Carnarvon, Coral Bay and Quobba Station — you could call it Western Australia's great coastal triangle. All seaside holiday escapes with their own distinct allure just a few hours apart from one another.
Carnarvon is a regional hub dubbed the ‘salad bowl of WA’, while Coral Bay is an idyllic family beach getaway that boasts a natural aquarium, and Quobba Station is a remote rural hideaway into WA's sheering past.
My week-long coastal rendezvous would encompass just over a third of what it took to get to its starting point Carnarvon, a nine hour, 889km drive north of Perth.
I can happily say, with my sun-kissed body and penchant for unusual adventures, it is worth going the distance.
Come to Carnarvon on an empty stomach and be prepared to leave well-nourished, was my thought as I ventured into the outdoor supermarket of the north along the Coral Coast Highway.
Famously known in WA as the place where bananas come from, I discovered there was more to Carnarvon than its golden boomerangs. Peeling and reeling is a way of life with tropical fruits, garden vegetables, and freshly caught seafood all locally sourced, and making up 80 per cent of the state's crops.
I had my first actual taste of Carnarvon heading to the seasonal Gascoyne Growers' Market on the grounds of the town visitor centre, a short stroll from the palm tree-lined foreshore. It is the place go Saturday morning, with a hive of activity including buskers creating a lively ambience for community catchups over shopping.
The markets are stocked with handmade knick-knacks — candles, jewellery, artworks, pictures — mixed with the food for the soul, such as homemade preserves. My fondness for condiments was rife as I weighed down my shopping bag with jars of mango chilli sauce and Kusandi tomato relish.
I also could not go past a bag of locally made mango strips, reminiscent of schoolyard recess times chewing on fruit rollups. Thankfully, these are a whole lot healthier.
The notion of being a glutton for punishment goes into the abyss here, as these markets are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, coffee and nutritious artisan eats. It was hard not to go past the Homestead Hampers' top-selling Moroccan goat pie, fused with spices and dried fruit — an unusual pie flavour combination that works a treat.
I continued this soulful food adventure by exploring the town's zesty ‘Fruit Loop Trail’ along the North and South River roads fringing the Gascoyne River, absent of water with waves patterned in its burnt red sand.
Expect this drive to be a stop/start eating affair as some working plantations operate roadside pop-up shopfronts selling seasonal produce based on an honesty system.
Between the jungle-like banana plantations are regional institutions such as Bumbak's. The iconic stop is famous for its multi-award-winning all-natural preserves, ice creams, and is home to the Big Banana.
Entering Bumbak's is like entering Willy-Wonka of preserves, with colourful mason jars stocked with spreads and sauces almost wall high. My eyes were bigger than my cupboard as, I again, weighed down my bag to collect more of Carnarvon's pantry staples. I ended my shop with a sweetener, purchasing a homemade mango chocolate ice cream and enjoying it in the shopfront veranda. Living here wouldn't be so dangerous health-wise, but with my saucy stockpile, it would be for the bank account.
It was time to think beyond food and get a good photo-opportunity in. Over the years, a local's front yard has become a tourist hotspot for Carnarvon with its peculiar evergreen giant cactus farm along South River Road a favourite. This grassroots attraction is Californian desert meets Carnarvon oasis, with towering cacti metres high. Next to the farm is a skeleton of a whale, another sightseeing oddity in the area.
The giant cacti are not the only skyscrapers in Carnarvon. Another otherworldly site is the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum with its enormous OTC Satellite Earth Station playing a starring role in broadcasting the first moon landing around the world in 1969.
From one realm to another, at the southern end of Ningaloo Reef is Coral Bay, two hours' north of Carnarvon. It may be a small blip along the Coral Coast Highway but it's large on relaxation and good times.
Coral Bay is like Las Vegas — both in the middle of nowhere with a famed strip and bursting with colour. Thankfully, that's where the similarity stops because this World Heritage-listed site is anything but hectic and contrived.
Home to roughly 200 residents, the town's population balloons in the holiday season. Coral Bay takes less than 15 minutes to walk from one end to another, including climbing a viewpoint over the bay. There's not a long list of things to do in this protected coastal playground, but it wins visitors over with pristine beach weather all year round and world-class fringing reef only metres offshore. The many who visit Coral Bay's main beach, Bill's Bay, would follow a typical routine — swim, snorkel, sun-bathe and repeat.
The best thing about Coral Bay is that you can snorkel without effort thanks to an offshore drift. With just a few fin strokes from the coast, you can explore a healthy reef of kaleidoscopic colour and come face to face with some of the 500 fish species that call the Ningaloo Reef home. But those who venture beyond the strip are in for a wild time — swimming with whale sharks and manta rays or joining a humpback whale tour.
I couldn't get enough of flapping my fins around the reef observing life under the sea, so I took part in a half-day nature ecotour.
Hopping on board the Coral Bay' Eco Tour vessel, Kurni-Ki, we were taken to a few snorkelling spots for a shot to play marine bingo with spotting turtles, reef sharks, octopus and giant calms. But the holy grail of the day would be to swim with the town's most famous permanent residents, manta rays.
Spotter planes are used to find the ocean-friendly giants, and the tour aims to deliver at least two chances to do so. The first swim is nothing to brag about. I saw three manta rays, but they were too deep. The second, however, deserves a story itself as it was an insane spectacle.
Four mantas were swimming as if they were in a drag race, zooming past along ‘manta highway’. Us swimmers were caught in the frenzy, with the manta rays continually doing laps in unison right under our flippers. At times they were somersaulting so close I had to move to not to make physical contact with their two-metre wings.
We were later told one was female with the rest male, with the males trying their best to court. It was the true definition of a whirlwind romance.
It wasn't intentional to get so close to them, but they couldn't help themselves, flashing their black and white spotted bellies while prancing around us. All this commotion proved to be a chain reaction with another mating chain — one female and two males — soon coming into the picture. It was an unbelievable show of nature, watching both females outrace the males with their failed courting efforts. Even with wildlife, I guess they don't call it ‘the chase’ for nothing.
The day may have cooled off, but I joined the few still lurking around Bill's Bay to watch the sunset paint the sky with cotton-candy pastel pinks and purples. The evening warmer would be tucking into a pizza under the stars at Reef Cafe. Maybe I should have felt more guilt with indulging in a seafood pizza, topped with freshly caught squid, mussels, prawns, and scallops given the location, but it was worth the cheesy catch.
‘King waves kill’. It’s an ominous signpost yet ironically, a popular happy snap photo pitstop, located at T-junction turn off for Quobba Station. Glad this wasn’t planned as a beachy getaway.
The 187,00-acre working pastoral station was established in 1898, a one-hour drive from Carnarvon. It hugs the Indian Ocean coastline and borders Lake McLeod and Boolathana Station. Red Bluff, a picturesque surfing mecca, is 60km away via unsealed road. It continues to be a family-run business, with current owners Tim and Sara Meecham managing the historical station for over 24 years, raising roughly 10,000 Damaras (South African meat sheep).
Initially, the station was used to manage merino (woolly) sheep, with signs of its sheering past reimagined as simple accommodation in its former farmer cottages and shearing quarters. The station may offer no thrills in a design sense, but the decorative use of fishermen's rope to ribbon the small roads adds extra charm.
Caravans are welcomed with ample space provided, ensuring privacy along the coast. The station's spotless communal toilets and showers (hot) are worth raving about — hotel standards in the middle of nowhere.
I arrived on an unusually windy day. Hearing the ferocious waves pound the coast is a soundtrack that plays on constant repeat. Strong winds, waves, and wild blossoms, it seemed I timed my visit beautifully, with the overnight bloom of purple wildflowers adding a pop of colour to the low-lying green shrubs and sandy seascape.
Quobba Station itself is one of simple joy, and there is not much out to do out here unless you are a nature nut and embrace the notion that solitude is bliss. The Gidgee Trail — a 4.8km flat inland path along the coast — is a great way to bask in the coast in just under 1.5 hours. The station's main beach, Homestead, is not at all inviting to enter. The waves are metres high and the breaks dangerous — it's only remarkable to look from the sidelines. There is a silver lining, well technically white, as the beach itself is ornate with decently sized shells, calms, corals galore. Just watch where you step!
“It's raw. It's rustic,” caretaker Bettina said of Quobba Station as we walked with her kelpie ‘Red Dog’ Tucker to get front-row seats to watch the sunset at station's make-shift beach bar. Just minutes to sundown, other holiday goers with drinks in tow made their way to occupy the few park benches and high-top wooden bar at the tip of the dune to toast the day.
Leaving Quobba Station the next day, I noticed powerful sprays of water erupt metres into the air in the nearby. Immediately my mind cast back to that dire sign. This part of the pindan-coloured coastline is known for unruly waters and natural phenomena, with its famous blowholes an incredible sight to witness — not so much to bear the burnt with getting drenched or far worse. From a safe distance, I watched as the ocean's mighty swells forcing water up through caves and narrow rock cavities to create a soaring display.
Before making it back to Carnarvon, I made my final stop at Point Quobba, 1km from the blowholes. Another natural aquarium in the area, its shallow cove is chock-full with healthy coral and fish. Like Homestead Beach, it's beautifully littered with shells. I went back to my childlike awe, collecting them along the shore. Something about filling my hands with these seafaring trinkets felt wholesome and innocent.
There are a few simple undercover beach huts, perfect for making a day out of lazing by the lagoon, snorkelling, tanning and a seaside picnic stop before heading off. This spot is also a popular camping area with fees payable to the site ranger.
The rugged cliffs are a must to roam around, and without exaggeration, each turn provided a different take of the coast. I felt I saw the coast from all angles — remote family destination, rustic station and relaxed regional hub — and what a ride it turned out to be discovering this great, unassuming triple threat of the west.
WINTERSUN CARAVAN AND TOURIST PARK, CARNARVON
P: (08) 9941 8150
BAYVIEW CORAL BAY CARAVAN PAR
P: (08) 9385 6655
CORAL BAY ECO TOURS
P: (08) 9942 5885
P: (08) 9948 5098