Once a WWII submarine base, Exmouth didn't flourish until the 1960s brought the Very Low Frequency (VLF) communications facility to North West Cape. Simultaneously, fishing (especially prawns) and resources exploration commenced, both still thriving today (gas flares are visible from Vlamingh Head at night).
This wild, rugged, largely unpopulated coastline stretches from Shark Bay to Ningaloo, with excellent fishing and waves that attract surfers from around the world. Subtropical Carnarvon, the region's hub, is an important fruit- and vegetable-growing district, and farms are always looking for seasonal workers.
Port Hedland ain't the prettiest place. A high-visibility dystopia of railway yards, iron-ore stockpiles, salt mountains, furnaces and a massive deep-water port confront the passing traveller. Yet under that red-dust lurks a colourful 130-year history of mining booms and busts, cyclones, pearling and WWII action.
Dampier to Roebourne
Most travellers skip the mining-services section of the coast from Dampier to Roeburn as there's little to see, unless you like huge industrial facilities. However, there are several interesting sights, good transport, well-stocked supermarkets and useful repair shops.
Beautifully situated just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, the tiny seaside village of Coral Bay is one of the easiest locations from which to access the exquisite Ningaloo Marine Park. Consisting of only one street and a sweeping white-sand beach, the town is small enough to enjoy on foot, making it popular with families.
Head north past Harold E Holt Naval Base to an intersection before the VLF antenna array. Continue straight on for Bundegi Beach or turn left onto Yardie Creek Rd for the magnificent beaches and bays of the western cape and Ningaloo Reef. The Cape Range National Park entrance station is at the 40km mark and the road south is navigable by all vehicles as far as Yardie Creek.
Most travellers in Karratha bank, restock, repair stuff and get out of town before their wallet ignites. If you have time, the Jaburara Heritage Trail leaves from behind the visitor centre. This series of trails (the longest of which is 3.5km one way) winds through significant traditional sites, detailing the displacement and eventual extinction of the Jaburara people.
Millstream-Chichester National Park
Among the arid, spinifex-covered plateaus and basalt ranges between Karijini and the coast, the tranquil Millstream waterholes of the Fortescue River form cool, lush oases. Lovely Crossing Pool, with palms, pelicans and gas barbecues, makes an idyllic camp site, though some may prefer the larger Milliyanha Campground, with its camp kitchen and nearby visitor centre.
Cape Range National Park
The jagged limestone peaks and gorges of rugged 510-sq-km Cape Range National Park offer relief from the otherwise flat, arid expanse of North West Cape, and are rich in wildlife, including the rare black-flanked rock wallaby, five types of bat and over 200 species of bird.
Sitting on Ngaluma country, 40km east of Karratha, Roebourne is the oldest (1866) Pilbara town still functioning. It's home to a large Aboriginal community; Yindjibarndi is the dominant language group. There are some beautiful old buildings and a thriving indigenous art scene (www.roebourneart.com.au).
Marble Bar, a long way off everybody's beaten track, burnt itself into the Australian psyche as the country's hottest town when, back in 1921, the mercury didn't dip below 37.8˚C (100°F) for 161 consecutive days. The town is (mistakenly) named after a bar of jasper beside a pool on the Coongan River, 5km southwest. Most days there's not much to do.