Travel Writing Awards Entry
‘Don’t be afraid of the sharks,’ my guide grinned mischievously, ‘remember, they’re not interested in humans.’ I’d heard these words, and ones much like them, several times before during my time in Australia but somehow today they sounded different. I swivelled my neck to take in the vast panorama of the ocean and then it struck me. The water wasn’t dotted with people, I wasn’t surrounded by other vessels and didn’t feel seasick after another long, lurching boat trip. Instead I was bobbing on the surface of the water in a kayak, a few hundred metres offshore from Coral Bay, ready to explore the hidden treasures of the Ningaloo Reef.
Ningaloo means ‘point of land’ and nothing better encapsulates its unique appeal. Right throughout the 260km that it stretches along Western Australia’s Coral Coast, from Bundegi to Amherst Point, the reef is easily accessible. Diving with whale sharks was an option from the nearby town of Exmouth but for convenience, for small town charm and isolation; for the feeling that this truly was my trip, my experience, then Coral Bay was perfect. Situated almost 1,200km north of the state capital Perth and with a population of just over two hundred, the word sleepy could have been invented for this place. One dusty road runs through town, flanked by a sprinkling of snorkel and fishing hire shops, caravan parks and a small, modern but unobtrusive resort. It’s the sort of place that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. For better or worse the rest of the world may have evolved but here, simple pleasures still count for everything. Endless sunshine, white sandy beaches and an ocean that acts as a gateway to the reef, what more could you need?
It seemed perfect, especially so after the night I’d just endured. After a full day’s driving, the clear skies and rugged, red terrain of the outback seemed to take on a different character at night as the eerie noises emanating from the bush grew louder and shadows lurked along the side of the road. Already feeling a little perturbed from having to dodge the kangaroos that started to appear on the roads at dusk, I then had my first encounter with a road train. This monstrosity came hurtling uncontrollably along the highway towards me, taking up both lanes and forcing me to vacate the road as it flew past. As the sun fell lower still and eventually disappeared from view, a number of small but horribly menacing bush fires became visible, their bright red flames flickering wildly all around me and I suddenly felt a very long way from anywhere. Then, turning onto the road that led to a campsite, I came face to face with a herd of ominously large, feral cattle. I waited for them to cross before slowly edging past them, only to find the road ahead under water. I had no idea how deep it was, and unwilling to risk getting stuck I turned around, back past the cows and drove until I eventually came across somewhere else to stop for the night.
Daylight always manages to put things in perspective though, and the following morning I rose early and set off for Coral Bay. After a satisfying breakfast I made my way to the beach, from where it was possible to wade out to the outer fringes of the reef. However I wanted to get out just a little further and Ningaloo Sea Kayaking, who offer half day kayak and snorkelling adventures, allowed me to do just that. Paddling into the strong seabreeze meant sore arms by the time our fleet of four canoes came to a stop and listened for instructions. ‘Try and stick close to me. If I come across any sharks, I’ll try and herd them in your direction.’ I jumped overboard and became submerged in the cool, impossibly clear water, taking in the vivid array of colours that make up the reef’s two hundred and twenty types of coral. I swam in the trail of an ancient, serene looking sea turtle, without having to jostle for space. My view wasn’t obstructed by anybody. There was just the turtle and me; for that moment nothing else in the world existed. It says much for the sheer size of Western Australia, and its spectacular array of coastline, that a place like this can still be enjoyed in such solitude. It may attract less visitors than the east coast of the county, but is all the better for it.
Then the guide kept his promise and found a pair of reef sharks. As he dived down, they came toward the surface and I saw a thrilling glimpse of dorsal fin and a flash of white teeth as they glided gracefully past. Finally he emptied some food into the water and I was at once surrounded by an immeasurable number of fish, every size and colour conceivable. With the wind now at my back, the tiredness could be forgotten as I sailed seamlessly towards the shore, back to the warm, relaxing sand and an ice cold drink, still not a boat in sight.