After a hair-raising, tire-spinning, engine-overheating, 2½-hour drive through soft, shifting sand in temperatures well over 100 degrees, we reached the end of a thin peninsula jutting into the ocean’s void. There, near the western-most point in Australia, a tableau more stunning than the heat stretched out below us.
On either side, the coastline fell away in tricolor stripes: azure sky, red dune cliffs, blindingly white beach. The water was perfectly transparent, and from a cliff-edge platform we peered down into another world, a child’s primer of aquatic life in the Indian Ocean. A pod of dolphins frolicked; huge manta rays cruised below the surface like undulating black shadows; dugongs and sea turtles drifted; right below us, a cowtail stingray skimmed along; and everywhere you looked, patrolling the shoreline and lurking behind rocks, were sharks, sharks and more sharks.
I was halfway through an 11-day road trip up Australia’s unsung west coast, with my wife, Lauren, and her parents, Frank and Anda. We’d flown to Perth, the only major city on that side of the continent, and rented an all-wheel-drive (remember that detail) RAV4 for the trip. Our goal: Ningaloo Reef — the “other” great reef, a 160-mile-long stretch that hugs the coast starting about 700 miles north of Perth.
The reef that Ningaloo is “other” to is, of course, the Great Barrier Reef, on Australia’s more developed east coast. Two years ago, Lauren and I had visited the Great Barrier Reef and left with mixed feelings. It is undoubtedly impressive — it’s the world’s largest living structure — and attracts 2 million tourists a year. But as a result, long stretches of the coast are now crowded and overdeveloped, and the reef’s best spots are an exhausting and (for me) stomach-turning two-hour boat ride from shore. Ningaloo promised the opposite: an empty coast and a teeming reef, with all the weird and wildly colored tropical sea creatures you could shake a snorkel at — all within wading distance of your hotel’s beach.
Adding to the appeal of the trip was the journey to get there, which had all the makings of an epic and quintessentially Aussie road trip. (Indeed, if we just wanted to snorkel, we could have taken one of the daily flights from Perth to the small airstrip in Exmouth, near the heart of the reef.) Within hours of leaving Perth, we were barreling along a straight, smooth highway, red desert to our right and coastline to our left, tweaking the steering wheel only to avoid the occasional flattened kangaroo.
We soon realized that the northern part of the coast was much emptier than we’d expected; between the isolated dots on the map where we’d booked accommodations, there was almost nothing. And since it was December, the height of the austral summer, temperatures soared. Whenever the road veered inland, the reading on the car’s thermometer would climb above 100 and occasionally 110 degrees; when it dropped back to the coast, it would plummet by 20 or 30 degrees.
In a series of near-empty national parks, we hiked along coastal cliffs and marveled at peculiar rock formations and deep river canyons cutting through the parched desert. Then, three days into the trip, we reached the edges of Shark Bay, named in 1699 by the British privateer William Dampier. “Of the sharks we caught a great many,” he noted in his journal, “which our men eat very savourily.” (He also reported catching an 11-foot-long shark whose stomach contained “the head and bones of a hippopotamus” — probably a dugong, a lumbering manatee-like mammal that is gravely endangered worldwide but still thrives there.)
Our first stop in Shark Bay, now a Unesco World Heritage site, was Shell Beach, whose high-wattage white “sand” is actually a 30-foot-thick layer of crushed cockle shells. We tried to be impressed by the stromatolites, rocky-looking lumps in the bay’s hyper-salty shallows that are actually examples of one of the oldest life-forms on earth — bacterial organisms that, billions of years ago, generated the oxygen that allowed complex life to emerge. (The ones in Shark Bay are estimated to be “only” a few thousand years old.) The whale sharks, at up to 60 feet long the world’s largest fish species, migrate along this stretch of coast between March and July.
But Shark Bay’s most reliable year-round tourist attraction was ready to greet us on cue the morning after we arrived. With several hundred other tourists, we gathered on the beach at Monkey Mia to hear a talk from a ranger while a dozen wild dolphins frolicked impatiently behind her. They swam up one at a time to take a fish from a volunteer just a few feet in front of us; the other dolphins lolled in the shallows and peered back at us with one eye out of the water.
Later that morning, we took a catamaran tour of the bay, tacking back and forth amid dugongs, brightly colored sea snakes, a loggerhead turtle and a tiger shark. At one point, we looked down through the netting between the two hulls and saw dolphins speeding along with us, leaping and playing on the breaking edge of our wake.
Monkey Mia, by far the most popular tourist spot in Shark Bay, is halfway up the Peron Peninsula, which shelters the inner waters of the bay. The upper half of the peninsula is protected as Francois Peron National Park, accessible via a treacherous 30-mile soft-sand track that snakes through barren scrubland to a lookout at the tip — suitable only for “high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles,” the signs warned. This prompted much fruitless scanning of our car’s manual for definitions of “all-wheel” versus “four-wheel” drive and the precise dimensions of “high-clearance.” We tried instead to book spots on a 4x4 tour run by Monkey Mia Wildsights, a local outfitter, but it was full. The tour leader did promise that as long as we left before her and stayed ahead, she’d stop and pull us out if needed. “No worries,” she insisted, looking over our vehicle. “She’ll be right.”
After stopping at the compulsory tire-pressure station to let more than a third of the air out of our tires for added traction, we began to creep along the track. Our wheels spun. By the end of a long hill less than a quarter of the way in, we had put more than 200 miles on the odometer — and the car was filling with the smell of burning oil. We stopped to let the engine cool in the 110-degree heat, and then started inching along once again with the air-conditioning off, the windows open and the heater fan running full blast to draw as much heat away from the engine as possible. Then we got stuck.
When the Wildsights guide caught up to us, she cheerfully extricated us by letting more air out of our tires and giving us a vigorous push. Still, by the time we reached the end of the road, we were frazzled, drenched in sweat and wishing we’d never come. (Our decision to enter the park with all-wheel drive was unquestionably a mistake. If you’re not driving a full-size off-roader, book a tour.)
But then we stepped out of the car, walked through the red sand to the end of the cliff, and looked down at the ocean, teeming with sharks and rays and dolphins, and the trip — to the end of the peninsula, and to the west coast in general — suddenly seemed overwhelmingly worthwhile. And we hadn’t yet reached Ningaloo Reef.
Exploring Coral Bay
The last leg of our northward push brought us to Coral Bay, a minuscule outpost at the south end of the reef with a hotel and a few campgrounds. En route, we screeched to a halt just long enough to gather a couple dozen windfall mangoes lying along the side of the road. Their sweetness was so irresistible that we stopped in the same place three days later on the way back.
Once at the reef, Frank and Anda opted to start with a turbocharged Zodiac boat tour that would whisk them to three prime snorkeling spots. Lauren and I, looking for a more peaceful option, joined a kayak tour.
We paddled out through gentle surf for 25 minutes to reach a mooring point, then donned our snorkels and slipped into the bath-warm water. For the next hour or so, we followed our guide through a maze of staghorn and blue-tipped coral, swimming alongside a technicolor array of tropical fish, rays and sea turtles. Throughout, we kept a nervous eye on the black-tip reef shark that circled us — totally harmless, we knew, but somehow still scary (in a pleasant way).
The kayak tour was great, but I still wanted to test the full promise of the reef and the contrasts with its more famous sibling to the east. The next morning, we walked a few hundred yards up the beach, around a narrow point, and waded into the water. I was still pulling on my flippers, trying to avoid stepping on the rays that were burying themselves in the sand along the shoreline, when Frank gave us a wave: A few dozen feet off the beach, he’d already spotted a green sea turtle.
As we drifted farther into the water, we once again entered the coral jungle. As schools of tiny blue fish flitted around my head, and giant square-headed mahi-mahi drifted past without a glance in my direction, I soon had the sense that I was invisible. When I lifted my head, I saw empty water and unbroken coast, with no signs of civilization except, in the distance, the beach at the end of the dead-end road across from my hotel, where my book awaited alongside a bowl of fresh mangoes and a refrigerator full of cold beer. At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind which reef is greater.