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It was my first visit to Australia. I’d been Down Under for roughly 48 hours and had yet to see a kangaroo. While that’s the norm when staying in Perth, I was assured the drought would end as I flew from Western Australia’s capital to Exmouth. Established in 1967 as a U.S. Naval Base, Exmouth links the craggy expanses of Cape Range National Park with the crystal-clear waters of Ningaloo Marine Park to the south.
The Top of the Range Safari includes a visit to Yardie Creek.
Eager for an eco-trek, I opted for Ningaloo Safari Tours’ Top of the Range Safari, a full-day journey operated in four-wheel-drive, 13-passenger Oka vehicles. Manufactured in Perth, these rugged rides are well designed to tackle the outback’s harsh conditions with the added benefits of spacious seating and air conditioning.
The 124,000-acre cape resembles a treeless moonscape where a multitude of termite mounds march toward the horizon. Mind you, these mounds are nothing like the ones at home — they tower at eye level or higher. Even more dominant — to my pleasant surprise — were the throngs of kangaroos that crisscrossed our path as the day cooled down.
Our naturalist and tour guide, Kim Mackay shared a wealth of information as we meandered through Shot Hole Canyon en route to the sprawling scenery of Charles Knife Gorge. According to Mackay, who chose to remain barefoot for the duration of the tour, the region was once an underwater seabed.
"The ancient reef here shows an amazing history of the evolution of life," said Mackay. "Many of the fauna and flora species you’ll see are endemic."
During a photo stop, Mackay began a ritual he would repeat as often as possible — teatime. He boiled water on a portable stove, let us graze the tea selections and indulged us with cookies and cakes. It was never a rushed process, and it always seemed to happen at just the right time.
For me, the adventure just kept becoming more palatable. Mackay impressed us with a hearty lunch spread he prepped while we refreshed ourselves in the brisk turquoise water of Osprey Bay. Full and tired, we were off for Yardie Creek to cruise into a dramatically etched gorge lined with sheer red limestone cliffs.
It was here that my highly anticipated wildlife quest delivered in textbook style. Separated from the Indian Ocean by a sandbar, this semi-tropical area teemed with dozens of timid, black-footed rock wallabies blissfully sunning themselves on the rocks as giant Osprey nested above.
From this colorful eco-system, we stopped at another that was equally vibrant. After a spot of tea, it was time to snorkel in the clear tropical waters of Ningaloo Marine Park.
"This is one of the best developed fringing reefs in the world at [124 miles] long," said Mackay. "It’s actually one of the rare places on earth where you can walk from the beach straight onto a coral reef."
The preserve is rich, home to more than 500 species of tropical fish, 250 species of coral and 600 species of mollusks. After an hour or so of gliding shoulder to fin with damselfish, wrasse, angelfish, groper and parrotfish, we exited the water to warm up with dry towels and tea, naturally. It was a wonderful way to end the journey.
"We encourage travelers to do our tour when they first arrive in Exmouth," said Teresa Mongan, who co-directs Ningaloo Safari Tours with her husband. "This way, they get to see everything in one day and then have time to go back to their favorite places during their stay."
With an outback and sea experience under my belt, I felt as if I had tapped into the spirit of vast, unspoiled Western Australia. And it was just enough to lure me back for more.