BRUCE McDOUGALL travels west and dives into a world of giant fish, big birds, mini marsupials, ancient culture and momentous history.
TOPPING my gloriously colourful jaunt with a mate to the football World Cup in Qatar, was always going to be a big ask. But on the next big trek – this time with my other half Rhondda – to a special place where desert meets ocean in the wild open spaces of Western Australia I reckon we gave it a fair shake.
Landing in Perth, we warmed up by spending a day sampling the delights of historic Fremantle and a few hours with little furry quokkas on Rottnest Island before moving to the main event.
We signed up for a 1250km drive to Exmouth and a swim with whale sharks on World Heritage Ningaloo Reef.
Not preferring to self-drive this one, we chose an outfit aptly named Intrepid Travel which specialises in small(ish) groups and “big adventures". We took off in our minibus with an eclectic group of 17, including a bloke who builds full size planes for a hobby, a teacher from Amman in Jordan, a couple of Kiwis (didn’t hold that against them), a lady who orders heavy equipment for Sydney Trains, a banker and a smattering of retirees and ex public servants.
Described in travel guides as “one of the greatest road trips on earth”, the Coral Coast Highway does not disappoint. It is where ancient landscapes and spectacular rock formations meet reefs teeming with tropical fish, amazing coral and marine giants on the whale migration highway.
We stopped off at some of the best sites including the largest dunes in WA, natural limestone pillars known as The Pinnacles towering above the sand in an otherworldly landscape, a bubble gum Pink Lake and Kalbarri National Park with a fantastic skywalk and birdlife ranging from kestrels and wedgetail eagles to the ever present emus.
There aren’t many large towns between Perth and Exmouth but enough roadhouses to keep you fed and watered offering giant homemade sausage rolls and apple turnovers seemingly twice the size of those in the east and guaranteed to expand your waistline.
After the run taking you through the sizeable city of Geraldton (check out the signature seafood crepe at Skeetas) and some lovely smaller stop-offs, you get to the Shark Bay Marine Park before hitting the snorkelling sweetspot of Coral Bay, and finally Exmouth on Ningaloo Reef.
Around a campfire at the dolphin sanctuary of Monkey Mia (emus and dolphins galore there) we learned about the tribal customs of indigenous people who have inhabited the area for tens of thousands of years and cooked sea mullet in the traditional way on the hot coals.
At Kalbarri we hopped on a fishing boat, cruised out through a wild passage in the reef called “The Washing Machine”, had a lecture from the skipper Aden about the famous local rock lobster industry and pulled up some pots. We hit the jackpot, Rhondda did not succumb to seasickness (one pill did the trick) and we walked away with a large crustacean each.
No surprises what was on the menu for dinner that night. The Maori lad on our trip with the rather excellent name of Watchman, well versed in bounty from the sea, did the honours cooking up the lobsters hauled out the ocean earlier in the day. Watchman also whipped a quick garlic butter sauce and, hey presto, what a feast!
While nature and the abundant flora and fauna rule up this way there are some excellent historical sites on the Coral Coast well worth a visit. One that really resonated was the beautiful memorial in Geraldton to the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney which went down with the loss of 645 lives after a sea battle off the WA coast on November
19, 1941 with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, which was also sunk. The wrecks of the Sydney and the Kormoran were found in 2008 after extensive searching and placed under protection of the Historic Shipwrecks Act.
Exmouth, about which I knew little before this trip, turned out to be much more than just a base for exploring Ningaloo Reef and its fabulous marine life. A discovery and visitor centre documents the area’s history which was once a base for the United States military and today boasts a joint Australian and US naval communication station.
Thirteen tall towers up to 387m – higher than the Eiffel Tower – reach to the sky and feature large spider webs of wire supported by a top hat arrangement that communicates with allied ships and submarines.
Exmouth also is the site where in Operation JAYWICK a group of Australian and British commandos known as the Z Specials launched one of the most audacious clandestine raids of World War II against the Japanese after the fall of Singapore.
On September 2, 1943 the crew of 14 led by Major Ivan Lyon of the Gordon Highlanders left Exmouth in a captured Japanese sampan renamed Krait, snuck into Singapore Harbour undetected and blew up seven Japanese ships with time delayed limpet mines. Krait and her crew amazingly got back to Exmouth after 48 days and 6000km with no casualties and the boat can now be seen at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.
There are many great watering holes and eating spots around Exmouth from pubs like the Froth Craft Brewery and the Whalebone Brewing Co and the themed Cadillac Bar and Grill to higher end nosheries.
We stayed at Ningaloo Lodge just a few minutes’ walk from the town centre. Rooms are smallish but have pretty well everything you need and there’s a large kitchen/common room with cooking facilities to do your own and save on the cafes/restaurants. At the nearby lighthouse sunset over the Indian Ocean is a must do.
Ningaloo, promoted as a “world treasure” and the planet’s largest fringing coral reef, is the main game in town, though. The region is a both nursery and a haven for a seemingly infinite variety of marine life and any number of organised trips to snorkel with turtles, manta rays, dugongs and dolphins are available.
Our goal was to swim with the largest fish in the sea, the mammoth filter-feeding whale sharks which congregate on Ningaloo from March to August. Skilled operators locate these denizens of the deep and drop you into the water just ahead to watch them cruise past. The reef’s signature attractions - which grow to up to 18m in length and live more than 100 years - seem not to even notice the humans in the water nearby.
With humpback whale season also in full swing during our July visit the bonus for us was many close sightings - some with a calf in tow - as they made their way up the coast.
A magical experience well worth the effort.