AS WE STRUGGLED TO make progress against gusting 48-knot winds, the 3m tiger shark keeping us company across the seagrass beds was an unwanted distraction. Its dark fin surfaced between our sea kayaks, and we dug the paddles in deeper and picked up the pace until we were safely skirting over clear waters close to shore. It was yet another close call, but who could expect anything else from a paddling trip in the aptly named Shark Bay?
On Western Australia's remote and rugged coast, this unique, 2.2 million ha World Heritage site is fertile ground for self-sufficient adventures. Clear, protected waters houses nurseries of stingrays and sharks - around 28 shark species can be found here, with almost all of them completely harmless. Nearby Monkey Mia's famous dolphins shoot by on thrilling fishing runs and an estimated 6000 loggerhead and green sea turtles thrive in the marine park.
Shark Bay's super saline waters support the world's most diverse and abundant marine colonies of stromatolites (or living fossils) - they exist in only two other places on Earth, both in the Bahamas - and 10 per cent of the world's dugongs feed on the planet's largest seagrass bank.
Shark Bay's Francois Peron National Park
On land, primitive beachfront camps in Francois Peron National Park's unique conservation sanctuary offer four-wheel-drive campers the chance to encounter rare woylies, bilbies and malleefowls. Access to the national park is restricted to those who arrive by 4WD, sea kayak or boat, guaranteeing genuine solitude as you hike over rusty red dunes, fish off squeaky white sand beaches or snorkel through water as blue and clear as a summer's sky. You know you are on a ripper of a sea-kayaking trip when it completely tortures you with lengthy, low-tide portages, scorching summertime temperatures and killer headwinds, and you just can't stop smiling.
Tough conditions are de rigour for Shark Bay paddlers, but those who make the journey 830km north of Perth will find that hard times are quickly tempered by thrilling wildlife encounters. On our four-day paddle around the tip of Peron Peninsula, we glided over green sea turtles, watched bottlenose dolphins hunt beneath our boats and pushed off each morning through clear shallows that swarmed with juvenile shovelnose rays and tiny black tip reef sharks. We hooked sea snakes with our paddles, watched graceful manta rays slip effortlessly past and camped amongst great flocks of little pied cormorants and terns.
By world standards, this is an incredible wilderness, but there is no denying that Shark Bay demands a lengthy road trip. For those flying into the state, sea kayaks must be hired in Perth and all supplies and gear organised before hitting the North West Coastal Highway. Even freshwater is a scarce commodity in the region, and visitors must either bring it with them or buy it on arrival from Denham's public desalination plant.
As the only town in the region, Denham - located at the most westerly point of mainland Australia - makes an obvious launch site with a beachfront caravan park where you can store your vehicle. Paddling north, it takes between three and four days to cover the deserted coastline that wraps around the northern tip of Peron Peninsula to Monkey Mia - all of it protected as Francois Peron NP.
At journey's end, Monkey Mia's popular resort village unites tourists and wild dolphins at feeding time, and offers weary paddlers the chance to wrap their blisters around some of the coldest beers on the coast. The distance between it can be a long, hard slog, depending on the force of the predominant south-westerlies, which aid paddlers heading north then blast them backwards on the home run south to Monkey Mia.
Strong, summertime winds and extreme temperatures peaking at 42˚C didn't deter us, although if you get the chance to plan ahead, winter offers far milder maritime conditions. After pushing off from Denham at daybreak, a cursed low tide had us paddling far offshore but we happily rode a swift, 7-knot swell that propelled us past red dunes and limestone cliffs. Those same winds howled at night, pummelling our tent without respite beneath a full moon, and we awoke to find our kayaks high and dry, and the water's edge more than a kilometre away.
Having arrived in Shark Bay during a cycle of low morning and evening tides, our days began with long, slow portages and awkward struggles through desperately shallow water to reach the deep. But the trip's greatest challenge was battling the ferocious headwinds that slammed into us at boat-stopping gusts of 35-48 knots as we rounded Cape Peron on day two and started paddling south across Herald Bight.
We battled against strong winds all the way to Monkey Mia, at times paddling furiously just to hold our positions. At each day's end, we wearily dragged our boats on to the beach and threw ourselves into the warm sea before brewing a cuppa and breaking open the snacks. Coming ashore, we were always gloriously alone, content to share our camps with the critters whose tracks etched the sands while we slept: echidnas, racehorse goannas, thorny devils, dunnarts and bearded dragons, and more commonly, euros and emus.
Development in Francois Peron National Park, Shark Bay
Development in Francois Peron NP has been limited to a handful of basic beachfront campsites and picnic sites that don't offer a lot of creature comforts. This, however, ensures self-sufficient campers and paddlers enjoy secluded experiences in a landscape that obviously benefits from the lack of visitation.
By day, we checked off a long list of the region's 240 species of wading, migratory and inland birds, our boats often chasing huge, companionable flocks of gulls, cormorants and terns along the shore, sending them into the sea. But we never managed to stay up late enough to spot the park's most celebrated species - woylies, greater bilbies and malleefowls.
These mammals thrived in large numbers when French anthropologist Francois Peron visited the peninsula in 1801, but gradually vanished after European settlement, unable to compete with stock and rabbits for food or defend themselves against predation by foxes and feral cats. Long-fought efforts to rid Peron Peninsula of hoofed and feral animals and the construction of a 3.4km, 2m high barrier fence across the peninsula's narrow isthmus in 1995, has allowed the ecosystem to slowly recover and provided immunity for native animals against their feral foes.
During the past decade, a unique conservation program called Project Eden has been breeding rare native species that have spent decades on Australia's endangered species list and releasing into the national park. The program has had great success with woylies, greater bilbies and malleefowls, and now works to return other locally instinct native species to the park: the banded hare-wallaby, rufous hare-wallaby (mala), western quoll (chuditch), red-tailed phascogale, Shark Bay mouse, greater stick-nest rat, mulgara and more.
The national park's 52,500ha of arid shrublands and sandy plains appears too harsh a landscape to find such rare, fragile creatures building their nests beneath wattles, hakeas and grevilleas, and digging burrows on the fringes of gypsum claypans. But visit when springtime wildflowers bloom (July to October) and you'll find the landscape transformed by fields of blue flowering Dampiera incana and wild tomato bushes (Solanum orbiculatum), white myrtle, yellow wattles and purple peas.
Located at the national park's entrance and accessible by bitumen, the old Peron Homestead is popular for its communal hot tub that overflows with 44°C artesian bore water. Along with a good soak, the heritage precinct provides a small interpretive centre where stories of Aboriginal history and European colonisation are recorded, and updates are posted on current conservation projects.
But beyond the tub, sandy trails and basic facilities deter most travellers, some of whom make a daytrip into the park, covering the 50km to the tip of Cape Peron in about 1.5 hours. That means 4WD campers have the park's excellent campsites all to themselves, and the first lies just 11km down the track on the shores of Big Lagoon, a tranquil body of seawater and the largest tidal inlet in the World Heritage Area.
Known as 'thalganjangu' in the local Malgana Aboriginal language, Big Lagoon was formed thousands of years ago when rising seas flooded a birrida, uniting an inland salt lake with the sea. The mangroves, sand flats and seagrass beds make up an important fish and crustacean nursery that attracts dugongs, turtles and fisherfolk too. Fishing is permitted, but local bag limits, catch sizes and other rules apply, so school up in Denham before hitting the park.
Beyond Shark Bay's Big Lagoon
Beyond Big Lagoon, the single track heading north passes dozens of fragile birridas. Give these a wide berth because their deceptively thin crusts mask underlying bog mires and the damage caused by tyre tracks is not easily undone. En route to Cape Peron, the beachside camps at South Gregories, Gregories and Bottle Bay host few visitors. On one winter visit that coincided with school holidays, we shared Gregories camping ground with just two other vehicles.
This favourite spot overlooks a beautiful shallow lagoon ringed by rocky reef and, behind the beach, red sands rise into steep dunes that beckon walkers to add their footprints to the maze of tiny animal tracks. All camping grounds in the park have toilets and gas barbecues with ring burners, but provide no water. Travellers can top up water supplies at Denham's self-service desalination depot before entering the park ($1 for 20L).
While I never tire of setting off over the dunes or along endless beaches, the park's one defined track - the Wanamalu Trail - is a gem (45 minutes, one way). For 1.5km from Cape Peron to Skipjack Point, this cliff-top trail overlooks translucent blue bays - celeste over the sand and a deeper shade of azure where the seagrass beds begin.
A thin strip of brilliant white sand separates the sea and the red sand dunes, ancient deposits of Peron sandstone thought to be around 250,000 years old. From the lookout at Skipjack Point, we watched as an eagle ray and shovelnose ray passed within metres of each other in the clear waters below. According to a local park ranger we met, it's not uncommon to witness the local female bottlenose dolphins displaying a very unusual hunting technique below Skipjack Point.
Preferring the thrill of the chase to the feeding sessions at nearby Monkey Mia, these ladies patiently herd schools of sea mullet into the shallows, then chase them up on to the sand, deliberately and dangerously beaching themselves to catch their prey. Most Shark Bay visitors end their trips at Monkey Mia, where a small group comprised of three families of bottlenose dolphins visit the beach daily for fish offerings, as they have for the past 40 years.
But after treasured days of solitude, we avoided the Monkey Mia madness, content to take away visions of the wild dolphins that chased their own tucker beneath our boats and joined us silently riding the swells. A pristine marine paradise, Shark Bay is a special place that should see much larger crowds. But for those who explore on foot or by sea kayak, it's a good thing it doesn't.
Getting there: Shark Bay and the launch town of Denham are located 830km north of Perth, off the North West Coastal Highway. Francois Peron NP is located 4km north of Denham.
Equipment: Rivergods in Perth rents double kayaks ($320/week) and singles ($300/week) plus roof bars ($50/week) and kayak trailers ($100/week), www.rivergods.com.au; Capricorn Seakayaking runs four-day guided trips ($1195pp),
Supplies: Denham stocks the basics, but all camping and paddling gear should be sourced before leaving Perth.
Francois Peron NP: A high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required for travel beyond Peron Homestead (don't forget to deflate your tyres). The sandy roads are suitable for camper trailers and small boat trailers only. Entry fee is $10 a vehicle a day.
Where to stay: Paddlers and vehicle-based campers share the national park's five basic campgrounds: Big Lagoon, South Gregories, Gregories, Bottle Bay and Herald Bight. Each provides free gas barbecues, toilets and basic boat ramps ($6.50 adults/$2 children). BYO water, use a gas stove and pack-out all rubbish. Pay fees via self-registration at the park entrance or in advance at the Denham DEC office.
Accommodation in Denham: Staying at the beachfront Denham Seaside Tourist Village ($30 powered or $25 unpowered sites for two people a day) makes launching seakayaks easy (www.sharkbayfun.com).
When to go: Expect cooler temperatures from June to October.
More info: www.sharkbay.org; www.dec.wa.gov.au; www.wulaguda.com.au
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