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North Western Australia Trip (Kalbarri, Coral Bay, Cape Range, Ningaloo Reef, Shark Bay, Carnarvon, Pinnacles Desert)

Nov 13 – 21

Perth is the most remote capital city in the world and distances in Western Australia are long. This means that there aren’t many consistent bus services. Aside from Greyhound, which offers flexible bus passes all over Australia but only makes the Western Australia trip a few times a week. Western Xposure and Easyrider are tour buses specializing in Western Australia and offering hop on/hop off options for backpackers. They are good options if you can’t get a crew of people to make the trip…but they are expensive, they don’t run very frequently, and they only travel a set route (only stopping for the night at popular hostels and not allowing for cheap or free camping options).

Ningaloo Reef was pretty much why I came to Western Australia and I knew I had to get there somehow. If I couldn’t find friends to go with, I was going to just book a tour. But Couchsurfing people had been pretty amazing so far, so I put up a post on the Perth CS group just to see if anyone would be interested in making the long journey up the west coast. Luckily I got lots of replies and we managed to coordinate 3 cars to make the trip. This ended up being much cheaper and way more fun.

We all woke up early and piled into various cars to start our trip in North WA. Some of us were only going for a weekend trip and others were going for a bit longer.

Blair took me and his British friends, Sam and Jason. Daemond took Sebastian, a couchsurfer from Germany, and Shelley, a Louisiana girl who replied to his rideshare post on Gumtree. Renae took her 3 Dutch friends, Irene the cop, Marrit the nurse, and Marika, the physical therapist. Gabrielle and her sister met up with us later.

The first day, we made the long trip up to Kalbarri National Park. We made brief stops in Geraldton, Billabong, and Carnarvon, but it was basically one long, straight road through the desert for about 6 hours.

The sky was beautiful, which kept me amused during the car ride.

Despite all the warnings, we visited two coastal cliffs in Kalbarri.

This is Red Bluff.

And this is Pot Alley.

It was really windy (which made for some nice hair styles).

We took a small hike down to the water.

And we visited the beach.

Then we saw some river gorges.

And took a long, bumpy, sandy road.

The road let to Nature’s Window.

I found these guys there.

The other two cars decided to camp near Nature’s Window, but our car went to a free camping spot just outside the National Park. The campsite wasn’t anything special, but it was a full moon and we made some warm food (them: sausages; me: lentil curry).

We also saw a great sunset.

The next morning we woke up at 5am so we could get an early start. Once we hit the road, we realized we didn’t have enough gas to make it to the next place, so we had to drive back to the gas station in Kalbarri (which was many kilometers in the wrong direction). Luckily we made it without running out of gas. As soon as we started driving out of the park though, it was obvious that the kangaroos would be a problem. You could see lots of dead kangaroo bodies on the road from the night before and many more live ones in the bush surrounding the street. I had read that you should avoid driving at dusk because kangaroos are nocturnal and will be hopping all over the road at that time. But I didn’t realize that this same rule also applies to dawn (My driver obviously knew this, but unfortunately failed to mention it). Basically here’s the lesson I learned: Kangaroos are everywhere in Western Australia (especially the further north you go). If you have to drive at dawn or dusk, DRIVE SUPER SLOW and don’t be surprised if you follow all the precautions and still come close to hitting one. Also, once you see one hop across the road, watch out for his buddies who will almost always be following close behind.

Anyway, I was sitting in the front seat and struggling to stay awake. As soon as my eyes closed, I felt a loud thump. Blair had barely missed the mother kangaroo, but hit the baby instead (who hopped out just after her). He turned around the car to assess the damage and we found a baby kangaroo in the middle of the road with at least one of his arms broken and making some panicked, gasping noises. The mother was lurking on the side of the road to check on him. Heartbreaking.

Blair put the joey in my lap so we could take him to the ranger station. I held him in my lap during the long drive back into Kalbarri. The little guy was calm the entire ride, but as soon as the car stopped, he freaked out and started kicking and clawing. We managed to calm him down again until the ranger came. The problem is that many people in Australia consider kangaroos to be either food or pests, so I have no clue how people actually handle kangaroo injuries. The park ranger looked sympathetic and said he’d take care of it, but I don’t really know what that means.

The rest of the drive, I had disturbing dreams of hitting more kangaroos and I kept feeling imaginary thumps on the car and waking up abruptly. Then I started thinking of all the sad animals in the world and all the humans who either don’t think they feel pain or just don’t think their pain matters all that much. And I kept my sunglasses on so I could cry periodically. The large scratches on my leg and chest, that later turned into dark bruises, served as sad memories of the event. Maybe if we had actually run out of gas, we wouldn’t have hit him.

Anyway, on a more positive note…we made it to Coral Bay that day and the water was beautiful! I didn’t expect it to be so nice and clear.

A shallow sand bar stretched many meters out before dropping off into deeper water.

Without even thinking, we ran straight out and into the ocean.

It wasn’t until we were walking back to shore that I felt something squishy slide out from under my foot. When I looked over, I saw a decently sized sting ray, then another, then another gliding along the shallow parts. I was so happy none of us got stung! I made a mental note to look next time before charging out into the water. And every time I saw other people charge out into the water, I got panicky for them.

After swimming, Blair and the others convinced me to join them on a quad bike tour. I wasn’t all that amused by the idea, but they conned me into it when they said it was a turtle watching tour.

I was most interested in seeing the pretty scenery.

And photographing the wildlife.

Blair (my driver) was most interested in leaping off the sand dunes as fast as possible.

It turned out to be a good compromise, although sometimes I was a bit afraid I might fall off and die. All and all, with the kangaroos and the sting rays and the quad bikes, it was a very stressful day!

The next two days were spent doing nothing but swimming and reading on the beach. It was what I needed.

In the morning, I walked down the beach a bit until I found a little bay all to myself.

Later I bought a snorkel so I wouldn’t have to rent one and worry about having to return it at a certain time. The first time I went out, I was alone…so I didn’t venture out very far into the reef.

The next few times, I swam and snorkeled with some of the others. There’s definitely a sense of security when you’re with other people and you know someone is looking out for you.

It’s also just fun to point out all the cool things you see to each other.

Like a big cloud of fish.

And some pretty shells.

And big mounds of coral.

We camped at a caravan park in Coral Bay for three nights. It had a public kitchen and we made some nice group dinners (one night, curry; the other night, tacos).

Renae made us all pancakes for breakfast. She even made me my own special vegan one.

Our last night in Coral Bay together, we hurried down to the beach to see the sunset, but we missed it by about 10 minutes.

At least we got to watch the moon rise.

The next day, everyone else left Coral Bay to start the long trek back to Perth. Dae and I took his van further north to Exmouth, then along the west side of the peninsula to Cape Range National Park.

I’m really glad we made it there. While Coral Bay was great, it is only at the very southern end of the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park. It is also a very popular tourist area and not quite the remote, outdoor experience I was looking for. That night, instead of sleeping next to a grocery store in a caravan park I got to sleep in the middle of the woods with bright stars and the sounds of kangaroos and wallabys hopping all around me.

Also, the reef at Coral Bay was nice, but it wasn’t quite as vibrant and colorful as the places further up north. My high expectations of Ningaloo Reef were certainly met with the snorkeling spots at Turquoise Bay and the Oyster Stacks.

The nice part about Ningaloo Reef is that you can easily access it from the land (the dark water in back of my photos is the reef). The coolest part about Ningaloo Reef though is that it is quite undeveloped. A few years ago, the proposal of a resort development sparked much controversy and many people (most notably Tim Winton and the Save Ningaloo Campaign) rallied against it. In the end, the resort did not go through…but there is still a worry that commercial developments may find a way into the park – harming the wildlife and degrading the overall experience. For now though, it remains fairly untouched.

At Turquoise Bay, you can let the current push you along through the water, then get out and walk away from the dangerous part and start over again. Signs indicate where you shouldn’t swim.

I was really glad that Dae was as excited about snorkeling as I was. We spent the entire day in the water and only got out because we were freezing and couldn’t feel our legs anymore.

Since I didn’t have a proper snorkeling mask, I usually had to hold my nose so as not to swallow big gulps of salt water. I didn’t end up using the snorkel a lot of the time anyway because it was more fun to dive deep down and take pictures.

I saw massive chunks of colorful coral.

A snail.

A sea cucumber.

A thing that looked like a rose.

A pretty shell.

Some giant clams that closed once you swam over them.

Starfish – some with five legs, some with four.

And amazing, colorful fish.

Sometimes the fish traveled in big schools.

And sometimes they all ate dinner together.

I liked diving down under big coral chunks and seeing all the fish hiding underneath.

When we got back to the car, I looked in Daemond’s fishing book to see if I could identify any of them.

This one is called a Maori Humphead Wrasse.

On the beach, we saw weird bugs.

And green mud crabs.

We snorkeled all day until Daemond’s mask left a nice suction mark on his face.

And the coral left a few scrapes on my knee.

After a full day of snorkeling, we drove down to the bottom of Cape Range to hike around Yardie Creek.

We saw giant termite mounds.

And giant ants.

And lots of kangaroos and wallabys (wallabys are smaller than kangaroos and their fur is greyish rather than brown).

We walked to the beach to see the sunset.

The problem with waiting for the sunset was that we still needed to drive many kilometers back up to the north part of the park. And because it was now dark, all the wildlife was out.

We saw an echidna and I managed to take one blurry photo of it before my camera battery died.

We drove as slow as we possibly could because the nocturnal marsupials were out in full force and hopping all over the place. We could see large large families of them way out in the distance, then many more hanging out awkwardly near the edge of the road. I was in charge of spotting the kangaroos and pointing them out so Daemond could slam on his brakes in case they decided to change course and hop in his direction. But there were so many on each side that there was no point in counting and we just had to edge along as best we could, making note of the dark ditch on the left side that was probably full of kangaroos we couldn’t even see – kangaroos that could take one hop and be in the middle of the road before we even noticed. In the 30 minutes we were on the road, we probably saw about 200 kangaroos and at least 100 wallabies (each with a baby in its pocket.) No kidding. Sometimes the ones who looked least likely to get in our way turned out to be the most problematic. They would stand with their backs to the car, then suddenly flip around and hop out in front of us. The drive turned out to be so stressful and we were still nowhere near our target destination, so we decided to forget our previous plans and just camp at the next place we found. I wasn’t able to get a picture of the kangaroo craziness, but just imagine a large desert with kangaroos scattered all over the ground as far as your eyes can see.

The next morning we drove to the lighthouse and made some quick breakfast on the gas stove. Then we drove to Point Quabba and snorkeled some more. Sadly all my camera batteries were dead, so I didn’t get any photos of the chunky coral patterns, giant colorful clam shells, goannas sunbathing on rocks, large hawks eating roadkill, hoards of black cockatoos, giant craters full of salt deposits, and blowholes squirting out of holes in the rock.

After we had stuck our faces in the water and stared at fish long enough, we drove to Carnarvon to stop for the night.I had never heard many great things about Carnarvon, but I thought it was a really pretty town. We walked along the water and the train tracks just as it was getting dark.

Our campsite for the evening was at a fancy caravan park. There were quite a few to choose from, but we didn’t really care where we slept (as I just wanted to charge my camera batteries and Daemond wanted to charge his ipod). A caravan park nearby had a large billboard advertising itself as “The shadiest place in town.” I thought that was funny, but didn’t end up staying there.

We even got warm showers with curtains, fish painted on the doors, and cheesy love songs playing in the bathroom.

Carnarvon supplies 70% of Western Australia’s fruit and vegetables and there are stands all up and down the roads selling bags of fruits and veggies for really cheap! The next morning we stopped at some stands and stocked up on eggplants (called egg fruit), peppers, and tomatoes.

Our final destination was Monkey Mia, but we stopped to see the Stromatalites in Shark Bay along the way. You can click on the link to read more about them because it explains them better than I would be able to. It’s pretty interesting. They’re basically living fossils. When the water is still, you can even see their air bubbles.

Under the wooden walkway, I saw some baby birds.

We made it to Monkey Mia and I went on a self guided nature trail. The sky was blue, the dirt was red, and the sun was really hot!

It was nice to be on a hike all by myself because I could take all kinds of pictures and not feel pressured to hurry up. Being alone is sometimes really fun!

The 1-hour nature hike quickly turned into a 2-hour stroll because I had to stop every few minutes to look at something.

I spent some time following lizards around.

And watching zebra finches through a hideout.

And chasing grasshoppers.

And taking close up pictures of funny bugs.

When I got back to the campsite, I met Daemond at the beach. Sometimes it’s also fun not to be alone.

The sky that evening was crazy again.

While we were away, this bird walked all around Daeomond’s towel trying to snag some chips.

And we saw a tree full of Pink Cockatoos (Also known as Galahs).

This one is doing some funny yoga pose.

I’m pretty sure I saw a few manta rays leaping out of the water near the shore, but I can’t be sure. We definitely saw some dolphins playing out in the distance.

Once it got dark, Daemond and I went on the same nature walk I went on earlier. This time we saw new creatures. Like this beetle.

And lots of spiders. Their white stripes glowed in the dark and I could see them all over the ground.

And this guy, who I think is called a Knob-tailed Gecko. He was big – about the size of my hand!

And crabs.

The next day, I woke up early to see the dolphins, which are the major attraction at Monkey Mia. They visit the shore several times daily and DEC officers give them some snacks. They only give them a small amount of food (not nearly enough to live off) and they never feed the babies. This is to encourage them to continue hunting for their own food and not to rely on the humans too much. They also only feed the same four dolphins each day…but you can see that many more dolphins come to check out what is going on.

The dolphins can be distinguished from each other by the notches in their fins.

It was beautiful to see them so close up in the wild.

Here’s the baby one

But the place was very touristy and still felt a bit like Sea World. I think my best dolphin experience was seeing the ones the night before playing in the distance…but I am glad that I saw this too.

Giant pelicans also roamed around.

And they were also very very tame.

After all the dolphin stuff in the morning, we headed out to explore other places in Shark Bay.

We stopped a place called Little Lagoon.

And we passed many signs on the drive.

Then we stopped at a lookout point called Eagle Bluff.

All the dark stuff in the water is seagrass. Shark Bay is listed as a World Heritage Site, in part because of its large amounts of seagrass, which serves as a major source of food for its dugong population. Actually, Shark Bay meets all four of the natural criteria for a World Heritage listing.

I stopped to use the bathroom under this walkway and decided that this is the most scenic toilet I’ve ever been in.

As soon as we got in the car and started driving, we saw a whole troop of Emu babies with their father. The fun just really never seemed to stop.

After a long drive, we saw a sign for Yummy Stonefruit. Not knowing what stonefruit was, we were intrigued and decided it was worth the 3 km detour.

We ended up at a large warehouse full of people sorting fruit. I told the woman I had never had stonefruit before. She said “Here – try an apricot. And try this nectarine.” I tried them and they were good, but I’d obviously had those before and was wondering why she wasn’t offering the stonefruit, which was what I really wanted to try. Deaemond finally said “Well what about this stonefruit?” The woman said “That’s what you’re eating. It has a pit in the middle. It’s stonefruit.” She gave us a very odd look, as did the rest of the fruit sorters, and we just felt dumb. I got the impression that she thought we were both stoned.

But we ended up buying big bags of stonefruit – one of each kind. We popped them in our mouths as we drove.

Our camping destination for the last night of our trip was in Dongara.

Daemond had a Free Camping in WA book and we followed the directions to a site that sounded nice. The directions led us down a narrow dirt path that ran along the Indian Ocean, past some fishing huts, and to a nice grassy patch under some trees.

We talked to the lobster fisherman who owns this boat and he said the scarecrow is wearing his friend’s wife’s nightgown. He also said that the scarecrow isn’t scary enough and he needs to make a scarier one. I think this one is pretty scary.

This is another reason why I’m so happy I chose Western Australia – the fact that you can have giant chunks of land and large stretches of beach entirely to yourself. The beach next to our campsite was lined with seaweed that felt like layers and layers of thin strands of paper mache. I walked on it for a while, but my feet sunk deep into it like I might fall through.

After we set up the campsite, we walked past the fisherman’s huts and up the hill to see the sunset.

Of course I found some bugs to photograph.

And it was really windy again!

The sunset was beautiful.

And that night we made a campfire.

On the drive back to Perth, we stopped at the Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park. It was a little out of the way and Daemond had been there before, so he wasn’t all that thrilled about making the stop. But we were making good time and there wasn’t much else interesing to see along the way, so we went. My camera battery was dead again, but I convinced the woman at the gift shop to charge it for me and I walked slowly around the visitor’s center until I had enough battery power for at least a few photos.

Some notes:

  • Peron Peninsula (where Shark Bay and Monkey Mia are), is the subject of Project Eden, Australia’s largest wildlife sanctuary. When European settlers arrived, they introduced feral cats, foxes, goats, and rabbits – all of which devastated the native plants and animals, bringing many of the small marsupials to near extinction. As part of Project Eden, an electric, rabbit proof fence surrounds the peninsula to keep out nonnative intruders. And poisoned meat is scattered around to kill off the ones remaining inside. Because of an aggresive breeding program, many of the small native animals are now increasing in numbers and can be seen within the park.

  • For more info on Cane Toads, watch this documentary. It’s great.

  • Flies are everywhere in Western Australia. From the moment you step out of your tent, they are in your eyes, on your face, and hitching rides on your jacket.

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