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Monday, January 29, 2018

The Great Expedition - Roadtrip from Perth to Exmouth, Western Australia

March is approaching, and with it, the start of whale shark season in Western Australia.  So, what better time to post about my experience road-tripping from Perth to Exmouth in late February of last year (yes, I am behind!)

My yoga instructor just asked me the other day whether it was worth it.  Well I arrived in Perth at midnight on a Sunday and left Perth at 11pm the next Friday (red eye flight back to Sydney).  So in 4.5 days, my mate and I drove a campervan 3,120 km or 1938 miles.  It was an amazing experience but very gruelling.  It was cool to do it once, but I’d say if you have the money it might be worth it to fly to Exmouth or take longer to truly enjoy everything along the way (minimum two weeks).  From my experience most of the good stuff was closer to Coral Bay and Exmouth but again I had to hit the highlights with only five days.  

Know before you go
  • If you get a park pass at the van rental place it’s $65 but only $44 if you get it at the first park that is part of the pass.  It’s a good deal if you are going to 4+ parks and don't want to deal with paying cash at each park, but otherwise probably not worth it.
  • Advanced notice, Optus gets ZERO reception in Western Australia so better have Telstra or be really onboard with spending every waking moment talking with your travel partner or sitting in silence.  Same goes for the radio.
  • If you EVER see a gas station that is open, stop and top up the tank no matter how close you are to full.  We almost ran out of gas TWICE on the trip due to road closures where we had to turn back or gas stations that were out of gas.  Yes, literally OUT OF GAS.
  • Camper van rental companies will not insure you driving on “unsealed roads” (aka unpaved roads).  Unfortunately a lot of the cool stuff is on dirt or gravel roads over the main streets.
  • We spent over $650 AUD in fuel across 4.5 days.  Like I said.  A lot of driving.  That’s your return ticket from Perth to Exmouth so you aren’t really saving money driving.
Packing List
  • Binoculars
  • Snorkel 
  • Swimsuit
  • Long sleeve, light weight outfit for nighttime (lots of bugs)
  • Thongs for camping bathroom
  • Two swimsuits so one can dry while you wear the other
  • Good shoes for hiking up stuff 
  • Underwater camera - would be good to have a nice one to catch great shots of whale shark (my shitty one didn’t do it justice)
  • Aqua shoes since some of the ocean beaches can be quite rocky
  • Beach towel
  • Bath towel
  • Sunscreen
The Menu
  • Single Fin Pale Ale from Gage Roads is not only indigenous to WA but the best fucking beer in Australia.  Nothing goes better with a sandwich eaten on the beach than a Single Fin.
  • Red wine (not a lot of fridge space)
  • Plums, apples and whatever fruit you like to go with Greek yogurt for breakfast - just makes you feel light and fresh in the morning after a cramped campervan sleep
  • Meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato and whatever else you like on sandwiches for lunch - easy to make in a small camper and require few utensils so less washing!
  • Hamburger meat, chilis, tomato sauce, buns and whatever else you like with your hamburgers for dinner - a hearty, meaty meal is perfect after a long travel day and the hot food goes down a treat
  • Pasta with your choice of sauce for the other dinners (when you get tired of hamburgers)
  • Snacks for the drive - you cannot buy enough of these because you are in the car ALOT.  Chips, hummus, crackers, lollies, chocolate, anything easy to eat while driving.
  • Total we spent about $200 AUD on food across 4.5 days which is pretty damn good for two people!
The Itinerary

Sunday - 26 Feb 2017

We cheated a little because my mate was already in Perth and picked up the camper van and stocked it with food (and booze of course) before I arrived so we were able to hit the road and make some progress before 2-3am when we finally pulled over to sleep near Lancelin at the Nilgen Nature Reserve (warning no toilets!) We rented from LetsGo for the camper and it was the perfect size for two! 

Monday - 27 Feb 2017

We woke up bright and early, had our yogurt and plums brekkie and headed to our first tourist stop - The Pinnacles (2 hrs from Lancelin).  Can’t say I was that impressed unfortunately.  It’s a bunch of rocks.  Not even worth the entry fee.  There are way cooler rocks in Colorado, Utah and other western states in USA.  Unless you love rocks, I’d pass.

We stopped in Jurien and Leeman for fuel and liquor and then again in Geraldton to stretch our legs before the turnoff to Kalbarri National Park.  I was super excited about Kalbarri. I’d heard amazing things about the hikes, rock formations and views of the sea.  We decided to stop in Grandstand which provided beautiful ocean views for our sandwich and Single Fin lunch.

We were in fine spirits as we approached the turn-off to the entrance to Kalbarri, only to find out the park was closed.  SO UPSET.  And we’d driven 2 hours out of our way AND the road heading north was closed as well so we had to backtrack the 2 hours back to Geraldton.  What a waste of a day.

Not only that but we’d made our first, almost fatal, mistake of the trip - we didn’t stop for petrol in Geraldton because we thought we had enough to make it the 30 minute drive to the BP Station in Northampton.  Unfortunately, we passed the closed BP realising it was 2 hours to the next petrol station.  We rolled into Billabong Roadhouse just in time.  We swore we wouldn’t make that mistake again!

From there, it was another 2 hours to the Shark Bay Caravan Park in Denham.  We were exhausted after 10 hours in the car and maybe only 2 hours doing anything!  But at least between the turn-off from National Route 1 (main highway) to Shark Bay, we saw at least 10 kangaroos.  So cool!

Shark bay Caravan Park was certainly an upgrade from our pullout off the road the night before - hot showers, toilet paper, hand soap, water and electric.  We topped up on everything and crashed pasta with tomato sauce and grilled chicken breast.  The main office is only open 8am-6pm so just take a spot if closed and pay in the morning.

Tuesday - 28 Feb 2017

We woke up SUPER early to zoom 30 minutes across land to Monkey Mia to feed the dolphins (can only do between 7:30am-12pm).  The earlier the better before the crowds show up.  If you’ve seen dolphins before this will be another buzzkill… only a couple people are chosen who actually get to feed the dolphins, everyone else has to watch from shore.  And of course, they pick the little kids.  It was a waste of $12/person (not included in the park pass we’d purchased!) But at least there was amazing coffee at the resort restaurant next to the feeding spot.

Another tip!  Monkey Mia is famous for the dolphins, but also for the northern tip of the peninsula.  Unfortunately you need a boat or 4WD vehicle to see a lot of it because it’s off the beaten path.  With our tight schedule and top heavy camper van with thin tires, there was no chance.  Yet another bummer…

At least we found a beautiful spot, Little Lagoon, for bacon, cheese and egg breakfast rolls and a swim.  Wish I’d had a snorkel so I could swim around and see some of the fish in the salt water.  

We took the turnoff fo the “scenic route” back to Denham.  You come in on the ocean side which has nice views and can you can stop at the estuary that leads from Little Lagoon to the ocean.  

Because we were so depressed with our luck thus far on the trip, we decide to just stop and whatever looked interesting on our way back to the National highway.  Next stop was Eagle Bluff (warning 4km on unsealed roads but we decided to risk it).  WOW what a view!  According to the sign you can see sharks, stingrays, dugongs, turtles, and more.  We only saw one ray.  The boardwalk is up on the bluff so bring binoculars!

There was another amazing bit of beach between Eagle Bluff and Goulet Bluff that I didn’t see a name.  Shell Beach was also worth a stop.  It’s very shallow and pristine white due to millions of shells ground into a fine sand.  We saw really cool rays but they swam away too quickly for me to get a pic.

Last stop before the main road was Hamelin Pool which was swarming with bugs and very hot.  Took a quick look and pic and then ran back to the car.

Once again we were idiots and rather than topping up in Denham (1.5 hours behind us) we arrived at the BP station just north of the turnoff onto National Route 1 only to find them open, but completely out of gas.  FUCK.  Once again we barely made it to the next roadhouse in Woomarel 30 minutes later.  But once again we at least got to see wild emu and more kangaroos on the way!  So cool how much wildlife is just hanging out of the main highway.  You don’t get that in Sydney!

We stopped in Carnarvon looking for a coffee but everything was closed so we decided to drive out to Pelican Point and enjoy a famous WA sunset.  The last two nights we’d totally missed a beach sunset because we were so focused on driving.  We watched kite surfers while we ate a delicious dinner of red wine with burgers topped in jalapeño, red onion, green pepper, chipotle mayo and lettuce on soft roll buns.  Best meal of the trip!  And the sunset was a perfect back drop.  So worth it.  Gotta remember to stop and smell the sea scents on this trip!

We rolled into Coral Bay after 8pm worried nowhere will let us in.  Bayview Caravan Park didn’t have a entry barrier so we took a leap of faith and hoped we could pay later.  It was VERY buggy that night but otherwise it’s a great setup and nice facilities.  We passed out hard after another long day of 7 hours of driving.  But at least we did get to see some beautiful beaches and wildlife today!

Wednesday - 1 March 2017

We woke up early (I don’t think I’ve woken up this early this many days in a row in my life) and I made a “scrambled egg bowl” aka a mixture of all the odds and ends we had left - sandwich ham, cheese, tomato, green pepper and egg.  Turned out to be the best breakfast we had!

When we went into pay at the campsite office, we overheard the office manager talking to one of the camp staff.  We couldn’t believe our ears!  Apparently whale sharks had been sighted off the coast… weeks early!  They don’t usually start appearing until mid March and here it was still February.  We excitedly asked her if this meant we could swim with them and she said to check wth the local dive shop, Ningaloo Reef Dive and Snorkel.

We raced down the street and excitedly learned that as soon as they sight the sharks, “whale shark season” officially starts!  We excitedly booked two spots on the boat for the next day.  I also learned that the reason I’d always struggled with snorkelling masks is because I was wearing it too tight.  The dive shop guy showed me how to properly tighten and man it was so much better.  I was so excited I bought the mask (not just an impulse buy; I have a very small face which was also part of the problem!) We returned to the campsite and paid $41 for two nights (off season price).  Note: during whale shark season you should DEFINITELY book Coral Bay accomodation in advance as it fills up very quickly (not a big town).

The next day was really our last full day and we had to get most of the way back to Perth, so we realised if we didn’t drive up to Exmouth we’d have to skip it completely.  Seeing as how we’d already driven 17 hours, another 1.5 hrs up to Exmouth seemed like no problem.

Exmouth itself is a pretty boring little town; the real action is along the coast northwest from Exmouth.  We stopped at Turquoise Bay to snorkel and nap.  It’s really good snorkeling.  Not too deep and sheltered from the ocean so you feel pretty comfortable and a safe.  I’m very scared of the ocean and it didn’t scare me (too much).  I saw another ray, tons of fish and lots of amazing coral.  The current is really easy around Bay Loop and then if you are a more advanced swimmer you can do the Drift Loop - just take care either way to avoid the center which will carry you out to sea!

Feeling very refreshed, we decided to push ourselves a little bit farther and check out Yardie Creek Gorge in Cape Range National Park.  It’s very beautiful not might not be worth the 45 minutes each way from Exmouth.  Very easy hike in terms of incline but is some rough terrain so it’s good to have sturdy shoes.  If you are remotely athletic you’ll be fine.  It was HOT.  On the way back to the car we saw a really cool, GIANT lizard and then tons of kangaroos on our way back towards Exmouth.

We stopped along the way at Jabari Turtle Centre because apparently between Oct and Jan the turtles come onto the beach to nest.  We thought maybe they might be late this year (I mean the whale sharks were early?!?) but unfortunately no luck.  We did catch another incredible sunset though.  We sped back to Coral Bay to pass out so we’d be well rested for our big day the next day.

Thursday - 2 March 2017

We were up early for the 7:20am start (no chance we were going to be late and miss this!) Note: You need to bring your own towel, hat, sunscreen, swimwear and jacket (it can get cold).  They provide snorkel, flippers, wetsuit, water, tea, coffee, and lunch.  Obviously I brought my own fancy new snorkel!  It cost $380 for one adult ticket plus $80 for the snorkel/mask.  We started off with snorkelling an amazing reef in about 4-5 meters of water while we waited for the plane overhead to sight a shark.

It didn’t take long before they found one.  Lucky us!  Basically the way it works is there’s about 30 people to boat. They separate you into groups of ten.  The dive shop we bought tickets from has their own plane which circles over the ocean to sight the whale shark.  They call in the coordinates to the boat and we then chase down the shark.  The boat will pull directly ahead of the whale shark and then the first 10 people jump off the back of the boat.  As soon as you sight the whale shark coming towards you, you split to the left or right and then swim as fast as you can to keep up with the shark.  You do have to be careful to stay at least 4 meters away (laws) which you’d want to do anyway because if you get too close you disturb them and they’ll dive down too deep for you to follow (and you’re the asshole).  I’m terrified of the ocean and was shocked to find I was so at ease with the whale sharks.  They seem so calm and gentle.  Definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Whale shark “season” happens because they come into the shallows to eat the plankton near the surface.  Man is it a sight!  They are HUGE.  They also have a unique pattern of spots on their side.  If you take a photo and submit to and it’s a new whale shark you get to name it!  We ended up seeing two sharks; one was about 6 meters long.  Just wish I had a better camera so I could’ve gotten better pictures.  Definitely worth the $50 to have the dive photographer take photos of you (most of these photos are his!).  If you tell him in advance he’ll make sure to come around and find you.  Allows you to spend time taking it in rather than worrying about the perfect shot.

The second whale shark must have known it was lunch time so he dived down into the depths leaving us to climb back aboard for a huge spread of meats, cheeses, etc.  Charlie, the boat dog, is a 100% purebred dingo.  Apparently they kill cross breeds because they are too dangerous.  I also learned that they are their own species; they aren’t actually related to dogs or wolves or any canines.  I had no idea.  Charlie was very friendly although you needed to approach slowly.  One of the little boys came at him too fast which resulted in a snarl and some tears.  Eek.

After lunch was a second snorkel, this time in much deeper water among these thin, vertical “bookcases” of limestone reefs.  I was a little more nervous snorkelling around here but the time with the whale shark had strengthened my resolve.  Even saw my first wild sea turtle (and thankfully no other types of sharks).

A trick for booking your whale shark adventure in Western Australia.  Exmouth is the most famous area but actually not the best area.  If you can swing it, it’s actually better to book your experience in Coral Bay instead.  Australian law dictates that humans can only spend one hour with each whale shark.  So if you do the math, that’s 3 groups of 10 people per boat rotating in to see the shark times X number of boats.  You can see how quickly, during the busy season, you might end up spending very little time with the shark.  The trick?  Coral Bay only has three boats licensed for whale shark dives, while Exmouth as 14.  So even during busy season, you’ll get to spend way more time with the sharks in Coral.  Ningaloo Marine Park is the whole ocean area from Coral Bay to Exmouth.  And then because we were technically before “official” whale shark season, we were the only boat out there, giving each group 4 chances to snorkel with the sharks (because we saw two).

We finished at 1:30; they’ll go until 5pm if still looking for sharks because they have their own plane.

We snuck into the Bayview showers to rinse off before jumping in the camper and driving like crazy people back to Perth.  We had a lot of ground to cover.  We stopped at Miliya Roadhouse for coffee and to stretch our legs.   They had hilarious T-shirts and it was the cheapest fuel on the trip.  The goal was to make it to Knobby or Cliff Head near Port Denison but we were too exhausted so we stopped at Gull Roadhouse for another burger dinner.  They had soft serve ice cream with sprinkles! OMG!  It was kind of gross and loud (truck stop) so instead of sleeping there we decided to drive a bit farther to Flat Rock Beach just south of Geraldton.  It was an 8 hour drive plus the dinner stop so we missed another sunset!

Friday - 3 March 2017

For some reason I woke up SUPER early and felt the need to soak up my last morning in WA before our evening flight back to Sydney.  I lucked out and was up just in time to watch the sunrise over the beach while I waited for my mate to wake. up.  WOW.   We cooked up the remains of the fridge, a fruit yogurt bowl and some crispy bacon before driving the final leg back to Perth to drop the car.  We spent some time wandering around Perth before our red eye flight but I’ll share my travel tips on Perth another time (you’ll just have to keep tuning in).

In summary, it was an incredible trip.  I wish I’d had more time to make the journey, but even still it was worth it.  While gruelling, the land you drive across is so wild.  We’d go hours without seeing another car, human or building…or gas station (teehee).  You really feel like an explorer traveling uncharted territory.  We certainly had our share of unlucky misses (Kalbarri, the better parts of Shark Bay, etc) but the surprise early arrival and snorkelling with the whale sharks made it all worth it.  It was one of the Top Five coolest animal interactions of my life (others include tigers in Thailand, safari in South Africa, etc).  If you’ve only got a week I’d fly but if you have two weeks minimum to spend some real time doing the drive, you should give it a go!

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