By: Danielle Costley
If watching the sunrise over the Avon Valley from a hot air balloon, seeing the largest population of white swans in the state, and walking on the longest suspension bridge in the southern hemisphere piques your interest, take a drive to Northam.
At a glance
|Distance from Perth||99 kilometres, a one-hour drive|
|Why go?||Hot air ballooning, white swans, golden fields of canola, paddling the Avon River, historic buildings, delicious local wines, olive picking.|
|When to go||
Apr - Nov: Moderate temperatures and low winds are the perfect combination for hot air ballooning season. Wintry rains see the Avon River flowing, and in Spring, the wildflowers bloom. The Motor Sport Festival is in April, the Northam Farmers Show in September and the Wundowie Iron Festival is October’s highlight.
|How long to stay||A day trip from Perth or a weekend getaway.|
|Need to know||WiFi is free in Northam, there are several fuel stations and two major supermarkets, with good mobile phone coverage throughout the town.|
|Fast facts||Town population: 6,500
Indigenous people: Ballardong Noongar.
|Insider tip||The pedestrian suspension bridge is the perfect spot to take photographs and see Northam’s unique white swan colony. Or step inside the Book Shed, a quirky and eccentric bookstore filled with a treasure trove of beautiful books.|
|Related road trips|
Top things to see and do
Hot air ballooning
WA’s Avon Valley is the ultimate place to experience a sunrise hot air balloon ride, with its rural landscape, its rolling hills, lush green fields and meandering streams. There are several tour operators in Northam who run hot air balloon rides like Red Balloon, Adrenaline and Windward Balloon Adventures, some of which give you a hearty breakfast once you’ve returned to solid ground.
White swans were introduced into Western Australia in the late 1800’s and to Northam in the early 1900s. Since then, Northam has become the only place in Australia where these magnificent and rare creatures breed naturally in the wild. The state’s largest population of white swans (around 10 at present) calls the Avon River their home.
They can be found near the Northam Visitor Centre all year round, except in October when they migrate to York for breeding season. Each morning, the swans are fed by volunteer wardens. A breeding program is currently in place to increase the white swan population. If you have trouble spotting the birds, go to the swan enclosure that’s located at Bernard Park (near Peel Terrace) or follow the river west towards Burlong Pool.
Explore the Indigenous heritage
Visit the Bilya Koort Boodja Centre for Noongar Culture and Environmental Knowledge for an interactive, educational experience. Or visit one of the region’s Noongar cultural sites, where you will find mythological paintings, animal traps, caves, stone arrangements and artefact scatters up to 40,000 years old.
Burlong Pool (five-kilometres west of Northam) is just one of several spiritual sites in Northam. It is believed that in this special place, the river serpent, Waugal, travelled underground from Bolgart. Ask for more information on the Noongar sites at this Centre.
Check out the suspension bridge
No trip to Northam is complete without taking a walk on Australia’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge. Commonly known as the ‘Swinging Bridge’, it stretches 117-metres across the vast Avon River and is capable of withstanding 150Kph winds and holding 400 people.
Built in 1975, this iconic bridge is a wonderful spot to view and photograph the local swan population, as well as watch the start of the Avon Descent. The entrance is off Minson Avenue, near the Visitor Centre.
Wander through the town
Go to one of Northam’s cafés for a coffee or breakfast, then stroll along the quiet streets, discovering shops, craft and art galleries.
Northam has the second highest number of historically significant buildings in the state. Under the premiership of Sir John Forrest in the 1890’s, Northam was a thriving township with some 180 buildings of heritage significance.
Visit Morby Cottage, the first European settler’s house (built in 1836) that is open to the public on Sundays. The Northam Town Hall, which was built in the late 1800’s, used to screen movies until 1930. The Post Office (built in 1873) is renowned for a visit by Prince Charles to the site in 1979, where he planted a tree.
Or stroll along to the Railway Station Heritage Precinct, which was used during World War Two and the Korean War to transport soldiers to and from the Army Camp. The Farmers Home Hotel, which dates back to 1860, has recently been meticulously transformed to a boutique luxury hotel and bar.
Paddle the Avon River
The Avon River is the ideal spot for paddlers of all abilities and is the starting point for the annual Avon Descent white water rafting event. The waters are tranquil in Northam, making it excellent paddling for beginners, especially at the section directly under the suspension bridge that is known as the Town Pool.
There are no vessels for hire in Northam, so you will need to bring your own canoe or kayak. When the water levels build during the winter months, and as the river flows downstream, there are rapids that are best suited for experienced paddlers only. Check with the Visitor Centre for information on the River’s water levels and areas best suited to your level of paddling expertise.
Sit amongst the sculptures and shady trees at Bernard Park. Pack a picnic and relax or play in this beautiful park that’s located on the banks of the Avon River, adjacent to the Visitor Centre. During the warmer months, the water playground provides an excellent opportunity to cool off and splash around.
Trails and tracks
Walk, cycle or go horse riding on the Kep Track that stretches 75-kilometres from Northam to Mundaring. It is a low gradient trail with a compacted gravel surface, providing ample access and parking spots along the route. Or follow the Avon River on the 18-kilometre Dorntj Koorliny (Walk Together) Track.
For a short walk, set off on the ‘around the bridges’ section. The Mount Ommaney Track is impressive, rising 80-metres above road level, offering sweeping views over the Avon Valley from the lookout. Or drive 20-kilometres west to Clackline and hike along one of its many walking trails. Stop at Clackline Valley Olives on your travels.
Located five-kilometres west on the outskirts of Northam on the Avon River is Burlong Pool, a place of significance for Noongar people. This spiritual site was once an important place for ceremonies, hunting and camping. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Burlong Pool was used as a training location in water crossings by the military. During the Goldrush, it was the only source of water between Perth and Kalgoorlie.
In its heyday, up to six steam trains stopped daily to replenish water stores for the Goldfields. It is also an ideal location for birdwatching, with more than 100 species of birds nesting in this area during August to December for breeding season.
Public art trail
Take a self-guided drive around Northam to see the CBH Grain Silos that stand 38-metres tall and feature a series of iconic, eye-catching murals that represent the region’s landscape.
Other public art sites and sculptures can be found around the township, especially on Fitzgerald Street where there are a dozen sculptures depicting the history of Northam. Look out for the ballooning mural on the Good Samaritan building on the corner of Fitzgerald and Grey Street, and sculptures at Bernard Park.
Top 10 public artworks in WA »
The best way to explore this scenic region is by car, driving through the town’s many valleys and along the Avon River. This is a large country town and once here, it can easily be explored on foot. There are many walking and cycling trails that meander along the Avon River.
What to pack
The mornings and evenings are chilly in autumn and winter. Pack some good walking shoes, warm clothes, a picnic basket and blanket. Insects are prevalent during summer. Pack bug repellent, sunscreen and hat.
It is an easy 80-minute drive from Perth along the well-maintained and signed Great Eastern Highway. The road becomes more winding as you approach Northam, so exercise caution and keep a watchful eye for wildlife at dusk and dawn. Read more long distance driving tips before setting off.
Need to fuel up before hitting the road?
RAC members get 4 cents a litre off fuel at participating Puma Energy, Better Choice, Gull and Peak service stations.
Last updated September 2020