Ningaloo: Australia's Secret Reef
Updated: Apr 21, 2018
While concerns grow about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia's Indian Ocean coast boasts one just as grand but far less well-known. Whether viewed from a surface snorkel, a swim with whale sharks, a fishing boat or a microlight, Ningaloo Reef rewards the effort required to get there
The microlight bobs and lurches just a little as it takes to the massive sky, then steadies and climbs in the burning air over Exmouth, Western Australia. The earth beneath is sun-baked dust-crusted brown, a parched furnace of a landscape, but suddenly it is replaced by the twin textures of the Ningaloo Reef and the Indian Ocean. They are so very… so very…
The trouble with Western Australia is that it shows up how inadequate your vocabulary is. There just aren’t enough variations of ‘blue’ to explain the infinite range of colours on the Ningaloo Reef, the aquas and turquoises and indigos and azures. Tim Winton's built a lifelong career out of finding the right words for these submerged landscapes.
Take one single patch of the reef, viewed from the air, and try to convey the variety of its shades and nuances, the darkness of the clusters of brain and table coral and the lightness of the gaps between them, the subtle shifts that come with different depths. They say painters, though utterly addicted, have a tough time with this landscape: there are just so many shades to create.
Never heard of Ningaloo?
Ningaloo is the reef that isn’t dying.
The whole world knows the Great Barrier Reef, whether as a tourist or a diver or a kid who watched Finding Nemo; but sadly the Great Barrier Reef is in declining health with rising water temperatures bleaching and killing the coral. It remains a national jewel, a global jewel, famed far and wide, but it is hurting.
Ningaloo, though a World Heritage Site, is far, far less well-known, and the locals like it that way. But the secret is getting out.
From the traveller’s perspective it has a number of advantages. Firstly, it is enormous and beautiful: 260 kilometres long and rich in (mainly) healthy coral. The water temperature here, and the currents that flow through, tend to be slightly lower than they are on Queensland’s Pacific Ocean coast, and the difference this makes to the coral is enormous: life and death, in fact.
Secondly, once you’ve made it to the area, the reef is fabulously accessible in a way the Great Barrier Reef is not. If you are in one of the many campgrounds along the Cape Range National Park, you can wade right up to the reef from the beach with a snorkel.
Then there is the wildlife. At first Ningaloo was known chiefly for its whale sharks which can reliably be found in the area from March to June, and in practice often much later into the year. It is one of the world’s greatest places to see and even swim with them. But plenty more species use the reef as a staging post on their migratory routes, among them humpback whales, dugongs, dolphins and manta rays. And at any time of year, the reef is full of turtles, a huge variety of fish, and some mainly harmless sharks.
And finally there is the fact that it is never crowded. This is partly a question of remoteness, partly of being under the radar. It’s so beautiful I have mixed feelings about telling anyone about it.
Let’s start with a swim. If you have opted for one of the campsites in the Cape Range National Park (see below), then this is a matter of getting out of your tent, walking for 30 seconds to the beach, and jumping in.
We visit in April, autumn in Australia but the start of the season up here above the Tropic of Capricorn, and the water is warm once you’re in. Even with an easterly blowing in, driving foaming breakers up onto the outer reef in the distance, the water is so very clear.
In masks and fins, no scuba paraphernalia required, we head out from the shore and are almost immediately over the inner reef. The colours are vivid. Even this shallow and this close to the shore, the reef reels off its signature standards: spikes of staghorn, hefty rounded lumps of brain coral, the unlikely spirit-level exactness of table reef. There are cod and sweetlips swimming about, and tiny electric blue tropical fish darting in shoals.
My son honks tremendously through his snorkel, sounding like Louis Armstrong suffering an anxiety attack, and turning to him we see the source of his excitement: a green turtle swimming about a metre beneath us. It is in no rush. Why should it be: it’s probably older than me and might as well take its time. It is stately, dignified, and oddly graceful for something that looks so cumbersome. There is something wonderfully peaceful about a turtle in its natural environment, blending with the patterns of the reef and the seafloor, the sun above reaching deep enough to give its shell a shimmering massage.
Back on shore, we plan our next venture. The Western Australia-based friends we are travelling with have procured a boat – pretty much everyone in WA seems to have a boat, or a friend with a boat, or a boat with a friend in it – and as regular visitors to the area have found their very own secret spot. It combines a bommie, the Aussie term for an outcrop of coral reef higher than the surrounding platform, and a hole in the reef where the sea goes about three metres down to the sand without any coral upon it. Holes like this, when next to developed reef, tend to be wonderful places to see marine wildlife, and they also give an opportunity to get a better perspective on the reef side-on without worrying about crashing in to it.
Even for regulars like our friends, it takes some finding, and is not easy to navigate to with the reef so shallow, but before long we are there, just about 20 metres back from the breakers. Rod anchors into the sand to avoid damaging the coral and we dive off.
The first thing I see, literally the very first thing, is a black-tip shark. Here is what I think: I’m in your world, aren’t I? I am both intruder and guest. Your move. But the shark doesn’t seem to mind, darting by at speed with minimal effort. This is a tiddler in Australian shark terms, and black-tips have better things to do than start taking on humans, but still you can’t help but be impressed by the clinical efficiency of the thing: so sleek, so streamlined, so perfectly evolved to chase things and kill them.
The reef out here is just extraordinary, and my children are instantly reminded of the scene in Finding Nemo where the beauty of the reef is first revealed. Everyone under the age of 16 sees reefs in the context of Finding Nemo: you just have to live with it, and it’s really not such a bad thing, except that it means you don’t get any peace until somebody sees a clownfish.
The reef life we have seen nearer the shore is magnified many times here. There is so much life. A shoal of mullets is circumnavigating the same stocky clump of brain coral as me, but in the opposite direction; every two minutes or so we run head to head. There is a giant clam on the seafloor, lionfish hiding in a cave, and yes, there’s a clownfish. There are places where the reef looks like someone went a bit over the top with photoshop. Why would you make that coral, like neat concertinaed antlers, so damn green? Nobody will believe it’s real.
Later in the day, several of us head back out in the boat to catch dinner. A serious business: our evening meal depends upon our success. I have been invited along for the experience rather than for any ability I might bring, since I have to be taught the basics starting from how to cast, but Rod and Heath with me know what they’re doing. Their wives reckon the boys’ debates about precisely what kit to bring have lasted three entire weeks ahead of the trip.
We head out almost to the breakers then drift with the water, casting out and instantly reeling in so as not to catch the reef itself. My own contribution to this process veers towards the negative – I catch no fish big enough to keep, but nearly impale both of my friends – while the other two haul fish into the boat for fun, eventually chucking several back into the sea in order to stay on the right side of the state’s fishing limits, which both men are fastidious in observing.
It takes about an hour and a half for them to catch enough spangled emperors and rockcods to feed ten people, and that evening we discover why Heath brought the supersized wok, which he fills with oil over a butane burner in order to make the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted, from sea to plate in an hour. Heath is a noted chef, who runs the Wise restaurant in the Margaret River; not everyone gets to see him not only cook his food but pursue it in a boat and catch it in the first place.
And then, the view from above.
Birds Eye View fly microlights out of the Exmouth Aerodrome, a modest clump of hangars easily missed from the road about 15 kilometres south of the town. The man who takes me up is called Gav, a beaming dreadlocked grin of a man who manages to appear more excited about the flight than I am despite the fact that he has clocked up 7,000 hours in these machines.
He’s been up in Exmouth for the better part of 20 years now, having grown up in Perth; they’re almost beginning to consider him a local, he says. He spends his days taking people up on flights like these and his spare time spear fishing. No wonder he’s always smiling.
The microlight we will fly in, a pristine and evidently much-loved orange machine that looks like it’s just come out of its box, is sturdy and powerful in microlight terms, but there’s no avoiding the fact that when you’re in one, you are 4,000 feet up without so much as a window between you and the ground. Your seatbelt is no more extravagant than one on a plane. Your foot goes on a pedal, just here: three inches to the right is oblivion. Gav is a mellow and joyful man but he’s pretty insistent about one thing: don’t carry anything up there that can come loose, because if it goes into the propeller, it’s going to make everything a whole lot more interesting.
Gav’s enthusiasm extends to soundtracks. When you fill in the usual disclaimers about not blaming them in the event of your magnificent plunging death, you are also asked to name the song that would best fit your flight. I haven’t seen this question coming and ideally would need about a month to consider it, probably holding a Facebook poll to narrow it down from about 800 possibilities, so Gav suggests U2. I think: Beautiful Day would work. The sun is out, the sky is blue to the horizon in every direction; Beautiful Day it is.
Gav then builds an entire playlist based on this, which kicks in once we have taken off to Danger Zone from Top Gun, piped through a helmet alongside laconic air traffic control chat from the aerodrome and Learmonth airport (they don’t have a huge amount to do there, it must be said). Once we are aloft, Gav chimes in that sometimes you have to be a bit crazy, at which point Gnarls Barkley starts playing; and then, at 4,000 feet, looking down at the patterns of canyons you would never know are there from the ground, riven deep into the arid browns of the peninsula, Where the Streets Have No Name.
It is a good choice. Those soaring orchestral chords that open the song, a chorale with an aching bass, make the perfect accompaniment for the majesty of what’s around you. And there’s no question, the exposure makes everything so much more vivid. Gav takes a hand off the steering bar and moves it in waves in the slipstream; he tells me to lift the visor on my helmet to breathe in the rushing air. I have been taking photos like a maniac – you are allowed to take up a DSLR you can physically strap to yourself, but not an iphone, and because of the visor I can’t see the viewfinder so am opting to take hundreds and assume some will come out. But I force myself to stop photographing it for a minute and try to relax and take it all in.
And this is what I see. At the western edge of the peninsula – the western edge of the continent of Australia – the sunburnt earth gives way to a ribbon of yellow beaches and then the delicate light blues of the reef, dotted with dark patches marking the body of the coral. I can see the quirky jag of Turquoise Bay, one of Australia’s finest beaches and lagoons (which is a pretty bloody high bar, let me tell you), and from here I can understand the treacherous currents that form at its corner. Looking down there are a couple of boats looking for whale sharks. My wife and friends are on one of them at this very moment (and I will later learn that they can see me and are waving at me frantically with a towel).
Then as we head over the white heads of the breakers and the much deeper blue of the ocean proper and the continental shelf, we can make out whale sharks. They are the biggest fish in existence but they look like tadpoles from up here, easing north and south parallel to the reef as they feed.
Later I will hear about the experience of swimming with whale sharks, the region’s signature attraction: of leaping into open water in just fins and masks and powering along in the slipstream of their pectoral fins and tails, just like the shoals of smaller fish that seem to cling to the shark’s mottled back. You can get as close as it is possible to be without touching them, marveling at these docile beasts that are commonly six metres long and often much more.
But for now I’m just viewing them from way, way above.
Gav brings the microlight down much lower to follow the beach, which puts us for the first time into bumpier air, given the different heat coming off the land and the sea. We pitch over a good 45 degrees in the turbulence, which Gav greets with an indulgent chuckle, as if an errant toddler had just trodden on his sandwich. We fly over mangroves, looking for dugongs, then back out to the outer reef again before turning and chasing a set of breakers through a gap in the reef towards the shore.
On the way back Gav lets me take the controls. Since I’m sat directly behind him, it’s just a question of leaning forward and grabbing a steering bar. It’s all like a pendulum, Gav explains: it’s about distribution of weight, and we are the weight. So, pull on the bar with your left hand, we’ll go left. Simple as that.
As we head back over the peninsula Gav turns the engine off and we become a glider. Now, the silence is absolute, bar the wind. Far ahead is Exmouth Gulf and beyond that, the body of Australia proper. It looks infinite from the air, a colossal brown-red emptiness. If you were to keep going it would be more than 4,000 kilometres before you hit water again, the Pacific Ocean somewhere around Mackay, Queensland.
The landing is quite something: Gav kicks the engine back in and pulls an extremely tight 270 degree turn before landing the thing so exquisitely I’m not even sure when the wheels are down. He’s quite pleased with that one and I can hear other people congratulating him over the radio. The word “mate” receives sundry usage.
Taxied and stationary, the mood is full of high fives and grins and awesomes, and I am completely swept up. I smile like a fool all the way back to Exmouth.
When I get back I find my friends have been unable to get their Hilux out of 4WD and have limped it into town at about 40 km/h over the last two hours. There is much debate about how to get it fixed 400 kilometres from anything to do with Toyota, how they’ll get the boat back out of the water, what if the tent blows away while they’re here, and when exactly they’re going to make the 1,467 kilometre journey home once it’s done given that Heath has a delivery of charcoal coming in to Fremantle on Monday for the restaurant.
But there is something agreeably Western Australian about the whole drama. This is one of my favourite places in the world: I jokingly call it Manland, it takes me so far out of my usual neutered mildness, though in fact many of the most capable and brilliant people I have ever met in my life are Western Australian women.
True to form, by the next day the 4WD has been hammered back into being a 2WD and the two families message us in convoy, sending brief videos of Melina driving down an endlessly straight highway singing John Farnham songs while watching out for emus and kangaroos. As we board our flight I wish I was with them.
Getting to Ningaloo
Getting to Ningaloo is not straightforward. We visit with friends who have driven from Busselton, further south in the same state of Western Australia, which takes them 17 hours of driving; Western Australians think this is normal, but they are weird.
So instead most will fly, on the flight from Perth to Learmonth airport, a facility shared with the air force. There is one Qantas flight most days and the airline uses its monopoly with an annoying lack of grace. Our return domestic flight costs twice as much as the far longer Singapore-Perth international flight we take first, despite being less than half the distance; then Qantas changes the outbound departure time by three and a half hours on two weeks’ notice, and delays it two more hours on the day, wiping out the first day of the holiday.
Learmonth serves the town of Exmouth, 33 kilometres to the north, on a peninsula which has the reef to its western side and Exmouth Gulf to the east. (There is exactly one taxi operator in town, a woman called Anne, so most people make the transfer using a one-man bus-and-a-trailer operation called Exmouth Bus Charters.) From Exmouth to the Cape Range National Park entrance is about 50km, and many of the best campgrounds about 30km beyond that; most are reached on a good bitumen road with four-wheel drives unnecessary.
Exmouth has a few resorts, two IGA supermarkets, a bar/restaurant and a few other shops, but is still somewhat frontier-spirited, and not cheap: fuel here costs about 20% more than it does in Perth, a two-bedroom apartment in the Manta Ray Resort can cost more than A$500 a night, and hiring a campervan for a week can top A$1,000 once various premiums and insurance considerations are added on. Ours, a baffling and unkempt contraption of unfolding tables and a rooftop tent that is merry hell when the wind hits 80 kilometres per hour on the first night, is rented from a place called Wicked Campers by a fantastically rude woman who is so enraged by our request that the van be cleaned before we rent it that she calls in her husband to intervene. But that is a rarity, a contrast to the unfailing friendliness and good humour of absolutely everyone else we meet in Exmouth.
The campgrounds, though, are very cheap indeed: our site at the Osprey Bay campground, where one climbs out of one’s tent and walks ten seconds to the beach and the reef, costs just A$28 per night. It is rustic stuff, with two clean drop toilets but no drinking water, shade or anything else you haven’t brought yourself, and forget about a phone signal for the duration of your stay. But this is how people like it, and Australians truly know how to camp in epic style. Our friends have brought, among countless other things, a self-contained shower tent, a kitchen gazebo and a vast wok.