NINGALOO COAST, Western Australia

Travelling the Western Australian outback by motorhome is undertaken knowing that there are long distances involved in driving by road between major towns. After we had finished our five days at Karijini National Park, we knew we were in for a long day’s drive from the Eco Retreat to beyond Exmouth to our next Caravan Park at Yardie Homestead. Our first destination was Paraburdoo which is a modern town that services the mining towns further north-west. It has an airport to where both workers and tourists fly in to head to Karijini or Tom Price. We stopped for coffee at the pleasant modern town centre but this was the last centre of civilization for the next 400 kilometres or more. The only stopping point on the road to Exmouth was the Nanutarra Roadhouse, 270 Km from Parabardoo and then another 277 Kms to Exmouth. The length of travel times is a necessary evil but I was surprised at how interesting the scenery was along the Nanutarra Murjina Road before we joined the North West Coastal Highway. The mesa below was was just one of the many gorgeous panoramas that we passed on our long day’s drive.

While Exmouth is the main town on the North-West Cape, it wasn’t our destination for the next three nights of our stay. Our drive was up the eastern coastline of the Cape, passing the airport at Learmonth that was a significant part of Australia’s defence during World War 2. From there we drove through Exmouth, around the tip of the Cape and back down the other side of the peninsula to Yardie Homestead Caravan Park, 32 Kms from Exmouth. The Homestead is perfectly positioned for those wishing to pursue the delights of the coastline of Cape Range National Park where the famous Ningaloo Reef stretches for 260 kilometres and is Australia’s largest fringing Coral Reef.

There was one curious sight between Exmouth and our caravan park which puzzled us greatly when it first came into view. It initially looked like a huge number of extremely tall aerials gathered in a circle, its purpose beyond us. It was in fact the U.S. Naval Communication Station named after the late Prime Minister of Australia, Harold E. Holt. Its purpose is to communicate with submerged submarines. The road down the coast took a swerve around the Communication Station and our drive took us another 15 minutes before arriving at Yardie Homestead Caravan Park.

The Yardie Homestead Caravan Park is a big place and it appeared to be full of travelers over the time we stayed there. All the usual facilities were available to us and we had no problems during our stay there. The shop on site was very useful and its also included a café outback for late afternoon coffee and cake. We of course forgot to pack our snorkeling gear and we were lucky the shop rented the equipment to use for our two days of exploring the edges of the Ningaloo Reef. The name of our caravan park was a reference to the original working sheep station that had begun back in 1889. It was resumed by the government in 1969 and much of the original Yardie Station lease became part of the Cape Range National Park.

Our first full day on the Ningaloo Coast started with a visit to the Milyering Discovery Centre. This is a ‘self-guided’ information centre of interpretive displays and audio-visuals on everything about the National Park and the Ningaloo Reef. The main usefulness for us was the information about the best spots for visiting along the coast and the tide times. We were told to start off at ‘Oyster Stacks’ to catch the high tide and then return to Turquoise Bay.

There are many places to snorkel along the Ningaloo Coast. If you are camped at Hardie Homestead, there are some significant drives each day to get to your destination. As the map on the coast to the right shows, Oyster Stacks is a significant drive down the often less than attractive road through the park. Other people choose to actually camp in the Cape Range National Park at places like Ned’s Camp or Mesa Camp. However, to get to the great spots a fair drive is often necessary.

Oyster Stacks is a different style of snorkelling site from the other beaches we visited over the two days. As can be seen by the diagram of ‘Oyster Stacks’ below (taken from ‘Ningaloo Coast Visitor Guide’), the entry into the water is across a rocky foreshore that is very hard on the feet. This site can only be snorkelled at high tide but is worth it as the rock stacks create an environment that attracts a lot of marine life. The geography of this place is also very different from other dive spots along this coast as the “Guide’ explains… “Oyster Stacks is unique with the lagoon being at one of the narrowest sections along the whole Ningaloo Coast. The outside reef is only 300m from the shore giving this area a concentration of corals and other marine life.”

From Oyster Stacks we drove back up the road to Turquoise Bay. This is a complex location having two beach areas meeting at a point as shown in the photograph to the left. There is a gap in the reef not far from the shore where the two beaches meet and as the diagram below illustrates, the water rushes out of the lagoon here, causing a current that runs along the ‘Drift Snorkel Area’. Snorkellers need to watch their movement along this beach and be ready to exit onto the sandy point. Folk who just want a day at the beach generally choose to stay on the northern side of the sandy point.

Turquoise Bay is not misnamed; it is a lovely beach area where the water is definitely turquoise. We enjoyed this spot so much we visited it again on our second day in the area. There are two car parks here and on both days we did the ‘drift loop’ a couple of times before enjoying the walk to the northern rocky end of the beach. The only annoyance about snorkeling at Turquoise Bay over the two days was caused by a natural phenomenon. For reasons unknown to us, there was a huge boom in the local red jelly-fish numbers and on the first day, the water was full of them and if you weren’t careful where you were snorkeling, you could get a nasty sting from the tentacles. By the time we left from our first visit, the declining tide was depositing the jelly fish on the beach as the photo below shows.

On our second day at Turquoise bay, nature had had its revenge on the red jelly-fish as when we arrived in the early afternoon, these short lived creatures were now dried up flat cakes scattered all along the beach.

Our next day of snorkeling along the Ningaloo Coast showed us taking the recommendation of the lady in the Yardie Creek office to start our day at ‘Lakeside’ which was not far from the Milyering Centre. It was an area of the coast that had some advantages and disadvantages. Apart from the great snorkeling, it also had the advantage of having a tidal inlet that provided a beautiful walk from the car park to the lagoon edge.

The disadvantage of Lakeside was that it was a long 500 metre walk to the start of the snorkeling area. The map below from the Visitors Guide shows the journey but doesn’t illustrate the long rocky sections adequately where ageing knees and feet have to rock-hop nervously along the water’s edge; it was a walk for the younger version of myself.

From Lakeside we drove for our longest distance from Yardie Homestead to visit Sandy Bay, well south of Oyster Stacks. Unlike Lakeside, there was no long walk to start our snorkelling. There wasn’t as much coral as at Lakeside but there was sufficient to be a very enjoyable swim. There were lots of large fish like the Parrot Fish. As we found back at Turquoise Bay later in the afternoon, the Red Jelly-Fish were beached in large numbers at the tidal line but they were now dried out flatbread.

While our main interest in visiting the Ningaloo Coastal area was for the snorkeling, many people come to the area for the walking in Cape Range National Park. On the way to Sandy Bay, we passed the turn off to Mandu Mandu Gorge. I would have loved to have turned off and gone for a walk in this gorge but it was a dirt road requiring a 4WD. This gorge is not well known in Australia as an archaeological site of significant interest but it should be. It is here that was found in soil levels dating to around 34,000 years before the present, 22 Cone shells that have holes made in their apex. They have other signs of being worn as a necklace. The Mandu Mandu necklace is one of the oldest pieces of jewellery found in the world, discovered in a rock shelter in this gorge. This piece can be found in the Western Australian Museum in Perth.

The next day we were due to leave Yardie Homestead and head down the coast to Coral Bay. As we were on the North-West Cape promontory, the quickest route to Coral Bay was by the direct road that hugged the coast all the way south. The problem for us was that it was a dirt road, as were the other roads heading out to the main highway through the Cape Range National Park. Our only route was back up through Exmouth and down Exmouth Road to Coral Bay. As we had to go back along Yardie Creek Road through Exmouth, this took us to the top of the peninsula before turning right, past the Harold Holt Communication Station. It is at this point there is a high promontory, Vlamingh Head, on which is built a lighthouse and I was keen to see it before we left the area. It was not only the lighthouse that was significant…around it was an information display area that told much of the history of the district as well as providing great views up and down the peninsula.

The earlier image of the large anchor down from the lighthouse is a good summary of the background that brought about the building of a lighthouse at this spot on the Western Australian Coastline. There is a sign on the road nearby pointing towards the site of the wreck of SS Mildura that went down in 1907 and the anchor now on display was taken from the wreck. One of the display signs near the lighthouse explains… “On March 8th, 1907, the SS Mildura left the Kimberley port of Wyndham loaded with cattle, bound for Freemantle. Four days later, confronting a looming cyclone, she struck the reef off the point of North-West Cape. Five of the crew and two passengers set out for Onslow in one of the ship’s boats – they, and the remainder of the party on board, were rescued by the SS Burrumbeet. The cattle were turned loose to swim to shore, less than a kilometre away but most drowned in the attempt…The timing of the event proved crucial in persuading the State Government to add North-West Cape to the list of priority locations for lighthouse construction.”

The rest of the displays at the site of the lighthouse talk about the importance of this spot during World War 2, being the site of a radar station and anti-aircraft positions.

The other focus of the Vlamingh Lighthouse area is to highlight the reasons behind the Ningaloo Coast region being declared a World Heritage area. The award was based on two criteria…

  • Superlative natural phenomena and exceptional natural beauty
  • Important and significant natural habitats for the conservation of biological diversity.

The award was based on the following features of the area,

  • The landscape
  • Cape Range
  • Cape Range Karst systems
  • Ningaloo Reef
  • Mega marine Life
  • Turtle Nesting

We were very pleased to have finished our visit to this coast with an inspection of the lighthouse area on North-West Cape before beginning our journey to our next stop on the Ningaloo Coast, Coral Bay.

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