Land and Water: a Perth to Exmouth Driving Holiday

In deep blue water, a snorkeller swims above a huge whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth, Western Australia

That’s a lot of blacktop. Chris and Sarah drive more than a thousand kilometres along the West Australian Coral Coast, staying at sheep stations, visiting remote islands and making their dream of swimming with whale sharks a reality.

It’s no secret we love the ocean. And hiking. So Chris and I have planned one of our biggest road trips yet. After picking up our Apex rental car from Perth Airport, we’re heading to Exmouth, 1,300 kilometres north and the jumping off point for Ningaloo Reef adventures.

Highest Hikes: Perth to Kalbarri

The sun sets over a landscape of red rock formations high above a river gorge, Kalbarri National Park, Coral Coast, WA

A while back we decided to drive the first part of the Coral Coast to Geraldton during spring to take advantage of the show put on by nature when all the wildflowers bloom. The landscape certainly looks a lot different with none of the colour, but the Pinnacles and other spots are still impressive.

We’ve decided to move quickly, so we can spend a few days in Kalbarri National Park. Chris and I are dedicated hikers, and we know there are a couple of challenging treks we can complete in the day. (There are lots of shorter trails, too, suitable for anyone with a modicum of fitness.) Our first is the Bigurda Trail, which follows the coastal cliffs for eight kilometres. We’ve got plenty of water and the battery on the camera fired up. Thank goodness, because the views are spectacular. Below us, waves batter the red rocks and eventually we reach the Natural Bridge. Having only one car, we stop for lunch before turning to follow the trail back. (Yep, it ends up being a very long walk.)

The following day, we take on the Loop Trail, which passes Nature's Window before following a loop in the Murchison River. At one spot, we make our way from the peak of the gorge to a sandy riverbank and wade in to cool off.

A Station-cation: Kalbarri to Carnarvon

Two people snorkel in turquoise water near a rocky coastline, Dirk Hartog Island, Shark Bay, Western Australia

Stopping at Hamelin Pool is like time travelling back three billion years. Stromatolites were one of the first complex life forms on Earth, and they are here, just below the boardwalk. The stromatolites are just one reason the Shark Bay area is World Heritage listed. It is 2.2 million hectares of stunning scenery and unique flora and fauna. Most people know it for the dolphins that come to the shores of Monkey Mia each day to be fed. Instead, we’re doing a day trip from Denham to Dirk Hartog Island, a former sheep station turned eco-tourism destination. We tour the old shearing shed then kayak over the reef, heading back to the beach so we can sun ourselves and snorkel.

Then there’s a 4WD excursion to Surf Point, where schools of nervous sharks swim in the shallows. It’s an incredible day out, and I wish we could stay. Chris and I have, however, booked a stay at Wooramel River Retreat, on a station south of Carnarvon. We’re in an eco cabin tent, but stick around only long enough to change into swimmers. After all that walking and driving, it’s time to soak in the artesian bore baths. We begin chatting to some people who have brought their camping gear and are staying at similar places right up the Coral Coast. They tell us we’ve arrived on the right night: Wednesday is traditional camp oven stew night, one of the two meals put on for guests each week.

In the morning before we leave, we follow the trail along the Wooramel River (dry for most of the year), looking for some of the beautiful birds that call this part of the world home.

We Like Big Sharks: Carnarvon to Exmouth

Beneath the ocean’s surface, there are two manta rays in the foreground and a snorkeller in the background, Ningaloo Reef

We almost don’t make it to Exmouth, such is the beauty of Coral Bay. You get an idea of what’s to come on a walk along the shoreline. The water is so clear you can see rays gliding by and turtles swimming in the shallows. Chris and I spend so many hours in the water, exploring the coral and following colourful fish, we almost turn into prunes.

But it’s not a very big town and we know there’s much to do in Exmouth. Plus, we’ve got a whale shark cruise booked. Even though it was a bit more expensive, we chose Live Ningaloo because there’s a maximum of 10 guests on board, meaning you get to spend more time in the water.

I can barely contain my excitement as we’re heading out, but we’re soon putting all the gear on, ready to plunge into the water.

“Go, go, go,” says the marine biologist and we jump in. As I peer through the water, a very large shape looms. Soon, it’s just metres away, then I’m finning alongside this incredible creature, whose mouth hangs open as it filters the water for food. Apparently, it is used to people or doesn’t care about us, because it just carries on, finally leaving us behind. The encounter is both exhilarating and serene, and I know our long drive is worth it, just for those minutes in the water with this huge fish.