At the top of Australia’s Coral Coast awaits the colourful Ningaloo Reef. A protected underwater treasure that is located about 1,200 km north of Perth at the pointy peninsula of Cape Range in Western Australia. The site is secluded, far away from large cities and urban development. But it is not impossible to get here. A rewarding car ride from Perth takes you through some of the country’s most beautiful and untamed places. Or choose the more comfortable but rather sadder route by domestic flights between Perth and the town of Learmonth in Exmouth’s immediate vicinity. Once in place, the reef is easily accessible. No hassle. Just swim straight out from the beach to see the coral spread out beneath the surface. The waters are full of life. More than 500 different species of fish and around 250 varieties of coral have been seen around Ningaloo Reef. In addition, the water is crystal clear and lukewarm, so this is a great place for snorkelling and scuba diving. You can spend long days in only your swimwear here. Ningaloo Reef is UNESCO World Heritage-listed and a little tropical paradise along the country’s west coast.
The main town of the area is Exmouth with its few thousand inhabitants. The town itself leaves some to be desired. It is not a place one stays for very long. Exmouth was built as a military base during World War II. Since then, fishing has been a significant industry. Today, however, many mainly live on tourism. During the peak season, which falls between April and October, the town is filled by long-distance visitors coming to explore the Ningaloo Reef. A long avenue lined with palm trees leads through the town centre of Exmouth. The town is a small tourist resort where wild animals live in symbiosis with its inhabitants. It is not uncommon to see emus casually strolling across the road or white cockatoos screaming from the Eucalyptus branches. In Exmouth there is a whole plethora of companies that specialize in experiences and activities. Come here for a comfortable stopover and recharge your batteries. You will have access to everything you need. Fill up your supplies and stay a few nights before continuing towards the main attraction Ningaloo Reef which runs along the west side of the peninsula. The beauty of the area is that the water is never far away. The entire stretch along the west side of the peninsula is lined with pure white sand and turquoise water. All you really need is some snorkel equipment, swimwear and a lot of free time.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Exmouth and its surroundings are mainly about water. The beach is the place to be. Closest from the town is Town Beach which is perfectly okay. If you do not have access to a car, this is your only option. But rather continue a bit further from the town where there are beaches much better to visit. Bundegi Beach is 14 km north and is a good place to swim and sunbathe. At the far north at the peninsula is Lighthouse Bay, a great place for scuba diving. About 18 km north of Exmouth you will find Vlamingh Head Lighthouse. From here you get a nice view of the reef, and it is a perfect place to be at when the sun sets. Cape Range National Park covers most of the western side of the cape, and this is where you will find the most beautiful beaches and the finer parts of the reef. Within Cape Range National Park, Turquoise Bay is one of the best beaches for snorkelling. The beach is 63 km away from Exmouth and it is well-worth the travel to get here. The sand is white and fine-grained. The water is of bluest blue and the reef is only a few strokes out. It is a fantastic place to unwind at and to discover all the coral- and fish species that live beneath the surface. But watch out for the currents. Mauritius Beach, 21 km from Exmouth is the only nudist beach in the vicinity.
You come across the Jurabi Turtle Centre (ningalooturtles.org.au/jurabi.html) on the way down to Cape Range National Park. There you find a small unmanned information booth about the Turtles living in the area. The staff at the Visitor Information Centre in Exmouth can help you book a guided tour where you can see the turtles crawl around at night (visitningaloo.com.au). Another popular activity is swimming with whale sharks. Between August and March you can dive with Exmouth Diving Centre to see whale sharks at close range (wotif.com/things-to-do/whale-shark-swim-experience.a259861.activity-details). If you have experience in diving you can join a guided tour out to Ningaloo Reef with the chance to meet rays, dolphins, turtles and whale sharks in their natural environment (wotif.com/things-to-do/full-day-certified-dive-at-ningaloo-reef-with-lunch.a417617.activity-details).
Once you have had enough of playing in the water, try driving around to see what is available on dry land. Follow Charles Knife Road south of Exmouth to get to Charles Knife Canyon (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/charles-knife-canyon). Here you will get very beautiful views of the rocky landscape and there are many good viewpoints. High up you will find Thomas Carter Lookout. Charles Knife Canyon is located within the Cape Range National Park.
The best restaurant in Exmouth is the Whalers Restaurant (whalersrestaurant.com.au), belonging to Exmouth Escape Resort at the corner of Murat Road and Welch Street. Fresh seafood, shrimps, crayfish, mussels and crab, and tasteful fish dishes are served here. Good sized portions and a solid wine list.
The food truck called Planet Burgers (facebook.com/planetburgerswa) serve different kinds of gigantic burgers together with super-tasty accessories. There are only a few seating areas outside on plastic chairs and tables. It is a popular place, so come on time or find yourself waiting for your food for about half an hour. Or place an order and wander across the street to the Potshot Hotel (potshotresort.com/view/bars-restaurants) to enjoy a beer in the meantime.
Good to know
There is a Visitor Information Centre on Murat Road in Exmouth. There you can get help with most things. They are happy to recommend different companies and activities and can also help you with travel bookings. Snorkel equipment are available for rent here. They are open every day of the week.
Warnings and preparations
The area around Exmouth has a stable climate. There is no specific rainy season, and it is dry and warm most of the year. During the summer that falls between December and March, it can become almost unbearably hot and up to 50 degrees Celsius for several weeks on end is not uncommon. Exmouth is in an area that sometimes is hit by cyclones, which mainly happens between January and March.
Within the Cape Range National Park an entrance fee applies (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/cape-range).
If you want to be able to reach all sights without any problems, a four-wheel drive car is a must. The best beaches are a few dozen kilometres from Exmouth. There you find many unpaved roads, made of loose sand making it impossible to get through with only a two-wheel drive car. So do not miss out on great experiences because you have not rented the right vehicle. Car rental is available in all cities along the West Coast (wotif.com/Car-Hire). It is common to drive from Perth to Exmouth. But there are also domestic flights to Learmonth (wotif.com/Flights). The airport is 36 km south of Exmouth. You can also take a bus from Perth. Both Integrity Coaches (integritycoachlines.com.au/Destinations/Exmouth) and Greyhound (greyhound.com.au) drive from Perth.
Accommodation around Exmouth can be pricy, especially during peak season. The prices for a cabin or a campsite can be at roughly the same level, so check your options. At Ningaloo Reef Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Ningaloo_Reef_Resort.htm) they have a large swimming pool, a gym, a restaurant, Wi-Fi and an airport shuttle that runs from the hotel.
If you do not want to stay in Exmouth there are twelve campsites further away to choose between. Book campsite around Ningaloo through Park Stay WA (parkstay.dpaw.wa.gov.au).
At 29 Preston Street is Ningaloo Bed & Breakfast (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Ningaloo_Bed_and_Breakfast.htm). The rooms are small and nice with air conditioning. Sheila and John do their utmost to make you feel welcome. They also have a great knowledge about Exmouth and can recommend where to go. They serve good breakfasts.
Five kilometres north of Exmouth is the Best Western Sea Breeze Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Sea_Breeze_Resort_Exmouth.htm) at 116 North C Street. They have 30 fully equipped rooms that can accommodate up to four people, located at the tip of Cape Range. The area is clean and nice, but a bit from Exmouth. However, it is closer to the beaches around Ningaloo than other options. With a large swimming pool on site, barbecue grills and free Wi-Fi. Free airport pick-up is included. Snorkelling equipment are available too. Exmouth Escape Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Exmouth_Escape_Resort.htm) rent out small cottages with room for up to six people. If you don’t want to stay close to others, it might be worth considering this option. They have most things needed, such as a fridge, freezer, washing machine and grill. Exmouth Escape is centrally located on the corner of Murat Road and Welch Street.
A Saturday in Exmouth
08:00 – The first meal of the day
Breakfast is advantageously eaten at SeeSalt Restaurant (seesalt.com.au) at 1 Thew Street, next to the shopping centre. It might not look like much but is in fact a goldmine for hungry travellers. Try their chia pudding or stick to poached eggs with avocado smash on bread along with a cup of coffee or tea.
11:00 – Relax on the sandy beach
Buy or rent snorkel equipment from the information centre in Exmouth on Murat Road. Then head out on the road and drive north towards Bundegi Beach. Here you can relax and sunbathe before continuing further west around the peninsula. Stop by at Surfers Beach to see the wreck of the ship SS Mildura that was stranded in 1907.
13:00 – Sun and snorkel
Continue down the western side of the peninsula to explore the sandy beaches. The entire route is one long beautiful beach strip, where wooden signs show the names of the beaches. Make sure to stop at Turquoise Bay. This is a must-see in the area. Here awaits a paradise-like beach with first-class snorkelling. Enjoy a picnic and plenty of water so you don’t have to rush anywhere for some time.
18:00 – Top of the Cape
When you feel ready to return to Exmouth, drive the same way back. However, make a stop at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse located at the top of the peninsula. Check out the solitary lighthouse and the area around it. From here you get the best view when the sun sets over the horizon, colouring the world pink and red.
20:00 – Planet Burgers
For over 20 years, the employees of the food truck Planet Burgers have turned burgers behind the Potshot Hotel. This is Exmouth’s best fast food place. In addition to juicy meat burgers, they have hotdogs and souvlaki. Don’t forget to order their thick fries with garlic dip. If you are lucky you will have room to sit down while eating. Then visit the hotel across the street for a cold pint of lager.