This is a mighty region, stretching over a whopping 1000km along some of the most pristine coastline in the state, from Cervantes (only two hours north of Perth) to Exmouth in the north. The laid-back southern seaside villages and the increasingly urbane city of Geraldton are fishing and surfing hotspots, while up top, the hero of the region is the Ningaloo Reef, where the snorkelling and diving are world class. The chance to snorkel with a whale shark or camp on a perfect beach will make you forget all about that 14-hour car trip.
Top things to do
Swim eyeball to eyeball with a whale shark
Dive for gold coins on the wreck of the Batavia
Hide in the sand dunes and watch turtles laying eggs
Hang ten at the world-class surf spot Tombstones (Gnaraloo)
Trade campfire stories on an outback station
Camp on the beach
Abseil into a 35m gorge in Kalbarri
Float down the Murchison River in a tyre tube
Watch a dugong snuffling in the seagrass
Windsurf at Coronation Beach
Feast on fresh rock lobsters in Cervantes
Guzzle fruit smoothies at a Carnarvon mango plantation
Explore Geraldton’s trendy boutique shops and art galleries
See blankets of wildflowers
All these things to do and more at www.scoop.com.au/coralcoast
Cervantes to Dongara
The Indian Ocean Road has breathed new life into the tiny coastal villages along its stretch (Cervantes, Jurien Bay, Green Head, Leeman and the twin towns of Dongara and Port Denison). In anticipation of the additional tourists, most councils have revamped their public spaces, so there are now lots of picnic areas, free barbecues and kids’ playgrounds. The towns may be short on nightlife but they’re big on outdoor activity – 4WDing in the sand dunes, fishing, windsurfing and surfing, snorkelling and wildflower spotting are all popular. The eerie Pinnacles Desert is also a major drawcard.
Geraldton to Kalbarri
Geraldton (population 38,000) is the capital of the midwest and a service centre for the surrounding farming, mining and fishing industries. If you haven’t visited in a while, you might be surprised at how the port city has changed: there are now cute and quirky boutiques, bars and restaurants in the West End, funky art galleries, and a new waterfront. Its howling summer winds also draws hordes of surf-sport enthusiasts. Two hours to the north, the family-friendly coastal town of Kalbarri is popular with anyone who loves outdoor activities, like fishing, surfing, swimming, hiking, horseriding and canoeing. It’s also within reach of some pretty spectacular scenery – the mighty Murchison River, the 150km-long Zuytdorp Cliffs (good for whale spotting) and the gorges of the Kalbarri National Park. 24km south of Geraldton, the highlight at the teeny village of Greenough is its collection of heritage-listed buildings (good for anyone interested in pioneering history). To the northeast, the pretty Chapman Valley is home to three sleepy towns – Yuna, Nanson and Nabawa – and the flat-topped Moresby Ranges. Offshore, the Abrolhos Islands form one of the state’s most pristine eco systems, offering exceptional fishing, diving, snorkelling and surfing, but you can’t stay overnight. Inland, at Mullewa and Mingenew, you’ll find expanses of wildflowers in season.
Shark Bay to Gnaraloo
Monkey Mia’s friendly dolphins are the biggest visitor drawcard here, but this region also attracts hordes of keen fishermen and marine wildlife enthusiasts. The two-and-a-half-hour drive off the North West Coastal Highway into Francois Peron National Park winds past Eagle Bluff – the best location for spotting sharks, turtles and dugongs – and the Ocean Park, where visitors can watch sharks being fed. The small community of Denham offers a much wider range of accommodation and eateries than its compact neighbour of Monkey Mia, with almost all of the lodging within walking distance from the beach. To the west, Dirk Hartog Island – great for diving and fishing – can be reached via a barge (you’ll need a 4WD) or with a charter. Further along North West Coastal Highway, about two hours out from Carnarvon, is Quobba Station – just bring a fishing rod – and popular surfer hangouts Red Bluff and Gnaraloo; aside from epic reef barrels both have protected bays, beachside campsites and plenty to do for kids (leave the electronics at home), making them ideal for a family holiday.
While this port (population almost 7000) is still a little rough around the edges, it’s remodelled itself in recent years as a foodie destination on the strength of its seafood industry and endless rows of fruit plantations and vegetable farms (many of which you can visit to sample the wares). The new One Mile Jetty Interpretive Centre features exhibitions including a lifeboat from the German raider Kormoran, which fought and sank the HMAS Sydney II. The centre also has a licensed dining room and bait shop for fishermen. Another new attraction is the Space and Technology Museum, which chronicles the role of the Carnarvon tracking Station in the Apollo 11 moon landing. Kids are free, and for adults the $5 entry fee even includes a free coffee. Two hours north, you can surf and camp on the beach at the coastal stations around Point Quobba and Red Bluff. Inland, the remote Mount Augustus and Kennedy Range national parks are often overlooked, but offer some of the most awesome scenery in WA.
Coral Bay and Exmouth
It doesn’t get much more laidback than the tiny beachside village of Coral Bay (population 200), where there’s just one road, a handful of shops and a beautiful beach. The Ningaloo Reef is just metres off shore here and you can jump on a charter boat to snorkel and dive on the outer reef and see the whale sharks and manta rays in season. Exmouth (population 2200) is less pretty, but more developed so it’s a good place to stock up on camping supplies or base yourself for daytrips into the Cape Range National Park and offshore to the Muiron Islands.
WHEN TO GO
This region is defined by its big-ticket seasonal drawcards. Here are the dates you need to know to plan your trip.
WHALES Jun-Nov. BEST SPOTS Kalbarri’s coastal cliffs at Natural Bridge, Eagle Gorge and Red Bluff; Shark Bay Marine Park (via charterboat).
WHALE SHARKS Mar-Jul. BEST SPOTS Coral Bay and Exmouth.
WILDFLOWERS Jul-Nov. BEST SPOTS Chapman Valley (between Nanson and Yuna), Kalbarri, and Lesueur, Cape Range and Nambung national parks.
NINGALOO CORAL SPAWNING Mar-Apr (7-10 days after the full moon).
FISHING Year round. BEST SPOTS Cervantes (Hangover Bay and Kangaroo Point), Port Gregory, Steep Point, Zuytdorp Cliffs, Point Quobba, Shark Bay, and Coral Bay. Game/deep-sea fishing charters available from Geraldton, Carnarvon, Kalbarri, Coral Bay, and Exmouth.
ROCK LOBSTERS Nov 15-Jun 30. BEST SPOTS Cervantes, Jurien Bay, Geraldton and the Abrolhos Islands.
SURFING May-Aug (Red Bluff); Apr-Oct (Gnaraloo); Mar-Oct (Geraldton).
WINDSURFING Nov-Mar (Point Moore, Sunset Beach and St Georges Beach, Geraldton); Sep-Dec (Sandy Bay, Exmouth).
FRUIT AND VEG Mar-Aug, avocados; Nov-Mar, mangoes; Sep-Nov, stone fruit; May-Oct, Gascoyne Growers Market (Carnarvon).
BREAKING UP THE JOURNEY
Geraldton and Carnarvon are the most convenient places to stay overnight
along the North West Coastal Highway because they don’t involve lengthy detours
off the highway into the nearest town, unlike Kalbarri (a 66km detour), Denham/Monkey Mia (128km/153km) and Coral Bay (90km). South of Geraldton, along Brand Highway, there are very few places to stay on the five-hour journey back to Perth. Your best bet if you want to avoid spending hours in the car is to take the Indian Ocean Drive instead and stop over at Cervantes, Jurien Bay, Leeman or Dongara. Roadhouses are also few and far between on the Coral Coast – there’s 231km between Geraldton and The Billabong Roadhouse – which makes petrol planning important. The Overlander Roadhouse at the Denham-Hamelin Road turn off, Wooramel Roadhouse, and Milinya Bridge Roadhouse all have caravan facilities and campsites too (the Billabong Roadhouse also has a motel). The Eneabba Roadhouse is famous for its burgers, and has an RAC towing service if you get stuck in the lower Coral Coast region, (08) 9955 1183. LPG Autogas is not available from all service stations.
CLIMATE AND WEATHER
Temperature Hot summers (average 32°C) and warm winters (average 22°C+) -make for great beach conditions on the Coral Coast all year round. Be warned – it can get VERY hot in summer (40°C+), which can make sleeping in a tent a challenge. Wind In summer, strong southwesterly winds hit (just check out the flat trees around Greenough), and many a camping trip has been ruined by an unexpected gale. Call the Bureau of Meteorology, (08) 9263 2222, for conditions if you’re setting off into a national park to camp. But the plus side of all the wind is that the waves and windsurfing conditions get cranking: Geraldton, Port Denison and Kalbarri are all hotspots. Cyclones The north of the Coral Coast does experience a cyclone season (Nov-Apr), and the large volumes of rain can cause flooding of creeks and riverbeds. If you’re travelling during a cyclone, stay tuned to the local radio station for updates (1188AM or 747AM in Exmouth). You can call also Main Roads WA branches to check road conditions on138 138.
GOOD TO KNOW
Ningaloo Reef The reef starts just north of Red Bluff and curls around the North West Cape. The easiest points to access the reef for snorkelling or diving without a boat are Gnaraloo Station, Coral Bay, and the Cape Range National Park.
For a map of the marine park, visit ningaloo-atlas.org.au.
Boat ramps There are concrete boat ramps on the North West Cape at Bundegi Beach, Tantabiddi, Exmouth Marina and Coral Bay. In Shark Bay, large boats can be launched at ramps in Denham and Monkey Mia, and there’s a ramp for smaller boats at Nanga Bay Resort on South Peron. Carnarvon pumped $3 million into their two-lane boat ramp, which includes a fish-cleaning station and toilets, while in Geraldton the Batavia Coast Marina has a double ramp and two finger jetties. Further south, Cervantes, Jurien Bay, Green Head and Dongara all have ramps. You can launch from the beach at Gnaraloo Bay – just outside Point Quobba Reserve – and at Big Lagoon and Herald Bight in Shark Bay (small boats only). The ramp at St Georges Beach in Geraldton has been closed but the beach can still be used for small vessels.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
This is a HUGE region: Cervantes in the south of the Coral Coast is a two-hour
drive north of Perth, while getting to Exmouth on the northern boundary is
a leg-cramping 14 hours in the car (it’s 1000 km from top to botton). So to really explore the Coral Coast easily, it’s essential to have a car. If you don’t fancy
a 14-hour car trip (especially with kids), there are also flights into Geraldton or Learmonth airports (near Exmouth), and plenty of hire car companies.
Cervantes (08) 9652 7700 Jurien Bay (08) 9652 0800 Dongara (08) 9927 1404 Greenough (08) 9926 1084 Geraldton (08) 9921 3999 Greenhead/Leeman
(08) 9953 1388 Mullewa (08) 9961 1500 Chapman Valley (08) 9920 5011 Kalbarri
(08) 9937 1104 Shark Bay (08) 9948 1590 Monkey Mia (08) 9948 1366 Carnarvon (08) 9941 1146 Coral Bay (08) 9948 5190 Exmouth (08) 9949 1176
NATIONAL PARK ACCESS FEES/CONTACTS
Stockyard Gully, no fee (08) 9921 3999 Nambung (Pinnacles), $12 per car (08) 9652 7913 Lesueur, $12 per car (08) 9652 1911 Kalbarri, $12 per car (08) 9921 5955 Francois Peron, $12 per car (08) 9948 1208 Bernier and Dorre Islands, no fee (08) 9941 3754 Dirk Hartog, no fee (08) 9948 1208 Cape Range/Milyering, $12 per car (08) 9949 2808
Fees payable in cash on entry, camping fees additional. Annual ($88) and holiday ($44) passes allowing entry to multiple national parks available online from the Department of Parks and Wildlife (dpaw.wa.gov.au).
Cervantes (08) 9652 7244 Exmouth 0409 994 933 Everywhere else 131 008.
Car breakdowns RAC 131 111