PLACES TO GO
Monkey Mia’s local dolphins made it famous, but there are tons of other natural attractions that make it worthwhile exploring this special marine reserve between Carnarvon and Kalbarri. The vast meadows of seagrass that grow in the bays between the two fingers of land jutting out from the coast are a breeding ground for dugongs, sharks and turtles, and the fishing is also exceptional (just be sure to check restricted areas). It is also home to two unique national parks: the colourful Francois Peron, with camping close to where rich red coastal cliffs meet turquoise waters; and Dirk Hartog Island, which can be reached with cars via a barge from Steep Point, or by air and boat charter from Denham (be sure to snorkel out to see the cabbage coral growing near the old homestead). The small community of Denham offers a much wider range of accommodation and places to eat than its neighbour Monkey Mia, which is basically a resort and campground. There are bush camps throughout the region, including on the western peninsula known as Edel Land, although keep in mind that some are very remote so you’ll have to be well prepared and bring all your own supplies.
The small town of Denham is the most convenient base for exploring the region. The majority of caravan parks, villas and chalets in town are located within 100m of the water, but if you’ve got a large group or are planning an extended stay, check out the holiday house rental options on the Ray White website (homeaway.com.au). You can learn about the region at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre, but for something more hands-on there are guided tours with Shark Bay Coastal Tours, (08) 9948 3001, which encompass fishing and wildlife tracking. Other operators running out of Denham include fishing, quad bike, and air charter tours. A hot tip for wildlife lovers is to keep your camera at the ready as you drive into town – there’s a flock of emus that regularly parades down the main street.
Dirk Hartog Island National Park
The state’s largest island has clear, fertile waters, making it a hotspot for fishing and diving. The island can be reached all year round by light aircraft, charter boat, or with a 4WD via a barge from Steep Point; private boats can only visit designated sites, including Notch Point. If you are camping, you can pay entrance fees at the Discovery Centre in Denham before arrival or at Steep Point on the island, but remember that most campsites have few or no facilities so bring as much as you can with you (see the supplies checklist at www.sharkbay.org/equipmentlist.aspx). There’s also digs at the island’s eco lodge, which has a fishing charter available to guests, the only charter on the island. In the surrounding waters, you’ll be likely to snag sought-after game species such as marlin, pink snapper, mackerel, yellow-fin tuna and sailfish. Those who prefer onshore fishing should head to West Point (also known as The Block) and Urchin Point but bear in mind you’ll need a cliff gaff and plenty of lures. At the northern point of the island, just east of Cape Inscription Lighthouse, is Turtle Bay where divers are likely to see turtles (the beach is a nesting ground for loggerheads), dolphins, sharks, whales and sometimes an occasional whale shark. Other diving hotspots include Louisa Bay, Surf Point
and Sandy Point.
The picturesque campgrounds at Red Bluff (photography Simon McBeth).
Carnarvon Town Centre
Most people don’t usually think of this port town as a place to go for a holiday – apart from the grey nomads escaping winter – but it’s got some great attractions. It’s the centre of thriving seafood, fruit and food industries, and is a good base for heading north into the Cape Cuvier Coast, or inland to the speccy Mount Augustus or Kennedy Range national parks. Carnarvon’s a long drive from anywhere, so the open water of its fascine makes a welcome change from all the red dust and mulga scrub, and there are some great picnic spots under the palm trees. Many of the parks along the foreshore have been spruced up recently – there’s a nice picnic area at Pioneer Park, and there are free barbecues at Baxter Park on Olivia Terrace, which also sports a water park (kids will love running amok and squirting the water cannons at each other). In town, the revamped Port Hotel now has a very cool recycled-timber interior design, and serves the best coffee in town. Most of the accommodation is of the caravan park or motel variety along Robinson Street, straight after the turn off from the highway, and often their receptions are closed after 6pm – book ahead to avoid getting caught out without somewhere to stay after dark.
This undeveloped island 26 nautical miles off the coast of Carnarvon is little known, but locals boast that it’s one of the best fishing spots in the world, with a massive range of fish to be caught, from tuna to mackerel, to sailfish and snapper. The diving and snorkelling is also good, particularly on the reefs on the eastern side. It officially sits in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, but you’ll need to jump on a charter tour from Carnarvon if you don’t have your own boat, and camping is not allowed. The best time to visit is during May, June and July, although Blue Label Fishing and Charters, 0418 939 207, have their liveaboard vessel, the Terumi J, available all year round. If you’re driving your own boat, take care; the seas between the islands of Shark Bay can be nasty – they can rise to 2m with little warning at certain times of the year. The best site to check conditions is www.buoyweather.com, which takes information from a buoy close to the island.
Uluru? Pah. Mount Augustus is twice the size, rising 715m above its surrounds. Keen hikers can tackle it on the 12km, six-hour trip to the peak and back – the views over the outback are spectacular. If you’re not up for the walk it’s possible to drive around Mount Augustus (a 49km trip) on Bowgada Drive (which is suitable for 2WDs). Mount Augustus National Park is a 430km trip from Carnarvon so it’s pretty remote, and there is no camping allowed – you’ll need to head to Mt Augustus Tourist Park, (08) 9943 0527, 5km from the base of the Mount Augustus, or Cobra Station (37km from the park). Powered camping sites, food, fuel and water are also available at both locations, and if you’re staying at the tourist park you can buy beer, wine and cider over the counter. For the best views around (watching the sun rise and set on the rock is spectacular) head to Emu Hill Lookout, about 5km west of the park boundary on Cobra Station Road.
Billabong at Mount Augustus (photography Janelle Lugge).
Kennedy Range National Park
The rich red dunefields in this national park, which lies about 160km east of Carnarvon, are heaven for 4WD driving and general bush bashing. Four-wheel drivers can follow an old track left by Afghan camel traders that crosses the Kennedy Ranges from Mooka Springs to Sandiman Station. The track is easiest to find at the Mooka Springs end, and includes a rough and sandy crossing over the Gascoyne River. The gorges in the national park are awesome – at Drapers Gorge after rains, you can climb and scramble up a series of rock pools. The hard yakka’s worth it when you reach the third pool – it’s lovely and clear and is shaded by a large wild fig tree. At Honeycomb Gorge, an easy 600m return walk, the sandstone has been carved into amazing patterns by the wind and water, and if you search on the northeastern wall of the gorge you can spot Aboriginal etchings. Temple Gorge (12km west of Ullawarra Road) is the only place you can camp in the national park. There is one bush toilet there, but you’ll need to bring your own water, and firewood or a gas/fuel stove. Alternatively there’s accommodation at Gascoyne Junction, 60km away. From August through to September, the park becomes prime wildflower-spotting country.
The working sheep station is a wind- and kitesurfing hotspot, and is blessed with great beaches, fishing spots, plenty of wildlife and massive waves (the legendary bone-cracking surfspot Tombstones is for experienced surfers only). Snorkellers and those looking for R&R rather than watersports are best suited to accommodation at the Homestead, the most northern part of Gnaraloo, located close to the sheltered Gnaraloo Bay. The Homestead has a range of self-contained lodgings that are powered from 7am to 11pm – the sites have drinking water, and most have freshwater showers. There are the shearing quarters and sheltered swag camps (power available on request), and digs that have a gas barbecue in addition to a kitchen. Most accommodation at the Homestead has parking for a least one boat, but if yours is particularly large it’s best to call when you book so an appropriate site can be allocated. To the south is 3 Mile Camp – surfer bliss, with its rustic accommodation (there’s nothing to cook on or with, aside from a fire). Lodging includes The Hilton (a beach shack), and The Lagoon, which
has the best views (opt for a site inland when it’s windy though!). The small shop sells cold beer, and has wireless internet. Dog owners can bring their pooch along if he’s well behaved.
The working station offers camping and caravan sites, and basic chalets with spectacular views (they’re perched on top of the sand dunes overlooking the ocean, and are fully self-contained with 24-hour power). Most people come here for the game fishing, with devoted visitors travelling from as far away as South
Africa to fish from the cliffs every year. You’re likely to catch mackerel (Spanish, shark and broadbar), cobia, tuna, sharks, benito, and sailfish. If fishing isn’t your thing, the cliffs are also ideal for whale spotting during the winter months, and you can visit the beach at the station; although it’s rather rocky, it’s great for beachcombing – you’ll find large clamshells, cowrie shells, and other ocean debris.
Boating off Dirk Hartog Island (photography Simon McBeth).
Roughly 50km north of Quobba Station is Red Bluff, and although it’s known for
its world-class Bluff Barrel, it’s also an awesome place for families. The bluff protects the beach, so the kids can play safely, and most of the accommodation
has views of the beach so you can keep an eye on them. The cream of the accommodation options are the luxury safari tents, but there are also campsites and chalets for those on a tighter budget. The stone shack perched high on the bluff has the best views but remember you’ll need to cart your gear up there. During migration, the whales come close to the shore and can be seen without binoculars. Dolphins also frequent the coastline, and snorkellers may spot turtles and reef sharks. Your best bet for some wildlife watching on land is to get up early to see goats out on the exposed reef (apparently they drink from a natural spring out there), local osprey fishing to feed their chicks, and the resident kangaroos. There’s a small shop selling snacks, surf wax and bait, but you’ll need to bring plenty of water and food (although those staying in the safari tents have the luxury of fresh drinking water and power).
THINGS TO DO
This blindingly white beach is well worth a look if you’re travelling past, but don’t forget your sunglasses. The beach is made of millions of tiny white shells piled to a depth of 10m, stretching for over 120km. There’s a short hike from the car park to the beach, and the shells are rather sharp so shoes are a must. The beach isn’t great for sunbaking but the water is shallow and usually tepid, making it ideal for youngsters.
Stromatolites at Shark Bay.
These aquatic eruptions are an hour’s drive (75km) north of Carnarvon. The blowholes are dangerous if you get too close, and swimming off the rocks here is a definite no-no. Head to Point Quobba, 500m south instead; it has a coral-filled lagoon that is perfect for swimming and snorkelling, and although fishing is prohibited you can prise a feed of oysters from the rocks. There is also a campground ($5.50 per night) but you’ll need to bring a portable toilet and your own water.
Hamelin Pool is home to a colony of clumpy ‘living fossils’, around 2500 years old but providing an insight into life that existed 3.5 billion years ago – this is one of only three places in the world where you can see them. If some may find the cow-pat-like structures a little underwhelming, there’s a nice 200m interpretive boardwalk around the pool.
The $5 entry fee to visit the Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre,
(08) 9941 1989, is money well spent to gain a rich understanding of the sad but significant Indigenous history of the region. The centre is kitted out with audio sensors, touch screens and sound booths, making the stories interactive and easy for families to follow. Original art and crafts are available to purchase including ceramics, jewellery and homewares, and if you would like your purchase to be shipped home you might prefer to buy it online at www.gahcc.com.au. There’s also an onsite cafe with a bush tucker-influenced menu.
Art at the Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre.
Conditions are perfect from May to August, but beware: waves on this stretch are heavy. When it’s pumping, only experienced surfers should head out. Tombstones is a shallow reef break considered the area’s best, while Red Bluff is an exposed lefthander with waves up to 2.5m. Also try Dolphin’s Point, Turtles, Centres, The Bombie or Fencies.
Pack a picnic basket and head about 50km east of town to this deep, freshwater pool for a day of swimming and lazing around underneath the ghost gums. The kids (and young-at-heart adults) will love the rope swing into the water. There is a permanent old-school barbecue you can use for a fry up, but you’ll need to collect or bring some firewood. Just look for the sign signaling the turn off on Carnarvon Mullewa Road.
Spot dugongs from a kayak at Shark Bay
Stay in an eco lodge on Dirk Hartog Island
Visit Shell Beach
Catch a wave at Gnaraloo Station
Grab a Red Bluff beach shack
Sample fresh produce in Carnarvon
Try game fishing at Quobba Station
Head to Monkey Mia for dolphin feeding
All these and more at www.scoop.com.au/thingstodo
One of Monkey Mia’s famed bottlenose dolphins (photography Tracy Moran).
Monkey Mia’s dolphin feeding is a special experience, but there are other ways to see them without the tourist crowds. Try visiting the feeding area outside the scheduled times, or set up camp a few hundred metres to the left where they often swim close to the shoreline. If all else fails, the resident pelicans are characters in their own right. A sea kayak is another great way to spot dolphins and to explore the surrounding beaches (if you’re heading up from Perth you can hire one from Rivergods or Canoe and Kayak in Perth). Those partaking in the timetabled feeding might be lucky enough to get chosen to help – check the noticeboard for specific times (the last feed of the day usually has fewer numbers). Aside from the beach feeding there are charters that include dolphin spotting and the chance to see other animals like dugongs and rays. Visitors to Monkey Mia should bear in mind that sunscreen irritates the dolphins’ eyes, so avoid lathering up until after you see them.
FRANCOIS PERON NATIONAL PARK
The park wows its visitors with vivid colours that make for great photos: the red dunes and spinifex are a brilliant contrast to the shoreline and ocean. Entry to Francois Peron National Park is $12 per car, per day and it’s best explored with a 4WD, because a 2WD won’t get you very far (you’ll also need to let your tyres down at the Peron Heritage Precinct). A good hike is the 1.5km Wanamalu Trail along the coast to Skipjack Point (where you are likely to spot rays, sharks, dolphins and schools of fish), or visit the historic sheep station homestead. There are toilets and cooking facilities at Big Lagoon, a fish nursery, which is a great for canoeing and sea kayaking. There are also a number of campsites within the park (BYO food and water). On the return journey, refill your car tires with compressed air at the homestead.
Papayas at Morel’s Orchard (photography Malin Olsson).
WA’s FOOD BOWL
There are a whopping 176 plantations in Carnarvon, and while the best time to visit them is from November to March when the bananas and mangoes are in season, some stay open all year round. Download a map of the Gascoyne Food Trail (gascoynefood.com.au). Popular stops include Bumbak’s and Morel’s Orchard, but don’t overlook The River Gums Cafe, a working plantation that has the best burgers in town. The River Gums Burger has unbelievable tomato relish, and you can enjoy it with pretty scenery – the cafe is situated right on the banks of the river. If you haven’t got much time to stop, keep an eye out for a roadside stall. There are roughly 12 stalls on the food trail and some have honour boxes, so if you’re in a rush you can just grab your groceries and leave the money. If it’s the locally caught seafood that you’re after, you can buy crabs, scallops, prawns and fish direct from the processing facilities at Pelican Point, One Mile Jetty and Pickles Point at the harbour. Pickles Point is regularly changing its stock but the most sought-after seafood doesn’t last long! At any given time they might have oysters, rock lobster (crayfish) and superb fish including red emperor and pink snapper. Your best bet is to join the locals and sign up to their Facebook page so you’ll be first in line when they post about fresh, new stock. Green thumbs on their way back to Perth should head to the Tropical Nursery for herbs, citrus trees and fruit trees – the prices are loads cheaper than you’ll find in Perth.
FISHING IN CARNARVON
Sandwiched between two marine parks, Carnarvon is one of the best places on the coast to throw a line in. Tuna and mackerel lurk underneath the One Mile Jetty, and there’s blue manna crabs from May to August. The locals flock to the jetty when the Gascoyne River flows after rain; large mulloway go into a feeding frenzy when the headwaters – teeming with tons of smaller fish – reach the jetty. Another local pick is Dwyers Leap when the tide’s coming in – aim for flathead, whiting, mangrove jack and bream. Fishing straight off the fascine, and also the river mouth are good options for youngsters, with small species of fish to be caught. Up to an hour south of the main town, and well worth the trip, are Uendoo Creek, Bush Bay and New Beach. The three locations are crab hotspots with great fishing as well – grab your bait in town and stock up your tinny with fishing rods and crab pots; you can launch off the beach at Bush Bay. New Beach and Bush Bay are also ideal for swimming and have free campgrounds although you’ll need to be completely self-sufficient. If you’re looking to launch your boat in town, you’ve got a couple of choices. There’s the main town ramp (located in the main boat harbour) but bear in mind that launching is a bit tricky at really low tide when the jetty is too high to reach from your boat. The ramp at Pelican Point is on the opposite side of the fascine, and is steep with no jetty and only space for about 10 cars and trailers. Fishing at Pelican Point is good, with an opportunity to catch shark and trevally.
Carvarvon Cup racing.
Shark Bay Fishing Fiesta
Join a charter boat or bring your own rig to get involved in this week-long fishing comp. The categories available cater for beach, boat or jetty anglers, as well as fly fishermen. A festival atmosphere is created thanks to a boat regatta, live bands, markets and fireworks. May.
Taste of the Gascoyne
Carnarvon has a prodigious output of fruit and vegetables – more than 70 per cent of Perth’s winter vegetables are grown here. This festival celebrates the region’s food industry, offering a long lunch, tours of plantations and processing. May.
The TropiCOOL festival is the oldest annual festival in Carnarvon. It is held over two days in town and features a range of activities, food, performance, produce and workshops that all capture the local culture. May.
The motorsport event pits car against car and bike against bike, with the winners crowned the Kings of the River. Oct.
Getting there Denham in Shark Bay is around a 10-hour drive from Perth. Gnaraloo is 1050km from Perth, and 150km north of Carnarvon. Skippers Aviation flies from Perth to Carnarvon and Denham, while Integrity Coach Lines run a service between Perth and Carnarvon.
Don’t waste water Even today, the area around Shark Bay receives such
a low rainfall that the fresh water at Denham comes from a desalination plant. Keep your showers to a minimum – it’s not a good look to be wasting water around here.