Western Australia (WA) covers a third of the Australian continent, yet has a population of just 2.3 million. Conscious of its isolation from the more populous eastern states, or indeed anywhere else, WA is ironically the most suburban of Australian states: almost all of its inhabitants live within 200km of Perth and most of the rest live in communities strung along the coastline. The state offers an enticing mix of Outback grandeur and laid-back living, and is attracting increasing numbers of tourists keen to break away from “the East”, as the rest of Australia is known in these parts.
Perth retains the leisure-oriented vitality of a young city, while the atmospheric port of Fremantle, really just a suburb of the city, resonates with a youthful and somewhat boisterous charm. South of Perth, the wooded hills and trickling streams of the southwest support the state’s most celebrated wine-growing region Margaret River, while the giant eucalyptus forests around Pemberton provide numerous opportunities for hiking and generally getting to grips with nature. East of the forests is the state’s intensively farmed wheat belt, an interminable man-made prairie struggling against the saline soils it has created. Along the Southern Ocean’s stunning storm-washed coastline, Albany is the primary settlement; the dramatic granite peaks of the Stirling Ranges just visible from its hilltops are among the most botanically diverse habitats on the planet. Further east, past the beautifully sited coastal town of Esperance on the edge of the Great Australian Bight, is the Nullarbor Plain, while inland are the Eastern Goldfields around Kalgoorlie, the largest inland town in this region and a survivor of the century-old mineral boom on which WA’s prosperity is still firmly based.
While the temperate southwest of WA has been tamed by colonization, the north of the state is where you’ll discover the raw appeal of the Outback. The virtually unpopulated inland deserts are blanketed with spinifex and support remote Aboriginal and mining communities, while the west coast’s winds abate once you venture into the tropics north of Shark Bay, home of the friendly dolphins at Monkey Mia. From here, the mineral-rich Pilbara region fills the state’s northwest shoulder, with the dramatic gorges of the Karijini National Park at its core. Visitors also home in on the submarine spectacle of the easily accessible Ningaloo Reef, which surrounds the beaches of the Cape Range National Park – those in the know rate it more than Queensland’s attention-grabbing Barrier Reef.
Northeast of the Pilbara, the Kimberley is regarded as Australia’s last frontier. Broome, once the world’s pearling capital, is a beacon of civilization in this hard-won cattle country, while adventurous travellers fall in love with the stirring, dusty scenery around Cape Leveque and the Gibb River Road. The region’s convoluted, barely accessible coasts are washed by huge tides and occupied only by secluded pearling operations, a handful of Aboriginal communities, a couple of luxury retreats, and crocodiles. On the way to the Northern Territory border is Purnululu National Park, home to the surreal Bungle Bungle massif – one of Australia’s greatest natural wonders.
Travellers never fail to underestimate the massive distances in WA. If you hope to explore any significant part of the state’s more than 2.5 million square kilometres, and in particular the remote northwest, your own vehicle is essential, although you can still get to many interesting places by combining local tours with buses.
WA’s climate is a seasonal mix of temperate, arid and tropical. Winters are cool in the south and wet in the southwest corner, while at this time the far north basks in daily temperatures of around 30 °C, with no rain and tolerable humidity: this is the tropical dry season. Come the summer, the wet season or “Wet” (Dec–April) renders the Kimberley lush but inaccessible, while the rest of the state, particularly inland areas, crackles in the mid-40s °C heat. The southern coast is the only retreat for the heat-struck; the southwest coast is cooled by dependable afternoon sea breezes, known in Perth as the “Fremantle Doctor”.
WA is eight hours ahead of GMT, one and a half hours behind the Northern Territory and South Australia and two hours behind the other eastern states. Daylight saving between late October and late March was introduced in WA in December 2006, but a referendum in mid-2009 rejected its continuation and consequently the state is a further hour behind those states who operate daylight savings in the summer, namely the ACT, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
Aborigines had lived in WA for at least forty thousand years by the time the seventeenth-century traders of the Dutch East India Company began wrecking themselves on the west coast mid-journey to the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), where they sought valuable spices. While some dispute remains about the first foreigner to see Australia, with French, Portuguese and Chinese explorers all laying a claim, it can safely be said that Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog was the first European to set foot on Western Australian soil, leaving an inscribed pewter plate on the island off Shark Bay that now bears his name, in 1616. For the next two hundred years, however, WA’s barren lands remained – commercially at least – uninspiring to European colonists.
France’s interest in Australia’s southwest corner at the beginning of the nineteenth century led the British to hastily claim the unknown western part of the continent in 1826, establishing Fredrickstown (Albany) on the south coast; the Swan River Colony, today’s Perth, followed three years later. The new colony initially rejected convict labour and as a result struggled desperately in its early years, but it had the familiar effect on an Aboriginal population that was at best misunderstood and at worst annihilated.
Economic problems continued for the settlers until stalwart explorers in the mid-nineteenth century opened up the country’s interior, leading to the goldrushes of the 1890s that propelled the colony into autonomous statehood by the time of Australian federation in 1901. This autonomy, and growing antipathy towards the eastern states, led to a move to secede in the depressed 1930s, when WA felt the rest of the country was dragging it down – an attitude that persists today. However, following World War II the whole of white Australia – and especially WA – began to thrive, making money first from wool and later from huge iron ore and offshore gas discoveries that continue to form the basis of the state’s wealth. Meanwhile, most of WA’s seventy thousand Aborigines continue to live in desperately poor and remote communities, as if in another country.