Exmouth is well known as the gateway to the spectacular Ningaloo Reef, but too few people take the time to properly explore the rugged canyonlands of the country around it.
Cape Range was one of those places where I thought a couple of days was going to be plenty, only to end up going ‘hey, one more day couldn’t hurt’, and doing it so many times that we ended up staying twice as long as originally planned. It is a best-of-both-worlds kind of place, with one of Australia’s most pristine stretches of coast lined up against one of its most ruggedly spectacular ranges.
The national park takes up a good chunk of the north-western half of the peninsula, and the coast here is well-known as one of the best access points to the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Marine Park. White sands, crystal-clear turquoise bays, coral gardens and rich marine life meet coastal plains and dunes that morph into rugged limestone ranges and gorges.
It’s one of those great juxtapositions of land Australia does so well. You’ve got paradaisical beaches next to the kind of arid escarpments you’d expect to find in the deep outback. Unlike a lot of the places I’ve visited around Australia, Cape Range wasn’t one I had put a whole lot of effort into researching before actually getting there. I went in with a pretty poor idea of what to expect, aside from nice beaches and good snorkelling, and ended up being blown away by the sheer enormity of the spectacularly rugged and ancient landscape I stumbled into.
It invokes the sense of geological grandiosity I’d liken to places such as Zion or Canyonlands National Park in America’s southwest. I really can’t explain how much I love finding places like this in Australia, especially when I hadn’t been aware they existed beforehand.
The Eastern Section: Charles Knife & Shothole Canyon
The part of Cape Range that is most easily accessed from the east will be the first you’ll reach if you’re travelling to Exmouth by car. This means that for those who fly in and head straight into town, it’s often skipped entirely. There’s two roads to look out for, Charles Knife and Shothole Canyon, with the latter named for the result of explosive charges used for seismic studies during the oil exploration of the 1950s. It’s a 12km drive that winds its way along the bottom of a wide canyon.
Charles Knife, conversely, climbs straight to the top of the range, following jagged ridges as the great canyons fall away to either side. Most of the lookouts along here are unmarked, but you can pull over just about anywhere and spend a little time taking in the sheer wonder of this ancient place.
It’s easy to appreciate the colossal amount of time needed to forge a landscape such as this. The entire range was once an ancient seabed, thrust upwards by the shifting earth to be weathered and eroded by millennia of wind and water. Some of the gorges on the western side don’t even stop as they meet the ocean, but continue as vague channels out into the sea.
The sheer valleys, ridges and arid ranges tumble through a strata of colours and rockforms, with oranges, whites and reds painting the landscape. It all lights up pretty spectacularly in the early morning or late afternoon light, especially along the Badjirrajirra walk, a 7km loop, which is the only real hiking trail up here.
The Western Section: camping, snorkelling and Yardie Creek
From Exmouth, most people are pretty quick to head around to the western side of the park. There’s a chain of day areas and campgrounds sprawled along the coast, and while they’re pretty much just exposed gravel squares, their proximity to some of the best beaches in WA is hard to beat.
There’s no shortage of campgrounds or caravan parks, but they do fill up quickly during peak seasons, and the campgrounds all need to be booked online in advance. Osprey Bay and Mesa are my picks, with Osprey Bay providing probably the best and easiest access when it comes to snorkelling. We encountered no fewer than six green sea turtles during a single swim, and that was only a few meters offshore.
The snorkelling’s good at Oyster Stacks too, while Turquoise Bay’s probably your best bet for swimming. Mangrove Bay is good mostly for birdwatching, although the quick snorkel I had around here turned up a few mangrove sharks and some good sized crabs. If you manage to get some cooler weather than I did, Mandu Mandu and Pilgonoman Gorge are both good options for exploring the rugged spinifex escarpments, as is the Yardie Creek walk.
Yardie creek is the only gorge in the park likely to have any water in it, and there’s boat tours on offer to take full advantage of the picturesque scenery. This is generally about as far as most visitors venture. The sealed road ends here, but for those set up for 4WDing, the trail continues on right down the coast. These walks are great ways to catch some of the wildlife the area has to offer, from Black-eared Rock-wallabies, Dingoes and hopping mice, to Echidnas, monitors, geckos and Bustards.
For the more adventurous, there’s a great unmarked 4WD track that begins from just opposite Osprey Bay, and heads across to the Exmouth highway on the other side of the peninsula. It starts with a rough climb, but after that the going isn’t too bad, and it’s a great way to experience this little-visited section of the park.
There’s over 700 caves hidden throughout the area, and 630 species of wildflowers to brighten up the landscape at certain times of the year. There’s a few cool secret places out here too, including a fantastic limestone cave with a fig tree emerging right through the top that you can climb down into.
At the end of the day, it’s the ocean that draws most people to Cape Range. The world heritage Ningaloo Reef is the only large reef in the world found so close to a continental landmass. These azure waters, white sands and coral gardens protect a huge array of fish, rays, turtles and other sea creatures.
To truly experience the reef, definitely consider jumping on one of the many tours that head offshore in search of Humpback Whales, Oceanic Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. I’ve gotta say, there’s nothing quite like swimming alongside a Whale Shark, with nothing but the deep blue abyss beneath you as you swim frantically to keep up with the gentle meandering leviathans.
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