Shark Bay

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Shark Bay for grey nomads
Sink your teeth into some incredible scenery at Shark Bay Pic: Tourism WA

Shark Bay in Australia’s extreme west is an iconic destination for adventure-seeking grey nomads … but also one which too many leave without fully appreciating and exploring.

Located approximately 800 kilometres north of Perth, the two-million-hectares of the World Heritage Area are characterised by unique coastal scenery and an amazing array of wildlife and flora. With fabled attractions such as Monkey Mia, Shell Beach, the ancient Stromatolites and Francois Peron National Park, as well as some great caravan parks and superb free camping options, it is no wonder that this is a lock-in destination for all west coast explorers.

Shark Bay is actually two bays sheltered by peninsulas and a long island, and the historic township of Denham, which began life as a pearling camp, is where most of the accommodation and tours can be accessed.

The Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre offers a superb introduction to the region. A 25-minute drive across the Peron Peninsula is Monkey Mia which is famed for its wild dolphin experience. But there’s a lot more swimming in the glorious blue waters here … including dugongs, sharks, rays and turtles.

To the north lies the 52,500- hectare Francois Peron National Park, famed for its red cliffs and white sandy beaches. Most of the park is very much 4WD country but, unless it’s wet, all travellers can generally access the Peron Heritage Precinct at the southern end. This is a historic site where the old overseer’s quarters have been converted into a visitor display. There are also some nice walks, but the highlight for many weary grey nomads is a soak in the hot tub fed from the hot artesian waters.

For those not yet ready to face the sandy tracks to the north where the park’s magic further unfolds, a drive south along Shark Bay Road, or the World Heritage Drive, is not a bad alternative. From the road visitors can access several coastal sites including Eagle Bluff, Fowlers Camp, Whalebone, and Goulet Bluff.

About 40 kilometres south-east of Denham, the road brings you to Shell Beach which is made up of countless trillions of tiny white shells. Like so much in this region there is nowhere else quite like it. And that is certainly also true of the stromatolites at Hamelin Bay which are living representatives of life over 3500 million years ago. A 200-metre boardwalk takes visitors over the stromatolites, microbialites and microbial mats.

Having ticked off the area’s most accessible ‘big ticket’ attractions, too many travellers head off without finding all this unique region has to offer. To truly get off the beaten track in Shark Bay, visitors need to be ready to get their wheels dirty and perhaps let the air out of their tyres … and the Francois Peron National Park is a great place to start.

Beyond the Peron Heritage Precinct at the southern end of the park, the tracks get very sandy but lead to some stunning scenery. Cape Peron offers spectacular views across red dunes, brilliant white beaches, and turquoise waters.

A 1.5-kilometre walking trail connects Cape Peron to Skipjack Point, where two spectacular viewing platforms are perched over the cliff edge. Rather than marking the end of the Shark Bay area adventure, this first 4WD foray could mark the beginning. Most travellers are frightened off by the 200-kilometre or so drive from Denham that loops around to Steep Point, the most westerly point on mainland Australia … and that’s a real shame.

Much of this is unsealed road, with the last 30 kilometres or so being a soft track winding around sand dunes. The 4WD aspect can then be challenging, but there are companies that offer tours to the region. Steep Point lies within the proposed Edel Land National Park, which boasts spectacular cliffs, blowholes, sweeping white sand dunes and remote beaches. Further north across a short stretch of water is perhaps the crown jewel of Shark Bay … Dirk Hartog Island.

This is a ‘bucket list’ destination. There are flights over it, and 4WD tours available, or travellers can catch a barge across from Steep Point. Be warned though there is no water, no fuel, and no shops. The island is named after Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog who landed here in 1616, and promptly nailed a dated pewter plate to a post at Inscription Point. This original was later removed and taken to a museum in Holland. This is also the site of an historic lighthouse and newly restored keepers’ quarters.

The remnants of a garrison at Quoin Bluff South further evidences the island’s fascinating history, but it is the towering cliffs, gorgeous beaches and sheltered bays here which will live longest in the memory. And then, there’s the incredible array of wildlife including a host of nesting seabirds and the thousands of loggerhead turtles that return to Turtle Bay to lay their eggs every summer.

These are not places that every visiting grey nomad gets to and, in some ways, that’s probably a good thing. But those that do make the effort to get off the beaten track in Shark Bay rarely regret it … and certainly never forget it.

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