And so we had passed through the Pilbara… for now!
From ore to awe, this coast has it all… beautiful beaches, coral reefs, deep gorges and incredible sunsets where the rustic red and the beautiful blue of the Indian Ocean flood the landscape! The coastal region of northern Western Australia was truly remarkable.
Our next stop was a 24-hour free camp by the river, a bit under 2-hours south of Karratha. The Robe River Rest Area, or should I say the ‘red dust’ bowl, was just off the main highway beside a bridge.
Given the remoteness and distance between towns on this highway we had planned our stops and the Welcome Rest Stops were a welcome relief as we navigated our way south.
It had been a long day after checking out the sites of Onslow and we were exhausted when we pulled in… but we weren’t the only ones tired from a long drive, it was certainly a very popular overnight stay with lots of other vans, motorhomes and campers with the same idea as us!
Surrounded by vans and red dust, Barb and Nev had already set up camp under a few trees and at the expense of red feet we eventually found a spot and tucked ourselves in on the bitumen section just behind the shelter and seating area right opposite the amenities… but we certainly paid for the comfort of avoiding the dust bowl as with the slight breeze we were treated to an unwelcome smell hanging around our campsite for the best part of our stay!
We had camped at Robe River on a previous trip when the river was full of water and we could fish off the banks… but this time it was a different story! There was only a pool of water in an otherwise dry river where dozens of birds still congregated. Corellas screeched loudly from the trees, and in the tall reeds, finches, ducks and other water creatures found a safe haven from the circling kites!
There were fire pits, a few benches and some undercover areas, a couple of pump action toilets and dump points and lots of bins and compared to our previous stay here, it was a lot flasher now, than it was back then!
We watched as 2 monster trucks carrying huge mine buildings slowly approach the bridge, lined up then carefully crossed taking up the entire width of the road. The amount of heavy traffic on this highway was incredible!
Travelling on the next day we set our sights on Barradale Rest Area, another transit leg as we made our way towards the coast.
Between rest areas we crossed the Ashburton River. This river had just a bit more water than Robe River and was well worth a walk to stretch our legs and grab a photo… and still whistling kites circled us.
Further along the road we came to Nanutarra Roadhouse where we pulled in for fuel before continuing on. We had heard Nanutarra was famous for its high prices but we paid $1.58/litre for fuel, which we thought was pretty reasonable for this remote area.
Just past the Nanutarra Roadhouse we passed a big yellow caution sign that read ‘RFDS emergency airstrip’ (Royal Flying Doctor Service), then as we drove a bit further on we came to a slightly wider section of flat straight road with runway markings on it… but thankfully not a plane in sight!
There didn’t appear to be a lot of other travellers heading south as we followed a landscape dotted with odd shaped hills and rocky outcrops in the middle of the huge arid plains – some like large boulders and others just small mounds.
An array of wildflowers still decorated the sides of the road with their bursts of colour easily visible in the red earth…
and of course we couldn’t miss the eye-catching steel structures of another ‘Welcome Rest Stop‘ up ahead that offered an open welcome to those who travel the highway!
These striking steel canopies that were designed by Pilbara artists, cast interesting shadows across the dry earth… shadows by day and shadows by night as the solar powered lighting played through them even after dark.
They celebrate Indigenous culture, echoing the round waterholes where the Pilbara’s Indigenous people have come to shelter for thousands of years and each acknowledges the traditional owners with a ‘Welcome to our Country’ in the local language group, along with a map of the language groups found throughout the area.
This roadside stop, originally the site of an old road house, sat on the banks of the very dry Yannarie River and had a large river side camping area with toilets, dump points, shelters and bbqs and free Wi-Fi (thanks to the Pilbara District Council), and with no towns close by, only the Nanutarra Roadhouse 70-kilometres back up the road, it was the ideal place to set up camp – but again everyone had the same idea as us… it was caravan and camper trailer heaven!
We estimated there were at least 30 vans and camper trailers all crammed along the riverbank amongst the scattered trees. We later found out it was because the caravan parks at Exmouth and Coral Bay were full and they were either waiting for a spot in one of those or at Ningaloo Marine Park in Cape Range National Park.
Thankfully Barb and Nev had saved us a nice spot just behind their van, amongst rocks and near picnic tables under a couple of lovely shady river gums that were a haven for small birds… and obviously a good hiding place from the whistling kites that were ever circling us – too difficult to photograph!
There were plenty of birds and a few resident cows wandering around but there was only a small amount of water in river, just one big ‘puddle’… and to our surprise, even a couple of pelicans vying for space in what water remained!
In fact it was much the same as Robe River, not a lot of water, lots of birds, lots of dry ‘red dust’ everywhere and lots of trucks in the night… which didn’t bother us or our friends and we ended up staying 2 nights.
Getting together with Barb and Nev for a few drinks at ‘happy hour’ was normal practice for the 4 of us of late! They were good company but we were parting ways after this camp and we wouldn’t see them again until Ningaloo.
We were hoping to book in to Ningaloo before heading to Coral Bay but as bookings were now on line, and not at the Visitor Information Centre at Exmouth where we booked last trip (and it was WA school holidays), it was a bit more difficult than we anticipated to get in. Osprey (where we had previously camped), was totally booked out and the only campsite we could secure was ‘Neds Campground’ ($6.60 per person a night)… but not for another 4 days – so after a great couple of nights of free camping on the banks of the Yannarie River we farewelled Barb and Nev and headed to Coral Bay where we had booked 3 nights at the ‘People’s Park’.
As we travelled Cape York to the Top End and across to Broome we were continually watching for stray cattle, wild horses and camels on the road (dead or alive) and now as we travelled in a very similar harsh environment of not many trees and very low lying scrub we were continually on the watch for kangaroos, lizards, sheep and emus…and emus it was, when five dashed out from the side of the road and were nearly cleaned up by a 4WD in front of us. Pays to remember on these roads not to drive too fast and keep your eyes peeled for the odd cow or emu or two – hitting one can really mess up your holiday… and your bank balance!
The southern gateway to Ningaloo Reef, Coral Bay is a collection of reefs that lie close to shore starting in the south near the Tropic of Capricorn and ending further north at the tip of Northwest Cape near Exmouth, and although not a national park it is still in the Ningaloo Marine Park, which is its main attraction!
I can remember clearly my first glance at Coral Bay a few years back. We had heard so many comments about this little town on the ‘Coral Coast’, some good and some bad… but for us it didn’t disappoint, we’d been here before and we loved the beach, the water and the slow pace of life!
Near the southern end of Ningaloo Marine Park this little tourist village comprises a handful of shops, a small shopping complex, 2 caravan parks, a backpackers hostel, a pub with accommodation, 2 restaurants attached to the caravan parks, a general store and a service station and a couple of companies that run tours; diving, snorkelling, whale and whale shark tours… and is so self sufficient it even generates it’s own power, desalinates the water supply and disposes of all its rubbish.
The waters here are a snorkellers paradise making for some great underwater photography. The coral reef is so close to shore we could step off the beach with our snorkel and goggles in hand and be in a marine heaven amongst the most colourful fish and corals straight away.
We snorkelled over the underwater gardens trying hard not to touch the huge cabbage coral, lavender corals and delicate colourful branching corals that constantly changed colours to bright blues and yellows. Their tips looked like little twinkling fairy lights, becoming more vibrant the further we ventured into deeper water.
There were so many beautiful fish, so colourful and bright, some burrowing in the ocean floor causing clouds of sand to form as they searched for food and my favourite were the little electric blue fish outlined with the same iridescent blues of the corals. Travelling in large groups it was like they were forming a backdrop for the next scene of ‘Finding Nemo’.
Golden Trevally were in abundance, most well over forty centimetres long and certainly not timid. They swam so close at times that we could almost touch them – it was as if they knew it was a marine park and they were safe.
We were mesmerized as we became lost in this world of wonder. Just being in their habitat watching the parade of colourful tropical fish as we swam in and out of the coral, almost at our fingertips and so comfortable with us in their home.
We explored the inner reef and all its wonders and immersed ourselves in this underwater beauty even though the water was a bit cooler as we travelled south. We swam for long periods at a time, quite a way from shore, against a current most of the time, and at times without flippers making for a really good workout.
As we left the water, exhausted from all the snorkelling we were again amazed at the friendliness of the golden trevally as they came right up onto the sand and weaved in between our legs in the shallow water, obviously waiting to be fed, something that is done on a daily basis off the beach here at Coral Bay.
Our walks along the beach each day were a welcome relief to stretch our legs and warm up after snorkelling with one walk particularly entertaining when we both came to grief after encountering some very slippery rocks as we rock hopped along the coast.
It shouldn’t be funny when someone falls, but it almost always is (that is as long as they’re not hurt), and it was pretty amusing watching Guy slip with a quick skip and a jump and then he was flat on his bottom… but it pays to have a really good sense of humour, especially when the laugh is on you, and it was even more hilarious when I inevitably went head over heals too – and even more entertaining for the kayakers paddling along the edge! We eventually came across a sign that said ‘Caution Slippery Rocks’…but it was a bit late for us!
Coral Bay was so beautiful and one of our favourite stops. We loved exploring the sand dunes and snorkelling just off the beach and we met some lovely people at the Peoples Park Caravan Park… welcome to our blog Cheryl and Graham from WA.
On our last trip to Western Australia we had continued south. Just 50-kilometres south along the road from Coral Bay is a sign marking the ‘Tropic of Capricorn’, but we had no intentions of leaving the warm climate just yet, we had become accustomed to it… after Cape Range National Park we were heading inland to the beautiful Karijini National Park then south through the ‘Golden Outback‘ to Laverton (we would cross the imaginary line somewhere along this highway), then east across the Great Central Road to Uluru. Coming soon – ‘The road south of Coral Bay’!
As we headed north towards Exmouth we were surrounded by a dry, barren landscape and lots of termite mounds and even though we were continually on watch for the odd stray sheep (there were plenty grazing beside the unfenced road), instead we almost contributed to the road kill when an emu walked out in front of us like it owned the place and we narrowly missed it thanks to some expert driving!
It was an interesting little town that didn’t exist until 1967 when it was originally constructed as a support town for the Naval Communications Station. Today it is the proud owner of a ‘Big’ Prawn and a ‘Big’ Fish, more Australian ‘Big Things’, and a busy tourist base for travellers eager to experience the Cape Range National Park, an area blessed with a fantastic dry and warm climate all year round, no wet season and home to the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park.
We arrived mid afternoon and the weather as usual, was a sunny, pleasant 29 degrees with not a cloud in the sky.
This little town was a sight to behold. Not only were there emus walking casually up the main road but it was a buzz with tourists, all obviously heading to the same place we were heading, Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef Marine Park… there were campers and vans everywhere, all with so much gear – bikes, boats, canoes, surfboards, you name it they had it (even the kitchen sink), all crammed into their large ‘utes’ and camping trailers… but what was most noticeable along this coast was almost everyone was in shorts and t-shirts and hardly anyone wore shoes, even in the shops – if they didn’t wear the ever popular ‘thongs’ we all wear in Australia (flip flops to some), it was bare feet – and we chuckled to ourselves as we read a sign outside the pub saying ‘no thongs’!
After purchasing enough non-perishable groceries at the supermarket to last us 5 days, a couple of fishing jigs from the Exmouth Tackle and Camping Shop (the man behind the counter guaranteed us we would catch us a fish – but we are yet to happen), and filling up with drinking water at the community tap near the Tourist Information Centre, we headed for the national park, 40-kilometres from Exmouth and our camp – Neds Campground.
Cape Range National Park borders the Ningaloo Marine Park that stretches for 250-kilometres along the coast and again we could literally wade straight into the water and see colourful fish and coral at our feet!
Last time we had visited here, campsites were pretty hard to get in to even then, and it was a first come first served basis – a matter of lining up at the parks entry office very early each morning with the hope of securing a spot as someone left… and if we couldn’t get a spot it was back to Yardie Homestead Caravan Park, just a short distance from the rangers station, to wait to see what the next day would bring! Now, all bookings are made on line so we knew where we were heading and there was no need to line up and no need to wait for someone to leave!
Entering the park was a breeze this time and as we drove into our allocated spot we were greeted with a couple of caravans, tents and a few uninhabited sites with only a table and chairs to be seen, which when you’re travelling, is a given that the space is taken. There were only a couple of spots spare and one was definitely ours.
Last trip our allocated spot was taken when we arrived probably because of the system, but most likely because the Rangers were off fighting the fires burning down the coast and people were driving in and setting up camp without actually paying.
That trip we spent our first night at the overflow campsite on an exposed patch of dirt with not another sole insight – as we waited for an available spot at Osprey Bay. We spent 6 nights at Osprey on the edge of sandstone overlooking the pristine turquoise waters and the crashing waves on the reef. It was a beautiful spot and a small gap in the sandstone below our campsite made a protected area where we spent the afternoons fishing and relaxing and of an evening we would come together with other campers for 5 o’clock hour and spend many hours laughing and chatting while we played a great game we named ‘Last Man Standing’.
Last Man Standing Instructions:
- Sitting in a circle, each person starts with 80-cents (x4 20-cent pieces – could use button etc)
- 4 blank dice – each dice is then marked with 2 R’s (right), 2 L’s (left), 1 C (cup) and 1 K (keep)
- Each person throws the dice according to the number of 20-cent pieces in their hand (x3 20-cents pieces = 3 dice) and distributes their money accordingly. If you run out of money you may pick it up on the next round or even the one after.
- Continue around the circle until everyone runs out of money, except one person.
- The last person has to roll the dice and get a ‘Keep’ or a ‘Cup’ to win.
- If they roll a ‘Left’ or a ‘Right’ they have to pass the money on until someone else gets a ‘Keep’ or a ‘Cup’
- Winner takes all
All the campsites at Osprey Bay Campground were booked out this visit, but as it turned out Osprey had recently been upgraded and although it is a beautiful campground, it was just a bit crowded for us so we were quite happy with our secluded spot at Neds – only 100-metres from the amazing turquoise ocean.
Ningaloo Reef is one of the world’s largest coral fringing reefs and although smaller and not as well known as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Ningaloo is much closer to the shore and offers much the same attraction for snorkelling… and best of all you don’t have to use a boat to get to the wonders of this spectacular world.
The beaches along this reef are simply stunning… just begging us to jump in – and that’s exactly what we did over the next week. We snorkelled most points of the reef, at times quite a few metres off the shore. We swam with turtles, stingrays, lion fish, black and white tip reef sharks, and schools of Australian salmon and golden trevally.
At Turquoise Bay we snorkelled the ‘Drift Loop’ letting the current carry us over the colourful coral bombies until we got to the sandbar and then we would walk back along the beach to do it all over again.
We found plenty of bombies where friendly parrot fish and some not so friendly angel fish (one nipped Guy on the back of the hand and drew blood) could be found and we came across a grouper whose head was at least as big as my own!
Ningaloo is home to the most incredible marine life including turtles and sharks, which are some of the most iconic and ancient forms of marine life in the world and we were lucky enough to spend 3 days of our stay helping the CSIRO with tagging and testing the turtles… this had to be the most amazing experience!
We were also lucky enough to catch sightings of Humpback Whales and we watched in awe as they slapped their great tales and swam beyond the reef making their way south. These magnificent creatures are the 5th largest of the great whales.
By day if we weren’t helping with the turtles, snorkelling or relaxing with our books, we would ride our bikes kilometres along the gravel roads or to Barb and Nev in the campground opposite, for a cuppa or a wine!
We attempted to fish off the rocks but to no avail with the only catch we hooked in 5 days… my Apple watch that fell off my wrist and down the long drop loo!
We rode to Yardie Creek Gorge passing the ruins of an old homestead with the only evidence of the homestead and outbuilding, the remains of an old water tank, and outline of a garden patch and a very deep well.
We hid our bikes in the bushes and scrub bashed into the gorge following roo tracks then along a more defined track that offered views over a spectacular gorge of ochre red rocks of limestone with interesting sections of black and white that gave an unusual appearance to the rocks. This gorge, had the only permanent water supply, which was salt water fed from the ocean.
Along the ledges we searched for the black-footed rock wallabies as they jumped from rock to rock on the cliff face. They were absolutely gorgeous with their black faces and feet, chocolate brown fluffy tails and the black stripes down their arms that just looked like they were wearing a jumper.
The bird life was amazing too; we spotted two white corellas, oblivious to our presence as they perched on a ledge above us, Western Bower Birds and colourful Australian Ring Neck Port Lincoln Parrots in full flight.
Wildlife was in abundance; we met some very inquisitive emus and cockatoos who wanted to shared the only bore water tap in the area with us, and in the bush adjacent to our campsite we spotted scores of kangaroos feeding in the waning light and sipping from our water buckets (that we used to wash the sand off our feet), at night!
A monitor wandering through the low lying scrub next to the dunes half scared the life out of me! I thought it was a small crocodile waddling past in the sand but in actual fact it was a rather large goanna, a whole 1.5-metres of it.
At Mandu Mandu Gorge we walked up the riverbed into another amazing gorge with colourful red rock cliffs towering both side and again home to the Black Footed Rock Wallaby.
We called in at Bloodwood Creek, a very rocky, coral shoreline with no beach but we had a great view of the whales passing through and were amazed at the holes the kangaroos had dug in the creek in search of water. The holes would have to be 300-millimetres deep and about a metre in diameter.
We walked the beach and one morning we watched a small 1½ metre reef shark followed us along a deep gutter; so close we could reach out and touch it! Apparently they often come in for a little dentistry and swim around with an open mouth ready to have their teeth cleaned by very small fish who live in the coral… then they move back out to deeper waters. We were told they have no interest in anything but to have their teeth cleaned but I think this shark had one eye on us as it followed us for 2 or 3 hundred metres along the beach… just hoping we would poke a toe in the water!
The nights were clear and peaceful. No rowdy neighbours, no generators running – just a sky full of stars.
Our evenings were spent star gazing where we picked out the constellations, saw falling stars and watched satellites making their way across a sky that was so much clearer and appeared so much bigger than anywhere else, then we were lulled to sleep by the sound of small waves lapping the shore, only to wake to a beautiful sunrise that lit up the sky for another day.
A trip to Vlamingh Point Lighthouse to see the sunset was also well worth a trip.
Sunsets are a sight I never tire of watching especially looking out over thousands of kilometres of ocean, and quite a crowd had gathered to watch this sun set over the Indian Ocean.
As dark began to take hold not only were we privy to a beautiful sunset we could also see the flames from the offshore oil and gas rigs off the coast! Apparently there are quite a few floating off these shores.
This lighthouse and Point Cloates Lighthouse (an abandoned tower that stands starkly on a sand hill ridge nearby) were built in 1911 and 1912 respectively, following the wreck of the SS Mildura in a storm in 1907. No lives were lost but 481 bullocks perished.
During the day this wreck can still be seen resting on the coastline. After its timber and steel decking material had been salvaged to help build the homestead at Ningaloo, the hull of the vessel was used for target practice by the air force during World War II.
This structure was wrecked by a cyclone in 1945 and was replaced by the United States Naval Communications Station, Harold E Holt in the 1960s (named after an Australian Prime Minister).
This was the world’s largest very low frequency transmitter with the tallest two structures 387-metres high. 12 other towers 304-metres tall surround them, making them some of the tallest man made structures in the Southern Hemisphere, and covering a distance of 2.7-kilometres.
As a result, the US military built their own township right here on Aussie soil… a little America complete with a water tower that never worked, a ten pin bowling alley, a Texas Bar & Grill, a swimming pool, a floodlit baseball park and all the necessary accommodation quarters. Everything was done in full American style including driving on the right hand side of the road as all their vehicles were imported from the USA!
The Communications Station was given back to Australia in the 1990’s, and the Americans just walked away leaving everything but as Australia was only interested in the station, a small staff was all that was required, so the rest has been left to Mother Nature and is now a ghost town!
Th Western Australian coast can be pretty windy towards the end of the year and we had learned from experience that everything needs to be tied down when the winds pick up here. Needless to say both times we had camped at Ningaloo, towards the end of our stay, we struck some pretty strong on-shore winds – but lucky for us, this time we were sheltered behind a dune so there was no chance of being sandblasted and our rooftop tent and awning stood up to the blow remarkably well… unlike last trip when our tent took a real beating or this time when the campers next to us had their tent blown down and others, the awning blown off their camper!
Finally it was time to leave Ningaloo – a little bit more sandy and sun-kissed and a little bit more relaxed. It was also time to say goodbye to Barb and Nev as they were heading south! Thank you Barb and Nev for a wonderful couple of weeks and hopefully we will meet up again on another adventure!
Our visit to Cape Range National Park definitely lived up to our high expectations so if your heading this way definitely don’t miss visiting… but remember, book early, it’s a very busy place!
Our week at Ningaloo also coincided with Louise and Jeremy, our friends from New Zealand visiting Exmouth (we met them at Cape York a few months back) – so from Ningaloo we were headed into Exmouth to catch up with them.
Each time we met up with these guys their faces would be beaming and their talk was about how much fun and adventure they were having on their motorbikes and house sitting, but this time they were excited about swimming with the Whale Sharks. They were particularly lucky to swim with the Whale Sharks at the end of September, well after the usual end to the season!
This magical part of Australia is host to the gentle giants of the ocean, Whale Sharks. Tourists from around the world visit these parts to swim with them, as it is one of the few places where they come close to shore.
We ended up spending the night camped next to them at Exmouth-Ningaloo Caravan Park where we spent some fun-filled hours reliving great memories of Cape York – and our reunion with our travel mates was like no time had passed at all since we had last seen them.
It was a bit sad when we said our farewells the next day but each of us had another adventure down the road and I have no doubt we will always stay in touch regardless of the distance between us!
Another pack up, another long day on the road and another set up!
Our pack ups were so much quicker these days but it had only taken us 7 months of practising this routine, which we now had down pat having completed the task so many times over the past months. Everything had a place in Harry Hilux and the rooftop tent only took a few minutes to put up or pull down.
If you’ve never heard of Karijini you soon will once you start working your way up or down the coast of Western Australia! People as far away as Cape York were asking; ‘are you going to Karijini?’… and it didn’t take us long to work out it was a place not to be missed… so fill your life with adventure… pack the car, grab a map – come back to the Pilbara then travel the ‘Golden Outback‘ of Western Australia with us!
Enjoy the road trip and explore! This truly is a special, sacred country!