West­ern Aus­tralia’s se­cret

A whole dif­fer­ent world is re­vealed when you ven­ture off the beaten track.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By SHEELA CHANDRAN star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my

“ARE you ready for the flight of your lifetime?” asks Gavin Pen­fold, Birds Eye View Nin­ga­loo pi­lot, while strap­ping me into a two-seater mi­cro light plane.

I’m wear­ing a flight suit and flight hel­met, and for a mo­ment, I en­vi­sion my­self as Mav­er­ick’s wing­man Goose (from the movie Top Gun). But in re­al­ity, I’m in a tiny plane (weigh­ing about 450kg) with an open cock­pit. Yes, no doors. For the next hour, I’d be fly­ing with Pen­fold, cruis­ing 1,219m above sea level.

Un­sure what to ex­pect, I smile wryly at the dread­locked Aus­tralian pi­lot with Chi­nese Malaysian roots. There are but­ter­flies in my stom­ach as I’m afraid of heights.

I’m in Ex­mouth, a des­ti­na­tion si­t­u­ated on the re­mote north­west coast of West­ern Aus­tralia. This un­touched con­trast of land and sea is famed for world-her­itage listed Nin­ga­loo Reef and Cape Range Na­tional Park, oc­cu­py­ing over 40,469ha of the west­ern side of Aus­tralia’s North West Cape.

Min­utes later, Pen­fold and I are on the airstrip, ready to go. Soon, we’re soar­ing high in the sky. My fears dis­ap­pear as I peer down at Ex­mouth’s breath­tak­ing view, en­com­pass­ing the red ranges of the Na­tional Park through to Nin­ga­loo Reef’s rich turquoise reef abun­dant with ma­rine life.

The bird’s eye view of Ex­mouth is amaz­ing. From up there, I spot green sea tur­tles, manta rays, whale sharks to hump­back whales frol­ick­ing in crys­tal clear wa­ters of the ocean. I stretch out my arms and breathe in the crisp cold air as I wit­ness a panoramic view of Ex­mouth’s true beauty.

The flight is one of the must-dos in Ex­mouth. While the flight was truly en­joy­able, it is im­por­tant to be men­tally and phys­i­cally pre­pared for it.

Mouth ‘ex’ for ex­cit­ing

To get to Ex­mouth, from Perth, we boarded a two-hour flight to Lear­month Air­port, both a Royal Aus­tralian Air Force base and civil air­port. It’s a very ba­sic air­port and so don’t ex­pect any restau­rants, fash­ion bou­tiques or sou­venir shops around the vicin­ity. Ex­mouth is about 35km from the air­port and the jour­ney to the small town re­sort is eye-open­ing, es­pe­cially with kan­ga­roos, goats and sheep roam­ing freely in herds.

With a pop­u­la­tion of over 2,000 res­i­dents, Ex­mouth pales in com­par­i­son to Perth, in terms of shop­ping, de­vel­op­ment and eater­ies. This is def­i­nitely not the place to pur­chase Oro­ton’s lat­est Spring/Sum­mer col­lec­tion or Bil­l­abong sports­wear. Most peo­ple who travel here have two things on their mind – to re­lax and ex­plore Ex­mouth’s at­trac­tions.

Dur­ing the me­dia trip – or­gan­ised by Tourism West­ern Aus­tralia – we man­aged to visit Cape Range Na­tional Park, a half hour drive from Ex­mouth. The spec­tac­u­lar place is famed for its rugged lime­stone gorges, breath­tak­ing canyons, sandy beaches and man­groves. I en­joyed the drive through the lime­stone gorges, carved by an­cient rivers.

Pack com­fort­able footwear, as you will be do­ing a fair bit of walk­ing around the na­tional park.

This is par­adise for na­ture lovers, for its abun­dant va­ri­ety of wildlife in­clud­ing kan­ga­roos, emus, a va­ri­ety of birds and din­goes. Keep cam­eras handy as kan­ga­roos will be hop­ping here and there and across the open fields. A note of cau­tion: do fol­low the speed limit when driv­ing as kan­ga­roos have a ten­dency of cross­ing roads blindly. One of the high­lights while at the park was a boat ride to Yardie Creek. It’s a deep gorge of­fer­ing amaz­ing views of mul­ti­coloured lime­stone cliffs. It’s im­por­tant to keep your eyes peeled. Hid­den be­tween the ledges of the gorges walls are black-footed wal­la­bies and birds like os­prey and Pa­cific Reef egrets.

For those with a pen­chant for the un­der­wa­ter world, try drift snorkelling (where gen­tle cur­rents drift you across the water) at Turquoise Bay. I had a blast hav­ing a go at this, ad­mir­ing co­ral gar­dens and a range of ma­rine life in shal­low wa­ters.

Very im­por­tant! Pay at­ten­tion to the cur­rent flow while drift snorkelling. Exit the water upon reach­ing the sand­bar to avoid be­ing sucked into deep wa­ters. I am a fairly good swim­mer, but missed the exit point and al­most got pulled to the deep. Most im­por­tantly, don’t panic and swim calmly to shore. Al­ways swim with a buddy who can as­sist dur­ing an emer­gency.

Else­where, Vlam­ingh Head Light­house, which over­looks Light­house Bay, is unique. For those into sun­rises and sun­sets, this is the spot. Built in 1912 for ma­rine nav­i­ga­tion along the west­ern coast­line of Aus­tralia, the

light­house stands on the north­ern­most tip of the na­tional park.

Se­cret worth ex­plor­ing

A two-hour drive away from Ex­mouth is Co­ral Coast, an­other laid-back coastal town known for whale shark tours, white beaches and out­back desert. As it’s a long drive through the out­back, it is ad­vis­able to pack up on drinks and food. Re­mem­ber it is the Aus­tralian out­back so don’t ex­pect any­thing close to our Plus high­way (where many ameni­ties are made avail­able for the pub­lic). I couldn’t re­call com­ing across any toi­let fa­cil­i­ties so do con­sider the amount of water con­sumed dur­ing the drive.

On the way there, we stopped for a few self­ies and we­fies at Ter­mite Mounds, lo­cated be­tween Minilya and Ex­mouth. Hun­dreds of ter­mite hills, about 2m high, can be seen adorn­ing the land­scape. An­other note of cau­tion: Be care­ful around the mounds to avoid step­ping on ter­mite colonies.

If you’re plan­ning to swim with whale sharks, book your trip dur­ing the months of March and July. This is when whale sharks gather at the Nin­ga­loo Coast due to an in­crease in mass spawn­ing of co­ral. Nin­ga­loo Coast is the only place in the world where these gen­tle gi­ants – the world’s largest fish that can grow up to 18m in length – ap­pear reg­u­larly in num­bers.

Our whale shark tour kicked off at 8am and ended to­wards late evening. Dur­ing the eight to 10-hour trip, you might not only have a chance to swim with whale sharks but also with black tipped reef sharks (don’t worry, they don’t bite un­less pro­voked), string rays and hun­dreds of fish species. For more ac­tiv­i­ties, try your luck at fish­ing and spearfish­ing at des­ig­nated parts of the coast.

This is an open ocean snorkelling ad­ven­ture so water con­fi­dence is vi­tal to in­crease your en­joy­ment on the tour. If you are the sort who gets sea sick (like me), pack up on mo­tion sick­ness pills as the sea cur­rents could be a tad too rough.

Co­ral Coast is a town that’s smaller than Ex­mouth. Yes, you read right. There are lit­er­ally a hand­ful of eater­ies and only one sou­venir shop. It’s re­ally a place for those want­ing to chill while hav­ing a bit of ad­ven­ture. If you’re into fine din­ing, vine­yard tours and high street shop­ping, you will be dis­ap­pointed in Co­ral Coast.

No trip to Co­ral Coast would be com­plete with­out an ad­ven­ture on board a quad-bike. This was one of my most favourite ac­tiv­i­ties as I got to drive the mini bike across beaches, bush tracks, sand dunes cir­cuits and cliff lines. En­sure you slip on sports shoes and don’t for­get to carry along your driver’s li­cense for the adren­a­line-pump­ing ride of your life.

Dur­ing the trip, our taste­buds were tan­ta­lised with a se­lec­tion of seafood, such as bar­be­cued scotch fil­let, grilled wild caught West­ern Aus­tralian bar­ra­mundi, and South Aus­tralian mus­sels. One of my favourites was seafood lin­guini, fea­tur­ing mixed seafood in a bisque sauce topped with freshly caught Ex­mouth bugs and tiger prawns. I also en­joyed fish and chips, pre­pared us­ing beer bat­ter and Aus­tralian king threadfin. Though sim­ple, the meal was de­li­cious and fish, so fresh.

And af­ter a hard day of play (not work), pair your hearty meals with some of Aus­tralia’s finest wines in­clud­ing caber­net sau­vi­gnon, mer­lot and chardon­nay.

While Ex­mouth and Co­ral Coast may not boast tourist at­trac­tions like vine­yards or choco­late fac­to­ries, these small towns are renowned for hid­den gems en­com­pass­ing na­ture and ma­rine life. For ad­ven­ture seek­ers, divers and spearfish­ing lovers, en­sure Ex­mouth and Co­ral Coast is next on your bucket list.

This me­dia trip was spon­sored by Tourism West­ern Aus­tralia.

— Birds Eye View Nin­ga­loo

Flight of a lifetime: A mi­cro light plane takes pas­sen­gers past the red ranges of the Cape Range Na­tional Park in West­ern Aus­tralia.

— Pho­tos: Tourism West­ern Aus­tralia

Co­ral Bay is the best place to en­joy sandy beaches and clear blue wa­ters.

Yardie Creek, a deep gorge, of­fers amaz­ing views of multi-coloured lime­stone cliffs.

Watch out for ter­mites lurk­ing on the ground while snap­ping pho­tos at Ter­mite Mounds.

Cape Range Na­tional Park is known for its breath­tak­ing canyons.

Turquoise Bay, Nin­ga­loo Ma­rine Park ... per­fect to snorkel as it boasts co­ral gar­dens and a range of ma­rine life in­clud­ing trop­i­cal fish, green tur­tles and sting rays.

Spot black-footed wal­la­bies perched in be­tween the ledges of cliffs at Yardie Creek.

Swim­ming with whale sharks is a must do at Nin­ga­loo Ma­rine Park in Co­ral Coast.

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