Sun burn, wind burn, chapped lips, dehydration, infected wounds, no mobile communications, car troubles, swarms of flies, broken equipment, lost equipment, dangerous roads, sharks, killer waves, sea urchins, snakes, howling winds, scorching heat, deserts and no fresh water are some of the petty problems that will attempt to draw you away from this saga. To live this dream, you’ll need to embrace the characteristic that Australians are most admired for, their ability to smile and relax in challenging circumstances.
This epic can be found along an expanse of coast running parallel to the mind-blowingly spectacular Ningaloo reef, which stretches some 400km, from the tip of the Exmouth peninsula, south through to the blow holes and king waves around Red Bluff. To be truly appreciated, you’ll need to get wet, a lot.
Along the entire stretch of coast, the reef absorbs the energy of the massive swells that travel towards land from across the Indian Ocean. At many places, the inside of the reef is only metres from a soft white sandy beach, while the outer reef is still hundreds of metres off shore. This unique characteristic creates safe and easily accessible coral wonderlands all along the coast that are easy for you to explore.
Turquoise Bay is reputed for its abundance of marine life, only a stones throw from a pristine beach. Simply get in the water and let the current sweep you to all the best spots. If you look hard enough, you will find turtles, stingrays and reef sharks. If you keep your eyes peeled you will see fish and coral in every colour of the rainbow, all of which are shallow enough for a semi-competent swimmer to dive down to. If the living yet immobile skeletons interest you most, then nothing compares to Coral Bay.
The depth of the corals ranges from between 1 and 5 metres, so they are easy to see and even easier to admire as they are so dense that you can’t ever spot the ocean floor through the rose, leaf, web and pillar formations that grow everywhere. In these protected areas you can look, but not touch, however there are plenty of other areas where you can find a more interactive experience.
Outside of the marine sanctuaries you can find the perfect setting for spear fishing and cray catching. Fish between 1 and 4ft are abundant and crays so big that the tail and body are as long as your arm. The cray fish are spectacularly decorated and are worth catching for fun even if they need to be released when bearing eggs. Spear a fish and a curious pointed reef shark will greet you almost instantly, so you’ll need to have your wits about you. The creatures beneath the sea are just as fascinating as the people that live on the land by the coast.
Descendants of the original settlers are used to lack of contact and as such are sparsely make eye contact. While in isolation, they have learnt how to survive in the harshest of environments and accordingly move slowly and deliberately in a way that conserves energy and keeps them cool. The relentless sun and wind turn their skin leathery and the salt in the air has permeated into every hair follicle. They are on the land as much as they are of the land.
Decades ago, long before any modern luxuries, families accepted the challenge to convert this barren landscape into stations for raising livestock like cattle, sheep and goats. The government issued enviably large lots on 100-year leases to those that were willing to endure hardship in exchange for a potential reward. Even today the area is largely out of reach of modern communication and those that settled there are cut-off from the rest of the busy world. This land is older than the settlers, as are the native people. However, on my journey we did not get to meet any of the natives. The workers of the North West are those that seek escape from the norm.
Strangely enough, back-packers from around the world are operating the remotest services, stations and lodgings across the region. Working seven days a week, they completely give themselves to their employer in exchange for the privilege to experience a life they couldn’t even have imagined. They endure the difficulties while tricking themselves into thinking they do it for the pay. Some know better than that.
The manager of a lodging has done her time in the real world. She never liked crowds and lived in the outskirts of the cities for most her life. She didn’t buy the dream that modern culture markets to all of us and now that she has been widowed and has done her duty to raise children into adults, she has sought her own space where she can do as she pleases and is not under pressure to conform. She found all the space she needs and in exchange helps accommodate frothing surfers who have come from far and wide.
Straight lines of swell roll steadily across the deep ocean and towards the shore when suddenly a shallow reef slows them down. At Gnaraloo the reef is only metres from a small cliff band and angled away from the swell, which creates a wave that chases its outline towards the shore. When large swell suddenly collides with the reef, rapid deceleration causes the mound of water to throw itself forward into a tremendous barrel that professional surfers bravely drop into and then race along it’s perilous face while fellow surfers look on in admiration. Those that don’t perfectly navigate the route are punished mercilessly. In small swell, the wave crumbles creating a magical experience for intermediate surfers. Accessible waves are rare but worth finding. Regardless of size, the ocean will delight anyone surfer immersed in it.
Practically inside the surf breaks, gigantic humpback whales migrate south in search of their tiny prey. They majestically breach to take giant gulps of fresh air and then plunge downwards after they’ve shown off their tails. They seem to move so slowly and yet a 15 horsepower dinghy wouldn’t be able to keep up. While they command the most awe, there is so much energy in the water that you’ll constantly be entertained.
Sharks and turtles navigate their way around the reef amongst the surfers. The turtles clumsily poke their necks out of the water to take deep breaths and disappear as quickly as they surfaced. Small fish are corralled into bait balls by predators and can be seen skipping across the surface of the water, desperately trying to escape. The ancestors of birds, flying fish, are more skilled at avoiding prey and flap around the surface of the water where they are safe, while evolved winged hunters torpedo down from the skies into the blue and surface moments later still choking on it’s live catch. The crowds on the waves can be thick, but are friendly, whereas the crowds on the land can sometimes be hard to find.
At Ningaloo Station you can spend hours without seeing anyone at all. The campsites are huge and private and the spaces between the sites are generous. The station caters for everyone and no one, opening its gates to all and only the prepared. You will not find fresh water, toilets, food supplies, ice or shelter within an hour from the campsite. The land is as unaccommodating as the amenities.
Harsh, hot and windswept, the ground has endured millennia of heat and air made dense with salt. Countless livestock then burdened the fragile landscape for decades, devouring everything that contained moisture, managing to make the already harsh desert drier still. Today the livestock move slowly, but persistently, always looking for their next drink and trying to get out of the wind.
As the continent bakes in the midday sun, air rushes onshore from the ocean. Then as soon as the sun has set, the ground dissipates its heat quickly and the relentless onshore breeze turns offshore and howls through the valleys throughout the night. However challenging, the setting is worth the hardship.
From the top of a dune no higher than 10 metres above sea level you can gaze out across a protected bay, beyond the reef towards the Indian Ocean and worship the sun as it sets down below the end of the earth. On the other side of the same dune stretches a deserted land rising up to a mesa that runs across the horizon. The desert allows only the strongest to survive and yet the flora endures. The ground, always red, darkens as the sky turns from blue to pink to black to reveal every constellation known to the southern hemisphere.
Hours after the sun has set, the horizon that the sun fell under remains blue and pink while the sky overhead is black but sparkling. Simply look up for long enough and avoid falling asleep and you will see shooting stars, some which race across the entire sky. The Milky Way lights up and leaves you pondering the massiveness of just our galaxy. It’s timeless and magical by night just as it is by day.
The setting is astonishing but all the fun activities and harsh conditions can distract you from admiring it. However, occasionally the wind will cease, the flies will rest, the sun will cool and those who noticed the perfect conditions will celebrate the beauty of this region.
If you manage to endure all the distraction, you will no doubt strengthen the relationships with those who you have fellowshipped with. The environment exposes our strengths and weaknesses and you’ll quickly identify how you fit into the scene to compliment those around you. At times you’ll be helping and at other times you’ll allow others to help you. It’s this magical happenstance that’ll teach you to grin.
Laughing with each other while your brow furrows with sweat and your skin begins to rash from the salty heat you forget all the problems you thought you had. Money means nothing. Time is irrelevant. No one cares what you do. All that exists is you and your relationships with others. It’s a hidden lesson buried beneath survival and fun.
The wind picks up again and those that own kites begin to smile in anticipation. The ocean calls again and provides everyone’s favourite conditions. Those that seek gnarly surf can find it and that same surf also protects expanses creating perfectly glass conditions under a howling breeze. While darting around on boards you’ll dodge turtles and stingrays, spot sharks and be chased by fish. Kite out far enough and you’ll pass the protection of the reef and venture into petrifyingly dark blue channels, the highways for the big game. In contrast, the highways for cars here are tremendously fun.
Hundreds of kilometres of corrugated roads create a tangled web across the region. At times they are rocky but for the most part lend themselves to high speed driving. Travelling in convoy through the outback will make you feel like a zealous explorer especially when obstacles arise.
There are creeks that can be crossed in cars if you arrive in time for the low tide. While it’s rewarding to make it to the other side, it’s even more rewarding to explore it by raft or by foot. Upstream of the mouth, the flow of water has chiselled a gorge into the red earth that stands tall and serene. The path crookedly veers through cliffs where rear marsupials live. Home to so much life, this adventure still lives.
Snorkelling, spearing, fishing, cray catching, four wheel driving, hiking, kiting, surfing, diving, boating, exploring, enduring and surviving, be quick if you want to experience it.
It’s a great journey and it’s calling to you. Get out there, now, as it’s destined to change. Our population is booming, our wealth is exploding and our lifestyle is rapidly evolving. It is not going to be there much longer.
We’re determined to develop every plot of land on this earth. Our parents and grandparents found opportunities to connect with nature everywhere, in settings that were far more accommodating. They could visit tropical islands where they could feast of the fruit of the land by just harvesting it’s produce and bathe in a crystal clear and clean ocean. That land is now Bali and Cancun and Hawaii, littered with hotels and highways and swarming with people and amenities. No longer can you truly immerse yourself in tropical paradise.
The North West of WA is an example of our Last Paradise. Go and discover that it’s far better to enjoy nature than it is to recline in a villa, even if the villa is air-conditioned and the sheets are silk and you have a servant at your disposal. Start researching and get on the road.