At the end of 2019, we wrote a travel blog every day for a couple of months. We were stoked on the myriad travels from 2019 which included a move to Australia, trips domestically all over Australia, and international trips including Singapore, Malaysia, Italy, Greece, and San Marino. Put simply, it was an indelible year for the Gallagher’s to gallivant around the globe. But 2020 has been different than we planned. As a result of COVID-19, travel has been arrested, and we have been quite apathetic about writing travel blogs when we can’t leave Western Australia. We have not left Australia for the last 10 months (the longest period we have remained in a country for over 5 years). What has transpired during this period is another drought – in fact, the longest writing drought since the inception of Couple’s Coordinates in 2015. Yes, that’s correct, this is the first travel blog we have written in 9 months. Last week we had a chance to visit the remote, isolated, but vibrant aquatic utopia of Exmouth and this road trip has stoked the fire and reinvigorated our passion for sharing travel tips and anecdotes.
Unless you’re Australian or live here as an expat, you probably haven’t heard of Exmouth. It’s a town of 2500 people (no, that’s not a typo…2,500 – the same number of humans that we went to high school with) that, to consider isolated would be an understatement. Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world. Exmouth is a 13-hour drive from Perth. Get it? There’s nothing around Exmouth for miles.
The most immediate question that Alex and I both had when we arrived in Exmouth is, “How in the world did this place come to exist?” Really…how and WHY did people first settle in Exmouth? Well, it turns out it had nothing to do with marine life or the gorgeous natural gorge in Charles Knife Canyon. Exmouth was developed by the US military in the 1960s to enhance global submarine communications. Exmouth’s strategic geographic location proved valuable not only for the US but also for Australia. So, in 1964 the US Navy developed a communication at the North West Cape.
Exmouth was born of US military endeavors; in fact, they used to even drive on the right side of the road. The US military was required to also built a town, a base, and a way of life. With it came a hybrid American military/Outback Australian culture that has been magnetic for expats from around the world.
The town itself is, well…nothing special. There is a grocery store, a naval base, a few restaurants, and a few hotels. No, there is no Four Seasons, and no there is not a cheap healthy food option. But, Exmouth is encompassed by the Ningaloo Reef, Cape Range National Park, and one of the most incredible aquatic ecosystems in the world.
If you want other restaurant recommendations, we tried Adrift and Whaler’s but don’t rate either. Our recommendation is that you book accommodation with a kitchen and cook your meals. Our meals averaged $100-150/night and the food (with the exception of Mantarays) was not, I repeat, not, good. Pack a cooler (or as they say here in Australia an esky) and bring some healthy food to prepare yourself.
The most beautiful beaches in Exmouth are all in Cape Range National Park. You can purchase a day pass for $15 or a 5-day pass for $25. So, if you’re spending 2 or more days in the park, get the 5-day pass.
This was certainly the most gorgeous and simultaneously interesting beach we found in Exmouth. It is probably also the most popular. The good thing is that Western Australia is not every crowded. Ever. “Crowded” at the beach in WA pretty much just means that there are people spread out along the beach. Nothing like Italy or California where you’re essentially towel to towel with strangers like in a yoga class. At Turquoise Bay you’ll find 2 parking lots. Park to the right in the Bay side and set up for the day on the pristine white sand. This side is sheltered from the wind. Then, walk to the left (Southwest) to the “Drift” side. Walk all the way to the southernmost point of that coastline, hop in the water, swim out to the reef, and snorkel North. The current (“Drift”) will naturally pull you to the North and you’ll end up back where you started at the channel between the Drift and Bay side of Turquoise Bay. The current is quite strong, so be sure to wear fins.
Another good beach for snorkeling, but you need to check the tides. You can only snorkel at high tide.
Chill local spot on the gulf side and one of the closest beaches to Exmouth town. Great if the West coast (Cape Range National Park) is super windy. Not many tourists here, and you also don’t have to pay to enter the park, so it’s free to access this beach.
Good beach to swim or kayak. We didn’t go, but a friend recommended this beach.
Good snorkeling area that we didn’t visit but had recommended from a local
We went on a humpback whale tour with Ningaloo Discovery and we can’t recommend these guys enough. They were helpful, educated both on marine biology and the history of Exmouth, and ecological in their approach to observing marine life. Our goal was to be able to get in the water and observe humpback whales. We saw several whales while sailing on our catamaran, but we were unable to get in the water. Ningaloo Discovery follows strict maritime regulations and only allows guests to get in the water if certain criteria are met (calf must be 50% the size of the mother, the behavior must suit criteria, and water visibility must be at least 15 meters.) Unfortunately for us, the pods we found had newborn calves (too small) and the swell was 3 meters (12+ feet), so the water quality was limited due to the sediment being pushed into the reef. Regardless, the team at Ningaloo Discovery ensured we got to swim with whale sharks and another random shark who decided to say hello.
Drive down Charles Knife Road until you get to the end of the paved road. You’ll go just a bit further on the dirt road (down one little hill and up another hill – you’re ok with 2WD – we did it with a Toyota Corolla). Then pull off to the right side in the pullout. The pullout is not far after the sign you’ll see marking the park/canyon. If you put Charles Knife Canyon into Google Maps, it should stop you very close. Firstlight is maybe 20-30 mins before sunrise. We got there at 05:45 for a 06:25 sunrise, but you can definitely get there closer to 06:00 and experience all the gorgeous light. If you’re as lucky as us, you’ll be along up here and have an incredibly unifying experience with nature.
This one is a bit more touristy and “crowded” by WA standards. The panoramic view from the lighthouse, however, is not to be missed. You’ll see parts of the hills/canyon, the sunset, and the watch pods of whales and dolphins swim offshore.
The Ningaloo Reef Gym has a 14-year monopoly as the only gym in Exmouth. You can pay $15/day for a day pass to workout in a gym that is actually quite good. The owner was very friendly and welcoming.
Someone told us to spend a week in Coral Bay. We spent 4 hours and had enough. It’s gorgeous, the reef made for some of the best snorkeling either of us has ever done in our lives, and the town is very laidback. However, there is no good food and there’s nothing to do other than lay on the beach. Coral Bay, to us, was the perfect day trip from Exmouth (the drive is only 1.5 hours).
We didn’t get to take a boat excursion at Yardie Creek on this trip, but hey we have to save something for the future, right? This came recommended by a local we met.
Honestly, if you’re keen, just camp on the beach. There are myriad camping areas in Exmouth and along the Ningaloo Coast. Rent a camper van and camp. We stayed at a hotel we would not recommend. While it was nice to have a bed, air conditioning, and hot water, it was almost a waste of money. Enjoy the gorgeous nature and camp. Many of the hotels are 3-star at best and overpriced.