Getting wild at Ningaloo Reef
After what felt like an insanely long, dark and depressing winter cooped up shoulder-to-shoulder in the sea of people in London, I was pining for the wide views, faraway horizons and feeling of freedom from driving an endless road in the middle of nowhere in the Aussie outback. So when we eventually flew back to Western Australia for a holiday in the Spring, I enlisted a couple of mates to take a 1300 kilometer road trip with us up the coast to the world-famous Ningaloo Marine Park.
So it was that I found myself sitting in the back seat of my friends ute in the auspicious role of road-trip snack dispenser, happily gazing at the outstretched sky and feeling all my worries melt away as we churned the miles along the beautiful, bright and sunny coastline of WA, bopped along to Aussie rock anthems from the 80s and lazily chewed on an assortment of Allen’s lollies.
I hadn’t taken the 13 hour drive to Ningaloo for over 15 years, and was once again stunned at the paradise-perfect sight at we pulled into Coral Bay on a soothingly warm 30-something degree day. Lying at the southern end of the 260 km fringing reef that makes up the marine park, you can literally step into the water here, duck your head down and start experiencing the wonder of tropical reef. In fact, as soon as I got my snorkel set on, I spied a Blue Spotted Stingray quietly watching the activity above from the white sands of the seabed. I was thanking my lucky stars I didn’t unknowingly step on him!
We shared a beach tent with some acquaintances who lived their lives in the hotter and even more remote northern parts of Western Australia near Karratha, and who regularly make the trip south to Coral Bay for holidays with their kids. With their deep tans, extensive beach kit, and oozing the ‘no worries’ attitude in everything from their posture to their smiles, there was no question these were fair dinkum, true blue Aussies, and I instantly liked them. “The water’s a bit chilly” the wife cautioned us, her teeth almost chattering, as we hurriedly slopped on our sunscreen and with my skin aching to feel the embrace of the water. We eventually carefully tested the clear waters only to find it was like getting into a tepid bath! This is when I officially became envious of their lifestyle as obviously they were so used to being hot that this was considered ‘chilly’. Jealous much!
After a snorkel, some sun-bathing, and a customary after-swim ice cream, we said ‘cheerio’ to our new mates and continued our journey to the larger town of Exmouth, where we settled in for a week’s stay. This was our base as we set out almost every day around the Exmouth peninsula to access the northern end of the reef, through the adjacent Cape Range National Park. It only took around an hour each way but we were required to pay a $12 entry fee for the vehicle each each time we went into the national park. We only figured out on the third or fourth time that for the number of times we visited in a week, it would have been cheaper to buy a month’s pass instead. But it all directly contributed to the maintenance of the park so I considered it money well spent anyway.
This part of the marine park had no shortage of sandy beaches with cyan-coloured waters, filled to the brim with healthy coral and abundant marine life. The place that will forever stand out in my mind though, was the exceptionally beautiful Turquoise Bay. Not only did it seem like we had stepped into a travel magazine photo of perfection, but the currents in the water at this spot means that you can take a bit of a floating ‘ride’ over the coral metropolis as you gently drift along parallel to the shore to a sandbank at the end of the beach.
Snorkelling here I was absolutely mesmerised by the schools of neon-blue and yellow fish chasing around me. The bright painted parrot fish as took turns noisily crunching at the coral, and the various types of clown fish danced within the fluid tentacles of the anemone (I had found Nemo! Dory too, for that matter). Meanwhile, large shiny Snapper and other bigger fish sailed by all this activity on some unseen highway though the coral. I even got to swim along with a Green Turtle for a while, who kept cocking his head upwards to keep checking if the ‘floating weirdo’ was still following him. The coral itself came in all shapes and sizes – some grew like miniature blue palm trees, others were big domes, and some even were incredibly like giant rose flowers forever blooming under the water.
It was so unbelievably busy under there that it was hard to try look at everything at once. It felt like I could never get my fill! It was only when I started feeling the prickle of a sunburn begin on the back of my legs that I reluctantly took a break. Kneeling in the warm shallows I took a moment for mindfulness and really tried to take in my surroundings. I watched through the water as a school of silver fish swam by and almost kissed my knees, and I mentally photographed the many shades of blue across the sea to the horizon where it seamlessly merged into the cloudless sky. To the left the vibrant ocean contrasted with the rustic red land and crisp white beaches. The gentle warm air felt snug and I took long deep breaths while my mind baffled at the concept that I’m half a world away from my job, apartment and people I know in England, and wondered why, in the 30 years I lived in Western Australia, I didn’t come up to this oasis every year!
After a few days of frolicking with the fish in the sea, we decided to give our sunburnt skin a respite and instead took the ute into the arid and rugged high country of the adjacent Cape Range National Park. We followed a steep driving track up to Charles Knife Canyon where we experienced heart-stopping sweeping views of the flat stretches around the peninsular, Exmouth and beyond. From this high point I was able to watch patches of shadows drift across the landscape as the occasional fluffy cloud meandered across the sky and stole the heat of the sun.
I crunched around chunks of spiky spinifex and headed out towards the edge of a cliff to see the steep, dry gorge and admire the red, white and brown bands of ancient rock, and suddenly felt a sense of vertigo when I realised just how massive the gorge was! The best bit came when I stopped and stood completely still, as I experienced that rare phenomenon when the world was suddenly, utterly, completely….silent. Not a thing moved besides a light dusty breeze in my hair, and not a sound could be heard. It was just me and the earth and valley of land below us, and everything else in the crazy world seemed so far away and insignificant in that moment.
We weren’t completely alone in the wild gorges though. When we started this drive we encountered a lone cyclist slowly sweating and puffing her way up the steep, rocky and windy track, and were astonished that we actually had to overtake her several times in our car as we made our way into the gorges. We both admired her grit and worried for her, as the intense midday sun beat down on her sweaty bronzed arms and we inadvertently kicked rusty dust in her face every time our car went by. What’s more, she didn’t seem to be carrying any water with her despite the hot day, and she declined our offers for some as she determinedly peddled on by.
At the peak of the drive when we stopped for some epic photos, we spied her in the distance standing like a proud lone wolf on a rocky outcrop overlooking the vast gorge below, her bike nowhere in sight. Some time later while we were still scrambling around taking photos and selfies, she surprisingly reappeared and passed us once again, hunched over and furiously beating her legs on the bike as she continued uphill and cheerily yelled “great views, eh!”. We waved silently, bemused, and watched her disappear over the next rise for what would be the last time. Although clearly crazy, I couldn’t help envy her freedom, wild spirit and bravery as she lived her truth and lived her life to the full.
All up, the road trip had been truly sensational, with some unforgettable wild, natural experiences, not to mention the great company of old friends, and the best fish and chips I’ve ever had! But I couldn’t wrap it up without a chance to re-familiarise myself with the stars of the southern hemisphere. So one night we embarked on an expedition to the beach to try and see the Milky Way. Being a somewhat spontaneous trip, we set out with little else than a cooler full of drinks, some mozzie repellent and a sarong to sit on. We navigated our way on a barely identifiable track through dune scrub to reach the east-facing beach overlooking the Exmouth Gulf. We managed to get there before the sun set, but realised too late that it would be setting on the other side of the dunes behind us (told you there was little planning involved in this!). Despite this, we admired the ever-changing colours light all around us as the flat waters of the warm evening mirrored the violet, pink and lilac colours above it.
With our toes sunk in the fine silky sand, we enjoyed local beers in the balmy evening air and counted one-by-one as the stars winked into view. We sat back and spent hours soaking in the beautiful night sky. However, our lack of foresight became evident again when it was time to head home in the black of night, and no one had thought to bring a torch. Needles to say it was a long trip home stumbling around the beach completely alone in the dark, slightly tipsy, hungry as hell, and belting out ballads as we tried to find a more reliable track to get us back through the dunes and back into town. But I suppose, just like the peddling maniac at Charles Knife Canyon, the compulsion to get out and experience the wonders at your fingertips in this part of the world makes us all a little reckless. As long as you manage to survive, it makes for a great story to tell!