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Travel: The rich colours of the Coral Coast in Australia

The pink lakes, bronze landscapes, blue boathouses and green hikes are straight out of a children’s book

Snorkelling with sea lions at Jurien Bay. (Photo: Sonia Nazareth)

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Perth may be Australia’s most isolated capital but it’s far from being a backwater. Its quirky neighbourhoods, sophisticated diners with mod-Oz cuisine and flourishing art scene form a trinity of reasons that encourage me to use the city as more than just a refuelling station before heading out on a road trip to discover the epic landscape of Western Australia.

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Water is the wallpaper and carpet that drapes Perth. Here, the Swan River meets the Indian Ocean. To make the most of the much applauded sunshine and sparkling waters, I cruise down the Swan River to take in the waterfront scenery of the downtown skyline.

I end up at the Crawley Edge Boatshed, or #blueboathouse as it is popularly known. This quaint, empty shed at the end of a pier against the Swan River has become iconic, with travelling herds using it as a backdrop for Instagrammable selfies.

To spend time in Perth is not to be relaxed, but to be invigorated. On the first day, I learn about Australian South Sea cultured pearls—from the grading of the pearls to the tasting of the oysters—at the Willie Creek Pearls Showroom. Then I sign up for a Street Art Tour with Oh Hey WA to visit the 80 disused heritage buildings and laneways that have been given a new lease of life by artists who have used them as canvas. I spend the evening at Cottesloe Bay, a glamorous strip of beach peppered with grassy banks and Norfolk pines, to swim, surf, snorkel and unwind with the locals.

Fresh oysters. (Photo: Sonia Nazareth)
Fresh oysters. (Photo: Sonia Nazareth)

If you have the time, spend an afternoon at King’s Park, 400 hectares of bushland, cultivated gardens and lookouts over the city. It’s a great place, with birds of every feather, as well as locals walking, running and biking through the trees with cardiovascular zeal.

After spending a couple of days in this city that hums like a turbine, I move on to the big-sky landscape that defines the Coral Coast of Western Australia. About 195km away is Cervantes, a town unplugged from the scramble of urban living. A visit to the Lobster Factory offers insights into the region’s multimillion- dollar industry. We have a rewarding lunch of grilled crayfish, chips and salad at a shack nearby. The simple yet delicious food reminds me that I am in a part of the world where it is not unusual to know who has grown, fed or caught what lands on my plate.

We then head to the Nambung National Park, 17km south from Cervantes, that is known for its Pinnacles Desert. Thousands of limestone needles, varying in height and bulk, sit on the desert floor. Eroded by the world’s great architects, wind and rain, this complex combination of shell grit, beach sand and decaying vegetative matter forms craggy shapes that seem forged from a Freudian dream. The sand, made from compacted seashells formed over millennia, is a lime-rich drape. These pinnacles were mistaken by 17th century seafarers for the ruins of an ancient city. Just as I think the scene can’t get any more otherworldly, the sky turns a bruised gold. The crowds fade. Emus duck through the needles.

The next day, we head to Jurien Bay, 35km away, where I hop on a boat from Sea Lion Charters. The bay (like most water bodies in these parts) looks photoshopped, so beautiful are its colours. At first, the snorkelling is uneventful but just as I am giving up hope, a knot of playful sea lions arrives, mimicking our moves, ready for a game.

Our next stop is the coastal city of Geraldton, 200km away. It is a suitable base for the night and a great base for the rest of the Coral Coast journey. Like residents of most cities on the water, Geraldton’s locals live against the clock, always up for an adventure: surfing, bushwalking, horse riding. Cafés are sprinkled about town as liberally as the art.

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The best way to get a grand overview of the Coral Coast gems is aboard a Kalbarri Scenic Flight. Five minutes after I strap myself into this eight-seater, I feel like I am flying over an imaginary land in a children’s book. I get a view of the Hutt Lagoon Pink Lake, coastal cliffs and pristine islands, which enhance the feeling of being in a fantasy movie. By contrast, exploring the town of Kalbarri, where the flight lands, is a heightened action thriller. Pot Alley, Rainbow Valley, Mushroom Rock and Red Bluff, all close to town, demand walking and serve up a savage scape: wild bushland, eroded cliff, kookaburras laughing, kangaroos feeding amid the coastal heath, stunning ocean views.

A kookaburra. (Photo: Sonia Nazareth)
A kookaburra. (Photo: Sonia Nazareth)

Without overstatement, the rock arch, Nature’s Window, in the Kalbarri National Park is worn down by the demands of too much love. This natural frame is engulfed by a line of people, waiting to be photographed with it. We walk a short distance to the Z-bend trail, our efforts rewarded with breathtaking views of the 80km gorge that the Murchison river has cut through the red and white rock. Red river gum trees stand in sharp contrast to the Tumblagooda sandstone. Whether you choose a day-long trek or a 15-minute trail, the vast arid landscape is overwhelming. I spot a solitary kangaroo on the hop and a thorny devil (spiky lizard) on a jaunty stroll in pursuit of a black-ant snack.

What appears at first as a scrubby sandplain actually holds as much diversity as a rainforest. Poor soils may lack the nutrients for rapid growth but this gives many other plants a chance to survive. Over 1,000 plant species, including catspaw, spider orchids and banksia, have been recorded in the area.

On the road trip back to Perth, I spot the leaning trees of Greenough, red river gum trees that have been whacked into shape by epic winds and grow almost perpendicular to the ground. We make a stop at Hutt Lagoon, or the Pink Lake, near the picturesque town of Port Gregory, which we had seen from the sky. As the name promises, the waters are a pretty shade of pink, the iconic colouring coming from the presence of carotenoid-producing algae. The shades of pink change depending on the cloud cover, light and time of day.

On an overcrowded planet, being set free in the vast expanse of the Coral Coast is bliss. The only traffic you have to watch for in these parts is a spiky echidna, bobtail lizard or kangaroo on the hop. Visit while the tranquillity and wildlife last.

Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.

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