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Guide to the Pilbara

Guide to the Pilbara

Hancock Gorge, Karijini National Park (photography Insight Photography)



Built to assist mining in the sixties, Karratha is the region’s largest service centre, and a convenient place to stock up on groceries and camping supplies if you’re venturing into the national parks. It’s also lucky enough to boast a 200m stretch of attractive beachfront, a rarity along this mangrove-fringed coast. Just out of town you’ll find a shell beach at Hearson Cove, popular for swimming and picnics, and you can view ancient Aboriginal engravings on the Jaburara Heritage Trail.


Dampier is 20km from Karratha and is smaller, greener and has a more coastal vibe than Port Hedland and Karratha. The townsfolk have proudly embraced the loveable kelpie Red Dog as their own, and you’ll see a statue of the famous canine as you enter town. The town is also gateway to the Dampier Archipelago – a number of tour operators offer day charters to snorkel, swim and fish at the closest islands, and can drop you off to camp overnight with prior arrangement.

Port Hedland

It’s a strange experience to drive from red desert into Port Hedland’s busy traffic. This town needs a spruce up in parts but it’s also home to a new sporting facility, sophisticated art gallery, and the quirky Silver Star Cafe (an eatery in a restored train carriage). Tidal inlet Pretty Pool is popular for locals to cool off. Just try to avoid being caught at a traffic crossing by one of the iron-ore trains, or you’ll be waiting a while.

Marble Bar

Marble Bar is Australia’s hottest town, a title it won in the 1920s when the temperature hit 37.8 degrees or more for 160 consecutive days. But if you are heading to the arid township, be sure to pack long pyjamas, because temperatures are known to drop dramatically at night. Bird lovers will spot several species at Chinaman’s Pool; the oasis is also a great spot for a swim and a picnic. For some sightseeing, you can take a 4WD to explore Coppin’s Gap, Doolena Gorge or Carawine Gorge.

Montebello Islands

Few have visited this remote group of more than 100 islands, 120km off the coast of Dampier. Those who do will find pristine waters that offer exceptional diving, fishing and surfing. The region is a marine park, to protect the wildlife that calls it home; Britain detonated nuclear weapons here in the 1950s, and the 300m-wide crater created by the test off Trimouille Island can be explored by divers. On Hermite Island, a rough track leads to abandoned military headquarters, but the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) recommends visitors don’t stay for more than one hour per day, or disturb the soil, due to elevated radiation levels. The islands have no facilities (or mobile phone coverage), so unless you’re travelling with someone familiar with the Monties, you’re best to go by licensed boat charter.


A Pilbara iron mine (photography Danelle Jackson).



Fishing the Montebello Islands

The Montebello Islands offer some of the best fishing in Australia. Whether you’re into popper fishing for giant trevally, mangrove jack, coral trout and baldchin groper, fly fishing for bonefish, queenfish, mackerel, shark mackerel and tuna, or trolling for Spanish mackerel, sailfish and marlin, there’s a catch for you. Most boat charters depart from Dampier, Onslow or Exmouth from April to October, and spend at least five days out. Boats vary in size (most sleep between seven and 15 passengers) and amenities (on some you will be expected to muck in with the cooking and cleaning and bring your own towels and bedding). Prices start from about $2590 per person, but depend on the number of passengers and the itinerary. Most charters offer the chance to take out a dinghy to explore the archipelago’s deserted beaches and coastal mangroves, where you might find mud crabs, or you can dive for painted crayfish.

Mud crabbing

In the Pilbara, muddies are abundant all year round and go for just about any bait. Brown and green mud crabs are available throughout the coast. They can be caught in drop nets or by using a pole and hook. The legal limit is a combined five crabs a day (green crabs must size up to 150mm wide, and brown to 120mm): has all the guidelines. Middle Mangrove Island, just off Onslow, is a good spot (get your supplies, as well as some insider tricks, from Onslow Fishing and Fuel), as are the low-tide mangroves along Cape Leveque. The Maitland River is home to mud crabs too, specifically in Munni Munni Creek – stock up on crabbing supplies at Adventure Sports in Karratha, because there are hardly any stores near Maitland.

The one that didn’t get away (photography Montebello Island Safaris).



  • Visit Karijini National Park
  • Scuba dive the Montebello Islands
  • Go birdwatching at Chinaman’s Pool
  • Take a photo with the Red Dog statue
  • Jump on a charter
  • Try your hand at catching mud crabs
  • Spend a night camping
  • Stargaze in Millstream Chichester National Park

All these events and more at


This national park, a two-hour drive south of Karratha, is a landscape of sunburnt red ranges, sloping gullies and permanent pools fringed by snappy gums. Its vast 200,000 hectare mass is bisected by the Fortescue River (top tip: bring floaties if you’re camping overnight alongside it, so you can unwind in the water with a beverage). Some park highlights, such as Python Pool and Chinderwarriner Creek, are accessible by road, but you may need a 4WD to find the Crossing or Deep
Reach pools. A permit is required from Rio Tinto to travel on rail-access roads. To explore by foot, visit Karratha visitor centre for information on trails and to let them know you’re heading out (winter is the best time for walking – summer temps can be upwards of 40°C). There are a few places in the park to camp ($10 per person per night).


Karijini is one of the most spectacular landscapes in Australia. You’ll get the best introduction with a short walk through Weano Gorge to the picturesque Handrail
Pool. Dales Gorge encompasses Fern Pool, the impressive Fortescue Falls and
a two-hour return trail to Circular Pool. Walk up Mount Bruce, the second-highest mountain in WA, for stunning views. Other highlights are the natural spa pool at Hamersley Gorge, and Hancock Gorge where you can experience narrow chambers and swim in deep rock pools. There is no electricity, fuel, drinking water or mobile phone coverage anywhere in the park – you can buy ice for your esky at the eco retreat (there’s a payphone there, too) but the nearest place to shop is Tom Price. There is assisted wheelchair access to Junction Pool Lookout, the Weano Day Use Area and Circular Pool Lookout, and independent wheelchair access is available at the Karijini National Park Visitor Centre and the Dales Day Use Area. Karijini Eco Retreat has campsites or swankier safari tents. There’s basic digs at Dales Camping Area, with toilets, showers and free barbecues. A 2WD vehicle is usually fine, but the unsealed roads get very bumpy. There are no petrol stations in the park, so fill up first.

Millstream National Park (photography Dan Paris)



The Pilbara isn’t just about land-based attractions... to cool down, head to the coast or islands and explore world-class dive and snorkelling sites. There are numerous renowned dive spots amongst the 42 islands of the Dampier Archipelago. Take a tour or launch a trailer boat and find for your own site. Malus Island is a popular sheltered bay where it is safe for kids to snorkel straight off the beach. Explore what’s believed to be WA’s first shipwreck, The Tyrall, which sank in 1622 in the Montebello Islands. The Mackerel Islands, 22km off the Onslow coast, are still a hidden gem... sitting just north of the Ningaloo reef system they boast some of the most amazing, untouched diving and snorkelling sites in Australia. There are hundreds of dive sites still unexplored – underwater wonderlands of life and colour, with a staggering diversity of fish, invertebrates, corals and marine mammals. Best time to go is from autumn through to early spring.

The Montebello Islands.



Eighty Mile Beach

Highlights Stunning beach, great fishing from the shore.
Facilities Powered and unpowered sites, cabins with fresh water on tap.
Call Eighty Mile Beach Caravan Park on (08) 9176 5941.

Milyanha Campground, Millstream Chichester National Park

Highlights Python Pool in the national park.
Facilities About 20 sites with pit toilets, camp kitchen, and running water from a tap.
Call Millstream Chichester National Park on (08) 9182 1060.

Dales Gorge Camping Ground, Karijini

Highlights Situated inside a gorge, close to Fortescue Falls.
Facilities Toilets and gas barbecues but the sites are unpowered. BYO water.
Call Karijini National Park visitor centre on (08) 9189 8121.

Montebello Islands

(Camp at Northwest, Primrose, Bluebell, Crocus, Hermite and Renewal islands).
Highlights Superb fishing, diving and snorkelling (be sure to check zones).
Call Department of Environment and Conservation (Pilbara Office) on (08) 9182 2000.

The Montebello Islands (photography Montebello Island Safaris).



Fortescue Falls/Fern Pool/Circular Pool – Karijini | Cool your heels at the park’s only permanent waterfall. Allow at least one hour for the 800m return walk (start at Fortescue Falls car park) but make sure you leave plenty of time for a dip. Don’t miss taking the 300m detour which will bring you to Fern Pool, an oasis with a small wooden jetty shaded by a fig tree. For more of a challenge, try the two-hour loop to Circular Pool, another popular swimming hole. Both Fern and Circular pools are special places for the local Aboriginal people, so be respectful.

Oxer Lookout/Weano Gorge/Hancock Gorge | Oxer Lookout is 100m above the junction of four gorges: Joffre, Red, Hancock and Weano. From the Weano Recreational Area car park, it’s an 800m return walk to the lookout. Here you’ll also find the beginning of a 1km trail down the gorge into Handrail Pool. As you descend, you’ll have to clamber over boulders and squeeze through narrow passages. Another challenging option is the 1.5km trail to Hancock Gorge, which involves descending a ladder and ‘spider walking’ (moving along with both hands and feet up on opposite gorge walls) before reaching Kermit’s Pool.

Mount Bruce | Climb the 1235m-high slopes of Mount Bruce, WA’s second
highest mountain, for spectacular views of the park and the Pilbara landscape.
The 9km Summit Track can take up to six hours to complete. An easier trail, a 500m half-hour walk, will take you to the Marandoo Mine site. There are other walks that skirt the base of the mountain.

Hamersley Gorge | In the northwest of Karijini, about an hour’s drive from the main attractions, lies Hamersley Gorge. A challenging 1km walk upstream will take you to the Grotto, a fern-lined water-filled chasm partially hidden in the side of the gorge, and Spa Pool, a swimming hole fed by a waterfall. Allow three hours for a return trip.

Jaburara Heritage Trail | Get a hands-on appreciation of Aboriginal culture on this informative 3.5km trail, just outside Karratha (access is via the information bay
on Karratha Road). You’ll stumble across ancient rock engravings and artefacts, as well as stone quarries and a shell midden and grinding area – all evidence of the Jaburara people’s centuries-old habitation of the region. There are some steep climbs and descents; allow up to three hours for exploring at a leisurely pace.

Doolena Gorge | Access to this little oasis is on your left, just after you cross the Coongan River, about 40km north of Marble Bar. Get out your deckchair, pour a glass of wine and watch the sun’s rays light up the cliff face as dusk begins to fall. For an even better vantage point, follow the 50m track along the creek and climb the gully to the actual waterfall itself. Don’t forget your camera – and bring a light fishing rod if you fancy catching a spangled perch for dinner. 

The lookout over Dales Gorge, Karijini National Park (photography Simon McBeth). 



Dampier Beachside Markets
The markets are a great family outing, with fantastic food, heaps of stalls, and live entertainment. The markets are open on the first Sunday of the month.

Roebourne Races
Head to the races for popular days such as the The Roebourne Cup Race
Day, Family Day and Ladies Day. You can also take part in Two Up after the
last race of the day. Jun, Jul.

Red Dog Festival
Like an ironman competition for two- and four-wheeled transport, this weekend festival directs participants to make use of buses, bikes, 4WDs and kayaks to cross the Pilbara… inspired by the Red Dog’s fondness for various modes of transports. It winds down with a kelpie dog show and party. May.

North West Festival
This pop and rock festival in Port Headland sees some of the biggest names in Australian music hit the Pilbara. Aug.

Getting There

Karratha is 1535km north of Perth on sealed roads. Integrity Coach Lines travels to Broome, stopping at the Karratha Visitor Centre, and the Perth to Exmouth line has been extended to stop at Tom Price and Paraburdoo. There are plenty of flights in and out of Karratha and Port Hedland, but demand from the mining industry means you should book well in advance. If you’re hiring a vehicle, check the insurance policy on windscreen damage – unsealed surfaces and road trains make chipped glass common.


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