Carnarvon WA is a place that few people will ever end up visiting. This small ‘city’ is home to just 5000 people at the best of times and it’s located on the remote, north-west coast of Western Australia.
It’s a long way from anywhere, which is one of the reasons that few people ever visit. On the surface, there also doesn’t seem to be a lot of things to in Carnarvon. That’s the second reason not so many people ever visit.
At best, you might cruise on through and stop for supplies on a road trip further north.
I’m here to tell you that actually though, there’s a lot more to Carnarvon than you might realise.
The city has a fascinating history that’s matched by few other places in WA and has even played an important role in space travel.
There’s an authentic local feel to Carnarvon that’s lost in many of the more touristy areas along the coast, and there are some epic natural attractions waiting for you that few people know even exist.
Make sure you stop in Carnarvon for more than supplies, hang around to explore the coast and if you can, drive inland to experience the start of the Outback.
Here’s my guide to Carnarvon, Western Australia.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of Carnarvon
Carnarvon is a relatively young city, even in Australian terms. European settlement of the area only really began in 1883 when Carnarvon was officially established, however, since 1876 there had been farmers in the area working on pastoral leases in the wide open country.
The site that became Carnarvon was seen as a great location to set up a small port that could then give those farmers in the region access to the sea to trade their produce up and down the coast, or to send all the way south to Perth.
Since then, Carnarvon has slowly grown into the largest ‘city’ in the north-west, although in such a sparsely populated area, it’s hardly a city by anything other than remote WA standards.
The Ingarrda People of Carnarvon
Before the Europeans arrived in the region, the area where Carnarvon WA is found and inland towards the small town of Gascoyne Junction was the home of the Ingarrda people.
They are still the traditional owners of the land and although they suffered greatly because of European expansion their culture has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent decades.
The wider term for people from the north-west is Yamatji. Unfortunately in the city itself though, there is little left of this culture and even the local Aboriginal arts centre is now just a derelict building standing on the highway on the edge of town, an unfortunately common occurrence in locations across the state.
European Exploration of the Coast
The first Europeans to settle the area were generally from the British colonies to the south, however, the first expedition to explore the coastline is thought to be Dirk Hartog’s.
He was a Dutchman who made landfall to the south of Carnarvon, on what is now known as Dirk Hartog Island and he would have sailed past the site where the city is now built on his journey along the western shore of Australia.
He didn’t hang around for long though – just long enough to leave behind a plaque and an inscription – before carrying on again.
Other European ships would be lost and wrecked along the coast, as several early explorers began to chart the dangerous currents, reefs and islands that line WA.
It wasn’t until 1826 that the first permanent European colony of Albany was established in Western Australia, far to the south, before in 1829 the Swan River Colony was proclaimed. This was to grow into the city of Perth.
In 1839, an English explorer by the name of Lieutenant Grey landed by the Gascoyne River, naming it for his friend, a Captain Gascoyne. Lieutenant Grey travelled inland, and his positive reports of the climate and land for agricultural purposes would lead to expansion north in the next few decades by settlers from Perth, with the first settlers arriving in the region in 1876 to begin grazing sheep.
The Earl of Carnarvon
Carnarvon is named for Mr Henry Herbert, who while not only being titled the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, also held the important post of Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1866-67 and then again between 1874-78.
His influence at the time of founding across the emerging colonies of Britain, was profound enough for the new settlers to name their town Carnarvon, even after he gave up his wider colonial duties.
Bananas in Carnarvon
Although Carnarvon and the wider region was settled to produce and export wool, this was never achieved on the scale it was hoped for. The land was not as suited to grazing as it was thought and soon the pastoral stations were irrevocably changing the landscape through overgrazing.
Today though, Carnarvon is not known for its wool exports, but for its fruit and vegetable production. This is the ‘Food Bowl’ of Western Australia when it comes to many of the staple agricultural products that have entered into the average Australian’s diet, and it’s estimated that up to 70 percent of all fruit and veg in WA is produced in Carnarvon.
Alongside avocados, eggplant, melons and much more, Carnarvon has become famous for its bananas. If you walk into a supermarket anywhere in the state, chances are the bananas will be from Carnarvon.
This focus on food production began in the 1930’s when the first banans plants were cultivated on the banks of the Gascoyne River. They flourished, and since then, agriculture has become the main focus of the city, and it’s all contained within a short radius of the city centre itself.
When you are in Carnarvon WA, make sure you try some fresh fruit and veg and head to the Carnarvon Visitors Centre or to a local bakery to try some of the city’s fabled Banana Bread, you won’t be disappointed.
Space Travel, NASA and Carnarvon
When you first near the city, the first thing you will inevitably see is the huge satellite dish that’s located on a hill on the edge of Carnarvon Western Australia. This is the OTC Dish, which is now part of the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum but which from 1964 until 1976 played a huge role in the manned landings on the moon.
This is Carnarvon’s biggest claim to fame, but it’s a unique side of Western Australia’s history that few people know much about.
The station tracked satellites and the Apollo missions, being ideally suited to pick up their signals across the Pacific regions. In 1969, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, the Carnarvon Satellite was the first to relay his message across the world to NASA in Florida.
Carnarvon as a Tourist Destination
Although the days of space travel tracking are over for Carnarvon, the city has the potential to be a much bigger tourist destination than it is, or at least, the surrounding coastline and inland areas of exceptional beauty are.
Being situated along the Northwest Coastal Highway, Carnarvon is already a popular stop off point for road trippers travelling further north from the south (or vice versa of course).
There are several caravan parks and a few backpacker hostels – many working holiday visa holders will travel here in search of farm work – but for the most part, people will call in, resupply at the supermarket and petrol stations and move on.
Even the epic national parks to the east are barely visited at all, mostly due to their isolated locations. For anyone looking for a quiet area of WA to explore, the nearby Kenndy Ranges, Mount Augustus and the Ningaloo coastline offer exceptional scenery that is still mostly unknown to tourists.
It will be interesting to see if Carnarvon evolves as a tourist destination, but while the city’s main focus remains its agricultural production, this will be unlikely. That does mean it will likely remain an authentic city to visit. Although, how a place of fewer than 5000 people can be termed a ‘city’, I will never understand. Only in WA.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Carnarvon
Being located far north, Carnarvon can experience some extreme tropical weather. The best time of year to visit is during the dry season, which coincides with winter when temperatures are mild – although still sunny and warm – and rain is practically non-existent. The dry season falls between April and November and this is the perfect time to travel in the north of Western Australia.
During summer, temperatures can be extreme and the humidity suffocating. Tropical monsoons are frequent and cyclones can ravage the coast. Dangerously, the flat plains to the east are susceptible to flash flooding during the rainy season – which runs from December through to March – and as recently as 2010 the entire community of Gascoyne Junction was washed away in heavy flooding. Plan carefully if travelling during summer as roads can be washed away and many of the remote national parks and communities become cut off.
How to Travel to Carnarvon
The best way to travel to Carnarvon is to combine a visit to the region with a journey along the north-west coastal road. It makes for a great stop on a Perth to Broome itinerary, and after Carnarvon, you can carry on up the road to Coral Bay, Exmouth, Karijini National Park and eventually to Broome or even Darwin. Journey time from Perth is at last 9 hours, with a distance of 900 kilometres to cover.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, then Integrity Coach Lines have a bus service from Perth to Broome that calls in at Carnarvon as well as many other popular stops along the northwest coastline. They have a Hop on Hop off Pass that allows you to take your time while travelling through the state, although once you are in each destination, due to lack of public transport you will be very restricted as to where you can actually go.
Carnavon also has a small domestic airport and if you would rather fly in and fly out, then there are regularly scheduled flights to Perth with the airline REX.
Things to do in Carnarvon
Here are the best things to do in Carnarvon, from Space Museums to incredible Blow Holes and a whole load of Bananas in between.
The city sprawls out from the local harbour, where you can see small boats calling into port and can enjoy the sight of the many islands across the water.
There are some great green spaces and parks that stretch along the edge of the esplanade that runs along the edge of the ocean, and there are BBQs, benches and seating areas to relax at.
You can also find some great restaurants and cafes, and at sunset, this is a beautiful place to be.
Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum
The Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum is a great place to learn more about the unique history of the city.
This is where satellites were tracked and messages to NASA were relayed during the 60’s and 70’s and today, it’s an informative and intriguing museum that will certainly leave you enthralled.
It’s found on the edge of the city, just aim for the giant OTC satellite dish.
The Heritage Precinct of Carnarvon
To experience more of the earlier history of the city – well, only as early as the 1880’s – then visit Carnarvon’s Heritage Precinct.
Found on Babbage Island to the west of the city centre, you can visit a number of local attractions of historical importance that will give you an insight into the European settlement of the region.
There’s the old lighthouse, the Sheep Shearing Hall of Fame and a Railway Museum that explores the history of the tramway.
One Mile Jetty
One Mile Jetty is found in the Heritage Precinct and extends for a mile over the water from the end of Babbage Island.
This is the longest jetty in the northwest – although that’s not really a huge achievement – and it dates back to the late 1890’s when it was constructed to facilitate the loading of wool onto ships offshore.
It’s all wooden and it’s a glorious piece of local history.
The Old Carnarvon Tramway
The tramway used to link the city centre to One Mile Jetty to allow goods to be easily transported to the coast for shipment, but it fell into disuse and is now more a heritage trail.
You can follow the 3 kilometres of tramline from Carnarvon out to Babbage Island, which makes for a great little hike.
Banana Plantations and Local Farms
Around the city centre and along the steep banks of the Gascoyne River you can find a whole load of Banana Plantations and local farms, many of which have small farm shops and even cafes.
You will find plenty of fresh produce for sale, many of it seconds that were misshapen and couldn’t be sold to the supermarkets, but all of which is straight from the fields.
Many of the farms produce a wide range of products too, from the famous Carnarvon Banana Bread to fresh mangoes and delicious chutneys. The local Bumbak’s farm even sells wonderful flavoured ice cream that’s made with local fruits. Tourists have taken to calling the route around the farms, ‘The Fruit Loop’, as it’s starting to become a favourite amongst the few tourists that visit the city.
Along the coast, to the north of Carnarvon, can be found the Quobba Blowholes. This is a spectacular natural sight to see, as the raging coastline here is windswept, rugged and brutal and the weather-beaten rocks have been shaped into huge blowholes.
When the waves – known as King Waves, for their extraordinary size – smash into the rocks, they throw up spray hundreds of metres into the air. Don’t get too close though, because it’s been known for unlucky souls to be swept out to sea, so unpredictable and powerful are the waves here.
The Ningaloo Coast
The Ningaloo Reef is the largest fringing reef in the world – yes, even bigger, and a lot less well known, than the Great Barrier Reef. It’s thousands of miles long and stretches from Exmouth in the north, right down to the south to Carnarvon.
Most visitors will visit the reef from the towns of Coral Bay or Exmouth, however, if you have a four wheel drive then you can explore the Ningaloo Coast which starts just north of the Quobba Blowholes.
The roads are dirt tracks, where there are roads at all, and there are some secluded, isolated and remote beaches and camping spots to explore. It’s a favourite for surfers, because of the huge waves, while some of the calmer bays can be snorkelled.
Chinamans Pool is a small nature reserve on the banks of the Gascoyne River. It’s just north of the city, but is certainly within walking distance, making this a popular place for locals to relax and chill out when the hot weather is out in force.
It’s a secluded spot, that takes you far away from Carnarvon and into nature and it’s great for swimming.
Another great swimming spot in the region is Rocky Pool. Found out of the city, and on the way to Gascoyne Junction to the west, this is a great day out in the wild nature of WA.
This is a freshwater pool, surrounded by beautiful scenery and greenery. Bring your swimming gear and spend the day relaxing out in the middle of nowhere.
Gascoyne Junction is found three hours to the west of Carnarvon, and it’s really the next town down the road, at least inland. This is a peculiar little place and it’s a chance to see a real remote community because there isn’t anything here for miles around.
There’s not much to do, although you can call into the library which also acts as a visitors centre for a little bit of local history, while the caravan park makes for a good overnight stop if you heading into the Outback. You won’t stay here long, but it’s a good breakpoint on the road to the Kennedy Ranges and to Mount Augustus.
Kennedy Range National Park
The Kennedy Range National Park is a hugely under-appreciated and under-visited national park close to Gascoyne Junction. This is really where the outback begins, and from Gascoyne Junction, a dirt road leads to this area of natural beauty.
It’s a small range of mountains that in the otherwise flat landscapes come as a complete shock to the sense when you first lay eyes on them.
This unique part of the land is full of wildlife and some of the region’s only year-round watering holes ensuring it attracts what little wildlife is adapted to these harsh deserts.
There’s a small camping ground here but no facilities aside from a drop toilet and an open fire pit. Come prepared with water and food, as you will need to camp out to really appreciate the range.
There are some great hikes through the gorges and to top of the ridgeline and you will most likely find that you are the only person around.
Mount Augustus National Park
Mount Augustus National Park is even more remote than the Kennedy Ranges, but it’s worth the excruciatingly long journey through the wilderness to see what is the world’s largest rock.
Yes, Mount Augustus is bigger even than Uluru, although it’s hardly known at all, even within Australia.
It will take you two days to drive the almost 500 kilometres from Carnarvon to Mount Augustus – but Carnarvon is the closest city! – and you will need to be prepared with water, fuel and food, although you can do this in a two-wheel drive, as I did.
The roads are rocky and there’s almost nothing at all to see along the way. At Mount Augustus, there’s a Caravan Park that’s also a working cattle station where you can stay and resupply your fuel and water. There’s even a bar.
This is truly remote and it’s an extraordinary place to experience. You can hike to the summit of Mount Augustus itself, a journey of around 5 or 6 hours return depending on your fitness. It’s well worth the effort for the expansive views that reach for miles and miles over the flat landscape but remember to start early and to take plenty of water to avoid the heat.
Accommodation and Camping in Carnarvon
For such a small city, there is a surprising quantity of accommodation in Carnarvon. This is mostly due to the fact that this is a very popular stop off point along the Northwest Coastal Highway. Most of the accommodation though is found at basic caravan parks in the city, while there are also a few backpackers catering to longer-term travellers looking to work on the farms.
Wild camping is technically illegal anywhere in the Shire of Carnarvon and it’s not uncommon for the Rangers to strictly enforce fines on anyone found sleeping in their cars or setting up camp at some of the popular outdoor attractions. If you are looking for campsites, then along the Ningaloo coast there are several, while Kennedy Ranges and Mount Augustus also have them.
All Words and Photos by Richard Collett