Australia's rocky northwestern tip is a revelation, discovers Sue Baxalle
Rugged is the best word to describe the landscape around Exmouth, on Western Australia's northwest peninsula. A cape sticking up into the Indian Ocean, its two main drawcards are the Ningaloo Reef (particularly the opportunity to swim with whale sharks) and the Cape Range, running down its centre.
Exmouth is a relatively new town, starting life with the arrival of the Americans in the 1960s who set up the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station 6km north of the town. In 1993 the Americans left the base but in 2008 an agreement was signed assuring joint US/Australian use of the facility.
The 13 radio towers (numbered 0-12 — someone must have been superstitious) sit in a star pattern around Tower 0, the tallest at 387m. Now operated by Raytheon Australia, the station provides VLF (very low frequency) transmission to navy ships in the Indian Ocean.
Although it's not a site on the tourist trail, Exmouth is unmissable as it towers over the cape and is the first man-made structure on the route northwards out of town.
The landscape is markedly flat and the redness of the earth is brought into focus by termite mounds lining the road — sometimes in huge groups. Emus wander the fields — and on to the roads. They and kangaroos are a common sight, especially when it is dry.
Ben Knaggs of Exmouth Visitor Centre, my tour guide for the day, tells me that recent rain means the roos have plenty of food so are able to stay closer to the hills. However, we do see one on the roadside that had come off second best against a four-wheeled foe. He tells me that in summer the visitor centre puts buckets of water outside for the emus who come to town. A couple even went into the supermarket once.
The next landmark is the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse. Ben explains it was built in 1912, but very nearly wasn't. The site as a possible lighthouse location had been decided against, but the wrecking of the cattleship Mildura off the cape in a cyclone in 1907 caused a public outcry, so the Vlamingh Head project went ahead. The Mildura came to rest about 80m from the shore. All the cattle aboard apparently managed to get to land, but they then all died due to a lack of fresh water.
The Mildura, too, has had a rough time of it. Timbers and iron from the wreck were salvaged and used in renovations to the Yardie Creek Homestead, a sheep station further around the cape. What was left of the hull sat on the reef until World War II, when allied planes used it for bombing practice. It can be seen from the shore at low tide and is now a popular diving spot.
The lighthouse operated until 1969, when it was decommissioned and a light was mounted on Tower 2 of the naval communication station. The lighthouse is still popular as it is apparently one of the few places in Australia where you can watch the sun rise and set over the ocean.
Next to the lighthouse is an old radar station, surrounded by cement-hard sandbags. It was built in 1943 to warn of Japanese air attacks and operated until destroyed by a cyclone in February 1945.
Back on the road, a visit to the Milyering Visitor Centre is a must-do for tourists " the displays about the marine and land-based wildlife are impressive and there are audio-visual displays, but our destination this trip is Yardie Creek, and a boat tour to explore the flora and fauna of the Cape Range.
Our skipper for the trip is Peter "Boxy" Maier, who has lived in the area since he was 5 and been operating the tours on Yardie Creek for the past four years. (He explains the nickname comes from being the son of German parents, called square heads - thus Boxy.)
As we head off from the jetty in his vessel — named Yardi — he explains Yardie means creek in the local aboriginal language, so it is essentially "Creek Creek". The arid red cliffs to either side of the creek are also home to black-footed rock wallabies, a variety found in only four places in Western Australia.
Although a nocturnal animal, they do come to feed and sun themselves on the rocks, so all eyes are peeled for a sighting. The only predators of the wallaby are feral cats and foxes, but 1080 poison is used to target them, Boxy explains. The native animals of the region are immune to this because, unlike the introduced pests, they are used to the high fluoride levels in the vegetation. 1080 is a manufactured version of fluoroacetate.
Boxy says dingoes are rare in the area, feral dogs are more of a problem.
There is no source of fresh water for the wallabies, but they are able to live off the moisture from plants and the water that leaches through the limestone of the Cape Range — "limestone is porous like an Aero bar," says Boxy.
He spots wallabies nestled behind rocks for a late-morning snooze, then our own eyes become adjusted for the telltale signs of a flickering ear or a tail. They are well camouflaged. Luck strikes. One gracefully jumps down to a creek-side rock, ready to pose for photos. The star of the show.
Yardie Creek is the only waterway on the northwest cape that has water all year round. It attracts a host of birdlife, including wild budgies, cockatiels, egrets, osprey, ducks and swans. Boxy points out two osprey nests that are more than 100 years old.
He is well-versed in the plants of the Yardie too, such as the wild apricot.
"You can eat the fruit," he grins.
"It tastes terrible, like gin and dirt mixed together."
He also points out a bush tomato, with attractive purple flowers and velvety grey leaves.
"You can wipe your bottom on them, but be careful which side you use, they are prickly underneath."
There is also a vinelike currant bush, which Aborigines use to make tea to treat cancer.
We see the remnants of an Aboriginal fish trap. The saltwater creek opens out to the ocean, but a sand bar can be crossed at low tide. Boxy recounts the tale of a four-wheel-drive that recently got "very stuck".
The birds and wallabies are not the only treasures of the Cape Range, however. Boxy explains that hidden within the rugged cliffs is a network of more than 700 caves, home to a variety of life forms to be found only in this area. Our tour of the majestic gorge is over too soon.
Next stop, a visit to nearby Turquoise Bay for a picnic lunch. Turquoise Bay is a prime snorkelling venue, apparently voted the second-best beach in Australia.
"Though we'd debate that thoroughly," says Ben. The reef starts just metres from the shore — part of the Ningaloo fringing reef that extends 260km along the coast. The currents here are strong, however, and snorkellers drift along the beach - a spot recommended for strong swimmers.
We head to Oyster Stacks, another popular snorkelling beach. It doesn't take long to discover why. The reef is teeming with multicoloured tropical fish, the coral varied and vivid and the water clear and warm. Ben spots a turtle, but by the time I get there it has turtled off.
Ben never tires of Oyster Stacks: "It's nice and easy and you always see something different."
Before we return to Exmouth, he takes me to a vantage point above the Charles Knife Gorge and Shot Hole Canyon, to the south of the town. The view of the majestic canyons perfectly illustrates the ruggedness of the range, a vibrant red when the light is right.
My day in and on the waters of the northwest cape has convinced me this is a fascinating place. The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Western Australia and Qantas.
Experience wild Ningaloo park
The Ningaloo Marine Park surrounds Western Australia's northwestern peninsula and, encompassing more than 5000sq km of ocean, is home to a wide range of sea life.
Ben Knaggs of the Exmouth Visitor Centre says it is Australia's best venue for game fishing, with all the billfish species to hand. The main attraction for tourists, however, is the whale shark migration from March to July. Fifteen whale shark-spotting contractors offer day trips to swim with the world's biggest fish and groups can often see turtles, manta rays and dugongs as well.
The Cape Range is also a prime Outback experience for hiking (and for archaeological finds — a necklace was found in the area and dated at 40,000 years old), though most people come for the reef and its myriad fish, perfect for snorkellers.
A tip for visitors to the Ningaloo region, however: it's not so much the giants of the sea you need to fear but the smallest foe. Don't plan a stay in Exmouth without including a supply of insect repellent in your baggage. The mozzies and midges are rampant. Most restaurants and accommodation usually have some on hand for guests, though.
Getting there: Qantas flies twice a day from Auckland to Learmonth, via Melbourne or Perth.
Further information: See yardiecreekboattours.com.au.