Overnight stays: Kurrajong Campground, Cape Range National Park (3 nights); Bungarra, Cape Range National Park (2 nights); Mesa Campground, Cape Range National Park; Yardie Creek, Cape Range National Park; Neds Campground, Cape Range National Park (2 nights); Tulki Beach, Cape Range National Park (5 nights); North Mandu, Cape Range National Park (3 nights)
Pristine beaches, crystal water, amazing fishing, world-class snorkelling, deep gorges, and an abundance of wildlife – we knew this place was going to be good. So much so that we made a necessary exception to our ‘no booking’ rule. Most national parks allow you to take the punt and just turn up, hoping for a site. The demand for Cape Range is so high that if they allowed rock-ups, people would never leave, and the line-up would circle back 80km to Exmouth everyday.
With a few nights under our belt in Exmouth, fishing, whale-sharking and socialising, we were pretty damn pumped for our few weeks site-hopping in Australia’s best national park.
For me the best part about Cape Range is by far and wide the snorkelling. I can’t think of many places in the world where you can walk out from a white-sandy beach, stick your head under water about 20 metres out, and see turtles, rays, sharks, coral, and a bigger range of fish than a Hong Kong market.
Our camp host at Kurrajong recommended Lakeside as a quieter alternative to the more famed Turquoise Bay and Oyster Stacks. As an introduction to the national park it was awesome. I swam with masses of golden trevally, queenfish, and spotted a turtle before too long.
With the girls happily playing in the sand I swam ashore, grabbed my fishing rod and headed towards a little rock island about 30 metres off the beach. I dropped my fishing gear on the island and then circumnavigated the rocks with my snorkel, to suss out where the fish were. I can’t think of many places in the world where this is so easy…
Once I found the fish I hopped back onto the island, threw the line in, and waited. Sadly my strategy didn’t work as well as hoped, and apart from a few small leather jackets, there was nothing worth noting.
Another beautiful thing about fishing in this part of Australia is that you can easily retrieve snags with your snorkel gear on. When I was about to wrap things up I snagged on some nearby rocks, so threw the mask and fins on and jumped in to save a hook and sinker. As I released the hook from the rock I noticed a 2.5m sting-ray chilling on the bottom right beneath me, and it scared the shit out of me! So I retreated immediately, happy enough to call it for the day. On my way back into shore I also swam all but right into a couple of the prettiest blue and yellow rays, who shot along right in front of me.
The most famous beach in the national park is Turquoise Bay. And from when we arrived on our first visit to when we left on our fifth visit over a few weeks, it lived up to its’ name. It’s a beach effectively split into two: on the northern end you have a wide-spanning white-sand beach with the clearest, warmest water you could hope for, offering the very few visitors nothing but bliss.
The beautiful white sand continues around the southern end of the beach, but instead of the sand stretching to Sri Lanka, the ocean floor is spotted with hundreds of bommies and sprawling coral gardens, all surrounded by thousands, millions of fish and sea life.
The combination of pristine white sand, clear warm water, and the incredible and accessible snorkelling makes Turquoise Bay the best beach of the trip so far, and comparable with those in Cuba, Sardinia, Corsica and Mexico.
Every snorkel in Turquoise Bay offers something completely different… On my first dive I swam with four turtles, a shark on another; we saw stingrays, surgeonfish, trevally, queen fish, parrotfish, Spanish Flags, clownfish, and everything else you could imagine.
I reckon I ‘drift-dived’ about 18 times overall at Turquoise, and I didn’t once tire of it. That’s the other amazing thing, it’s all completely free!
If we came to Cape Range again I’d be happy to never go back to the Great Barrier Reef, ever!
Oyster Stacks is so shallow that it can only be dived on certain tides, deeming it inaccessible for a number of days each month. Thankfully we had time on our side so could easily wait for the right tide.
It’s a bit different from Turquoise, in that the beach is just sharp rocks, and there are a bunch of tall bommies that protrude the water (oyster Stacks) that attract a vast amount of sea life.
There were some massive fish and stacks of turtles here, and the snorkelling was good, but the drift was pretty strong and the beach not great for the girls, so we didn’t rate it as highly.
The most picturesque beach in Cape Range would have to be Sandy Bay. It is simply breathtaking. The sand is whiter than America’s immigration policy and the water easier to see-through than Scott Pape’s book self-promotion (although we do love his books).
The day we first arrived at this little-known beach we were literally the only people there, and it was magical. Definitely the prettiest beach we’ve seen in Oz, and perfect for kids to play.
Hand trawling for dinner
Most of Cape Range is a protected zone, meaning fishing is a no no. But there are designated areas where you can fish to your heart’s content. One of those areas, and one of the more popular shore fishing spots is Osprey Bay.
It’s another super pretty beach, just around the corner from Sandy Bay, where small rock cliffs break up little pockets of sandy paradise, offering perfect platforms to throw a line in.
Osprey is also the most popular campsite in the national park, so you have heaps of punters around, drinking, swimming, snorkelling, sunbaking, fishing, and kayaking.
Taking full advantage of the clear water, before throwing a line in, I snorkelled out to find where the big fish were. I could see a handful of fishers with their lines in close to the rocks, but no fish around, just a shark or two racing up and down the shoreline. But further out, probably about 150m offshore, there was a plethora of big fish – this is where my line needed to be.
So I swam back into shore and cast as far as I could, clearly not far enough for the fish to bite. I opened the spool, jumped back in the water, found my sinker and swam for another 100 or so metres, to a spot near the fish. With five hooks baited this was my biggest chance, surely?!
I got back to shore as quickly as possible to lock the spool again, only to find my line tangled with the father and two boys on the rocks next to me. We spent the next 10 minutes unwrapping line from each other until we were free, and I noticed some tension on the line. Snorkel and fins back on, maybe I was in business…
About halfway to where I left the hooks I found the line snagged on a piece of coral, damn it. But when I released the snag I noticed the line was still tight, so I followed it further. Another snag, grrrr.
But this snag was different… Rather than trapped under a piece of coral, the line was wrapped around it. Seems weird, given I swam the line out in a straight(ish) line. I knew I had to be near the hooks so I looked around and noticed two golden trevally circling around me. And when I looked closer it became obvious that one of them had hooks around his mouth – this was my fish!!!
So, like an A-League defender marking Usain Bolt, I moved like a bat out of hell, swimming frantically with the line in hand, towards shore. I was bringing this fish in like I was walking a dog on a lead, and I was so so excited.
Once I made it into shore with my fish in-tow, I sprung out of the water and reeled the line in faster than broadband in South Korea, until my fish joined me out of the water, on the rocks, time to celebrate!
There was no happier person in Australia as that moment – in my budgies, I shamelessly held my trophy high above my head, making sure everyone within eyeshot knew I had bagged a goodie, all on my own.
Unlike our massive bream fail in Evans Head, I managed to put this one out of its misery, and he made a delicious dinner for three 🐟.
As with all national parks, you would expect to see some forms of wildlife. Usually it’s a few roos, wallabies, kookaburras, and if you’re lucky a wombat, echidna or koala. Cape Range seems to have everything! On a single drive between campsites we almost ran over emus, dingoes, wedge-tailed eagles, wallabies and kangaroos. If we hadn’t already decided this national park was our favourite, this had sealed the deal. And this continued throughout our 3-week stay – spotting wildlife almost became a chore 😀.
Oh, and whale watching was never so easy. At sunset we would sometimes walk our chairs or a towel to the beach, beer in hand, and just stare at the horizon for a couple of minutes before a pod of whales would splash around, saying g’day on their way to the Dampier Peninsula. It’s ridiculous how easy it was to see whales from the shore here, almost unbelievable.
When you’ve explored places like Kings Canyon, Emma Gorge, Lawn Hill and Karijini, you get pretty snobby and selective about hiking. We often shared similar stories with other travellers, who agreed that we had all been spoilt with some of the most amazing scenery in the world in these places. So you start looking at gorges differently. What are we going to see different? Is there a swimming hole at the end? Is it really worth putting shoes on for?
We managed to work through these questions, realising we had few excuses not to explore Cape Range by land, especially as we were there for three weeks with no specific plans.
At the bottom end of the national park there’s a surprising gorge called Yardie, meaning ‘creek’. The neighbouring campsite is called Yardie Creek, or Creek Creek – dumb 🙈.
This is the only gorge in the park with water flowing through it, so we first explored it via boat tour. It was awesome. The dude who ran the show absolutely made it, as we coasted through the deepish gorge learning about the history of the area from a local legend, and spotted plenty of rock wallabies and bird life, hiding amongst the contrast of rocks.
This surprise gave us a taste so the following day we decided to hike along the edge of the gorge. This was also a ripper, with delicious views of the rocks, river and reef as the sensational backdrop. Our faith in hiking was partially restored, and it turns out you can be impressed post Karijini, Kings Canyon, and The Kimberley.
Mandu Mandu Gorge
The beginning of the Mandu Mandu walk was pretty hard going and quite boring to be honest. We were walking on a bunch of loose white rocks, surrounded by a marginally impressive gorge, leaving the reef out of view behind us.
But as we neared the middle and started to ascend sharply, things improved dramatically and we had ripping views of the national park and Ningaloo. It was pretty hairy in parts, which made it more interesting and adventurous. After this walk we agreed we were definitely gorged out for a while.
There are about a dozen campgrounds spread along the Cape Range coastline, spanning from Neds in the north to Yardie Creek in the south. Each campground offers anywhere from 5-40 sites, with no power or water, for a measly $22 per night. They are all a stone’s throw from the ocean, and collectively some of the best places we’ve stayed on the Wombatical.
Given we only booked a fortnight prior, we had to jump between camps every few days, which worked out well, as we were able to get a feel for what was unique about each site.
From each campground we based ourself for day-trips to beaches, gorges, or back to Exmouth to stock up on water, groceries and booze.
Jumping between sites helped us meet a plethora of amazing people. From the single old dude in his falling apart combi with a sticker on the back saying, ‘Jesus will save you’, to the beautiful recently retired couple, John and Belinda from Bunbury, who have invited us to catch up again when passing through, we shared many hours meeting, chatting and sharing sunsets with a few beers with legends from all walks of life.
Cole in one
Cape Range also gave us a chance to reacquaint with the Cole’s from Orange, whom we had run into numerous times since Lawn Hill, months prior. We last ran into them as we were leaving Broome and they were just arriving. There we exchanged details and had kept in touch assuming we would cross paths again around this part of the world.
We arranged to meet at Turquoise Bay and picked an absolute ripper of a day to do so. The sun was out, wind was down, and the water was ever clear. Liv and Sam resumed their playtime they kicked off in Broome; two only children getting on like siblings.
Having another couple with us also meant Loz and I could romantically snorkel together, while James and Brigette supervised Liv. It’s little things like these small moments of alone time that you really appreciate on a trip like this, where babysitters are much more than a simple text message away, as they are at home.
Snorkelling together was an absolute highlight of the trip, and it gave Loz a lot more confidence in the water, as highlighted by this video of when a Pilot Fish entered her orbit 😂.
Things were topped off with a Great Northern for lunch (delivered by a Brigette, what a legend!) and time sharing stories with this wonderful family whom we look forward to meeting up with again post-Perth.
Mandu we meet some nice people
We were also lucky enough to share our last few nights with another lovely family at North Mandu campground. Nicole and Michael Barrett immediately struck us as one of those couples you feel you need to befriend. Not only that, their daughter, Lucinda was the same age as Liv, and they decided as soon as they met that they were four so should therefore be best friends. Loz and Nicole then agreed they were both 32 so should follow suit 😀.
Nicole’s awesome parents, Ken and Kaye were also there, and Kaye made snacks fit for an army, of which I happily helped demolish for Happy Hour each day.
The Barrett’s, from Mackay in Queensland were lapping clockwise, so this was our only chance to cross paths with them on the trip. Ken and Kaye were heading in our direction, so we would likely see the, again (which we did).
Going out of Range
Before long our time at Cape Range had come to an end, and we were absolutely ready to leave. We came to laze on the beach, swim with turtles, play in the sand, and see as much wildlife as we could. Thankfully, we left with so much more than we came for.