Sometimes even the best laid plans fall apart but when it becomes a blessing in disguise you know the universe had your back.
After leaving Coral Bay and Warroora, our plan was to make a beeline for Kalbarri with an overnight stop near Hamelin Pool to check out the stromatolites before continuing south. Finding accommodation in Kalbarri was proving difficult due to school holidays. It hadn't occurred to us that it would be as popular, if not more so, than Coral Bay and surrounds so whilst we had chosen our said caravan park, we hadn't bothered to call ahead to book. This mistake turned out to be a good one!
I'm not entirely sure why Shark Bay wasn't on our radar as a must-see as we were familiar with beautiful images of Monkey Mia, Francois Peron National Park, turquoise water and abundant sealife within the area. I guess given our lengthy stay on the Ningaloo Reef (compared to other areas on our trip), we figured that we'd just had a couple of weeks of turquoise water and marine experiences and after all we can't possibly see everything in the time that we have.... or can we? Determined to try, we saw an opening of a couple of extra nights and managed to squeeze more into our already bulging itinerary- if you've been following our journey you'll know that that's how we usually roll.
It was a windy drive down the coast from Warroora to Shark Bay with the car and caravan blowing around making the drive feel much longer than it was. The scenery didn't change, nor was it much to look at, adding to our boredom. We had planned to free camp that night and then go and see the stromatolites the following morning. Reviews on WikiCamps of the nearest camps were either sketchy or indicated that the drive into the camps required some effort (tyres down etc) which was the last thing we wanted after the long day we had had and with nightfall approaching. We managed to get a cheap unpowered spot at Hamelin Pool Caravan Park where we didn't have to unhitch. It was as close to free camping as we were going to get that night! The quaint park is right by the heritage walk around the old shell quarry, the telegraph station & museum and the stromatolites. The staff gave us a welcoming reception and a few tips for the best sunset spots within the park. We would recommend staying here if you're passing through and want to get close to the action in limited time. We took a walk to the top of the hill to stretch our legs and see the sun setting over Hamelin Pool.
The following morning we checked out and drove a few hundred metres around the corner to the stromatolites (where there is ample long vehicle parking for your rig while you check them out). These fascinating structures are relatives of the first known life on earth. They thrive almost on their own in the harsh conditions of Hamelin Pool which has high salinity and extreme heat during the warmer months. Their ability to survive under such conditions is a testament to their longstanding survival of 3.5 million years. The rock like structures make up a series of interesting patterns which contrast against the turquoise water. It's definitely worthy of a look given that this is one of only a few places in the world they can be viewed.
It was soon evident that we weren't going to get accommodation in Kalbarri for another couple of nights so we quickly re-jigged our itinerary to include the key sites of Shark Bay. This secretly excited me as I had really wanted to visit Francois Peron NP in particular. After numerous attempts with no luck getting through via phone to reserve a campsite at Whalebone Bay (24hr campsite) we gave up and instead scored 2 nights at Denham Seaside Tourist Village. Winning!
We continued along the Shark Bay peninsula to visit Shell Beach. One of only 2 beaches in the world formed from only shells which stretch 10metres plus below our feet. Not the most beautiful beach we've ever seen (and ouchy under foot!) but it was easy to see why this area had achieved World Heritage status with two natural phenomenons like these right there.
Passing through the town of Denham there were squeals of excitement from the backseat as we passed a huge playground right on the water, opposite the information centre. We checked into the park, unhitched and headed back down to the town to check it out. The kids had a ball at the park which is fairly new and well maintained. Barbecues, tables and amenities are provided making this spot perfect for a picnic.
We checked out the information centre to find out about the pass to Monkey Mia and forked out our $28 for the 1 day family entry in hopes that it would be worth the investment (WA National Parks passes do not include Monkey Mia). Conscious of getting maximum bang for our buck, we decided to head out there that afternoon since it was a 24hr pass. Within 5 minutes of our arrival we had the pleasure of watching a large turtle from the jetty. There's no question that Monkey Mia is pitched at tourists with it's resort-like vibe but it was very laid back and enjoyable, reminding us a lot of Port Stephens in NSW minus the crowds.
We returned the following morning to see the daily dolphin feeding. There was a large crowd lining the shore but we were fortunate that when the dolphins finally decided to come in that day we were able to get close enough to get a look. The dolphin feeding is quite an operation and it's easy to see where the extra dollars to enter this park are spent. We saw 3 dolphins frolicking in the shallows that morning but decided not to stay and wait with the crowds until they were fed because our tummies were telling us it was time we were fed too!... we also had the heads up that we had a better chance of getting a table if we went up to the resort restaurant before the dolphins had left. We went to the RAC Monkey Mia Resort's restaurant/cafe for a yummy breakfast with a view. This was a luxury for us as we rarely dine out. Thoroughly enjoyable!
Our day of bliss was just beginning as we exited Monkey Mia and turned into Francois Peron National Park for a 'quick look'. FPNP is only accessible with a high clearance 4WD due to the sand tracks throughout however the National Parks & Wildlife Service has done an excellent job of providing good information about the road conditions in the park and tips for driving on both sand and clay pans for visitors to the park, including those from overseas. They also have an inflation station to reinflate tyres on exit... very fast and handy.
We drove about 45klms down the sand track to Bottle Bay where you can follow the track right onto beach and then to the north to see where the red cliffs meet the white sand which is lapped by stunning turquoise water.... gasp! Looking like an image on the pages of a travel magazine, this scene took our breath away. It was the moment that we had waited for... experiencing "that WA coast" feeling. And just like that, for the first time... we really got it!
But we weren't done yet. A further 6klms up the road we reach Cape Peron but for all we knew we could have been at the pearly gates of heaven. The colours rich and the contrast, pure magic. The fact that we had this slice of paradise all to ourselves made our time there just that little bit more special if that was even possible. Could it be that we have found the most beautiful beach in Australia? It certainly takes the cake over the most magnificent that we have seen to date including the Bay of Fires (Tasmania), Hyams Beach (Jervis Bay, NSW), Cable Beach (Broome) and Whitehaven (Whitsundays, QLD). It's a big call but we're prepared to make it!
We had been told that as far as lookouts go, Skipjack Point was hard to beat and we couldn't disagree given the continuing theme of red cliffs, white sand and clear turquoise water synonymous with Francois Peron. From the cliff top we sat and watched a large manta ray and its baby cruise the calm protected waters along with school's of fish and numerous other stingrays. The swirling sands beneath the blue rivalled that of the infamous Hill Inlet in the Whitsundays. Once again we could enjoy these breathtaking views without sight of anyone. Oh what we would have given to launch our drone to capture that scene! (WA National Parks have very strict rules around drone use).
A quick visit to the Peron Heritage Precinct to dip a toe in the scorching hot artesian hot tub and bumpy but fun drive out on the sand tracks and our 'quick trip' had turned into almost a day. We wished we had another day up our sleeve so we could have pitched the tent and camped the night in the park... next time.
Whatever you do, don't make the same mistake and leave Shark Bay off your must-see list and be sure to get out to Francois Peron anyway you can! Ningaloo is amazing but the action is in the water and the coastline doesn't have the colourful scenery that Shark Bay enjoys. Even those who have travelled to Cape Leveque and the Dampier Peninsula will find this area magic. From the moment we turned right off the North West Coastal Highway into Shark Bay it was a breath of fresh air away from the ordinary landscape that we had been witness to for days of driving.
Not getting accommodation in Kalbarri has been one of the best things to go wrong on our trip. The universe had a plan for us to find the most beautiful beach in this wondrous country instead!