Ever wanted to walk straight into the ocean and immediately be able to snorkel a coral reef with fish, sharks, and sea turtles all within a few steps of the beach? Golf with emus? Swim with manta rays and giant whale sharks? In the town of Exmouth, Western Australia, it’s all possible.
Exmouth was a ghost town when I showed up. I’d taken a seventeen-hour bus ride south from Broome, into the off-season. I had horror-film, Wolf Creek-style visions as I got off the bus alone at the empty terminal and watched it disappear.
I didn’t see another soul. I didn’t see another car. Everything was closed. I was convinced I was going to become another backpacker statistic, missing in the outback of Western Australia.
As always, I pulled out my “trusty” Google Maps to lead the way. Happy that this desolate town had mobile reception, I only got lost once finding my hostel.
Cars began to appear on the road, I saw another person on the street, and there was a gas station open. I relaxed a bit, now that I was more confident this adventure wouldn’t end with my face on a milk carton.
When I checked into my room, I’d never been so happy to be sharing a dorm with only 3 guys. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to see 3 people. They had all just arrived as well, and also had zero prior knowledge about the place except for the marine life. They were also all pretty horrified about the general emptiness of the town.
Determined to enjoy the place, the four of us went on a walk to explore.
Within walking distance of the town is the Exmouth Golf Club and at the end of the dry season it was looking crispy. They’ve found a way to get around drying to keep their greens green in the outback – by not having any. I think it adds quite a unique aspect to the course, not to mention being eco-minded. No sense in fighting nature when you can embrace it. I’d love to hear the thoughts of some pro golfers, playing on such different terrain.
We’d all heard good things about Turquoise Bay and we figured the Town Beach must be pretty awesome as well.
We were wrong.
Maybe I’d become a beach snob by spending three months on Cable Beach, but even the locals seemed to ignore it. There was one man fishing, and another walking his dog, but no one else seemed have any interest in the pebbles. The sun was beginning to set, but Town Beach doesn’t face west, and there isn’t much of a sunset to watch.
In the morning, the room was empty. All the guys had gone off on diving trips. I headed down to the Visitor Centre to find myself a snorkelling trip or manta ray adventure,some way to spend my next four days.
I found out that it was the off-season, and basically none of the tours were operating.
Pro tip for you all: DO YOUR RESEARCH! Especially in isolated towns with seasonal weather. There’s always something happening on the east coast of Australia, but Western Australia is a different game.
Fortunately, they employees at the visitor centre were incredibly helpful. They got me on a tour for the following day, and informed me of a Coral Bay shuttle bus that would begin running the day after. Thank you, ladies!
For the rest of the day I wandered around the town centre, checking out the awesome (but expensive) surf shops, and wondering why there are two nearly identical IGA grocery stores sitting about 10m across from each other. The Potshot Resort has a pretty nice pool and a decent book selection, so I was pretty happy to just vegetate.
Ningaloo Safari Tours
The following morning Dave of Ningaloo Safari Tours picked me up from my hostel. They promise “a day of wonder”, and the Top of the Range Safari tour absolutely delivers. It was the highlight of my stay in Exmouth.
There is so much more than just the reef to explore.
Our first area of exploration was the Cape Range National Park. We drove the winding and unsealed road into Shothole Canyon. It is named after all the holes leftover from people exploding the cliffs, looking for oil. The Cape Range was under the ocean thousands of years ago, all the cliffs are actually ancient coral. Dave taught us the names of the layers of coral turned to rock you can see in the colourful bands. I could never remember them even when he quizzed us later in the day. Sorry, Dave.
Next up we drove to the top of Charles Knife Canyon for tea, cake, and views of the canyon leading back to the ocean. You can hike up there yourself, but I wouldn’t envy anyone slogging up that road in the sun.
Exmouth is a young town. There wasn’t much there at all until WW2, when Operation Potshot began and the area was a submarine refuelling station. A small airport was also built. After the War, it was developed into a fully functional US military base. And they built the massive radio communications tower that still stands today. The town grew as a result of the jobs that came from these operations.
The base is abandoned now, except for a mob of big red kangaroos and a few emus. For a time, it was considered US soil, so you drove on the right and used their currency. It is 100% the ghost town I thought Exmouth was at first and is totally creepy.
Up at Cape Vlamingh Lighthouse, you can see where the Ningaloo Reef begins out in the ocean.
Down at Osprey Bay, we had a great beach lunch of salads, sandwiches, and a some local shrimp.
My favourite part of the tour was the Yardie Creek boat ride. The five of us on the tour all piled into a flat bottomed metal boat and slowly made our way up the winding creek, framed on both sides by vivid red cliffs.
A pair of osprey had built the biggest bird’s nest I’d ever seen. They snack on the rock wallabies that dot the cliffs, but I’m not sure how they ever find them. Those little guys are camoflauge pros, even when one was right in front of the boat I couldn’t see it until it moved.
And how do they get into these nooks and crannies on sheer vertical cliffs?!
I love how empty Western Australia is. It just feels so big.
The Top of the Range Safari ended with a later-afternoon visit to Turquoise Bay for a quick snorkel. It was good to get a quick rundown of how to snorkel before I attempted it by myself the following day.
For the record, snorkelling is pretty idiot proof, but it was still nice to do it the first time with some supervision.
I cannot recommend Ningaloo Safari Tours enough. Dave, you made my bleak-looking stay in the off season something to truly remember. Thank you for the day of wonder!
I was lucky that the day after my Safari Tour, a shuttle bus began running daily trips to Turquoise Bay. The Yardie Creek Boat Tours gets you too the beach by about 10:15 in the morning. The Bay is about a 45-minute drive from Exmouth, and is a part of the Cape Range National Park (your bus ticket includes the park entry fee). Pickup is around 2 in the afternoon, which is the perfect amount of time to spend at the beach for me.
At first I was a little nervous to snorkel by myself. I grew up swimming in lakes, and had never swam in the ocean until I got to Australia. The surf and current intimidate me. I do swim alone pretty often, but only when there are plenty of other people on the beach.
Turquoise Bay is nice and tame for wusses like me. The Ningaloo Reef is so amazing because it is a “fringing reef”. That means the reef starts just a few metres from the beach, no boat required. This is great for wusses like me because it means you can see coral, fish, and the bottom of the ocean all within arms reach. (Note: make sure that you don’t stand on any of the coral when you’re in shallow water).
I was having quite a nice time, floating with the small fish, amazed at how unphased they are by having me swim with them. I felt like I could just push them out of the way if I needed to. Distracted, I swam out a farther, the ocean got a deeper, and the fish got bigger. Not massive, but enough to intimidate a complete novice like myself.
I poked my head above the surface and saw that I had gotten farther from shore than I was comfortable with. It is so easy to get lost with your head in the water. I was in zero danger, there was a snorkel tour out much farther than me and no current, but I decided to head back in anyway.
And then magic happened.
When you have a snorkel mask on, you lose your peripheral vision and kind of forget that there are things around you. I turned my head to the left and there was a sea turtle within a metre of me.
We must have startled each other, because we both flinched, making mirrored starfish shapes with limbs and fins. After the initial surprise, the turtle didn’t speed off, but wandered a bit and let me follow at a distance. Every so often it would look back to make sure I wasn’t too close, but for about five minutes we just cruised. The tunnel vision amplified, I stopped seeing the other fish or the coral, hearing only my own breathing and pulse. I was a little bit in love, feeling like my heart was going to explode out of me, watching a sea turtle poke around the reef.
And when it had enough of my attention, it flapped its flippers a few times and sped off out of sight. They really do look like they’re flying underwater. I needed some time out of the water to mellow out.
A little punch-drunk and grinning like an idiot, I sat alone on the beach, eating a sandy tuna sandwich on sweaty bread, humming. That is what I call a “big moment”. Every detail of those few minutes have remained so sharp in memory.
It was a peaceful few days at Turquoise Bay, paddling around in the shallows and walking along the beach. The one perk of coming in the November off-season was that there were people, but no crowds. Exhausted at the end of my second day I fell asleep on the beach and nearly missed my bus back.
The bus isn’t the only way in and out of Exmouth, there is an airport too. A shuttle bus can be booked to pick you up from your accommodation to take you out there. Fun fact: you cannot take any photos at the Exmouth airport, even when waiting at the gate to board (really, the airport is one room so there’s not much to see). This is because the public airport uses the same runway as the military base.
Twelve other passengers and myself got onto the propeller plane for the flight down to Perth. The flight attendant got mad at me for moving one row backward because apparently it would offset the entire balance of the plane. As a result, I was too afraid to get up to use the washroom for fear of crashing the plane and killing us all.
How to Get There
- By bus. Integrity Coach Lines is the only company that services Exmouth. Leaving Broome at 8pm on Thursdays and Saturdays, it arrives at the Exmouth visitor centre at 1pm the next day. Heading north from Perth, the bus leaves on Tuesdays and Thursdays from the CBD at 9:30pm and arrives at 3pm the following day.
- By air. Qantas runs one 2-hour flight a day from Perth to Exmouth (and the reverse). All other cities seem to fly via Perth even if you are coming from the north.
- By car. A straight run from Perth to Exmouth is about 13 hours. I would recommend breaking up the drive by stopping at other points of interest along the west coast such as: Kalbarri, Shell Beach, Monkey Mia, and Coral Bay.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the YHA Exmouth, which is part of the PotShot Resort in the town centre. The rooms are sparse, but clean and comfortable. Each dorm has its own full washroom. There is a large kitchen and lots of eating space outside. Being part of the resort, you also get access to the restaurant, pub and pool. There is also a bottle shop on the resort property (quite helpful for those hot days in the off season). The other members of my Ningaloo Safari Tour were staying at the Novotel Ningaloo Resort and had nothing but good things to say about it. I haven’t visited this property myself, but it does look really nice from the outside :) You can also camp in Cape Range National Park and basically sleep on the beach. There are a few different campsites available and they are all $10/person for a night, plus the park entry fee of $12/vehicle.
What to Do in Exmouth
- Don’t arrive in the off season.
- Bring sunscreen.
I cannot recommend Ningaloo Safari Tours enough. Dave has put together a wonderful full day tour that shows you show much more than just the beach and gives you a better appreciation of the area as a whole Yardie Creek Boat Tours is the company that ran the shuttle to and from the beach. Even though I was the only passenger for both days, they still ran the 45 minute drive in and out of Cape Range National Park for me and provided great commentary and conversation on all the trips. It kind of felt like my own little mini-tour each day.Snorkel! Everyone is here to see the Ningaloo Reef, right? You can rent snorkel gear from the visitor centre or one of the dive shops in town.
Keep it Budget
- Buy your own groceries. There is not one but two IGA grocery stores in the town centre. I kept it pretty cheap for the four days I was there by getting a loaf of bread, some margarine, cheese slices, instant noodles, apples, and a few cans of tuna. Not the most exciting diet, but it works on a temporary basis and cost me about $10 for 3 meals a day.
- Camp, or stay at a backpackers. If you have a car and the capabilities, I would definitely go camping instead of staying in town. At only $10 a night, where else can you wake up and go snorkelling on a coral reef before breakfast?
- Drive yourself. Those shuttle buses to Turquoise Bay cost me $35 each day. I’d saved a bunch of money by not showing up at the right time to go on one of the big tours, but it still would’ve been way cheaper to take my own transport if I’d had any.
- Head to Coral Bay instead. If you don’t have a car, you’d probably be better off going just a bit farther south instead. The town of Coral Bay is literally right at the reef, instead of Turquoise Bay being a 45-minute drive from Exmouth. Of course, then you’d miss out on the awesome Cape Range tour, but sacrifices must be made for the budget sometimes.
- Snorkel yourself. If you go in peak season, there are a few snorkel tours and glass-bottom boat tours running. I’m sure they provide really good information about the wildlife and coral. But if you’re just there to see some cool fish, grab your own gear and walk off the beach yourself
- blow the budget: if money was no object I’d definitely do a whale shark or manta ray tour to go and see some gentle giants.
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