Old man emu and his brood of six striped chicks walk nonchalantly between us and the waiting waters of Ningaloo Reef as we hike into camp.
Around us are scattered dozens of euros, not the EU currency but shortish small-nosed kangaroos, which jump away to protect their joeys as we approach. Further along is a giant perentie, the largest lizard in Australia, sunning itself across the four-wheel drive track. Not even our guide is prepared to hurry the 1.5-metre reptile, and it holds up our progress for a few minutes while we wait for the spotted monster to lumber into the nearby scrub.
This was our introduction to the Cape Range National Park on the North West Cape, about halfway between Perth and Broome in remote Western Australia. The park provides the best access to the isolated and virtually untouched 260km-long World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Marine Park. Park boundaries extend from about 100km south of Exmouth for the entire length of the reef.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, which has a worldwide reputation as a marine park and heritage area that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to the island resorts along the pristine Queensland coast, Ningaloo is shrouded by distance and a rugged hinterland.
The small town of Exmouth is the main access point, and it’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight or two-day drive from Perth. The only way to stay at Ningaloo Reef is to camp in the national park. Once there you don’t need to get on a boat for an hour to go snorkelling or diving, you simply swim off the beach and five metres away begins the underwater wonderland.
For those who don’t want to pitch their own tent, five-star camping facilities are available at the Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef camp, an ecotourism venture specialising in wild bush luxury. It might be a bit pricey, but the rate includes all meals prepared by a top chef, immediate access to the reef, expertly guided snorkelling trips and walks into the surrounding gorges to see the elusive rock wallabies. It also boasts the fanciest tents around, complete with queen-size bed and ensuite with shower and nature loo. Sal Salis’s solar-powered camp consists of only five tents and a dining area that all blend into the surrounds and have minimal impact on the environment.
Visitors from around the world make the long journey to Ningaloo every year, often attracted by the lure of the giant whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, that migrate through the warm Indian Ocean waters towards Asia between March and July. While we were there at the wrong time of year for the whale sharks, there were plenty of whales and plenty of other sharks.
Each year the humpback whales head up the WA coast to mate and give birth in the warm waters of Exmouth Gulf and the northern WA coast and then head back down again to their Antarctic feeding grounds. Swimming close to the coast, the playful whales are easily spotted breaching and splashing.
But it is what happens under the water that makes Ningaloo so amazing: bright coral formations, an abundance of colourful reef fish, a variety of small and large rays, black- and white-tip reef sharks that swim lazily by and curious turtles unafraid to play with snorkellers. Between March and July the skies above Ningaloo are busy with spotter aircraft guiding tourist boats to see the whale sharks, and those who want can jump in and swim with the giant, gentle creatures.
It’s a place that brings you face to face with nature, like a boat trip around the Galapagos Islands or a safari in the Serengeti. And like those magical places, it also deserves World Heritage listing to ensure it remains intact for future generations to enjoy.
Best time to go: May to August; whale-watching June to November