This beaut of a road trip is about 1300 klicks one way, taking in desert, gorges, reef and idyllic bays. We managed to do the there-and-back in nine full days, but was it enough? All we'll say is the sights enroute are deserving of as much time as you’ve got!
There’s not whole lot happening out the windows on the drive from Perth to Exmouth. Once the sparkle of Indian Ocean disappears behind the dunes, you’re looking at the odd field of grass trees and about ten squillion termite hills. It’s actually quite remarkable how immediately you are enveloped in middle-of-nowhere vibes, which is perhaps the whole reason you’re in Western Australia in the first place – “getting away from it all” in quite a literal sense.
But the nothingness is actually just a mirage. WA’s Coral Coast hides countless weird and wonderful sights enroute – many of which you won’t find anywhere else in the world – that make the hours of car-aoke and the anxious unknowns between toilet stops 100% worthwhile.
Best times to go
While heaps of the Coral Coast attractions are good for the gawking year-round, planning your WA road trip between March and November will mean comfortable cyclone-free swimming weather, with the chance to witness seasonal phenomena such as autumn’s massive marine-life migration, and from July onwards, mind-blowing wildflower displays.
A few of us here at Base Camp have done the trip at different times of the year – May, July and January – and all came back with great things to say. Our only advice would be to book parks ahead during peak holiday periods; places like Coral Bay are popular for very good reasons.
Going the distance
To really experience all that the Coral Coast has to offer, it’s worth setting aside ten to 14 days to meander up the coast. If you’re thinking this sounds like overkill for a 1300 km leg, let’s not forget some of the highlights are a deceptively long distance off the highway, and the hours quickly clock up in this jumbo-sized part of the world. A popular return route is to head east from Exmouth for eight hours to the incredible Karijini Gorge, before taking inland roads back to Perth. For this trip, our team set aside three weeks.
But, back to the curiosities of the coast. Basically, there’s a heap of them and they’re all worth an extra tank of petrol or two. And here, in geographical (but not preferential) order, is a sample of reasons we traipsed 4000km from Sydney for a quick escape in a rented campervan. Reasons, we think, that will get your tour of the great west coast off to a cracking start.
The Pinnacles Desert
This strange lunarscape is only a couple of hours north of Perth near the fishing town of Cervantes, which marks the beginning of the Coral Coast proper, so it’s likely to be one of the first places you’ll stop as you make your way up Indian Ocean Drive. These ancient spires are said to have formed millions of years ago when broken down seashells blew inland to form limestone sand dunes. What happened after that to create the Pinnacles Desert is still subject to debate, but to us this just adds to the area’s eeriness and intrigue.
It’s been a long time between glaciers for old Aus, which means we’re a bit lacking in the jewel-coloured lake department. Or are we? Welcome to Hutt Lagoon, one of WA’s infamous pink lakes and a must-stop for any roadtripper travelling from RV-friendly Geraldton to Kalbarri.
If you can swing it, wing it – because it’s universally agreed (by the Instagram universe at least) that pink lakes look best from above. If sending your drone up or taking a scenic flight aren’t options, Hutt Lagoon will still show its colours at eye-level, especially if you go on a cloudless day around mid-morning or dusk. Wondering who or what is responsible for creating something as whimsical as a bubblegum pink lake? Direct your gratitude to an algae called Dunaliella salina. Take that, glaciers.
Kalbarri National Park
Kalbarri’s gorges aren’t weird per se, but they sure are wonderful. And the town itself, perched among almighty sea cliffs, isn’t a half-bad spot to call home for a couple of nights.
Inland, the Murchison River cuts through the ragged red landscape like a milky green ribbon, making the clifftop and gorge walks some of the most picturesque in the region. You’ll want to pray for cool weather if you plan on descending into the gorge. There’s a heap of lovely signage around promising certain death if you strike out in the heat unprepared. But, well-watered wintertime walkers are in for a treat, and we highly recommend trekking down to do the longer gorge walks whenever the mercury’s playing nice.
If looking into the face of the earliest lifeforms on Earth is something you think you can geek out over, then you’ll want to hang a left onto Shark Bay Road and head towards Hamelin Pool. We’re not talking about your usual garden-variety fossils either. These ones, if you can wrap your head around it, are a living, breathing illustration of what the world looked like 3.5 billion years ago. Considering the only other place on the planet where you can see living stromatolites is in the Bahamas, we’d say Hamelin Pool is well worth a look in – they are indeed the most accomplished brown blobs you ever will see.
Discover More: the great Australian road trip
Love the beach but don’t love tracking sand into your caravan? Continue towards Shark Bay for 45 minutes, and you’ll arrive at a beach where the sand has been replaced with billions of tiny white shells. At up to ten metres deep in places and stretching for 70kms, this pure white canvas turns the hypersaline water the most inviting shade of turquoise – which is great for photography, but even better for floating! Like the famous Dead Sea, the high salt concentration means you can spare yourself the lung workout and leave your blow-up swan in the car.
Shell Beach, like the stromatolites, is a rare phenomenon that’s found only in a handful of other locations in the world.
Timing is everything if you want to see all the weirdness and wonderfulness of the Ningaloo Reef. Plan to arrive in March and you’ll be too early for WA’s wildflowers, but what you’ll get instead is possibly even better – coral spawning!
We realise that the reproductive antics of polyps don’t sound as visually delightful as the reproductive antics of plants, but hear us out. When Ningaloo Reef’s 200-ish coral species go into nesting-mode (timed with the full moon no less – how very romantic!), immense clouds of swirling colour fill the water, and that in itself is a spectacle worth jumping on a tour boat for.
But this event also triggers an annual feeding frenzy. Swarms of krill and other miniscule sea creatures arrive to feed on the coral spawn, which in turn become a five-month long banquet for the ocean’s megafauna. Filter feeders like whale sharks and manta rays hightail it from open waters to feed on the reef’s zooplankton feast, making March through October the best timeframe to tick swimming with the world’s biggest fish off your bucket list.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
Now the world’s biggest fish may be ten metres long and technically a shark, but these harmless, gentle somewhat-vegetarian giants make for much friendlier swimming than their toothier cousins.
While whale shark tour operators in Exmouth and Coral Bay are a little more expensive than other parts of the world, the Ningaloo experience is strictly regulated and operates without interfering with natural feeding patterns and behaviours (they use spotter planes to locate and sidle up alongside the shark without interrupting its path) – something that can’t always be said for other parts of the world, where luring with feed is unfortunately common practice.
You’ll jump aboard expecting to be blown away by a shark, but what you might not expect is to jump into gatorade-blue water that’s as warm as a bath. The tropical Leeuwin Current is responsible for these inviting open ocean temps, while chillier swims in the reef’s coral lagoons make for quite the contrast.
Swimming with Manta Rays
Manta rays may not get the same press as whale sharks, but with a wingspan of almost six metres and a fondness for underwater acrobatics, they’re an equally impressive swimming partner. Coral Bay is one of the few places in the world that has its own resident manta rays, so if you’re not there when the population swells with migratory mantas, this laidback little town has you sorted.
Swimming with a manta ray can be a difficult task when you consider that they reach speeds of 70km/hr, but they’re known to become more curious and interactive with snorkellers and divers from around mid-May onwards. If you miss out, chances are you’ll be just as stoked with all the other friends of the reef. Think giant loggerhead turtles, dugongs and tiger sharks. We were told a pod of orcas had even made a cameo in the lagoon in the days leading up to our visit!
Get out there
While most of the Coral Coast’s attractions are reachable via 2WD vehicles, there are places where a 4WD is essential, such as Dirk Hartog Island National Park in Shark Bay, and certain areas in Cape Range National Park which is located around 40kms from Exmouth. But for everything we’ve mentioned, you’re in for easy, hassle-free touring in one of the most beautiful, if at times bizarre, parts of Australia.
We’ve in no way exhausted the list of things to see and do; the Quobba Blowholes, Monkey Mia’s friendly wild dolphins, Turquoise Bay’s to-die-for drift snorkel, not to mention the many quaint surf towns and oceanside camping opportunities enroute, we’ve left plenty of the region open to discovery – and isn’t that what touring is all about?