If you’ve been to Australia, chances are you’ve done the east coast. Maybe you partied hard in Sydney? Kicked back in the haute-hippie enclave of Byron Bay? Snaked your way up into tropical Queensland for your final prize: the psychedelic beauty of The Great Barrier Reef?
But Australia has another reef, and it is an entirely different beast. Until recently, lesser-known Ningaloo has remained in the shadow of its flashy east-coast sister. A lot of this has to do with location – Ningaloo is marooned off the northwest coast of Australia, on the edge of the red, dusty middle of nowhere, 745 miles north of Perth.
Not long ago you needed a big old truck, four spare days and a lot of resolve to get there. But you can now fly to Ningaloo from Perth, and a new direct flight from Melbourne means that four hours after you’ve been drinking coffee in some hipster bar in the rain, you can be walking into blinding outback sunshine. This is a unique place where, as Australian novelist Tim Winton puts it, “the desert dips its toe into the sea.”
And what a sea. I promise you haven’t seen a palette of painterly blues like this, with iridescent Indian Ocean sapphires and aquamarines backlit by bright, white sand. The look is next-level Maldives, but critically, without the development. A hard-won Unesco World Heritage listing for the region in 2011 means there’s not a lot there apart from several hundred miles of untouched coastline where no coastal development, commercial fishing, offshore oil dredging, or heavy shipping is allowed.
Nature tourism in Ningaloo is strictly controlled to protect the crystalline waters, soupy with marine life. The main attraction is the megafauna, or as they call it here, “the big three”: whale sharks, which feed from March to August, and manta rays and humpback whales, who make their migratory route through the reef in the winter months. If you are lucky enough, we’re told, you can swim with these incredible creatures.
Full disclosure: I am not a scuba diver and have only entry-level snorkelling skills. I also wasted too much of my childhood watching movies like Jaws, so the idea of deliberately diving off a boat to swim with anything that has the word shark in it feels somewhat…