Pack the bags, rent a car and top-fill the fuel tank. Wave goodbye to Perth’s pulsating concrete jungle and get ready for an unforgettable ride along Western Australian’s magnificent Coral Coast. The Indian Ocean becomes your faithful companion. The waves crashes onto cream-coloured beaches that slowly changes in appearance. The broad North West Coastal Highway leads you steadily northwards through some of the country’s most exciting locations. The Coral Coast stretches over one thousand kilometres between Cervantes to the south and Exmouth to the north and consists of an eternally long stretch of coastline soaked in sunshine. In between, you travel through diverse landscapes. The farther north you get, the sparser the worn-out gas stations are scattered, by up to a few hours apart. On the roads are more tired professional drivers steering heavy trucks than there are motoring tourists with gigantic road maps. As soon as you cross the Tropic of Capricorn, the air becomes thicker and the temperature rises. Head to this part of Australia to experience deserted beaches and a breathtaking nature. The charm of the Coral Coast is that it is distant, deserted and untouched. Every evening you will enjoy stunning sunsets that redefine the word beautiful. When darkness emerges, put up your tent under the starry skies that sparkles like a handful of glitter.
Travelling along the entire Coral Coast is a great journey for those who have plenty of time. Plan your route in advance and stop often so as not to miss any exciting detour along the way. There are many places to visit which can make the trip several weeks long if you like. From the Pinnacle Deserts golden limestone formations that shoots out of the eerie moonscape, to Kalbarris soaring high rocks and deep gorges. Also, the far-stretched Shell Beach consisting of a thick layer of white seashells and the friendly and playful dolphins of Monkey Mia. Then add the red dust that constantly swirls around and seem to land everywhere, filling the air and lungs too. After several days of driving, the West Coast’s gem, magical Ningaloo Reef Marine Park awaits at the top of the Coral Coast. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed coral reef attracts hundreds of fish species and in the right season, both whale sharks and giant turtles can be seen in the area. Ningaloo is an easily accessible underwater paradise with no typical touristy congestion. Swim out with just your snorkel equipment, the reef is located only a few meters from the beach. Visiting the Coral Coast is very popular with the holidaying Australians but fewer tourists find their way here. Make a visit and soon you will understand the praise.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
A three-hours’ drive north of Perth is Nambung National Park. Here you will find the Pinnacles Desert where limestone formations as golden as polenta protrudes from wavy sand dunes. The place gives the impression of being a natural graveyard and you can easily imagine you are wandering around on the moon among the eerie pillars. A road for four-wheel drive vehicles leads through the landscape. Then stop at the Pinnacles Discovery Centre (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/pinnacles-desert-discovery-centre) to learn more about the history of the place or join a guided tour (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=The+Pinnacles%2C+Cervantes). Not far from Nambung National Park lies the quiet port town of Cervantes which makes its living by catching and selling seafood. Also make a trip to nearby Hangover Bay for a dip in the crystal-clear waters.
Further up the coast lies the Kalbarri National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/kalbarri). There are many different vantage points and hiking trails in this majestic national park. Explore some of the breathtaking deep gorges in the park on your own or together with the guides from Kalbarri Abseil (kalbarriabseil.com). Visit Nature’s Window, a hollow rock formation that frames the surroundings and gives you stunning views of the wide landscape.
The area around Shark Bay is since 1991 UNESCO World Heritage-listed for its unique nature and ecology. A half-hour ride from Shark Bay’s only town, Denham, lies Monkey Mia. For an entrance fee of twelve dollars, you can meet the wild dolphins that are hand-fed during the mornings along the beach. The earliest feeding takes place at eight in the morning. Come early to get a good spot to have a chance getting selected to feed the dolphins. Since Monkey Mia is a popular destination, you will for sure not be alone during the feed. Besides the long smooth beach strip there is an information centre and a resort here.
Photogenic Francois Peron National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/francois-peron) is located at the far end of a peninsula but is worth the effort getting here if you have plenty of time. Follow Monkey Mia Road out from Denham and turn when you see the sign showing the national park. The road is not paved so a four-wheel drive is a must. Here you have a great chance to see wildlife and not least experience the areas contrasting colours. Visit Skipjack Point for a beautiful view. Be aware, however, that it takes time to drive the 130 km back and forth from Denham and that the roads do not allow high speeds.
At the bay of L’Haridon Bight is the unusual beach called Shell Beach. The water’s high salt content has resulted in one type of shellfish having thrived in the area for a long time without much competition from other species. For thousands of years, these shells have washed ashore and are now covering the entire Shell Beach, in some places it is as deep as up to ten meters. There is only one other similar beach in the world. Shell Beach is an unusual sight. A pure white sixty-kilometre-long beach stretching out, meeting the azure coloured sea. At the west side of Peron Peninsula lies the Eagle Bluff where you get a beautiful view of the green-blue sea. Drive to the Old Telegraph Station at the Hamelin Pool to behold the area’s stromatolites, the world’s oldest yet living fossils. Here you can take a stroll on a built walkway that winds along the coast.
At the top along the Coral Coast awaits Cape Range National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/cape-range). Drive around the cape where there are countless signs pointing towards perfect sandy beaches. At Turquoise Bay, you’ll have a great opportunity to enjoy top-notch snorkelling without hassle. The reef is close to the beach, just swim out. But be vigilant since the water can have strong currents. Turquoise Bay attracts many visitors. For a little more peace and quiet, head to Coral Bay. Hundreds of different corals and fish species are found in these clear balmy waters.
Exmouth is a small scattered out town on the eastern side of the pointy Cape Range, and the base of the area’s water activities and fun. Many companies specialize in tourism and arrange guided tours, for example the Exmouth Diving Centre (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Exmouth,%20Western%20Australia). It is possible to rent scuba diving and snorkelling equipment from them. There are also several accommodation options in the area. Visit Exmouth’s Visitor Information Centre located on Murat Road for help.
For those who do not fear hard work and long workdays there is the opportunity to work on fishing boats that leave the port in Carnarvon. Go out on the pier and find the crew to introduce yourself. If you get a job, a few tough weeks out at sea with minimal sleep and zero privacy lies ahead of you. However, the compensation is good.
Good to know
Check out the website Australian Coral Coast (australiascoralcoast.com) and Shark Bay Visit (sharkbayvisit.com) before departure. There are information centres to visit in the towns of Carnarvon, Geraldton and Denham.
Warnings and preparations
The best time to come here is between late spring and early autumn when the temperature is at a human level. The West Coast is particularly spectacular during spring when the surroundings are in full bloom. Between August and October, the roadsides and the meadows are adorned with a sea of flowers. Avoid coming here during the rainy season that falls between January and March. Keep in mind that national parks sometimes take entrance fees. Choose between buying single tickets on the spot or investing in a Park Pass that is valid for a longer period, this can be done online (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/know/park-entry-fees). Make sure you have a lot of water. If you are driving from Perth, buy the biggest water container you can find and fill it up. It pays off to buy as much as possible in the cities. Prices are higher in the smaller resorts you will pass along the way. Also keep in mind that petrol quickly rises in price the farther north you come.
If you want to discover the Coral Coast properly, you should rent a four-wheel drive (wotif.com/Car-Hire). Whether you are travelling along the entire route or just want to get from point A to B, you must respect the distances. Western Australia is extremely big and overwhelming. Be sure to study the map in advance to set up a reasonable plan for which routes you should take and how long you much time you can set aside for driving. There are buses with Integrity Coach Lines (integritycoachlines.com.au) driving to many destinations along the West Coast. You can choose from hop-on hop-off passes between Perth and Exmouth or Perth and Broome. But there are also regular one-way tickets. If you want to completely skip the driving yourself, you can take a flight instead. There are daily flights between Perth and Learmonth near Exmouth (wotif.com/Flights).
If you want to stay a little finer and better on the Coral Coast, it is a good idea to book early. The accommodation options around magical Ningaloo goes quickly during spring and summer, and count on juicy prices too. However, many campsites are usually available even at a short notice. If you are planning to camp a lot, it is a good idea to invest in a road atlas that lists campsites and all its facilities, such as BIG4 (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/BIG4_Bowen_Coral_Coast_Beachfront_Holiday_Park.htm). If you are driving around and want to get away cheaply, it may be a good idea to choose a motorhome that you can sleep in. Make sure not to park in places where it is illegal to stay overnight, otherwise you risk a fine.
Stop at Kalbarri Seafront Villas (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Kalbarri_Seafront_Villas.htm) located right on the seafront with beautiful views of the Murchison River. They have several small fresh cottages and apartments that are fully equipped with kitchen, air conditioning and Internet access. Close to the town centre and not far from Kalbarri National Park.
Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/RAC_Monkey_Mia_Dolphin_Resort.htm) offers accommodation for everyone in different price ranges. Choose between campsites, apartment complexes and private cottages near the beach. No matter how you live, you get access to the area’s restaurant, bar, and coffee shop, swimming pool and the tennis court. If you want to see more of Monkey Mia’s dolphins, stay here for a night or two.
Bayview Coral Bay (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Ningaloo_Coral_Bay_Bayview.htm) has a fantastic location at Coral Bay on the southern end of the Ningaloo Reef. In the 1970s, Bill Brogan came here and built up Coral Bay. Today the large area is still owned by the Brogan family and there are accommodation options of varying standards. During peak season, you may be required to stay longer than one night.
Electricity, hot showers and drinking water are available, which is a luxury in these areas. There is a small gas station nearby.
A week along Coral Coast
Monday – Ghostly pillars
Buy supplies and say goodbye to Perth. Travel along the coastal route, the Indian Ocean Drive. The first mandatory stop is made in Nambung National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/nambung) where you have a walk among the Pinnacle’s gold-coloured stone pillars that protrude from the desert sand. After you have had enough of strange natural phenomena and ghostly rocks, stay near Geraldton for the night.
Tuesday – Photographic framing
Start the day by feeling the wind tearing your hair while you watch the waves crashing onto the sharp rocks at Castle Cove. Drive towards Kalbarri National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/kalbarri) and see how the sand shifts from white to yellow and finally to a dark red. Park your car and follow the marked path to Nature’s Window past cliffs lined with Eucalyptus. Climb over rough rocks and admire the view of the gorge. Then hike back and drive towards Shark Bay to rest your head in the area’s main town, Denham.
Wednesday – Friends from the sea
Set the clock to wake up early. Then drive for about half an hour to Monkey Mia on the east side of the peninsula where you will meet the nice dolphins who hopefully swim to the beach for breakfast. Choose a location near the water to get the chance to feed the dolphins. On the way back towards Denham, stop at Little Lagoon for a bath in the shallow and clear lake.
Thursday – Pure white beach
The first stop of the day will be at the unusual Shell Beach. Put on comfortable shoes and hear the crunching under your feet as you walk on the panoramic beach that is completely covered in snow-white seashells. Then go to Hamelin Pool and eat a simple lunch. Follow the sign towards the stromatolites. Walk along the water and peek at the world’s oldest fossils that protrude from the sea.
Friday – Beneath the surface at Ningaloo
Drive the last bit towards Coral Bay and be welcomed to the paradise of Ningaloo Marine Park. Buy some snorkel equipment and a few bottles of water in the shop and then walk the last short distance down to the beach that stretches out far. Try snorkelling until your eyes sting of saltwater and the tummy screams for food. Spend the night in the quiet area right at the beach.
Saturday – Reefs and turtles
Continue up the coast and stop at Turquoise Bay where you will find one of the best snorkelling spots at Ningaloo. The reef is only a few meters out from the beach and the water is crystal-clear and turquoise. The beach strip around the coast of Cape Range is perfectly suited for a long, lazy day in swimwear and for snorkelling. Drive around and stop whenever you feel like it. During the evening, visit the Jurabi Turtle Centre (ningalooturtles.org.au/jurabi.html) to scout for the little turtles that crawls around in the sand.