An abundance of public holidays around Easter and a visit from London by my great friend Dermot spelt an opportunity for another iconic Australian roadtrip up the west coast from Perth – Exmouth.
Where we stayed:
- The Gerald Hotel, Geraldton
- Eco Tents, Wooramel River Retreat, Wooramel
- Ningaloo Lighthouse Holiday Park, Exmouth
- Billabong Hotel Motel (…”Holiday Inn”)
- Ellen’s house in Perth – thank you family Waterman ❤
What we did:
- Rottnest Island cycling
- Sandboarding in Lancelin
- The Pinnacles Desert
- The Pink Lake, Gregory
- Nature’s Window, Kalbarri National Park
- Carnarvon Fruit Farms
- Coral Bay Beach
- Whale Shark Snorkelling, Ningaloo Reef
Where we ate:
- Lobster Shack, Cervantes
- Skeetas, Geraldton
- Gorges Cafe, Kalbarri
- Wooramel Roadhouse, Wooramel
- Bumbaks Fruit Farm, Carnarvon
- Port Hotel, Carnarvon
- Adrift Cafe, Exmouth
- Ningaloo Lighthouse bistro
- Billabong Hotel Motel
- Cafe Fleur, Geraldton
We set off from Sydney to Perth, but not before I’d given Dermot a taste of Sydney life; welcoming him off the plane with an epic run/walk around the Eastern Suburbs, incorporating my first ever ParkRun, a swim at the iconic Icebergs Pool in Bondi and the Bondi to Coogee walk.
The next morning we tackled the 2.4km Coogee Island ocean swim, and added in a ‘cycling Easter Egg hunt’ just for good measure. Dermot may or may not have referred to his first week of holiday as a “bootcamp”.
DAY 1: ROTTNEST ISLAND
Rottnest is an island about 20km west of Perth. Some brave (crazy) souls do an annual swim between the two. It is a long way, and somewhat sharky.
Rottnest is famed for its resident Quokkas (aka “small bears” by Dermot). They are a small marsupial but I would liken to a tiny kangaroo rat. They are also it’s namesake with ‘Rottenest’ being Dutch for ‘Rats Nest’.
We were staying at my friend Ellen’s family house in the north of Perth, near to the Hillarys Boat Harbour. We booked online in advance for return boat tickets and bike hire to explore the island.
There was a “cold snap” when we landed in Perth, with temperatures of 10 degrees, and arriving at the island early morning in a bitter wind with no cafes yet open, we were worried it might be a long day.
A cycle up to the lighthouse on our rudimental bicycles was sufficient to warm us up and by the time we got back to the main town the sun was shining, warm drinks were available, and all was well in the world.
We had a leisurely cycle of the 12kms from the port of Thomson Bay to the west most point of the island (Cape Vlamingh) – look west from Cape Vlamingh and you’re not going to hit much if anything before South Africa.
Despite Thompson Bay being packed with Easter holiday makers feeding their sausage rolls to the Quokkas (no really, don’t do this people!) it wasn’t hard for us to find a beach all to ourselves once we were a little further afield where we could spend a couple of hours relaxing.
DAY 2: PERTH –> LANCELIN –> PINNACLES –> GERALDTON (~450kms)
It was Easter Sunday, so we naturally had an on the road brekkie of hot cross buns which tided us over until our first stop of the day in Lancelin.
Lancelin has some pretty epic sand dunes, and you can hire a board for only $10 for 2 hours to ride down them (or attempt to). We hired our boards from a lovely little shop in town called Lancelin Surf, however if you drive to the dunes you can also hire them there.
It’s this cool lunar landscape, with vast plains of nothingness that people are zooming across on dune bikes and buggies.
We got one stand-up and one sit-down sandboard. Both of which we were equally useless at. I imagined it might be like snow, but no it was very different, and you are either going far too slowly or too fast, though the latter was rare.
Next stop was the Pinnacles. A cluster of rock formations that no-one seems able to fully explain.
You can choose to either drive around a ~5km loop, which has stopping places to get out and explore, or park at the visitors centre and walk through the rocks. Given the heat and the flies we opted to drive and were happy with that decision.
We were ready for lunch so stopped off at the Cervantes ‘Lobster Shack’. There’s big shellfish industry all the way up the west coast of WA. To call it a shack would be somewhat misleading. It has clearly expanded since its shack days and was quite the operation, processing bus loads of tourists. It was a pretty long wait for an average lobster dish, so I wouldn’t feel compelled to stop in if you’re passing.
We finally made it to Geraldton around 4pm. We were staying at the Gerald Hotel, which I would really recommend. It was reasonably priced, clean and modern – I warned Dermot to make the most of the facilities before we headed further north as I suspected our accommodation would become, lets say, more ‘basic’ after this!
There was a lovely rooftop bar at the hotel, which is open to the public, and we headed straight there for a sundowner.
We weren’t sure if lots of places would be shut on Easter Sunday but we didn’t have trouble finding somewhere and went for a delicious dinner at a restaurant called ‘Skeetas’.
This was followed by a stroll along the waterfront. We could see lights and hear music so like moths to a flame we walked closer and discovered ‘WOWFest’, a 2 day festival taking place in Geraldton. The headliners were TemperTrap who I actually quite like…I mean full disclosure I definitely only know one song by them… “Sweeeeeeeet Disposition”.
It was ending in about 15 minutes time so we asked the ticket booth lady if we could pop in and get a drink…”Yes, but it’s still full price”… haha this did not seem worthwhile so we just sat outside and enjoyed the encore “SWEEEEEEEET”.
DAY 3: Geraldton –> Pink Lake –> Kalbarri –> Wooramel (~500kms)
Other than sandboarding, day 2 had been reasonably sedentary cooped up in the car, so we went for a lovely little morning run in Geraldton out to the lighthouse. As you can see after the rough weather start, it was perfect for the rest of the trip!
It was then back in the car (christened ‘Tigger’ – the Toyota Kluger, aka the least fuel efficient car going, not ideal for a 3000km roadtrip in remote areas with high petrol prices!) and we drove a couple of hours to the Pink Lake at Gregory.
This lake was huge, much bigger than the one we’d seen on Rottnest. Plenty of room for running around and pretending to be flamingos. Not so good for hide and seek.
Once we’d had our fill of the Pink Lake we hopped in Tigger and headed up to Kalbarri National Park. In Kalbarri we had arguably the best meal of the trip – a divine sandwich from The Gorges Cafe.
Kalbarri marked the start of THE FLIES. Dermot and the flies did not play nicely together. The car park toilets at Nature’s Window walk even warned that the water had been turned off due to “feral bees” who knew!!
We had to eat our delicious sandwiches in the car due to the onslaught of flies, and then hit the road to get to our accommodation for that night – an eco-tent at Wooramel River Retreat.
DAY 4: Wooramel –> Carnarvon –> Coral Bay –> Exmouth (~500kms)
Food options were limited at the camp, so just before arriving we stopped into the Wooramel Roadhouse. It’s effectively a petrol station with cafe/shop attached, but the staff were so friendly and the chicken kebabs we had were actually very tasty.
The camp at Wooramel was super peaceful. It’s a couple of kms off the highway and there is not much else around, meaning the stars were spectacular. Over the course of the trip Der and I really quickly returned to a more natural circadian rhythm – getting sleepy soon after the sun went down and waking up naturally around sunrise.
Der however had a spike of adrenalin right before bed… I was reading and he’d popped to the bathroom block, which was an old water tank that had been divided into 4 sections: 2 toilets and 2 showers. I was reading in the tent when suddenly I heard running, no, SPRINTING footsteps coming towards me (slightly concerning when it’s dark and you’re in the middle of nowhere) but then Dermot’s breathless head appeared at the door… “There was something in the bathroom, a GIANT flying beetle”.
Can’t say I didn’t warn him to make the most of Geraldton’s luxurious bug-free bathrooms….
The river had water running, which apparently only happens a couple of times a year. So on our sunrise wake up we wandered onto the river bed and then popped into the natural hotpools at the camp – the water bubbles up from over 100m underground. It had an odd coppery tang to it, and warnings not to put your head under, but was still quite relaxing!
Next stop was Carnarvon, a couple of hours north. Carnarvon is the fruit and veg capital of WA, growing and supplying around 80% of the state’s produce.
It has a ‘1 mile jetty’ which has been closed due to structural safety concerns, and it is also the home of the space centre (now a museum) which was built to support NASAs space programs. Due to its location it was the last station to communicate with space capsules before they left earth’s orbit. Much to Ben’s horror, Dermot and I opted not to visit the space museum because we wanted to get up to Coral Bay to the BEACH ❤
Despite the hoards of holiday makers we could still find a spot on the beach and the Indian ocean was quite and super calm!
We pushed on up to Exmouth to our camping accommodation at Ningaloo Lighthouse holiday park. When I was booking accommodation it was $200 for the most basic looking BnB rooms in town, so the $35/night camping spot won.
The holiday park itself was lovely, about 15 minutes drive north of Exmouth, right by the entrance to Cape Range National Park. It had a pool, and free warm showers, and a good bar and bistro. We were allocated an ‘overflow’ camping spot which was up high and had a great view out to the sea, however it was also TEENY tiny, and surrounded by barbed wire which cast charming shadows onto the tent at night, AND as we only discovered once we had set up the tent and got settled, it was by some sort of outlet drain from the bathroom block. Throughout the night we got these overwhelming waves of stagnant water pong (Dermot and I both thought it was the other at first hahaha!) We didn’t have such a good sleep that night, but I think that was partly in anticipation for what we were doing the next day!
DAY 5: WHALE SHARK SWIMMING ❤
Whale sharks come to the Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Cape Range National Park between March and August. I have learnt from my shoulder season hot-air ballooning disappointment in Bagan, Myanmar and now know to visit firmly mid-season.
There are 12 companies with licenses to operate whale shark tours. We went with 3Islands Whale Shark Dive and they were phenomenal. The staff were friendly and knowledgable and we felt in super safe hands – and we got delicious brownies 🙂
First the boat took us about 30 minutes south, still within the ‘lagoon’ inside the reef, and we went for a snorkel. There were loads of cool corals and bright fish.
Next the boat went out through a gap in the reef and almost immediately we were told to gear up to hop in the water.
The companies have light aircraft that they send up to spot the whale sharks and radio the captain of the boat.
Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean, measuring up to 18metres! The ones we saw were juvenile males and around 8m. Despite their size, they were incredible calm and peaceful, and the experience of swimming alongside and above them wasn’t at all scary.
The skin on whale sharks backs is up to 13cm thick, making it the thickest of any animal. However the skin on their stomachs is super sensitive, so if a turtle (or a person) were to swim too close underneath, the shark would bank to the side as a defence mechanism.
They can move a lot of water so wouldn’t want to get too close! There is a ‘code of conduct’ around swimming with them, and 3Islands were very good at enforcing it. You can’t get closer than 3 metres or ‘touch or ride’ (seriously…!) the whale shark. I imagine some of the tourists that fed sausage rolls to the Quokkas may also try to ride a whale shark…
We were lucky that the first whale shark was super chilled and stayed near the surface for an hour. After an hour the guidelines say the boat has to leave the shark, so off we went to find one of his pals. Whale sharks can dive to over 1700ms (over a mile DEEP!), this is one of the reasons they are hard to track because often even if a shark is tagged, the tag cannot withstand the water pressure at that depth.
There is still a lot that is not known about whale sharks. Which I LOVE. In this age where we seem to know everything about most things, it’s pretty cool that there’s still some mysteries in nature. For instance, it’s not known exactly where they go to breed. They told us that a female had once been found dead with 300 pups inside her, and it’s believe that the females can store the sperm, and fertilise eggs as they please, then dropping the babies off in the ocean. This removes the need for a regular breeding meet up, which researchers would be more likely to detect.
We swam with another 2 whale sharks and it was just such a fantastic experience. I didn’t take any photos on the last couple of swims and just enjoyed being in the water with such majestic creatures!
Then we had a final snorkel back in the lagoon. Dermot had spotted a small reef shark after our last whale shark swim, and shortly after we got out from the snorkel the crew spotted a huge TIGER SHARK in the lagoon. They are one of the most likely to attack humans. They reassured us that they have plenty of turtles to eat, but I definitely think I’d be easier to munch than a turtle! Then it was back to shore and back to the camp.
That night we were treated to a beautiful sunset in Exmouth before another night of sewage smelling fun!
DAYS 6 & 7: EX –> BILLABONG –> PERTH (~1,250kms)
The drive back was LONG. When booking the trip I’d looked at a heap of different options. You can fly Perth to Exmouth on Qantas, but over Easter the flights were crazy expensive, I’m talking more than our Sydney to Perth flights. So I looked at driving one way and flying back, but one-way car hire was double the cost of the return trip, so made no sense. I also looked at tours, but I’m glad we went with the option we did and had flexibility to stop where and when we wanted.
No Australian roadtrip is complete without a giant object stop. Dermot thought the giant prawn in Exmouth was particularly appropriate since I may have caught some sun on my forehead when on the boat (rookie). The prawn gets put away during cyclone season…
Other than that, the drive back was basically a whole load of the above (and some singing “Sweeeeeeet…”)
We had a night at the Billabong Hotel Motel en route. It exceeded expectations for a roadhouse. We had a fridge in the room, en suite, aircon, and the cafe did a good dinner!
We had a lovely chilled evening back at Hillary’s boat harbour once we got back to Perth, and spent another night chez Waterman (thanks again Ellen!) before getting up horribly early to fly back to Sydney.
Der’s last day of his visit was spent with a swim at the gorgeous North Sydney pool, followed by an outing to Lunar Park amusement arcade and a final indulgent holiday meal!
Now time for a serious detox before I head to the UK and Middle East in a couple of weeks time!
Thanks for the best trip Der and I’d recommend a WA roadtrip to anyone – just make sure you do it with someone you really like, are comfortable being silent with at times, and has a similar singing ability to you!