Trip Report - Sea Kayak Ningaloo Reef

Trak Performance Kayak - Trak Seeker 16T Adventure

It all started with a random comment over a quiet drink: “how about we paddle Ningaloo this Easter expedition?”

Over the last few years we had been heading off on paddling reconnaissance trips around the world at this time, with the intention of developing a list of 5 to 10 great paddling destinations, which we would then bring to the public. Jervis Bay, Indonesia, Alaska, Vancouver and South West Tasmania had all been ticked.  Ningaloo Reef, in Western Australia, was next on our list.

The response from the team was an agreeable nod, although no-one really knew where it was, how to get there, how much it would cost or anything else about the place.  Some research was necessary.

How good is Google? Damn good! A couple of quick searches, some detailed study of Google Earth (about 2 minutes), a phone call to mate who works somewhere in WA and we were in business. It was distinctly possible. In fact, better than possible, it was a goer.

The tipping point was booking flights - to get to Exmouth, the launching place for Ningaloo Reef, you have to fly via Perth, and then to Learmonth airport, which is actually a RAAF base. Our plan was to go before WA School Holidays, which, thankfully, start a week after Victorian holidays. This would allow some advance booking on flights and some good connections at a fairly decent price. The good old flying Kangaroo was still flying, despite its Scottish leaders attempts to cut out all unnecessary luxuries (food, water, fuel, pilots). So, we made the commitment and booked flights. Respective partners agreed that 1 week would be enough to do and see all we had to – 2 days of travel left 5 days of paddling. Perfect.  

It was at this stage that I twigged to the fact we would need some boats to paddle. “Roh – what about kayaks, won’t we need to get some for a paddling trip?”. Of course, Roh had it sorted – “Traks Byrnesy, Traks, all under control”.

There is no capacity to hire sea kayaks at Exmouth, and there is very limited commercial tours operating in the area. You really have to bring your own sea kayak (stay tuned, as EastCoastKayaking are in discussions with a number of kayak providers in order to avoid the need to pack your own boat!).  The TRAK was built (well, we did the assembling) for this type of adventure.

It was at this stage that our travelling party went from 3 to 2…yep, the Sage had to pull out due to family reasons.  How would we cope without his wisdom? Who would sort out the plan, liaise with the grey nomads and ensure we were in bed a reasonable hour? We were worried, but decided to go ahead without him.

A few planning meetings later we had worked out the basics: accommodation in Exmouth in order to buy supplies and get organized, a hire car to get us to the Reef and some permits for camping along the way.

Ningaloo Reef is actually a Marine Park and the land abutting it is the Cape Range National Park.  Only some campsites can be booked, and it is quite a complicated system, with limited numbers and permits required.  Free camping is not permitted.

Departure date loomed like a Metro train out of the City Loop, in a whirlwind of air and noise, and we had the Traks packed, excess luggage booked, camp gear stowed and were on City Link before you could say “I’ve spotted a whale shark”.

Daparting - all packed up!

Daparting - all packed up!

The flight into Learmonth airport gave us a good view of Exmouth Gulf, the area we were NOT paddling. Thanks Qantas (although it did look interesting…2015 maybe?).  Our extensive research didn’t let us down and the temperature was an expected warm 32 degrees, but thankfully without too much humidity. The drive into Exmouth from the airport, approximately 30 minutes, had Cape Range on our left hand side. We had yet to sight Ningaloo Reef and our paddling destination.

We had the afternoon to get organized; buy food, camping fuel, water and other necessary supplies for 5 days. Exmouth, a town of about 2200 , was able to cater to our needs and we were ready. Well sort of. The kayaks were not out of the bags yet and we still hadn’t sighted the infamous Reef.

The next morning we were off; heading north out of Exmouth and around the tip of the Gulf, stopping at the first opportunity, to walk up the sand dunes and sight the clear, aqua blue waters of the Indian Ocean and Ningaloo Reef. We were not disappointed. The water looked amazing; we could see the waves breaking on the reef, about 1km off shore, and the colours of the water closer to shore were simply stunning. It was a taste of what would come over the next few days.

Our plan was to make water drops off at the various camp sites along the way. One of the many logistical challenges when paddling Ningaloo and Cape Range is access to fresh water. There is no water in the park at all, and whilst the TRAKs could hold a reasonable amount of gear, they would not be able to hold enough water for an extended journey in the hot conditions.

Ningaloo Reef is tailor-made for sea kayaking. If you were to sit down with pen and paper, and pretend you were back in Year 7 Geography making sketch maps, you could not devise a better place for paddling than what mother nature has dished up. Our ‘put in’ point was Yardie Creek, the southern most point of the Park accessible by conventional vehicle. The prevailing winds and currents would help us on our way North to our eventual pull out point at Tantabiddi boat ramp. That was the plan anyway.

The good people at Yardie Homestead caravan park dropped us off, with our unfolded kayaks, our water and other supplies. As the car drove off an eerie silence descended, broken only by the waves pounding the reef in the distance. We looked at each other and laughed. It was finally happening.

Trak assembly took a little longer than usual in the midday heat, but they were soon assembled and ready for a trial run up Yardie Creek, an impressive gorge of red ochre coloured cliffs, with some shear faces and pebble beaches. The 2 km paddle was quite spectacular, with sea eagles and kangaroos being spotted along the way.

Magnificent coloured cliffs at Yardie Creek

Magnificent coloured cliffs at Yardie Creek

Setting out into Ningaloo Lagoon

Setting out into Ningaloo Lagoon

We then loaded the Traks at the ocean’s edge and pushed off, into the Ningaloo Lagoon.

Ningaloo Reef is a fringing reef stretching over 250 kilometres along the WA  coast. It is the longest fringing reef in the world, and we were paddling a small section (about 50kms). Various sections of the reef are quite close to shore, whilst other areas can be a couple of kilometers from the coast. We were effectively paddling Ningaloo Lagoon, a water way protected from the Indian Ocean by the coral reef. Having heard stories of tiger sharks, manta rays, turtles and other marine life we were excited by the possibility of spotting some. We didn’t have long to wait.

Crystal clear waters on the inside of the reef

Crystal clear waters on the inside of the reef

“Mate – is that a shark?” Yep, zipping through the water under the bow of my kayak was a little bronze whaler shark (about 3 feet long).  We had been on the water for 10 minutes! He stayed with us for the next kilometer or so, following along and occasionally coming up close for a better look. We paddled a bit closer to shore.

Turquoise Beach

Turquoise Beach

Sections of Ningaloo Marine Park are sanctuary zones, where no fishing is allowed. It was in these zones, unsurprisingly, we saw the most marine life: too many turtles to count, some as big as dinner tables, numerous reef sharks, sting rays, a small pod of dolphins and a wide variety of reef fish. Bait fish were constantly leaping in front of us, scared of being consumed by the great white and yellow TRAK.

After a wonderful 20 kilometres of paddling we made our camp site, extremely pleased with our first day on the Reef. After setting up the tent and picking up our water from the Camp site Host, we settled down to watch the wonderful sunset over the Indian Ocean. It had been an amazing day.

Ningaloo sunset

Ningaloo sunset

The next few days of paddling proved to be some of the best sea kayaking both Rohan and I have ever completed. As our food stocks dwindled we supplemented it with fish easily caught, either by trolling while paddling or with bait from shore. When the wind got up and we decided against pushing into it, we beached the kayaks and donned snorkeling gear, completing some epic snorkels out to the breaking waves over some amazing coral. The diversity of the reef fish constantly surprised us, from the tiny clown fish to the enormous groper, they were spotted with equal amounts of excitement. The cool nights under the clear skies, with a full moon, proved to be the perfect time to reflect on the day’s encounters.

The paddle leg was over far too soon, but we needed one more day for our bonus activity: swimming with Whale Sharks.  The Whale Shark is not a mammal, but a fish and is considered the biggest fish in the ocean. They are a protected species in Australia and migrate to Ningaloo Reef to feed on the krill-rich waters off the coast. Each year their numbers are increasing in this area, with no one really knowing why. Perhaps, as Roh said, “it is because they are loved here”.

Predominantly plankton feeders, they are harmless to humans and spend a lot of time near the surface. Initially skeptical of the numerous tourist operators claiming 100% success rates, we booked with the highly recommended Kings Tours. Again, Ningaloo did not disappoint and we had a most memorable day with Captain Bill and his crew.

The first time we ‘dropped’ into the water no–one really knew what to expect. Floating around in the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, with our guide waving her arms and saying “put your face in the water” it was all a little surreal. Compliantly, and with a knowing smile that I wouldn’t see anything I lowered my facemask and peered into the distance. And there it was! It was MASSIVE and coming straight at me. It really was like a spaceship on Star Trek; gliding effortlessly through the water, with its mouth open and one eye on the side of its head staring at me in an strangely trusting yet vulnerable way.  I just hung there, in awe at this magnificent creature which graciously allowed us mere mortals to briefly share its natural environment.

We spent the next 3 hours ‘dropping’ into the ocean and swimming with numerous Whale Sharks. I was no longer skeptical of both the operators and the process, as they followed strict guidelines to ensure we didn’t upset the shark. To conclude our day we came back inside the reef, anchoring off a coral bommie and doing some more wonderful snorkeling. It was the perfect way to conclude an outstanding week of sea kayaking.

If you are interested in paddling Ningaloo Reef speak with Rohan at East Coast Kayaking. We will be going back and would love to share this magnificent part of the world with other paddlers.

Our next Trak Seeker 16T Adventure for 2015 will be to Lombok, Indonesia - who is interested in coming?