After leaving Broome on October 9, we continued south on the Great Northern Highway and then the North West Coastal Highway. We spent a couple nights at a remote caravan park right on Eighty Mile Beach, part of a 220-kilometer stretch of uninterrupted beach, Western Australia’s longest. Eighty Mile Beach is a lovely white sand beach just covered with little shells of all descriptions, shapes, and colors. The water of the Indian Ocean here is turquoise blending into the clear blue of the sky. While we were here, we encountered a clever immature Pied Butcherbird, who was using notches at the top of our power post to dismember and devour a small lizard – kind of gross but also fascinating.
Farther south, we saw a Sand Goanna (a monitor lizard about two feet long) at the Fortescue Roadhouse Caravan Park where we spent a night. We have come to this coast seeking the wildflowers for which it is famous. We seem to be a bit behind times for the best displays, but we did see carpets of tiny white flowers beside the highway and many lavender blooms of “Mulla Mulla” against the red soil in the semi-arid grasslands.
Exmouth is a teenager of a town by Australian standards, having come into being in the 1960s. With a permanent population of about 2500 people, it sits near the northern tip of Cape Range Peninsula bounded on the east by Exmouth Gulf (named for an English Viscount in 1818 during European exploration of the coastline) and on the west by the Ningaloo Reef, one of the longest fringing reefs in the world.
In 1963 the United States and Australia agreed to construct a naval communication station on the North West Cape of the Peninsula. The town of Exmouth was built near a good fresh water source as a supply center for the construction of the world’s largest Very Low Frequency (VLF) transmitter, which was completed in 1967. At 387.6 meters (1,271.7 feet) high, Tower Zero at the center of the thirteen-tower VLF array is the second tallest structure in the southern hemisphere. It weighs over 800 tons and can withstand winds up to 500 KPH (310 MPH). Its primary mission was as a radio relay station, passing messages between Australian and US command centers, submarines, and surface ships. Today, as Australian Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt (named for a late Australian prime minister), it continues to play a vital role in the secure operation of the Australian submarine fleet.
In 1907 a cattle ship called the SS Mildura clipped the reef off North West Cape during a cyclone, instigating the construction of Vlamingh Head Lighthouse (named for a Dutch explorer) in 1912. The remains of the ship are still visible at low tide. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1967 when an electric light in the Naval Communication Station took over its mission. The caravan park where we stayed is just below the lighthouse, and the lighthouse keeper’s quarters now serve as the residence for the campground’s manager.
Exmouth now thrives on the prawn fishery in the Exmouth Gulf and serves as a gateway for exploration of the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area, which includes Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Marine Park, “Where the range meets the reef.”
Cape Range National Park encompasses 50,581 hectares (about 125,000 acres) of the Cape Range Peninsula. This is a “dissected limestone” range with deep canyons, precipitous ridges, and range-top caves. Many plants and animals that live here have evolved in relative isolation during periods when the peninsula was cut off from the mainland. We stayed a night each in three different campgrounds within the park (without power, water, or cell signal – Oh, the hardship!), explored many beaches along its coast, and hiked in two wonderfully colorful and interesting gorges with birds nesting on their steep cliff walls.
Ningaloo Marine Park stretches nearly 300 km along the coast and is considered a mecca for snorkeling and diving. It is home to the world’s biggest fish, the Whale Shark, with an estimated average length of 9.7 meters (31.8 feet). Fortunately, this giant is a “filter-feeder” harmless to humans, consuming microscopic zooplankton. Three kinds of marine turtles nest here from November to February. Humpback whales visit between June and November and many females give birth in the deeper offshore waters. Manta rays are here year round. There are 220 species of coral and over 500 species of fish in the Ningaloo Reef. We took a short one-hour glass-bottom-boat tour on Ningaloo Ecology Cruises’ Reefviewer to get a representative sampling of the reef’s bounty with Captain Alek, the boat’s owner and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.
Now we will be continuing south, trying to catch up with the wildflower season but also stopping to enjoy special spots as we come to them.