Turquoise Bay is a place that has burned itself into my memories. My recollection of it is worn down like an old coin you keep turning over and over in your fingers. I spent a few days here years ago snorkeling by myself out among the coral stacks at low tide, chasing green sea turtles around in languid circles and catching the dark shapes of black tip reef sharks out of the corner of my eye, a shape so archetypically dangerous that I was scared before I even registered what they were. The placid beauty of life under the waves and the spangled cerulean patterns on the white sand always entrance me, and I have to remember to breathe again, to come up for air.
Top to bottom: A cairn left by previous range explorers along the Sandy Bay track.
There are dozens of spots like this sprinkled down the western edge of the North West Cape, each completely different, with different coral, different fish and different campsites above the high tide mark. That you can stay here under the stars next to such a perfect submerged paradise is what makes Cape Range National Park worth the visit.
If you are into diving, I’ve been told by several people over the years that the navy pier on the northern tip of the peninsula is one of the best dive sites anywhere in the world, period. I’ve always been happy to walk into the beach, pull a mask on and see coral within a few metres, but to be able to stay down there for longer with scuba gear would be pretty awesome, and it’s one of those things that has always been on my bucket list.
I’ve travelled through the park several times over the years, but this trip was the first with a real 4WD and enough time to really explore the range.
Someone told us about a track that cuts east-west across the ranges from the military airport on the east to a point just south of Sandy Point on the west. They made the mistake of telling us that nobody ever goes in from the west, you’d need lockers and the step-ups would be too harsh, especially with a camper trailer.
Never one to let a challenge go idly, I was driving up the track that heads north from Yardie Creek and I noticed I was near Sandy Point. And sure enough, I could just make out a ragged track that cut across the face of the range.
We found the unmarked dirt road that seemed to cut straight between the coastline and to zig-zag up the red face of the rock, and checked things out. Sure, it looked challenging, but nothing that Craig and I hadn’t done before, and probably with a lot less preparation.
The drive up the step-up was tricky, but once you get on top of the range, you get a completely unique perspective of the reef, and this part of the world. You’re only about two kilometres from the water’s edge here, and you can see the coral beds extending out in dark blue fractal shapes.
The soft red sand under the tyres is dotted with sharp shards of ochre limestone, and vibrant green spinifex extend eastward across the plateau, still blooming from rains six months ago.
The beautiful thing about coming in from the west onto this track is that you don’t have to go all the way across. Though it looks like one hell of a shortcut, it is rough going all the way across the range, and the track fades until it becomes little more than a goat track from time to time, so it pays to have a good GPS along if you’re going to drive it.
If you’re in the area, even if you don’t have time for a proper crossing over the range, take a couple of hours and make your way up to the plateau from Sandy Bay. The views alone are worth it, and this is some of the most challenging 4WDing to be found anywhere in this part of the country.
The Cape Range is the backbone of the Northwest Cape, and extends nearly to the tip of the cape, where Exmouth sits. With hundreds of species of plants and animals in the range and a network of caves, chasms and gorges, it is the kind of place that you can come back to and find it different every time.
From the eastern side of the range you can take tracks into Shothole Canyon and Charles Knife Gorge. The roads offer spectacular views of Exmouth Gulf as you get to the top of the range. The road to Charles Knife Gorge runs over and between some extravagantly steep chasms before surmounting the rim of a gorge, with views out over the
plateau in every direction.
Shothole Canyon is a journey into the range within the canyon itself, offering a completely different perspective, with sheer limestone walls towering up on both sides, the rock catching the sunlight and painting it a different shade every hour.
On the western side of the range, Yardie Creek is an absolutely still mirror of freshwater trapped by a sandbar in Yardie Gorge. You can hike around the gorge or take a boat cruise on the placid water, offering serene up close views of the limestone as it spills into the black water, and rock wallabies coming down to the water to drink.
The Vlamingh Head lighthouse provided guidance to sailors from 1912 to 1967, and was originally known as the North West Cape Lighthouse.
In 1967, it was the only lighthouse in the country to still be powered by vapourised kerosene fuel, magnified by hand-rubbed prisms. To date, it is the only lighthouse in Australia running this lighting system, which has been fully restored. The lighthouse overlooks Lighthouse Bay, one of the few places in Australia where you can watch the sun rise and set over water.
You can get most supplies in Exmouth, including fuel, groceries, ice and even fresh-baked pies. Some fuel is available at the Ningaloo Lighthouse Caravan Park as well.