Malcolm Dam, WA
At the western end of WA’s Great Central Road, a free camping area on the shores of Malcolm Dam provides respite for adventurous travellers taking the shortcut between Perth and Uluru. This oasis in an otherwise dry, desert landscape dotted with saltpans was once a soak that was expanded and dammed in 1902 to supply water to steam trains travelling the nearby railway.
According to traditional custodians, Malcolm Dam is home to the Wanapi (Rainbow Snake) and today it’s a popular fishing and swimming spot that permits camping on its expansive, bushy shores. There’s plenty of level ground for self-contained caravans and oversized rigs, and I never fail to spot a big bus parked at the dam, obviously enjoying the ease of parking and an unrestricted stay.
The best waterfront views are from the camps atop the dam wall where there are a couple of big picnic shelters, fire rings and a skip bin. Take a walk to the far end of the dam wall at sunset to watch pelicans and any number of other waterbirds feeding in the shallows.
Being deeper than surrounding waterholes, Malcolm Dam stays full much longer into the west’s dry season, attracting the region’s black swans, grey herons and pelicans, and offering catches of bream, carp and spangled perch. I’ve heard that it’s a good spot to sink a yabby pot, too.
Pets are welcome, there’s mobile reception and campfires are permitted, but you’ll need to bring wood with you. Leonora is only a short drive away if you need to top up your water supply and there’s a well-stocked supermarket and a very helpful tourist information centre happy to supply you with information about the region, whichever way you are headed.
If you’re travelling east, take on as much fuel as you can at Leonora because prices only escalate the further you head across Australia’s largest desert and into the NT.
Location: 250km north of Kalgoorlie and another 13km east of Leonora on the Laverton-Leonora Road.
Camping: Spacious, free-range camping area with picnic shelters, fire pits and rubbish bins (pets permitted).
Visit: April to September.
Don’t Miss: Leonora Golden Gift Athletic Carnival (June long weekend) and the Goldfields Cyclassic – a 236km-long cycling race from Kalgoorlie to Leonora.
Contact: Leonora Information Centre on (08) 9037 7016 or visit www.australiasgoldenoutback.com.
Winton’s Long Waterhole, QLD
Despite its distant location – 1500km by road from Brisbane and 470km from Mt Isa in the heart of Central Queensland’s Channel Country – Winton lures a stream of wintertime travellers who settle in amongst the waterbirds at Long Waterhole’s free bush camping area.
Surrounded by trees that throw just enough shade, Long Waterhole is a spacious spot that attracts a host of herons, spoonbills, pelicans and egrets. Pets are welcome, campfires are permitted, there’s mobile coverage and you can stay as long as you like.
There are no facilities on offer at the waterhole itself, but you’ll find a dump point, drinking water and public toilets just 4km away in Winton. It may be a small outback hub but shops lining Winton’s wide main street include a supermarket, laundry, a terrific bakery, newsagent, post office, pharmacy and a couple of good pubs (plus a hospital and a mechanic).
There are plenty of ways to spend your days: offbeat Winton attractions that won’t cost you a cent include Arno’s Wall (a 10-metre-long installation of recycled treasures) and percussionist Graeme Leak’s Musical Fence where you can pluck a tune and bang on a surprisingly melodic collection of recycled metal instruments.
There’s the Royal Open Air Theatre, the Diamantina Heritage Truck and Machinery Museum, and the Waltzing Matilda Centre, devoted to AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson and his popular ballad. Further afield, the Australia Age of Dinosaurs showcases the world’s largest collection of Aussie dinosaur fossils, and Lark Quarry Conservation Park preserves the only fossilised dinosaur stampede in the world.
On the outskirts of Winton, 4WD travellers can tour Bladensburg National Park, which encompasses a restored pastoral homestead and an incredible landscape of colourful mesas and flaxen Mitchell grasslands where red kangaroos, waterbirds and the largest known population of rare Julia Creek dunnarts roam.
With so much to explore, it’s little wonder that travellers make base camp at Long Waterhole. The fact that this man-made lake hosts the World Crayfish Derby every second September will spark the interest of anglers with a craypot on board, too.
Location: 180km north-west of Longreach. From Winton, travel south on the Winton-Jundah Road for 2km then take the signposted turn to the east on a dirt road and continue for 2km.
Camping: Free, no facilities, pets allowed. Winton provides public toilets, a dump point, drinking water and a kid’s playground.
Don’t miss: Diamantina Rodeo (May/June), Winton Camel Races (July), Outback Festival (September, www.outbackfestival.org).
Ngumban Cliff Lookout, WA
As you travel west of Halls Creek on the Great Northern Highway, the Mueller Ranges rise to the north and spectacular cliffs glow golden as the sun dips low across the Kimberley. On this lonely, albeit sealed stretch of highway, a solitary crumbling, flattop mesa looms suddenly into view and a rest stop high above offers rare altitude at day’s end.
This is Ngumban Cliff and although there’s not much in the way of facilities, this impressive landform elevates travellers who can take in the big picture with horizon-to-horizon views.
Once you’ve parked up the rig and shaken out a camp chair, grab a coldie in time for a dramatic Kimberley sunset that ignites distant ranges with ever-changing colours. After dark, a very impressive night sky steals the show, more than 100km from the nearest streetlight. Spend a night here and you’ll get to watch the sun rise again over the Mueller Ranges to the east.
Despite its remote location, Ngumban Cliff does provide the basics that self-sufficient travellers become used to: a pit toilet, a big picnic shelter that throws shade over tables, wood barbecues (BYO firewood) and a couple of rubbish bins. The camp is pet-friendly and there’s room for big rigs, but you’ll compete for space during the Kimberley’s peak winter travel season unless you arrive well before sundown.
Because it’s located high above and well off the highway, it’s a quiet spot (not that there is too much night-time traffic in this part of the world). Its steep cliffs drop swiftly away so you’ll need to be surefooted if you wander about at night in search of the toilet.
In all, it’s a picturesque choice and a very convenient stopover that helps break up the 290km-long journey between Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing on the long run through the Kimberley.
Location: Signposted 96km south-east of Fitzroy Crossing off the Great Northern Highway
Camping: Free, with a pit toilet, picnic shelters, rubbish bins and wood barbecues provided (pets permitted)
Contact: Phone the Fitzroy Crossing Visitor Centre (08) 9191 5355 or visit www.australiasnorthwest.com