Australia, Destinations, Oceania

Driving the Ningaloo Coast

The Ningaloo Coast is home to 160 miles of fringing reef, the largest fringing reef in Australia and the only large coral reef positioned close to any land mass. The Ningaloo Coast is a World Heritage Site that covers 1,742,130 acres and is home to more than 500 distinct species of fish, 300 species of coral, 600 species of mollusks, and the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world (it is estimated that the population is between 300 and 500 from March to June). It is 1,200 kilometers from any large city, making it one of the most remote coral reefs in the world. It is in this landscape of arid land and abundant seas that we have started our road trip up the northwest of Australia.

We left Perth later than we planned and in a bit of a rush, we were trying to beat the winter weather creeping northward. Terrance, our sturdy old Land Cruiser Troop Carrier, was packed to the brim with everything we deemed necessary on a three month camping trip: a cheap tent and air mattress that we now regret not spending more money on, a couple of camp chairs and an infinitely useful folding table, a 95 L car fridge and freezer to keep us eating well on long stretches without resupply points, solar panels to power said excessively large fresh food storage, and a cooler almost exclusively used to store beer. We may be roughing it compared to all the camper vans and caravans with their downy beds and running water, but Kane knows the luxuries I care about (food, beer, wine, and more food) and indulges me as much as we can afford. I will forever love him for sparing me from three weeks of canned tuna sandwiches when we make it to the Gibb River Road.

Once we finally got on the road, we quickly made our way to the Ningaloo Coast, a place where Kane wanted us to be able to spend a good amount of time before we had to move inland, to see Karijini National Park before the school holidays brought droves of vacationing children and their families to the gorges. We spent three days in Coral Bay, the beginning of the Ningaloo Coast, but moved on faster than we had planned due to a bit of bad weather. The weather was nicer slightly further south on Warroora Station, where we bush camped on the coast for two nights, but it still was a touch chilly for me to really enjoy the ocean. It is the dead of winter down here and a little late to be seeing some of the southern coast, but by the time we made it to Exmouth we had caught up with the good weather. Surrounded by pristine reef and bathed in the warm winter sun, we stayed a week.

How could you not want to stay at Turquoise Bay?

I fell in love with the Ningaloo Coast during that week in Exmouth and it wasn’t my fault. I was helpless in the face of bays so brilliantly turquoise that any photo already looks photoshopped, of reefs so alive with diversity that it feels like you’ve fallen into a world renowned aquarium, of the pure, addictive silence of hiking in a national park almost no one visits.

We had wanted to camp in Cape Range National Park, the quiet park that follows the coastline and contains some of the best snorkeling spots on the Ningaloo Coast, but we did not realize that the booking system has changed in the past year and now all bookings must be made in advance online. Instead we stayed at the Lighthouse Caravan Park halfway between Exmouth proper and the park entrance. We bought a 4 week Western Australia Parks Pass for $44 that allows us unlimited entry to all national parks in WA instead of having to pay the $12 daily entry fee and then our fee for Karijini later down the line. The pass ended up saving us a fair bit of money, because, as we were not staying in the park, we had to drive in everyday.

The rocky entry to Oyster Stacks. The reef is just on the other edge of the rocks.

Cape Range National Park has a few small gorge hikes (but nothing compared to what we would later see in Karijini), but the real gems of this park are in the water. We first swam at Turquoise Bay, a long stretch of fine, white sand beach that curves gently around a shallow coral reef. Just like in Coral Bay, there is no need to go out on a boat to see the reef, instead you can wade right up to the edge of the drop off into reef. I was blown away by the snorkeling here. We swam with schools of huge spangled emperor, some very inquisitive darts, and many more fish I couldn’t identify. However, I had no idea that this would not be the best snorkeling we would do on the Ningaloo Coast; that honor goes to Oyster Stacks.

This picture doesn’t even begin to do Oyster Stacks justice.

You can only snorkel at Oyster Stacks on high tide so make sure you swing by the visitor’s center to check the tide times before exploring this phenomenal spot. The reef here is very shallow, even more so than the reef at Turquoise Bay, and there can be strong currents (it is similar in this regard to Turquoise Bay). We got into the water around 10 am, a slightly later start than we had hoped for due to locking our keys in the car and having to spend about half an hour breaking back in. Thanks to the help of some friendly German backpackers and their tent hook, we still had time to snorkel before the mandatory 12:30 pm exit time.

The current pulled us up the coast to the left of the entry point, but we didn’t fight it. We just let ourselves drift along, enjoying the amazing scenery before we made it, maybe half an hour later, to a sandy patch of beach to hop out at. I saw more fish than I have ever seen in my life in that half an hour. Huge parrot fish nibbled the coral as we passed overhead. Massive conglomerations of hundreds of different types of fish darted about the stacks of coral. Tiny, bright blue fish hide from large schools of snappers, their brilliant blue scales only matched by the surprisingly bright blue of the coral itself. I simply cannot find the words to do Oyster Stacks justice, this is a place that needs to be seen to be believed.

Swimming with the fish at Oyster Stacks.

The sheer abundance of life on the Ningaloo Coast will forever amaze me. This is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks are so common that the dive boats guarantee a swim with these benevolent giants. Here, on this tiny tip of land on the edge of nowhere, you can swim with massive manta rays, stare down buff kangaroos on the side of the road, spot a shy dugong, be ignored by proud dingos, float with thousands of tropical fish, and even have a strangely intense moment going eye to eye with very clearly intelligent and pissed off octopus while trying to free it from your fishing hook. Yet, despite all this, most Australians have never even heard of this reef that rivals the Great Barrier, let alone swum in its diverse waters.

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