“Are you ready for the flight of your lifetime?” asks Gavin Penfold, Birds Eye View Ningaloo pilot, while strapping me into a two-seater micro light plane.
I’m wearing a flight suit and flight helmet, and for a moment, I envision myself as Maverick’s wingman Goose (from the movie Top Gun). But in reality, I’m in a tiny plane (weighing about 450kg) with an open cockpit. Yes, no doors. For the next hour, I’d be flying with Penfold, cruising 1,219m above sea level.
Unsure what to expect, I smile wryly at the dreadlocked Australian pilot with Chinese Malaysian roots. There are butterflies in my stomach as I’m afraid of heights.
I’m in Exmouth, a destination situated on the remote northwest coast of Western Australia. This untouched contrast of land and sea is famed for world-heritage listed Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range National Park, occupying over 40,469ha of the western side of Australia’s North West Cape.
Minutes later, Penfold and I are on the airstrip, ready to go. Soon, we’re soaring high in the sky. My fears disappear as I peer down at Exmouth’s breathtaking view, encompassing the red ranges of the National Park through to Ningaloo Reef’s rich turquoise reef abundant with marine life.
The bird’s eye view of Exmouth is amazing. From up there, I spot green sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks to humpback whales frolicking in crystal clear waters of the ocean. I stretch out my arms and breathe in the crisp cold air as I witness a panoramic view of Exmouth’s true beauty.
The flight is one of the must-dos in Exmouth. While the flight was truly enjoyable, it is important to be mentally and physically prepared for it.
Mouth ‘ex’ for exciting
To get to Exmouth, from Perth, we boarded a two-hour flight to Learmonth Airport, both a Royal Australian Air Force base and civil airport. It’s a very basic airport and so don’t expect any restaurants, fashion boutiques or souvenir shops around the vicinity. Exmouth is about 35km from the airport and the journey to the small town resort is eye-opening, especially with kangaroos, goats and sheep roaming freely in herds.
With a population of over 2,000 residents, Exmouth pales in comparison to Perth, in terms of shopping, development and eateries. This is definitely not the place to purchase Oroton’s latest Spring/Summer collection or Billabong sportswear. Most people who travel here have two things on their mind – to relax and explore Exmouth’s attractions.
During the media trip – organised by Tourism Western Australia – we managed to visit Cape Range National Park, a half hour drive from Exmouth. The spectacular place is famed for its rugged limestone gorges, breathtaking canyons, sandy beaches and mangroves. I enjoyed the drive through the limestone gorges, carved by ancient rivers.
Pack comfortable footwear, as you will be doing a fair bit of walking around the national park.
This is paradise for nature lovers, for its abundant variety of wildlife including kangaroos, emus, a variety of birds and dingoes. Keep cameras handy as kangaroos will be hopping here and there and across the open fields. A note of caution: do follow the speed limit when driving as kangaroos have a tendency of crossing roads blindly. One of the highlights while at the park was a boat ride to Yardie Creek. It’s a deep gorge offering amazing views of multicoloured limestone cliffs. It’s important to keep your eyes peeled. Hidden between the ledges of the gorges walls are black-footed wallabies and birds like osprey and Pacific Reef egrets.
For those with a penchant for the underwater world, try drift snorkelling (where gentle currents drift you across the water) at Turquoise Bay. I had a blast having a go at this, admiring coral gardens and a range of marine life in shallow waters.
Very important! Pay attention to the current flow while drift snorkelling. Exit the water upon reaching the sandbar to avoid being sucked into deep waters. I am a fairly good swimmer, but missed the exit point and almost got pulled to the deep. Most importantly, don’t panic and swim calmly to shore. Always swim with a buddy who can assist during an emergency.
Elsewhere, Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, which overlooks Lighthouse Bay, is unique. For those into sunrises and sunsets, this is the spot. Built in 1912 for marine navigation along the western coastline of Australia, the lighthouse stands on the northernmost tip of the national park.
Secret worth exploring
A two-hour drive away from Exmouth is Coral Coast, another laid-back coastal town known for whale shark tours, white beaches and outback dessert. As it’s a long drive through the outback, it is advisable to pack up on drinks and food. Remember it is the Australian outback so don’t expect anything close to our Plus highway (where many amenities are made available for the public). I couldn’t recall coming across any toilet facilities so do consider the amount of water consumed during the drive.
On the way there, we stopped for a few selfies and wefies at Termite Mounds, located between Minilya and Exmouth. Hundreds of termite hills, about 2m high, can be seen adorning the landscape. Another note of caution: Be careful around the mounds to avoid stepping on termite colonies.
If you’re planning to swim with whale sharks, book your trip during the months of March and July. This is when whale sharks gather at the Ningaloo Coast due to an increase in mass spawning of coral. Ningaloo Coast is the only place in the world where these gentle giants – the world’s largest fish that can grow up to 18m in length – appear regularly in numbers.
Our whale shark tour kicked off at 8am and ended towards late evening. During the eight to 10-hour trip, you might not only have a chance to swim with whale sharks but also with black tipped reef sharks (don’t worry, they don’t bite unless provoked), string rays and hundreds of fish species. For more activities, try your luck at fishing and spearfishing at designated parts of the coast.
Ningaloo Coast – the largest fringing reef in Australia – offers a majestic view of pristine white beaches and rich marine life
This is an open ocean snorkelling adventure so water confidence is vital to increase your enjoyment on the tour. If you are the sort who gets sea sick (like me), pack up on motion sickness pills as the sea currents could be a tad too rough.
Coral Coast is a town that’s smaller than Exmouth. Yes, you read right. There are literally a handful of eateries and only one souvenir shop. It’s really a place for those wanting to chill while having a bit of adventure. If you’re into fine dining, vineyard tours and high street shopping, you will be disappointed in Coral Coast.
No trip to Coral Coast would be complete without an adventure on board a quad-bike. This was one of my most favourite activities as I got to drive the mini bike across beaches, bush tracks, sand dunes circuits and cliff lines. Ensure you slip on sports shoes and don’t forget to carry along your drivers license for the adrenaline-pumping ride of your life.
During the trip, our tastebuds were tantalised with a selection of seafood, such as barbecued scotch fillet, grilled wild caught Western Australian barramundi, and South Australian mussels. One of my favourites was seafood linguini, featuring mixed seafood in a bisque sauce topped with freshly caught Exmouth bugs and tiger prawns. I also enjoyed fish and chips, prepared using beer batter and Australian king threadfin. Though simple, the meal was delicious and fish, so fresh.
And after a hard day of play (not work), pair your hearty meals with some of Australia’s finest wines including cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
While Exmouth and Coral Coast may not boast tourist attractions like vineyards or chocolate factories, these small towns are renowned for hidden gems encompassing nature and marine life. For adventure seekers, divers and spearfishing lovers, ensure Exmouth and Coral Coast is next on your bucket list.
This media trip was jointly hosted by Tourism Australia and Tourism Western Australia.