Western Australia: The Northern Coastline

Traveling on a budget normally means you know all the underground deals. Relocation vans are the height of the backpacker’s possibilities as they are so freaking cheap. We got a camper van, normally costing $500 a NIGHT plus insurance and gas, for less than $300 for 6 days. How? When Sloane said she didn’t want to fly back to Sydney and wanted to stay a bit longer in WA I went immediately to check these vans. I had been dying to do a road trip up to Broome and did not want to do it alone. Ironically sitting here now I have driving from Broome to Darwin alone and 6 months ago I would have literally cried thinking about that. Well I actually did cry the first night but that is not this story!

Apollo had a van up for relocation from Perth to Broome for $1 a day for 5 days, $100 for the extension of a day. Now I do not entirely understand it because in the end the refund you the bond you paid, give you whatever the offer was for gas, and I guess collect money for the insurance but the net to me was too low for that so I am lost. I found one leaving Perth on Saturday, this being Monday, and said to Sloane “???” She said book it.

So here we are traveling in an outfitted van up the western coastline towards Broome. In 6 days we had to drive 2,800 kms. Totally do-able, but we wanted to donate an entire day to swimming with whale sharks so we were more like 600-700km a day. As Americans we are used to driving massive distances, it was 45 minutes just to get to most of my friends places in Northern Virginia. We had this in the bag.

Thankfully Sloane was extremely flexible and more or less let me pick all the stops with her chiming in at good swimming holes or places she had friend’s recos for. Saturday we picked up the car and headed out.

Day 1 : Perth to The Pinnacles to Hutt Lagoon

If you follow Australia on instagram you have seen this lagoon. It is a pink lake on one side and the ocean on another side. I have tried to visit pink lakes before and it has normally been dry or not that pink. This my friends, was pink. But again, I am jumping ahead.

We drove first 3 hours to Namburg National Park to see the pinnacles. These limestone towers form just past the sand dunes with the ocean lying in the distance. They created a drive through park so you could see all of them from multiple angles.

Next was a 3 hour drive to Port Gregory, the Hutt Lagoon, the Pink Lake. Since the rental took longer than expected in the morning, and then we grabbed groceries, we didn’t even get to the pinnacles until 2pm. After exploring and eating lunch we only had 2 hours of daylight left. Driving at night in Australia as I have mentioned is Russian roulette. Kangaroos, cows, birds, you name it, it is all out there ready to run right to your headlights. So we scurried towards Port Gregory calling a caravan park right beside the lake reserving a space for the night. We got there right after 630pm so not much night driving thankfully.

We woke up the next morning and saw the pinkness in all its glory.

Day 2: Port Gregory to Wooramel Station to Exmouth

This day was a driving day. From Port Gregory we drove almost 4 hours to Wooramel Station. Here are hot springs that we literally sat in for 10 minutes. It was more a break from driving than anything else. The people staying at the resort were literally aghast that we were there for all of 10 minutes and were driving another 5 hours to Exmouth. Oh what one does to save money and swim with sharks.

The drive to Exmouth is long and the road varies slowly. For a whole hour you will be in the largest open plains with no end in sight from any direction and then out of seemingly no where you will have mountains then you will have bush trees and then dried up rivers with white gums surrounding them. Always around you is the classic red outback dirt.

Day 3: Ningaloo Reef

Now we were lucky, while we were driving all 3 of the major cities went into lockdown from COVID outbreaks. Yes Australia is still living like its March 2020. Because of this we were able to get bookings from people’s cancelations. Honestly, if not for that, I am not sure how much we would have been able to do. All of the camp sites and caravan parks were booked out for months. We had to pay an obscene amount for an apartment for the night just so we could be in the area and grab the tour early this morning.

The morning was gray and actually rainy which is weird for this time of year. We grumbled as we boarded the bus wishing for sun. The week prior had been full of storms and rain and chaotic waves. As we boarded the boat and started to head out to the reef we were stunned at how calm the water was. Glass conditions, the boat lifers call it. Glass is what you want. The boat glides, the water is so clear it is, you guessed it, like glass, and you can see every little creature swimming beneath you.

We first stopped at a reef to get our sea legs and I think more for the tour guides to assess our abilities with swimming. In this little reef we saw octopus moving from rock to rock changing colors as it went, sting rays with whole families of fish swimming above its head, and loads of fish. The feeling of diving down into clear waters with fish swimming all around you is the best mood boaster there is. If you read old 1800 books like me (cough loser cough) you will know they used to prescribe ocean baths to heal people with certain problems. Not that that is scientific but I am here to tell you it is.

Finally it was time to swim with some sharks. Whale sharks are called thus because their fins swim left to right like a shark were whales swim up and down. They eat krill though not fish like a whale so they are a bit confusing to us thus the double name. We cue up in our snorkels with our fins, the plan is we will drop in the ocean and wait in a line while our photographer and tour guide direct us as to where the shark is swimming. We will watch it swim by us and take photos. The first one is about 30 feet beneath us and is majestic even at that distance. The next one is at the same depth. We hop back in the boat and the captain drives us north. There is a sea plane literally scoping out above to find us the best sharks. We come to one area and well damn, it has everything.

Humpback whales are playing, swimming, and eating, which apparently is rare. It is thought that humpbacks only eat once so we got to see something actually wildly unique. It is a bit overwhelming all the wildlife. As we are cuing up to see a whale shark an ocean ray jumps out of the water and swims past us. We turn around and someone has spotted a whale shark. Our tour guide yells SWIM and do we swim.

Swimming is actually my favorite work out. I normally swim for an hour and can do a mile plus in that time. I have swam in the ocean but this is unlike anything I have every experience. The water is clear and deep but I am so distracted about catching up with the shark that you think of nothing but stroking and breathing. I flash back to my swim meets when I was 10 in my little chlorinated pool in Northern VA. Compared to this now in the open Indian Ocean chasing after whale sharks. The adrenaline is out of control.

We do this possibly 10 times. The captain would reposition us, and they would yell group 1! We would grab our fins, line up, and wait for the go ahead. I seriously felt like a navy seal in training. But wildly less fit. I truly cannot found the number of things I swam with or even saw that day. On the way back to land I was so exhausted, I really wish I wore my fitness watch to track my distance because that was a serious swim.

When we were dropped back off at our camper van reality set in. No, I was not a mermaid swimming in the ocean, I was a human and I had to drive another 2 hours before I could shower, eat, and sleep. Worth it.

Day 4: Coral Bay to Robe River

We woke up this morning in Coral Bay, the tiniest town you have ever seen which holds two caravan parks, one hostel, and one restaurant. You only go there to take the snorkel express as I dubbed it. The bay stretches out forever with the reef like a mile away. The best way to do this is to truck against the current with the water to your thighs up as far as you can muster. Then from there you watch it all pass you and you let the current take you back. I watched the little fishes swimming below me in the clearest, sparkling water, thinking, wow we should probably take better care of our oceans because this is like the most beautiful thing in all the world.

That afternoon we were back on the road heading to camp for free at Robe River, suggested to us by a guy on our reef trip. The road signs are in English, German, French, and Mandarin saying to keep left. Proving that I think more backpackers and tourists have done this drive than Australians. Free camping normally means no facilities but this place had a drop toilet. Which is as you would guess nothing but a long drop where everything goes. Peeing in the bush is actually better.

When in the west coast you get the most beautiful sunsets, nothing impedes your view and it is just you and the forever changing colored sky. You race against the sun as it sets and you try to get to the camp site in time.

Day 5: Robe River to Free Camping Site in the Bush

I woke up the next morning for sunrise and couldn’t believe how much we had seen and done in such a short time. Now the stretch from the west coast east to Broome I think is the prettiest drive of the whole trip. You loose the farms and just have beautiful landscape stretching in front of you. If you have to drive for 6 hours, this is the view you want.

Day 6: Free Camp to Broome

On our last night we rolled into another free camp, made some dinner, and watched the stars. The Australian roads do not have any lights at all so everywhere you go at night is a light show. The stars and milky way lay above you like you have never seen. We sadly woke up on our last day and drove into Broome. Ready to be in a real bed, have a real shower, and not to cook dinner in a car. We cleaned the car and returned it to Apollo. Saying goodbye to our home for the past week, but hello to exploring Broome.

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