Home » Towns » Western Australia » Gascoyne » Exmouth, WA
Print

Exmouth, WA

US and Australian naval and surveillance town - now a popular access point for Ningaloo Reef.

The Exmouth area was known to Europeans, specifically the Dutch, as early as the 17th century but it was not until World War II that the huge airport was built and it was as recently as 1963 that a naval town serving the US Naval Communication Station, Harold E. Holt, and the Learmonth RAAF Base, was established. The US Navy left in the early 1990s and while part of the old naval base is still used by the Australian Navy today the town is driven primarily by tourism with deep sea fishing, the beautiful Ningaloo Reef and the complex coastal wildlife (whale sharks are prevalent in the area) attracting visitors to this strikingly beautiful region. It is a place where a visitor could easily spend a week. Certainly the remarkable Cape Range National Park deserves days of exploration.

Location

Exmouth is located on the eastern coast of the North West Cape 1253 km north of Perth, 13 m above sea level, and 1372 km south-west of Broome.

^ TOP

Origin of Name

The explorer, Phillip Parker King, was forced into Exmouth Gulf on 11 February, 1818. He spent the next eight days exploring the region and in the process named the gulf Exmouth, after Admiral Edward Pellew, 1st Viscount Exmouth.

^ TOP

Things to See and Do

Cape Range National Park
So what do you want to do? Bushwalk through eucalypt woodlands or climb down deep rocky gorges and enjoy breathtaking scenery. Walk over a flat spinifex plain and a succession of ancient fossil reefs, climb coastal dunes down to sandy beaches. Dive into an emerald lagoon and swim over the coral reef. They are all possible in this remarkable National Park.

The Cape Range National Park was established in 1965 and extended in 1974. It runs down the western side of Exmouth peninsula and provides a cross-section from the dissected and desert-like plateau (the rainfall on the peninsula is so unreliable that there have been years when less than 100 mm has fallen - when cyclones hit it can be drenched by metres of water) to the coastal plains, the mangrove swamps, the lagoon between the shoreline and the Ningaloo Reef, and the sea life which lies beyond the reef. For more information check out http://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/cape-range.

The highlights of this remarkable park include:

Milyering Visitor Centre
Located 52 km south of Exmouth on the Yardie Creek Road this centre is a model of modern design with solar heating, rammed earth walls to reduce temperature variations, a composting toilet which is used to fertilise the gardens, and extensive natural light. It has audio visual displays, books on the region, light refreshments, souvenirs and advice about hiking in the park. It is open seven days a week from 9.00 am - 3.45 pm. Tel: (08) 9949 2808 and check out http://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/milyering-discovery-centre.

Turquoise Bay
This is about as good as any beach in Australia. It is known for its clear waters (there are so few people around) and its quiet, white sandy beaches. It is ideal for snorkelling and swimming. The Ningaloo Reef is only a few metres from shore. One of the unusual qualities of the bay is the strong northerly current which can be dangerous but, equally, can be used by lazy snorkellers who only have to enter the water at one end of the beach and lie watching the corals and the fish as the current takes you along the beach. It has been estimated there are 475 fish species on the reef. It is located 62 km south of Exmouth and can be accessed off Yardie Creek Road.

Yardie Creek
Located 85 km (at the end of the road) down Yardie Creek Road, at its mouth Yardie Creek is an impressive gorge with a regular flow of water. There are boat cruises available (book at the Exmouth Visitor Centre) which take around an hour and go up the gorge which is memorable for a huge sea osprey nest on a ledge (it has been there for years) and shy black-footed rock wallabies, perched precariously in the crevices

Shothole Canyon Road
Located 16 km south of Exmouth, Shothole Canyon Road is a convenient entry point to the National Park which can be accessed by two wheel drive. The unsealed road, originally named after some shotholes which were used for seismographic experiments back in the 1950s, leads into the park's gorges. This is impressive countryside. The walls of the canyon are sheer, the rocks are loose, and in summer the temperatures can soar. The views back across the Indian Ocean are panoramic and impressive. It is possible to do a modest walk of 5 km from Shothole Canyon Road to Charles Knife Road. For more information check out http://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/shothole-canyon. One of the highlights is the view from the Charles Knife lookout across the rugged, desert landscape.

Learmonth Solar Observatory
Located 34 km south of Exmouth, near the Learmonth RAAF Base, is the Solar Observatory. Although not open for inspection the white parabolic discs can be seen from the road. The station monitors solar activity and is part of a worldwide network of similar stations. The area boasts an excess of 3500 hours of sunshine each year and this makes it ideal for observing the sun. The isolation also means that it is largely free from interference. The Shire of Exmouth website explains: "The facility is jointly managed by the Space Weather Services which is part of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and the United States Air Force 557th Weather Wing. There are a total of 15 personnel employed on site performing observation, analysis, maintenance, secretarial and management functions. Observatory staff is drawn from Space Weather Services consisting of two space weather physicists and one administrative officer; and 11 personnel from the United States Air Force 55th Weather Wing providing analytical and maintenance support. Local companies also perform site and equipment maintenance. There is a wide range of activities and systems which are affected by solar activity. Examples include short-wave broadcasting, high frequency communications, satellite operations, manned space flights, geophysical exploration, electricity distribution, long pipeline corrosions and bird migration. High frequency communications probably represent the largest group that is affected by solar disturbance. In Australia this includes Telstra, Optus, OTC, Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Army, Navy and Air Force, the Police, local government agencies such as the Water Authority, State Fire Brigades, Emergency Services, Airlines and general aviation." For more information check out BoM Space Weather Services: http://www.sws.bom.gov.au/Solar/3/1; Radio Telescope: https://www.557weatherwing.af.mil/Fact-Sheets/Article/871846/2d-weather-squadron-radio-solar-telescope-network/ and Optical Telescope: https://www.557weatherwing.af.mil/Fact-Sheets/Article/871832/2d-weather-squadron-solar-observing-optical-network/.

Ningaloo Marine Park
I have no problems saying that I think this Marine Park, with all its diversity, is actually better than the Great Barrier Reef. It is not as big (obviously) but it can claim to be "the only large reef in the world found so close to a continental land mass, making it an easy snorkel from shore" and that is a bonus. You can literally dive in off the beach and be on the reef in seconds where, apart from the occasional coral atolls, the Great Barrier Reef requires a journey of at least an hour to access it. With Ningaloo you are really in a reef wonderland. The Marine Park stretches south along 260 km of coastline from Bundegi Beach, near Exmouth. At points the reef is less than 100 metres from the shore and its waters are home to such spectacular creatures as the huge whale shark (there are tours out to see them from April to July - they can grow up to 12 metres long), the humpback whale, green turtles, dolphins and dugongs. The Park was declared in 1987 in an attempt to protect Western Australia's largest coral reef and to control public access to it. It is a unique area because the reef is so close to the dry landmass and because it is here that the Australian continent is closest to the continental shelf. The reef boasts 170 hard corals, 11 soft corals and 475 species of fish. There is more useful information at http://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/ningaloo.

Jurabi Turtle Centre
Located near the tip of the peninsula, north-west of Exmouth, the Jurabi Turtle Centre is an ideal place to learn about the large numbers of sea turtles which feed in the shallow waters of the Ningaloo Marine Park. There are three main species which are common in the area: the Green Turtle which weighs up to 130 kg, can be 118 cm long and can lay 50-100 eggs in a nesting season; the Loggerhead Turtle which is 95 cm long, weighs 100 kg and can lay up to 125 eggs in a single setting; and the Hawksbill Turtle, the smallest at 83 cm long and 51 kg. They lay up to 150 eggs. The best times to view the turtles are "between October and January, usually under the cover of darkness, female turtles visit the beach to lay their eggs. At night, from January to April, you may see new hatchlings making their dash for the sea." Turtle observation tours are run from the centre between November and March.

Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station and VLF (Very Low Frequency) Antenna Field
Located 6 km to the north of Exmouth via Murat Road are both the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station and the VLF (Very Low Frequency) Antenna Field (it is 11 km from the town). The huge towers, (Tower Zero is 387 metres high), are remarkable. In 2002 the military departed the base and it is now run by a private company, Raytheon Australia. It can be seen from the road but is not open for inspections. Check out http://www.exmouth.wa.gov.au/HEH-Naval-Communication-Station.aspx for detailed information.

Vlamingh Lighthouse and Cape Range National Park
Located just off the Yardie Creek Road, 17 km from Exmouth is the Vlamingh Lighthouse which was built as a direct result of the wreck of the SS Mildura in 1907.  It was first lit in 1912 and relit, for the first time in 34 years, on 14 July, 2001 utilizing the original kerosene and counterweight system. There is a very detailed history of the lighthouse at http://www.ningaloolighthouse.com/about-us/vlaming-head-lighthouse-history.

^ TOP

Other Attractions in the Area

Ningaloo Safari Tours
[I have been on the Ningaloo Safari Tour twice – it really is excellent and comprehensive. This is an edited version of one of the stories I wrote.]
Less than an hour into the trip we are having a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the cool morning air above Charles Knife Gorge which is on the edge of the Cape Range National Park.
The Ningaloo Safari Tour, known also as "Top of the Range Safari" and "A Day of Wonder", must surely be one of the most extraordinary day trips anywhere in Australia. It is an adventure through the rugged country south of Exmouth which starts at 8.00 am, finishes about 6.00 p.m., traverses rugged, but wild and beautiful country, in a huge 4WD known as an OKA (an Australian-designed vehicle which seems to be a cross between a dune buggy and a juggernaut.
This is one of those tours which you can't do on your own unless, of course, you have topographical maps, know the area like your backyard, carry a boat and snorkelling gear, have plenty of food aboard (including, of course, some fruitcake) and have a 4WD which is prepared to bounce its way around some of this country's toughest roads ... sorry, tracks … and you have a guide who has an enduring love for this country which means all local flora and fauna can be accurately identified.
The distance and isolation have ensured that there are few tourists in this area - mostly enthusiastic European backpackers, committed Germans and Japanese wanting to experience the 'real' Australia, and the usual retirement crowd of grey nomads mooching around the edge of the continent - and consequently it is a rare opportunity to see some of Australia's most beautiful scenery without having to deal with excessive tourism and overdevelopment. Go in September and October and the combination of wildflowers (often carpeting the land to the horizon in dramatic displays), warm waters and glorious desert landscapes will become indelibly etched in your memory and be recalled for decades after. This really is a unique place of magical beauty.
Today Exmouth is a modern town stuck in the middle of nowhere and, for reasons known only to the US military, the Exmouth airport, which is so long it can handle any super-sized jet you want to land on it, is located about 35 km out of town. The town has a few shops, a couple of motels, some buildings providing basic services and the feeling that it is at the end of the world.
The drive from Coral Bay to Exmouth is a reminder that this is dangerous country. It is desert-dry with an annual rainfall of either thousands of millimetres (if a cyclone happens to stray into the area) or less than 100 mm per year when the cyclones stay away. The landscape is classic low desert scrub - hardy, determined to survive in a most inhospitable landscape, and eager to find nutrients in the dusty, blood-red pindan soil. This is Australia at its rawest and its most honest.
So it is that we are picked up at around 8.00 am at the Potshot Motel, introduced to everyone on the trip (a good mix of people but mostly those who are making their way around Australia and have decided, wisely, that their own vehicles simply cannot make this journey), and we head out of town towards the airport and then turn into the northern edge of Cape Range National Park.
The OKA winds its way up the road that Charles Knife and Jack King cut into the area while searching for oil in the 1950s. On the top of a ridge the views across to the coastline, particularly with the early morning sun warming the landscape and bathing it in a soft golden light, are remarkable and the views down into Charles Knife Gorge and the surrounding gorges are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in miniature with layered, brightly coloured rocks and jagged outcrops defying the area's relentless erosive forces.
Then it is up onto the plateau that constitutes most of the Cape Range National Park. The sights are genuinely exceptional. In the space of a couple of hours we see emus, kangaroos and euros, lizards, fields of Sturts Desert Pea, vast areas of flowering banksias and such rare delights as the delicate bird plant and kangaroo paw.
The whole of Cape Range is limestone and the weathering has been variable. Consequently the road, if you can call it that, will drop into the luxury of sandy soil and then bump its way across pot-holed and unforgiving sheets of limestone.
Once down on the coast we headed to Yardie Creek Gorge. The tour owns a flat-bottomed boat which allows us to pass through the coastal mangroves and head up the gorge. It is one of those marvellous outback gorges with red cliffs and clear, green waters. As we progress we see a huge sea osprey nest on a ledge above and shy black-footed rock wallabies, perched precariously in the crevices, stare down as we make our way through the gorge. On the clifftops above the gorge, travellers who have driven from Exmouth, gaze down on us.
The day finishes with snorkelling at Turquoise Bay where the beauty of the coral is matched by the white purity and peacefulness of the beaches.
The great attraction is the Ningaloo Coral Reef which stretches from Exmouth south for 260 km to Coral Bay. By any objective assessment Ningaloo makes the Great Barrier Reef look  overcrowded, over-commercialised and over-hyped.
In the case of Ningaloo, as Turquoise Bay perfectly demonstrates, you can literally walk in off the beach (and not be out of your depth) and be surrounded by a coral wonderland of soft and hard corals, huge and delicate formations, exotic and brightly coloured small fish as well as turtles and reef sharks (of the harmless variety) and, here's the real luxury of this stretch of coastline, you don't even have to swim - all you've got to do is put your head down and let the current do the work. Between March and July it is possible to snorkel (that's snorkel, not scuba dive) on Ningaloo Reef and watch whale sharks - which often measure over 18 metres in length and weigh up to 40,000 kg - drift by below you.
We make our way, on good quality sealed road, up the coast to Vlamingh Lighthouse which provides dramatic, panoramic views across the ocean as the sun drops below the horizon. Remember: seeing the sun sinking over a watery western horizon is not something people on the east coast see very often.
That sunset is the end of a perfect day. It is easy to get over-excited about day trips but the Ningaloo Safari Trip is that genuine rarity: something you can't do yourself which offers a full day of endlessly variable activities and presents one of Australia's most beautiful desert and ocean regions with the assistance of a guide who knows and loves the harsh landscape he lives and works in. It really doesn't get much better than that. For more information check out http://www.visitningaloo.com.au/ningaloo-safari-tours#/tours/8483.

^ TOP

History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Exmouth was home to the Thalanyji Aboriginal people.

* The first Europeans to sight North West Cape were Haevik Claeszoon von Hillegom and Pieter Dirkszoon who sailed through the area in the Zeewolf on 24 June 1618.

* On 31 July 1618 Willem Jansz and Captain Jacobsz came ashore from their ship Mauritius. In the ship's log they recorded "On the 31st of July we discovered an island and went ashore, found human footsteps, on the west side the land extended NNE and SSW; it was the length of fifteen mijlen; northern extremity is in twenty-two degrees S." They had landed on North West Cape.

* The famous Dutch sailors - Dirk Hartog, Willem Vlamingh, Abel Tasman and Francisco Pelsaert (captain of the Batavia) - all passed along the coast.

* Pelsaert, whose ship the Batavia was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos on 4 June 1629, rowed from the present site of Geraldton to Batavia and stopped near Point Cloates to take on water.

* In 1801 the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, sailed up the coast and named Cape Murat after Napoleon's brother-in-law.

* Phillip Parker King was forced into Exmouth Gulf on 11 February 1818 and explored the region for the next eight days. He named the gulf Exmouth, after Viscount Exmouth.

* Between 1818 and 1899 the peninsula was regularly visited by the pearlers.

* In 1876 a cyclone entered Exmouth Gulf and killed 69 men.

* In 1899 the first settler, Thomas Carter, took up land on the peninsula.

* In 1907 the SS Mildura was wrecked off North West Cape.

* In 1912 the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse was completed and became operational.

* By 1942 Exmouth was being used as a fuelling base for US submarines.

* In 1945 most of the military facilities in the area were destroyed by a cyclone.

* By 1963 the Western Australian Town Planning Department had chosen three sites on the northerly tip of the peninsula where it was planned to use 121 hectares to build a town which could house 702 people.

* In May 1963 the Australian and United States governments agreed to establish the $66 million Harold E. Holt US Naval Communication Station at North West Cape.

* Exmouth was gazetted in 1963 and its first two Civil Commissioners were Colonel K. Murdoch and Air Commodore T. Walters. I

* By 1964 there were only four permanent houses in the town. Most of the population lived in the Burtenshaw Caravan Park.

* The town and the Naval Communication Station were both opened on 16 September 1967.

* The Vlamingh Head lighthouse was decommissioned in April, 1967.

* The population of the town peaked at around 4300 in the late 1960s.

* In 1976 Vlamingh Head lighthouse was classified by the National Trust.

* In 1999 the town was severely damaged by Cyclone Vance.

^ TOP

Visitor Information

Exmouth Visitor Centre, Murat Road, tel: (08) 9949 1176. Open 9.00 am - 5.00 pm seven days a week.

^ TOP

Useful Websites

The official website is http://www.visitningaloo.com.au. It has useful information about accommodation, eating and tours in the area. The local shire website - http://www.exmouth.wa.gov.au - also has very detailed information.

^ TOP
Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

2 suggestions