NYINGGULU  —  WHERE THE DESERT MEETS THE SEA

AUSTRALIA 🦘

“Holy s***, what’s that?”, I shrieked pointing at the big shadow gliding just below the water’s surface towards our 14ft tinny. “That’s a tiger!”, Vee, the skipper and a renowned underwater photographer, exclaimed in delight “jump in Gabi, jump in!” I dived head first into the crystal clear water, with the most magical shades of turquoise. After checking out the second largest predatory shark right behind the great white through my dive mask close up, I realised I had underestimated its size from the boat. Two dark eyes stared at me from a wedge-shaped head with a conspicuously blunt snout. Nearly as long as my Landcruiser and at least as round as a horse, several remora fish were hanging off the tiger shark’s grey body that had distinctive vertical mottled stripes running down its sides. “I’m not sure this is a good idea” briefly crossed my mind, but my fascination with Mother Nature’s marvels was stronger than any lingering doubts. So I spent a good five unforgettable minutes snorkelling side-by-side with this apex predator in the shallows of the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef.

 

With a massive area of ​​2.6 million km2 (ten times larger than the UK) and some of Australia’s most iconic landscapes, Western Australia (aka “WA”), is the home of the iconic road trip. Remote and vast get completely new meanings here in Australia’s largest state. Some 1,200km north of the WA’s capital Perth (the most isolated city in the world), the fringing Ningaloo Reef is a sparkling gem in Western Australia’s crown. With a length of 260km and home to around 300 species of coral and 500 species of fish, it is one the largest fringing coral reefs in the world. Interestingly it is also only one of two coral reefs in the world that have formed on the western edge of any continent.

My Landcruiser was bursting at the seams when I hit the road in Margaret River, where I live, a good 1600km south of my destination: three surfboards, four kiteboards, six kites, a foil, a couple of kite bars, a tent, a gas cooker, lots of shade cloth, a gazebo, a Dometic car fridge, cameras, computer, supplies and more camping gear. Driving this far on your own on the West Coast is already a rather unique experience in itself. There are several stretches of many hundred kilometres without any phone coverage, no fuel station or town. If you have any car problems, it might be a while before you even encounter someone who might be able to help. Being stuck literally in the middle of nowhere without the ability to call for help, can be eerie and rather unsettling. I’ve been in this situation before and don’t really want to live through it again. But this risk is part of any road trip in Western Australia and the rewards usually make it all worthwhile.

Once you pass the 26th parallel, i.e. 26 degrees south of the Equator, you’re entering the wild North West. One of the last true wilderness areas on Earth, where only a tiny fraction of the already sparse WA population lives.

My destination was the small coastal town of Exmouth, the gateway to the World-Heritage-listed Ningaloo Marine Park. The waters off the coast here are one of the only places in the world where the mysterious whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean, reliably congregate each year. Drawn by the annual spawning of more than 200 species of coral, these gentle giants of the sea grow to 16 metres long and weigh around 30 tonnes, but they remain effortlessly elegant as they cruise along the reef, feasting on fattened krill.

Situated on the west side of Exmouth is the Cape Range National Park, a spectacular place of rugged limestone ranges and breathtaking deep canyons. Here the arid coastal plain of Cape Range adjoins the pristine waters of Ningaloo Marine Park with striking contrasting scenery, this is raw nature at its best. And that’s precisely where I set up my first camp. Still “only” 35 kilometres from town and with shower facilities and drinking water from the taps provided in the campground, it was a good compromise for my first week to get my head around the area before moving my base deeper into the National Park.

The word ‘Ningaloo’ comes from the Aboriginal name Nyinggulu (pronounced Neen-ga-loo) which means a ‘promontory’ or a headland of elevated land. It refers in modern-day terms to the Cape Range National Park and the surrounding areas which are very culturally significant to the local Aboriginal people. The Yinikutira people, also recorded as the Jinigudira, are the traditional Aboriginal owners of the country along the Nyinggulu (Ningaloo) Coast and have lived here for over 30,000 years.

Driving out the gate of the campground the first morning, I spotted two emus, nearly as tall as my car, majestically strolling through the scrub next to the road. The second largest living bird on earth and the largest bird found in Australia is a strange creature. Born to run rather than fly with tiny useless wings, and long and powerful legs, they can sprint at 30 miles (48 kilometres) per hour for quite a distance.

After hanging out with the emus for a good half hour, I drove to the coast, where Mother Nature immediately had another gift for me. Walking along an incredible beach of the finest white sand, I stumbled onto some rather strange-looking impressions in the sand which resembled the tracks of a monster truck tyre. There were many of them, some ended in large holes dug in the sand, and others made huge loops or led into the water. It wasn’t long before I spotted two mating turtles drifting on top of each other just a metre from shore. Further up the beach, a few more dark blobs caught my eyes — more turtles. The Ningaloo Coast is one of the most important turtle-nesting rookeries in the Indian Ocean for three of the world’s seven species of marine turtles: the endangered Loggerhead turtle, as well as the Green turtle and the Hawksbill turtle, both listed as vulnerable. From November to March, many thousand turtles return to their nesting sanctuary here each year. Sadly, due to natural predators and human-related factors, only one hatchling out of every 1000 eggs will survive to adulthood.

I love seeing native wildlife in their natural habitat and over the weeks along this coast I truly got spoilt. Another encounter that I’ll never forget happened super early one morning, driving through the National Park. Suddenly a dingo appeared out of the spinifex next to the road. Living in WA for over 15 years, this was my very first dingo sighting. I stopped right next to the ginger-coloured wild dog and said G’day”. Two intense almond-shaped eyes in a mixture of brown and yellow stared at me questioningly from a broad handsome head with a pointed muzzle. With a big yawn, he showed off his large teeth. The dingo as an apex predator contributes to the control of many feral species that threaten Australia’s wildlife. While dingoes have the potential to be dangerous to humans, in reality, the incidence of attacks is relatively rare. The risk of dangerous behaviour is greatly increased in dingoes that have become familiar and habituated to humans through feeding or other encouragement. That’s why you should never feed a dingo. When I drove off, my dingo friend calmly trotted right beside my car for a few 100 metres before vanishing in the bush again.

A picture-perfect bay with spectacular turquoise butter flat crystal clear water became my daily foiling playground. The wind in the mid-afternoons can get pretty strong (6m2/7m2) along this coast, however, saying that I also enjoyed a number of magical light wind sessions on my 9m2 and 10m2 Neo SLS cruising in perfect see-through water with the most mind-boggling reef and coral formations below. It was better than any glass-bottomed boat. With regard to waves, things get tricky in this area. The most popular stretch of surf breaks is completely protected from the Seabreeze, and other breaks are so far out to sea on the barrier reef you need a boat to get there. If you somehow do manage to score, it’s an unspoken rule in the Northwest to celebrate it quietly amongst your mates instead of shouting it from the rooftops and plastering it all over the socials. I would highly recommend not ignoring this advice.

Eventually, I moved my camp deeper into the National Park which meant no more facilities and having to bring everything: sufficient water for drinking and washing, fuel, all my supplies etc. I even had to rent a portable camping toilet from the camp store in Exmouth as bringing one is a requirement for all visitors by Parks & Wildlife WA (the government body in charge of all National Parks). Renting a portable toilet — interesting! I’ve been to over 80 countries, but that was a first for me.

Camping literally on the water’s edge on an amazingly long, stunning windswept beach, was my highlight camp set-up of the trip. There’s nothing better than falling asleep to the sound of the ocean. At night the lack of light pollution in this remote area creates an experience, I would call a “bucket lister” that most people don’t even know exists: getting blanketed by the Milky Way in the middle of the desert. Watching the night sky lighting up as our galaxy slowly materialises after sunset is a soul-filling experience. The sheer beauty of a million stars twinkling in all their glory kept me awake and wide-eyed even after the longest day on the water regardless of my sunburnt little red eyes. Who needs a 5-star room, when you can sleep in a 5-billion-star tent?

One kite session that cemented itself in my personal history books of epic sessions, was kiting at the SS Mildura shipwreck on the tip of North West Cape. The SS Mildura sank in June 1907 when it hit a shallow reef during a cyclone. Luckily, no human life was lost. The wreck sits in 4 metres of water prone to strong surges and currents. With two big boilers and the engine mount in the centre of the still upright and relatively intact hull, it is an intriguing site, even more so from up close, on my 12m2 Neo SLS.

For my last sunset, Mother Nature gifted me with a live “David Attenborough moment”. It was a windless day with bright blue skies and I had parked my car on a snow-white, sheer endless beach. Like so often along this coastline out of peak tourist season, there was not a single soul in sight. The Indian Ocean sparkled as if millions of stars had sunk into it. I let my gaze slide through the expanse of pristine and untouched nature when I suddenly spotted a tiny black dot way up the beach that I hadn’t noticed just minutes earlier. I grabbed my camera and some water and set off on foot. After a good long walk on the snow-white sand, my presumption was confirmed and my heart started pounding. Getting down on my hands and knees super conscious of not getting too close, I watched a pregnant turtle mama haul herself up the wide, fine beach. Evidently, an arduous journey for her, it took her a fair while until she was finally high enough up the beach at the base of the dune where she started to dig her nest. I almost didn’t dare to breathe. Through my 400mm lens, I could focus on every little detail of this beautiful Green turtle: the mottled olive green, brown and black pattern on her smooth, high-domed shell was like a painting, her thick, crusty, scaly skin, the webbed feet, her cute head and her horny beak. She worked hard and massive sprays of sand shot into the air around her. Observing this fascinating creature that shares a common ancestry with dinosaurs, push out her eggs, each one obviously requiring a great effort, was a mesmerising spectacle. After laying all her eggs, the turtle mama flung sand behind her in a methodical manner for at least half an hour to cover her nest, before dragging herself back down towards the ocean again. Witnessing the motherly commitment and incredible effort of this beautiful creature to dig, lay and protect her eggs was a mind-boggling experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. The mama turtle made it to the waterline just at sunset. Watching her glide off into the golden water, I bowed my head in deep and humble gratitude to the universe — what a trip!

© Gabi Steindl 2023

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