10 Day Road Trip to Shark Bay and Ningaloo Reef
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So, ever since I read my Lonely Planet Guide of Western Australia (a lovely little leaving pressie from my work colleagues in England), top of my wish list of places to visit was the Ningaloo Reef. This place was just calling me, and the biggest draw was the fact that it’s one of the only places in the world that you can swim with Whale Sharks. This has been an absolute dream of mine for years, along with diving with Great Whites, but I thought I’d ease myself in gently with the Whale Sharks first!
It takes a bit of planning and forward thinking to holiday in the Ningaloo Reef area of Exmouth or Coral Bay, firstly because it is literally in the middle of nowhere a mere 14 hour drive north of Perth! Secondly, if you need to go in the school holidays you have to book this well in advance, as accommodation and campsites are booked up quite often a year in advance, with people holidaying there every year and booking their next years’ holiday before they leave. Our holiday plan was to stop off on the way and have a few nights at Monkey Mia and then stop at Kalbarri on the way home for a couple of nights, just to break up the journey a bit.
Day 1 – Monkey Mia Bound
With the car packed up and plenty of food and drink in case we got stranded in the outback, we set off on the mammoth 9 ½ hour first leg of our journey to Monkey Mia. Now in my mind I’d thought it’s ok we’ll have plenty of stops along the way and see interesting things, however the hubby had other ideas and he wasn’t stopping for anything, well until he needed a coffee and then he decided it’d be nice to stop off in Geraldton! We pulled up on the lovely foreshore, where there is a great play area for the kids to have a run around and get rid of some energy while we had a coffee, but before long we were herded back in the car and on our way again.
By this point we had realised we’d made a huge oversight when packing the car and only had 1 CD that we had already listened to twice over – so big tip here, there is NO radio coverage between large towns so you will need to take your own music!! Also on a similar subject, if your mobile plan is not with Telstra you will also have little to no mobile signal outside of major towns so another tip is to get a Telstra pay as you go sim before you head off on a long journey. I got RAC membership before we left, but would have had no way to contact them if we’d have broken down.
Finally we reached the turn off for Shark Bay, which was very exciting as we thought we were nearly at Monkey Mia, we kept saying perhaps it will be round the next bend or over the next hill, an hour and a half later we finally pulled up at the Monkey Mia Resort! We hastily checked in and dumped our bags in our room and headed straight for the beach – and we were not disappointed, we knew we were in for a fantastic few days here.
Days 2 & 3 – Monkey Mia and Shark Bay Region
We woke early to make sure we were ready on the beach for the dolphin experience. You have to meet at the information centre at 7.45am for a quick briefing before making your way to the edge of the water. They do 3 feeding sessions a day the first starting approximately 8.00am and then the other two depending on when the dolphins decide to come in. The experience is completely dolphin led and very controlled, there are only certain female dolphins that they will feed and they only have 3 fish per session. This is to ensure the dolphins do not become reliant on the food and so they still teach their offspring how to hunt. Everyone lines up along the water edge and a few lucky people are chosen to feed a dolphin, my son Luke was one of the lucky ones. The dolphins happily swim in close to the shore and up and down the line of people so even if you do not get to feed one you still have an up close experience, and it really is so exciting to see them.
We spent the rest of the day lazing on the beach and splashing in the lovely clear water to cool down, and every now and then there would be the excited shout of “dolphins” and everyone would watch as the dolphins swam and played in the shallow water.
Our kids love fishing and searching for crabs and sea creatures so they explored under the jetty and fished from the shore. There is a lovely beach side restaurant at the resort as well as a bar with music and a pool table, so when we’d had enough of the sun we wondered up for a drink and the kids spent the evening playing pool.
The next day we decided to explore a bit of the Shark Bay area – first stop Shell Beach.
First impression of Shell Beach was “OMG the flies! Quick shut the car doors” We quickly ran down to the water and paddled out a bit and thankfully the flies weren’t so bad in the water. Second impression was “OMG this is beautiful” the crystal clear water and white beach makes for a stunning view, you can walk out in the water for a very long way and it is only knee deep. Second stop was Eagle Bluff, a spectacular view point looking out over the Denham Sound. Third stop was Denham, the only town in Shark Bay, we stopped off at Gordon Peters Park for lunch and swam out to the little pontoon to dive and splash around in the water.
Time to pack up the car and hit the road again. Thinking it was only about another 4 hours to Exmouth, we realised its actually closer to 7 hours! We had a quick stop off in Carnarvon for lunch and eventually arrived at the house we’d booked in Exmouth. The kids thought it was the best house they’d ever seen, it was situated on one of the man-made canals and had its own private jetty. They quickly had the fishing rods unpacked and wasted no time in landing their first catch. I’m still not sure if fishing is permitted in the canals but luckily we had no complaints during our stay. The kids also had a few swims in there and on the last day swam further down to another jetty where there was some other kids, who told them that they’d seen a bull shark swim past earlier in the day. Our kids calmly swam back to our jetty and quickly hopped out, deciding they weren’t going to swim anymore!
Whale shark swim day – we boarded the fantastic Ningaloo Discovery’s Catamaran, Windcheater and got fitted up with our wet suits masks and flippers and headed out to the reef. It wasn’t long before we made our first stop of the day and jumped in to explore beneath the surface, and we were not disappointed with the abundance of colourful fish and coral. Back on board again and it was time to leave the shallow reef and head out to the open ocean, but first we were in for a bit of a white knuckle ride as the catamaran had to negotiate the huge waves that were crashing through the small opening in the reef. While we were skimming over the top of the waves, we witnessed dolphins leaping through them and some hardy surfers catching a big one.
Once out in open water we soon had notification that a whale shark had been spotted and we prepared to enter the water again. It was so exciting waiting for the signal, and then we heard “go, go, go” and in we jumped. There’s very strict rules governing the whale shark tours and groups are limited to 10 per swim. We all lined up in the direction the shark was swimming and then out of the darkness came the most majestic awesome and huge creature we’d ever seen. It glided slowly past us and then we started swimming alongside trying to keep up but before long the tail disappeared into the distance and we were bobbing around in the middle of the ocean waiting for the catamaran to pick us up!
We were only back on board a few minutes before another whale shark was spotted, again it was go, go, go and we leapt back in the water and lined up while another gigantic whale cruised past, this one decided to dive deep and was soon swallowed by the depths of the ocean. Back on board and only a short wait until we were hitting the water and getting another chance to swim, this time we got a really great experience and I was able to swim right alongside for quite some time, at one point it turned towards me and I had to back up to avoid it. It’s also fascinating to see all the fish swimming alongside and underneath and in the depths we saw another smaller harmless species of shark.
We got a further 2 swims in before stopping for lunch, so 5 separate swims in all for the day which was fantastic. After lunch we got to go snorkelling again and our day was brought to a close with a glass of bubbly and a leisurely cruise back to the jetty. We all left exhausted but having had one of the most exciting and fantastic days ever.
Days 6, 7, 8 – Coral Bay, Turquoise Bay and Chill Out Day!
More exploring to do around the Ningaloo region over the next few days saw us heading off to Coral Bay. A gorgeous pure beach and clear turquoise water, this place is stunning and a great location for snorkelling for all ages but especially great for small kids as you can walk out quite far in shallow water with lots of fish swimming around, then if you swim out into deeper water you have the reef and lots more marine life to spot.
On the way back to Exmouth from Coral Bay we headed off road into one of the many National Parks and drove the rugged trail through Charles Knife Canyon and Shot Hole Canyon, the scenery through here is amazing and there are many look out points and picnic areas to stop.
Turquoise Bay was another must visit place for us, we’d heard the jelly fish were particularly bad at that time so we hired our youngest a full wet suit so she could enjoy it without worrying, and we were so glad we did. The current is particularly strong at Turquoise Bay so this is not the ideal place for small children or inexperienced swimmers, and I wouldn’t let our children go in without me. However if you swim out across the current you can then drift down the reef and the marine life here is just awesome, there was so much to see that we were constantly pointing things out to each other and we were so lucky to see and swim with a green turtle, definitely the highlight. Once we’d drifted down to the headland we then had to make our way back across the current to the beach which was really hard work and a heart pounding couple of minutes battling the current and making sure the kids weren’t swept past me, but we made it safely and walked straight back up the beach and back in the water to do it all again!
The last day was a day of chilling out and fishing. We found another lovely little spot with a jetty and the kids and blokes fished while the girls lazed on the beach and watched. The perfect end to our stay in Exmouth.
Another pack up and drive day, leaving Exmouth and heading to Kalbarri. I can’t remember how long the drive was 7 or 8 hours again! But eventually we made it to Kalbarri and the Big River Ranch. The highlight for Kalbarri was the trip to Natures Window, where we had the obligatory family photo. We also carried on further down the trail from Natures Window, it’s a rugged trail with some climbing involved but the kids love a bit of danger! We also relaxed on the beach and did a bit more fishing to top our holiday off.
Our road trip adventure was at an end and we just had the 6 hour drive home left. We drove past Pink Lake, which wasn’t pink (although some clever photography on one tiny pink section and bobs your uncle I have a Pink Lake photo!) and stopped off in Cervantes to try out the famous lobster. We finally arrived home exhausted but happy and with the most fantastic memories and experiences we could have imagined.