Captivating Coral Bay & Cape Range National Park

 

Some places we visit are so remote, yet so special that even travellers from overseas make the effort to go there. Coral Bay, at the southern end of the Ningaloo Marine Park, is one of these. Whilst we know that this part of Australia is now in its peak season after the Wet, we weren’t expecting the sheer numbers! It is not a big place, but it is THE place to be in Winter!

The Ningaloo Coral Bay had long ago extended an offer for us to stay with them, originally in a villa unit. Now that we have our own “hotel on wheels” in the form of the Jayco Expanda Outback, a powered site is really all that was required. Reception was humming with activity, but the check-in process went very smoothly as we were allocated our corner site, just near an amenities block and across from the playground. Ideal location for the Legend to be seen.

It was warm and a bit humid as we were setting up the Jayco, and we are very grateful for the air conditioning available! Paul very narrowly avoided being crushed between the Legend and a reversing vehicle who wasn’t checking his surroundings. It was more infuriating when the wife saw what happened and laughed, telling Paul it was a “good thing you took a deep breath”. It was THAT close. Yep, obviously she’s seen that sort of driving before from her husband and takes no issue with it. That’s scary in itself. It could have been one of the kids, standing “safely” next to the Legend on our site. Why some people buy huge caravans when they’ve never towed or had experience reversing same, we’ll never know. In some parks we’ve stayed at have a staff member guide you in to your site, which is a courtesy but also an exercise in asset management & safety on their part. We’ve seen trees, powerheads and taps on bizarre angles, having been run into by vans and vehicles. In our opinion there should be mandatory training when you buy your first van or camper trailer, no matter how long you’ve been driving. You never know what you don’t know, till someone tells you.

At Coral Bay the water is salty and from a deep bore, so you don’t connect your van, or drink what comes out of the taps at each site. Designated drinking water taps are located throughout the park, and if you need to fill your van tank, they have a bulk water point available for a small fee. Desalinating water is an expensive process, but without it visitors would have to schlepp in their own water for drinking. That’s a lot of extra weight when you’re towing!

We went for a short drive to the beach carpark and loved seeing the families on the sand and in the safe swimming area. We located the beach where the turtles come to over the Wet season to lay their eggs, much to our youngest daughter’s excitement (and then disappointment that the turtles are gone till later in the year).

Taking the kids to the pool for a later afternoon dip, they thoroughly enjoyed playing with the other travelling kids there. They never miss an opportunity to socialize, be it with kids or their parents! Kirstine was much amused at a small monitor that appeared out of the gardens to scout the grassed area for delicious morsels. He seemed to like posing for photos!

Chatting with some of the parents, we heard that they had been free camping for a week and were glad to come to the park to have a shower. Their kids were keen to tell Kirstine that they’d been wearing the same clothes for five days, much to her amusement. She reassured them that it’s all good dirt, and our kids have done the same thing as we travel around.

The next day Paul checked at the information hut near the beach, to verify the location of the dog friendly Paradise Beach. It worked well because you can snorkel there as well. Rounding the red rocks that begins Paradise Beach, Luna was beyond excited and once off lead, headed straight to the water, bouncing around like a rabbit. We were surprised to see her activity in the water spook a large sting ray from its hiding place under a layer of sand, sending it off further down the shallows.

The kids stayed in those shallows while Paul and Kirstine swam off to see how far it took to find some coral bommies to explore. Speckled sting rays rested on the ocean floor, and the visibility wasn’t too good, being a bit cloudy in the mid-afternoon. It was still a wonderful swim, and as we turned to check on the kids, we were surprised to see Luna nearly upon us, having swum out to see if we needed rescuing! We sent her back to the kids, and Kirstine swam back to get the kids organised to go snorkelling with Dad.

Paul is the stronger swimmer (remember his Rescue Diver training?), and an experienced snorkeller, so he took the kids out one by one. Our youngest daughter was eager to swim with Dad, revelling at being in the ocean and seeing the rays and fish life. Cooper was next to see the sights, but our eldest daughter took some convincing. Interestingly, she is most at home in a pool, but has a fear of the deeper water of the ocean. Eventually she headed out with Paul and enjoyed herself. All the kids trust Paul’s abilities, particularly in water. Over the years he has helped them all out with aquatic fears and the barrier it causes in their minds. This is an important bonding time for Paul with the kids, and it was a very rare opportunity for him to have time swimming with them individually, while Kirstine kept Luna occupied in the shallows!

The tours on offer from Coral Bay are numerous and incredibly tempting! Glass bottom boats, fishing charters, swimming with whale sharks. Sadly, our budget didn’t allow for these, not that they are expensive, but multiply everything by five and it becomes pricey for a family on a tight budget. However, we already know we’ll come back when the kids are a bit older and we can join in on all those wonderful tour options.

Exmouth is further out on a peninsula and can be accessed via commercial flights into Learmonth if you don’t want to drive. Considering the distances and fuel costs to get here, flying in and hiring a vehicle is not a bad option. You miss out on seeing the cathedral termite mounds though, which we haven’t seen since we were in the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland. We noticed a different design to the mounds in Western Australia though, and joked about a national termite meeting where they agree on what shape the mounds will take in various states!

We were amused at the “emu family” signs in town, though none showed up while we were there. We’ve since heard that they can be quite bold, approaching cars and poking their heads into open windows to look for anything food related!

The RAC Exmouth Cape Holiday Park welcomed us with a powered site at the rear of the camp. It was shady and spacious. We have become accustomed to having a “camp magpie” turn up and befriend us when we are in a location for a few days. In this case, there is a “park emu” that wanders around and past campsites. The kids thought this was hilarious.

Paul & Kirstine were relieved to see a van arrive on a tow truck. We had passed a van that had lost a wheel about 60km out of Exmouth. The tow truck had arrived, so we didn’t stop, but made a point of going to check on the couple when we saw them in the park. They were very grateful we stopped to see them, telling us they had been stuck by the side of the road for a long time. There was no mobile phone coverage where they’d been forced to pull over, but people had stopped to see if they could assist and helping them to get a call out to the RAC Roadside Assist. As the lady put it, her “faith in humanity had been restored’ by the experience. In speaking about our travels and reasons for same, they told us about a lifelong friend of theirs who had last year taken his own life. No-one had seen it coming, and they were shocked, having planned on travelling together when they all retired. In their words, “it reminded them that life is too short”, and they bought the van and were on their way to become campground hosts in the Cape Range National Park for the peak season. What a fabulous way to enjoy retirement and honour their friend’s memory!

An older couple in a motorhome next to us were great to chat with, their boisterous big dogs being a source of amusement for the kids and Luna. They asked the kids if they’d seen the dingo that wandered past the camp a little while ago, and we were all disappointed not to have seen it. This couple were heading south back towards Perth, and were making the most of their adventures, as the wife had been diagnosed with cancer.

This reminded us of a conversation we had in Geraldton in relation to travelling Australia. This gentleman told us that most people spend their whole lives working and planning on travelling the country in their retirement, but in his opinion, travelling such huge distances at an advanced age makes little sense. Waiting till retirement to see Australia, makes little sense. Why wait until you are retired? Why wait when a health condition could suddenly make ANY travel an impossibility? This is only one viewpoint, but there is some sense in his perspective.

Having read about a brilliant snorkelling location in the Cape Range National Park, we made plans to go there for Mother’s Day. Paul took a huge step in letting Kirstine organise a puppy sitter from a list provided by the Exmouth Visitor Centre, and we dropped Luna off with Johanna the next day so that we could snorkel without having to worry about Luna trying to “rescue us” and potentially injuring herself on the coral.

Johanna and Luna hit it off famously, and though originally confused as to why we were driving off without her, Luna made herself at home on Johanna’s couch, as the pictures we received via text proved. As it turned out, Luna had a great day of adventures – cuddles with Johanna, a trip to the beach to run around off lead (pretty much Luna’s most favourite activity other than cuddles), a good brush and more cuddles! When we picked her up that evening, Paul’s anxiety was on the rise, having been without Luna all day. Seeing her reaction to him arriving to collect her was a joy! Her tail was wagging so much that her body appeared to serpentine as she ran around him and jumped up to lick his face. If only she’d been able to speak, we have no doubt it would have been “Dad! Dad! DAD! You’re back! I had such a great day, and you’re back! I went to the beach, and I went for a swim, and I played with other dogs, and Johanna is really nice, and YOU’RE BACK!!!”

While Luna had been having her own day of fun, we arrived at the Oyster Stacks in the Cape Range National Park with about four hours till low tide. This safe snorkelling area, ideal for families, is protected by a large reef, but low tide makes it impossible to swim between the coral outcrops. The kids stayed together, able to stand up in the water if they needed to. Paul & Kirstine headed off for some much-needed time together.

There are few words to describe the sheer magic of snorkelling at the Oyster Stacks. The water was clear, and the reefs were alive with fish of all sizes and colours. From tiny schools of electric blue fish that seemed to glow and twinkle in the water, to elegant tropical fish that would fit right into a Disney movie, larger multicoloured parrot fish, starfish, sea cucumbers, purple and green coral .. it was idyllic, and two hours snorkelling passed as though only five minutes. We only left the water because the adults could no longer swim over the coral, so much had the water level dropped.

We’ve heard other travellers say that this location is even better than the Great Barrier Reef, because you don’t need to go out on a boat to get to it, and families can easily bring young children here to see the abundant fish life. Next time we’ll camp within the National Park and spend our days at the Oyster Stacks!

A visit to Turquoise Bay was also a must, and the fish come right up into the shallows here too, however the water is deeper, the reefs much further out and there is a permanent rip to consider if you swim. This particular location is recommended for more experienced snorkellers.

The North West Cape is truly breathtaking, with the lighthouse at Vlamingh Head, the World War II sandbags STILL there to be seen, though now protected from people who would climb on and damage them. The wreck of the SS Mildura is visible from the beach and shows the treacherous dangers in navigating these waters. We were sad to be leaving so soon.

Fuelling up just out of Exmouth (saving 10 cents a litre on town prices), it was easy to see that other travellers are using apps as we do to find the best fuel prices. Paul filled the Legend, and Kirstine got talking to a lady whose husband had just put 65 litres of the wrong type of fuel into their car by mistake. A local man had offered to come and help them, so they were waiting, afraid to drive and wreck their car by running the wrong fuel through the system. Her husband was a retired policeman, and she could well understand the psychological problems that can arise from a long career as a first responder. This lady’s sister has lived with depression for her whole life, and with the NDIS, she and her husband now have some support. They want to travel, but her sister has some concerns about leaving her support network. As Kirstine said, travelling while living with mental illness can be challenging at times, but it’s possible to choose quieter locations to help in the transition to a period of life on the move. Going remote, in our experience, makes it easier to relax and enjoy this beautiful country. Paul is testament to what can be achieved regardless of a diagnosis of mental illness. Research, plan, prepare and just do it. You won’t regret it.

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