Free your spirit on the beautiful Coral Coast, where rolling red desert dunes collide with a turquoise ocean teeming with colourful underwater characters – including the world’s largest fish, The Whale Shark – (one of Australia’s 16 Ultimate Escapes)
The landscape between Western Australia’s Shark Bay World Heritage-listed area and the northern tip of Ningaloo Reef is as dramatic as the frontier is remote. Alien-like termite hills dot the horizon in the north and turquoise waters brim with lively fringing reefs that stretch across 260 kilometres of coastline.
Along with exquisite white-sand beaches, this region is most famous for its abundant marine life. Humpback whales breach playfully off Exmouth and the currents of Turquoise Bay beg to be snorkelled. At Coral Bay, an aquatic theatre of characters frolic just metres from shore. Observe juvenile reef sharks or swim with one of the ocean’s most gentle giants – the harmless whale shark – drawn to Ningaloo Reef’s plankton-rich waters between April and July.
Further south, dolphins and dugongs feed at Monkey Mia and Shark Bay, and the landscape erupts with drama – the red earth meeting the white sand. Inland, the harsh desert, often carpeted in wild bush flower rainbows, is home to the likes of goannas, kangaroos and emus, while the bay’s crystal-clear tides host “living fossils” in the form of ancient stromatolites, along with starfish and sea turtles.
Though beautiful all year round, the region comes alive in the warmer months, with visitors flocking to the many caravan parks and resorts. Internet and mobile phone services are nearly non-existent, but staying connected to the everyday somehow ceases to matter in this corner of the world where the desert, dunes and sea are your playground.
1. Family: spot dolphins on a catamaran
Monkey Mia, in the heart of Shark Bay, is famous for its must-do dolphin-feeding experience. But why limit your wildlife-spotting to what’s visible from the shore? A three-hour catamaran cruise through Shark Bay greatly improves your chances of seeing not only dolphins but sea turtles, tiger and hammerhead sharks, sea snakes, stingrays and migrating birds. It also offers an alternative vantage point from which to admire the ochre-coloured desert as it meets the sea. While you dangle your legs over the deck’s edge, enjoying the sunshine and sea breeze, you might even see a grazing dugong – a primitive-looking marine mammal that inspired the mermaid myth. See: Monkey Mia Wild Sights; 08 9948 1481.
2. Adventure: Coral Bay by quad bike
If there’s one thing more exciting than exploring Coral Bay, it’s doing it from a 4×4 all-terrain vehicle. Hurtle up sand dunes, along cliffs and white-sand beaches on a guided quad bike tour, spotting kangaroos and emus along the way. Track and observe graceful turtles swimming in hot shallow waters from a clifftop, or stop off to enjoy pristine snorkelling spots like Oyster Bridge, The Lagoon and Five Fingers Reef. Can’t handle the daytime heat? Rev up closer to dusk and reach a remote lookout in time to catch a sigh-worthy Indian Ocean sunset. See: Coral Bay Tours; 08 9942 5885.
3. Food: reel in a big one
Take advantage of the region’s rich, flourishing fishing grounds by casting your own line into the blue waters at the southern end of Ningaloo Reef Marine Park. A bucket-list destination for serious land-based game fishers from all around the world, the 80 kilometres of coastline at Quobba Station north of Carnarvon are an angler’s paradise – home to a variety of tuna, mackerel, cobia, bonito, sailfish, norwest and pink snapper, baldchin groper, trevally, and Spanish and spangled emperor. Remote locations along the cliffs and beaches are suitable for both ballooning and beach casting – just one day of fishing in this stunning landscape will have all levels of anglers hooked. Quobba Station is also a hot spot for whale-watching during winter. Phone: 08 9948 5098.
4. Wild life: swim with whale sharks
No trip to Ningaloo would be complete without an encounter with a whale shark. These gentle creatures are the largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 12 metres long. The slow-moving plankton eaters might be huge, but there’s nothing to fear. They are as docile as can be, and don’t seem to mind humans swimming with them. When they return to Ningaloo in the winter, sign up to take a cruise out from Exmouth or Coral Bay to meet these friendly giants in their natural habitat. Numerous tour companies have spotter planes to ensure encounters with them, while manta rays, humpback whales and dolphins often make appearances too. You can even join marine research scientists on an expedition to better understand these giants. See: Oceanwise; 0447 089 752.
5. Luxury: seaside camping in Sal Salis style
To experience Ningaloo without sacrificing style, set up camp in a luxury tent at Sal Salis, nestled in the dunes of the remote Cape Range National Park. The eco-friendly bush camp hosts just 18 guests at a time in nine raised platform tents that boast ensuite bathrooms and sea views. While away the days snorkelling deserted sections of Ningaloo Reef just offshore, kayaking, swimming with whale sharks, joining guided gorge walks and taking advantage of the area’s diverse fishing grounds. Meals are served up in a sunken dining room overlooking the sea, and a communal lodge hosts a library, board games and a bar. Phone: 1300 790 561 .
6. Walk: desert dreaming
The Indian Ocean marine creatures might steal the show in this region, but Western Australia’s desert landscape has a natural wonder of its own. This red-earth land is home to many species of animals and birds, and exploring it by foot can often lead to goanna and emu sightings. Spend a few hours with an indigenous guide on a Wula Guda Nyinda Eco Adventure, learning about animal tracking, bush tucker, local Aboriginal history and culture, conservation and medicinal plants in the Gutharraguda (Shark Bay) area. Or take to the bush at night for a campfire and some haunting didgeridoo tunes under the stars. Phone: 0429 708 847.
7. Indigenous: tour with local custodians
Explore the history of coastal-dwelling indigenous tribes on a small-group guided day- or half-day tour. Tackle Francois Peron National Park in a four-wheel drive vehicle or hop between beautiful Shell Beach, Hamelin Pool’s ancient stromatolites and wildlife-laden Eagle Bluff while learning the stories behind the land. Your guide is a Nhanda/Mulgana man with an in-depth knowledge of both indigenous and European history, local flora and fauna, traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture, wildlife tracking and bush food. Most importantly, your guide knows best about Shark Bay’s diverse ecosystem, and will surely deliver a wildlife sighting or two as he shows you exclusive spots. See: Shark Bay Coastal Tours; 08 9948 3001.
Getting there: Flights leave from Perth daily to Exmouth (Learmonth Airport). Head north for Exmouth, while Coral Bay is 30 minutes’ drive south. Skippers airline flies between Perth and Monkey Mia several times a week. The 840-kilometre drive from Perth to Shark Bay takes 10 hours, and Exmouth is another four hours north. Coaches run between Perth and Broome.
Eating there: Pickings can be slim in this remote region – self-caterers should stock up before arriving. Exmouth and Coral Bay offer decent options for meals, but dining out in Shark Bay is more challenging. Expect local seafood, including rock lobster and fish, at sky-high prices.
Staying there: Accommodation options cater for all budgets and include well-kept and family-friendly caravan parks and camp sites, bare-bones backpackers, remote homesteads, upscale resorts, beachside luxury lodges and live-aboard sailboats.