The Ningaloo Coast - Coral Bay & Exmouth

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It was a wet, windy, wintry night in Perth when Katie, my fourteen year old sister, landed after flying over from Adelaide to spend her school holidays living the vanlife with us. Dad sent her with a one man tent, (which was for Dom), and I had told her not to pack much else, because we’d mostly be living in our bathers. All the photos she’d seen me posting were of us living it up in the sunshine, so when she strolled out of the airport in her t-shirt, she was a bit confused.

Fear not little sis, hop on board, we’re about to road trip 1250km to sunshine.

We were bound for Ningaloo, and I promised her we’d be camped by the sea in no time. We just had some serious road-tripping to do first.

We spent our first night on a suburban street, with street lamp beaming in despite the curtains being tightly pulled together, the three of us in the bed, me in the middle (it wasn’t an appropriate place to pitch a tent). We woke early, hit the road again, and spent our second night back at the Geraldton 24hour free camping carpark. Again under street lamps. When Katie told me she really needed the loo, and not for a number one, I had to break the news that there were none. She didn’t believe me and spent an hour wandering around town with Dom in hopeful search, but every toilet in Geraldton is locked, which baffles me - why provide a free camp spot but lock the loos? I suppose the grey nomads carry their own chemical toilets, but I told Katie she had to dig a hole on the beach.

“But we’re in the middle of a town…” she said.

“Then be quick,” I said.

She wasn’t very impressed.

 

Our third night we pulled over on the side of the highway. There was an amazing display of stars, but our van filled with bugs because we didn’t realised we’d left the boot wide open and all of the lights on while we brushed our teeth. So we spent the night slapping ourselves in the head (whenever a mossie flew past).

The next morning, we took off before dawn, aiming to arrive by the sea by just after midday. But, at 10am we stopped to use the bushes (aka the loo), and when we hopped back in and turned the key, Scout didn’t make a sound. Nothing. Tried again… again nothing. We phoned our mechanic back home, and our new Kombi mechanic in Perth - both told us it was our fuel pump and there was nothing to be done but call a tow truck. I was devastated.

I so wanted to get us set up by the sea and share the magic experience we’d been having. Even moreso because poor Katie was starting think, ‘this whole vanlife gig isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be on your Instagram photos Elise...’

We’d also booked her a pretty expensive flight back to Perth out of Exmouth. But, I resigned myself to the fact that our trip was taking a detour, probably a long one, and we called a tow truck.

Three hours later, with the tow truck on route but still six hours away, while Katie laid on the roof of the van staring at the sky and I sat in the dirt humming some song, Dom got a bit frustrated with the situation and punched the fuel pump. Like, really hard.

A few moments later he tried the key again and Scout chuckled to life. I literally jumped into the air and started cheering and punching my arms in the air, and Katie did the same thing on the roof.

“Quick! Get in! Go! Don’t stop until we get there!”

And get there we did! It felt like arriving in the Promised Land. After hours of driving through the boundless void that is the Western Australian Outback, and driving down a very long, very corrugated dirt road that had our brains bouncing around like pinball machines, we saw a glimmer of turquoise and all started cheering again.

If there’s one thing my little sister is great for - it’s road trips and singalongs. Despite the incredibly long drive, and the not-so-glamourous-vanlife first three nights, she sang the whole way from Perth to Coral Bay. She even had Dom belting out the Disney numbers with her, and all of us dancing in our seats. One of my favourite roads trips to date.

 

We set up camp at Warroora Station, which I found it on Wikicamps. There’s a number of spots that daisy-chain along the oceanfront where you can set up camp. It’s $10 pp (kids under 15 are free). Nothing is provided, but you get some prime sandy real estate.

It was wonderful. Just what I’d been dreaming of. We spent our first night laying on our backs in the sand dunes staring at the stars together. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and we all nodded off. The following day we went for a big run and then spent the whole day in the water. It felt good to arrive. It felt good to be alive. This, little sis, is why we’re living this life. This is what it’s all about.

We wound up spending a solid week camping right on the sand at Warroora. We also ended up spending all but two nights of her two weeks with all three of us in the van and me in the middle. Here’s something I learnt - Katie also sleep sings. And does so without tune... I only realised they were songs because I knew all the lyrics.

There’s no phone reception, but there was a hill, 2km from our camp, with a little wooden sign that read ‘Telstra Hill’. In case of emergency (in other words to quickly post a photo), I had to run the 2kms and then run back down, because getting Scout out of the sand required us to enlist the help of nearby grey nomads for a bit of a push.

 

It truly doesn’t get much better. A whole week camping on the beach, turquoise water at our toes, with no reception. We went on walks, read books, listened to music, talked a LOT, swam, snorkeled, played cards, cooked dinner, then woke up the next day and did it all again. We absolutely loved Warroora.  

Note: I later learnt that the locals pronounce it Warra. When I told friends we made in Exmouth about War-roo-ra (which is how it’s spelt) they thought it sounded great but had never heard of it. When they told me about Warra, I thought the exact same thing. After a number of these conversations I began to suspect we were talking about the same place.

The biggest highlight from our time with Katie, for all of us, (actually I think it’s the biggest highlight of our journey so far), was swimming with the Whale Sharks. It has forever been on my dream list.

How can I describe it?... It was breathtakingly, awe-inspiringly incredible. It was exhilarating and peaceful all at once. Before we jumped in for our first swim adrenalin began to kick in. You’re out in the middle of the big blue, with nothing between you and Africa, and you’re about to jump in and swim with the biggest fish in the sea (and in the back of my mind I’m thinking about sharks because I’m from South Australia). But as soon as you put your face under, everything goes quiet and you watch these gentle giants swimming towards you. You float in stillness while soundlessly yelling “WOW!”. Then as they glide past, you begin to swim and have no trouble keeping up as they slowly cruise along. Despite the other bodies in the water, it feels like just you and this giant beauty, swimming in the middle of the sea.

We chose to go out with Live Ningaloo, and I'm so glad we did. Our main reason was because they’re a small, boutique, new operator and unlike the others, they cap their groups at 10 people.

Legally, only 10 people can be in the water with the Whale Sharks at any time, and rather than having to wait your turn again on a bigger boat - you can be in the water every opportunity that comes along. This is ecotourism - you’re entering their world, and experiencing these creatures in the wild. So, while it’s all a bit unpredictable, we wanted to maximise our chances and the amount of time we’d get to spend in the water.

Live Ningaloo were sensational. The crew were all absolute legends - so much fun and full of ocean wisdom. We also saw dolphins, turtles, humpback whales swimming past, and hundreds of fish. The lunch and bubbles provided was a delight, and we rounded the day up with a snorkel over a pretty specky part of the Ningaloo reef.

 

Once back on land Katie had this newfound 14-year-old passion for the ocean that just made me smile. Such an epic experience to have at that age, but really - at any age. It was unreal.

We had hoped to camp at Cape Range National Park for a while, but we were disappointed to learn that people book months in ahead. Those bloody organised grey nomads... :)

We managed to get one night at Ned’s Campground. We loved it, and over the following month we spent a lot of time exploring the national park. While we only had the one night, I’d recommend taking what you can get, or being more prepared than we ever are and plan ahead, because it’s pretty great in there and the snorkelling is the best I’ve ever experienced. Our top two snorkels spots were Oyster Stacks and the Blue Lagoon. At Oyster Stacks you can snorkel in a protected part of the reef straight off the beach. Blue Lagoon is a spot some locals, Danny & Katie, took us to. We paddled out on stand up paddle boards a few hundred meters out, and the reef opens to this huge blue lagoon. Expect schools of fish, big beautiful barramundi, reef sharks and a turtle or two.

The day after Katie left us, we were driving Scout towards the national park and we heard a pop. A hose burst.

We called the RAA (I’ve said this before, but again - thank God for the RAA) and waited for a tow truck. While we were waiting on the side of the road a troopy pulled over and a couple who had just left Perth to begin their round-the-world adventure jumped out to say hello. They ended up waiting with us, and then once Scout was at the mechanics, they delayed their Exmouth departure, hung out with us and cooked us dinner in their troopy. Legends. So excited to see where their travels takes them - (there's a link to their page below if you want to too).

After five days in a dingy motel room, we were excited to get the call from the mechanic, but it didn’t go as well as expected.

“We’ve got good news and bad news,” they began. “The good news is we fixed your popped hose. The bad news is we just turned on your van and your engine is, well... f*#%ed.”

They laid it straight. “To be honest, at this stage, with this engine, I’d tell most people to take their car to the dump,” the owner told us, “But obviously you don’t want to do that.”

Yep, nope, definitely not.

“So… to give you some idea, the last job like this I did ended up being about ten grand.”

 

I kept it together, swallowing the giant lump in my throat, and then got into our hire car and sobbed. We spent the afternoon calling around and finding out what our options were. We ended up only having one real choice - which was to send the engine to someone and have it rebuilt. Fortunately we had met a Kombi conversion mechanic in Perth because of our breakdown in Margaret River, and we sent it straight to him.

The next dilemma was what to live in for the next month? After popping a plea for help on Instagram, we got a number of phone calls and someone lent us a tent. We booked an unpowered site at the Exmouth RAC caravan park for the month and settled in. In moments like this, I am so grateful for the wonderful community of people on Instagram and all the people we’ve met because of it.

I’ll be honest, tent life wasn’t amazing, I’m pretty sure it had a nest of huntsman and we had a number of spiders in our bed during our 28 nights, plus Dom has a bit of a fear when it comes to spiders (which made for some very funny debacles), and Dom got had his first spider bite.

 

BUT, what was amazing was Exmouth and the people in this happy little coastal town. We made friends we’ll love for life.

There’s a real sense growth in Exmouth. It’s an eco-focused, active community. Young people and young families choosing to call it home and opening new businesses, which then attracts more great people.

We especially loved Froth - a new brewery and bar run by a couple of legends who are really trying to create something that adds a lot of value to the town’s social scene. There’s always something going on, from Fun Fridays, to comedy nights, movie nights (projected on a big screen with everyone sipping beers on bean bags), to regular live music. We had a lot of really good nights in Exmouth. After a couple of weeks we got to know the owners quite well, and they then got to know our wines, and loved them - so you’ll now find Down The Rabbit Hole on the menu at Froth (yay!).

 

Our favourite daytime hangout was Social Society. Another newby in Exmouth, this bright airy place is run by Anne & Kai, who will welcome you will a very loud, happy “Hiiiiiiii!!” and dish up delicious vegetarian and vegan delights (try their veggie burger, anything on their pumpkin bread, and the iced coconut turmeric latte).

Every Wednesday night, we’d walk down to town beach where The Short Order, a coffee van you’ll find parked their every morning, do Wednesday curry nights. It rocked. BYO booze, great tunes, and epic sunsets. Sublime spot to sit, talk, eat and drink with friends as the sun sank and the stars came out. When the warm breeze would start to cool down, there were always blankets handy, or it was time to walk home to our tent.

We began to realise how long we’d been in Exmouth because we were in town for 6 of these.

One of the biggest bright side’s to our extended stay was that we transitioned from Whale Shark season into Humpback season. This is the second year the government are allowing a trial of swimming with Humpbacks, so we felt like the was a least something a little fortuitous about our predicament. Another opportunity for a once in a lifetime experience.

We went back out with Live Ningaloo and GUYS - it was AMAZING. When we first saw them (we were 15 meters from a pack of 4 travelling males) I was looking down and could see a little bit of white, and thought, “man… that’s cool, but it’s so far away,” and then he came into focus and I realised he wasn’t too far away, he was too close, and I could only see a fraction of him. They are HUGE. As the three other majestic giants went past it was such a rush. Just being in the water, seeing and hearing them is magic, but being able to look down and see them swim right under you - hooley dooley!

Another must do is a sunset or sunrise at Charles Knife Canyon. We’d been on this peninsula for weeks, and had no perception that this magnificent canyon was right in the middle. The sun rises over the water on one side of the North West Cape peninsula and sets over the water on the other side. We can understand why so many people visit Exmouth on holiday and never leave (by choice... or because their Kombi’s decide to pack it).

Some of our new friends lent us their ute, and we drove up and spent an afternoon reading and drinking wine. After a few weeks on foot this was a pretty special day and will live in my memory bank as one of our all time greats.

Elise Cook & Domenic Palumbo

Spot the fish?

In conclusion, if we were going to have a long breakdown anywhere in Australia, we are both grateful in happened in Exmouth.

 

Having said that, we were pretty excited to get Scout back and get back on the road. When we paid our giant bill we were convincing each other it would be worth it because she’ll hoot around the world for the next twenty years now. She lasted twenty minutes and we were back on a tow truck…

It was... disappointing. We had no reception so I hitched a ride with some Germans back towards town so I could phone the mechanic. They had it for another few days, charged us a small fortune and did nothing. I think they may have been out of their depths with our Kombi but weren’t saying so. We also became aware that as lovely as it was, we were in one of the most expensive parts of Australia we could have broken down.

 

So, we decided it was time to get out before we reached the point we actually couldn’t afford to leave and began to limp towards Karijini…

Thanks Exmouth, it was pretty wonderful getting to know you.

Any questions or just to say hey - leave a comment below. :)

LINKS:

Live Ningaloo (for the best Whale Shark & Humpback encounters)

@thewayoverland- the awesome couple travelling the world in their troopy

Warroora Station(you can't book - just rock up. We used Wikicamps - and it says it's a cattle station, but we didn't see any cows or a station. Haha, I think it's just huge and covers a beautiful stretch of coastline.)

Wikicamps (FYI this isn't sponsored - we just love Wikicamps and use it all the time to find campspots).

 

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