Zipping down the coast on a quadbike, with nothing or no one to look at apart from the rippling waves of the Indian Ocean on my left, I was riding down the beach ready for an experience I have not come close to recapturing 12 years since. I was driving down the pristine golden sands of the Coral Coast, Western Australia (WA), miles away from anywhere. It was my first time on a quadbike. I could smell the petrol burning in the summer heat as I bumped up and down on various dunes as I headed to snorkel in coastal alcoves on the fascinating Ningaloo Reef. ‘There’s only one reef you want to go to in Australia,’ so I was told. I subsequently visited the more famous one in Queensland – spectacular as it was, it was nowhere near as amazing as the sights I saw this balmy December day in 2002. Those who say the Great Barrier Reef is the only place to go in Australia are very badly informed.
Our guide led a line of my two travel buddies and I along the beautiful, jaw-dropping coast of this most untouched and isolated part of the world. The drive was simply stunning but the main part of this unforgettable trip was to snorkel in small little bays along the coast. I was as new to snorkelling as I was to quadbiking, although I did try it previously for a few seconds on Queensland’s Moreton Island, before waddling out of the water like a scared penguin after seeing a jellyfish float just past my goggles! Back to WA, our first stop was a rocky inlet. We turned off our bikes and put on our kit and headed to the pristine, clear blue water. The sea was lukewarm but we were advised to put a shirt on so the blazing sun wouldn’t scorch our backs. I got taught the basics of snorkelling and after a few swallows of salty water, I drifted out. The water was crystal clear. You could see everything: rocks, coral, a kaleidoscope of colours and thousands of fish. We went to another two coves before driving to the aptly named Turquoise Bay and did the same, seeing turtles, baby sharks and every colour in the spectrum under the water. I think from that point on, everything else which I see on my travels, I use this as a yardstick to judge it by.
Stretching from Cervantes, 200 miles north of Perth, up to Exmouth 650 further miles north, the Coral Coast is one of Australia’s lesser-known destinations when compared to Sydney, Ayres Rock, Melbourne and the Barrier Reef. The reef itself is based just off the Cape Range National Park. The Ningaloo is a fringing reef, meaning it runs along the shore unlike the Barrier Reef, which is a two-hour board ride from the Queensland coast. The reef itself isn’t affected by coral bleaching due to the warm sub-tropical temperatures and sits in the Leeuwin Current, a warm flow of water that stretches down the coast of WA and encourages the growth of coral.
The Ningaloo is one of Australia’s most sustainable areas and has been voted a World Heritage site. WA residents were up in arms in 2011 when oil behemoths Shell were granted drilling permission 50 miles from the reef, but still, environmentally, the Ningaloo is one of the most important places on Earth. “There are a number of programmes in place focusing on the sustainable development of the Ningaloo coast,” says David O’Malley, CEO at the Coral Coast tourism organisation. “The southern section of the coast is largely pastoral land leading up the Cape Range National Park in the northern section. Development can only be eco-lodge or camping – so no significant accommodation developments are allowed on the reef.
“The Department of Parks and Wildlife manage the animal interaction experiences with very strict and sustainable criteria in place. There are for example only 14 whale shark licenses available to restrict the number of interaction vessels. Each passenger pays, as part of the tour cost, a fee that goes towards whale shark conservation. Each whale shark operator also must provide images of the whale sharks for research and monitoring purposes. There are very strict guidelines in place for the actual swim also in order to protect the whale shark.”
Getting to the reef is accessible via a flight to Learmonth airport near Exmouth from Perth, but to experience the best of the area, it is recommended driving up from the state capital or joining a group tour like I did, and seeing some of the amazing sights along the way. Highlights include the Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park, the limestone reef at the Jurien Marine Park, the famous fishing town of Geraldton, the stunning Kalbarri National Park and Shark Bay – home to Monkey Mia wild dolphin resort.
WA is isolated. It doesn’t have the same built-up and commercial nature as the Queensland coast. This helps the area to continue to be protected. You won’t see coaches of tourists here, or rowdy youngsters wanting to have a lively time; just people who appreciate nature and keen to see one of the most naturally beautiful destinations in the world. David adds: “It will never be over-commercialised due to the strict conditions placed on development along with the remoteness of the region and small population base. The majority of our key attractions are locked in National Parks and well protected in this way, or are protected via very stringent development guidelines. Our tagline best sums it up: Unspoilt, Uncrowded, Underwater.”
For more on Australia’s Coral Coast, click here.