We rounded the cape early one morning and caught our first glimpse of the famous Ningaloo Reef. It is one of those mystical places I spoke of in an earlier post but, that day, in the teeth of a gale, grey and gloomy, it was not all I had hoped it would be. Nevertheless, we had great expectations on board and weren’t about to let a bit of foul weather sink our ship.
North West Cape is a wide peninsula divided in two by a spine of low, rugged limestone plateaux and gorges called the Cape Range. The Exmouth Gulf lays on its eastern shore and on the west, the Indian Ocean and Ningaloo Reef. To get to Ningaloo, we had go around the range by driving out along the gulf to Exmouth and following the cape around to the western side.
Ningaloo is the longest fringing-reef in Australia. It runs south from North West Cape for some 260 kilometres to just below the Tropic of Capricorn. At one point it comes as close as 300 metres to shore. At its outermost it is, perhaps, no more than a kilometre from land.
The entire reef is designated the Ningaloo Marine Park and is teeming with marine life – turtles, whales, whale sharks, dugongs, manta rays, brightly coloured tropical fish of all shapes and sizes and, of course, corals. On shore, the Cape Range National Park is the perfect complement, populated by a commensurately diverse and abundant horde of terrestrial wildlife. Together, they have been an unforgettable experience.
But if you are thinking of the tropics, of lush vegetation and cascading waterfalls, prepare to be disabused. Here, the arid interior comes down to meet the sea with all its enmity. This is no easy place to live.
Picture for a moment a narrow, coastal plain where clumps of spinifex grow on the stony ground, prickling your ankles as you brush past. Scattered amongst the spinifex are small bushes, bent low and twisted by the battering winds. Here and there, stunted eucalypts hold on to life, somehow; there is no water but the sea. Now, imagine there is no shelter from the scorching sun or the violent thunderstorms that sweep in over the reef during the night. This is the face of Ningaloo.
But Ningaloo is also a place of shallow, sandy lagoons and tranquil, turquoise waters; an unspoilt wilderness whose unique and pristine character is only rarefied by its own harshness. Paradise has more than one face.
Our slice of paradise was Yardie Creek, 70 kms down the coast where the road turns to sand. It wasn’t our first choice but campsites in the Cape Range NP are limited and highly sought, so we were lucky to get in at all. And in the end, despite its isolation, Yardie had some special features and was probably the best place to be.
The creek there is contained by the sheer walls of Yardie Gorge which provided some add-on activities at no extra cost and, while the beach offers nothing special to the snorkeler, it is good for swimming and only metres from camp. There is also a tree at Yardie Creek, which added to its appeal.
In all, we spent six full and fabulous days at Ningaloo. For me, the snorkelling was great but the high point was the opportunity to observe and photograph some very uncommon birdlife. Pam topped-off her own experience of Ningaloo diving with the whale sharks, something she says she will never forget.
It is 1200 kms from Perth to Exmouth and more than that again to Broome where we wanted to be by the end of April. We didn’t make it – too much to see. Now, we must be there by the end of May. There’s still a lot to see, but I think we can do it – just!
Author’s note: In keeping with Mark Twain’s well-worn maxim never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I didn’t. But in truth, there is more than one tree at Yardie Creek.