Ripples on the Reef

Words and photos by Carlisle Rogers

Stay in a private campsite by the sea at Ningaloo Station.

Sitting at the western shin of the North West Cape, Ningaloo Station is the perfect alternative to Cape Range National Park for people who want to experience the reef and still have a campfire. After all, the fish don’t know the difference between where the national park begins and ends, and here you can camp for cheaper, right on the water, than you can anywhere in Cape Range NP.
There are absolutely no services at Ningaloo Station, so you have to have a chemical toilet if you are going to camp here. If you don’t have one, you can hire one from the office.

Top to bottom: Craig negotiates the track out to Ningaloo Station, a sandy wasteland after recent bushfires.
Inside the lighthouse - only birds call this place home now.

Vital Stats:
Ningaloo Station is 1300km north of Perth, (08) 9942 5936,
Camping costs $20/person/week, campers must be completely self-sufficient.

Because of the ridiculously low camping fees, $20 per person, per week, the long term inhabitants are well established. We drove past camps that were more like encampments, with minor sand dunes piling up against ancient caravans, their decals long since faded or peeled away. It reminds me of what this coast would look like after a nuclear war, with whole families setting up gypsy camps along the beach.
South of the homestead is Jane’s Bay campsite, which faces south towards the limestone cliffs of Gnaraloo and Red Bluff. North along the coast there are four more locked gates granting access to separate camping areas. When you check in, you get a set of keys and a campsite number, so that everyone has their own space, with access to the water. Winderabandi Point is the last campsite before you hit the southern border of Cape Range National Park, which abuts the property.
If you keep driving up Yardie Creek Road, you’ll cross Yardie Creek and enter the national park.
Ningaloo Reef is one of the closest reefs to the beach anywhere in the world. Along the dunes at Ningaloo Station you can see the dark bands of coral, sometimes a mere hundred metres away from the white sand of the beach. Rays, tropical fish, sea turtles and dolphins call this place home, and you can literally step into the water, swim a few metres and be among all of that natural beauty. That this place hasn’t been developed into high rises is more a testament to its relative remoteness than to human nature. It is still a healthy haul to get into Ningaloo Station from any major city in Australia, and even most of the minor ones.
The ocean water is calm here. While waves break in the distance on the outer edge of the reef, the clear blue water gently laps at the sand. Here and there, small jets of water spout out of the snorkels of budgie-smuggler-clad retirees, but mainly the water is empty.
My guess is that most of the people here are waiting patiently for whatever comes next. The occasional fishing trip keeps them in fresh food, but otherwise the place is eerily quiet, all along the waterfront. A $100 bond ensures that people behave themselves while they are staying here, too. Any crazy antics are instantly  reported by the long termers that stay here for months. It sounds strange, but it works. There is no litter, no loud music and no ‘unruly behaviour’ at any of the campsites at Ningaloo Station. It’s the perfect place to bring the kids, too, because the water is so shallow and calm.

They don’t build things like they used to. The old Point Cloates lighthouse overlooking the homestead when you first pull into Ningaloo is in worse repair than most of the ruins of ancient Greece. Built in 1910, it operated
until 1933 under the supervision of two lighthouse keepers and their families. After that, it was automated for a couple of years before being badly damaged, possibly by an earthquake. Now, it is nothing more than an aviary and a crumbling reminder of the nautical history of this area. By the time my kids are old enough to come visit, there will probably be nothing left except a dense pile of rubble.
Further north at Norwegian Bay, the ruins of a Whaling Station can still be found along the beach. From 1915 to 1957 this station, which lies right along the major migratory route of many species of whales heading south to Antarctica, was extremely successful.
That there are any whales left is a miracle of survival, and global populations are only now beginning to  recovery from nearly a century of intense and brutal hunting. Nowadays, the whaling station consists of a few
derelict rusty contraptions, blood-coloured reminders of the dark work that was done here for so many years.
If you would like to visit the ruins, you have to check in at the Ningaloo homestead and obtain a key for the gate.

We pulled in after dark, negotiating six gates in roughly as many kilometres. I joked over the UHF that there were an awful lot of gates here. Craig replied, “farmers love gates, mate.”
When we met Phil Kendrick the next morning, who manages the property, he shook our hands and said, without an ounce of irony, “We’re pastoralists, not farmers.” Later on, when Craig’s tyres ran off the track, a figure in a camo desert hat with the flaps pulled tight around his face, so that only the glow of his eyes emerged, pulled up and shook his head, muttering, “He’s not going to like that.”
And I can’t blame Phil for running the place so strictly. Any attempt to quell the wanton destruction of this beautiful part of the country by irresponsible tourists can’t be a bad thing. And yet, there is something empty in it all. When you visit a countryside where rabbits and foxes have been let loose by pastoralists for hunting, where sheep populations far greater than this land could ever sustainably support have decimated entire species of plant life, chewing grasses down to the roots, where cloven hooved animals like cattle, wild boar, sheep and wild goats have torn the landscape up and trampled the ecosystem to within inches of its life, completely redefining the Australian landscape, it is hard to take these people seriously when they talk about sustainability, and how 4WDs are the source of ecological damage.
Phil has been fervently fighting against the government declaring the band of coastline that fringes the Ningaloo Reef a World Heritage Area. That band would cut off access to the coast along the reef, rendering it less valuable for tourism, and potentially tying up management of the area in a lot of red tape.
So far, he has been successful in slowing down the Heritage listing process, but governments last longer than men, and eventually CALM will get their hands on this bit of coastline. And what will happen then? 4WDers will still be vilified, with bollards everywhere and signs saying ‘this area is being revegetated’. But, in their bad aim, they will mistakenly be hitting at the force that buggered the landscape in the first place: hooved livestock and the pastoralists that raise them here and sell them overseas.