From rugged islands to lobster lairs and the best wildflowers in bloom, Western Australia's Coral Coast is sharing its secrets, writes Kerry van der Jagt.
THE service is impeccable, the view divine. The waiter opens the bottle before setting it down on the handcrafted table. He pulls out my chair, gives it a flamboyant dust and makes sure I am comfortable. Within minutes, the chef appears with a platter of freshly cooked lobster. The sun strikes the frosty glass as I clink beer bottle to beer bottle with Coota, Stevo and Russ; a toast to island life.
Coota is a rock-lobster fisherman, surfer, diver and shell collector. He is bare-chested, his unruly mop of sun-bleached hair held in place by a threadbare cap, his arms bronzed and sculpted from 30 years of pulling crays. "We live like kings out here," he says as he hands around the tray.
We load buttered bread rolls with the lobster meat, great chunks dribbling from the sides as we gorge ourselves on the succulent flesh. This is how lobster is meant to be eaten: on the beach, at sunset, around a table made of driftwood and shells, with a bunch of salty sea dogs for company.
Our charter boat is moored at Coota's camp on Rat Island in the remote Houtman Abrolhos Islands, some 60 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australia. It is the golden hour and the setting sun casts its ambient rays on the brightly coloured fibro shacks, their jetties stretching out across the turquoise water like burnished threads stitching the island to the sea.
The archipelago is composed of 122 islands, 22 of which are occupied by fishermen during the West Australian rock-lobster season, which runs from March 15 to August 31. Visitors can only come ashore on the inhabited islands by personal invitation but luckily for our small charter group, our skipper lived on Rat Island for 20 years and Coota welcomes us as friends.
Given recent changes to the lobster quota system, some fishermen are pursuing alternative ways to make an income through nature-based tourism. I've signed on for a three-day eco-charter with former lobster fisherman Jay Cox aboard his fishing boat, Rat Patrol, a 60-foot aluminium vessel with four airconditioned cabins capable of sleeping 10 in simple bunk-bed style.
Over the next few days our crew of three, plus skipper Cox and deckhand Ant, cruise to Wooded Island, a predator-free haven for more than 40 species of seabirds; explore Leo Island, with its sea lions and massive central lake; and snorkel at the Anemone Hole, one of the top-10 dive spots in Australia. We spend hours at Morley Island, drift snorkelling over colourful sponge gardens and coral bommies and watch as the entire cast of Finding Nemo plays hide-and-seek among the anemones.
The reef is world-class for many reasons: the warm Leeuwin Current, which allows corals and tropical fish to thrive where they wouldn't normally survive, and the pristine condition of the reefs themselves due to the four protected marine sanctuaries within the island group.
With no schedule to keep, we have time to detour for dolphins, watch for sea eagles, pull lobster pots or troll for tuna. At night we dine on salt-and-pepper squid, fresh sashimi tuna, crumbed scallops and, of course, lobster, all pulled fresh each day.
"I usually can't decide what to cook for dinner," skipper Cox says. "I've got too many choices."
All too soon it is the final day and I must rendezvous with Geraldton Air Charter, a commercial charter company also branching into tourism. I join a group of tourists for a full-day shipwreck tour, flying from Big Rat Island to the uninhabited East Wallabi Island, where we spend the day swimming and snorkelling at Turtle Bay.
When the sun is low in the sky, we take the 60-minute flight back to Geraldton, passing over the wreck of the Batavia, the Dutch East India Company flagship that ran aground here on its maiden voyage on June 4, 1629. We also fly over West Wallabi Island, where the outline of a fort built by survivors of the Batavia still stands. "Built in 1629, it is the first building ever constructed by Europeans in Australia," our pilot says.
Back in Geraldton, I head south towards Cervantes to connect with the newly opened Indian Ocean Drive for the journey back to Perth. The $95 million road, which opened in September last year, has many advantages: it shaves 30 minutes off the inland Brand Highway route between the northern suburbs of Perth and Cervantes, allows visitors to avoid the heavy freight traffic of the highway and opens up coastal regions rarely visited by tourists.
The 420-kilometre trip from Geraldton can be done in 5½ hours but I'm still on island time and have set aside three days.
After a night at the seaside village of Dongara, I make my way to Lesueur National Park, one of the most significant reserves for floral conservation in WA. There is always something flowering in Lesueur but between August and October the park erupts in a symphony of colour.
Experts are predicting one of the best wildflower seasons in years due to the recent rains and the bushfire that swept through the park in January. Whales can also be seen at this time, making their way along the humpback highway.
New tourism ventures are also springing up like wildflowers. Where there were once only pies and pasties there are now organic-food cafes and harbour-view restaurants. Amble-Inn is a new bed and breakfast at Jurien Bay, providing an ideal base from which to explore the national park and the Pinnacles Desert Park.
The owner of the B&B, Anne Murray, is an artist who specialises in local wildlife, raising awareness for the protection of endangered species through her artwork.
It is late afternoon as I drive the last four kilometres towards Amble-Inn on an unsealed road, passing through fields of burnished banksias and other wildflowers. On arrival, Murray hands me a bottle of wine and a cheese platter (complimentary) and encourages me to climb the hill at the back of the property to catch the sunset over the Indian Ocean. Since I'm travelling alone, she also hands me Sandy, her delightful border collie, for company.
I return to my room to find it has been filled with girly delights: candles around the bath, glossy magazines on the bed and a plate of sticky jam drops on the side table. After my days on board the rough-and-ready Rat Patrol, I am tempted to cocoon myself here with Anne, her organic cooking and ready supply of sweet treats; only the promise of swimming with sea lions at Jurien Bay drags me away the following morning.
As soon as our boat anchors near Essex Rocks in the Jurien Bay Marine Park, the resident population of sea lions dive into the water and make a beeline for us. It's as if one has shouted to his mates: "Come on, boys, let's go and play with them." And play with us they do. For the next two hours, we swim in the open sea with these fur-lined slinkies as they torpedo above and below, twisting and turning and pressing their whiskery noses right into our masks.
I have swum with New Zealand fur seals in Kaikoura and Australian fur seals on Montague Island but these are the most playful rascals I have ever encountered.
Jurien Bay Charter 'n Dive is a family-run business that has been operating for six months. Using a 23-passenger catamaran, Hot Tuna, the family takes visitors to explore the caves, sheltered bays and limestone outcrops of Jurien Bay. While September to December is the peak time for whale-watching tours, it's possible to swim with sea lions year round. "It's the sea lions' natural curiosity that brings them out," says skipper Garth Dobney. "Jurien Bay is a protected marine park so we don't feed them."
A 30-minute drive down the highway to Cervantes is the Lobster Shack, a fishing tourism venture that opened in February. In response to the recent hardships faced by the rock-lobster industry, managing director David Thompson, a third-generation lobster fisherman, has opened the doors of his live-lobster-processing plant to tourists.
Guided tours of the plant give visitors the rare chance to experience all facets of the rock-lobster industry: the capture, processing and export of WA lobster; the state's work to maintain its internationally recognised Marine Stewardship Council accreditation; and the industry's commitment to sustainability. "The West Australian rock-lobster industry is the most valuable single-species fishery in Australia," Thompson says. "Representing about 20 per cent of the total value of Australia's fisheries, it must be managed with care."
Further along the road, other natural treasures await: the Nambung National Park, with its bizarre limestone pillars known as the Pinnacles; Lake Thetis, one of only five places in the world where living stromatolites are found; and Lancelin, famous for its beautiful beaches and snow-white sand dunes.
But for now I'm happy to end my day at Cervantes pier with another crimson sunset and another fresh lobster in hand. A couple of old-timers are whetting a line and pretty soon I'm handed my first beer. Dangling my legs over the pier, I realise the only downside is that I'll never be satisfied with eating lobster in a restaurant again.
The writer was a guest of Australia's Coral Coast.
Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Perth, with prices starting from $239, one way, including taxes. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.
Ocean West holiday units in Geraldton provide a convenient place to stay before and after an Abrolhos cruise. The units are minutes from Fisherman's Wharf. (08) 9921 1047, oceanwest.com.au.
Amble-Inn B&B near Jurien Bay provides stylish accommodation on a 3000-hectare cattle farm. 0429 652 401, email email@example.com.
See + do
A full-day Abrolhos Islands Shipwreck Special with Geraldton Air Charter costs $240, including snorkelling gear, morning tea, lunch and a guided nature walk. (08) 9923 3434, geraldtonaircharter.com.au.
Three- or five-day adventure charters can be booked from Geraldton with Abrolhos Island Charters on either the Rat Patrol or the luxurious Eco Abrolhos. It costs $3600 a day to charter the Rat Patrol (with a group of 10 this works out to $360 a day each). This includes all meals, fishing and snorkelling gear, tackle, bait and ice (BYO alcohol). (08) 9964 9516, abrolhosislandcharters.com.au.
Five other things to do along the Coral Coast
1 Visit the WA Museum in Geraldton to learn more about the murder and mutiny associated with the Batavia. Each Sunday afternoon (except the first Sunday of the month and a couple of weeks in the winter) visitors are welcome to board a replica of the ship's longboat for a three-hour sail around Geraldton harbour. The replica was built by TAFE students and is maintained by a small group of volunteers. See batavialongboat.asn.au.
2 Take a three-hour tour of the Pinnacles desert in the Nambung National Park (near Cervantes) with Mike Newton from Turquoise Coast Enviro Tours. Mike's been leading tours here for 12 years and has as many bad jokes as there are pinnacles. (08) 9652 7047, pinnacletours.info.
3 Stop at Thirsty Point and Hangover Bay, near Cervantes, for a swim or a drink. Thirsty Point has a wooden boardwalk that leads through the sand dunes and Hangover Bay is a good place for spotting dolphins and sea lions.
4 Follow one of 12 different walking trails (Shipwreck Walk, Heritage Walk) through the twin coastal towns of Dongara and Port Denison. The seafood platter at Southerlys Harbour View Restaurant is pretty good (though not as good as at Coota's Camp).
5 Skydive at Jurien Bay. Another new tourism venture offers tandem and solo jumps over the stunning Turquoise Coast, landing on the beach at Jurien Bay. skydivejurienbay.com.