Western Australia is dying. No, really. This continent once held the tallest mountains on earth, but time has eroded them to mere hills. The land is hot and dry, with the exception of the country’s edges, which are still hot, and still pretty dry. Head inland and you’ll find burnt red dirt and sparse desert trees. Somehow, though, this land is teeming with unique wildlife, and its ancient geology tells us not only about the life of long-dead rivers, forests and mountains, but about the origin of life itself.
It was this unique tension between life and death that drew me back to mainland Australia – this time, to its west coast, where scientists have found the oldest evidence of life on earth. I was dying to learn more about life, both ancient and current, in this remote corner of the world.
- Days 1-3: Perth
- Day 4: Perth to Kalbarri National Park via Pinnacles in Nambung National Park
- Day 5: Kalbarri National Park to Shark Bay
- Day 6: Shark Bay to Coral Bay via Monkey Mia
- Day 7: Coral Bay to Exmouth (snorkel with Manta Rays in morning)
- Day 8: Exmouth and snorkeling with whale sharks
- Day 9: Exmouth to Karijini National Park
- Day 10: Explore Karijini National Park
- Day 11: Karijini National Park to Pardoo Roadhouse
- Day 12: Pardoo Roadhouse to Broome
Dates: April 18-29, 2018
Tim and I arrived in Perth, the capital of Western Australia, late on a Wednesday night. We were coming from Hobart, Tasmania, and had a layover in Melbourne. Unfortunately, our flight from Melbourne to Perth was canceled and we had to scramble to book another one last minute. Miraculously, we found another flight that got in to Perth around the same time as our original one would have! Still, it was nearly midnight before we got to bed.
As is typical for us when traveling longterm, we spent our first day in town taking care of administrative tasks. I had an interview for a podcast (my second with World Nomads), Tim did our laundry (thanks hubby!), and we took a walk to the post office to mail a box of stuff home. Oh, and I got a haircut and posted my Fiji blog! It was a wildly productive day!
The next day, Friday, we ventured out to Rottnest Island, which is about an hour and half ferry ride down the Swan River past Millionaire’s Row (featuring the waterfront homes of the rich), into the Indian Ocean. The island, whose name comes from the Dutch for “rat’s nest” due to all the quokkas (little marsupials) the voyagers found on it, is car-free, making it a perfect place to rent a bike and explore. There are countless beaches, lakes and scenic lookouts. We used Chase Ultimate Rewards Points to book our ferry tickets and bike rentals for 5,500 points (available on Viator).
Tim and I both have the Chase Ultimate Rewards Sapphire Reserve Card. It has a larger annual fee ($450 per year), but it comes with $300 cash back on travel purchases and access to airport lounges around the world (which typically range from $20-50 per visit without a pass). If you apply and are approved, you can earn 50,000 bonus points. That is the equivalent of about nine round trip ferry tickets with bike rentals on Rottnest Island from Perth. Note: I will also receive a small commission in points if you apply and are approved. Learn more here.
When we arrived, we were surprised that even though there are no cars on the island, there was a resort town with accommodation, restaurants, shops and bars. We had something closer to untouched Maria Island in Tasmania in mind, but instead it’s closer to a vacation island in Florida where everyone gets around on golf carts. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily, but just different from what we expected. This also means there are a lot of people on the island near the ferry dock and resort town- day-trippers and overnight visitors alike.
Once you bike away from that area, however, you see far fewer people. The roads are paved, with just enough hills for the ride just to count as your workout for the day. We started our journey heading north towards Geordie Bay, stopping at Parakeet Bay as well. Rather than hugging the coast, we cut inland past the salt lakes and Wadjemup Lighthouse.
While on the bike trail near the lakes, we saw our first quokkas. These adorable little rodent-like marsupials (like kangaroos) are abundant on the island and very friendly. Though you shouldn’t touch them or feed them, they may come right up to you. This is what they did to us! While we were eating our lunch, one hopped in each of our laps! We got some adorable photos and videos before continuing on our route.
We rode around the loop by Parker Point and Little Salmon Bay, both considered great snorkeling sights. We didn’t rent snorkel gear since we didn’t really care to snorkel here, but the views from the coast were great!
One of the most interesting sights, though, was at Henrietta Rocks, where you can see a shipwreck (called The Shark) sitting in the shallow water right from shore! From there our loop brought us back near the ferry dock. We grabbed smoothies in the little town and then joined a park ranger for a free walking tour to learn more about the quokkas. I’ll admit the tour wasn’t very informative, but it’s always fun to see animals and it was a good way to spend our last hour before our scheduled ferry departure back to Perth!
The next morning we began our true Western Australia adventure – a road trip going from Perth to Darwin, covering 4,340 km (2,696 miles) and 19 days with small-group tour company Aussie Wanderer.
Our guide Nicko picked us up from central Perth in a dusty old bus he calls Rosie. There were about 20 others on the bus ranging in age from 18 to 40, with most people falling in the middle. Nicko is 28, tan and rugged-looking with shaggy hair, a tattered company collared shirt and leather bushman hat. Born and raised in Western Australia, he has a true passion for sharing this part of the world with others.
Though rickety in appearance, Rosie was a surprisingly comfortable bus. Like Nicko, she would prove to be reliable on our journey to Broome, the midway point where we’d switch to a smaller vehicle and a smaller group for the rest of the journey to Darwin.
We were the last to be picked up, so once on board we made our way straight for the first stop of the trip – the mystical-looking Pinnacles in Nambung National Park.
Amid a vibrant dusty orange ground, hundreds of rocky towers stand scattered as far as the eye can see. They look like a landscape from Mars, but are actually thought by scientists to be fossilized trees. What is now a very dry desert was once a dense, thriving forest. When the trees’ roots sucked up water, they brought in the minerals with it. The trees disappeared, but the built up mineral deposits still stand in testimony to the lush life that once thrived here.
Continuing our journey, we next stopped by the beach near the town of Geraldton for a group lunch. It was the first of many chicken and veggie wraps we’d eat during the trip. Nicko led the group through the goofy but necessary getting-to-know-you questions typical on all group tours. Our group was mostly from Europe, but also comprised with representatives from Canada, Mexico and even an Australian.
That night we arrived in Kalbarri National Park. We stayed in, honestly, an absolute shit hostel, with no power outlets and lots of cockroaches. To be fair, Western Australia is wild and remote. Infrastructure is incomplete in many places, and the country as a whole struggles with comprehensive cell and wifi coverage. So much of Australia is still like a frontier town, and because it’s a “westernized” (I hate that term) country, it can come as a surprise to visitors.
The next morning our group explored Kalbarri. The landscape here is dry and rocky, and the beige dirt is dotted with small clusters of dark desert bushes.We started at the viewpoint overlooking Z Bend Gorge, which is unique because of the zigzag shape the river and canyon take. We then made the short hike to Nature’s Window, a natural rock arch that frames a view of the gorge below. While both sites we visited are nice, I was frankly underwhelmed. That is, until Nicko showed us something I’d never seen before – a strange shape worn into the rock on the ground. It was an imprint of something between a scorpion and a centipede – the fossil of an ancient life form, the Eurypterid, one of the first animals to ever walk on land.
From this unique spot we then hiked a short distance down into Murchison Gorge, where some in our group opted to abseil (rappel) down the canyon wall. Though this wall wasn’t very tall, I definitely related to the nervousness people were feeling as they stepped back over the cliff. I’d done the same over the roaring ocean during a rock climbing lesson in Acadia National Park in 2015. This time, I was happy to watch and take photos for the others.
After our explorations in the park, we were back on Rosie for the long drive north to Shark Bay. We made one more stop in the afternoon to see Stromatolites – one of the earth’s earliest forms. They aren’t much to look at, but it’s incredible knowing you’re looking at the oldest biological lineage on earth, at approximately 3.5 billion years. This microbial species was a precursor to all life.
The next morning we were all up early to see one of the world’s most popular modern mammals – bottle nose dolphins. Monkey Mia beach, about an hour from Shark Bay, is famous for the dolphins that swim in every morning for a feeding. I had really complicated feelings about this place. On one hand, it feels wrong that humans should be feeding wild animals at all, and much more so if these feedings are bait to draw the dolphins in for tourist amusement. The crowds are overwhelming – hundreds of people line up on the boardwalk above the beach until a Department of Parks and Wildlife volunteer announces that they can all go down to the shoreline. As soon as she made the announcement, everyone swarmed down to the water in such a dolphin feeding frenzy that it made my stomach turn.
On the other hand, the feedings are tightly controlled and limited to only a handful of individuals in the wild population. The amount of fish the volunteers give them each day amounts to only 10% of their daily intake, meaning they still hunt for the majority of their food. Lastly, prior to implementing the controlled feeding program, many more dolphins were eating large quantities of scraps thrown overboard on fishing boats, which was arguably worse for them than the current arrangement.
And I’ll admit, it was hard to resist the magic of the moment one of the females swam by us and then turned around and curved back towards us as if to show off her beauty one more time.
I haven’t settled on a clear answer on whether the dolphin experience at Monkey Mia is ethical or not. I tried finding articles from people smarter than me online, in an effort to find some science that can tell me how I should feel, but I found nothing. In the end, my best assessment is that it’s not the best thing for the dolphins, but it’s a lot better than Sea World. There are worse ways to enjoy animals, and if the experience inspires the people (children especially) who visit to love wildlife and think mindfully about their engagement with animals, then that’s all the better.
While everyone else was crowded down on the beach, hoping to be picked to drop a fish in a dolphin’s mouth, Tim and I stayed up on the pier. We could still watch the dolphins but also had a bonus – we saw two beautiful sea turtles swimming separately to and fro around the pier. If you’ve been with us for a while, you probably already know how hard I’ve tried to see sea turtles, with limited success (one blurry and brief view in the Florida Keys in 2015) up until our trip to Belize last January where we saw two. Since then, we saw one in the Philippines as well. This means these little guys were our fourth and fifth clear turtle sightings. Yeah, I’ve been counting!
From here we all loaded back up into Rosie and began the long drive (this trip was proving to be full of them) to Coral Bay, on the world-famous Ningaloo Reef. This reef system is arguably more impressive than the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s north east coast, even if it’s not as large. Along the way we stopped at Shell Beach, where instead of sand, the shoreline is covered in millions of small seashells. As someone who hates the way sand always sticks to my body, I found these shells absolutely delightful.
The next day was one for the books. We signed up with some others in our group to do a snorkeling trip in hopes of spotting manta rays. These are not your usual little sting rays you can pet in the aquarium. These are giant rays with wingspan of 5 to 7 meters. They fall under the header of “mega fauna” – something that sounds like it went extinct with the dinosaurs.
We set out early in the morning on a boat. Our day started with a practice snorkel to get used to the equipment. In addition to the usual mask and fins, they also had optional pool noodles to use for added buoyancy (yay!). On board the boat, the guides explained how the day would work. First we were all split into three groups. A plane would be going up to spot mantas by their dark diamond shapes through the water. If and when they find one, they’d let the captain of the boat know and we’d go to that location. Once there, each group would have a turn swimming near the manta ray. They would keep us in small groups so as not to overwhelm or disturb the manta. Above all, it is important not to block the wild animal’s path or disrupt them.
While waiting for our manta ray discovery, we were able to spot many wildlife from the boat. At one point we were surrounded by dozens of beautiful bottle nose dolphins playing and jumping in the water. They seemed to be everywhere and were putting on a show that was even more spectacular than the more touristy experience at Monkey Mia the day before.
We also saw several sea turtles. Our guides think we saw green sea turtles and even the rare loggerhead sea turtle! At this point I lost count of my lifetime wild sea turtle tally!
After the amazing dolphins and turtles we saw, I would have been happy with our day even if we hadn’t spotted a manta! But then we got the call – our plane had spotted one!
Since there were a few other tour companies out at the same time, we would have to coordinate and take turns with their groups as well. Tim and I were in the third and final group on our boat, and when everyone was getting back on our boat after their swims raving about how incredible was, I became anxious to get out there myself! I was worried he or she might get annoyed by the humans and glide away!
Thankfully that didn’t happen, and Tim and I were soon in the water swimming above a stunning manta ray who was circling in a vertical loop, flipping over and over again as a means of creating a current to funnel krill into his or her mouth. We learned it was very rare to get to observe them barrel rolling like this – normally they are just swimming by.
Even knowing the numbers of how big these animals could get, I still wasn’t prepared for the reality of seeing it in person. At one point I was able to stare straight into the mouth – although not a real risk at all, it felt for a second like I could be swallowed up by this majestic creature.
We were able to jump in and swim with the manta ray two times and it was incredible!
We ended the day with one last snorkel, and one last sea turtle – possibly the clearest underwater view I’ve had of one yet! It was an absolutely fantastic day.
Once back at our hostel in the early afternoon, it was time time make the short drive up to Exmouth for two nights.
The next day was another big one. We had signed up to snorkel with the Ningaloo Reef’s other gentle giant – whale sharks. Whale sharks are sharks (not whales), and they are the largest fish on earth, growing to be up to 18 meters (and 5-6 on average). The size is intimidating, but the sharks are very gentle and not interested in eating or otherwise harming humans.
Like the day prior, we divided up into smaller groups, each with a guide. Our guide explained that when the spotter plane found a whale shark, the boat would head to him or her. We’d get ready with our snorkel and fins (and optional pool noodle – yes please!) and line up. One of the guides would get in the water and track the whale shark, indicating with her arm that she could see him. While the boat is still moving, we’d jump off the back when given the go ahead and follow the guide.
She explained how we should line up on either side of the shark, leaving a clear path for him to swim. It was important that we be as unobtrusive as possible, since when the sharks came close to the surface like this, it’s typically because they’re feeding. If we get in their way, they’d get annoyed or frightened and dive down to deeper water and out of sight.
It wasn’t too long before we found our first shark. Once it was our turn, we jumped off the back and swam towards the shark. Unlike yesterday, the current and waves were really strong here. It was challenging to keep up with the shark and guide. Sure enough, though, once my head was under water, there she was- 6 meters long with gray skin speckled with white dots and an open mouth so wide it looked like she could swallow any of us whole. I was an awe, and tried to set aside my adrenaline long enough to be fully present and aware of the serenity of this moment.
Before I knew it, our guide instructed us to come up and swim towards her for the boat to come pick us up. We would all be climbing back into the boat while it’s still moving, which is also challenging when you’re simultaneously wrangling with fins and a mask.
Once our group was back on the boat, the other jumped in the water. We rotated like this 3 times. I felt like I had barely caught my breath once it was time to go again. Seeing the whale shark was amazing, but it was a lot more work than seeing the manta rays the day prior.
After three swims with this shark, we headed to a different (calmer) area of the ocean, where our captain had heard from the spotter plane there was another whale shark. I was tired, and I debated going in, but our guide encouraged me to go in for this one in case we didn’t get to do another swim after this. I’m glad I did!
The water here was calmer, so it was easier to swim and easier to see the giant animal in front of us. The moment I put my head under water, I saw that he was swimming right towards us, mouth agape to collect krill. I kicked a little to move aside, and the shark glided past as if we were not even there. If you want to feel small and insignificant, go find mega fauna.
The next day we were back on Rosie with Nicko and the rest of the group, heading inland from the coast to Karijini National Park, a place I honestly knew very little about. Like most of our driving days, this was also a long one, interrupted for bathroom breaks and fuel fill-ups at the quintessential Aussie road houses. These all-in-one gas stations/restaurants/grocery stores/hotels are many times the only places around for hours.
As we moved inland, the ground became darker. By the time we were in Karijini, it was an intense rust red.
Stepping out of Rosie and onto the ground, a few things became very apparent. First, it was very very hot outside. Second, there were pesky (but harmless) flies buzzing around, ready to sap up any moisture they could find on your body (like your nose, mouth, and even your eyes). Lastly, that red ground is soft, and the crimson powder will cover everything it touches.
After we settled until our 8-bed dorm style eco-tents, Nicko took our group around the campsite for an orientation. We also went to the overlook down into Joffre Falls – a gorge just a few hundred meters from our camp area.
The next day, we visited three of the gorges that make Karijini a popular destination. The hikes through the gorges were a lot of fun. There were no flies down in them, and it was much cooler as well. Many of the hike required a bit of swimming which was good for washing red dirt off our shoes too!
The hikes were fairly challenging as well. The one into Hancock Gorge involved spider walking in a crevice, and Weano Gorge required stepping carefully backwards over a wet, steep boulder while holding onto a handrail. In Joffre Gorge, getting down and up even required some light rock climbing. The reward at the end of each was a beautiful view or swimming hole (sometimes both).
While I didn’t swim in Joffre Gorge, the view at the end of the curved cliff walls and small waterfall made it my favorite. Some of the group skipped rocks on the lake and others lay down to rest on the smooth rocks. Nicko sat in a field of pebbles, wearing his signature bush hat and tattered shirt, carefully inspecting each rock for perfect skip-ability. This person leading us through some of the most rugged and challenging terrain in Australia was, in many ways, a child showing us around his favorite playground.
That night, Tim and I joined a sky gazing tour. The guide, an amateur astronomer, had set up $30k dollars in telescope equipment in the heart of Karijini. Though it was a cloudy night, we were able to observe the moon, Jupiter and one of its moons, as well as a colorful star cluster known as the Jewel Box Cluster that sits right on the middle of the Southern Cross. I thought it was incredible, and can only imagine how amazing this experience would be on a clear night!
The next morning we visited two more gorges (Circular Pool and Dale’s Gorge with Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool) on our way out of Karijini.
Unfortunately, this was the most taxing and longest bus day we’d had yet. As we’d gotten further north, it had also become hotter. Rosie struggled to keep cool. Everyone was tired and a little grumpy. Finally we arrived into a town. It was after 8pm and we were all ready for dinner. But we weren’t to our overnight spot yet. It was another 45 minutes until we arrived at Pardoo Roadhouse, one of the worst places I’ve ever spent time. Ever.
Rather than staying at an accommodation in town, we were camping in swags in a grassy area behind a roadhouse. Now, I enjoy camping and sleeping under the stars. I love being outside with nature. But this was like setting up camp in the parking lot of a trailer park. To make matters worse, food options were limited. The restaurant (which we heard wasn’t good anyway) was closed, and so we had chicken sandwiches and sausage rolls from a gas station we’d passed on our way to Pardoo.
At this point I was just exhausted and ready for bed. We set up our swags, which are shaped and zip like a sleeping bag, but made of thicker material to give protection from the elements. We’d slept in these in Uluru in 2014 and enjoyed it. These were not like the ones we had then, though.
These swags didn’t have poles to hold them up, so once in your sleeping bag, your swag just lay on top of you. It was too hot outside to zip the swag closed, and the mosquito net was useless since it clung to your skin. All night I heard them buzzing around, powerless to protect myself. It was the most miserable night of sleep (or lack thereof) I’ve ever had. At many points during the night, while laying awake, I wished for the sun to start to come up, just so we could be closer to getting out of this hell. I honestly wouldn’t wish the misery of the Pardoo Roadhouse on my worst enemy.
Unfortunately, this was the last night the group had staying all together. We headed to Broome the next day and once there, everyone was staying in different places. Only 7 of us were continuing on with Nicko in three days to travel through the Kimberley.
Everyone was tired the next day – I don’t think anyone slept well. We thankfully got to Broome in the early afternoon, giving everyone time to unwind and rest before our last group dinner. I was grateful to have the group together again for a fun and relaxing night. It would have been a shame to all part after such a sour experience at Pardoo!
Tim and I were also excited to be somewhere for three nights. We’re used to a slower pace of travel, and so many consecutive travel days had worn us out.
Leaving the dead, dry west behind us, we were eager to experience one of the most alive places in Australia – the Kimberley.