Coastal

Shark Bay

The next stop on our way down along the west coast is Shark Bay. It’s a huge marine park comprised of multiple national parks and World Heritage Areas. The first bay, Hamelin Pool, is home to some of Earth’s first creatures: stromatolites (cyanobacteria). While they’re not much to look at, walking amongst them is like walking back in time, to see the organisms responsible for making the oxygen in our atmosphere.

Paul and the stromatolites
Paul and the Stromatolites
Pied cormorants
Pied cormorants

A little farther up the peninsula is Shell Beach, a suitable name for a vast stretch of beach made entirely of little cockle shells that thrive in the super-salty water of the shallow bay, 25-30 feet deep in some areas. They used to make stone bricks out of them, too.

Endless cockle shells
Endless cockle shells

Farther still, is an amazing rugged cliff looking down on crystal blue ocean where the casual onlooker can sit back and leisurely watch all sorts of sea creatures wander into the bay. Within a few minutes we saw shovel-nosed sharks, several reef sharks, stingrays, a pod of dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales in the distance. Not bad!

Eagle Bluff
Eagle Bluff

That night we celebrated with margaritas! Our tequila even came with its own sombrero.

Christina enjoying her margarita. Quesadillas with guacamole in the making.
Christina enjoying her margarita. Quesadillas with guacamole in the making.

The next morning we made friends with a shingleback skink who was happily sunning herself in the middle of the road, who, when provoked by a waving hand, showed-off her fabulous blue tongue 🙂

Skink!
Skink! AKA bobtail, stump-tailed skink, bogeye, pinecone lizard or sleepy lizard.

Monkey Mia

Our next stop was a very touristy spot called Monkey Mia (I still haven’t figured out why it had that name) where local humans have been hand-feeding wild dolphins for decades. In the ’60s they used to let people feed them as much as they pleased, and the dolphins loved it, coming back every day to get a free meal. However, after about 20 years they noticed a sharp decline in young dolphins. Turns out all the free meals meant the mother dolphins weren’t teaching their calves how to find wild fish, and so they couldn’t survive on their own. These days, they are limited to 3 feedings a day, starting at 8am. All the humans line up on the beach and listen to the rangers while awaiting the dolphins (they all have names, and we saw mother, daughter and granddaughter). Some special people get picked to hand-feed the dolphins, while trying the evade the hungry fish-stealing pelicans. We were not the chosen people.

Australian pelicans waiting for their share of fish
Australian pelicans waiting for their share of fish
Monkey Mia dolphins come in to grab a bite
Monkey Mia dolphins come in to grab a bite

The dolphin experience was a nice treat, but the real draw of Shark Bay for us was the dugongs. Relatives of the freshwater manatee (with a forked tail instead of a rounded tail), dugongs are the only true vegetarian marine mammal, eating seagrass all day long. They are actually negatively buoyant, with very heavy bones, so they don’t need to exert any energy while feeding on the bottom. But this means they only have time for one breath each time they surface. While they remain a threatened species, about 20% of the world population resides in Shark Bay. The best way to see them is to jump on a wildlife cruise, so we dutifully followed suit.

Dugong taking a breath
Dugong taking a breath
Dugong taking a dive
Dugong taking a dive. 

The cruise also stopped at a pearl farm, which is a huge industry all the way up to Broome and beyond (and has its own crazy history involving kidnapping aboriginal women and forcing them to dive down to collect pearls, and later a huge migration of asian labor, including the still-best Japanese). We got to see some of the new inventive techniques they use to create unique shapes under the shell (hearts, anchors, dolphins, etc) and imbedding gold and gem stones to be covered in nacre (the white, iridescent coating that makes a pearl a pearl).

Oyster shells with anchor shape (top) , gold & opal (bottom right)
Oyster shells with anchor shape (top) , gold & opal (bottom right)

 

Kalbarri National Park

This park has both red rock gorges and rocky ocean coast, making it one of my (Christina’s) very favorite places in Australia. We started inland with a lovely loop hike (imaginatively called The Loop) starting on the rim at Nature’s Window (a large wind-created hole) and followed the trail down into the red and white banded gorge along the Murchison river.

Christina looking out at the Murchison River
Christina looking out at the Murchison River
Nature's Window
Nature’s Window with squatters
Tree with flowers
Tree with flowers
Interesting patterns in the rock
Interesting patterns in the rock
Pretty cliffs
Pretty banded cliffs
Friendly lizard
Cute lizard

The second part of the park, and its most spectacular in my opinion, it the wild coastline. Even though we’re farther south, the water still has that tropical light blue color, paired with white limestone cliffs or iron-rich sandstone. What is truly stunning about this part of Western Australia is the mix of warm-tropical and cold-water marine life. The west coast of Australia has the only southward flowing current in the southern hemisphere (the currents along South America and Africa both flow north). The Leeuwin current brings down tropical marine species from Southeast Asia, while the cold waters from Antartica bring the nutrient rich water north. They meet here and form a wonderful seascape that mixes coral reefs and bright tropical fish with seaweeds and kelps of the rocky intertidal.

Rock Island
Rock Island

One of the best places to explore was Eagle Gorge Beach, which was a small beach, but had an amazing amount of marine life, from little snails in the tide pools, to a huge crab-eating gull, and the remnants of creatures washed up on the beach (endless shells, urchins, cuttlebones, etc). I could have stayed there for days exploring all the nooks and crannies!

Paul in the tide pools
Paul in the tide pools
Shells galore
Shells galore
Urchin shell with seaweed
Urchin shell with seaweed
Literally every color of the rainbow...in shells!
Literally every color of the rainbow…in shells!
Cuttlebones everywhere, every size. Cuttlefish mate all at once and then die (like salmon), so their internal bones drift onto beaches around the same time.
Cuttlebones everywhere, every size. Cuttlefish mate all at once and then die (like salmon), so their internal bones drift onto beaches around the same time.

We continued along the coast to other beaches, lookouts and bluffs, each one presenting new and beautiful treasures.

Christina on edge
Christina on edge
Crab!
Crabs!
Sandy path around the beach dunes
Paul on a sandy path 
Kangaroo on the trail
Kangaroo on the trail
Christina at Red Bluff
Christina at Red Bluff
Paul at Red Bluff :)
Paul at Red Bluff 🙂

Where ever we went, the whales weren’t far, and today we managed to get a photo!

Humpback whale breaching!
Humpback whale breaching!

 

Ningaloo Blue

The Ningaloo Marine Sanctuary is a barrier and fringe reef that spans 260km on the north west coast of Western Australia. It also has long been high on our list of places we couldn’t wait to see in Australia. During our live-aboard trip at the Great Barrier Reef we talked to one of the crew who claimed that Ningaloo was better than the GBR, more pristine, what the GBR had been like 10-15 years ago. With that testimony, plus our own ideas of what Ningaloo would be like from our previous research, we developed some very high expectations. Simply said, our imagination did not even come close to the actual experience.

Turquoise Bay - voted #2 beach in Australia
Turquoise Bay – voted #2 beach in Australia

Cape Range

One of the great things about the Ningaloo reef is that a lot of it is accessible from shore and is in relatively shallow water. Meaning you don’t need a boat or scuba equipment to enjoy the natural wonders under the water. All it you need is snorkel gear. Some of the best snorkeling is off the shores of Cape Range National Park. So naturally we camped out there for a couple days. Little did we know, but Cape Range is a very popular National Park. Which means you have to queue up early in the morning just to get a camping spot. It was all worth it.

Gorgeous wildflowers. Sturt's Desert Pea
Gorgeous wildflowers. Sturt’s Desert Pea

Our first day of snorkeling was bittersweet. Sweet because we saw more fish on the first snorkel than our whole trip at the GBR. No, not really. But we did see a lot of fish, in large schools. And they were HUGE! On our second snorkel we saw blue spotted sting rays, an octopus (it changed colors right in-front of us!), and a couple of lionfish. The bitter part of the day was that some how, I got sea-sick while snorkeling and vomited up my lunch while on our second snorkel. It was extremely disgusting for me, but extra food for the fish. Ew. Gross. I know.

Snorkeling off the beach. The water was this color everywhere!
Snorkeling off the beach. The water was this color everywhere!

Our second day was equally cool with the addition of seeing a gigantic sting ray. It freaked us out since we swam almost right over where it had been hiding (and we were only in a meter of water). That day I took precautions and took some Dramamine before getting in the water so no seasickness. We also saw our first turtle during our second snorkel.

Exmouth

The next couple of days we laid low and enjoyed some beach time. This also gave me time to recover from the seasickness before our scuba trip. As we were sitting on the beach, I was staring out over the water and then all of the sudden I see the spouting of water, a whale’s back, and then a fluke. In shock and excitement, I called out to Christina, “WHALES! Christina, whales!!” The rest of that day we spent whale watching. They were migrating Humpback whales heading south for the summer and there were plenty of pods for us to watch. They put on quite a show too. We saw many breaches, tail and fin slaps. A truly unexpected treat.

View from the lighthouse, great whale watching stop. (Also some crazy antennas in the distance)
View from the lighthouse, great whale watching stop. (Also some crazy antennas in the distance)

There were also tons of emus all over the place, which was really fun.

Male emu with chicks!
Male emu with chicks!

Before our scuba trip we had to go out snorkeling one more time since we talked to a couple at our new caravan park who said that they saw sharks during their snorkeling adventures. On our next time out, what do you think we saw, a nurse shark! It was super cool, but also a little frightening. This was not small reef shark. It was at least two to three meters long. Christina assures me that nurse sharks are the puppy dogs of sharks. I trust her.

The next day we went on our scuba diving trip. First on our way to our dive site, we saw more whales. Some just swimming along peacefully, others breaching out of the water putting on a real show for us. Our two dives we very similar so here’s a run down of all the different sea life we saw: sea snakes, white tipped reef sharks, lion fish, nudibranchs (tiny flamboyant sea slugs–which are just incredibly beautiful), a frog fish, a wobbegong shark, beautiful soft and hard corals, a ton more fish, and an octopus. The shear diversity of aquatic life was just astounding. Best dive trip yet.

Coral Bay

First thing we did in Coral Bay was go to the daily free fish feeding on the beach. Everyone gets a few pellets of fish food (feeding them bread is very bad for their livers), and they come right up to your feet, and swim between your legs. Such a fun surprise!

Fish feeding in Coral Bay
Fish feeding in Coral Bay

After all that excitement you think things couldn’t get better, but they did. Ever since missing out on seeing Manta Rays in Japan, I’ve been looking forward to seeing and swimming with Mantas ever since. Luckily for us, Ningaloo is one of the best places to see Manta Rays in the world. Which means we used some of our scuba money for snorkel adventure with Manta Rays. The best place to see them is the southern part of Ningaloo Marine Park, off a town called Coral Bay.

Manta Ray!
Manta Ray!

The snorkel trip was equally stunning as the scuba diving trip. Not only did we get to swim with two Manta Rays, but we saw a bunch of white tipped reef sharks at a cleaning station (where little cleaner wrasse eat their parasites), some really gorgeous and abundant corals, a big tiger shark (we saw it from the boat), turtles, dolphins, and, again, a whole mess load of fish.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1012.

Snorkel Selfie
Snorkel Selfie

Overall, it was a truly awe inspiring week. I’m going to say it now: favorite part of the trip…so far. And to finish off, here is a video of our wonderful underwater adventures!

Pilbara Rocks!

Karijini

According to a Western Australian website, “The Pilbara region in Western Australia has some of the world’s most ancient natural landscapes, dating back two billion years and stretching over 400,000 square kilometers… and the Pilbara is also known as the engine room of Australia – home to a massive mining industry in crude oil, salt, natural gas and iron ore”. We didn’t spend a lot of time in this region, but we can definitely confirm that there are quite a few rocks and that there are numerous mines. I remember driving the highways and seeing a sign for a mine site every hundred or so kilometers. Fortunately, in the middle of this rugged and formidable terrain there is an oasis called Karijini National Park.

In Karijini there are a number of different gorges that lie within it’s borders. The gorge that is the most accessible and therefore the most visited is Dales Gorge. Dales Gorge campground is where we called home while we explored the different features of the gorge. Unlike other gorges where the campgrounds are situated on the floor of the gorge, this campground was on the terrain above the gorge, meaning all hikes would be downhill first and uphill second. Not our favorite way to hike, but the features of Dales Gorge made all exercise well worth it.

First day we visited Fern Pool.

Fern Pool
Fern Pool

Fern Pool sits at the most western part of the gorge and is a beautiful waterhole. It was a particularly warm day so we decided to test the waters. The water turned out to be pretty cold, around 22 degrees celsius, but refreshing for a short swim. While we swam some other tourists pointed out a colony of fruit bats perched in the trees along the waters edge. Very cool.

The next day we set out to walk the gorge. A cool feature of Dales Gorge is that you can walk along the northern rim, look down into the gorge from a number of look outs, and then descend into the gorge itself.

Christina at the top of Dales Gorge
Christina at the top of Dales Gorge

The gorge hike takes you from the surface, past a cascading waterfall, and into the floor of the gorge itself, traipsing along the banks of the river to where it ends at a feature called Circular Pool.

Fortescue Falls
Fortescue Falls
Christina with stunning geometric rocks overhead
Christina with stunning geometric rocks overhead
Christina overlooking the river
Christina overlooking the river

Clearly it was my turn to take pictures (expect for the animal shots).

Along our hike we found many butterfly chrysalises and one newly pupated butterfly!

Fresh butterfly
Fresh butterfly drying its wings

We also found a skink hiding in the bushes. We didn’t notice it at first but if you look closely it only has one arm!

One-armed skink
One-armed skink

Not only were there cool animals on this walk, but really interesting rock formations.

Round on square
Round on square

Once we reached the end of the gorge we decided that it would be a good idea to cool off in the crystal clear water of Circular Pool. Where Fern Pool was cold but refreshing, Circular Pool was just frigid. I can’t stand cold water for too long so I was in and then out with in only a few seconds. But it was very beautiful none the less.

Paul gathering strength for the plunge
Paul gathering strength for the plunge
Circular Pool from above
Circular Pool from above

Overall, Dales was an average campground and a spectacular gorge. But this was only a stop over for the area which we had been anticipating before we left on our trip: Ningaloo!

Broome Broome!

Upon our arrival in Broome, we officially completed the Savannah Way across the north of Australia! From Cape Tribulation on the northeast coast, we drove 6,908 km in 32 days, and were thrilled to see the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean!

Australia Road Trip Map - Savannah Way

Broome is famous for Cable Beach, a huge pristine white sand beach, voted the #1 beach in all of Australia! It certainly was wonderful to jump in the ocean after spending endless days in the red dusty outback. After all the waterholes, rivers and lakes, the saltwater was so strange!

Cable beach in Broome, WA
Cable beach in Broome, WA

Not as strange as the camel caravans that appeared silently behind us…

Camels arrive on the beach for sunset
Camels arrive on the beach for sunset rides

Broome (and the Dampier Peninsula to the north) is also revered by paleontologists for its dazzling collection of dinosaur footprints—a rare treat anywhere in the world—but here they have the prints of over 20 different species, from 120 million years ago. There’s even one right in town you can see at low tide.

Who has bigger feet?
Who has bigger feet?

Just behind the footprint is the best place to watch the sunset, with fabulous rocks to catch the light.

Rocks at Gantheaume Point
Rocks at Gantheaume Point

The main event, however, was Indian curry and beer tastings at Matso’s. They are especially famous for their tasty ginger beer, so Christina was happy too. A delicious dinner to celebrate our trip across the north!

Paul sampling the brews at Matso's
Paul sampling the brews at Matso’s

From here we travel south along the Coral Coast, eager to see the western reefs!

The Kimberley

One of the most well-known and awe-inspiring landscapes in Australia is the Kimberley. It’s in the North West, and takes us into a new territory—Western Australia (the largest, and most remote). But before we cross the border, we stop at one last park in the Northern Territory.

Judbarra National Park (Gregory)

We hadn’t heard of this park until we spotted it on the map, right along our route, and thought it would be a nice stopover. Indeed it was! We did two short hikes, one up a steep escarpment for a fantastic view of the whole valley, and the other went up to some stunning cliffs with rock art.

Christina wiggling through the rocks and roots
Christina wiggling through the rocks and roots
Lookout over the Victoria River
Lookout over the Victoria River

One noticeable feature that popped up in this region, was the funny-looking, shapely boab tree. It’s a distant cousin of the African baobab, there’s one species in Africa, and thirteen in Madagascar—all much larger than the stubby boab. Their haphazard appearance in the bush was a wonderful treat along the long stretches of highway shrub.

Christina under the boabs
Christina under the boabs

 

Lake Argyle

After crossing the border into Western Australia and disposing of all fruits and vegetables (strict quarantine), we arrived in Kununurra. It’s a larger town thanks to the rich agricultural fields surrounding it, which were created when the Ord River was dammed up in 1971. The dam also created Lake Argyle, a thriving tourist haven.

Ord River, the dam is just to the left
Ord River, the dam is just to the left
Lake Argyle. The caravan park where we stayed at is in the top right corner.
Lake Argyle. The caravan park where we stayed at is in the top right corner.
Paul enjoying the clear waters
Paul enjoying the clear waters
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo eating eucalypt nuts
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo eating eucalypt nuts

After the lake, we visited Mirima National Park, made of ancient Devonian reef, layers of red silt and black reef.

Mirima National Park's beautiful layered rock formations
Mirima National Park’s beautiful layered rock formations

That night, while staying at a particularly remote rest stop/campsite, we got a great view of the sky.

Our little spaceship tent floating in the galaxy
Our little spaceship tent floating in the galaxy

 

Geikie Gorge

While we couldn’t do the real Kimberley (the Gibb River road passes through rugged terrain and many gorges, but it’s 4WD only), we did manage to see one of our favorite gorges of the trip, Geike Gorge. This gorge was also formed by ancient reef, but the weathering and sediment types produced vastly different outcomes—stunning sharp jagged rocks and black and white faces along the Fitzroy River. The whole place had a very other-worldly feeling…

Pointy rocks in Geikie Gorge
Pointy rocks in Geikie Gorge
The gorge itself
Gorgeous
Paul walking across this strange planet
Paul walking across this strange planet

Most importantly, we finally saw freshwater crocodiles! One on the hike, and two at the edge of the sandbar where we went swimming 🙂 No worries, folks. ‘Freshies’, as they’re called, are fish-eaters, and much smaller. Still a bit exhilarating to be in the water with!

Can you spot the freshwater crocodile?
Can you spot the freshwater crocodile?
Christina lounging by the water
Christina lounging by the water

Derby

The ocean! The Kimberley region ends at the coast near the town of Derby. On the outskirts of town is a site home to the Prison Boab, which was a sacred aboriginal site until it was carved out and used to hold aboriginals during their forced relocation.

Prison Boab Tree
Prison Boab Tree

Derby has Australia’s highest tidal range (8th highest in the world) a whopping 12 meters (38 feet)! We got a before/after shot to show the difference between high and low tide, but the low tide photo is only halfway to actually low tide… so use your imagination!

Derby at high tide
Derby at high tide
Derby at (half) low tide
Derby at (half) low tide

At the jetty where we took the tide photos was a great sign reminding fishermen to clean up their line and hooks. Best part is the pidgin-australian in red.

Clean up your fishing gear!
Clean up your fishing gear!