A road trip through WA Prt 1

Well! What a cracker of a fortnight. I’ve just got back from a friggen awesome road trip in WA with my partner in life n’ crime Dale. We, having been thrown a few curve balls of late, booked it on impulse after one or two flippant comments by yours truly that I’d like to go swimming with whale sharks. Northern WA is the only place in Australia where you can do such a thing.

Our first whale shark encounter - a 9-metre!

We took off with no plans; that’s just how we roll. And we spent most of the time (all of the time) going off the beaten track. Always off the beaten track. It brought us joy. Which is why I want to share the trip with you. Perhaps you’d like to do a similar trip one day.

Dale and I both harbour an intense love of the outdoors and of food, so the trip was designed to satisfy both hungers; we spent the first week in a campervan sampling the natural wonders of the Pilbara, and the next driving around the Margaret River region immersing ourselves in local produce and the natural beauty of the area. Most people go to Sea World to see marine life. But there’s a better way. Likewise most go to Margaret River to drink wine. Yet there’s more to the region than vino. We were in WA for 10 days and packed in a lot of stuff, so let me tell you about it (in two parts)...

A few things to know:

  • When’s the best time to go?
  • Exmouth has no wet season, so technically you can go any time and it’ll be hot and sunny. If you want to swim with whale sharks, however, you need to get yourself there between April and July. As for the Margaret River region, most people head there between Spring and Summer, but the cute coastal towns have their charm even in Winter. In fact, I kind of liked being there to see the locals shiver in their woollies and beanies whilst we paraded about in light tops (there’s nothing quite like a Melbourne winter to toughen you up).

  • Should I book ahead?
  • We travel with no plans. A few years ago we travelled through France by train, randomly selecting towns from a scrunched up map (we went to Rouen because they were hosting a medieval food festival, and to Le Puy because that’s where the said lentil comes from). So my answer would generally be Hell No. However, you do need to book your whale shark swim in advance – because the gentle giants are there for only a few months a year, tours tend to book up fast. It’s also wise to pre-book a campervan, if that’s the way you’re gonna roll. For the Margaret River leg, we didn’t even pre-book a hire car. We just rocked up at Perth airport and fished for one there. Which is how we ended up with Geely, Australia’s cheapest (and most entertaining) car on the market. Since we were in the region during the off-season, we had no trouble finding places to stay and eat. Another bonus of going during Winter.
  • What to bring:
  • A reusable coffee cup (like a Keep Cup or Hook Turn. Thongs for caravan park showers. A hammam, as it’s an incredibly lightweight way of packing a towel, picnic rug, sarong and wrap/scarf all in one. A decent camera – you don’t want to miss out on capturing the incredible scenery.

  • Go off track.
  • We always travel this way. Neither of us like treading on well-trod ground. Yes spend a bit of time doing the tourist thing, but true gems are to be found off the beaten track, down the alley way off the alley way, the long way around, etc.

So, the trip:

Exmouth/Ningaloo Reef/Pilbara Region

Exmouth is the main ‘town’ from where you can go swimming with whale sharks. Besides Carnarvon (a good 4-hour drive south), there’s no other town in the vicinity. It’s a bugger to get to - you either take on the 15-hr drive from Perth, or you fly up. We flew. Either way it’s not cheap. Once you get there, it doesn’t get any cheaper. Food is pricey, as is petrol. We’re not rich people. We took it on the chin. It was worth every penny.

Nothing but red earth, desert and sky

First up, we were there on business, namely to swim with dem whale sharks. These big, stunning, docile plankton-eating giants congregate in Ningaloo Reef every year for a few months to feed and rest. We went out with Three Islands Whale Shark Dive
, and they were cracking good fun. They’ve been around since 1997 so they really know their stuff. The crew take you out all day, give you everything you need (snorkels, wetsuit, a good feed) and take professional photos of you and your whale shark friends.

Let me tell you, it was an experience like no other. I can tick this off my bucket list. These are impossibly beautiful creatures and their sheer comparative size is humbling. I can honestly say it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

That's me scrambling my way out of the whale shark's path

Hitching a ride

A juvenile shark (still 4 metres long) circling us on our last dive

A bit about whale sharks:
Not a lot is known about the species overall. We do know that they’re filter feeders, have a life span of up to 70 years and can grow up to 18 meters in length. They spend 90% of their time in the depths of the ocean and only 10% of their time at the surface, so to swim with one is actually a very special treat. It’s also why we know so little about them.

There are currently around 20 whale sharks in captivity in aquariums mainly in Japan and the US, but this is not the way to see them. We have very little understanding of their behaviour and they’re considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN – to take them out of the wild and lock them up for our viewing pleasure seems cruel and indulgent to me. The best way to see them is to get yourself to Ningaloo (or any other of the handful of countries where they routinely gather). It takes more effort, but it’s bloody well worth it and it’s keeping the sharks where they belong – in the wild.


Butt view
Conservation:
Sadly, like all good things on this planet, whale shark numbers are in decline. No one is quite sure why, but it might have something to do with their continued routineexploitation and harvesting in Southeast Asia.

The entire Ningaloo Reef is also regularly under threat by developers. Much-loved Aussie author Tim Winton (of Cloudstreet and Dirt Music fame) is a well-known supporter of the Reef. He wrote this compelling essay about why we need to act together to protect our oceans; read it here. 

Next in line: Cape Range National Park. We collected our handsome campervan (we affectionately named Harold) and navigated north to CapeRange National Park. Here you can camp out at any number of beach spots along the coast - just be sure to book ahead. Of course we didn’t do this so found all spots occupied. Harold was disappointed. Nonetheless we purchased a day pass (around $11) and headed off for an easy walk through Yardie Creek, the only gorge in the region that’s permanently filled with water: 


Bird's eye view of Yardie Creek

Harold in the desert


If we had more time: We’d have gone on a boat cruise down the creek. The bird’s eye view from the walking path is beautiful but I reckon a view from the bottom up would be spectacular. We’d also have walked through the Mandu Mandu Gorge.  A 3km walking trail allows access into this dry gorge. The trail starts from the end of the Mandu Mandu track and follows the northern ridge of the gorge. It then leads down into the creek bed from where you follow the base of the gorge back to the car park. 

Next stop: We drove from the West side of the Range to the Eastern side, where we veered off track to explore the Charles Knife Gorge. This stands as one of my favourite spots of the trip. You can see why, no?

Charles Knife Gorge - holy moly!

Harold made us lunch by the side of the dirt track, where you can enjoy your tucker whilst feasting your eyes on spectacular views of the Gorge and the ocean beyond:

Munching on sardines and vegetables roadside


We spotted a family of wild goats, too, just to top things off:


Next stop: We then headed further south to Coral Bay, about 1.5 hours drive. The drive reminds you that you’re in outback Australia: red earth, emus, red sheep. Soon as we pulled up at Coral Bay beach we spotted a group of people looking at something in the water and lo and behold there was a feeding frenzy to be observed!

Grubs up for Coral Bay's Norwest snapper 

Emu friend

We spent one night in the People’s Park Caravan Village, snorkelling in the reef and eating cheese on the beach before heading back to Exmouth for our flight back to Perth, en route to Margaret River.

If we had more time: We’d have stayed at Bullara Station, a working cattle and sheep station situated about half-way between Coral Bay and Exmouth. They welcome campervans on site, or you can stay in their renovated Shearer’s lodge. They provide private 4WD tours of the station as well as the surrounding landscape. Sounds kinda fun.

Oh, the paper is slow:


The sign reads "Today's paper due 2pm" at the Exmouth newsagency


That's it for today! Check back here tomorrow for part 2 of our trip - our slow foodie meandering through the Margaret River Region...



8 comments:

  1. I soooo want to swim with whale sharks, its on my list! Great to hear about your trip, looking forward to part 2! xxx

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  2. Thanks Tash... you have to get yourself to them!

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  3. Awesome! Thanks for sharing this. I have now put diving with whale sharks on my bucket list. Looks awesome. Cheers, Jen

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  4. This all really makes me wish I lived in Australia and not Chicago! The whale sharks look wonderful, and here I had no idea they even existed. Mayhaps my next adventure with my partner will be a trip to the land down under. (Sorry, is that a horribly cliche American thing to say?)

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  5. You came all the way across to WA, got as far as exmouth and didn't go that wee bit further to karijini? ...that's a real shame, I suspect you'd have loved it...

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    1. Tell me about it, we just didn't have the time. But it's definitely on my list of places to go. Red earth... i love it!

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  6. Hi Maria,

    I just wanted to let you know that my partner, his son and I used this post as a template for our holiday up to NW Aus (we live in Perth). This included staying at Bullara Station (highly recommended!!) and swimming with whale sharks (and my partner proposed on the boat after the last swim!)

    Best. Holiday. Ever. Thank you so much for writing about your experience!! :)

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    1. Hi Zoe, oh wow, just saw this! Congratulations to you! (albeit belated). And I'm SO glad you enjoyed the region, it's so beautiful isn't it?! Yay!

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