A north-west driving tour leads travellers to both popular tourist destinations and some less-travelled gems.
THE north of Western Australia, I discovered on a recent road trip, is dotted with mysterious signs saying 'Warlu Way'. They offer no explanation to the passing driver, and in my case prompted increasing curiosity.
On my return to Perth, some quick research led to the discovery I had accidentally travelled most of the Warlu Way, a 2,480-kilometre journey that extends from Coral Bay to Broome via the Karijini National Park.
Interpretive signs along the drive trail apparently reveal the mysteries of the warlu, or sea serpent, and other Aboriginal legends, but in my case I just enjoyed the amazing scenery.
The trip highlighted the growing popularity of the Ningaloo coast and the continued success of Broome as a tourist destination, but for my money the highlights were Karijini and the Burrup Peninsula.
My trip lasted just over a fortnight, which shows that a large chunk of the state can be seen by road in a relatively short space of time, if you enjoy long-distance driving.
In my case, the driving was part of the attraction; the subtle changes in topography and vegetation, the enormous distances and the sheer scale of the state made a big impression.
So too did the hundreds of 4WDs and camper trailers belting up the highway to Coral Bay, Exmouth, and the surrounding coast.
The growing popularity of camper trailers means they are starting to rival the ubiquitous grey nomads in their pop-up caravans, not to mention the backpackers in their spray-painted 'Wicked' vans, and the travellers who prefer a bit more comfort in their Britz vans.
The sheer number of travellers hints at untold business opportunities for those who can anticipate the next trend.
Hopefully it will not be the monstrous Winnebago-style buses that clutter the US, but thankfully remain a rarity in Australia.
I spotted a few at Coral Bay, which for most people is the gateway to the stunning Ningaloo reef.
The town was packed to capacity when I passed through, which served to highlight the importance of having a long-term management plan for Ningaloo that will protect its natural attractions while also accommodating the inevitable growth in visitor numbers.
Many people love the freedom of camping on the beaches north of Coral Bay, but even that will reach capacity at some point in the future.
Broome, by contrast, has comfortably accommodated large-scale tourist developments, which complement its colourful history as a pearling town.
Many visitors choose Broome because they can go there and do nothing, yet there are plenty of places for shopping, entertainment, eating and spending money.
The town has become almost synonymous with Cable Beach Resort but it has new competition with the official opening this month of the Pinctada Cable Beach.
Developed at a cost of $33 million by Marilynne Paspaley, of the famous pearling family, it is the first full-service hotel to be built in Broome for two decades.
Between Coral Bay and Broome are a few destinations that usually don't feature on holiday itineraries; but they should.
The Burrup Peninsula is touted as having the world's largest concentration of engraved rock art, with over 1 million pieces.
There is a conspicuous absence of signage but, with the right instructions from the locals, it is easy to find numerous examples.
The harsh terrain makes it hard to wander far, yet in small areas there are dozens of pieces of rock art.
The Burrup is also home to spectacular examples of engineering design and construction at its liquefied natural gas and fertiliser factories.
Having the ancient and ultra-modern cheek-by-jowl make them both seem more impressive.
The surrounding area includes the Dampier Archipelago, the historic pearling town of Cossack and the charming fishing village at Point Samson, all of which are worth a visit.
Even better attractions lie inland at Karijini, which has arguably the most spectacular and beautiful gorges in the state.
Just driving there through the rugged Hamersley Ranges is a delight.
In Karijini, the gorges feature cliffs rising 100 metres; at the base are flowing streams, swimming pools, lush vegetation and waterfalls.
Its not the place to go for a comfortable, relaxing holiday, but nor is it as rugged or as difficult as many perceive.
The opening a few years ago of the Karijini Eco Retreat makes it an even more attractive option.
- The journalist stayed at Eco Beach Wilderness Retreat (see next page) and Pinctada Cable Beach as a guest of the proprietors.