Report by Jo Foley
After a stressful start due to vehicle issues (Jill get a Hyundai or Toyota12), we (Jo, Jill and Colin) finally made it to Coral Bay and celebrated with bubbly and hearing some fascinating stories about Colin’s past! Coral Bay was the starting point for our expedition to Tantabiddi Boat Ramp paddling inside the Ningaloo Reef, which is the largest fringing reef in the world stretching over 250kms and of which we were to paddle 165km’s of it. ‘Ningaloo’ comes from the Wajarri language meaning high land jutting into the sea and is home to over 450 species of marine life – large and small.
The following day involved a car shuffle where we dropped Colin’s car at Learmonth airport so when Gail flew up several days later, she could then drive up and meet us at Yardie Creek. This was a late change of plans as Gail was originally paddling with us (4 being the ideal number for the trip), however she hurt her shoulder so sensibly decided to fly up and camp out in Cape Range to have a bit of a holiday. My car was to be left at Coral Bay for 6 days.
Having done several day paddles over the years between Yardie Creek and Mangrove Bay, I had for many years dreamed of doing an expedition along Ningaloo Reef. Most club members who have done the trip have paddled between Ningaloo Station and Tantabiddi, but Colin suggested we paddle from Coral Bay as he and Gail had previously paddled from there. We thought that was a great idea, as with Parks taking over the management of Ningaloo Station camps, we weren’t sure of the logistics from there.
Day 1 (22/8/21) 18.5km
After packing up our kayaks, managing to squeeze in 30L of water, food for 6 days, camping equipment etc we headed off about 10:30am and the dream had now become reality!
We couldn’t have had a better start to the trip, with a high tide and a lovely following wind of at least 15knots SSE. We flew along not yet with sails as we were wanting to get a feel for our loaded kayaks. We had thought we might camp the night at Bateman Bay just south of where an extended rocky coastline begins which makes landing the kayaks difficult. However, with the wind assistance and due to a break in the reef allowing in 2m swell that was breaking on the beach we decided to push on. We popped up our sails and had an enjoyable ride passing dolphins, turtle and small rays before finding a perfect spot to camp about 3km south of Bruboodjoo Point. We had a bug free camp under a full moon.
Day 2 (23/8/21) 26 km
We woke up to dry tents and started our day the same way we would for the rest of the trip – with Colin being first up eating his porridge and Jill and I lazing in our tents, packing our gear and then squeezing it all into our kayaks. Without fail it seemed that we were ready to set off about 9:30am each morning. The thing that was different about today was we had a 15+knot NE then NW wind so a trying day paddling into what was mostly a headwind. We had a few turtles pop up to break the monotony of the slog. After nearly 6hrs we found an OK camp spot about 5km south of Jane Bay. My right wrist and shoulder were killing me, and this had made the day particularly challenging. Colin looked like an energiser bunny, always off in the distance, so I was secretly pleased when he admitted how tired he was. Needless to say, we were all tucked up in our beds by 7:30pm! During the night around high tide we could hear the waves crashing up on the beach so slept fitfully envisioning our kayaks drifting out to sea.
Day 3 (24/8/21) 26km
Fortunately, our kayaks were still there when we woke up and the winds, although from the north, were nice and light. This meant for soggy tents which we waited a while before packing them up. We paddled in 2+m rolling swell over shallow water, so if the wind had picked up, we would have been dodging breaking waves. As we rounded Point Cloates the reef comes in very close, so we found a confused sea with small breaking waves and had to paddle against the current. Passing the old lighthouse and Ningaloo Homestead we found ourselves paddling in a stunning glassy blue bay. Further north we hit shallow water and unpredictable small breaking waves due to a gap in the reef which occasionally slapped us in the face! Turtles and an osprey kept us company along the way. Finding a suitable place to camp for the night was proving difficult due to the sizeable swell breaking on the beach. At around 26km, still dodging the breaking waves, we found a gentler landing on a beach where we believed there were sand dunes for us to camp in. Unfortunately, they were full of thick scrub, but we were too lazy to paddle on further so squeezed our tents into small niches. We were unaware we were so close to a track until a vehicle drove past, but by that stage Jill and I had set up our tents so we decided we would take the risk and stay put. Now that the moon was waning we experienced incredible night skies for star gazing and viewing the milky way and the emu (aboriginal astronomical constellation outlined by the dark areas of the night sky).
Day 4 (25/8/21) 16km
I got up about 7am to clear skies, but within minutes a mist cloaked the sea and land. Colin was sitting out having his breakfast and disappeared into the mist as we heard him say “this could be Scotland!” and I said it reminded me of the movie “an American Werewolf in London”. Jill who was still cuddled up in her sleeping bag had no idea what we were talking about until she popped her head out of the tent. While we waited for the mist to clear Jill decided to walk down the beach to see what a sign in the distance said. She was horrified to find that the sign warned of asbestos lagging in the area, hence we dubbed our camp spot ‘Asbestos Bay’. The lagging would have come from the Norwegian Bay whaling station about 2.5km to our north. We paddled there and had a look around. It was surprising to see how extensive the ruins were, with the rusted remains of oil holding tanks, boilers and machinery that was used to process whale oil between 1915 and 1957. Paddling on we rounded a cape and found more confused waves before continuing to the pretty bay at Point Billie. We pulled into the quicksand like shoreline for lunch. Jill was itching to snorkel until we saw lots of bluebottles washed up on the beach. With a 10 knot south westerly now in we had a fantastic sail through the stunning North Lefroy Bay which was framed by the backdrop of the Cape Range. Finding a fabulous spot to camp at the southern end of Winderbandie Point and having landed earlier than previous days, we had a swim / snorkel and hung our paddling clothes out to dry in the warm windy conditions. Colin, who hates to lose anything, was searching frantically for his Sea Kayak Fest Buff which he thought must have blown away. However, it was later found in Jill’s tent where she had squirreled it away! Jill and I had been cooking our meals together each night, never knowing what we might serve up for dinner, but always bulked up by Jill’s fabulous, dehydrated veggies. Colin on the other hand was a man of routine and had the same dinner of homemade dehydrated savoury mince each night, which he obviously enjoyed. What he likely didn’t enjoy was Jill and my ribbing when we would ask him every night “what he was having for dinner?” After dinner I entertained (or tortured) the others with my unusual yoga poses and then we laid back blissfully viewing the stunning night skies.
Day 5 (26/8/21) 16km
There was no dew this morning due to the 16 – 17 knot SSE winds. We were packing up our kayaks when I heard Jill say “Is that my Ikea bag or yours Jo?’ as I looked up to see my bag flying off toward Winderbandie Point. Jill and Colin thought it was quite hilarious watching me sprint down the beach chasing it and every time I neared it, it flew off further down the beach. I was well and truly stuffed when I got back to the boat. We left the beach with quartering winds until we rounded the point which Jill and I took sharply then paddling into a fresh headwind toward the shore trying to find some shelter from the wind. Colin however just continued further out at sea paddling from point to point. Later we met up and then as we turned a bend put our sails up for a fun cruisy sail. In the distance we could see breaking waves due to a large gap in the reef and coincidentally when we reached this area the wind had changed to SW, or at least a strong southerly, and the sail became very exciting from then on! Jill commented on my nervous giggle she would hear from time to time. It certainly was the most challenging sailing I have done in the kayak, and it was exhilarating and at times a little scary for me. Having the kayak loaded made a world of difference with the kayak feeling extremely stable even in the rough conditions. Rounding Sandy Cape, we were back in the protection of the reef with only small, confused waves. We started looking for a suitable camp for the night and after 3 stops we found a perfect bay sheltered from the 20 knot SW. Unfortunately some 4WDs were parked on shore, so we had to set up camp a little further down the beach, still lovely but quite windy. As usual we saw many turtles today along with a ray, dolphins, Osprey and Colin came across a snake in the dunes.
Day 6 (27/8/21) 13.5km
Waking to another day of 15 – 20 knot SE winds we had a nice run down to boat harbour camp. We were needing to get to One K camp (1km south of Yardie Creek) as we had 2 nights booked and Gail was planning to drive up and meet us there. The conditions deteriorated after that due to the very shallow water. With breaking waves and opposing wind chop ahead we decided to paddle at least a km from shore and picked our way through them. All along the shore was a rocky shelf so on seeing a sandy coastline ahead we made for that. As usual Colin was paddling at a cracking pace ahead of us, further spurred on by the fact he was meeting up with Gail this morning. We radioed him when he was near the beach asking if that was One K camp but got the negative that it was in fact Yardie Creek! As Jill and I started heading in closer to the coast we spied the long drop loo of One K camp. There was absolutely no way we could land our kayaks there due to the raised rocky shelf all along that area. When we got to Yardie Creek we went to see the campground host in the hope that maybe there would be a campsite available there for 2 nights or that national parks could perhaps suggest an alternative camp site we could access with our kayaks. The campground host went above and beyond her volunteer position, we only wish national parks had done the same. The person on the other end of the radio pretty much said it was our fault for booking the spot and we should have known it was 4WD access. We tried to explain that we were in kayaks and that the website makes no mention of the rocky shelf along the beach, and she was like “there must be a lagoon somewhere near there where you can land!”. We decided our predicament was falling on deaf ears and although commercial kayak operators are catered for, the same is not true for other kayakers. Fortunately, Gail turned up with the Troopy not long after (thankfully there had been no lockdown in Perth) and saved the day! Although Yardie Creek was open to the ocean it was crossable so we paddled up into Yardie Creek to unload everything into the troopy and then paddled back out to the ocean landing the kayaks and dragging them up into the sand dunes where we hoped they would be safe for the next 2 days. We all piled into the troopy and headed to the camp site, my least favourite camp of the trip, full of bulldust which was so fine that during the night the strong winds caused it to blow into my eyes and to cover my sleeping bag. The only positive was that the rocks were a good place to watch the sunset and to drink Jill’s warm white wine which had been in the car for the last 6 days!
Day 7 (28/8/21) No paddling
We awoke to a bloke asking if we were the kayaking mob. At first I thought it was the Ranger until he mentioned Jill by name. From within her tent Jill says “that sounds like Ranger Bruce!”. Her hubby had tracked us down to say hi and he spent the day with Jill and Gail hiking up Yardie Creek (Jill also paddled up it) and treating us with fresh food and even a beer and G&T! Colin and I spent about 6 hours driving to Coral Bay retrieving my car and then dropping it off at Neds Camp further north in Cape Range National Park.
Day 8 (29/8/21) 11km
After shuttling all our gear back to Yardie Creek in the troopy and the long haul down to the kayaks we set off for Osprey Camp. It was a cruisy day, sailing for part of the journey with 10 – 15 knot S then SW winds. We startled many turtles along the way. Osprey camp has a beautiful bay and has many campsites (spaced out nicely). We found our booked campsite with Gail all set up reading a book under the awning of the Troopy. The sites are great for caravans or camper trailers but not ideal for tents as the solid ground makes it difficult to get your tent pegs in. Fortunately, Colin had special pegs and a hammer in the troopy he could share with us. After lunch we had a pleasant snorkel right out front of the camp. The highlight for me was being able to follow a large green turtle for ages while he was munching on the sea grass, surfacing each time he did. He was totally unphased by my presence which in my experience is unusual. We had a lovely walk over to Sandy Bay early evening and after dinner Sandy Robson surprised us by turning up to see us. I think she heard us before she saw us 😉
Day 9 (30/8/21) 14km
We started our day with a 1.1km paddle to a kayak mooring on the inside of the reef where we tied up our kayaks and jumped overboard for a snorkel. It was low tide, so we had to snorkel around some of the stunning plate and staghorn coral so as not to disturb it. We were spoilt with plenty of reef fish, a flounder hiding in the sand, cuttlefish, sea snake, blue spotted ray and lots more. By the time we got back into our kayaks the south westerly wind had picked up to 15 – 20 knots which it remained for the rest of the day. We sailed over to Sandy Bay and were there in a flash. We paddled then sailed passing Pilgramunna (which looked good for snorkelling but as there was a tour group there) and continued to South Kurrajong Camp which had a good sandy beach to land the kayak and have lunch. After passing Bloodwood Creek we paddled over reef which I imagine would be nice for snorkelling. We were booked to camp at North Mandu camp but it was a beach of large pebbles, so we took our chances and paddled on looking for somewhere without a rocky landing to camp for the night. There was just a high enough tide to paddle past Oyster Stacks without having to go out through the gap in the reef. Our camp was not ideal and no matter where we were we could not get out of the wind blasting sand, even later that night when the wind turned south easterly and Jill’s tent fly blew off. Colin felt the wrath of the wind also when he found his tarp was missing, luckily to be found later some distance away.
Day 10 (31/8/21) 14kms
After a night of excessive tent flapping (except for Colin who decided to forgo his tent outer for a more peaceful night’s sleep) we got up early to pack up our tents and kayaks surreptitiously. It was still a strong south easterly and way too cold to consider snorkelling, so we whiled away some time until we heard a “Cooee!” from Sandy who had managed to track us down. After much deliberation we decided to have a snorkel at Turquoise Bay. We headed out to the staghorn gardens and were again spoilt with a kaleidoscope of corals and fish, the highlights being unicorn fish and a blue spotted ray munching down and then trying to hide its feed from the fish surrounding it. We all left the water at a similar time as we were freezing so jumped in the kayaks and paddled on to Lakeside Bombies trying to warm up. After warming up in a sheltered spot where we ate lunch, we followed Sandy out to the bombies for a snorkel, and then through the channel between them, swimming against the current. We were rewarded with a huge potato cod, white tipped reef shark under a ledge, turtles and clown fish. It was a quick paddle with following seas to Ned’s camp where we surprised Gail by turning up a day early. We were worried we might be shattering her serenity but she seemed happy to see us. Good job we had that campsite booked as well as Tulki, so we had a choice. We were stoked to be setting up the tents for 2 nights and not having to pack it all up again next morning.
Day 11 (1/9/21) 12km
It was an overcast day with a nice 10 – 15knot SE so we paddle sailed northwards startling turtles and rays until we reached the Mangrove area. We dropped our sails with the idea of getting closer to shore, hoping to see a nursery of sharks or rays as I had seen on another trip. The tide however had other ideas, being way too shallow. We picked our way through the shallow rocks until we were able to get out to deeper water and sailed off again until we were approaching Tantabiddi. We went in search of the kayak moorings to snorkel, but the SW wind was picking up now, with wind chop and grey skies so we decided it wasn’t that appealing. As we were heading in toward the boat ramp, we caught up with Sandy who was just paddling out. She continued southwards for a fitness paddle. There were high fives all around as we landed at the south side of the boat ramp with mixed feelings about the end of our paddle expedition. Gail timed it perfectly turning up with the troopy to run me back to Ned’s to pick up my car. Gail really was an amazing support to us on the latter half of the trip although she would have preferred to have been paddling with us. When Sandy got back to Tantabiddi we all headed off to Yardie Homestead to buy lunch but found the café closed. Lucky for us Sandy had brought us carrot cake which filled us up instead – yum! We called in at Mangrove Bay bird hide which was very peaceful then returned to Ned’s camp. Colin tried his hand at fishing to no avail. It was the one and only time the fishing rods came out. I was very disappointed as Jill and Colin had promised me fish for dinner every night! It was a windy evening but we braved the bench in the sand dune where we had port and wine sunset drinks to celebrate the paddle end.
Day 12 (2/9/21) 0km
We were pleased we had finished our trip a day earlier than planned as the wind was even stronger today (SE 20+ knots). After packing up camp and our cars Gail and Colin went to Lakeside so Gail could get amongst the great coral and fish life there. Jill and I enjoyed the Mandu Mandu gorge loop walk through a dry white stone riverbed surrounded by ancient red cliffs, where we spotted a lone black flanked wallaby hiding in a crevice. The return walk took us over the top of the gorge where wedgetail eagles were soaring on thermals and great coastal views giving us a perspective of parts of our paddle expedition. I then decided to play tour guide, taking Jill down every road possible heading toward Exmouth. We checked out Woribi, the Lighthouse, The Dunes (surf spot), Mildura Wreck then shared a delightful Nasi Goring at Bundegi Beach (still a chilly SE wind which was onshore there). We reunited with Gail and Colin at the campground where we had a real bed for the night in a chalet and then had a farewell dinner and lots of laughs at the pub meeting up with Sandy.
Special thanks need to go to Colin for his diligent planning and all the work he put into the extensive Management Plan and to Jill and Gail for all you did too!
A suggestion for a cruisy shorter expedition for ISSA paddlers would be to start at Yardie Creek after leaving a car at either Ned’s camp (we paid for 1 person camping for the number of nights we left the car) or Yardie Homestead (they wanted payment too). You could have a really cruisy trip, allowing plenty of time for snorkelling and exploring if you camped at Osprey Bay, Kurrajong and Ned’s camp (all accessible by kayak), continuing up to Tantabiddi boat ramp. You could spend additional nights at one of the camps so that you have time to walk some of the gorges etc. Colin, Jill and I are happy to pass on any additional information you may require for either the whole trip or part of.