Ningaloo Reef, off Australia's west coast, is every bit as breathtaking as the better-known Great Barrier Reef.
By Ute Junker
Marine playgrounds don’t get much better than this. Most visitors head to the spectacular Ningaloo Reef to experience the thrill of swimming with whale sharks, humpback whales and even manta rays. However, that's just the start of the adventure. From quad biking over sand dunes to kayaking through limestone gorges, add these don't-miss activities to your itinerary.
The whale sharks and humpback whales may be Ningaloo's biggest attractions, but there are plenty of other colourful creatures swimming beneath the waves. More than 500 species of fish live in these waters, so grab a snorkel and see how many you can spot at popular snorkel spots such as Bills Bay and Purdy Point at Coral Bay, or Oyster Stacks and the Turquoise Bay Drift in Cape Range National Park. Look for elegant angel fish and Moorish idols, vibrantly coloured parrot fish and butterfly fish, and tiny damselfish. Divers can get up close with even more varieties of fish at sites such as Exmouth's Navy Pier, where big schools of snapper and massive grouper fish are frequent visitors.
It's not easy being a turtle. All three species found on Ningaloo Reef – the green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles – are endangered. When a baby turtle hatches, its chances of surviving to adulthood are just one in 5000. At the Jurabi Turtle Centre, outside the town of Exmouth, you can learn more about these extraordinary animals, and even take part in a guided turtle viewing experience. From December to March you can watch turtles laying their eggs. Or come six weeks later to see the hatching process, when the tiny turtles dig their way out of the sand and race towards the ocean, trying to escape waiting predators including ghost crabs and spangled emperor fish.
Those sandy beaches and dunes flanking the reef are not just good for lying on: they also offer a great opportunity to get some adrenaline going. A number of companies, including Coastal Adventure Tours, offer quad biking tours, allowing you to experience the thrill of travelling cross-country while steering 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of revved-up power. Some tours include a snorkelling stop. Choose a sunset tour for a truly memorable experience. You must have a valid driver's licence with you to drive a quad bike.
With so many inviting stretches of sand fringing the coastline, there is no need to share a beach: simply go exploring until you find one where the only footprints on the sand are yours. Cape Range National Park is a good place to start. Instead of heading to the popular Turquoise Bay, choose a different turn-off to discover one of the park’s less visited beaches. Good options include the postcard-perfect Sandy Bay or Bloodwood Creek.
Coral Resort Bakery, in the tiny town of Coral Bay, serves up all sorts of cakes and pastries, but the major attraction is the piping hot pies. The meat pie is a true-blue Australian snack, and this bakery makes pies just right, with flaky pastry and hearty fillings. The traditional beef and cheese is a favourite. The beef and reef, which teams tender beef with prawns in a white sauce, is also recommended.
Western Australia's gorges are among its most dramatic sights and Yardie Creek Gorge, in Cape Range National Park, is no exception. The red rock walls of the gorge are reflected in the bright blue water, trapped by a sandbar to create a permanent waterhole. As a result, Yardie Creek is something of an oasis. Along with birds such as ospreys, you may spot rare black-footed wallabies, which make their home in crevices in the cliff face. Join an eco-cruise along the gorge with Yardie Creek Boat Tours.