Not far to the north of Broome lies the Dampier Peninsula, often referred to as Cape Leveque… or Ardi by the Traditional Owners (a Bardi word meaning ‘northeast’), and it was truly a remarkable location with a beauty that was quite stunning… blood red rocks to the oceans edge, beautiful beaches and amazing sunsets and sunrises.
There is quite a history associated with the Dampier Peninsula. It is home to the Aboriginal people of the Jawi, Bardi, Nyulnyul, Jabirrjabirr, Nimanburru and Ngumbari language groups, and prior to European invasion, their thousands of years of culture and traditions dictated their laws.
Aboriginal men were captured and forced to work, often as divers in harsh and dangerous conditions, and many local women were captured and sold to the European, Malay, Chinese, Philipino and Japanese pearlers… and then came disease; this was the beginning of the end and a pretty brutal time for the communities on this peninsular.
We had heard the road to Cape Leveque was pretty rough and some people at the caravan park told us the trip was literally an up and back 500-kilometre round trip that would only take us around 2-hours to travel to the top… but why come all this way and miss all the good bits in between – we planned on spending a lot longer than a few hours on the Dampier Peninsula and there were certainly plenty of places to explore off the central road; Beagle Bay, Gnylmarung, Middle Lagoon, Whale Song, Lombadina, Kooljaman, Cygnet Bay, One Arm Point , Gambanan and Quandong Point closer to Broome… all with great camping spots.
We camped at Gnylmarung (with a silent g), Kooljaman and Gambanan and loved all these campgrounds, but we particularly loved Gnylmarung. The beaches were beautiful and the water was crystal clear, the sunsets were incredible and the water was warm… we visited Gnylmarung for 1 night and ended up staying 6 in a tranquil bush setting in a lovely shady campsite with a beautiful ocean view… a little piece of heaven!
Leaving the hustle and bustle of Broome we headed north 13-kilometres to where the bitumen road suddenly stopped to become a vast red dirt road and with tyres down we set off on a drive that was an experience in itself.
The dirt section ahead of us was mostly red sand with occasionally compressed red mud down the centre and was a bit like driving along a corrugated, sandy skate bowl with high sides. This road really didn’t deserve to be called a road as in most places it was so narrow with sides so steep and the sand so deep it was really difficult not to drift and even more difficult to pass another vehicle coming in the other direction… and god help us if anyone dared to pass – it was mostly a cloud of dust and rocks!
The Cape Leveque Road travels straight up the centre of the Dampier Peninsula, a long, straight road… 106-kilometres of gravel and sand with the last 115-kilometres sealed, and we didn’t see the coastline once unless we turned off onto one of the side roads or until we reached the top. We were surrounded by just scrub and more scrub and red sand for the entire distance!
I should imagine it would be a nightmare on this road in the ‘Wet’. Communities up this way rely on air transport to get supplies and to get to and from their homes during the wet season and in the ‘Dry’ the road trains deliver goods for the remainder of the year… and we were praying we didn’t come face to face with one on this road – but thankfully with the skill of my driver, and not too much traffic, we soon arrived safely onto the sealed section just before the turnoff to Beagle Bay.
This being our first stop, Beagle Bay was one of the first communities settled on the peninsula and was a nice pit stop to check out the beautiful church we had been told so much about.
Beagle Bay‘s name was derived from the vessel ‘Beagle’, which moored at the bay when priests were looking for a suitable mission place in 1889. Today the community is well known for its stunning Sacred Heart Church, built by the Pallotine monks in the early 1900s, with an altar decorated with mother-of-pearl, cowries, volutes and olive shells gathered from the surrounding beaches and used for the mosaic, which incorporates traditional symbols of the local communities. This church was also depicted in the Australian movie Bran Nue Dae and we were told it was worth a look… and it certainly didn’t disappoint, it was truly stunning!
The Trappist Monks came to Beagle Bay in 1890 from France as missionaries, and built their bush monastery from local materials dedicating it to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. However in 1900 the French Trappist Monks left the Australian Mission feeling that their ‘Monastic lifestyle was not suited for such remote locations’! The Pallottine Missionaries from Germany replaced them and continued to staff the mission at Beagle Bay for the next 90 years.
The Sisters of St John of God arrived from Ireland in 1907 dedicating themselves to teaching and nursing and the care of the stolen generation children brought to Beagle Bay under Government orders. The Sisters stayed for 100 years! During World War II when Broome was being evacuated Aboriginal families were being trucked to Beagle Bay Mission under the care of the German brothers (who had been placed under house arrest), and Irish nuns.
It was during this period that the current church was built with the major construction completed in 1917. Today the Spiritan Missionaries continue the work started by the Trappist Monks. History of Beagle Bay
This community was difficult to explore and although permits are not required to travel on the Cape Leveque Road, a small access fee does apply to the communities of Beagle Bay, Lombadina and One Arm Point and is payable at the community offices. The streets had signs erected ‘Locals Only Do Not Enter’ and consequently the community store and the church were as far as we could go, but it was a very friendly community and we had a very interesting encounter when a car load of Aboriginal locals in an old land cruiser (without a windscreen and 3 in the front seat) came hurtling past us, all 3 waving madly through the open front window… the biggest, whitest of smiles you could ever imagine and a lovely welcome to their community!
Beagle Bay is the home of the Nyul Nyul people who are the traditional owners of the land. They originally called the area around the mission – ‘Ngarlun Burr’, which means ‘Place Surrounded by Springs’.
Continuing up the Cape Leveque Road we turned left on to Middle Lagoon Road. Gnylmarung campground had been recommended to us by Monica and Neil at Windjana Gorge but all we were greeted with at the turn off, and along the track, were lots of ‘Middle Lagoon’ and ‘Whale Song‘ signs… so we were hoping we were on the right track to Gnylmarung.
The road was a very narrow 1 vehicle wide, corrugated, sand road and after passing a few dead cars we finally came across a sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of our next destination… the beautiful, rustic, eco-retreat called ‘Gnylmarung‘.
Gnylmarung was originally established as a trades training camp for the local community and takes its name from an ‘old station well’ located near the outstation where remnants of the old stone tank and troughs still remain.
As we pulled in we were greeted with a sign that said ‘STOP – Toot 3 times’… but there was also another sign that attracted our attention AC DC above the verandah of the little house! Our first response was wow… they are ACDC fans… but no, the initials stood for Alphonse Cox and Dell Cox!
Alphonse & Delma Cox manage this outstation and have lived here since 1997, beginning operations as a tourism enterprise in 2009. They grew up in Beagle Bay, were married at the historical Sacred Heart Church and raised their 7 children here at Gnylamarung.
The Dampier Peninsula is made up of a few of these small resorts, either run by Aboriginal Communities or individuals who have developed these eco tourism ventures… and going by the number of vans, tents and 4WDs parked in this one, they are very popular!
Alphonse prided himself on his signage and his long drops (toilets) that he had dug by hand (although there were flushing toilets), and their little house was full of character with lots of bric brac, plants, shells collected from the beach and even turtle shells painted in really bright colours. Under the shelter outside was a big pot where Dell cooked most of the time. The fire continually burned and the kettle continually boiled.
We tooted 3 times and Alphonse was out of his house like a shot, hopped in one of his many cars that he has for different occasions (1 for collecting wood, a town car, 1 for showing people around the campground, 1 for launching his boat and I guess the other belonged to Dell)… and off we went to our campsite – a mere 100-metres away.
This had to be the best campground we had stayed in on all our travels. We had the perfect spot over looking the ocean, a fire pot delivered to our campsite, wood, plenty of drinking water, showers (heated by solar energy), flushing toilets and also an outdoor beach shower that looked over the bay where we could appreciate the awe-inspiring scenery around us!
I have no doubt I’ll be mentioning this campground and the landscape for many months to come!
Alphonse had even built a playground, no doubt for his own children, but now for the visiting children; complete with rockers, swings, slides, cubby houses and dolls prams to name a few!
We loved the laid back and casual vibe of this place and over the next couple of days we walked the beach, collected shells, swam and attempted to fish (we spent many hours waiting for a big fish to nibble on our little fish but unfortunately this never eventuated), we walked the beaches again, got hot, swam, had a cool shower… you get the picture? It was such a beautiful place just beckoning us to explore the beach and the rock pools and it was really, really hot!
With 5 days of cooking over the open fire, Guy was the official fire warden while I was the cook. We made damper to last a few days, some rock buns, and a stew with veggies then finished off with home made yoghurt.
As usual we met some wonderful people including a young couple, travelling with their young children. They were self schooling for a year on a trip around Australia. What an education for these lucky kids and what an introduction to our wonderful country! The children were full of stories of their adventures.
Native birds woke us each morning, as did Alphonse’s chickens and peacocks and Alphonse watering his trees right outside our tent! We were privileged to follow the trails of hermit crabs as they sketched their shell trails throughout the night and befriend a little resident frog who occupied the washbasin and greeted us each morning.
We continued to walk the pristine white sandy beach collecting shells, swam from the secluded beach in the crystal clear waters and fished for the allusive fish off the rocks or the beach to no avail although we did get to see two large turtles as they swam gracefully past our feet while we were fishing – too quick for a photo!
Alphonse and Dell have worked so hard to make this campground so unique and there certainly was a little bit of magic about this place… a little bit of magic that we felt will draw us back again and again!
Campfire food, the sound of ocean waves rocking us to sleep, checking the tide from our pillow to see it was worth getting up for a swim… what more could we ask for!
Thank you Alphonse and Dell for 5 lovely days. We will be back and we can’t wait to meet up with you both again… in the meantime we will tell everyone heading your way, what a wonderful campground you have!
Middle Lagoon had a sign at the entrance that read $10-pp for a look so we turned around and headed on… we only wanted a quick look to check it out and that was another camp for a night for us! Run by a local family, Middle Lagoon is apparently very popular with travellers and is one of the campgrounds on the peninsula where you probably need to book ahead.
Whale Bay Cafe and the campground, only a few kilometres back from Middle Lagoon, were all closed up and only open from July to September. Other travellers had told us the campground was lovely, although quite dusty, and apparently a long hike to get to the beach as it was set atop a cliff. Both campgrounds had really good reviews though!
Next up the peninsula road we came to a green oasis of lawns, palm trees and ghost gums, the communities of Lombadina and Djarindjin. These two communities are very close together with about 60 Aboriginal (Bardi) people and it was obvious these were proud communities with nice gardens and parks.
Like Beagle Bay, Lombadina also boasts a remarkable church, this one built by the Aboriginal community in 1934 and constructed with an all-wood interior and paperbark ceiling that comes from the local woollybutt eucalyptus trees.
There was a small supermarket, bakery, garage and an art centre and respect is what these communities are all about with another sign that read ‘Respect our Community and do not enter without a Permit’, so we didn’t.
Thomas Puertiollano who sold the land to the Catholic Church first settled Lombadina in the late 1890’s. The name ‘Lombadina‘ was originally a mispronunciation of the Aboriginal word ‘Lullmardinard’ by the priests and brothers who settled here.
Kooljaman is an award-winning wilderness camp owned and run by the Indigenous Bardi Jawi Communities. It has an airport, a restaurant and a variety of accommodation alternatives including eco-tents, Robinson Crusoe style huts overlooking the beach and a campground which caters for camper trailers and tents only, all designed to capture the ruggedness of the Kimberley region from the red pindan cliffs to the pristine white sandy western beach and the glorious sunsets.
Kooljaman sees lots of day visitors who have just come for the drive… but like Middle Lagoon, if you are planning on visiting as a day visitor you will need to purchase a pass to see the sights. It is also the stopping off point for the buses that bring tourists from Broome to Cygnet Bay, which is just up the road. Cygnet Bay is where the seaplane leaves for the Horizontal Falls.
This resort is usually heavily booked and we were told we really needed to book prior to travelling the peninsula, which we didn’t, so we were really lucky to get 1 night! 2 would have been nice but it was booked out for a wedding on the Saturday night and as most people want to spend more than one night it was pretty quiet on the Friday night, only an American couple in a campervan (welcome to our blog Mary Jean and Phillip), and a few wedding guests who had arrived early!
Unfortunately we couldn’t camp ‘Cape Leveque style’ in a lean-to type structure over looking the beach. These Gilligan’s Island style thatched roof huts had no power, just a sand floor and a cold water shower but again were all booked out for the wedding but we did have the next best thing… our site was right next to the camp kitchen, a palm frond shelter with tables, water, power and the amenities block and we even had our own fire place with pre delivered wood!
There are 2 beaches at on either side of Kooljaman… on the eastern side the beach is best for swimming and snorkelling around the rocky reef, which becomes covered and exposed with the tides.
The beach was very rocky but had a beautiful view over Cape Leveque Island and King Sound and it was lovely to stroll along… but very rocky to swim at, especially at low tide where we had to pick our way in and out and around the sharp rocks.
But it is the Western Beach that is just magnificent at low tide and on sunset… and lucky for us we arrived just in time to watch another incredible sunset.
It is just a short walk (or a drive) down a sandy track to get to the startling red cliffs and well worth a visit just to see the red dirt ridges and rock formations which Cape Leveque is known for.
The Aboriginals have strong ties to this land and it was quite evident with the numerous sacred sites across this landscape.
They welcome visitors and are happy to share their history, unique culture and their special relationship with their land and the ocean, but as the cliffs and surrounding dunes are scared sites and very fragile here, they ask that people respect their land, and only walk on designated paths.
These scared sites are protected under state legislation and where signs indicate you must respect the wishes of Aboriginal custodians.
The Aboriginal custodians have certain responsibilities to protect and maintain these sacred sites and they believe that many sacred sites are powerful places and violation of their sanctity can be dangerous to both the people who disobey their law and the custodians of the site.
This community is situated at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula and is the site of Australia’s only Trochus Hatchery -Ardyaloon Trochus Hatchery and Aquaculture Centre. The Trochus shell plays an important part in the culture of the local community but of course everything closes up here on weekends so after standing on the tip of One Arm Point to watch the tide as it roared out of King Sound we made our way back down the road a few kilometres to Gambanan Retreat!
The office here was closed also but 2 Aboriginal men working out the back of the house (polishing off some boomerangs with a bench belt sander), told us to drive around the back and camp… and having no real idea where ‘the back’ was we drove until we found some facilities and camped under some beautiful trees within easy walking distance of the very new facilities… so new the hot water and the power for the light hadn’t been connected…. but they were certainly very clean!
This was another less developed campground and run by a local family. The family provided all day excursions to the Horizontal Falls (in a rather small boat) and fishing and crabbing excursions, and although there was a swimming beach, it was very close to mangroves and our first thoughts were crocs… so no swimming for us!
From Gambanan it was on to Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm. This is a working pearl farm that is open to the public and is reputed to be the one of oldest operating pearl farms in Australia with a history going back to 1946.
Lucky for us it was Monday so it was open. It pays to remember if you are travelling the Dampier Peninsula that businesses close weekends up here… that is except the campgrounds!
We viewed a short, black and white film produced by the ABC back in the 1970’s from which we learned the farm’s humble beginnings and watched a demonstration of the removal of the pearl from a live pearl shell with the chance to buy it afterwards… but you had to be very quick to snap up this pearl! There is also a pearl jewellery gallery on site where you can browse or buy, and they have a restaurant and infinity swimming pool that is free to use!
The drive back down Cape Leveque Road was more dust and corrugations. It is isolated and very rough… but the story goes this road is being upgraded and sealed as you read this blog!
Alphronse was busy planning for new amenities and upgrading his campground when we visited Gnylmarung and with the sealing and upgrading of this road north of Broome these communities are hoping for a surge of extra grey nomads and other travellers to the area. Good business opportunities… but a bit sad for those of us seeking an adventure and a relaxing time in this remote location next to the Indian Ocean.
Just north of Broome there was also another wealth of lovely bush camping opportunities that could not be missed so we turned off the Cape Leveque Road and headed past Willie Creek Pearl Farm to see what Quandong Point and James Price Point had to offer.
This area of the Dampier Peninsula is very popular with campers seeking to avoid the crowds in Broome; backpackers, locals and tourists alike. Mostly because it is only a short 70 kilometres or so from Broome but also because it is a free camping area… no amenities though!
Of course it had to be a long weekend in Broome so it was hit and miss whether we could find a suitable camping site, but it wasn’t the locals we had to contend with… it was the backpackers and Quondong Point just happened to be backpackers heaven with most of the occupants obviously ignoring the supposedly 72-hour camping limit. They looked like they had been here for some time and were not moving on anytime soon.
Quondong Point turned out to be incredible and we managed to find the perfect spot right on the cliff overlooking the ocean, surrounded by beautiful beaches and rock pools… that was until a couple of car loads of backpackers turned up and camped right on our doorstop – so we decided to move on!
Next up the track was James Price Point… and I say track as the further north we travelled the more the road deteriorated.
Now we thought that Quondong Point was pretty spectacular… well James Price Point was really something else. The turquoise water bordered by white sand and brilliant red cliffs stretching north up the peninsula were so picturesque!
We parked up in the carpark atop the dunes overlooking the majestic turquoise of the Indian Ocean, with a beautiful white sandy beach only a few hundred metres away. Contemplating our next move over a cuppa we were joined by a couple of 4WDs and off road motorbikes. Locals out for a weekend of beach driving and beach camping.
With Harry engaged in 4WD and tyres down we climbed over a small dune and made our way onto the beach then followed the 4WDS north along the beach for quite a few kilometres, negotiating rocky outcrops and avoiding a few sandy patches.
Eventually loosing the other 4WDs in the distance we pulled in under the red cliffs and settled for a cuppa as we watched a pod of whales in the distance and the tide as it slowly made its way over the sand, closer and closer… and then we remembered this coast was experiencing rather high tides of late! It definitely pays to watch the tide when driving on the beach as it can go up and down quite a few metres very quickly up this way!
Packing up we made our way back along the beach, our tracks and the rocky outcrops we had negotiated earlier now under water.
Our day had been quite eventful visiting pearl farms, negotiating a sandy skate bowl, overrun by backpackers and almost marooned on a sandy beach… so we thought it was time to head back to Broome.
We arrived back at Broome covered in red dust, but glowing with the adventure from our couple of days in the beautiful unspoiled wilderness of the remote Dampier Peninsula. This definitely is a must visit area if your travelling up this way!
Arriving in Broome we pulled into Tarangau Caravan Park. At only $37 a night it was a quiet alternative to Cable Beach Caravan Park and only another block back from the famous Cable Beach. It was OK, although the staff didn’t seem as friendly and it was basically empty compared to Cable Beach… obviously priding itself on being the quietest caravan park in Broome. It didn’t have a swimming pool which was a drawback given the heat, but it did have a great camp kitchen and we could wash our car for a small fee, and considering we paid $51 a night at Cable Beach Caravan Park, we didn’t mind too much! If you want to get away from the crowds, Tarangau could be the caravan park for you!
We spent the next 2 days in Broome stocking up on supplies, doing a few domestics and renewing my drivers licence and when we weren’t catching up on our chores we were off riding our bikes around Broome and to the beach… we just relaxed and chilled before heading down the West Australian coast.
Western Australia has to be on your must-do road trip list.
Imagine fantastic surf, stunning national parks, beautiful coastline and rugged mountain ranges… Western Australia has it all!
Come wander with us as we head south and we will give you a taste of what is out there waiting for you!