I have cured my Exmouth Banoffee fixation. Nothing like a year away from a restaurant and the idealised memory of a dessert, to ramp expectations to other Everest proportions. For 7 years we have driven straight to Whalers from Woodend or Perth, ordered takeaway Banoffees, then proceeded with less important matters like finding somewhere to sleep.
Practically inhaling soft shell crab tacos and a great gumbo in indecent haste at Whalers latest incarnation, the reason I had come arrived. Disassembled chocolate biscuit crust fought for air under runny toffee keeping the kitchen’s last few slices of banana hostage. As if embarrassed, the historically firm piped Kahlua cream ran over the lot like a blanket, as if to say “keep moving, nothing to see here.” It was never traditional, but I will never forget. RIP.
Exmouth is a great little spot with three shops you can buy beach gear from (#eternalsearchfortheperfectbikini), a massive fishing and camping shop, great coffee, and fabulous fish and chips. It is the kind of place I would choose to work if I needed country practise time in my imagined life as a Doctor. It grew around a once sizeable UN-Australian naval communications base, established in the late 60’s until 1992 when it passed to the Royal Australian Navy. The buildings remain, with faded signwriting hinting at bar and bowling alley good times, and the 200 American cars flown over to help the US families feel at home, cruising the wide streets. In 2002, all naval personnel departed, but multiple communication towers remain. An awesome retro swimming pool is fenced off presumably to LA skateboarders, and wildflowers gradually takeover the paths.
W told me we would park the camper trailer and stay somewhere a bit flasher for my birthday, but first, a snorkel. Pulling up to the South Mandu snorkelling spot, a wee golf cart grabbed our bags and disappeared into the dunes.
Sal Salis is a self-sufficient safari-tent eco-resort located within the National Park. Virtually invisible to the rest of the Park, its continued existence relies on being invisible, and adherence to closely monitored strict environmental requirements. This means the delicate flora and dune eco-systems around Sal Salis actually enjoy a far greater protection from those random visitors that stomp around the fragile dunes in the rest of the park. It attracts all sorts of people, but I would wager a heavy international patronage by current or retired IT professionals, or engineers working in the Emirates. The young teenagers that get to tag along seem to be extremely bright, immensely down-to-earth, and in the same sentence as saying “Pancakes for breakfast!!!” tell me they will go to either Oxford or Cambridge, as if it is the same thing.
Making the most of our precious 42 hours at the resort, we decided to jump in the resort kayaks and explore the reef. Still traumatised by a self-inflicted wobble into the Artic jellyfish rich waters of Norway’s Grimstad harbour, I had not chanced a kayak since. Before long, we were slicing through the water like Olympians, and en route to a spot called Blue Lagoon. W wanted to get out and snorkel so I offered to hold his kayak. Sitting in a Zen-like state I glanced over my shoulders to discover my immediate proximity to the reef edge. As waves crashed over the kayaks I realised I had hold of two paddles and a kayak, no free hands to navigate, and a one-way ticket to the outer reef. Mindful of preventing a cheese grater experience for both kayaks and myself I yelled to W to swim over and get his boat. Fighting the tidal flow, W struggled to make ground and my Zen made way for shrieking. As W reached me, I ditched the excess goods, and paddled like a steamboat on the Mississippi for shore. Meanwhile, W fought to swim out of the current, before he could mount his craft. Around 500m away I checked my wingman. Short on oxygen, W’s kayak technique improved significantly that day.
Luxury tent time over, we repaired to Tulki, a campsite 5 km away, and took up position in the only available spot. It was sun-downer time, where the camp residents gather for drinks and discuss with mirth our camp establishment. Faced with the options of looking at other campers or the drop toilet, we went for a hybrid solution where we looked at the sunset flanked by the toilet and one campsite. We had a rock-star size tour bus next to us, but the paint job spoke less of all-nighters and more of ‘10 year old insults Pro-Hart’. The chirrup of settling birdcall fought valiantly against hits from the 50’s to the 70’s, booming out into the night from a massive video screen on the side of the bus. The occupants with radio call-sign ‘Dogs Balls’ had a jolly time, oblivious to my curmudgeon-y cursing until shut-down at 9pm when George Thorogood had his last Bourbon, Scotch, and Beer.
The Navy Pier is allegedly one of the ten best shore dives in the world. Another world-class thing! The cyclone in March 2015 caused mayhem in the town and damaged the Pier preventing diving until further notice. Unfortunately access to the Pier is only through restricted naval property or via boat, but W heard from a local we could walk to it from Bundegi Beach and it was well worth a snorkel. We arrived at the beach at 3pm in a cloudless 31 degrees. We were told it was about a 30-minute walk, which translated to about 15 minutes knee-and-Achilles-busting W pace. Sweet. We suited up and bounced down the path to the beach. In the far distance I saw a shimmering oasis in the form of a pier. And so the trudge commenced. Collapsing into the shade of the pier, I felt somewhat uncertain about the swirling tide and the volume of liquid pouring into it from a pipe running along the pier. Having almost perished in the pursuit of this place, I got in, freaked out at a giant wall of fish (Bait-ball! Bait-ball!), the three white tip reef sharks on the bottom, cashed in my Wingman membership, and made like Thorpey for the shore.
Back at camp, we had used the last of our power, and it was time to head to Yardie Homestead, ‘Home of Serious Fisherman’, for a powered campsite, laundry (hallelujah) and showers. The lad refuelling the giant commercial fishing boat with two immense outboards, sporting a cap featuring plush style two dimensional man-parts on the front, alerted me to a new species of the Fisher realm.
Warroora Station is another link in the daisy chain of enviable properties chasing the Ningaloo reef from south to north. Around 50km south of Coral Bay, like Gnaraloo, it is best attacked with a 4WD. There are multiple camp areas along the white sand coast, so you are unlikely to awake to what at first appears to be the mating sound of a kakapo, but in truth is just the rhythmic snore of your neighbouring camper. Like all places that take some committmentto get to, it attracts an interesting array of individuals.
The wind had whipped up when we came to set up camp, and with my brain still pin-balling around my cranium from the drive in, I deemed the tent annex a bridge too far to tackle. My usual rule is no annex for less than three days – it falls in the category of good humour challenge and I usually need three days to forget the fresh hell of grappling with 10 sq. metres of canvas whipped into a spinnaker, and a husband with White Line Fever basketball eyes.
We headed to the beach to inspect the ‘best snorkelling in the world’. Pristine white sand and jewel toned water beckoned, but the hazard sign warning of extremely dangerous currents, a raging rip, and the 50 cm white caps suggested we try another day. Moving to another beach just 400 metres along, a super-fit mega-tan retiree in speedos emerged from the sea bearing a handful of knotted fishing line, sinkers, and hooks. A keen fisherman, he liked to clean up the edge of the reef on days the fishing wasn’t up to much. It was his second year back at Warroora since his wife died and he said this year was easier than the last. They had travelled everywhere together, so there was a big gap in his day, but hauling the tinny in and out by himself kept him on his toes. It was then I realised we had entered the Realm of the Fisher Folk, and suddenly I saw them everywhere.
Warroora costs only $10 per night and $50 per week to camp. It requires 100% self-sufficiency (water, firewood, chemical loo, food etc.). This suits the Tinny genus of the Fisher Folk. Incredibly resourceful, weathered, and footloose, these retirees have only grandchildren scattered about Australia to navigate to periodically and import for Vital Life Experience, but otherwise are the canniest at finding the lowest cost and wildest camp spots. Their vehicles and camping configuration are equipped to travel on 4WD roads. They fish in outfits borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia about to head into a sandstorm. They love watching us set up camp in slow motion, and the addition of the annex is like double billing at the movies. They know exactly when you drove in, how many days you have been there and what your daily movements are. Sadly they have enough freezer space for their bountiful catches, despite W’s disappointment that I have not yet wrestled a kilo or two of snapper or coral trout out of them. Favoured vehicles are utes with custom kitchen and storage setups on the tray, and a rack for the tinny on the roof. I’ve never seen a tinny put on a roof yet, and cannot fathom how they get there. My twig cycling arms cannot even lift our trailer lid, so it is a matter of awe to me.
In these locations you will come across a closely related genus – the Grisly Fisher Folk, found in the centre of a circling of the Fisher Folk wagons, standing around a 24 hour fire, and surrounded by rotating solar panels and super-powered generators. Identifiable by hides tanned the colour of nicotine, plaid plumage, and gnarled paws; they are the ones throwing back the fish bigger than 1 metre (as per the fishing limits).
Wishing we had the same capacity for long term stays off the grid; we were only at Warroora because we couldn’t get a spot in the high-density craziness of Coral Bay, thank goodness. We have never quite appreciated the fabulous Coral Bay people talk about, and we were not to discover it this time. I had a few to-dos listed there but we were too early for the shark nursery at Maud Bay (September/October), the wind and cold ruled out snorkelling and taking a tinny out, but the Manta Rays were swimming around just waiting for me to pretend I was one of them, and I was going on that tour come hell or high water. Boarding the boat in a howling gale did little to temper the excitement of our small but enthusiastic bunch of adventure seekers. With only 12 on board we were able to spread ourselves out. As we spilled off the transom at the back of the boat onto our first reef, in a decent chop and the boat swinging around in circles from the wind, I felt a little sympathy for the first timers on board, hyperventilating and clutching at their masks, noodles waving wildly like promotional blow up stick people, and snorkel guides corralling like crazy and soundlessly yelling at everyone to “STaaayyy… TOgettthhherrr……..”.
Back on board, body temperatures plummeted. Hot drinks inhaled, a tray of chelsea buns (coffee scrolls) reduced to crumbs in seagull time, and colour swiftly returned to cheeks as the spotter plane called in our first Manta. Suiting up, the Germans gave no thought to the life-affirming experience of their maiden ocean snorkel, and we all leapt in again. As we followed three Mantas, in a semi circle from tip to tip, a beautiful four metre female trailed hopefully by a smaller all black male, reminded me of Torvill and Dean doing Bolero (Google that if you are under 40). Returning to the boat, everyone had turned blue but the experience rendered hypothermia a mere side effect of being so lucky to take a glide with magical creatures.
Mantas done, it was time to head to Cape Range National Park. More white sand, perfect blue water, and one of my all time favourite places. A perfect place to spend a birthday.
The Low Down
Warroora Station is outback coast wonder with postcard sunsets. There are beaches safe for kids, and beaches wild and full of fish. Sweeping vistas of Mulla Mulla and other wildflowers distract from your brain rattling around from the corrugations on the drive in. Some camps are accessible by 2WD. Check the website before you go to make sure you have everything you need. Chemical toilets can be hired from the Homestead, and a small array of goods and firewood are for sale. You can have an open fire. Man-folk rating of 4. You can have a fire but wood is expensive. If you can take your own stash of fence-posts, all the better to flame that cryovac-ed, grass-fed, 70-day aged steak with.
Manta Tours – Mantas are harmless, no need to fear deathly barbs. We went with Coral Bay Eco-Tour, run by a great crew. If you are new to snorkelling, they look after you. Mantas hang out in Coral Bay all year, but the busy season is July to October. Pay the extra $5 for a full length wetsuit.
We rolled into surf spot Gnaraloo when the shop was closed (loose hours subject to swell). We picked a campsite number from the board and squeezed ourselves into the last ‘primo’ spot on the waters edge. After a fair number of dark moments setting up for the second time in 24 hours, we took up our standard position for sundowners in aesthetically-pleasing chairs bought especially for this trip.
I had decided the two perfectly comfortable ones we had were unlikely to last the rigours of the next four months and a pair of extra-comfy, space thieving recliners with side table, a cup holder that only a stubby fits in, and no useful pocket, at ridiculous cost, were essential. Unlike the pair our friends have and everyone wants to sit in, these are hands-down going out to the nature strip (grass verge, kiwis) when we get home. The not very upright position requires the seatee to engage ones core and forgo back support, while the recline position reminds me of the dentist chair, without an adequate locking mechanism. This I discovered when our neighbours invited us to share Red Emperor wings they had just filleted and chargrilled to perfection. Mid story, I leaned back to demonstrate how the chairs were only good for star-gazing and ended up head-first in their rubbish bin. W delayed my retrieval until he could get a good photo. The host leapt forward to assist and hydrated the sand with a bottle of wine. The following day the host’s wife said “it was kind of like looking at a preying mantis, all you could see were arms and legs waving around…”.
Gnaraloo is one of those places that stays with you. As the sun sets, W and I always find ourselves talking about how we can import many of you reading this, for a holiday. The loos and showers are pretty grim, but the breaching whales cruising past all day, and snorkelling in the sheltered bay is hard to top.
It’s kids, dogs and man friendly (you can have a raging fire). The guys next to us drove 16 hours non-stop from Margaret River for the four-metre swell which was only three metres, but I heard a three year old tell his little mates it was epic all the same.
Gnaraloo – Three Mile Camp, hot bore water (mmm tasty) showers after 4 pm, heated by fire. Play spot the Humpback whale (in season) all day long, snorkel the shallow reef teaming with schools of fish, find the largest Nemo I have ever seen, along with fantastic soft coral, surf some offshore left and right-handers, and take your tinny to fish. Book ahead to get a primo site, and only stay on the beachfront. It’s windy, which keeps the heat down, and extra radical if you surf. You can buy internet (pretty slow), and the shop has a good range of emergency basics, but you must take your own water, and I’d recommend taking all food supplies, unless you are a two-minute noodle fanatic.
Wildflowers – Between Northampton and Gnaraloo, the flowers continue to wave in the Brand Highway jet wash. Next stop, Warroora Station.