Our film (have you seen it yet?) explores the best of Western Australia, soaking up the unique culture of Perth, the once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters on Rottnest Island, the beauty of Exmouth and the spellbinding experiences you too can have in Ningaloo. Our colleague Samantha Palmer experienced it all, whilst overseeing the production of the film. Here’s her story.
Not many people get to put ‘swimming with whale sharks’ down as a career highlight.
Never have I been more excited to go to work. Western Australia is bucket list stuff for most people, but to experience it through the eyes of local chefs, photographers and Aboriginal people was downright extraordinary.
We flew over with Qatar Airways – the service was over and above what I expected in Economy class. The crew were really smiley and eager to help, and I love nothing more than watching a movie while being fed so I genuinely enjoyed the flight. A quick stopover in Doha was actually quite refreshing, a chance to stretch the legs and get ready to relax once again for the final leg into Perth.
Perth & Kings Park with Walter
Our first morning in Perth / Boorloo prepared me for the reality of my role as producer on this trip; carry the bags. The glamour! We caught the Blue CAT Bus to Kings Park and met the legendary Walter, our Noongar guide and his wife Meg. Together they run the award-winning Go Cultural Aboriginal Tours and Experiences.
Walter was an incredible storyteller. We walked through ‘Kaarta Koomba’ (the Noongar name for Kings Park) and learnt of the hill’s intriguing past and its spiritual significance to Perth’s Noongar people. Stories are integral to the Noongar people’s history and traditions – and listening to him with the backdrop of the whole Peth skyline was quite emotional. We got so involved in the history, traditions (and singing!) with Walter, that we didn’t see as much of the Botanical Gardens as I’d have liked (with its casual 3,000 species of the State’s unique flora), but you can instantly feel that biological diversity isn’t just a buzz word around here. It was our first small taste of the incredible variety of wildlife that kept surprising us at every turn in Western Australia.
I’d highly recommend starting any Western Australia trip with a Go Cultural Aboriginal Tour because it gave us the context for the dual naming (everywhere in WA displays the Noongar name as well as the modern name for a place) and a sense of deep cultural significance.
Don’t be thinking that Walter is stuck in the past though, see below for the world’s best picture, which he has clearly perfected over many years on group trips and I cannot commend him enough for.
Downtown Perth with Adie
I know what you’re thinking, Walter is a hard act to follow, and you’re right.
A born and bred Perth art enthusiast and all-around socialite, Adie formed her own walking tour company – “Oh Hey WA!” – eight years ago. I have never met anyone with more energy and positivity – she basically breathes air into your lungs from the moment you meet her. Adie led us through cute laneways, knew loads about the street art (murals are a real thing in this city), and treated us to a fabulous lunch at Espresso and Prosecco – which opened that week as the only al fresco eatery on the Hay St mall.
Oh Hey WA is TripAdvisor’s #1 Perth Tour for good reason – it’s informative but informal and she has quirky stories about the history, architecture, nightlife and new developments. We wouldn’t have found much of what she showed us on our own, definitely meet up with Adie or one of her guides when you visit Perth.
The State Buildings
The State Buildings are the newly restored heritage precinct of the city. What was the municipal centre is now Perth’s vibrant social hub with dining, bars and local artisan shops. We were lucky enough to bag ourselves an hour with the most famous of these, Sue Lewis Chocolatier, for some serious lessons in “proper” chocolate. Sue creates fresh, handmade chocolates using the world’s finest ethically-sourced couvertures blended with local, seasonal and often organic produce. She makes her creations on-site and I very much enjoyed watching her put Liam’s Cornish baking skills to the test in her kitchen. Did you know chocolate should be ‘tempered’? Me neither, but wow it makes a difference! Alongside a few tasters in the shop, Sue kindly gave us six chocolate frogs (the simple name chocolate frog hugely downplays the quality here) which barely made it out of the shop before being devoured by the crew.
The remainder of that day was more fuel for the stomach at Beer Corner and Long Chim restaurant where Liam got to taste all sorts. Look closely and you’ll find me happily in the background of those shots, still scoffing at the chocolate frogs (well actually you won’t, because “Sam can you move out of the way” had been abbreviated to just “Sam”, and I knew my place by now).
Rottnest Island Tour
From Fremantle, we took a mere 30-minute ferry to what felt like an entire world away from the city – Rottnest Island. I had seen a lot of pictures of Rottnest before but wasn’t prepared for the untouched beauty of this A-class reserve. There are no cars allowed so bikes are the transport of choice to explore the 63 bays and 20 beaches. Yep, 83 places to swim, snorkel, fish and see coral/marine life.
We met up with Russell Blaikie who is quite the celebrity as Food Director at the Prendiville Group, a WA owned family business. He started us off with the infamous ‘Rotto Meat Pie’ from the bakery. I asked Liam if it beat the Cornish pasties that he makes at home, but we were interrupted by a quokka hopping up to say hi. Quokkas…everywhere! They are as cute, if not more so, than in the pictures. Often referred to as the world’s happiest animal these furry little creatures are hard to peel yourself away from.
We watched Russell and Liam fish at City of Yorke beach (named after a shipwreck – there are a lot of shipwrecks around WA and they’re so shallow in the reefs that you can still snorkel around most of them, very cool). It was so picturesque that the crew down-tooled to take it all in – a very tranquil moment until Tijl caught a massive fish and we didn’t know what to do with it! After much commotion (a mix of pride for Tijl but also confusion and fear on the fish’s behalf) Russell saved the little guy and put him back in the ocean.
We spent the rest of the day exploring beaches (Henrietta Bay, Parker Point and Salmon Bay). Being guided meant we saw the best of the island in our limited time, but I would love to go back to Rottnest to 1) stay on the island for a long weekend and 2) skydive over it. Imagine seeing 63 bays and 20 beaches from above.
Russell rounded off our day with a show-stopping meal at his restaurant – one of two on the island – Lontara – a rich southeast Asian menu, predominantly inspired by Russell’s many surfing holidays (with a very real focus on spice!). The menu changes all the time but the Albany beef rib, watermelon salad and Ajwaini fish tikka were real highlights.
We were there to see the wildlife and talk about food, but could we stop Russell and Liam waxing on about surfing? No, we could not. I learnt a lot that day about the anatomy of waves, swell and ‘dropping in’.
Heading north to Exmouth
Meeting Brooke in Exmouth was the main event for our trip so we were chomping at the bit to get there. Exmouth is on the North West Cape of WA and is the gateway to Ningaloo, the world’s longest fringing reef. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what that was either – it basically means that the reef grows directly from the shoreline so there’s no dive equipment required, you’re at one with all sorts of marine life and coral right from the beach.
We met up with Brooke and her boyfriend Ollie Clarke (another insanely talented photographer) and they drove us to Charles Knife Canyon – about 30 mins from town – for sunset. This is the unexpected thing that I found about Western Australia – it takes a long time to get there (no getting away from that), but once you’re there – all of these other worlds are so accessible from each ‘gateway’, meaning you can see so much in a short trip. I had assumed we’d spend 10 hours a day driving to and from places – nope – one short car ride and there we were, staring down the mouth of a canyon the size of which I still can’t even comprehend (13km long and 20km wide).
Liam, Brooke, Ollie and the crew had a ball shooting as the sun went down and the light got more and more dramatic. I have no talent in this area so I simply sat on top of the gorge contemplating my place in the universe. Big things will do that to you.
Over dinner, we continued chatting with them about life in Ningaloo and what the ocean means to them. Both are extremely well-travelled and lived in Bali before moving to Exmouth, but this place is hard to beat if you’re passionate about marine life. They were telling us about their upcoming weekend trip to Coral Bay to camp in the open for three days (admittedly because their apartment was being fumigated from ants but still, what a life!).
Our planned excursion the next day wasn’t until 9am – and one thing I found out about photographers is that their lives revolve around ‘decent light’ so instead of waiting until the sun was up, we met at 5am at a completely secluded beach covered in sand dunes to greet the sun and take some snaps.
Watching this footage back is a bit “Instagram vs reality” for me. The footage of dozens of huge turtles just metres from us on the beach, floating/casually mating in the clear water looks almost photoshopped. There are SO many turtles. The reality is that I was standing on the beach in very strong winds looking out at the ocean, seeing one or two which also looked quite a lot like a rock. You really need to know not just where, but how to look at those turtles – and it turns out proper camera lenses and drones change everything. My untrained eyes which stare at a computer all day couldn’t unravel the complexity of the water and spot those little heads just millimetres under the water’s surface. It still felt really peaceful just being among them though, and when you’re used to spending mornings cleaning Weetabix off the kitchen walls while answering emails, a walk up and down an empty beach for two hours in utter bliss is a pretty perfect way to start the day.
We headed back to our resort (Exmouth Escape – lovely modern villas) for breakfast and grabbed our snorkels for the 9 am start with Ningaloo Safari Tours. The owner and guide Dave took us on his boat through Yardie Creek where we saw Ospreys and Wallabies hanging out in the limestone. We drove around the National park then had lunch and went snorkelling at a turquoise lagoon.
Big Dave took us on his boat through Yardie Creek where we saw Ospreys and Wallabies hanging out in the limestone. We drove around the National park then had lunch and went snorkelling at a turquoise lagoon.
Normal people would have ended that jam-packed day there but we didn’t want to waste any time on our trip. Tourism WA had thoughtfully planned various times for us to ‘reset’ and every time we just used these to see more. We drove to Turquoise Bay and had it all to ourselves – just another wildly perfect beach with ocean shades of blue I’ve never seen before. Bliss.
Less than 24 hours in Exmouth and we were all making plans to move out there. This was exacerbated by a few beers and delicious pizza in the Whalebone brewery where we bumped into various (lovely) people we’d already met (the bakery manager, the receptionist at our resort, the shop assistant from where we bought snorkels on the first day). With a population of 2,500, in Exmouth everyone knows everyone, a bit like a small university, the difference being that everyone is beautiful, friendly, free-spirited and environmentally conscious.
The big day – swimming with whale sharks…
This was it. The day we’d been waiting for. BOAT DAY..BIG FISH DAY. Everyone that we had spoken to the night before had repeatedly told us that we were unlikely to see any big fish, let alone Whale Sharks, with the wind as it was that week.
I’m convinced that it was Jop & Tijl’s emphatic positivity which brought us good luck that day. Look at these guys…so ready to meet the big fish! These are technically called ‘megafauna’ but “big fish” (said like an excited toddler) just stuck for us.
Usually, Live Ningaloo boat takes a group of 10 people on swimming tours to find marine life but we had the skipper (and owner) Murray, Brooke and Ollie all to ourselves. Live Ningaloo is one of many boat tours on the reef but they specialise in smaller tours and really aim to spark your mind about conservation. It was out of season so it was unlikely we’d see any whales or whale sharks, but Murray had the best spotter pilot in the air scouting the ocean, and we’d have a great morning regardless.
Wetsuits, snorkels and flippers on, we started by snorkelling on the Reef among coral, molluscs and tropical fish. Brooke was so graceful and I tried to match her mermaid-like flowing through the water – it turns out she has the Ferrari equivalent of flippers so that made my jerky attempts less embarrassing. I kept thinking “how funny that this is an average day for these people. Look at the insane colours and all these fish, who cares if we don’t see any more!”. So while Brooke, Ollie and the guys were trying to get the right light and angle to capture the coral and fish around them, I just floated silently above. Captured here by Brooke:
The sandy floor looked still but then it started moving and two stingrays emerged from the bottom, gliding through the sand – camouflaged perfectly, about 1.5 metres long each. Wild.
Out of nowhere, Brooke started motioning us back to the boat. There was an unfamiliar urgency in her voice – three separate whale sharks had been spotted about a 20-minute boat ride away, and we were off to find them!
Even though this was exactly what we wanted to do, I wondered if my nerves would start to creep up on me as Brooke gave us the briefing on how to swim with a whale shark. I definitely would have been more nervous if the instructions weren’t given using a stuffed whale shark teddy, which made the whole thing bizarrely hilarious. I love Australians, everything is just ‘chill’ – even a hardcore safety briefing like this. We were told how to line up appropriately in the water, keep our heads up and wait for their signals (back, forward, wait, head down) – then SWIM, as they can be really fast. That first bit of lining up and watching their signals was surreal. I knew that I was almost within touching distance of a ginormous animal but couldn’t yet see it – it was such a weird feeling – the air and water around me felt charged. ‘Head down’ – and you didn’t need to tell us twice. There it was, bang in front of us.
They look so big and heavy but move so slowly, so docile, and the silence under the water makes it all the more dramatic yet peaceful.
This first whale shark took about thirty seconds to decide that it didn’t like the look of us, and it dove deep pretty quickly, as did the second, so a lot was riding on our sighting of the third. As we boated over, the excess of sea water I’d inhaled (rookie) and sea sickness combo meant I was feeling very sick. With ‘Do NOT vomit in the reef’ as my mantra I soldiered on (diddums), and the next friendly Whale Shark was all the distraction I needed. She loved us! This female didn’t even swim, let alone dive deep to get away from us – she was happily just chilling with us, barely moving. We got to take in all her beauty – her back and sides were grey/brown with white spots among pale vertical and horizontal stripes. There’s a strict 3-metre rule for protecting the megafauna and at points, I had to try and actively swim away from her in case I got too close. She didn’t care for the safety briefing, she was here to play.
I don’t even know how long we spent with her, time doesn’t feel linear when you’re in the presence of something so massive, but it was a humbling experience and a privilege indeed.
We had one last sunset beach evening planned before heading home and spent most of it wondering if we could find a way to all make a living here. What I had assumed might be a whirlwind trip actually felt like one epic adventurous holiday. I had read the itinerary but nothing could’ve prepared me for the experience – falling over wildlife (quite literally in Rottnest), such extraordinary landscapes and meeting so many vibrant characters (human and animal). We saw, enjoyed (and ate) an unbelievable amount in just seven days – if it’s not on your list for 2023, add it now.
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