West side story on Australia's Western Coast

Australia's Western Coast is pretty, but beyond the stunning scenery are adventures, sightings of prehistoric life, wildlife and beer

"Stick your butt out and twerk like Miley Cyrus!"

These are the last words I hear from the instructor before stepping off the cliff.

Arching my back in, I do my best booty pop and bounce my way down the crumbly rock, knowing that nothing more than a carabiner, a harness and some rope keep me from plunging 25m to the ground.

Nerves kick in instantly, but stealing a few glances around me, I find myself gasping and awash with a sense of calm.

Here I am, abseiling for the first time in the middle of Kalbarri National Park in Western Australia (www.kalbarriabseil.com) and the astoundingly beautiful view hits me in all its glory.

Never have I seen a valley so vast or rock formations so orange and marbled - nature's artwork wrought by centuries of oxidation, or "the world breathing", as our guide explains.

The writer (above) abseiling down a 25m cliff in Kalbarri National Park. The rocks are a rich orange hue from centuries of oxidation. ST PHOTO: YEO SAM JO


  • We fly Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) from Singapore to Perth and stay two nights at the Alex Hotel (alexhotel.com.au), a chic boutique hotel with 74 rooms and the tastiest freshly baked muffins for breakfast.

    The next three days, we drive more than 800km north along the Coral Coast.

    On the first day, we stop by Cervantes, Geraldton and finally Kalbarri, where we lodge at the Best Western Plus Kalbarri Edge Resort (www.kalbarriedge.com.au) for two nights.

    Then we continue the drive up to Shark Bay, stopping by Hamelin Pool and Shell Beach along the way and spending the night at the RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort (parksandresorts.rac.com.au/park/monkey-mia).

    The view of the waterfront sunset in front of my room makes me wish we could stay longer.

    The next day, we join a private four-wheel-drive tour into Francois Peron National Park, before catching a domestic Skippers Aviation flight (www.skippers.com.au) from Monkey Mia back to Perth, with a short layover in Carnarvon.

    Two more nights at the Holiday Inn Perth City Centre allow us to explore Fremantle over the weekend.

    For more information, check out www.westernaustralia.com and www.australiascoralcoast.com.

  • TIPS

    • The Coral Coast enjoys a warm climate year-round, but our guide Suzanne Fisher recommends swinging by between March and November, when both the weather and scenery are beautiful. "Don't worry about the winters," she says. "They are not wet and rainy - call it our endless summer." In April, temperatures in the region are an average high of 28.3 deg C and average low of 18.8 deg C.

    • If you fancy colourful flora, visit from June to November, when Western Australia is blanketed with kaleidoscopic carpets of pink and white everlastings, red and orange copper cups, purple mulla mulla and other vibrant blooms. The world's largest collection of wildflowers starts blooming at around June up north and, by September, you can expect them further south in places such as Geraldton and Perth. Admire all you want, but curb the urge to pluck them as it is against the law to pick these wildflowers.

    • Hungry after a whole morning in the Pinnacles desert? Take a short drive to the Lobster Shack in Cervantes (www.lobstershack.com.au) for a hearty bite of western rock lobster, or "yabby" in local speak. While waiting for your lunch, pop by the adjacent lobster factory and learn how these crustaceans are farmed sustainably - undersized and fertile females, for instance, are returned to the ocean. Here, you can tuck in without the guilt.

    • While the weather feels comfortable, the sun can be unforgiving. Some in our group found themselves as red as the lobsters we had for lunch. So slap on plenty of sunscreen and wear a hat when you are headed outdoors, especially between 10am and 3pm. If you are going quad biking, take along a handkerchief or bandana. The activity kicks up a lot of dust especially when you are riding in a group, so a simple cloth around your face will spare you from choking while you are gawking at the surroundings.

    • Be alert when you are driving. Watch out for kangaroos, cows and other wildstock that often wander onto the roads. Going into Francois Peron National Park is a bumpy adventure that requires a high clearance four-wheel-drive and experience traversing on soft sand. To avoid getting stranded in the 52,500ha park, hire a guide to take you in. Do not forget your binoculars to snag a closer peek at the dolphins, rays, turtles and sharks that cruise below the lookouts.

As I resume my descent in the sun-dappled gorge, hearing nothing but my sneakers crunching against the rock and the occasional flapping of pink-grey galahs, or rose-breasted cockatoos, I feel especially small.

Small because I am just one man with a helmet, suspended in a space that was once ocean, where ancient sea scorpions longer than 2m roamed more than 400 million years ago.

Small because I am literally no more than a speck in the park's 186,000ha expanse, a transient visitor in awe of nature's breathtaking perpetuity.


Pot Alley Beach (above) near the Red Bluff lookout in Kalbarri National Park. ST PHOTO: YEO SAM JO

To say that Western Australia is pretty is an understatement.

At almost every turn of our week-long visit to the Coral Coast (www.australiascoralcoast.com), spanning 1,100km from Cervantes in the south to Exmouth in the north, we constantly find ourselves spellbound by the views - at once prehistoric and picturesque.

Driving north from Perth on a clement April day, we get our first crash course in natural history at The Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/nambung).

Peculiar yellow spires protruding from the sand greet us as we step out of the van. Once underwater, these limestone pillars, standing as tall as 3.6m, are actually compacted seashells and sand formed 25,000 to 30,000 years ago.

"Think of it as a reef that exists above the water," says our spirited guide Suzanne Fisher, who grew up in Western Australia.

With their uneven, alien-like terrain, the Pinnacles are popular with tourists especially at night, when the jagged, rocky landscape resembles the moon's complexion.

Native animals sometimes swing by in search of a good meal - kangaroos hop around in search of shrubs and wildflowers, and emus can often be seen foraging for lizards and insects.

We humans, on the other hand, hunt down the Dog and Shark's Fin - quirky sculptures etched out by erosion and the elements.

Even as we snap photos, it becomes clear that the real art lies not in our creative poses, but in nature itself.

The next day, we perch on Nature's Window in Kalbarri National Park - a hole in the rock overlooking the murky, meandering Murchison River (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/kalbarri) - every bit an Instagrammer's dream .

What a view, we say - the kind of no-filter beauty you see only on postcards and travel blogs.

We echo the sentiment just minutes later, while hiking to the Red Bluff lookout in the same park.

The wind is powerful as we trudge up to 100m above sea level and find ourselves gripping onto our sunglasses and phones, slightly relieved that our hair, however windswept, was not going to go anywhere.

The gust battle proves worthwhile, as we look out over the cliff and observe the vivid blue Indian Ocean waves breaking against the rust-red rocks.

Even with the wind howling around us, there is a sense of peace and I am reminded of that Carpenters' song about being on top of the world and looking down on creation. Surely this is one of those moments, I think to myself.

Little wonder then, that more than 100,000 visitors from Singapore visited Western Australia last year.


Occupying a third of the Australian continent, Western Australia is home to thousands of animal species, so one does not have to look very far to spot some.

As we zip around on quad bikes in Kalbarri, kangaroos dart around the banksia bushes as goats graze lazily on the shrubs, occasionally pausing to glance at our moving vehicles (www.kalbarriquadsafaris.com.au).

Cute as they look, goats are not native in these parts and are even considered by some to be vermin.

"They eat anything and everything," our quad bike tour leader, Ms Ellen Nightingale, tells us.

Our route along the pastoral lease land is bumpy, but such is the rugged thrill that comes with quad biking for the first time.

We ride for an hour and a half, although it feels shorter and, like children on a roller coaster, we don't want it to end.

Perhaps we are charmed by the rustic beauty of the sun glowing along the placid Murchison or the homemade cookies Ms Nightingale has prepared for us.

Or maybe it is the laid-back mood that Western Australia has lulled us into. So laid-back, our driver Jason Woodthorpe reveals, that east-siders sometimes joke that the initials of Western Australia stand for "wait awhile".

The next morning, we find ourselves crowding by the Kalbarri foreshore with at least 100 children and their parents, craning our necks for some special guests: pelicans.

Preening pelicans (above) by the shore. ST PHOTO: YEO SAM JO

A lone female shows up this time, young and undoubtedly hungry.

Grabbing a fish from a bucket, I dangle it in front of her. She waddles towards me cautiously, then, without warning, snaps up the catch with her long bill.

The serrated edges of her beak nip the side of my finger, but I am too thrilled to mind. It's not everyday that you get to feed a pelican.

Later in the day, we drive up to Shark Bay (www.sharkbay.org), Western Australia's first Unesco World Heritage Site.

It is known for its zoological diversity that includes dugongs and dolphins and some believe the area was named after English explorer William Dampier, who mistook the bottlenose dolphins there for sharks.

It is feeding hour at the open-air lagoon in the Ocean Park Aquarium (oceanpark.com.au) and circling beneath us are sharks of different sizes and names: tiger, whaler, nurser and even lemon - named for a yellow tinge which helps them camouflage themselves on the shallow, sandy sea floor.

Our aquarium guide surprises us with a slew of trivia about sea creatures. We find out that most fish, including barramundi and clownfish, are sequential hermaphrodites - all of them are born male, but become female as they grow older.

We also learn that the Shark Bay sea snake is one of the most venomous in the world, and a sting from a stone fish is possibly the most excruciating pain one can experience.

The next day in Monkey Mia, we marvel at the wild bottlenose dolphins that swim close to the beach for a fishy breakfast, but are warned not to overfeed them lest they become reliant on human handouts.

Over at Francois Peron National Park (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/francois-peron), the sea around the Peron Peninsula teems with more wildlife, best observed from lookout points such as Cape Peron and Skipjack Point.

Every now and then, we spot splashes of white on the cerulean expanse.

"Those are tuna," our park guide Ralf Jearhling declares. "You can tell from the size of their splash."

We nod in amazement, wishing we had brought binoculars.

But our naked eyes were more than sharp enough to see gulps of black cormorants lined up along the shoreline with their typical majestic poise and the green turtles and manta rays bobbing beneath the waves, oblivious to our curious gazes.


Shell Beach is made entirely of shells (above), which are surprisingly comfortable to lie on. ST PHOTO: YEO SAM JO

Some of the most impressive wildlife are not those that can swim, fly or even hop, we discover.

At the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve in Shark Bay (parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/hamelin-pool), we encounter an unusual organism - stromatolites.

Older than dinosaurs, these unassuming rock-like mounds, a combination of algae, sediment and sand, were the first living beings on Earth to produce oxygen about 3.5 billion years ago.

What looks like soap suds on the water surface are actually oxygen bubbles which gather as white foam.

Observing these ancient creatures at work is surreal, as if we are transported back in time to meet our evolutionary ancestors.

At Shell Beach, we lounge and sunbathe not on sand, but on the shells of dead fragum cockles.

This may not sound like an appetising experience, yet the shells are so smooth, tiny (smaller than a fingernail) and dense (about 4,000 of them in one square metre), they make a comfortable bed and I cannot resist running my fingers and toes through them.

Hypersaline water, twice as salty as normal sea water, allows us to float around like carefree souls, but we also leave the beach more seasoned than a pack of chips.

By the end of the week, we have a newfound appreciation for nature's mysterious ways - ways that not only predate our existence and take our breaths away, but also deserve our respect.

I am reminded of this at Hutt Lagoon, near the town of Port Gregory, where we make a pitstop at sundown.

Hutt Lagoon (above), a pink salt lake, gets its colour from pigment produced by bacteria in the lake. ST PHOTO: YEO SAM JO

The "Pink Lake" is an unbelievably soothing hue of orange-pink, thanks to the twilight glow and beta-carotene pigment produced by bacteria trapped in the lake's salt granules. Depending on the time, season and weather, the lake can also turn red or purple.

It is low tide and, bewitched by the rosy scene, I dash out onto the lake bed for a closer peek.

"Squelch!" I hear, as my legs suddenly freeze. I try to take another step, but it is too late - I am already knee-deep in the lake, where the carpet of pink crystals had given way to squishy grey mud.

Several dark holes around me suggest that others must have met the same sinking fate. As my companions yank me out of my quagmire, our shock thaws into laughter.

That night, as I wash the salty mud off my jeans and sneakers, I cannot help but marvel at my time in Western Australia - sometimes unpredictable, often laid-back, always beautiful and definitely unforgettable.

• The writer's trip was sponsored by Tourism Western Australia.

Segs and the city

The courtyard of Moore & Moore Cafe in Fremantle. The cafe is next to an art space and gallery. ST PHOTO: YEO SAM JO

While most of this trip is spent frolicking in nature, we find time to bookend it with a couple of days in the city.

On our first day, we traipse through Perth's Elizabeth Quay (www.visitperthcity.com/see-do/elizabeth-quay) - a family-friendly hotchpotch of hot dogs, carousels, seagulls and quirky, larger-than-life artwork such as the Spanda (or "divine vibration" in Sanskrit).

The concentric loops of this 29m-tall sculpture by local artist Christian de Vietri may have been inspired by rippling water and the connection between the individual and the universal, but to imaginative, trigger-happy visitors, they resemble anything from onion rings to bunny ears.

Over at Kings Park (www.bgpa.wa.gov.au), we take in panoramic views of the city and Swan River, named after the black swans we spy on the water.

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to capture a giant boab tree on my camera without cropping any of its majestic 14m by 8m frame.

Some inexplicable force draws me to the Gija Jumulu - perhaps because the tree is estimated to be about 750 years old. Or maybe I am just awed that it had actually survived a 3,200km transplant from Kimberley in 2008, making way for highway works.

Either way, it is a score for conservation that delights me.

We while away our last full day in Fremantle (www.visitfremantle.com.au), about a half-hour drive from Perth, wolfing down breakfast in the sun-kissed courtyard of Moore & Moore Cafe, convinced that the salted caramel pancakes with blueberries and dirty chai latte with chocolate are to die for.

After checking out the quaint artwork in the gallery next door, we embark on a Segway tour (www.segwaytourswa.com.au) through the bustling port city of "Freo", as the locals call it.

It's not long before we find ourselves addicted to these wheeled contraptions, navigating the hilly terrain with speed, ease and a constant breeze in our faces.

Geared up in luminous vests and helmets, we effortlessly zip past psychedelic murals, curious passers-by (to whom we gleefully extend a royal wave) and numerous attractions such as the Fremantle Prison (fremantleprison.com.au), a world heritage building that was once a maximum security gaol, and the Fremantle Markets (www.fremantlemarkets.com.au), where we indulge in an overdue dose of souvenir shopping.

After a leisurely lunch at the Little Creatures restaurant and brewery (www.littlecreatures.com.au), which once housed both racing yachts and crocodiles, we ditch dessert and save our appetites for a tour that promises a sampling of its world-renowned craft beers.

Before seeing tall fermentation tanks that can churn out tens of thousands of litres a day, we are introduced to the essential ingredients: water, barley malts, hops, and last but not least, yeast - the so-called "little creatures" that convert sugars in the brew into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

I geek out on the science behind it, but of course, my favourite part is the tasting.

My soft spot for darker beer doesn't stop me from relishing the lighter, hoppy notes of the pilsners and ales, especially on a sunbaked Saturday.

I appreciate the beverage even more after a trip to the restroom, when I am carded upon re-entry by a vigilant employee who is surprised that I am already a decade past the legal drinking age.

We leave the brewery buzzed by a day well-spent and, distracted by the novelty of our surroundings, end up missing our ferry back to Perth from Victoria Quay.

"It's not rice every day," quips one of my travel companions, who says that every time something doesn't go as planned.

He is right, I think, as we board the train instead. It may not be rice today, but everything else more than made up for it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'West side story'. Print Edition | Subscribe