It’s one of the most accessible offroad destinations in the west: a red sand wilderness fringed by shallow lagoons, see-through bays and steep sandstone cliffs on the far western edge of the country. On land, Francois Peron National Park (NP) protects some of the state’s most vulnerable marsupials, and provides excellent facilities for offroad travellers with beachfront campgrounds, walking trails, access to historical sites and wildlife viewing platforms high above bright blue bays.
Lapping the national park’s shores, Shark Bay Marine Park nurtures the world’s largest seagrass banks and the diverse range of marine life that feeds on them – up to 6000 loggerhead and green sea turtles and more than 10 per cent of the world’s dugongs. Together, these extraordinary World Heritage-listed sanctuaries, that cover a massive 2.2 million hectares, will surprise visitors.
There are mountainous shell middens to discover, pearling and pioneering relics to unearth, and plenty of places to launch a tinny for angling adventures in Shark Bay. At the park’s entrance, you can soak in an historical, piping hot artesian tub and, further afield, join Monkey Mia’s famous dolphin-feeding sessions or take a stroll above rare marine stromatolites that exist in only one other place on earth.
With so much to discover, this unique destination is fertile ground for adventuring, but you’ll need a high clearance 4WD to tackle the sandy, corrugated tracks through the national park. If you’re not set up to overnight in the park, rest assured that the park’s distances are tiny by WA standards and easily covered in day trips out of Denham, where a choice of holiday parks makes a great base camp.
BIG LAGOON AND BEYOND
Leaving a crowd of campers casting lines into Big Lagoon’s calm, shallow sea, we pushed off into the blue, our paddles spooking fish on the seagrass beds below. An easy 20 minutes later, we were across the lagoon and laying footprints on a deserted beach, skirting mangroves and scaling the steep sand dunes that separate the lagoon from sea.
Distracted from grand ocean vistas by a series of shell middens stretching along the rusty red dunes, we explored south, discovering scraps of tin and metal, perhaps from an old pearling camp. Here, too, we found a large sharp flint that looked rather like a spearhead or a tool used to open pearl shells.
Located just 12km off the bitumen and known as ‘thalganjangu’ in the local Malgana Aboriginal language, Big Lagoon is the largest tidal inlet in Shark Bay World Heritage Area. It formed thousands of years ago when rising seas flooded a gypsum hollow or birrida, uniting an inland salt lake with the sea.
Today, Big Lagoon’s mangroves, sand flats and seagrass beds nurture an important fish and crustacean nursery, and paddlers commonly spot dugongs and turtles cruising the lagoon’s warm, shallow waters. A small campground accommodates just six rigs (small offroad vans, camper trailers and tents), and you can launch your boat off the beach to fish.
Beyond Big Lagoon, a sandy 4WD track continues north towards the tip of the peninsula, past an old corrugated iron shelter and water catcher built by Leon Krasker, whose story has become legendary. With one cork leg, Krasker and his horse ‘Battler’ made the 70km return journey from Denham to Herald Bight to buy pearls and collect the pearlers’ mail every week. But a spooked horse, a bad fall and a broken good leg in late September 1916 was to be the end of 39-year-old Krasker, who attempted to drag himself back to his tank shelter and died en-route.
As you tackle the corrugations north, the track finally smoothes out at a series of shallow birridas – salty inland lakes mere centimetres deep that reflect the sky. Just beyond, don’t miss the turnoff to Cattle Well, a beach fishing spot that I’ve been told is great for catching whiting. I can’t vouch for the fishing, however, because we spent so much time bobbing about in the sea and breakfasting on the sand that we didn’t even think about cracking out the rods.
RED DUNE DREAMING
Even if you are day-tripping in Francois Peron NP, there’s still plenty of time to squeeze in a swim or snorkel at Gregories and reach the tip of Cape Peron before day’s end. A beautiful shallow lagoon ringed by rocky reef, Gregories is a sublime spot where you can kick out across the bay and snorkel along a coral-fringed wall. Behind the beach, red sands rise into steep dunes that beckon walkers to add their footprints to the nocturnal maze of tiny animal tracks.
I never miss the chance to camp at Gregories for its breathtaking Indian Ocean sunsets that turn the sand dunes fiery red, igniting scenes that photography buffs will cherish forever. After exploring a beach littered with coral, we followed a trail of animal bones and crab holes into the dunes and climbed high to watch the sun disappear. Unparalleled and unforgettable, Gregories’ grand vistas make this a top spot to overnight, with big, spacious beachfront campsites for those with generators and a quiet area for those without.
PERON’S PIONEER PAST
Skipjack Point is a great place to end a day of discovery at Francois Peron NP, but there’s one final experience that is bound to soothe your bones after tackling the 50km of corrugations and sand back to the bitumen. Just inside the park boundary at the Peron Heritage Precinct, a relaxing hot tub overflows with 44-degree artesian bore water. For me, it’s the quintessential ending to any visit to the park.
To reach old Peron Homestead and the hot tub, turn off the Monkey Mia Road 4km from Denham, pay your national park entrance fee and continue 7km on the bitumen. If you’re pushing further into the park, there are stations where you can deflate (and inflate) your tyres ahead of the sandy tracks. If you have the luxury of timing your trip to Shark Bay, plan to travel between July and October when wildflowers transform the landscape. For the rest of the year, the park’s 52,000ha of arid shrublands and sandy plains might appear too harsh a landscape to sustain much life, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that captive-bred populations of once locally-extinct greater bilbies, malleefowls, southern brown bandicoots and woylies are thriving.
The reintroduction of other species observed in vast numbers by French anthropologist Francois Peron, when he visited the area in 1801, is an ongoing endeavour for conservationists at Project Eden, who released a population of chuditches into the park in 2011. Banded and rufous hare-wallabies, the red-tailed phascogale, Shark Bay mouse and western barred bandicoot have all disappeared since European settlement, out-gunned in the race for food by stock and rabbits, and hunted by foxes and feral cats.
Today, a 2m-high fence that runs 3.4km across the peninsula’s narrow isthmus has afforded the sanctuary some immunity, but the ecosystem remains far from recovered.
MONKEY MIA EXPERIENCE
The wildlife is easier to encounter at world-famous Monkey Mia, where regular wild dolphin feeding sessions lure a big crowd. Popular with international tourists, Monkey Mia is a scenic spot with a beautiful beach, comfortable camping, great resort facilities and a baffling range of activities to enjoy. Along with the good fishing, snorkelling, swimming and paddling, there are wildlife cruises, camel rides and scenic flights to spend your money on.
The undeniably big attraction is the small pod of bottlenose dolphins that have been visiting Dolphin Beach for feeding sessions almost every day for the past 40-odd years. The dolphins cruise to shore up to three times each morning, starting at around 7.45am, to receive small amounts of fish handed out by visitors standing in the shallows. Regardless of how questionably ‘wild’ the situation is, many travellers seem keen to experience it at least once.
Check out the full feature in issue #103 June 2016 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.