It is our year for adventures in our big backyard.
We can see the turquoise ocean fringed by sand with no footprints, and know there is coral just under the surface.
We can wander around rural towns, find odd histories and epic stories.
We can eat local produce, and see wildlife that the rest of the world travels the globe to experience.
We can feel freedoms.
And the advantage of a drive trip up the Coral Coast Highway is that, for most of us, it starts pretty much on our doorstep.
We don’t have to drive for days to start the adventure. And, as you see here, the drive times between icons are relatively short.
The Pinnacles, Greenough, the Geraldton coast, historic Northampton, Pink Lake, Kalbarri and its Skywalk, Shark Bay World Heritage Area, Coral Bay, Exmouth set against Cape Range, and Ningaloo Reef.
That really is quite a drive, all on good bitumen roads, with fuel and help all along the way.
This is the Coral Coast Highway…
CORAL COAST HIGHWAY
It is a dramatic drive but it’s easy to do. The whole trip is only 1250km on bitumen.
Coral Coast Highway takes us from concrete to coral, grey to turquoise, work-a-day to release.
How to do it
Perth to Geraldton
425km — allow 5 hours driving. But allow a full day, to stop and enjoy the sights.
Head north from Perth, either up the scenic, coastal Indian Ocean Drive through Lancelin, or up the Brand Highway, through fenced agricultural and rural landscapes.
Whichever way you go, the first iconic stop is Nambung National Park, and the Pinnacles Desert (perhaps popping in to Cervantes for a “look and lunch” stop). Then continue north to Dongara-Port Denison. It’s worth turning in off the highway. Next stop is Greenough, with its leaning trees. You should be in Geraldton for sunset at the HMAS Sydney II memorial. There’s plenty of accommodation to choose from, from budget to resort.
Geraldton and Kalbarri
155km — 90 minutes for a straight drive, but figure in plenty of time in Northampton.
Enjoy some time in Geraldton, with its art gallery, museum, cafes and great foreshore. Maybe even think of a scenic flight over the Abrolhos Islands — 122 islands 60km offshore.
Then set out for Kalbarri. It’s an hour and half if you drive straight there — but my suggestion is, don’t. Stop at Northampton, just over 50km north, for a good look round.
Chiverton House Museum and the Northampton Visitor Centre need at least an hour to appreciate. But there’s plenty more in town.
After Northampton, best to take the scenic route, heading west off the highway, past Hutt Lagoon and Pink Lake. And it really is pink. Just past Hutt Lagoon, Port Gregory is one of WA’s coastal treasures, and its worth staying here, to slow things down.
Or just drive on before arriving in Kalbarri and staying.
In Kalbarri, breakfast in a cafe, go to the pelican feeding on the foreshore at 8.45am, hire a dinghy on the Murchison River estuary, or take the Bigurda Trail along the Kalbarri Cliffs coastline. There’s a lot to see and do in Kalbarri National Park — including, of course, Skywalk and Nature’s Window.
Kalbarri to Shark Bay
385km — 4.5 hours
Drive back out the highway and turn north on the World Heritage Drive. Spend time on Shell Beach, which has 4000 fragnum cockleshells in every square metre of its 15km, and Hamelin Pool to see the stromatolites. If you stay either in Denham or Monkey Mia (with its dolphins coming to shore, of course), maybe make time to drive out to Eagle Bluff for ocean views.
in Shark Bay
Now, about those Monkey Mia bottlenose dolphins. They usually come to the beach from about 7.45am, and there are Parks and Wildlife officers there to look after things. Then there are tours into Francois Peron National Park, sunset cruises, and there are great beaches in Denham and Monkey Mia.
Shark Bay to Carnarvon
335km — 4 hours
Shark Bay was good… but now we’re on the road again, heading north. And we love that. About 40km south of Carnarvon, perhaps stop at New Beach and Bush Bay for a swim and break. Another thought is to break the journey with a station stay at Wooramel, just over 120km before you get to Carnarvon.
There’s plenty to soak up the time in Carnarvon — good beaches, fresh produce, and places to call in around Fruit Loop Drive. Carnarvon has some of the best caravan and holiday parks in WA — plenty to choose from.
Don’t miss the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum, One Mile Jetty and its museum, and Gwoonwardu Mia, the Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre run by WA Museum.
And here’s another thought — instead of driving on towards Exmouth and North West Cape, first take a side trip up the coast from Carnarvon, to the Blowholes, 75km away, and then on to Quobba Station. There are also helicopter sightseeing flights out of Carnarvon.
Carnarvon to Coral Bay
238km — 2.5 hours
Even though the big rains that came through in early February temporarily cut the North West Coastal Highway just north of Carnarvon, work was quickly under way to get traffic moving again.
So, we can continue north — and I’m not rushing. In fact, it’s a classic, fresh morning in Carnarvon, and I’m going to have a leisurely breakfast and stroll in the early light along the Fascine waterfront. It’s not as if we’ve actually got far to go — just the 238km to Coral Bay. That’s a leisurely day.
Arriving in Coral Bay is always a treat, and there could be time for an afternoon quad bike tour or snorkel before sunset drinks.
(in Coral Bay)
Walk to the water and turn left along the beach and we’re pretty well touching Ningaloo Reef. To the right, there’s the big bay, with snorkelling over coral lumps and even kayak moorings, where you can tie up and jump in.
Coral Bay to Cape Range National Park, Exmouth
205km — 2 hours
There’s no way I’m driving past Bullara Station without calling in for coffee and scones in an outback setting. (I’d be pretty happy staying here, too.)
There are gorges to drive into before you get to Exmouth town. Charles Knife Canyon is one of WA’s great sights, and well worth the drive in. Beaches like Pebble Beach, to the east on the Exmouth Gulf, are benign and pretty.
This is a good stretch of road to take your time and explore.
Exmouth is one of the few places in WA where you can see the sun rise and set over water — with Exmouth Gulf to the east, and the Indian Ocean to the west. Perhaps aim for Sunrise Beach at dawn and Vlamingh Head Lighthouse at dusk. Sunsets in Exmouth are often pretty amazing.
There are plenty of accommodation and dining options, and Mantarays Beach Resort is excellent. For more casual times, head to Whalers Restaurant, Cadillacs Bar and Grill, the restaurant at Exmouth Game Fishing Club, or Froth Craft or Whalebone Brewery.
Then, of course, drive up past North West Cape, and down “the outside”, in Cape Range National Park, perhaps stopping to snorkel at Mangrove Bay or Turquoise Bay, and exploring around Yardie Creek. Definitely join Yardie Creek Boat Tours.
Some of my highlights from the road…
The Pinnacles in Nambung National Park near Cervantes. Sculptural limestone pillars formed from seashells.
Jurien Bay Marine Park and its Australian sea lions: all females weighing up to 100kg, hauling up between fishing for squid, octopus, cuttlefish, fish and rock lobster. Tough life.
Port Denison harbour (always pretty and interesting), and the Dongara coast. In Port Denison, Harbour Beach for young bathers, South Beach for the big ones. Take paddle craft for the Irwin River in Dongara. They’re a destination to return to.
Perhaps time the run to coincide with Geraldton’s new, four-day Shore Leave Festival, from May 6 to 9, with its focus on seafood, culture and adventure. shoreleave.com.au
The pink of Pink Lake at Hutt Lagoon, 46km down a scenic drive west from Northampton, is caused by Dunaliella salina, a carotenoid producing algae.
Murchison River mouth at Kalbarri to wet a line. Hope for whiting, tailor, mulloway, mangrove jack, black and yellowfin bream. Take or hire a dinghy or paddle craft.
With more than 1000 plant species, Kalbarri National Park’s flora is as diverse as a rainforest. Most roads are sealed — head for Four Ways carpark as a starting point for walks and sights.
South of the town, the red Kalbarri Cliffs coastline are a brilliant sight at sunset.
…and the termite mounds along Shark Bay Heritage Drive are a “lunar”.
Although many tend to think of it just as the bit off North West Cape, Ningaloo Reef actually stretches from Red Bluff, north of Carnarvon, to somewhere past the tip of the cape. It’s the world’s longest fringing reef — and that means there are plenty of places to swim and snorkel over it, and dive onto it.
Up on the coast just north of Carnarvon, the ocean surges into caves and holes in the rocks, then jets into the air at the Blowholes. It’s a great bit of coast, with some nice beaches, too.
…but surely one of the best for most of us is the drift snorkel at Turquoise Bay, in Cape Range National Park, around the cape from Exmouth.
Swimming with whale sharks is an epic experience. Take a day trip with one of the Exmouth or Coral Bay whale shark operators. The whale shark season is usually early March to August.
Allow at least an hour to visit the excellent Ningaloo Aquarium and Visitor Centre in Exmouth, with one of Australia’s largest live reef aquariums.
HALVE THE DRIVING
Avis Australia is offering seasonal one way hire car rentals between Perth and Exmouth, in either direction. Cut the driving in half, save your car, and fly the other way with Qantas from or to Learmonth Airport (between Exmouth and Coral Bay).
Australia’s Coral Coast tourism region is behind the new initiative, under which, from April 1 to October 31, Avis Australia has a reduced one-way relocation fee. Normally $1000, the discounted relocation fee is $250 if driving from Perth to Exmouth, and $150 if driving from Exmouth to Perth.
avis.com.au and 9949 2492.
There’s more information on the region, and more itineraries and planning tools at
GET HELP & BOOK
Information, planning and itineraries at australiascoralcoast.com.
Turquoise Coast Visitor Centre, Jurien Bay. visitturquoisecoast.com.au and 9652 0870.
Dongara Port Denison Visitor Centre. dongaraportdenison.com.au and 9927 1404.
Geraldton Visitor Centre. visitgeraldton.com.au.
Kalbarri Visitor Centre. kalbarri.org.au and 9937 1104.
Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery and Visitor Centre. sharkbayvisit.com.au and 9948 1590.
Carnarvon Visitor Centre. carnarvon.org.au and 9941 1146.
Ningaloo Visitor Centre, Exmouth. visitningaloo.com.au and 9949 3070.
PINING FOR THE GREAT AUSSIE ROADHOUSE
D’you know what I really need just now?
I need the thrum of the bitumen, the passing of kilometres… being on the road, and a good, old-fashioned roadhouse.
A canopy that throws a solid rectangle of shade on the diesel-mottled ground. A 44-gallon drum for a dustbin. A diesel pump that’s so stiff it gives yer hand cramp and then, when you finally get to grips with it, it burps out fuel, down yer strides, over yer boots. And then — no paper on the roll.
Yeah, that’s what I need.
You know what else I need? A blinding walk in the sun from the pump to the open-it-for-yourself, slam-shut brown door. And then plunging into the darkness and heading the wrong way, past a roundabout stand of beanies (really — in this heat?), past those mesh caps with click-in plastic backs and slogans … Best Dad, Worst Behaviour, My Holden Will Eat Your Ford.
Walk past the mishmash of phone chargers and homemade hand sanitisers that don’t look, well, very sanitary. There’s even a CD rack (remember CDs?) — David Bowie’s Greatest Hits, Engelbert Humperdinck Sings (mmm, just), Slim Dusty Looking Forward, Aussie Road Trip Singalong (Dear Lord, spare me that).
Then the whirligig of stubby holders with more slogans — Rodeo Cowboys Stay on Top, Cashed Up Bogan, I’m a Dad and I Know Things, I’m Not as Think As You Drunk I Am, Pink and Proud.
On past the haphazard shelves of jerry cans and car batteries and fuses and the card of globes, with most of them missing.
I need the all-pervasive smell of food deep-fried in oil. The truckies are in, for just-warm bacon and egg sarnies and a couple of cheese sausages and Chiko rolls, and pies, of course.
…always pies. The sign on the warmer says: “It’s unaustralian to pay for sauce.” And they cluster around a tray full of colourful squeezy bottles and squirt away. I order a salad sandwich, and then blow it with a bucket of chips, and put on enough salt to clear Lake MacLeod. (Don’t you worry about my arteries… who ever craved anything floppy?)
MOVING WITH THE TIMES
Ah, but things on the road are changing (have changed at some roadhouses).
At the Billabong Homestead on North West Coastal Highway near the Shark Bay turn-off, there’s a warm welcome and a very good cup of coffee.
At the Overlander, a couple of hours past Kalbarri, I hang out in the shade watching folk line up with their reusable coffee cups. There’s eggs Benedict and omelette and Scotch fillet and creamy garlic prawns… cappuccino, espresso, chai latte, green tea, peppermint tea.
But I’m at the truckies’ table making my own tea (“Free for Driver”) — double-bagging, and extra sugar, when no one’s looking.
Closer to home, at Cataby, there are budgies in an aviary and, parked in front, two Jayco camper trailers, an Eagle and a Swan (and it could have been a Jayco Penguin and a Finch — yes, really).
Thankfully, the birds are safely caged at CAT-aby (get it?). After all, we wouldn’t want to let the cat out of the bag and have a cat-astrophe, would we?
I was here once on a hot day. A little girl was licking an ice-cream on the forecourt as a gang of bikies came swooping in like black cockatoos. After the leader paid for his fuel, his Harley-Davidson wouldn’t start. Eventually someone plucked up courage — “push it off the pumps, mate”. And he did, red-faced, hot and bothered, as the little girl watched him… eyes locked on him, licking her ice-cream.
FREE AT LAST
We love the icons of the Coral Coast, but I love just being on the road, heading north, crossing the line.
After staying home, I’m out — liberated, cutting loose. I feel emancipated. My heart is light and unencumbered.
And finally, I’m off the bitumen and in the red dirt. Dust billows behind the vehicle, and I wind down the window and sniff it like snuff.
It is peppery, mineral. It is the land itself.
Hands on the wheel, quarter-to-three, coffee steaming, sip-along.
After staying home, I’m in my other, true home. I’m in open space. I’m in the world.
And I am fortunate to call the vast length of Australia’s Coral Coast part of my backyard.
I stop and step out into the dirt. With the toe of my boot, I push dust.
And then I climb on to the vehicle’s roof rack — a solid plate built for moments like this, so that I can elevate into clear air. For its height takes me up into the centre of a sphere.
The earth below, the sky above and the endless, unbroken horizon all around me.