Nature’s Window in Kalbarri National Park.

Western Australia is a veritable kaleidoscope of colours, with pristine beaches, dramatic gorges and diverse marine habitats providing Nature’s canvas with lush and vibrant hues, writes FONG LEONG MING

VISITORS to Western Australia oftentimes land in Perth and stay put for the duration of their holiday, satisfied with the sights, cuisine and lovely climate … well, maybe venturing a bit further afield, perhaps to the Margaret River orchards or wineries or even the Pinnacles, before they are ferried back to the comfort of their hotels in the city and Fremantle.

Nothing wrong with that — Perth is a beautiful, beautiful holiday destination — except that it's a doorway to so much natural beauty up north that is the Coral Coast and it's a big shame to not experience it at all.

Think about it: The city is just five hours away from Kuala Lumpur by flight and while a holiday there is just dandy, a whole slew of adventures beyond the mature tourist destination that is Perth should be an exciting prospect. It’s like having a box of chocolates and one only tries the usual flavour when there are myriad colours and flavours to choose from.

So where does one begin venturing outside of Perth? The Coral Coast is an obvious answer. It begins after a two-hour drive north of Perth at Cervantes and follows the beautiful Indian Ocean coastline. Pristine beaches and diverse marine habitats are a given but expect to be awed by the dramatic landscapes of Kalbarri and its stunning gorges, the Pink Lake, the world-heritage-listed Shark Bay and Monkey Mia, where dolphins, not monkeys, are the main attractions.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The aforementioned attractions are but a glimpse of what lie ahead.

My eight-day familiarisation tour of the Coral Coast begins with a Perth city tour and while I enjoy every bit of the leisurely walk across cityscapes (and Elizabeth Quay), my mind cannot stop thinking of the exciting days ahead. Well, my guide did tell me it's a 12-day itinerary crammed into eight, so it'll definitely be a hectic whirl of activities. Cool!




On a quad bike safari.


ALIENS WERE HERE… NOT!

Hundreds of limestone pillars rise out of a stark landscape of yellow sand. I'm at the Nambung National Park after a 2 1/2-hour drive and at the heart of it is the Pinnacles desert.

It's a barren otherworldly spot of stone pillars dotting the landscape, forming ghostly shapes and shadows like silent tributes or tombstones. For some strange reason, I think I'm on Mars with Matt Damon. Most of the pinnacles are jagged, sharp-edged columns rising to a point. Some are tiny, others go to about two or three metres high but my guide says there are those that are almost four metres in height.

The pinnacles are one of Western Australia's iconic tourist attractions and a main stop for travellers on road trips up and down the coast. It’s hot — well, they don’t call it a desert for nothing — and pesky flies stick to us like we are a human buffet but the view makes up for this irritation. It’s kilometres of barren yellow sand all round and the sight of these strange structures is nothing short of awesome. According to the guide, some tourists come in the evenings as the silhouettes in the setting sun are absolutely stunning.

Where do they come from? Scientists say they are formed from ancient sea shells crushed into powder by the ocean and swept inland by wind and waves. Over thousands and thousands of years, the calcium carbonate in these shells seeped into the ground when it rained, hardening and slowly forming these pinnacles. With erosion and wind, the surrounding loose soil gets blown away, exposing these structures. So now you know. No aliens or otherworldly mystery here.

Getting around is easy. There is a 4.5m loop trail for cars; one can get out and about to walk around, explore and take clever selfies with these structures.




Lobster’s Shack set


YUMMY LOBSTERS

Lobsters! After the short, hot sojourn in the desert, this next destination looks mighty tempting, especially with a crustacean there having my name on it.

We arrive at this lobster processing factory called Lobster Shack, located on the beachfront in Cervantes, about 15km from the Pinnacles.

This third-generation family-owned business, also known as the Indian Ocean Rock Lobster Factory, has been in operation for more than 40 years. It's the only processing factory in the 434km stretch between Perth and Geraldton up north.

I watch in fascination as the lobsters — numbering in the thousands — are sorted out automatically in huge computer-controlled sorting tanks and kept fresh in enclosures before they are packed for export to countries such as China, Hong Kong and the Middle East where they command premium prices.

Visitors get a guided audio tour and I leave knowing a lot more about lobsters than before — including how they are graded and the fact that if they have all their limbs intact, they are more expensive. That over, lunch, needless to say, is very yummy.


THE PINK LAKE

If anyone had told me that there is a pink lake in this world, I would have brushed it off as a gag or an April Fool’s joke. But it exists and my eyes do open a tad wider on seeing it in person. Serious, I kid you not. It’s pink.

Hutt Lagoon (a.k.a Pink Lake) is found on the scenic coastal road between Port Gregory and Kalbarri, where we are headed. It’s named so due to the colour created by the naturally-occurring beta carotene found in high concentrations in the lake. Depending on the time of day, the lake colour changes through a spectrum of red to bubble-gum pink to lilac purple. Not surprising, this location has been used in fashion and cosmetic brand photo-shoots.



This stretch of beach is known as Pot Alley and boasts a magnificent coastline.


KALBARRI

With over 186,000 hectares of National Park at its doorstep, Kalbarri is every nature lover's dream. Some call it the “ultimate ocean-side adventure playground and picturesque escape” and for good reason.

Located about 600km north of Perth midway along the Coral Coast, Kalbarri sits at the mouth of the Murchison River and offers magnificent coastal scenery. It is popular with locals from far and near as there’re lots to do — swimming, fishing, snorkelling, bushwalking, gorge-hiking, canoeing or just scenic drives in general for great wefies and selfies. In fact, I’m told that visiting Kalbarri is on the bucket list of a lot of Australians.

For me, the main draw is the National Park, with its 400-million-year-old inland gorges and jaw-dropping rock formations.

It’s ideal for those who enjoy hikes along bush trails as there are magnificent views at every turn. Nature’s handiwork is at its finest here, with striking red sandstone providing stunning contrasts to the grey mountain granite.

We hike close to two hours (needless to say that sunscreen and lots of water are important) in the hot sun, clambering over huge rocks and descending steep trails before we reach what I have been dreading all week — abseiling down a sharp overhang (see sidebar).

From July to October, according to my guide, the outback here transforms into a sea of colour with over 600 varieties of wildflowers. Now wouldn’t that be a sight to behold.

With just 30,000 visitors to the park annually (according to the guide, as compared to almost 200,000 visitors for the Pinnacles), the National Park at Kalbarri is still relatively untouched by mass tourism. There are hardly any vehicles at lookout points and on beaches. With the wind blowing in my face at one picture-postcard beach, I make a mental note that I must one day return to enjoy again Nature at this near-pristine state.

There are a few glorious lookouts at the park for visitors to take must-snap photos and they include Red Bluff and Pot Alley, with their magnificent views of the coastline.

We leave the park with a heavy heart but the day’s excitement does not end. We are ushered to a farm where we embark on a quad bike safari which covers a distance of 10km, leaving us dusty and exhilarated at the same time.

Our faces may be practically caked in dust and clay at the end of the ride but our smiles are wide throughout, not least because our convoy is led by a matronly woman who not only fusses over us like a good mother would but also feeds us cookies at the end of our journey!



The stunning sunrise at Monkey Mia, one of the best and most reliable places for dolphin interaction in the world.


MORE ALIEN PODS

We depart Kalbarri after a good night’s rest and headed for Hamelin Pool, where the famous stromatolites are located. Stroma-what? Stromatolites are stone-like structures in shallow waters that are formed when microscopic organisms dating back 3.5 billion years combine with sedimentary grains.

In short, evidence of the beginnings of life on Earth are found in the saline waters of the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve in these stromatolites.

A wooden boardwalk allows us to view them, our guide reminding us that it is one of only three places in the world (the other two being in Lagoa Salgada in Brazil and Exuma Cays in the Bahamas) where living marine stromatolites are known to occur and the only place where they can be seen easily from shore.

The water at Hamelin Pool is hyper-saline with few predators able to survive this super-salty condition, allowing the microbes the freedom to form these stromatolites.


SHELLS GALORE

Next stop is the snow-white Shell Beach with its hypersaline water for a dip. We vigorously get into our swimsuits and lather on generous amounts of sunscreen for good measure as it was blazing hot and plunged right in the surprisingly cold water.

While it is not as famously salty as the Dead Sea, this is still one salty swim. The beach is formed from billions of tiny cockle shells — I kid you not, there’s no sand! — and is one of only two in the world. It stretches for about 120km and is between seven and 10 metres deep.

The water is gloriously clear and I feel like I am swimming in a tub of tap water. In the glorious hot sun, the cool water makes for a refreshing dip. It does feel weird to be stepping on just cockle shells though.



Feeding the sharks at Ocean Park Aquarium.


AND YOU CERTAINLY DO NOT WANT TO MISS THESE…


  • Ocean Park Aquarium is a must-visit tourist spot at the tail-end of our Coral Coast adventure. While you might think it is like those similarly-named parks around the world, this is more rustic and yet houses some of the most amazing sea life ever. From sharks to turtles to poisonous sea snakes, this is one aquarium where visitors learn first-hand from experienced guides what it means to be part of a conservation and marine research facility. In short, these guys walk the talk when it comes to looking after the denizens of the sea.

  • Shark Bay, a World Heritage Site, is about 800km north of Perth, on the westernmost point of the Australian continent. Located within Shark Bay is Monkey Mia, one of the best places for dolphin interaction in the world. Wild bottlenose dolphins make their regular appearance in the clear, shallow waters of the bay and while the interactions are regulated by rangers and volunteers, a few lucky visitors will get the opportunity to hand-feed them a fish or two. Tip from the guide: Say it’s your birthday and you just might get lucky. Another guide thinks it’s all in your dressing so go all-out gaudy or outlandish!

  • 4WD tour of Francois Peron National Park, also within this Shark Bay World Heritage area, gets my insides all up and tangled from the very bumpy ride but it’s all in good fun as the vehicle heaves up and down and across muddy treks and sandy stretches in this park for a half day adventure. Coastal lookouts are ideal for spotting turtles, stingrays, dolphins and even dugongs. Highlights include Cape Peron, Skipjack Point, Bottle Bay and a stop at Big Lagoon for lunch. Yes, they do sound like a collection of pirates’ locales. Well, with the entertaining guide at the wheel, the hours just fly by with a continuous flow of history, tales of seafaring exploits and even a sad romantic tale of love found and lost.

  • And so it ends. My Coral Coast adventure has been nothing short of eventful — colourful even, both figuratively and visually. Like a tapestry weaved with the most magical of strands, the Coral Coast region has been just that for me — surreal and colourful.

    As Suzanne Fisher, marketing & PR manager for Australia’s Coral Coast, puts it so eloquently: “Picture beautiful golden sands, white ice-cream-like sand dunes, beautiful blue waters and stunning skies with streaks of golden across them. Enjoy the pink on reaching the Pink Lake, and even this colour changes depending on time of day and year, going from a spectrum of red to bubble-gum pink to lilac purple. At the Kalbarri National Park, revel in the beautiful rust-red river gorges and lush green trees. The ocean at Shell Beach, meanwhile, transforms into a palette of the most intense greens and blues. Further north, at Shark Bay, the brown desert meets the stunning turquoise azure blue ocean and the white sandy beaches.”

    Paradise on earth? Incredible does not even begin to describe it. Even as my flight takes off for KL at the end of my adventure, I cannot shake off the effects of my brief but unforgettable sojourn up the Coral Coast. The drive may be long — I must have travelled close to 900km — but its stunning beauty will remain in my consciousness for a long, long time to come.



    4WD Driving at sunrise through the Francois Peron National Park in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. Pix by Elements Margaret River


    VISITORS to Perth from Malaysia overtook Singaporeans to land at No. 2 spot, according to December 2016 figures.

    Tom Upton, international market manager for Tourism Western Australia, says that at 109,000, that figure is up 35.7 per cent from the year before, an indication that Perth remains a firm favourite with Malaysian travellers.

    In top spot is United Kingdom with 150,000 arrivals, followed by Malaysia, Singapore (104,000), the United States (79,000) and China (51,000).

    Tom believes that Malindo Air, which started flights to Perth from November the year before, is a factor. It flies to Perth 11 times a week, a welcome addition to Air Asia X’s 29 and Malaysia Airlines’ 12 weekly flights.

    “The cost of accommodation in Perth has also come down in tandem with increased availability of rooms.

    However, while more Malaysians are visiting Perth, he notes that that has not translated into higher spending figures.

    “Total spending among Malaysians remains flat,” he says, a reflection perhaps of the lower ringgit and more prudent spending patterns among travellers.


    TRAVEL FILE


    HOW TO GET THERE


  • There are flights from Perth to towns in the Coral Coast, for instance to Geraldton, Exmouth, Monkey Mia and Carnarvon. However, the Coral Coast has excellent roads, which means that going on a self-drive or opting for hired cars, campers and coaches are all fine options. Cruise ships also stop at ports in Geraldton and Exmouth.

  • Malindo Air, which started flights to Perth from November the year before, flies to Perth 11 times a week compared to Air Asia X's 29 and Malaysia Airlines’ 12 weekly flights.

  • For more details on the Coral Coast, go to www.australiascoralcoast.com or www.westernaustralia.com

  • WHEN TO GO

    Coral Coast enjoys warm weather all-year round with a Mediterranean climate in the south bordering on sub tropical in the north. Cyclones sometimes affect the northern part of the coast. The best time to visit is between the milder months of March to October. Average temperature ranges between 25-33 deg C. Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses are vital accessories when in the region.


    The writer’s visit to the Coral Coast was courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.

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