I had a very strong desire to swim with the whale sharks as they migrated along the coast of Western Australia. Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend, as celebrated in Victoria, seemed like a really excellent time to do this. As I started looking into it, flights were super expensive to get all the way up to the very remote Exmouth, WA. As I started thinking about and researching this trip, I started to realize that I wanted to see more of Western Australia than just Exmouth. It’s quite expensive to fly into Perth, which is the most remote city in the world, so I started to think we should see as much of this vast Australian state as possible in one shot.
This would take more than a 3 day weekend.
So we took a week off and organized a road trip that started and ended in Perth. We had 8 (7 1/2 really) days, because naturally we could not leave until after my hair appointment on Saturday morning.
Day 1: Perth to Exmouth
We flew into Perth Saturday afternoon, collected our car and got a shitty night’s sleep at the Four Seasons in Perth’s CBD. The plan was that we’d start fresh and well rested on Sunday morning, but the walls in this hotel were paper thin and the people in the room next to us had a screaming child…
Regardless, Sunday morning we got up early and hit the road. Our goal for the day: Get to Exmouth as fast as possible. We had 1251km (780 miles) to travel, and we knew we wanted to arrive in Exmouth with enough time to have dinner in the hotel restaurant. According to Google Maps, there really didn’t appear to be anything else in this remote town. We hit the road just ahead of 7:00 AM and arrived in Exmouth approximately 13 hours later.
Early in the drive I saw my first kangaroo in the wild! I am no longer forced to believe them to be mythical creatures that exist alongside unicorns. We watched the sand change from gold to brown to red; we came across many road trains, which are massive and a little scary; we had to watch for cows, sheep, goats and kangaroos, which were in the road randomly and suddenly; we encountered one stretch of road which made us glad we’d stopped to top up on gas, snacks and use the restroom, because we did not see another car for 256km. Most importantly, we made amazing time without too much speeding.
Day 2: A whale shark eco-tour in Exmouth
Day 2 was an early start also, but luckily the Novotel Ningaloo Resort was much quieter and more comfortable than the Four Seasons in Perth. It was expensive, but the options in Exmouth are limited to campgrounds and backpacker’s accommodations, neither of which I “do.”
At 7:10 AM Danielle from Exmouth Diving Centre collected us from our hotel to embark on our whale shark adventure. We stopped briefly at the dive shop to sign our lives away and collect the other 8 people that would be joining us on our tour. We felt very fortunate to be with such a small group, as we looked at the other tour company boats with up to 40 people on them! To protect the whale sharks, Australian law only allows 10 people in the water at a time (along with one videographer and one tour group leader). Our group was the perfect size, because we could get in for every whale shark swim!
Our day consisted of a morning snorkel along the reef, then we headed out to sea to swim with the whale sharks and ended with an afternoon snorkel along the reef. I chose Exmouth Diving Centre for our tour, despite being slightly more expensive than some of the others, because they utilize a spotter plane to locate the whale sharks all day. They also offer a “good whale shark swim guarantee” which states that if you do not see a whale shark on your tour day, you can come back within 12 months and go back out for free. We certainly didn’t need to utilize the guarantee on our day out, as we had 5 whale shark swims with three separate whale sharks.
As you can see from our video of Swimming with the Whale Sharks, we saw a lot of native Ningaloo Reef sea life on this eco-tour. Along with the Whale Sharks, we also saw sting rays, manta rays, cow tail rays, minke whales, humpback whales, dolphins, a lion’s mane jelly fish and so much more! Even the Exmouth Diving crew kept saying, “BEST DAY EVER!” and they get to go out every day.
Yes I’m wearing a swimmer’s cap. Remember, I just had my hair done on Saturday morning?!?
The highlight of this tour was most definitely the whale sharks. Captain Shane, our fearless leader Danielle and the rest of the crew onboard our tour boat on 15 June went out of their way to ensure that this was a highlight of a lifetime!
By the time Danielle dropped us back at our hotel, we were exhausted!
Day 3: Exmouth to Coral Bay
Day 3 was an early one too, but that’s because we were exhausted from our whale shark swim on day 2 and were in bed by about 8pm. Before heading for Coral Bay, we decided to check out Exmouth a bit and pick up our Swimming with the Whale Sharks video from Exmouth Diving Centre. The beach near our hotel was beautiful! I wanted to collect the bits of coral washed up on the sand, but just keeping thinking of Hawaiian legend that says taking coral, lava rocks, sand, etc. is bad luck until returned to its native location. Needless to say, I left the coral behind, but I did collect a few strangely shaped shells for my living room vase.
After stopping by Exmouth Diving Centre’s Shop to pick up our video and finding out that poor Katia’s computer had crashed, we started on our 152km trek to Coral Bay. On our way we stopped off to check out the massive termite mounds that crowded the grassy fields along the road; most were taller than Ben! We arrived at the Ningaloo Reef Resort before lunch time, but were fortunate enough that they allowed us to check in early.
We quickly changed, prepared our snorkeling gear and headed for the reef. We stopped off to talk to the guy running the rental stand quickly to find out where the best snorkeling location is located. He told us to walk around the point (through the water) until we came to the “5” sign and then head straight out. He was right! This is where the best coral and fish were located! After about 90 minutes in the water, I was so cold that needed to get out of the water. We could have rented wet suits from the guy that gave us directions, but it seemed warm enough at the start….
Coral Bay is an extremely small town, so by the time we got out of the water it was too late for lunch. We went exploring the town to see if perhaps there was a bar that would serve us a bowl of chips (french fries, yo!), but there was literally nothing open! We explored the entire town, found a miniature grocery store for some snacks and headed back to our resort bar. We snacked and had a few beers until sunset, when we headed back for the beach.
Do you know why the west coast is the best coast? SUNSET, duh!
Day 4: Coral Bay to Monkey Mia
Day 4 was to be a lot of driving so that we could get to Monkey Mia; there would be frequent stops along the way, but this was the highlights tour. We worked from our Coral Coast guide and intuition to decide what to stop at. Basically if it looked cool from the road, sounded cool from the sign or description in our guide book we stopped. If we didn’t know what it was, we kept moving.
Not too far south of Coral Bay, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the weather started to deteriorate. As the sky filled in with clouds we came across a sign for “Blow Holes.” Though we had no idea what these would be or how far off the main road we were about to travel, we decided to check it out. The surf was huge, and as it hit the rocks it would send water spraying in the air, much as a whale’s blow hole would do. The larger the wave, the higher the spray would fly. The surface of the rocks was what I imagine the surface of the moon looks like.
While we admired the Indian Ocean along this rocky section of Western Australia Coast, the rain set in. First quite gently, and then harder until we rushed for the car. As we continued our journey south to Monkey Mia, all I could think is “Add a little water to the red desert and it quickly becomes the red lake.”
Shortly after crossing the 26th Parallel, which indicated that we were leaving the North West, we turned on to the Shark Bay Heritage Drive, which ends in Monkey Mia. The first stop along Shark Bay Heritage Drive was the Stromatolites of Hamelin Pool. I’m going to be honest, I had no idea what a Stromatolite was before learning about them along the boardwalk. I’ll give you the highlights: There are only 2 places in the world where stromatolites exist, and Hamelin Pool is the largest. They are basically living fossils; creepy little bacteria secrete a sticky gel that traps sediment and grows into these flat mats and pillars in this super saline shallow bay within Shark Bay. I liked them because they were kind of pretty.
The next stop on our journey was Shell Beach, which I had picked out of the Coral Coast Guide as something I definitely wanted to see. The guide booked talked about miniature shells piled 10 meters deep on this beach. The signs also indicated that the water is twice as salty as normal ocean water, so swim knowing that you’ll float better but come out very salty. I wanted souvenirs for my living room shell jar, but sign said “Please do not remove.”
As we continued along the Skark Bay Heritage Drive, there were a few places we wanted to stop, but the roads were closed due to flooding from the rain. When we saw the sign for Useless Loop, we had to stop. I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t get the words out, and then I realized Ben was laughing too and saying, “Did that sign just say Useless Loop?!” So we turned around and went back for the photo.
As the sun sunk lower in the sky, we began looking for a place to watch sunset. We figured that sunset would either be incredible or nonexistent, based on the rain we’d had that day. But we were on the west coast, which is the best coast, so we had to give it as hot. It was an OK sunset, but a beautiful location.
Day 5: Monkey Mia to Kalbarri
The whole point of taking the trip to Monkey Mia was to see the dolphins. I might have been more excited than the children at Monkey Mia to see the dolphins. We got up early (again! this was the vacation of early mornings!) so that we could have breakfast before we headed down to the beach. We weren’t 100% clear what to expect; the guides and brochures that I’d collected along the way said that the dolphin feeding occurred from 7:45 am – 12:45 pm. We weren’t sure if we’d be waiting ages, or if they dolphins would be waiting for their morning snack.
It turns out the dolphins know exactly when they will be fed. As we ate breakfast and the people began to congregate, the dolphins approached the shore. I started to get anxious because our breakfast was taking so long! What if we missed the dolphin feeding? What if the dolphins didn’t approach for another feeding? What if we couldn’t get close enough to see anything?
Alas my anxiety was unnecessary. The dolphins were as eager to be fed as the people were to feed them. The rangers make the dolphins wait to be fed for 20 minutes after the people enter the water. I had a front row seat (standing, really) shin deep in freezing cold water. Each dolphin can only be fed 3 fish at each feeding up to 3 times per day, but only between 8AM and 12PM. These regulations are in place because in the past people would come to Monkey Mia resort and buy buckets of fish to feed to the dolphins, who slowly forgot how to fish in the wild. To protect the dolphins and their super soft sensitive skin, people may not approach or touch the dolphins, but if the dolphins decide to approach or touch the people it is completely acceptable. I hoped and prayed to be approached and touched!
As the people and dolphins come together, so do the pelicans, who are bullies and will steal the dolphin’s snacks. Before the feeding could commence, the rangers had to convince Rose the Pelican to exit the water. They lured her away with a yellow bucket of fish, which she must’ve either finished or found unacceptable during the dolphin feeding because she flew back into the water and began to harass one of the poor volunteers! She again had to be lured out of the water.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t chosen to feed the dolphins. Maybe I looked too eager and excited, or maybe it’s completely random. The lady right next to me was chosen instead. Never mind, I still loved every minute of my dolphin feeding experience at Monkey Mia.
After my dolphin experience, we began our 400km drive to Kalbarri. Just outside of Monkey Mia we stopped at Little Lagoon, which is a perfectly round salt water lake. We thought about walking around it, but it had rained a lot over night and the shore was quite muddy and slimy! So we had a proper look and moved on.
Before we knew it, we were approaching the turnoff for Natures Window and Z Bend. We had no idea what Z Bend was, but knew from our Coral Coast Guide Book that we wanted to see Nature’s Window. We decided at the T in the road to take the Loop toward Nature’s Window first, because it was slow tough driving in our shitty little rental car (for Ben, lets be honest) along the muddy sand road in the rain. We weren’t sure at this point if Z Bend was in the cards for us based on road conditions.
Natures Window required a short hike and precarious climb, which was full of very persistent flies that kept landing on my bare arms and irritating me horribly. It was worth it, though; it was beautiful!
Based on the beauty at Natures Window, Ben decided to brave the muddy road and take us 13km in the other direction to Z Bend. Here we also had to hike through the mud, rain and irritating flies, but again it was completely worth it! Kalbarri is also known as WA’s Wildflower Country; the flowers were few and far between, but were quite pretty and very small.
From here we headed for the Kalbarri Coastal Bluffs nearer to the town of Kalbarri, stopping first at Red Bluff, where we decided that we needed to go to Red Bluff Beach to truly enjoy Red Bluff.
As we watched the rain move in at Red Bluff, we decided to come up with a game plan. I read the guide book and we chose our “must see” stops along the Kalbarri Coastal Bluff Drive and drove rather than hiked between locations because of the rain. Next stop would be Pot Alley, which is an ocean gorge that got its name because the fishing pots still wash up on shore here. The view overlooking the gorge was pretty, the rain was breaking and the sun was starting to shine, so we decided to hike into the gorge to the secluded beach below. It was worth it!
At this point, it was getting pretty late in the day. We decided we definitely wanted to see Natures Bridge and Island Rock, so we made a run for the end of Kalbarri Coastal Bluff Drive, and hoped that we’d get a spectacular sunset overlooking these two landmarks (ocean marks? they’re in the water). Since we were on the look out for desert wildflowers, we felt fortunate to spy a Murchison Rose at this stop. Just ahead of sunset the rain started to move in again, so we got a nice orange glow, but that was about it.
As we were driving away, I started Ben by yelling “KANGAROO!” and made him stop. I think this little guy is actually a wallaby, but I’ll never tire of seeing either in the wild. As we were driving into Kalbarri, a mob (i looked it up, its the correct term for a group) of kangaroos hopped across the road in front of us. We were too busy not hitting them and being awed to actually photograph this. Sometimes we must view life through our own eyes rather than the lens of a camera.
After we checked into our hotel, we walked out to a nearby restaurant called Restaurant Upstairs. As we were arriving, we were certain this was the place for us. There was a sign that said, “No High Chairs. No Kids Menu.” and on the door “No Strollers.” We love kids, but we don’t have any, so sometimes it’s nice to eat somewhere that is strongly implied as adults only. The food was excellent and very vegetarian accommodating, the service was excellent, we got a huge kick out of their way of saying no kids, please.
Day 6: Kalbarri to National Park
Since we’d been to a dolphin feeding in Monkey Mia, it seemed only right to start off day 6 by attending pelican feeding in Kalbarri. We weren’t quite sure where to go, as the map and guide book weren’t very clear, but the big sign that said “Pelicans Fed Daily ” seemed as good a place as any to start. We were among the first to arrive, but as we started to gather the pelicans also started to fly over from the sandbar where they were chilling.
There was a very young female (she still has brown feathers in the photos) who seemed eager to be fed by the ranger, but an older grumpy male kept squawking and trying to chase her away. The ranger kept scolding him and throwing fish over to her, which seemed to infuriate him even more!
A friend told me that the best time of day to see the Pinnacles Desert is at sunset, so as we left Kalbarri this was our game plan. The guide book pointed out some interesting sites along the way, so we headed south toward Port Gregory knowing that we wanted to see the Pink Lake. Naturally, I had to look up what causes the pink hue in this lake. For those of you who are curious, it’s created by a bacteria (dunaliella salina) that gets trapped in the salt.
We continued south until we were ready for a break, which is when I busted the guide book back out. We decided to stop at Grigson Lookout, which has an awesome view of the mobile sand dunes. Mobile sand dunes, you ask? Apparently they move across the land slowly killing off the vegetation. Who knew?
After Grigson Lookout, the guide promised that we would see seals sunning themselves on the sandy shores of Jurien Bay Marine Park, so we headed for the beach. It was a bit cool out though, and we did not see seals. The beach, however, was pristine white sand without a soul in site. All I could think is in America we would have ruined this with overpriced fancy houses and resorts.
We arrived at Pinnacles Desert in the late afternoon and partook of both the driving and walking tours of the desert. They kind of reminded me of the petrified forest, so we researched how they were formed. Although no one is really certain how the limestone formed in this desert, one of the leading theories is that they are preserved tree casts that have been exposed by erosion. This is the theory that I prefer, as my first thought was petrified forest. After we drove and hiked everywhere we were allowed to, we started looking for our sunset spot so that we could set up the Go Pro and camera before the magic happened.
Day 7: Pinnacles Desert to Fremantle via Swan Valley
We decided to spend most of Saturday in the Swan Valley sampling some of WA’s finest wines. We stopped at several large and small, the two standouts were Jane Brook Winery and Little River Winery & Cafe. We stopped at a couple of the larger wineries that are known for having great restaurants, such as Sandalford Winery both to have a wine tasting and to eat lunch. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get into the restaurants at any of these places. So we picked one out on the map that had no advertising in our guide but claimed to have a restaurant. When we arrived at Little River it was tiny and adorable. The staff was super friendly and happy to have us for lunch. Our meals were incredible and we had a free tasting of everything they were pouring that day while we waited.
Jane Brook was the other standout winery that we went to in the Swan Valley. The women working the tasting room were extremely friendly, helpful, and happy to have a chat. I’m sure my husband was grateful for someone else to have to small talk with me for a while. We had, after all, been in the car together for 7 days at this point.
Day 8: Fremantle & Perth
We spent our last night in Fremantle, and set about a walking tour of the area on Sunday morning before we flew back to Melbourne. Unfortunately it was freezing cold and poured down rain on us, so we ended up sitting in a Mexican restaurant drinking margaritas and enjoying the best Mexican we’ve had in Australia thus far. On our way to the airport, I remembered that someone told us the best view of Perth is from the botanical gardens so we took a quick detour and definitely found the best view of Perth.
After 8 days on the road staying in a different hotel every night and seeing as many sights as possible every day we were definitely ready to be heading back to Melbourne and back to reality. Western Australia is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I strongly encourage everyone to swim with the whale sharks. It was an incredible trip!
Ben said on the flight home, “I’m exhausted! I need a vacation after our vacation!” Our next trip will be all about relaxation. Fiji, get ready for the Grantrobuses!