Driving into Carnarvon for the first time, I spotted something peculiar on the horizon. A slanted dinner plate silhouette loomed over a hilltop. While edging closer to this big dish off Western Australia's Coral Coast Highway, it soon became apparent that it was no novel 'Big' tourist attraction to lure hungry drivers to the town of 4900; rather, it was a satellite. And not just any satellite; this out-of-the-world fixture literally put Carnarvon on the world map.
The far-flung coastal hub, 896km north of Perth, played a large part in the broadcast of the first moon landing in 1969. Since then, the town with the odd outback skyline has continued to embrace its role in the historic feat for all humankind, weaving its space legacy with other eccentric country charms.
Planets, palms and plantations; a place like Carnarvon is a rarity. Just a few hours' drive from Western Australia's famed aquatic playgrounds, Coral Bay (238km north) and Exmouth (364km north), Carnarvon offers different kinds of coastal fun beyond the deep sea, and that's what makes the town a stellar choice to venture.
The long and short of it
I sensed a tropical vibe as soon as I arrived. Its tolerable, warm temperature suited the town's laidback coastal aesthetic.
Lofty coconut and cotton palm trees orderly align the banks of the 'Fascine', the town's central waterway area and much-loved meeting point. The calm bay forms part of the mighty Gascoyne River with its neatly landscaped foreshore and is a hub of activity. Locals exercise, picnic along manicured lawns and amphitheatre seating, and watch blood-orange sunsets.
Beyond the Fascine, I followed its snaking sandy-hued pathways to explore the town's far-reaching Old Tramway Walk Trail. Hardly exertive, the flat 2.5km trail follows the historic transport link, hopping from one island to the next.
It starts from the Foot Bridge at Fascine Town Beach, passing the former Whitlock Island Station to the tip of Babbage Island, home of the Carnarvon Heritage Precinct and One Mile Jetty. Along the way, the scenery intertwines disused railway tracks, twisted samphire and mangrove ecosystems and archaic train machinery on the doorstep of the Railway Museum.
Something less noticeable is its unique fauna. Besides attracting waterbirds, the area draws winged wildlife far less noticeable. Between July and September, the trail is buzzing with Carnarvon's elusive residents, the Dawson burrowing bees, emerging from their self-made drill holes to hum their mating calls above ground. These furry bees – akin to a Kinder Surprise toy – are only found in two locations worldwide, both in Western Australia: the Gascoyne region and the southern Pilbara, making these little mascots a special sighting.
Stepping into the past
At the tip of this scenic stroll is One Mile Jetty. Don't expect to be stretching your legs along this heritage wooden jetty, which almost lives up to its name, elongating 1493m along red earth, shrublands and across the Indian Ocean. The 1897-built port jetty was closed in 2017 due to being in a state of disrepair. The grassroots movement to restore the jetty hit another blow – literally and quite forcefully – with Cyclone Seroja causing havoc in April 2021. The severe storm ripped parts of the jetty to shreds with the effort to save the historical link even more cumbersome than before.
What remains of the jetty can be admired from the One Mile Jetty Interpretive Centre, sitting at the foot of the Gascoyne landmark. It offers more than just an insight into the jetty's past, highlighting different realms of Carnarvon's fascinating history: indigenous culture, industrial (whaling, livestock and farming) and its connection to World War II.
This centre is one of three along the Coral Coast that features the story and remnants of the HSK Kormoran shipwreck. The German raider was battling Australia's famous warship, HMAS Sydney II, just over 222km west of Steep Point on November 19, 1941. The deadly clash led to both vessels destructing and sinking into the depths of the Indian Ocean.
It remains Australia's worst naval disaster, claiming the lives of all 645 crew on board Sydney, with roughly 80 German soldiers perishing. Remarkedly, a Kormoran lifeboat was recovered in almost immaculate condition from the ocean floor and is now on display – a confronting reminder of this dark day in Australia's history.
Out of this world
Carnarvon's fascinating stories go from the ocean's depths to the galaxy and beyond.
Remember that big ol' satellite? Nowadays, anyone can get close to Carnarvon's skyscrapers – the state's most famous dish, OTC Satellite Earth Station and the Casshorn antenna dubbed 'sugar scoop'. Retired from its beaming ways, the former Carnarvon Tracking Station now operates as Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum. It's a must-visit for space enthusiasts or those looking for something quirky in the outback.
The town's top tourist attraction commemorates the vital role in past NASA space programs, including the 1969 moon landing and Australia's satellite communications. The interpretive centre is divided into five areas, so expect to lose a few hours to lunar learning.
I geeked over old NASA consoles and memorabilia, meteorite fragments, full-size replicas of Gemini and Apollo capsules, a Planetarium and an interactive Apollo Experience. Space greats have, too, made their landings here, including arguably one of the world's most famous astronauts, Buzz Aldrin, sending the town into another buzz in 2012.
Western Australia's salad bowl
To many West Aussies, Carnarvon is known as the place where bananas come from. Fresh food aisles in the west are stockpiled with the town's tasty golden boomerangs. Aside from its abundant potassium supply, Carnarvon is one large salad bowl. Eighty per cent of the state's tropical fruits and garden vegetables crops are grown in the town, making it an easy place to start a detox.
There are a few ways to embark on a health kick while savouring the tastes of Carnarvon. The Gascoyne Growers Market operates each Saturday morning from May to October outside the visitor centre's lawns. The small market is a place to mingle with locals and bask in a lively atmosphere of buskers and enthusiastic stallholders.
Trust me when I say you won't leave empty-handed – or on an empty stomach. Besides local street vendors selling handmade arts and crafts and independent designs, there are nourishing treats, some a Carnarvon speciality. I filled shopping bags with homemade relishes and preserves – perhaps the ultimate souvenir to leave with alongside dried mango fruit straps, my kind of fruit roll-up. Other treats to satisfy hunger pains include artisanal baked goods, burgers, fresh fruits and vegetables, with a convenient coffee cart on standby. Because as if the market smells, sights and sounds wouldn't perk me up already …
Yet another way to have a sensory overload is attending the Gascoyne Food Festival. Regarded as one of the country's largest regional food festivals, it is a gastronomic way to saviour the region's produce with a line-up of local culinary talents and unique events. This year, the festival runs from July to September, with events scattered throughout the region.
One mealtime not to miss is the Twilight Long Table Dinner along the banks of the Gascoyne River during the Gascoyne Food Festival. The smart-casual event at Bentwaters Plantation sees some of the state's acclaimed chefs working with local farmers and producers to serve a tapas-style menu. As the event progresses from sunset to starry skies, waistlines expand, and the atmosphere becomes livelier. The sense of community never felt so good – and downright delicious.
Along tasty roads
Next up was one delicious road trip along Carnarvon's zestiest roads.
North and South River Roads make up the Fruit Loop Drive Trail. This horticultural thoroughfare is dotted with tasty lures with lush banana and mango plantations and tropical crops aplenty. Thankfully, you can taste its freshness by buying from roadside cash-only honesty vendors, shelves filled with newly plucked produce.
The trail's most famed store is Bumbak's Preserves and Icecreams. The family-run store offers exciting concoctions of homemade chutney, relishes and jams (mango chilli jam anyone?) and ice creams. The latter is the perfect cold roadie with chocolate-covered bananas and mango ice creams, just some of the decadent flavours on offer. Yum.
Again – Carnarvon's skyline proves to be something else. A massive Humpty Dumpty lurks over untamed bushlands, sturdily placed along North River Road, with the giant's blue eyes and cherry-lipped grimace sighted from afar. At opposite ends of South River Road is Carnarvon's other famous photoshoot backdrop. Its roadside Cactus Garden is a favourite, with Instagrammers wanting to capture the Californian desert meets Carnarvon oasis-vibe. The soaring, sentinel-like cacti garden dwarf narrow pathways. Weathered whale bones also appear right of the park, adding that extra surrealness to the offbeat locale.
Strike a pose
Iconic signage is a thing of the west. Like California's renowned 'Hollywood' sign, Western Australia has its 'King Waves Kill' sign. You haven't been to the region if you haven't visited the coastal arbour, located 73km north of Carnarvon at the T-junction of Blowholes Road and Gnaraloo Road. It's a popular spot to park up and have a photo – car and all – under the understated sign.
The area blows, too. The sign does not just caution surfers attempting gnarly waves but warns of the dangers on shore at a nearby natural phenomenon. Quobba Blowholes is a non-stop water fountain. Powerful swells force water through rocky crevices, spraying up to 20 metres high to the sound of a thunderous roar. It makes for addictive viewing; however, keep your distance and watch the giant ocean snorts from afar.
With satellites, sizable figures (Bees and Humpty Dumpty), and oceanic spectacles, Carnarvon's skies are peppered with peculiar sights, quite an all-star line-up for this sleepy outback town.