Ningaloo reef, Western Australia © Tourism Western Australia
6 days at Ningaloo Reef
From snorkelling with the world’s largest fish to hiking with rare rock wallabies, Ningaloo Reef is a nature-buff’s dream.
By Carolyn Beasley
Ningaloo Reef is the largest fringing reef in Australia, its swathe of aquamarine waters hugging the shoreline of North West Cape. Mere metres from the beach, snorkellers are immersed in a vibrant buzz of colourful fish, sea turtles and sometimes manta rays.
Just offshore, loveable giants cruise the deeper waters and you can jump in with harmless whale sharks or mighty migrating humpback whales.
The gateway town of Exmouth, 1250 kilometres (777 miles) north of Perth, is a frontier town balancing on the edge of the rusty desert, where the west still feels delightfully wild. So, grab your swimsuit and let’s get you moving. Your fly-drive Ningaloo adventure awaits.
Day 1: Ningaloo introductions
After a two-hour morning flight from Perth to Exmouth, jump in your hire car and prepare for adventure as your first stop is on the way into town. Charles Knife Canyon is part of the Cape Range National Park, and was formed by water carving through the ancient range, exposing layers of striking colours. Drive up the well-formed but unsealed road for the awe-inspiring views.
Head into town for lunch at Froth Craft Brewery. Here you’ll find 16 beer taps plus a casual menu featuring local produce, like Exmouth Gulf prawns.
It’s time to check in to Mantarays Ningaloo Beach Resort, right on the shores of Exmouth Gulf. Settle in and inspect the lovely pool, which you’ll definitely frequent during your stay.
For an action-packed introduction to Ningaloo, get your bearings from the air. Take a one-hour joy flight with Ningaloo Aviation to spot whale sharks, turtles, dugongs and manta rays and be amazed by the turquoise of the reef and the red of the desert.
If you’ve had enough flying today, an alternate introduction is the Ningaloo Centre. Here you’ll find a visitor information centre for tour bookings and the Ningaloo Aquarium and Discovery Centre, with live reef displays. Step into the cyclone chamber to feel how Cyclone Vance battered Exmouth in 1999. Next, board an American school bus to learn why the US Navy built Exmouth in 1967 as a Cold War listening station and how the base still communicates with submarines worldwide.
Back at your hotel, take a dip at the beach before heading out to dine on Exmouth’s famous seafood at Whalers Restaurant.
Day 2: Reef immersion
It’s time to discover the reef first-hand, so dive in with the experts. Your guide from Exmouth Adventure Co. will collect you at 8am for the drive to Cape Range National Park for a leisurely kayak and snorkelling tour. They’ll provide all equipment needed, including lunch and even a big hat, and you’ll visit lesser-known parts of the reef. From the kayaks, take in that famous turquoise water, then snorkel the real-life aquarium with outrageously-coloured parrot fish and coral gardens.
If you’d prefer to stay dry, book a tour with Ningaloo Ecology Cruises, and you’ll view many of the same species through the boat’s glass panels. This option requires self-driving, meaning you can picnic at one of the many beaches (collect supplies in Exmouth before leaving).
In the afternoon, drop in to the Jurabi Turtle Centre to read the interpretive signage about the four species of sea turtles found here (from December to March there are evening nesting tours). Drive up to the historic Vlamingh Head Lighthouse for incredible views and to learn about the coast’s shipwrecks.
Back at your resort, there’s time to put your feet up before experiencing an authentic piece of Exmouth culture. Have dinner at the Potshot Hotel and Resort, a country pub built in the 1960s for American naval officers.
Day 3: Mighty marine life
Swimming with an enormous ocean animal is unforgettable, and today’s your day! If you’re visiting between April and July, you’ll be snorkelling with gentle whale sharks, while those coming between August and October can swim with migrating humpback whales. A handful of ethical and licensed operators like Ocean Eco Adventures offer both tours.
Be up early for the morning transfer to the boat. With the help of a spotter aircraft, your skipper will deliver you to the whale shark (or whale). After thorough safety briefings and snorkelling instructions, jump in to the blue and wait for the harmless giant to cruise past, often at close range. A professional photographer will capture your magic underwater moments.
Lunch and snacks are provided onboard, and after the cruise you’ll be dropped back to your resort, deliriously happy and with time to reflect on your experience over a cocktail.
Stay in-house tonight, dining on the terrace at Mantarays Restaurant, where it’s hard to go past the seafood platter for two featuring local red emperor.
Day 4: Go eco-luxe by the reef
Check out of your hotel and hit the road to Cape Range National Park, grabbing some picnic supplies in town. Stop in at the Milyering Visitors Centre for information about this national park and World Heritage area. If you’re planning some independent snorkelling, ask about the best locations for today’s tides and your level of swimming experience.
Potter through the national park, stopping in at various beaches and bays along the way. After consulting the safety signage, experienced snorkellers may hit Turquoise Bay for a drift snorkel, where the currents carry you over healthy corals and through schools of fish, just metres from shore. At the end of the bay, exit the water and stroll up the beach to repeat.
After a couple of drifts, you’ve probably worked up an appetite. Enjoy your picnic lunch on the beach or under the shade sail.
Continue south for seven kilometres (four miles), and turn in to Sal Salis, your eco-luxe tented camp on the shores of Ningaloo, home for the next two nights. This afternoon, consult the Sal Salis activity offerings and join a guided snorkelling or kayaking tour. Or, just kick back and enjoy your exclusive place beside the reef.
After sunset cocktails and a gourmet Sal Salis dinner, you’ll stroll back to your wilderness tent under the brightest stars imaginable. With no nearby towns and lighting kept to a minimum here, the Ningaloo night sky is extraordinary.
Day 5: Gorgeous gorges
Spring out of bed with the birds and join your Sal Salis guide for a gorge walk, beating the heat of the day. You’ll visit either Mandu Mandu Gorge or Yardie Creek Gorge, and both offer the chance to spot rare black-footed rock wallabies and admire elevated views of the reef.
Next, hop on board a Yardie Creek Boat Tour, a fun and informative way to learn about the wildlife and geology of the only gorge in Cape Range with permanent water. With your charismatic guide, meet the resident ospreys and rock wallabies, hear about the fossilised teeth of the extinct megalodon shark, and discover medicinal plants used by the Indigenous Thalanyji people.
Be sure to be back in time for lunch at Sal Salis overlooking the reef. This afternoon, relax at the resort, tootling around in a kayak or examining the shells on the beach.
Savour your final dinner at Sal Salis, before sleeping under canvas one more time, drifting off to the sounds of the ocean.
Day 6: Final farewells
Sadly, it’s time to check out and head for home. Depending on your flight schedule, you may have time to linger in the national park for a final swim, or grab a coffee at the quirky Beach Shack at Bundegi Beach. Be sure to allow one-and-a-half hours for the drive from Sal Salis back to the airport.