outboard motors. It’s like someone emptied their shed and turned it all into décor. We’re not sure what to do first – grab a table, choose one of the seven beers on tap, play a game of giant Jenga or mess around with the old marine radios. As we crunch on coconut and panko prawns and devour locally caught Cajun blackened pink snapper, a huge nearby shark made of rope seems to watch every bite.
The next day, we try catching our own fish on the river. The man in the bait and tackle shop is kind and patient while we pick up some basic gear. It’s almost as if he knows we won’t catch anything but hey, a sale’s a sale. Every person we meet is affable and open. Kat Deadman, who runs Kalbarri Boat Hire with husband Jason, moved here from Perth for just that reason. “It’s a friendly town,” she tells me. “Everyone’s chatty. You pass them and say, ‘Good morning!’ and nobody looks at you like you’re weird for saying hello.” She shows us a map, pointing out sandbars to avoid, and we set off in a tinnie, chugging up the waterway. From a tree, two white-bellied sea eagles silently judge us as we nudge every sandbar and catch zero fish. I can almost see their eyes rolling.
There are many other things here that we just can’t get to – river canoe safaris, abseiling, a sunset coastal cliff cruise past the choppy river mouth, seeing the distinctive pink Hutt Lagoon from the air, a walking retreat with astrophotography under the night sky and a bird habitat that in warmer months hosts outdoor movies at Cinema Parrotiso.
But we’re also more than fine with a clifftop ramble to spot whales, watching the daily pelican feeding, snorkelling in the clear rock pools of the Blue Holes, the great coffee at The Gorges Café opposite the marina and even our greasy bacon and eggs cooked on the communal barbecue at the caravan park. As we unplug and drive off, farewelling beautiful Kalbarri, I leave a little piece of my heart there... maybe, one day, to be joined by a cash deposit.
Things to know before you visit
The best time to go
Late July to late September gives you the best chance of combining whale watching with wildflowers, if the rains have come at the right time for the blooms to burst forth.
What to pack
For cool-to-cold nights and warm days if visiting around this time. The sun can be baking and the water clear and inviting but you might need a wetsuit.
The Kalbarri Visitor Centre has all the information you need for the region, including park permits and a wildflower guide. You can also download the Wildflowers of WA app, which contains a handy identifying tool for the curious flora spotter, or try online resources including florabase.dpaw.wa.gov.au and wildflowersocietywa.org.au.
There’s no camping in the national park and although there are toilets and the Skywalk has a kiosk, take plenty of water if you plan to hike. Follow all advice and time it carefully as the heat can be brutal.
Where to stay
Accommodation consists of standard holiday units, rentals, holiday parks and motels or there is Kalbarri Edge Resort. If the idea of unpacking just once, pulling up to your site, plugging in and opening a bottle of wine appeals, Let’s Go Motorhomes has modern vehicles no older than three years; the beds are comfy and you can pre-book bikes and child seats. If you order groceries, they’ll even load them into the vehicle’s fridge and hidey-holes so you can simply drive away.