Twists and turns on the Warlu Way

A legendary sea serpent is said to have carved out the epic landscapes that rise north-east of Coral Bay. Cameron Wilson follows its route from the ocean floor to the dazzling Karijini National Park

The plane shudders to a halt on Learmonth airport's truncated runway, 740 miles north of Perth in Western Australia. Our group piles into a 12-seater van for the 80-minute drive to Coral Bay, from where we'll set out to follow the Warlu Way. According to Aboriginal myth, Coral Bay is where a giant warlu, or sea serpent, once emerged from the ocean and slithered inland, carving out gorges, ravines and waterholes as it went.

A self-drive route of nearly 1,500 miles today follows the trail of the warlu through some of Western Australia's most beautiful and remote regions – the Gascoyne, Pilbara and Kimberley. There are eight of us, so we've organised a van and a driver for the section we'll be covering – 390 miles from Coral Bay to Karijini National Park, where the warlu's fabled route inland is most evident today.

We start our adventure by exploring Ningaloo Reef, home of warlus both large and small. From Coral Bay, we transfer by dinghy to Shore Thing, the catamaran that will be our home for the next two days. Skipper Luke Riley and his wife Lannie run live-aboard sailing trips along Ningaloo. I'm buddied up with Steve, who's visiting from the UK, and dive-master Dee for our first dive at "Asho's Gap", where we find ourselves engulfed by hundreds of two-foot silver bludger trevally fish. The slate-grey cabbage corals below are home to schools of tiny damselfish, pairs of spangled emperors and harlequin sweetlips.

Over dinner talk turns to the reef species we're hoping to see. I confess I've never swum with a manta ray and Luke smiles when I ask what our chances are. "Now and then I help a research team gathering data on local manta ray populations. On one day I was able to confirm swimming beneath 35 different mantas," he says.

The next day, little more than an hour after breakfast, we're slipping in off the transom for a quick snorkel over a pale green garden of stag-horn coral and we see our very first warlu – an olive sea-snake. Luke tells me that a typical day on Shore Thing aims to satisfy snorkellers and divers alike. "Even for divers, it's fun to get in for a snorkel and see the reef in a different way. With the currents we get, it's like riding a see-through conveyor belt over the top of an aquarium."

On our next two dives we see species found only at Ningaloo: several jet-black sailfin catfish and a white-eyed moray eel, its entire three-foot length, a translucent white. But nothing could have prepared me for our last dive, on a site Dee calls "the Lost City", after its rubble of coral walls, caves and crevices. At around 50ft down, we find a leopard shark being attended by cleaner wrasse. As if driven by some sixth sense, Steve and I spin around to the deep blue yonder: barely 30ft away, a 10ft tiger shark ghosts by like an assassin, its unmistakable tiger-stripe markings eliciting a shared moment of wide-eyed awe.

Then it's all aboard the van again and we're on our way 90 miles north to Exmouth on the warlu road. Outside, the landscape is an expanse of burnt-orange desert, spinifex and termite mounds. The Ningaloo creatures that commonly figure in local Aboriginal stories are the warlu, manta ray, whale shark and turtle (all depicted in ancient rock paintings around Western Australia) and we have a fair chance of finding all four on our whale shark tour with Ocean Eco Adventures.

When the skipper spots a shark, the first group of 10 slides into the water and fins alongside for five minutes, before the boat swings around to pick them up and drop the rest of us in. Over the next two hours, we each manage to swim alongside six different sharks. Just as I start stripping off my wetsuit, the skipper suggests we look out for manta rays. Sure enough, within 20 minutes the entire group hops in to snorkel with four manta rays just a few feet below.

On the run home I ask Steve about his first trip to Ningaloo. He needs little encouragement: "There isn't a dive destination I know of where you could expect to see all the different species we've seen, especially in just three days – humpback whales, dugongs, manta rays, whale sharks, leopard sharks, tiger sharks, nudibranchs. Seeing even one of those species would make for a perfectly acceptable dive almost anywhere else." Steve should know: he's been editor of Diver, a UK magazine for scuba enthusiasts, since 1996.

Our group are eager for an early start on the 350-mile haul inland to Karijini National Park. We break for morning tea at Bullara Station with owners Tim and Edwina Shallcross and I feel a twinge of regret that we don't have the chance to stay for a night. The former sheep station's rustic rooms and the prospect of a crackling outdoor fire, shared with fellow travellers, are enticing.

We near the foothills of the Hamersley Range and all around is the rust-red iron-rich earth that tells the tale of Western Australia's decade-long mining boom. The gorges of Karijini are perhaps the best-known feature of the warlu's travels, winding their way through a glorious desert savannah, strewn with mulga trees and ghost gums.

Karijini Eco Retreat is made up of several camping grounds, a basic reception and dining facility, and 50 permanent tents. When the sun comes up, we walk into Hancock Gorge to photograph Kermit's Pool and examine its layered banded ironstone which, at 2.5 billion years old, is the world's oldest exposed rock. Nevertheless, we can see bolts fixed to the gorge walls that are used for canyoneering day trips, providing access to otherwise inaccessible pools and waterfalls. Joffre Gorge is just a steep scramble in and out, so we make use of a sun-drenched freshwater pool for a swim. From a lookout above Weano Gorge we watch hikers wade from pool to pool, far enough away that most of what we can make out is the ripples left in their wake.

According to legend, the warlu settled in a spring in the heart of the Pilbara region, and there he stays to this day. From Karijini, it's another half-day's drive northwest along the Warlu Way to Millstream-Chichester National Park – where, in a desert pool, the warlu finally found his home.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Travelbag (0871 703 4240; travelbag.co.uk) six-night Warlu Way package from £1,349pp including two nights in Perth, two nights at the Novotel Ningaloo and two nights at Karijini Eco Retreat, seven days' car hire from Perth and Qatar flights from Heathrow to Perth via Doha.

Getting around

Sail Ningaloo (00 61 402 110 427; sailningaloo.com.au) from April-December, from A$1,700 (£1,062) per person.

Ocean Eco Adventures (00 61 427 425 925; oceanecoadventures.com.au) whale shark tours, April-July for A$395 (£247) per person.

Staying there

Novotel Ningaloo Resort in Exmouth (novotelningaloo.com.au) doubles from A$320 (£200),.

Bullara Station (bullara-station.com.au), has doubles from A$140 (£88).

Karijini Eco Retreat (karijiniecoretreat.com.au) has safari-style tents from A$315 (£197)

More information

westernaustralia.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people

Sport
nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London