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WA’s Coral Coast travel guide

Forget that little blue book with the bad picture of you inside … your passport is now sitting on the driveway. The world we have to explore is our brilliant backyard, and we’ve got it all to ourselves. The big first front of coronavirus has blown through. The big first front of wind and rain followed it this week. All I want to do now is pull out of the drive and head north — and we can. Australia’s Coral Coast is the tourism region stretching from the Metro area’s “near north coast” to the Ningaloo Reef. And it has two distinctive character traits, for it is both a drive and a series of separate destinations …

Where to go

Cervantes and Jurien Bay. Near the city, classic coastal towns.

Dongara and Port Denison. Beach meets history, river meets ocean.

Geraldton and Chapman Valley. Something for everyone, in a refreshed beachside “big country town”.

Kalbarri. Activities and outdoors, with plenty of accommodation options.

Shark Bay World Heritage Area. Rare marine features, white shell beach, dolphins.

Carnarvon. Produce, beaches, laid-back attitude.

Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef. Beat the winter, enjoy the beach, snorkel and swim.

Exmouth, Cape Range, Ningaloo Reef and whalesharks. From gorges to perfect beaches. Plenty to do.

Drive

The drive north between the Metro area and Ningaloo Reef is aptly themed and tagged the Coral Coast Highway.

I’m in the car early, heading north up Indian Ocean Drive, enjoying the great valleys of grass trees, the kwongan coastal heath, then, suddenly, I’m at those strange pillars that are the Pinnacles, standing by the thrombolites of Lake Thetis, wandering into salty old Cervantes, and pottering about in Jurien Bay.

Quite frankly, just at this moment, I could stop here — but I’ve barely scratched the surface.

North of Leeman, the ocean is right alongside, and then I’m out on Brand Highway, and enjoying the momentum of heading north (even though, when I look at the map, it seems I’ve barely left home).

I pull in again at Port Denison, with its sheltered harbour, and see swell rolling in to the beaches to the north. I follow them to Dongara, its main street lined by fig trees, and happily spend time among the waders and waterbirds where the Irwin River meets the ocean.

And, yes, I could very easily just stop here too — but there’s much more to see on the way north.

Through Greenough, with its museum, to Geraldton, and I really feel like I’ve made a shift — out of city life and into this coastal country town.

And, for us visitors, Geraldton is a reinvented town, with its foreshore parks, eateries and art galleries. It is obligatory to visit the HMAS Sydney II Memorial, which glistens on the hill above the city — 645 silver gulls frozen in flight, each representing the life of a sailor lost in 1941 in Australia’s worst naval tragedy. Geraldton is a salty, beachy, oceanic sort of place with a wide choice of accommodation, from simple to swish.

And it earns its nickname of “Sunshine City”, as the sea is warm all year, and it has an average maximum of 21C in June.

I’d happily spend the week here, but there’s even more ahead to the north … and there’s a big choice ahead …

I’m going to Kalbarri, for sure, but, after Northampton, where I stop for a snack and to wander round its pretty gardens, do I continue on up the highway and then turn down to Kalbarri, or head west, to the coast, out past Pink Lake and Hutt Lagoon before arriving on the Kalbarri Cliffs coastline?

Kalbarri seems more complete to me than ever. From those epic coastal bluffs to the equally epic, run-abeam-across-the-swell rivermouth exit to the estuary itself and then the placid reaches of the Murchison River, there’s a complete watery lexicon.

There are pelicans on the foreshore, with its new walkways, and within easy reach of accommodation that ranges from chalet to apartment to resort. Inland, there’s Kalbarri National Park, with its gorges and lookouts.

Do I sound like I’ve settled in? Well, I sort-of have — but I’m conscious that there’s still more ahead.

While Kalbarri is most definitely a destination, and not much more than a six hour drive from the centre of Perth, I swing back out on to the highway.

It’s less than five hours to drive from Kalbarri to Shark Bay, and it always feels to me like I’m driving out into the ocean.

From the Overlander Roadhouse, I turn west into Shark Bay World Heritage Area. Out on these fingers that reach into the Indian Ocean are Shell Beach, Denham and Monkey Mia, and Dirk Hartog Island, just out over the water.

This does, indeed, feel like the end of the road, and it could be.

But the traveller backtracks and heads four hours on up to Carnarvon, set on its fascine, as a southern channel of the Gascoyne River heads to the sea. Despite the storms, there’s local produce around Fruit Loops Drive.

Yes, and frankly, I could stop here, in a caravan park, enjoying the bougainvillea and blue sky, but there’s a last bit of road that beckons …

And so it is that I cover the 238km to Coral Bay and then on up the North West Cape to Exmouth. This is it. The end of our drive, with Ningaloo Reef to the west, and the still Exmouth Gulf to the east.

After weeks of confinement and concern, it feels good to break free.

Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range, on North West Cape.
Camera IconNingaloo Reef and Cape Range, on North West Cape. Credit: Stephen Scourfield

WOW FACTOR

The Pinnacles in Nambung National Park near Cervantes are sculptural limestone pillars formed from seashells, dating back to an earlier epoch, rich in marine life.

The Australian sealions at Jurien Bay are females weighing up to 100kg, resting here on islands in the Jurien Bay Marine Parkbetween fishing trips for squid, octopus, cuttlefish, fish, small sharks and rock lobsters. The males hang out on Carnac Island.

Port Denison harbour, and the Dongaracoast. In Port Denison, Harbour Beach for the littlies, South Beach for the big. Catch a wave at Surf Beach and a view at Granny’s. Take paddle craft and explore the Irwin River in Dongara.

Yes, Pink Lake really is pink! The pink of Hutt Lagoon, 46km down a scenic drive west from Northampton, is caused by the presence of carotenoid producing algae, Dunaliella salina.

Whiting, tailor, mulloway, mangrove jack, black and yellowfin bream, are all fished from jetties and small boats near the Murchison Rivermouth, Kalbarri. Take or hire a dinghy or paddle craft.

The Red Cliffs of the Kalbarri Cliffs coastline, south of the town.

The termite mounds along Shark Bay Heritage Drive are a lunar sight.

Ningaloo Reefstretches from Red Bluff, north of Carnarvon, to the North West Cape. It’s the world’s longest fringing reef, which means that in places it’s right there, just off the beach.

Drift snorkel on Ningaloo Reef at Turquoise Bay, just around the tip of the cape from Exmouth. The reef has 300 species of coral and 500 of fish. The whaleshark is the biggest.

Though the average is about 12m-long and seven tonnes, whale sharks can grow up to 20m-long and weigh 20 tonnes. In the water, on a day trip with one of the Exmouth or Coral Bay whale shark operators, they appear from the deep water, then pass, the size of a bus. The whale shark season is only until August, but visitors can also swim with manta rays, and swimming with humpback whalescontinues until November.

End of the day in Kalbarri.
Camera IconEnd of the day in Kalbarri. Credit: Stephen Scourfield

DESTINATIONS

There’s another way of approaching Australia’s Coral Coast — and that’s as a series of destinations, ideal for each of us to hand-pick.

GERALDTON

There are those of us who just want a half-day drive, and change of scene and to feel they’ve blown off the “stay-home saga”.

From history to cafes, beaches to fishing, and strolling the foreshore, Geraldton can do all of that in one easy cruise.

This is an authentic WA country town by the sea, with history, art and contemporary culture and good for a long weekend or few days away. And its different weather pattern takes us just out of the winter that officially starts on Monday.

KALBARRI

There are more than 1000 plant species in Kalbarri National Park — a flora as diverse as a rainforest. There are gorges, lookouts and walk trails — yet it’s an easy place to visit. Most roads are sealed — an additional 22km was completed as part of the $20 million Skywalk project. Start at the Four Ways carpark.

Z Bend

From the car park, there’s a 1.2km return walk to the Z Bend lookout. It’s only 40 minutes to an hour, with a good view and a lookout over the gorge and winding Murchison River. The River Trail is 2.6km, dropping down to the river through a gully and chasm. It’s more demanding so allow at least two hours. Four Ways Trail is 6km-return and takes probably three hours for most, with quite a steep uphill return.

Nature’s Window

Wind has worn through a hole in the layered red sandstone, which now forms a red frame for a great view of the Murchison River Gorge. Nature’s Window is a 1km-return walk from the carpark, first on a sealed path, down a few formed steps, and then with an easy walk across rock. Late afternoon is a good time to visit.

The Loop Trail

This is the full experience — allow three hours for the 9km Loop Trail and cut loose in the national park. The first stretch is flat, then there’s a sharp drop into the gorge, some climbs and a bit of scrambling.

Skywalk

The planned mid-year opening of Skywalk will give visitors a new look at the Murchison River Gorge. There are two 100m-high walks at West Loop, projecting 25m and 17m beyond the rim of the gorge.

SHARK BAY

With sea-grass beds among the richest in the oceans and stromatolites among the oldest life forms on Earth, Shark Bay was designated a world heritage site in 1991.

In Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, Earth’s oldest ecosystem is alive and well, small waves washing on to the microbial mat that develops into stromatolites.

They are considered living fossils — this is what the Earth looked like 3.5 billion years ago.

Nearby is the old 1884 Telegraph Station, but I drive on another 59km to Shell Beach.

In every squaremetre of Shell Beach there are 4000 Fragumcockleshells. And there’s 15km of them. Evaporation in these shallow waters, where Hamelin Pool and L’Haridon Bight meet inside the Faure Sill, makes it twice as salty as usual seawater. Fragum cockles are one of the few species that can handle this, releasing amino acids into their bloodstream to maintain a solution similar to water in their cells.

At the end of the peninsula is Denham and Monkey Mia, famous for its resident but wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which come to the beach. Park rangers can identify each by its unique fin shape.

CARNARVON

For all its produce and the history of The Big Dish, Carnarvon for me is still dominated by palms and sunsets, the reddish 4km sweep of Pelican Point Beach on Babbage Island, the Fascine (its waterfront), and its produce. (Save me a chocolate-coated frozen banana.)

Caravanners love hanging out in Carnarvon.

The Big Dish, a 29.8m parabolic antenna commissioned in 1969, is officially the OTC Satellite Earth Station Carnarvon. It played a part in receiving communications during the Apollo Moon program, and was used to track Halley’s Comet.

Take a day trip 75km north to Point Quobba and the Blowholes.

CORAL BAY

With its curve of beach, swims out to coral lumps, and then, just a stroll around the corner to the south, bluff and buffering reef, Coral Bay has a dreamlike quality for me. Pastel colours over the water in early morning, a dash more in the evening.

Wandering round in board shorts, snacks from the bakery and a cool drink in the evening. Now, this is getting away from it. Sun and stillness and swimming. Perfect.

EXMOUTH

We’ll start the day on Sunrise Beach, looking east over the Exmouth Gulf, and finish it at Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, up towards the North West Cape, looking west and watching the sun set. Another complete day here on the cape.

Around on the west coast, in Cape Range National Park, there’s good snorkelling at Turquoise Bay, and exploring around Yardie Creek. On this west side of Cape Range, visit Mandu Mandu Gorge. This is where Mandu Mandu necklace was found. Thought to have been made 32,000 years ago, there are 22 small cone shell beads with holes made in them, perhaps to thread human hair. It is among the oldest of such world artefacts.

Back on the east, south of Exmouth, drive into Charles Knife Canyon and Shothole Canyon. Take your time and explore.

There are plenty of accommodation options in Exmouth — take advice from the Ningaloo Visitor Centre.

And, of course, if you’ve never been swimming with a whale shark, this is the year.

GET HELP & BOOK

Information, planning and itineraries at australiascoralcoast.com

Turquoise Coast Visitor Centre, Jurien Bay. visitturquoisecoast.com.au and 9652 0870

Geraldton Visitor Centre. Visitor information only available from visitgeraldton.com.au.

Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery and Visitor Centre. sharkbayvisit.com.au and 9948 1590

Ningaloo Visitor Centre, Exmouth. visitningaloo.com.au and 9949 3070.

Carnarvon Visitor Centre was storm damaged, but we’re expecting it to open soon. carnarvon.org.au and 9941 1146

Dongara Port Denison Visitor Centre is operating three hours a day, from 9am to 12pm. dongaraportdenison.com.au and 9927 1404.

Kalbarri Visitor Centre kalbarri.org.au and 9937 1104.

Drive times

Perth to Geraldton — 425km or 5 hours.

Geraldton and Kalbarri — 155km, 90 minutes.

Kalbarri to Shark Bay — 385km, or 4½ hours

Shark Bay to Carnarvon — 335km or 4 hours.

Carnarvon to Coral Bay — 238km or 2½ hours.

Coral Bay to Cape Range National Park, Exmouth — 205km or 2 hours.

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