Road trips aren’t measured by mile markers, but by moments. I read that somewhere and it has stuck with me. I think that’s one of the things I love most about road trips. The best part of the adventure is not necessarily the end destination, but the experiences you have and the things you see along the way. For me, that’s what makes a road trip so memorable and fun.
Whether it’s completely spontaneous or well planned, the idea of taking off in my car has always appealed to me. There’s nothing quite like the freedom of the open road. And although I’m quite comfortable with my own company, I think the best kind of road trips involve good company. With long conversations, laughter, spontaneous detours, pit stops, music and even the occasional sing-a-long.
So it was a dream come true for me when I had the opportunity to explore a bit of Western Australia’s Coral Coast during a week long road trip from Perth to Monkey Mia. Heading north of Perth as we did, meant travelling along the scenic Indian Ocean Drive for a large part of the journey. FYI: Indian Ocean Drive begins in Lancelin and ends in Geraldton. It’s certainly a much more pleasant experience than driving inland on Brand Highway.
If you’ve never visited Western Australia before, one thing you need to know is that it is huge. HUGE. It is the largest state in the country, geographically speaking and covers more than 2.6 million square kms. In fact, if Western Australia was separate from the rest of Australia, it would be the 10th largest in the world. So exploring the state means covering a lot of miles – and that takes time, especially when you’re travelling by car. It’s just over 900 km from Perth to Monkey Mia, so we decided to split the journey. And Kalbarri was our first major stop.
Perth to Kalbarri
It took about eight or nine hours to drive from Perth to Kalbarri, including quite a few pit stops along the way. Our accommodation for two nights was the Kalbarri Edge Resort. The hotel was a great base to explore the charming seaside town and the main attraction, Kalbarri National Park. After settling in for the night, we made sure to wake up early the next day so we could head over to the foreshore to watch the pelican feeding. You’ll need to be there for 8.45 in the morning, if you want to watch local volunteers feed these beautiful wild birds. Better still, gets hands on and feed the pelicans yourself. It’s a really fun thing to do, whatever your age. Interestingly, the pelican feeding has been taking place along the foreshore for 40 years.
With one full day of adventure ahead of us, we made our way to Kalbarri National Park. Having seen plenty of photographs of the national park showcasing its natural beauty, I was beyond excited to explore this extraordinary place. As much as I loved the pelican feeding experience, this was the main highlight of Kalbarri for me. From the inland river gorges to the coastal cliffs, Kalbarri National Park is breathtaking, in every sense of the word. The park is huge – and I mean huge. It covers around 186,000 hectares, so we had to be a bit selective about the areas we wanted to explore. It’s not free to enter, but at just $13 (for a vehicle of up to 12 passengers) it’s well worth the entry fee.
First stop on our itinerary was Nature’s Window. So we headed inland to check out this amazing natural rock arch, which is formed from layers of Tumblagooda Sandstone. It’s an extremely popular spot for tourists and probably the park’s top attraction, enjoying incredible views of the Murchison River below. If you’re into hiking, I highly recommend walking the Z Bend Gorge river trail. It’s not the longest hike at just 2.6 km, but the terrain is challenging and demanding in parts. The trail includes loose rocks with steep descents and ladder climbs. But it is well worth the effort, just to take in the views from the bottom of the gorge.
Kalbarri National Park isn’t just beloved for its 400 million year old rock formations and river gorges. The contrasting landscape of its rugged coastal sandstone cliffs is equally beautiful and breathtaking. Most of the coastal sites are accessible by car, caravan or motorhome. Island Rock and Natural Bridge, Red Bluff, Pot Alley and Eagle Gorge all offer spectacular vantage points.
Kalbarri to Shark Bay
We left Kalbarri and headed for Denham and Shark Bay, which was to be our next base for the night. It’s a four hour direct drive, but along the way we detoured to check out a few of the sights along the World Heritage Drive, including Shell Beach and the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. Located in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shark Bay, Shell Beach is a photogenic snow-white beach made up of billions of teeny tiny shells. The beach – which incidentally, has no sand – stretches for more than 70 km. Walking on Shell Beach is a truly unique experience, because it’s one of only a handful of similar beaches in the world.
Shark Bay is also home to the Hamelin Pool stromatolites, living fossils which date back some 3.7 billion years. They are the oldest and largest living fossils in the world, and one of only four places where living marine stromatolites exist on the planet. Which makes them pretty special. Take a stroll along the purpose-built jetty and marvel at this natural wonder that provides a window into the origins of life and what the earth was like 3.7 billion years ago.
After several stop offs, we finally made it to Denham and Shark Bay and our home for the night, On the Deck @ Shark Bay. The location of this b&b is excellent and the accommodation was amazing, especially the decked area with a hot tub, where we sat and drank and watched the night sky in awe. Unfortunately, we were only there for one night, and despite the adventures we had ahead of us, it was hard to leave this lovely home away from home.
Francois Peron National Park
There’s lots to see and do in the Shark Bay area, but perhaps the number one visitor attraction is Francois Peron National Park. We headed to the Shark Bay Visitor Centre and booked a personal tour guide (Shark Bay Coastal Tours) to take us into the park. The majority of the track isn’t accessible by two wheel drive vehicles: due to the deep soft sand it is only suitable for high clearance four wheel drive vehicles. Although we had a four-wheel drive, we felt more comfortable letting someone else drive. The idea of getting stuck in the deep soft red sands was not appealing. Luckily for us, our guide Keith was brilliant and very knowledgeable about the area. And we didn’t get stuck once!
We found that hiring a local guide was the best way to experience and enjoy the park’s exclusive spots. It also gave us an opportunity to learn about the rich history of the area from a passionate local. Exploring Francois Peron National Park – which is just a 10 minute drive from Denham – was an incredible experience. During the day we ventured to Cape Peron, the most northerly tip of the park. With red cliffs, red sand, bright blue skies and beautiful turquoise water, the landscape is phenomenal. Head to Skipjack Point, which offers a great vantage point to take in the amazing views. And marvel at how clear the water is. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see manta rays, dugongs and small sharks cruising the water below.
Francois Peron National Park is pretty vast, covering over 52,000 hectares of arid shrublands and sand plains. It’s also home to some really cute little critters, like the Australian Thorny Devil. Also known as a Thorny Dragon or Mountain Devil, they have a lifespan of around 20 years and can grow up to 20cm in length. Our guide Keith managed to spot one wandering along the red sandy track.
Our Coral Coast road trip took us as far north as Monkey Mia, where we had organised an overnight stay at the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort. There had already been so many wonderful moments during this trip, but getting so see the local bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat was a definite highlight for me. They visit the shores of Monkey Mia Beach up to three times a day to feed (from 7.45 in the morning to 12 noon) and you’ll have the opportunity to interact with these incredible creatures. Monkey Mia is actually one of the most reliable places for dolphin interaction, not just in Australia but the world. So the chances of you getting to see them is pretty high.
Given the fabulous location, we were really looking forward to our stay at the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort. However, while the location is hard to beat, the accommodation when we stayed in 2015 was somewhat disappointing. Although clean (which is what’s most important!) it was dated and expensive. The one saving grace was that we had a room overlooking the beach. So not only did we enjoy a great view, but we were able to fall asleep listening to the soothing sounds of the ocean.
Back to Perth via Geraldton
The World Heritage-listed area of Shark Bay – with its gorgeous hidden bays, pristine white-sand beaches and towering limestone cliffs – stretches from Kalbarri to Carnarvon. But Monkey Mia was as far north as we were travelling on our road trip. And so, after 6 days away, it was time to head back to Perth. Rather than drive the entire 900 km in one swoop, we decided to break up the journey by stopping over in Geraldton. It was a perfect opportunity to explore a little bit of the coastal city and the area further afield.
About an hours drive from Geraldton is Pink Lake, also known as Hutt Lagoon. It’s become a hot spot for tourists and has made a name for itself as one of the Coral Coast’s most Instagrammable locations. Also worth a visit is the Heritage-listed Oakabella Homestead. Located between Geraldton and Northampton, just off North West Coastal Highway, it’s a short 30 minute drive from Geraldton. Not only is the tearoom a perfect place for a pit stop, you’ll also be visiting one of Western Australia’s most haunted houses. If you’re into ghost and ghouls and things that go bump in the night, make sure you pay the homestead a visit.
Someone wise once said that it’s all about the journey, not the destination, which for me truly sums up a great road trip. After my Coral Coast adventure, it reinforced my belief that there really is no better way to traverse this part of Western Australia. It’s certainly a lot more fun than sitting on a plane.