The path to paradise begins in hell.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno

Dirk Hartog Island is the ultimate offroad touring destination.

A broken brown line cuts a weaving path through tessellated sand ridges on the map. Staring through the windscreen, though, there are no tracks, no depressions in the dunes, which haven’t seen a single vehicle through in at least six months.

These dunes are alive, extending for hundreds of square kilometres, they shift and crawl over the surface of the island, pale white elephants with a pink patina of rusty granules that glows in the setting sun.



I know where I am, thanks to the GPS, and where I have to come out on the other side, but between the two is a small desert full of ravines, sun-glare hidden troughs and a vast, slippery three-dimensional canvas on which to paint with my wheel tracks.

I get stuck twice, throwing the MaxTrax under the tyres and rolling out in a few minutes each time, but as I near the edge of the sprawling dunes, the sun is getting low and there is no sign of the track that runs north into the vast wilds of Dirk Hartog Island.

I’m driving slowly through the scraggly heathlands now, dead reckoning my way to where I’m sure I’ll intersect with the track, listening to the screeching wail of branches on paintwork, working my way around washouts and bushes in a meandering zig-zag until, suddenly, my wheels drop onto the thin twin tracks that will get me to camp tonight.


Camped on the beach at Steep Point overlooking the southern tip of Dirk Hartog Island.

Exploring an island paradise, time slips, dilates. Without a phone, or a watch, both naked encumbrances here, the days roll around in a dance of sun, moon, high tide, low tide. The infinity of a coastline, the birth of sea creatures, the crackling crystalline clarity of the night sky without a single human artifice to adulterate its brilliance…these are the waypoints of time. The wind is the only compass. The shifting sands the only map.

It is incomprehensible to me that a place like Dirk Hartog Island has been so overlooked in the national consciousness of Australia. Aboriginal history notwithstanding, this is the nexus point, the very beginning of any meaningful relationship between Europeans and the Australian continent.


Ghost on the barge landing on the island.

While William Janszoon had made landfall at the Pennefather River, on Cape York, a decade earlier, Hartog’s discovery of the island that bears his name in 1616 is notable because he left a pewter plate on a post here.

That plate, discovered by Vlamingh eighty years later, was removed to Amsterdam and replaced with a new one. The original plaque is the oldest known written artifact from Australia’s European history.

In 1772, French sailor Louis Aleno de St Aloüarn claimed Western Australia for France and King Louis XV, leaving behind two bottles with coins in them and, apparently, an official annexation document. The document has never been recovered, and was probably weathered or eaten by ants.

I’m not sure what the moral of that story is…Australia could have been French. WA is littered with the names of 17th and 18th century explorers: Hamelin, Freycinet, D’Entrecasteaux…it is a picture of a world that might have been.


Out of the front of the shack at Urchin Point, a well-named brutal stretch of coastline rich in fish and danger.

Phone calls had been going back and forth like carrier pigeons over a Victorian battlefield. Kieran Wardle and I kept bumping into each other randomly, and each time he would entreaty me to come visit the island, ensuring me that it would blow my mind.

Being his backyard, I tended to take this with a grain of salt. Yet, this whole stretch of coastline lives permanently in my imagination. It is a place I return to again and again…blood red cliffs, white pyramids of sand spilling into angry seas, waves landing on the shore that have travelled halfway around the globe. And ocean life so rich it seems like you’ve travelled a thousand years into the past, before dragnets and Russian trawlers, before pollution and global warming and everything else that seems to have rendered the east coast of Australia a place where catching a single pelagic off the rocks is a rollicking good day.

Kieran’s family has been on the island since 1969. His grandfather, Perth Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Wardle, bought the island as a kind of retreat, and while the majority of the island was handed over to become part of the Shark Bay Marine Park, Kieran and his wife Tory still live on the island, running an eco-tourism resort out of the old homestead, ferrying and welcoming travellers with the best kind of hospitality there is, outback hospitality.


Kieran piloting the barge off the beach at Steep Point across to the island. The trip takes about 15 minutes, but can only move one vehicle at a time.

I finally found the time to drive Ghost up from Perth, a fairly leisurely eleven hour drive out to the tip of Steep Point, where I camped for the night with an appointment at dawn to catch Kieran’s new barge over to the island.

From the Overlander Roadhouse, the last vestige of civilization, and the last fuel stop until you return, the drive out to Steep Point takes a couple of hours, but is fairly well graded thanks to the salt mines that operate out here in the over-salinated, shallow waters of Shark Bay.

The same conditions that fostered the development of the stromatolites you can still see in Hamelin Pool, one of the oldest forms of life on earth, make this area one of the easiest places to salt mine in the world. These shallow saline seas are responsible, via the stromatolites that still live here, for oxygenating Earth’s early atmosphere, paving the way for plant and animal life to evolve millions of years later.



Dusk, looking out over the thin sound that separates Dirk Hartog Island from Australia’s western-most point, is a slowly changing colour palette. Waves lick the hollowed out limestone shoreline, kissing the calcium molecules away one at a time. Fish jump incessantly. Schools of juvenile mackerel, popeye mullet and bigger, thudding gurgles fill the empty room of the night with their arrhythmic splashing.

There isn’t a coastline as alive as this in the world. Flicking on the headlights as the moon pops up over the jagged ridge of sand dunes to the east, the water is a shimmering dance of silver scales, a twitching aliveness at the edge of the continent, responding, in dizzying balance, to the dance of the heavens above as the stars come out as thick as gravy, each point of light nearly touching the ones around it…the sky becoming milky with starlight.



Dawn rises. The sun paints the sky in umber hues, fading into burned yellows and powder blues. The sun rises exactly where the moon did, but with a blast of red-shifted light, the limestone on fire, the shifting liquid of the bay shimmering fire and ice.

I roll up the swag and start the engine, shattering the stillness, and roll down to the flat beach at Blackies Camp to meet Kieran with the barge. It’s only a ten minute ride to the island, but there are only ten vehicles allowed on the island at a time. And that’s one of the things that makes the island so unique. Even on a coastline as sparse, as remote and unpopulated as the Coral Coast, Dirk Hartog is the pearl of the west coast: a paradise untrammelled.

Kieran dropped me on a wide flat beach and I headed north on the island…getting a feel for the ropy sand tracks looping through the heath, the sense of space, incongruous with the idea that I’m on an island now, where finitude seems to rub harshly against the infinity of the sky, the sea.



I met up with a group of guys who had just come onto the island for their annual fishing retreat, a tradition which dates back a decade and a half. Their camp up at Orchid Point, on the island’s northwest face, was like something out of Gilligan’s Island. They literally had constructed a small city, with fish washing station, fully stocked kitchen and more fishing paraphernalia than most small tackle shops carry. The only thing missing was a radio made out of coconuts.

For the next week the long days and nights were a blur. There were cliff fishing expeditions off crenellated limestone escarpments overlooking indigo seas awash with fish you could see swimming twenty feet deep in the clear water.

The boys were pulling in red emperors, mackerel, trevally and baldchin gropers, the real prize in these waters for its sweet, firm flesh.


The shack at Urchin Point absolutely loaded with gear for a few weeks on the island. This is what pirates dream of…

I hooked a massive 5-6kg gold-spotted trevally off one cliff, the classic ‘one that got away’. After a ten-minute fight, him diving for reef, running line out to see and trying to run all the way around the headland I was standing on, pitted with holes so I could barely keep my footing just standing still on the edge of a 100m dropoff, much less chase him around, he finally slowed down, his mate chasing him through the clear water.

I dragged him up to the dry reef, but my rod was too long to haul him in, so one of the boys donned gloves and we winched him up the cliff, close enough to smell before the second, reef-sacrifice leader, gave way from the fight and we lost him. For me, fighting a big fish like that for as long as I did, until my fingers were cramping up, is what cliff fishing is all about, even if he didn’t end up on the campfire that night.



We made our way up to Orchid Beach, arriving after dark at the old fishing shack that had been so inelegantly converted into a cross between redneck heaven and a field hospital.  More on the field hospital aspect soon…

Before long we had a raging bonfire that lit up the limestone escarpment running down into a shallow reef out the front where a long, peeling left was running in mechanical perfection from the headland into dry reef. This was going to be interesting in the morning, I’m telling myself. I had my board packed and was frothing to get into the ocean.


Night fishing for lemon sharks off the sand.

After the obligatory coffee, eggs and bacon in the morning, watching the swell rise as the tide dropped, I decided to go check out the reef, to see how deep it was, if this wave was even rideable. So I put on my flippers and mask, grabbed the speargun and went undersea exploring.

The coral here isn’t the rainbow kaleidoscope of the Barrier Reef, but the fish life is thick and healthy. Schools of thousands of colourful fish would plough through me. Parrotfish, cod, angelfish and a dozen more I don’t know were milling around the coral heads.

Getting into the water over the reef wasn’t exactly straightforward. The swell threatened to wash me up on the sea-urchin infested, razor-sharp barnacle covered rocks, and I’d made it out without too much blood, but I knew if I hit a fish in these sharky waters, I’d be headed straight in, so I took my time selecting a good target.



I’d seen the boys pull in a baldy off the rocks, but I was ignorant of the prize-value of the species. When I finally popped off a decent sized one and dragged it in, I grew a deeper appreciation of their exorbitant price on ice back in the city.

Legs bleeding from the reef, my toes aching from kicking a few sea urchins on the way in, I held up the fish and said, “are these any good to eat?”

Peter, who had invited me along, nearly spit his coffee out. “That’s a baldy, mate! Best eating fish over here!”

“Oh really,” I replied. “There’s heaps of them out there. Want more?”

So after Rube spent about an hour pulling sea urchin spines out of my foot, a grueling affair I wouldn’t wish on anyone, I headed back out and pulled in a few more of the table fish du Hartog.



Then it was time to surf that left.

The swell was easing, but there were still some powerful ones coming through, racing down the line. It took a few tries to get my takeoff onto the face, but once I did, it gave a good 100m ride before I had a choice between catch another one or impale myself on a colony of sea urchins saturated with shadenfreude.

This time I found a little sandy patch down the coast where I could glide in over the reef and land my feet on something that wasn’t a cross between razor wire and an iron maiden.


Rays cruise by in the shallows of Turtle Bay – an exquisite little paradise within paradise.

In the afternoon we headed up to Turtle Bay, and I was reminded once again that nobody rides for free…even in paradise. The car park at the top of the hill afforded a million dollar view out over the pale blue bay ringed in white sand. Dark patches of reef beckoned just below the water’s surface, and turtle nests were dotted along the high water mark.

Walking down the escarpment in loose sand the temperature of, say, Mercury’s surface at about noon, wincing and freezing up in pain with every step, I watched one of the guys walk along in the shallows next to three or four manta rays that were cruising in the clear two feet of water.

I ran down to the water to cool my blistering feet and we had a good spearing session on the reef there, hollow and full of fish.


Turtle Bay, on the northern tip of the island.

That evening we were headed up the east coast to a spot called Cape Levillain, the very northeastern extremity of the island, for some night fishing. I ran too far down the beach before turning into the dunes and found myself in the softest sand of my life, slanting down to a big dropoff into the water. If I’d kept going, I would have rolled. If I stopped, I was stuck. I chose stuck.

I was just attaching Peter’s winch to the back of the truck when I saw something out of the corner of my eye in the dusk light.  It took a while to realise what was happening, but just uphill from the car a leatherback turtle nest was hatching, and the hatchlings were trying to make their way out to sea.



We helped dig them out and coaxed them in the right direction, toward the water. It was the coolest experience. The little guys have so much energy, and I was just really taken with the idea that they’d never felt water before, and if they weren’t breeding females, they would never feel dry land again.

After we helped the little guys get free from the sand, it was back to Ghost. We ended up winching it up over the dunes, the only way to get out, and the WARN 9.5 did the job well, groaning and straining the synthetic rope, but I threw both lockers in and let the engine crawl in low range, and half an hour later, crested the dune and headed north up the inland track.

The night was placid on the beach, the boys catching little else but lemon sharks that would take a few hundred metres off the spools before being dragged onto the sand, looking friendly enough, hiding razor-sharp teeth behind their white lips.



Then…Cyclone Olwyn came knocking. The airwaves were abuzz with news of the impending storm. A cyclone hadn’t hit the island in 19 years. It was due for a whipping. I was halfway up the island on a sand dune when I got a text from Kieran: Parks have asked us to evacuate the island. Can you be here at 3pm to catch the mail plane out?

Up to the axles in the lee of a perfectly sculpted sand dune straight out of one of T. E. Lawrence’s scrapbooks, I bounced out with the help of the MaxTrax once again, and began to get myself unlost in the sea of dunes.

The roads here don’t take kindly to anyone trying to travel faster than about 30kmh, so it was a stressful trip back down to the homestead, getting lost in the dunes a couple of times on the way and trying to squeeze in a few more photos along the way.


Salt pans are nature’s bridge between runways and roads.

Driving out to the salt flat that doubled as a landing strip, I pulled right up to the old Cessna to load all my gear onboard, leaving Ghost to weather the storm on the island.

By the time I got to Denham, the airport there had been closed, and there were no flights out for a week. I grabbed Kieran’s 200 Series that was parked there and drove all the way back down to Perth, just missing the storm by a few hours.

I would have liked to have stayed around. The storm missed the island, throwing up walls of surf, and it would have been an experience watching the raw power of the wind as it whipped up the normally glassy Shark Bay, but that would have meant being stuck in Denham for a week with no way out, roads closed, airport closed…and even full time dreamers have to wake up sometimes.


Flying back into Denham airport from the island on the mail plane.


LOCATION: Dirk Hartog Island is Western Australia’s largest and most western island and is situated offshore from Steep Point, the mainland’s most westerly point. The island is approximately 80km long and is 15km wide at its widest point. The landmass is almost wholly undeveloped and covers an area of 620 square kilometres. It is located 850km north of Perth and can be accessed by boat transfer, vehicle barge and light aircraft.
GETTING HERE: Return boat transfers are available from Denham. Twice daily departures are made from Denham Jetty. Travel time is approximately 75 minutes. Light aircraft transfers can be made between Monkey Mia airport on the mainland and Dirk Hartog Island Airstrip.
A vehicle barge is available to transfer 4WD vehicles and trailers from the mainland to the island. The barge departs from Steep Point and can carry only one vehicle and trailer at a time. The barge departs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only. Travel time is approximately 15 minutes.
FUEL is available at the Overlander Roadhouse on Highway 1, so make sure to carry spare fuel if you’re driving out.
MORE INFO is available at




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