Monkey Mia is on most peoples' ‘Big Lap Bucket List’ meaning most travellers will pop in to the Shark Bay area. But if you limit yourself to just Monkey Mia, you’re doing yourself and the area a huge disservice. This area is one of our favourite places in Australia, and we’re going to tell you why.
You’ll find the UNESCO world heritage listed Shark Bay area at the most western point of mainland Australia, approximately 800kms north of Perth. It encompasses 22 million hectares of pristine clear blue waters, red sand cliffs, and stunning wildlife both in the water and above. And yes, as the name would suggest, it’s home to a variety of shark species. Not to mention whales, dolphins, dugongs, stingrays, fish, turtles, bilbies, thorny devils, emus, and echidnas to name a few. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some.
Most people who visit Shark Bay detour off highway one, stop in at Shell Beach to get a pretty picture and check out the Stromatolites (single cell organisms that have been around for 3500 years but just look like old rocks to me) at Hamelin Pool, then head up to Denham or Monkey Mia to spend the night so they can get up early and watch the dolphins come in for a feed at Monkey Mia, along with a few hundred (or is it thousand?) other people who are all doing the same thing, then head back to the highway to continue their travels.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this itinerary if that’s what floats your boat, but we wanted a little bit more out of our Shark Bay experience, and having been to the area about seven years ago, and stopping in at Monkey Mia on that occasion, we (perhaps controversially) had absolutely no desire to visit it again.
So where did we go? Well, all up we spent nearly two weeks in the Shark Bay area, with most of our time spent camping at both Steep Point, and Francois Peron National Parks. We’d been to Francois Peron previously and had fond memories, so we were keen to return. Steep Point was a new, but just as awesome experience.
Edel Land National Park and Steep Point
After stopping in at Hamelin Station for a night (which is immaculate and has the best camp kitchen we’ve ever used) we headed off for Steep Point, mainland Australia’s most western point. Now you have to actually book if you want to camp out at Steep Point, which we were aware of but as booking and planning are not our strongest points we had intentions of just calling in the morning to see if any sites were left.
As fate would have it, we met two other couples in the excellent Hamelin Station kitchen that night who were on their way to Steep Point, with a booking, and a spare spot for two people as the friends they were travelling with had cancelled at the last minute. Never ones to mess with fate, we quickly took them up on their invitation (or invited ourselves, I’m not really sure) and decided to tag along. Which turned out to be a fortuitous decision as they were a bunch of absolute legends, had an awesome camping spot and became our kids surrogate grandparents for the time we were with them.
Most of the camping in the Steep Point region is along Shelter Bay, about 10km from actual Steep Point. You can camp right on the beach and it’s a beautiful sheltered spot (sheltered being a relative term – it’s still Western Australia, so expect a bit of wind).
We swam, kayaked and fished every day, and spotted dolphins, whales, a shark and a HUGE seal right from our doorstep (and I mean doorstep, at high tide the water was literally two metres from our solar panels). The seal in particular was fantastic – he swam right up to Nathan to say hello, giving him a bit of a brown pants moment as he thought it was the shark come back to take a bite of him.
Of course, most people visit Steep Point to get their picture taken with the sign proving they’ve made it to the most western point of Australia. Although less famous than it’s most northern cousin at Cape York, reaching this sign is still no easy feat. You will require a 4x4, and you will need to traverse a few thousand teeth chattering, boob bouncing corrugations to get there. You’ll also need to bring all your own supplies – once you leave the overlander roadhouse on Highway One there will be no fuel, water, or other supplies available until you get to Denham.
There are, however, limited drop toilets available at the campsites (BYO toilet paper, and don’t leave yours in there like I did or the toilet paper thief will get it!) and there are some skips for rubbish at the entry to the national park so you can dump your trash in there on the way out. Camping out here will set you back $8 per adult per night, which is by far the cheapest camping in the Shark Bay region as the local council seems to be particularly adverse to offering free or budget camping options, unfortunately. If you miss out on a booking, or don’t have an off-road camper like we do, then consider camping at Tamala or Hamelin Stations instead and day tripping in.
After spending four glorious nights at Shelter Bay, and getting our obligatory picture with the sign, we headed off to Denham to stock up on fuel, water and supplies, and have some much needed showers (apparently swimming in the ocean every day isn’t actually a substitution for a real shower). But it was getting a wee bit busy for us, and the caravan parks had everyone packed in like sardines, so we only lasted a few nights before heading for the peace and serenity of Francois Peron National Park.
Francois Peron National Park
From Denham to Bottle Bay (where we camped) is only about an hour’s drive. But corrugations, claypans, and in particular soft sands make it well and truly inaccessible to anyone not in a 4x4 with a little bit of off-roading experience. Meaning many people either miss it altogether, or see it only as a day trip, leaving their caravans in Denham and venturing in with the 4x4 only. Which is a shame because Skipjack Point, at the most northern end of the National Park, is one of our all-time favourite places in Australia, and when you’re camping nearby you can visit every day like we did.
We have very clear memories of Francois Peron from our last visit about 7 years ago. In particular, we remember how bad the roads were and how bogged we got (fortunately we made it in without needing to pull out the recovery gear this time!). But we also have strong memories of Cape Peron and Skipjack Point.
Skipjack Point is a short walk out to a lookout where you can view some of the most beautiful clear blue water you’ll ever see, surrounded by bright red cliffs. And the water is teeming with marine life. Stand there long enough on a calm day and I can almost guarantee you’ll lose track of the number of sharks you’ll spot. And if you’re lucky there will be some whales, rays, dolphins, turtles and various fish thrown in for good measure. Incidentally, it’s also the only place in the national park you’ll get phone reception, so you can call around and tell everyone all about it.
Then just down the road you’ll find Cape Peron, another place of red rocks and blue water. Here we went fishing every day and actually caught fish (a rare occasion for us as we have no idea what we’re doing), spotted stingrays, and watched a pod of dolphins herding fish into the shore to catch and eat, before stopping in to say a quick hello to us (just us, not a thousand other people). And on our last visit, we remember watching a large shark chasing a school of fish just offshore in water so shallow the top half of the shark was clearly visible out of the water.
The campsites themselves here are basic, often just a bit too far from the water for views, with drop toilets the only facilities (toilet paper provided this time) and will set you back $11 per adult per night. But the whole time we were there we never shared it with more than two other campers. There are again bins at the entry to the national park, and conveniently there’s a tyre station with an air compressor where you can deflate and reinflate your tyres on your way in and out of the park.
We stayed at Bottle Bay, but Big Lagoon is probably the nicest spot, with picnic areas and BBQs provided. And on your way in or out of the park make sure you stop in at the Homestead, where there’s a (very) hot open air bore bath to wash away the red dust and relax with your fellow travellers.
And there you have it – a magical few weeks visiting Shark Bay, with plenty of fabulous experiences. We just never quite made it to Monkey Mia this time… lucky it was never on our bucket list.