If you were planning on driving along the Coral Coast of Western Australia, which makes up most of the route from Perth to Exmouth, chances are your first thought would be to schedule it in springtime for the explosion of colourful desert wildflowers coming into bloom. And that would be a fine choice. But for those of us ready and raring to go now, our advice is: don’t wait.
Not only does this tract of WA coastline host countless weird and wonderful sights that are good for the gawking all year round (oldest living fossils on the planet anyone?), autumn marks the beginning of a massive marine-life migration that attracts bucket-listers far and wide, not to mention comfortable (post-cyclone) swimming weather and more postcard-perfect Indian Ocean vistas than we’ve had hot dinners.
Going the Distance
To really experience all that the Coral Coast has to offer, it’s worth setting aside ten to fourteen days to meander up the highway from Perth to Exmouth. If you’re thinking this sounds like overkill for a 1300 km leg, it’s worth remembering that some of the highlights are a deceptively long distance off the highway, and the hours quickly clock up in this jumbo-sized part of the world. As you’ll quickly discover, there’s no shortage of Coral Coast curiosities that are worth that extra tank of petrol (or twelve). And here, in no particular geographical or preferential order, is just a handful of said curiosities to get your autumn tour of the great west coast started.
Spring can claim all the desert daisies it wants, because autumn has something even better – coral spawning! Now we realise that the reproductive antics of polyps don’t sound as visually delightful as the reproductive antics of plants, but hear us out. When Ningaloo Reef’s 200-ish coral species go into nesting-mode (timed with the full moon in March /April no less – how very romantic!), immense clouds of swirling colour fill the water, and that in itself is a spectacle worth jumping on a tour boat for.
But the event also triggers an annual feeding frenzy; swarms of krill and other miniscule sea creatures arrive to feed on the coral spawn, which in turn become a five-month banquet for the ocean’s megafauna. Hundreds of whale sharks and filter feeders like giant manta rays beeline for the reef’s zooplankton feast, making March onwards the optimal time to tick swimming with the world’s biggest fish off your bucket list.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
Now the world’s biggest fish may be ten metres long and technically a shark, but these harmless, gentle somewhat-vegetarian giants make for much friendlier swimming than their toothier cousins. While whale shark tour operators in Exmouth and Coral Bay are a little more expensive than other parts of the world, the Ningaloo experience is strictly regulated to protect natural feeding patterns and behaviours (they use spotter planes to locate and sidle up alongside the shark without interrupting its path) – something that can’t always be said for other parts of the world, where luring them with pellet feed is unfortunately common practice.
Swimming with Manta Rays
Manta rays may not get the same press as whale sharks, but with a wingspan of almost six metres, they’re an equally imposing swimming partner (in a good way!) Coral Bay is one of the few places in the world that has its own resident manta rays, but from April onwards the population in the entire reef swells with migratory mantas – thanks again to those frisky little polyps. Swimming with one can be a difficult task when you consider that they reach speeds of 70km/hr, but they’re known to become more curious and interactive with snorkellers and divers from around mid-May onwards – another win for autumn.
If looking into the face of the earliest lifeforms on Earth is something you think you can geek out over, then you’ll want to hang a left onto Shark Bay Road and head towards Hamelin Pool. We’re not talking about your usual garden-variety fossils either. These ones, if you can wrap your head around it, are a living, breathing illustration of what the world looked like 3.5 billion years ago. Considering the only other place on the planet where you see living stromatolites is in the Bahamas, we’d say Hamelin Pool is well worth a look in – they are indeed the most accomplished brown blobs you ever will see.
Discover More: the great Australian road trip
Love the beach but don’t love tracking sand into your caravan? Continue towards Shark Bay for 45 minutes, and you’ll arrive at a beach where the sand has been replaced with billions of tiny white shells. At up to ten metres deep in places and stretching for 70kms, this pure white canvas turns the hypersaline water the most inviting shade of turquoise – great for photography, but even better for floating! Like the famous Dead Sea, the high salt concentration means you can spare yourself the lung workout and leave your blow-up swan in the car. Shell Beach, like the stromatolites, is a rare phenomenon that’s found only in a handful of other locations in the world. Noticing a pattern here?
Due to our obvious absence of glaciers, poor old Aus is a bit lacking in the jewel-coloured lake department. Or is it? Welcome to Hutt Lagoon, one of WA’s infamous pink lakes and a must-stop for any roadtripper travelling from Geraldton to Kalbarri.
If you can swing it, wing it – because it’s universally agreed (by the Instagram universe at least) that pink lakes look best from above. But if taking a scenic flight isn’t a option, Hutt Lagoon will still show its colours at eye-level, especially if you go on a cloudless day around mid-morning or dusk. If you’re wondering who or what is responsible for creating something as whimsical as a bubblegum pink lake, you can direct your gratitude to an algae called Dunaliella salina. Take that, glaciers.
This strange lunarscape is only a few hours north of Perth near the fishing town of Cervantes, which marks the official beginning of the Coral Coast, so it’s likely to be one of the first places you’ll stop as you make your way up Indian Ocean Drive. Since we’re sticking to a bit of a theme here, these ancient spires are said to have formed millions of years ago when broken down seashells blew inland to form limestone sand dunes. What happened after that to create the Pinnacles Desert is still subject to debate, but to us this just adds to the area’s eeriness and intrigue.
While most of the Coral Coast’s attractions are reachable via 2WD vehicles, there are places where a 4WD is essential, such as Dirk Hartog Island National Park in Shark Bay, and certain areas in Cape Range National Park which is located around 40kms from Exmouth. But for the most part, autumn along the Coral Coast makes for easy, hassle-free touring in one of the most beautiful, if at times bizarre, parts of Australia.
We’ve in no way exhausted the list of things to see and do; from the immense canyons and craggy cliffs of Kalbarri National Park, to Turquoise Bay’s infamous drift snorkel, not to mention the many quaint surf towns and oceanside camping opportunities enroute, we’ve left plenty of the region open to discovery – and isn’t that what touring is all about?
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