Soaring above the clouds in a single engine Cessna is hardly the stuff of coach holidays, or is it?
Day 10 on AAT Kings’ Western Wonderland tour, I’m saying my prayers and boarding the tiny plane, swooping skyward for a bird’s-eye view of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area.
On the ground, this sun-blasted region, eight hours’ drive north of Perth, appears leached of colour, cracked and faded. Up here, it’s a different story.
Shimmering salt pans give way to pink lakes, apricot sand dunes and the khaki wilderness of Dirk Hartog Island. From Steep Point, Australia’s westernmost tip, we trace steeper cliffs and pounding sapphire seas to Cape Peron, an astonishing trifecta of blood-red desert, white sands and gin-clear aqua seas. Whales pop up out of the blue, spouting sea foam. We swoon at torpedo-shaped dolphins, stingrays and sharks.
“Coach touring has become more innovative. These days, it’s not just about the coach. It’s about making sure that it’s the best experience and the best way of viewing it,” said Bridie Commerford, marketing manager for AAT Kings.
“If the best way to see Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is by air, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ve introduced touring experiences with air and rail. We take guests to Indigenous experiences they might not necessarily find of their own accord.”
At the Valley of the Giants in Walpole, a sweet 1252 kilometres south, I bathe in a symphony of birdsong, cool breezes and rustling bush canopy. On the treetop walk, birds twitter, warble and chirrup, hidden from view. I hear them in stereo surround sound from my perch, a suspended walkway slung 40 metres among the treetops.
Having toured from Esperance to Albany, on cathedral roads shaded by giant tingles – our living link to Gondwanaland – it’s blissful to walk among them on the ground, navigating huge trunks bigger than a car, and up high, amid a soothing canopy of green.
With WA’s borders barely open, Melbourne in lockdown #2541 and Sydney about to scuttle closed, I didn’t run. I sprinted to Perth, skipping gleefully onboard my AAT Kings coach and sinking gratefully into the leather reclining seats.
Having mainly seen Western Australia from the window seat of a plane, en route to Bali, Bangkok or Europe, it feels intrepid to be heading out on this 15-day bucket-list itinerary with a bunch of like-minded strangers eager to explore more than the four walls of home. That someone else is driving is a bonus, given the epic 4900-kilometre road trip ahead.
It’s early days, before RATs, triple vaccinations and PCR tests. But our group is Covid-free and in a travel bubble. Sanitiser is big, both on hands and the zealous wipe down of our coach. Today, travellers on an AAT Kings tour need to be vaccinated.
“We follow the government guidelines, which are constantly changing,” said Ms Commerford.
For many destinations, it’s their first time seeing tourists in a year. AAT Kings travel director Carolyn Tipper is on the phone, ringing ahead to each destination to ensure the red carpet is rolled out.
“That’s the benefit of a group tour. When you travel on your own, you expect things to be in place and happening, but the destination isn’t necessarily expecting you. We’ve got it all organised in advance. We know the protocols,” said Ms Commerford.
In an event rarer than a 100-year pandemic, we see Wave Rock without the crowds. With Kalgoorlie’s largest gold mine shut to the public, we make do with the (cough) Super Pit, a gaping crater so vast, I have to squint to see where it ends and the deep gold, purple, burgundy hills begin. In Lucky Bay, scientifically voted the whitest sands in Australia, we walk a beach turned grey by overcast skies. In Fremantle, I face chundery seas for a day on Rottnest Island, throwing all decorum aside to get a quokka selfie.
“People are really happy to get out and about. There’s a real sense of ‘hurray, let’s go’. The minute New Zealand announced that they were open, our sales increased. Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are always popular. Bookings into next year are ahead of what they were like pre-pandemic,” said Ms Commerford.
It’s not only coach touring that’s dialled up the cool. Coaches have come a long way since AAT Kings founder Bill King ran his 1970s Burke and Wills tours. Imagine bouncing across the Simpson Desert in a LandCruiser, stopping to pick up fresh meat from the back of a ute out the back of an outback pub, and pitching a tent for the night? These days, the dunny is on board, not in the bush. Instead of stars, it’s the thread-count of the bedsheets that get all the aahs. Dining is hyper-local, without having to contend with blowies.
“If you have to be in a vehicle, why not be in a luxurious vehicle with reclining seats and with somebody that’s got expert knowledge?” asked Ms Commerford.
“Touring these days might mean bigger coaches or smaller luxury tours, but it’s still a place you can learn from the experts.”
Take me there
Tour: AAT Kings operate in Australia and New Zealand. The 15-day Western Wonderland is one of 11 guided holidays in Western Australia. Prices start at $6265 per adult, twin share and include some meals, airport transfers, and are hosted by a travel director and local experts.
Explore more: aatkings.com/tours/western-wonderland/ or call 1300 228 546.