The Northwest Cape juts out into the Indian Ocean like an extended middle finger on the top-left tip of the Australian mainland. There's one town, Exmouth1, which used to be an American naval base and looks like it, and not a lot else except for Cape Range National Park. If you're going up the Cape you have to follow the road that goes up the east side, passing through Exmouth and curling round the end of the Cape before finally coming down the west side and stopping at the southern end of the Park. There's nowhere else to go: to get back, you have to retrace your skid marks. Perhaps that's why it's so beautiful.
Cape Range has some of the most stunning beaches you're likely to see, as well as a few interesting gorges such as Mundu Mundu and Yardie Creek, which aren't on the same scale as the monsters of Kalbarri or Karijini, but are still great to explore on foot. After driving through the bizarre sight of hundreds of termite mounds surrounding the road – I thought I was back at the Pinnacles for a moment – the serious rain that I'd been dodging on the way up started to clear, and the sun eventually made an appearance as I approached the coastline. I set up camp just behind South Mundu Mundu Beach, a spot where the only amenity was one bin. There was absolutely nothing else – no toilets, no camping sites, no water: no nothing – and after the tourism of Coral Bay, it felt like I'd found paradise.
Just off the beaches of the Cape is the Ningaloo Reef, a barrier reef that comes very close to the shore, sometimes only a few metres away. This means that not only is the snorkelling and diving superb, but the beaches are amazingly sheltered too. When you look out to sea, you can see these huge waves breaking on the reef about 200m away, fierce and violent, but the reef takes all the oomph out of the might of the Indian Ocean, leaving gentle, lapping waves at the beach and beautiful stretches of sand. The slow sun setting over this distant cataclysm at night was really something else...
Stunning Sandy Bay
The next day, though, I found a real paradise. After exploring the two gorges in the morning, where I was lucky enough to see the rare black-footed wallaby in its native environment, I decided to cool off at Sandy Bay, just down the dirt track from my campsite. Wow! The name was appropriate, the weather was cloudless, the water was warm and turquoise, and the seabed was such a gentle, sandy slope that I could go a serious distance out and still only be waist deep, just right for me and my warped phobia of deep water. But the best bit was the splendid isolation; there were no more than four of us on this beach that stretched for miles in either direction, and I just lay there and soaked up the sun, thinking how it compared with all those soggy English beaches that I doubt I'll visit again now that I've tasted the real thing.
But that night, a minor disaster struck. There I was, sitting under a moonlit sky, reading my book and feeling totally relaxed after my day on the beach, when the lights went out. My trusty petrol lamp just died, and nothing I could do would coax her to light up again. The petrol pipe was blocked, and I was going to have to get a lamp doctor from a camping shop to look at her. I felt like I'd lost an old friend; there's something wonderfully cosy about fossil fuel lamp light, the same sort of warm glow you get from a real fire in an English pub. My electric torch just wasn't quite the same...
I woke up on Saturday feeling sluggish, and a peek outside the tent showed why; it was overcast. For some reason, I wake up feeling (relatively) alive when the sun's streaming down, and hung-over when the rain's streaming down. I had originally planned to hang around on Sandy Bay for another day, but that wasn't going to be much fun with no sun, so after striking camp I headed back towards Exmouth.
On the way back down the east side of the Cape, I stopped to do a walk (called the Badjirrajirra Walk) that the booklet said would take five hours, but which only took me one-and-a-half. Perhaps I was walking quite quickly, because I need to get fit for my forthcoming trek in the Pilbara, or because I was in mourning for my lamp and walking was a good way to work off my frustration; but even so, the guidelines were considerably different to my experience. Even so, it was still a nice little walk along a mountain ridge to Shothole Canyon, a huge gorge beaten into the mountain range by a since dried-up river. In the end it was lucky that I did only take one-and-a-half hours, because just as I shut the car door to set off south again, the heavens opened.
And they stayed open, all the way back down onto Highway One, the highway that goes round Australia and the backbone of my route. I took a dirt road shortcut to get to the highway, which took about an hour of bouncing around and skidding out of the way of oncoming tour buses, but it cut a serious corner off the journey, enabling me to reach the Nanutarra Roadhouse before dark.
1 Pronounced as it's spelt, so that's 'Ex-mowth', rather than 'Ex-muth' as we Poms would say.