Lazy Days in Coral Bay

Child No 2 and I went for a little holiday last week to celebrate her having finished school a few weeks ago. It had been a long time in the planning. Coral Bay is one of our absolute favourite holiday destinations. It’s an isolated and remote little paradise in northwest Australia.

It’s an extremely popular spot to visit and explore the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef. Travellers come from far and wide to enjoy it. It draws families, retirees, tourists and backpackers alike. Situated just north of the Tropic of Capricorn Coral Bay gets hit by cyclones sometimes. It boasts the closest coral reef to any landmass. Snorkelling off the beach to see beautiful coral is unrivalled. About half of the coral species found in the world occur on the Ningaloo Reef and a large number are endemic to the reef. There are turtles, manta rays, whale sharks (in season) and an abundance of fish.

The closest towns are Carnarvon (about 200 kilometres) to the south and Exmouth (about 150 kilometres) to the north. It’s a long way from anywhere and after many hours travelling roads in hot, dry countryside the sparkling turquoise ocean is always a sight for sore eyes. Nestled in a bay on the edge of a desert on Cardabia Station (farms up there are called stations for the size of them). For first-time visitors the tropical ocean comes as such a surprise after having travelled hundreds or thousands of kilometres through arid and parched countryside.

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View of the bay, taken from the lookout

We certainly don’t mind driving the 1200 kilometres from Perth to get there. It’s well worth it. And an added bonus for me is the fact that the surrounding countryside reminds me of parts of Southern Namibia. Flat and dry country with not much vegetation. Red sand and dunes laying back to back. Just north of Coral Bay on the way to Exmouth there are tall anthills as far as the eye can see. It’s so similar to Southern Africa. Driving that far is almost like a rite of passage to deserve to experience something as spectacular as the marine wonderland of Coral Bay. And I like the open road. It feels like you’re really getting away if you’ve travelled a long way. Out in this spacious countryside I can take deep breaths of unlimited clean air. It feels like I can breathe deeper than in the city.

It’s a small beachside resort. There’s not much there. A hotel, two caravan parks, some restaurants and shops, backpackers’ accommodation and some holiday houses for rent. It’s the kind of place where you spend most of your time barefoot and in your bathers. It’s far from everything but once you arrive you feel like you don’t need anything else. We would spend our days having some breakfast, going for a swim and snorkel, having some lunch and going for another swim and snorkel. The biggest question we would ask ourselves every day is where we’re going to snorkel the next day. You can do as little or as much as you like. It’s relaxed, easy going and laid back. About fifty years ago it was completely undeveloped. This is part of the charm of Coral Bay. The fact that it’s so far away from everything, it’s basic but it still has everything you need. It brings you nearer to nature. Which just shows that you don’t need much more than the basics to be happy.

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A different view of the bay, taken from the sand dunes with the reef in the background. Patches of coral can be seen dotted around.

It’s a short walk from the caravan park to the beach or the bakery or little supermarket that stocks all necessities for camping holidays (from fishing gear to long life lactose free milk). The aisles are wide and the shelves aren’t overloaded. It reminds me of a store in a quiet and dusty country town that doesn’t see many patrons. Except during school holidays it’s buzzing in Coral Bay. The tinned food even had a little layer of dust on it this time round, confirming how little traffic there is through the store at the moment. It’s quiet there at this time, just before school holidays. Our favourite restaurant is al fresco and has only outside seating under a veranda. It overlooks a dusty carpark where there used to be some fuel pumps before, and then the ocean beyond. It almost feels like you’ve stepped back in time to an era where things were simple. When food and spending time with your loved ones were the main priorities.

We always see backpackers in hired vans with no aircon and the windows wound down on the roads up there. They pull in and camp at one of the caravan parks for a few days or park and sleep by the side of the road. Some retirees spend the winter months up there in their caravans when it’s cold and wet in the south. Families flock there over school holidays. Other tourists visit all year round.

It’s also popular for backpackers (Australian as well as overseas) to come and do seasonal work, albeit in the bakery, convenience store or as tour guides on the many glass bottom boat or other eco tours. It’s not unusual to speak to an Italian and a French person on the same tour and then hear Dutch and German around you as well.

We usually camp there during school holidays in October but this time round the two of us flew up from Perth to Learmonth (airport and air force base).  The airport is in the middle of nowhere. You’d drive for a few hours and suddenly see a small airport. Once you’ve passed it there’s nothing again for miles and miles. There’s one commercial flight to Learmonth from Perth per day and as a result, not much traffic through the airport. We arrived, picked up our luggage and made our way outside to wait for our transfer bus to Coral Bay. By this point most of the other passengers had left and the two of us sat outside the small airport building overlooking the hot and dry countryside. We had about an hour and a half to kill and I think we saw three other people during that time.

Once we arrived in Coral Bay we were struck by how quiet it is at this time of year. We expected it to be quieter than during school holidays but were still surprised by how few people were around. Never before had I seen kangaroos on the board walk to the cabins inside the caravan park, and I saw them daily this time. I got chatting to the local jeweller and Billabong stockist who confirmed it. During school holidays the kangaroos come in at 6am, he feeds them and then they disappear until 6am the following day. I even saw kangaroo footprints on the beach one morning. He’s lived and worked here for years, the “Billabong man”, as we refer to him. He drives his beach buggy and parks in front of his little shop between the convenience store and café on the veranda every day. What a lifestyle.

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Kangaroo who was eyeing me suspiciously on my morning walk out to the boat ramp.

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A little joey (baby kangaroo) next to the board walk in the caravan park

For a week we led a simple life. I went for a walk early in the mornings. We snorkelled. We swam and sat on the beach and after three days I’d read the two books I took along. We went on a glass bottom boat tour to a sea turtle sanctuary area. What an experience it was to watch their heads pop up out of the water to look at us and catch a breath. Twice we snorkelled off the boat, one of those times to a grey reef shark feeding area. We had to snorkel in single file through a gap in the coral where the current was quite strong. Once we were through the gap it was suddenly very deep and it was like a valley of coral had opened up before us. Just ahead were between eight and ten young grey reef sharks (under a metre long) hovering near the ocean floor having their mouths cleaned by the other fish. Not fased by the gawking humans at all. Unforgettable. I went for a kayak out to the outer reef (just over 2 kilometres). It’s amazing to sit in the kayak and look at the coral all around you. We watched the sunset from our balcony some nights and sat down by the beach until sunset on others.

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View towards the reef off the glass bottom boat.

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Green sea turtle popping up for a look and then to take a breath. Taken on the glass bottom bout tour.

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Cauliflower, staghorn, lavender and other coral taken on the glass bottom boat tour. The quality isn’t great due to the reflection of the glass.

I usually make lists when we go away, especially camping. Several lists. This time around I didn’t – this was very out of character – and only a few necessities made it onto a list. If you stay in a cabin most things are already there anyway. Consequently I forgot my beach towel and had to buy another one. I should have made a list – I’m always on at my husband for forgetting stuff when we go away because he doesn’t make lists.

As I was packing in at home I checked all my camera equipment – I’m not likely to forget that! I’m paranoid about my camera and look after it very carefully. It’s one of the top priority items for me to take along on a trip. Suddenly I couldn’t find the spare battery. I looked everywhere but just couldn’t find it anywhere. Then, purely by fluke, after about a day in Coral Bay I happened to notice it at the bottom of the camera bag. I was incredulous – I thought I’d looked there – and also relieved because I didn’t think I was careless enough with my camera equipment to simply lose it. I sent my husband a message to let him know that I’d found it because I was so happy. His reply promptly came back: check the bottom of your handbag for your beach towel. I had no reply to that.

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View towards the reef shark sanctuary and arid coastline about 1 km north of Coral Bay. Taken on my morning walk along the beach.

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View towards the south of Coral Bay (and Paradise Beach).

White Elephants, a Boat and a Bike

We’ve all bought some things we end up never using or using only a couple of times and then putting it away somewhere never to be touched again like an Ab Cruncher or some too-good-to-be-true gadget that’s supposed to chop all your vegetables in no time that was advertised on TV and we got sucked into buying it but it just ends up taking up space in our houses, stuck somewhere in a forgotten cupboard, or bought something expensive without our spouse’s prior knowledge (probably most likely because they wouldn’t have agreed with it in the first place).

When my husband started taking triathlons seriously and started doing more than just the occasional event and then decided to do a full ironman event, it happened gradually because he still did as much running as before but just started adding some swimming and cycling to his regime. As a result – and because he already owned a good road bike – a single major capital outlay for new gear wasn’t required which was just as well since some of these items come with a hefty price tag. New bits and pieces were slowly introduced but after completing his first full ironman event, he started making some noises about needing a time-trial bike because apparently he was “the only one out there that didn’t have one”, but that was sadly out of the question (and the budget). So it came as much of a surprise to me one day when a friend of ours happened to look at my man’s bike and innocuously commented: “When did you get those new wheels”? My husband’s reaction was quite entertaining, from hoping I hadn’t heard to trying to change the subject very quickly but none of it worked. I wanted to know too! I really didn’t see much difference between the new wheels and the old ones (they all go round and round) but apparently the new ones can shave a few minutes off the 7-hour bike-leg in an ironman.

Anyway, at least it wasn’t a new bike that had surreptitiously appeared – I would have noticed that, just for the record – unlike many years ago while we were living in Stellenbosch (South Africa), and my man took up mountain biking with a friend of his. The bike suddenly appeared at home one day and was immediately justified as having been paid for by a refund we’d received from our private medical fund. Fair enough, the money was spent on something that will improve fitness and overall health while he’s having fun at the same time. No problem there. Bearing in mind that the mountains surrounding the town of Stellenbosch require some skill if you’re negotiating them on a mountain bike I was quite happy for him to go, trusting his friend’s judgement on safety. Until the day he decided to go for a ride with a different friend who is about 15 years his junior.

All was well (in my mind) until Ironman phoned me and said that he’d fallen off his bike and his friend was taking him to the doctor just as a precaution. He assured me that it was nothing serious and that he was just being cautious by having it checked out, so I wasn’t overly concerned. Next thing, a nurse at the Stellenbosch Medi-Clinic (hospital) phoned me and said: “Just letting you know that your husband is here but he’s not able to come to the phone right now”. That was it. Nothing else. I completely freaked out, not knowing what could possibly be wrong that he’s so badly injured that he’s not even able to come to the phone. All sorts of possible scenarios flashed in front of my eyes and I spent the next hour or so working myself up into a complete state. By the time he finally phoned me again I was quite beside myself and when he said that he was ok, he’d just broken his collar bone, I lost it and cried out: “Why do you have to get hurt to enjoy yourself?!!” Suffice to say it wasn’t the sympathetic reaction he was hoping for. For the next few weeks it was like having another baby in the house because he wasn’t able to do much for himself and we never got another refund from our private medical fund after that.

All was quiet on the surreptitious purchase-front for a few years until we moved to Dubai and Ironman moved there three months before the kids and I did because of my work commitments and also simply the logistics of doing a move like that in a hurry, and when we finally arrived in Dubai he’d already found and rented a brand-new very spacious, beautiful villa and acquired some necessary living essentials (cutlery and crockery), and furniture such as a bed, an oversized TV and a massage chair since our furniture would only arrive per sea-container later. The massage chair was presented to me first since it was for me – such a thoughtful gesture – and the TV as an afterthought. (He probably realised I’d need something to relax me such as the massage chair after seeing the huge TV.) Who would need any other furniture if you have a bed, massive TV and a massage chair anyway?

And so, some years later and living in Perth by that time, my husband had organised a weekend in Sydney for myself and a girlfriend since neither of us had been there before and we had a lovely weekend away being tourists and enjoying the sights and sounds of Sydney. There was a surprise waiting for me when I got back home though – Ironman had gone out and bought a family sized kayak while I was away. (We owned no other kayaks at that point and had never done it as a family either, so seeing the Titanic-sized canoe in our garage came as quite a surprise, not to mention the price). It was bought with the best of intentions though, and with big plans of family outings together enjoying the great outdoors, which we did a few times. The only problem was that life became filled with other commitments and we ended up using it about once a year and at the time our kids were quite young so it was easy to fit a family of five plus picnic food in the kayak, but eight years on we don’t all fit in it together anymore!

The kids enjoying the kayak in Walpole in 2010

The kids enjoying the kayak in Walpole in 2010

Then somewhere along the line I’d got a bee in my bonnet about getting a table tennis table for the kids. Something to get them outside doing a fun activity. Ironman eventually relented – he kept saying that it will end up being a white elephant – and we used a voucher we’d received to buy it. It’s been used a fair bit since then and still gets used, but it has also gone through periods of standing quite untouched and then I would again be reminded of the “white elephant” I’d insisted we get. At least it’s not as big a white elephant as what our outdoor setting would have become had we kept my man’s latest addition to it that he made without consulting me first – a table top patio heater. We’d had a great stand-alone (gas) patio heater before which sadly had done it’s time and couldn’t be revived and my husband decided to go out and buy a new one, but he came home with a different type. The new one had to stand on top of the table, right slap bang in the middle of it so when you sit at the table you can’t make eye contact with the person sitting opposite you without getting a crick in your neck, you’d lose a lot of space on the table and you’d never be able to use a table cloth either. It was just not going to work for our set-up but he insisted that it would; a bit of a stand-off ensued which caused me to have a little episode. We eventually reached a compromise – I sold the new table top elephant and we bought a new stand-alone heater in the same style as the old one.

Life is always full of surprises though, it’s just a question of when the next one will appear…