I am lucky that at the tender age of ten, I got to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef – an amazing memory that will stay with me forever. But nevertheless, I’ve been desperate to go to the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. I think pretty much everyone has heard of the Barrier Reef, but not everyone knows about Ningaloo and for me this was part of the appeal. Unlike its famous cousin over east, Ningaloo has not suffered coral bleaching to the same extent and is largely unspoilt.
What I hadn’t realised, Ningaloo is not actually anywhere near Perth. In fact, if you were to drive there it would take twelve hours. I was certainly not planning to drive that distance on my own, so I decided to find an organised trip that would take me there.
The best – and best value – trip I could find was the 7-day Perth to Exmouth return trip with Aussie Wanderer. There were several companies offering the same destinations – and beyond if you wanted – but most of the trips were one way. The Aussie Wanderer trip sounded perfect as it would deliver you back to your pick-up point in Perth. Of course, you can get flights to Exmouth-Learmonth airport from Perth, but I wanted to avoid flying as much as possible.
I discovered most of the trips were “backpacker” style i.e. travelling on a minibus rather than a spacious coach and staying in hostel accommodation, not swanky hotels. This was fine by me as I was trying to remain on a budget, but I would say it’s also a reflection of the places you will visit when you go north from Perth. They’re a lot smaller and more remote than I ever could have imagined. I am sure there are luxurious hotels you can stay in along the west coast (I’ve been lusting after the Sal Salis Ningaloo Instagram feed…), but you will still have to travel across hundreds of kilometres of bushland to get to them.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was shocked that you can travel for hours on end and barely see another person, vehicle or anything for that matter by the roadside, other than emus, goats and a vast expanse of bush. Of course, you’ll get a roadhouse every couple of hundred kilometres or so. And then nothing. I had to put to the back of my mind the worry that the minibus might break down and leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere. It’s insane to think that if you were to head east, there is literally nothing.
But enough about that. Here are the highlights of my trip:
The Pinnacles, Nambung National Park
The first stop of the trip was to see the Pinnacles, just under three hours north of Perth. These ancient limestone pillars are formed from seashells and create a weird, otherworldly landscape. They’d be a perfect setting for a sci-fi film! Their height surprised me as some are as tall as three and a half metres. You need to get your photo taken with them to properly appreciate the scale!
Kalbarri National Park
We stayed overnight at a farm close to a former mining village called Northampton. The next morning was an early start (we left at 6am) to go to Kalbarri National Park for a hike. After taking some photos at the top, we hiked down the Murchison Gorge. We were given the opportunity to abseil 25 metres down a cliff face. I’ve abseiled down purpose-built wooden structures before, but this was so much better!
This day was when I became aware of the major annoyance that is the Australian fly. I honestly believe that when people get lost and perish in the outback, it’s not just down to dehydration – it’s probably the flies. They’re attracted to protein so as soon as the first glisten of sweat appears, they’re all over you. The climb back up from the gorge was the worst (it was so humid by this point) and I’m sure I inhaled at least one fly.
After Murchison Gorge we drove a short distance to Nature’s Window, a rock formation providing a stunning panoramic view. Here we went for a shorter hike to see the eponymous window.
We continued to Denham to stay the night at an aparthotel, which was positively luxurious in comparison to where we’d stayed the previous night (I had a double bed, TV, my own private bathroom and kitchen, including a fridge-freezer and kettle). There was even a swimming pool with colour-changing rainbow lights!
But first we stopped at Shell Beach, which as its name suggests is a vast beach made up of billions of tiny white shells (the same kind that created the Pinnacles). Interestingly, there is a fence surrounding a conservation area there, which extends 100 metres into the sea. It is there to protect an endangered species, the bilby, from predation and according to our guide it has been a success.
The next morning, we set off for Monkey Mia, a resort in the Shark Bay World Heritage site, to see the wild dolphins that frequent the bay. We got there in time for the first feed. After an explanation by the marine biologists that it’s important not to touch the dolphins and to only swim with them if they approach you, we were asked to step into water. Apparently one of the dolphins, a female named Puck, has been meeting tourists at Monkey Mia since 1976. The dolphins were already hanging around as they’re not silly and know what time breakfast is served, and they swam closer once they knew the buckets of fish were there.
The volunteers selected a cross-section of people to step forward and feed a fish to each of the dolphins. We stayed for the second feed before heading to Ocean Park Aquarium. I’m always wary about visiting aquaria and zoos but I was reassured when I found out that Ocean Park was originally set up as a breeding site and hatchery for pink snapper, which were previously on the brink of becoming endangered. We went around with a guide and saw cod, trout, various types of snapper, lemon sharks, moray eels, ray, pufferfish, sea snakes and calamari (I always just thought it was a posh name for squid, I didn’t realise it was a distinct type of squid).
I’m going to be honest; I had no idea before my trip what a stromatolite was (and I’m still a bit hazy now) but basically, they are living fossils that have been part of the earth’s landscape for more than three billion years. There are only five places in the world where you can see stromatolites, four of which are in WA and the other place is in the Bahamas.
It was incredible to think how long they’ve been there. But it was also very hot and there were loads of flies so I was happy to move on. We arrived at our next destination, Coral Bay just before sunset. I was excited to get there as I knew the next day was going to be the highlight of the trip.
As we had a free day in Coral Bay to do whatever we wanted, I booked a place on a full day manta ray interaction, which included a snorkelling tour. I had been slightly (make that very) disappointed when I found out that I’d not only just missed the whale shark season by a few weeks but the humpback season too. But the manta rays still sounded cool so I was excited to swim with them.
Once we were kitted out with wet suits, snorkels and fins we hopped on the bus to take us down to the boat. Most people were PADI dive certified so I was lucky to be in a small group for the snorkelling tour. We did a short snorkel around a shallow part of the reef, where we saw a huge marbled sting ray and lots of colourful fish. I was blown away by how beautiful the coral is, much more colourful than I was expecting.
Then everyone on the boat (divers included) was divided into two groups; an announcement had come in from the spotter plane that several mantas had been sighted so they were going to drop both groups at once. The mantas were amazing and so graceful. Also, I knew they were big but I was still surprised by the size of their wings (about four metres in width). They can swim at 60 miles per hour, but fortunately for us these ones were taking their time so it was easy to keep up with them.
We all had the chance to swim with the mantas twice before a member of the crew announced the spotter plane had in fact found a whale shark. I nearly burst into tears, I was so excited (then I thought, how awful would it be if they’re joking?!). The crew seemed genuinely surprised so I realised they were serious. They explained they must pay a licence fee to the Department for Parks and Wildlife to let people swim with whale sharks, so it would cost an additional $50 for the privilege. I didn’t have to think about it!
As soon as my group was dropped in the water, I saw a massive whale shark swimming past – I think I might have screamed! I’d been taking photos on my underwater camera so I quickly started snapping away, hoping I’d get something. The boat picked us up and dropped us a second time when a slower whale shark was spotted beyond the reef. Honestly, I could have just kept on swimming with them all day, they are stunning and so majestic.
While lunch was being served, the skipper navigated the boat so we could see some turtles and dolphins. After lunch, we went on a second snorkel in a deeper part of the reef. It was here I saw my first white-tipped reef shark. It was weird as I thought I’d feel scared swimming within a couple of metres of these potentially deadly creatures, but I felt calm as it was obvious that they didn’t care about us.
I knew it was going to be hard to beat this experience but I was looking forward to the next part of the trip.
We had a full day in Exmouth as for the first time on the trip we were staying in the same place for two nights. In the morning, we went to a place called Yardie Creek where we saw some very noisy fruit bats in a tree. I also spotted a rock wallaby as we were leaving. We then headed for Turquoise Bay, which is the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen (it is probably one of the most beautiful in the world). As its name suggests, the water is a bright turquoise colour and extremely clear. You only need to swim out ten metres and you can snorkel in the reef among colourful fish. I even saw an octopus! Apparently if you go a bit further out you can see lemon sharks but there was a strong current.
After lunch, we headed into the centre of Exmouth. When I booked the trip, I pictured Exmouth to be a fair-sized town. In fact, there is very little there other than caravan parks. There were a few shops selling gifts and clothing, as well as couple of cafes and bakeries. I was a bit disappointed but I suppose there are probably not that many people living there, so they only need to cater for the tourists. I was over the moon when I managed to find a pair of whale shark patterned leggings from Ningaloo Swimwear, which I’d seen online (needless to say I bought them).
Pink lake at Port Gregory
As it wasn’t listed on the itinerary, I didn’t expect I’d get to see the pink lake. Its rose-tinted appearance is due to the brine shrimp (sea monkeys) that inhabit the lake. They’re farmed to produce the colour, which is used in food dyes and other colourings. It was pretty breath taking.
Greenough Wildlife Sanctuary
As I mentioned previously I’m always cautious about visiting zoos and aquaria, but I was reassured by the fact that all the animals at Greenough have been rescued. The first creatures we met were leatherback lizards (also known as bobtails), who were enjoying some quails’ eggs. We were each given a bag of feed so we went around feeding the horse, camel, ostriches, emus and kangaroos (we were told not to feed any of the other birds). For a $5 donation, you could hold a kangaroo joey so of course I jumped at this opportunity. It was amazing, just like holding a human baby but better. I also paid $5 to meet the dingoes, who were called Pearl and Banjo. Although they were of course tame due to being in captivity, you could still never train them like a domestic dog apparently, which I thought was very interesting.
That pretty much concludes my trip. If you’re thinking of exploring WA but you don’t want to go it alone, I would highly recommend Aussie Wanderer!