By Kevin West
November 14, 2019
Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, a lodge consisting of 15 safari-style tents at the top of the North West Cape.
Sean Fennessy

The three-mile-long white sand dunes at Lancelin rise abruptly from the coastal scrub, a sugar bowl tipped onto shag carpet. Ninety minutes north of Perth via a dawdler’s highway called Indian Ocean Drive, you can sandboard down their 45-degree face. But on the first morning of my 800-mile road trip to the North West Cape, I wasn’t going to be that easily diverted. The itinerary I’d printed out indicated lunch an hour ahead, so I held steady for rock lobster in Cervantes, a flyspeck town farther up the coast.

A camper parked in Cape Range National Park, on the North West Cape.
Sean Fennessy

Twenty minutes later, another set of sugar dunes appeared on my left, followed shortly by a paved road that cut back toward the Indian Ocean, now brightly visible on the horizon. This time it occurred to me that the point of a road trip is not necessarily the destination. I swung left toward the rich iodine smell of beached seaweed and, at pavement’s end, met a woman walking her dog through a settlement of corrugated metal shacks. She must have been 80, lean and sun-toughened, and she tenderly pulled my handshake toward her, with a grandmother’s sweetness.

“Where you going?” she asked. Ningaloo Reef, I said.

“Why there? Why not stay here? It’s paradise.”

Here turned out to be Wedge, a lost-in-time squatters’ settlement where Annie McGuinness had lived for 45 years. She insisted I stay for tea and meet her neighbors, both named Chris. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry around here is named Chris,” Annie told me as she served tea with cake and sausage rolls. Afterward, she gave me a Save Wedge bumper sticker and fussed about useless modern improvements—like the paved road that led me to her. “The cars like the bitumen, but we don’t,” Annie said as she walked me back to my truck. “It took all the adventure out of getting here.”

With respect to Annie and her pioneering spirit, I found there was still plenty of adventure to be found along Western Australia’s sparsely settled Coral Coast. The route for my weeklong drive connected several distinct subregions, each with its own flavor. Indian Ocean Drive, north of Perth, led to quiet surfside communities and national parks. The Midwest, centered around Geraldton, held wildflowers, whale-watching, and the heritage of early European settlement. Shark Bay’s unspoiled marine habitat and stark landscapes lived up to its UNESCO World Heritage designation. And finally, the North West Cape beyond Exmouth was a place where snorkelers set off from empty beaches.

Cliffs plunge into the Indian Ocean at Kalbarri.
Sean Fennessy

Along the way, the spectacular scenery varied from Wedge’s white-sand beaches to the red coastal cliffs at Kalbarri and rippling wheat fields in Greenough. The people I met were friendly and gentle, and each day’s drive held long stretches of empty road. “There’s nothing to see,” a regular visitor from Perth told me about the eight-hour leg from Shark Bay to Exmouth. “It’s beautiful.” I understood what he meant. The entire week was like time travel back to the good old days, when a scenic place might still be uncrowded, unhurried, and uncommercialized, like Baja in the 1970s or California’s Central Coast a generation before that.

“Most foreigners don’t know about this region, most Australians don’t know about this region, and most Western Australians don’t know about this region,” said an Aussie on his way back to Perth from Coral Bay. “It’s unspoiled.”

Day 1: Fremantle to Jurien Bay

Jet lag had me up before dawn, so I used the extra hours to walk around Fremantle, a historic port city 30 minutes southwest of Perth, as groggy baristas warmed up their espresso machines. Clouds dressed in widow’s weeds wept over the harbor as I set out, but by the time I got to Lancelin sunlight flashed off the dunes. The Lobster Shack in Cervantes serves WA’s iconic “cray,” or rock lobster, in its pure form: split, grilled, and piled on a heap of fries. After lunch, I backtracked to Nambung National Park to see Pinnacles, an eerie assembly of limestone monoliths pared down by wind-driven sands.

Day 2: Jurien Bay to Geraldton

Mountainous dunes in the Southern Beekeepers Nature Reserve gave way in Lesueur National Park to kwongan, sandy heath abloom with shrubs and wildflowers. By midday, I entered an emerald valley of wheat fields and sheep pastures. Historic Central Greenough and the nearby Pioneer Museum told the story of the area’s settlement by sturdy English agriculturalists and the displacement of Aboriginal communities from their traditional lands.

Day 3: Geraldton to Kalbarri

The day began with a Cessna flight to the largely uninhabited Abrolhos Islands, a collection of more than 100 islands about 37 miles west of Geraldton, that teem with seabirds and wallaby. The flight, which I arranged through Geraldton Air Charter, gave me the best sense of the scope of the coast. Scattered rain showers threw a rainbow across our flightpath; humpback whales leapt in the ocean below. “Some people say there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” my pilot, 23-year old Wafiq Azmi, told me over the crackly headset. “In the Abrolhos, there’s a pod of whales.” That afternoon, back on the mainland, I lingered in Horrocks. It’s a picturesque beach town with a nostalgic general store, but raced past Instagram-famous Hutt Lagoon, a salt lake turned intergalactic pink by natural algae, to reach the tiny fishing village of Kalbarri by dusk.

A family outing at Shell Beach.
Sean Fennessy

Day 4: Kalbarri to Shark Bay

After breakfast, I drove three miles down the coast to Mushroom Rock and stopped at a natural bridge carved by fierce surf. The road inland through Kalbarri National Park passed stands of wildflowers lit up pink, yellow, and white—the last like snow in summer. North of the park, the scrub country was gnawed by feral goats, a road hazard, but an electrified barrier protected the ecological sanctuary at Shark Bay. Black stromatolites, “living fossils” from the dawn of life on earth, absorbed the sun into their stony surfaces. Thousands of years of accumulated cockle shells, each the size of a thumbnail and bleached pure white, covered Shell Beach in unfathomable numbers.

Day 5: Dirk Hartog Island

This rugged place, named after a Dutch seafarer who landed in 1616, is a former sheep station turned national park. The last pastoral leaseholder’s grandson, Kieran Wardle, runs the island’s one accommodation—Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge—with his wife, Tory. It offers simple rooms in a whitewashed stone shearing shed and glamping tents on a sheltered cove. Kieran also pilots the one-car ferry to the mainland. The 50-mile-long island has no paved roads, but jeep tracks lead to high sea cliffs pierced by mighty blowholes, pristine fishing spots, and remote campsites. “At peak season, there might be 100 people on 153,000 acres,” said Mike Tidy, a Perth accountant who has visited at least 50 times. “It’s not bad odds.”

A shrub-lined road near Shark Bay.
Sean Fennessy

Day 6: Cape Range Peninsula

The rough midpoint of the last day’s drive was Western Australia’s fruit bowl, Carnarvon, where farm stands sold biodynamic bananas and papayas. Hours later, the gateway to the Cape Range at Exmouth proved to be a modern-day frontier supply post, with snorkeling gear for rent and craft brewed beer for sale. Around the top of the Cape, past Vlamingh Head, lay Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef safari camp, a collection of tented accommodations on the ocean’s edge, where wild cockatoos flock at dawn and sea turtles visit the beachside coral gardens studded with giant clams. Beyond there, the pavement ends, but a sand track runs 135 miles south, all the way to Coral Bay. “Boom!” said a Sal Salis staffer who planned to make the bumpy drive at season’s end. “Adventure time.”

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