Forty years ago Wittenoom was the biggest settlement in the northwest; today just three dozen people live there. Situated on the northern edge of the dramatically carved Hamersley Range, it's one of the most charming towns, not least because of its ghost-like atmosphere and a collection of "battlers", who are resisting the Western Australian government's attempts to close the town down due to the risk from former asbestos mining operations.
I first spotted Buffalo Johnny marching around the perimeter of his self- styled "bush zoo", patrolling for government saboteurs set to torch his unregulated property. They may have had good reason as Johnny, a Belgian- born gypsy, who'd had an eventful life as a communist agitator, hunter, smuggler and decorator to Hollywood stars, claimed to be a consummate lover who'd "had" most of the ministers' wives in the territory's government. Now he was engaged to a 27-year-old French postal worker. Johnny was 72 but looked 50, with burnished skin like those preserved Danish peat men. He recycled beer cans, most of them his own.
We're all accustomed to disappointment at over-hyped "must-sees", but Ayers Rock, or Uluru as its Aboriginal custodians call it, lives up to expectations. When you first see the huge loaf of sandstone it's hard to look elsewhere. Climbing the Rock is strenuous and culturally disapproved of. You'll find the three-hour walk round the base much more rewarding.
I'd imagined Darwin to be a ragged old port town of sagging verandas and torpid decay. Sadly, for a visitor Darwin has all the appeal of a soulless Essex new town. Along with all the flimsy buildings, 1974's Cyclone Tracy destroyed its anarchic frontier spirit too. It was re-populated by clock-watching civil servants, failed entrepreneurs-cum- politicians and second-rate tour guides.
I'd been admiring lovely hardwood jarrah furniture for years and one afternoon had a brain-wave to buy some cut timber and get furniture made back in the UK. For once one of my schemes panned out and that night I met a sheep shearer with a shed full of seasoned jarrah. We picked out 400kg of "A-grade" for as many dollars and I got it shipped home, feeling pleased with myself.
Finlay's Fresh Fish Barbeque in the coastal resort of Kalbarri is the coolest restaurant in the west, and not just because it's set inside an old ice factory. Captain Finlay and his crew run an al fresco establishment that typifies the Australian character with all its spontaneous irreverence. Finlay's stands alone as a relaxing, sub-tropical eatery. What's more it's cheap.
In Australia's outback, but especially in daggy Darwin, you'll spot tattooed guys in over-tight shorts sporting the top end trim: short top and sides but long and unkempt at the back. Hideous.
Scenic short cut
If you're heading from Broome towards "must miss" Port Hedland, leave the monotonous North West Coastal Highway 100km after the Sandfire Flat Roadhouse and head south to a lonely 500km network of sandy and corrugated tracks that's passable in a robust car if it hasn't rained. You'll encounter the distinctive hues of the Pilbara: rolling hills of pale yellow spinifex grass and ranges the colour of ox blood. Halfway along is the only town, Marble Bar, its Ironclad Hotel a functional drinking pen. After another 200km you'll hit the Great Northern Highway just north of Wittenoom. You've only saved around 20km, but you'll feel a lot better for it.
Even Perth-based tour guides admit that the 500km trek up the coast to "interact" with the dolphins at Monkey Mia is over-rated. The same group of "wild" dolphins has visited almost daily for over 20 years. Grumpy rangers insist they choose to come but the event has all the thrill of feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
Best place to stay
Eco tourism is a buzz word across Australia, whose pristine wilderness is seen as an untapped asset. Eco Beach is a luxurious yet simple resort built among the dunes of Cape Villaret. Access is by four-wheeled drive or boat. Cabins have no air-con and washing facilities are shared, but the communal meals are sumptuous, the beach gorgeous and the tropical ambience idyllic.
Chris Scott did research for 'The Rough Guide to Australia'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
Perth is served daily by BA and Qantas and Darwin a few times a week. You can fly direct to Broome from Singapore with Qantas, or Den Pasar in Bali with National Jet (book via Qantas). In the UK Travel Bag (0171- 497 0515) and Travel Mood (0171-258 0280) offer see-it-all packages which include WA and NT.
No buses serve Wittenoom directly, they stop daily at the Munjina Roadhouse 40km away. Dave's Gorge Tours (tel: 9189 7026) will pick you up for pounds 5. The lovely Convent (tel: 9189 7060) is the best place to stay (from pounds 3).
Johnny's Zoo is 100km south of Darwin. Take the Batchelor road and a six pack.
Several tours include Ayers Rock; try the Sahara (tel: 08 8953 0881) or Trekabout (tel: 08 8953 0714) - five days for around pounds 220. Greyhound- Pioneer buses leave from Alice daily (pounds 50, tel: 01342-317317).
Airlines serve Kalbarri daily. The interstate bus is met at the highway junction by a resort minibus.
Tours leave Perth daily for Monkey Mia. Try Travel About (9227 5122).Reuse content