Stranger tides … Shell Beach in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Photograph: Getty Images
In October 1616, a Dutch trading ship on its way to Java was blown off course and fetched up on a long, narrow island off the west coast of Australia. The captain probably wasn’t the first European to set foot on Australian soil: but a pewter plate inscribed with his name makes Dirk Hartog’s the first recorded European’s presence.
Last month’s 400th anniversary of this visit briefly put what’s now called Dirk Hartog Island in the international spotlight. Afterwards, the only inhabitants, Tory Wardle and her dog, Salty, went back to their quiet life, hosting occasional fishermen or corporate groups who hire her beautiful stone-built lodge.
Dirk Hartog island. Photograph: Ted Mead/Getty Images
Four centuries after the Eendracht’s landfall, Europeans have still to truly discover the Coral Coast, the stretch of wild beaches and homely resort towns that runs for almost 800 miles north of Perth to Exmouth. While Hartog was in a hurry to get to Jakarta’s markets and wharves, today’s blow-ins have their sights on other Australian coastal hotspots: Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, Queensland’s Gold Coast and Great Barrier Reef, hippy Byron Bay, iconic Bondi, pristine Tasmania, the cool urban beaches of Melbourne and Adelaide and way south of here, the boutique winelands of Margaret River.
I’ve been to those places and the Coral Coast’s beauty and emptiness make it a match for any of them. It includes the Abrolhos Islands, in the Indian Ocean 40 miles off the town of Geraldton, four hours north of Perth. These used to be off limits to anyone other than fishermen, lobster importers and the occasional TV chef, but now, charter flights have begun taking daytrippers there from Geraldton. The plane first sweeps north over Waigen, an extraordinary algae-coloured pink lake and favourite photo opp. Then, heading due west over aquamarine and jade seas, it lands at East Wallabi, one of the largest of the group of 122 islands.
A peaceful kind of soft adventure awaits: lunch in a basic shelter above the beach, a gentle hike to scan the blustery coast for sea eagles and ospreys, pauses to spot a wallaby rummaging in the undergrowth.
Sand dunes on Dirk Hartog Island. Photograph: Alamy
But tranquillity and nature aren’t the only reasons for visiting the Abrolhos. In 1629, a second Dutch ship, the Batavia, was also blown off course, and foundered on a reef off nearby Beacon Island. A subsequent massacre by mutineers has created a small literary industry. The film rights to one book, Islands of Angry Ghosts by Hugh Edwards, have been acquired by Russell Crowe’s production company. If the film is made it won’t make for pleasant viewing, but the trickle of curious visitors already drawn by the Batavia story is sure to grow.
Back on the mainland, the allure of Australia’s “midwest” is history of a more ancient variety. Most ancient of all are the Jack Hills, inland north-east of Geraldton. Zircon crystals found here are the oldest rocks on Earth: remnants of the Hadean aeon, 4.4 billion years ago.
It’s not the only geological hotspot: for a brief spin through the history of our planet, it’s hard to beat the 270-mile drive from Geraldton to Monkey Mia – on a peninsula in Shark Bay, east of Dirk Hartog island. In shallow water in Hamelin Pool nature reserve there are stromatolites, bacterial structures descended from the first living organisms on Earth. Embedded in the sandstone cliffs of the Kalbarri national park is fossil evidence of the scorpion-like creatures that first ventured from the primordial seas on to land.
The road to Monkey Mia from Denham. Photograph: Alamy
Yet what people seek here is a place beyond time. And they can find it by turning off west anywhere as the long road north turns from farmland to bush to scrub. At nightfall I drove out of the small resort and fishing town of Denham, on the other side of the peninsula from Monkey Mia. I crept slowly along, keeping a wary eye out for kangaroos and emus. Ten minutes later, I was at Little Lagoon, sitting on the sand in total blackness with just the Milky Way, the occasional unseen splashing fish and a cold beer for company.
The lagoon’s bigger brother up the coast – that’d be Big Lagoon – is reached by a long and sandy four-wheel drive in the Francois Peron national park. The lagoon is closed to visitors right now, while the visitor centre is redeveloped. Unless, that is, you are with Darren “Capes” Capewell, the area’s busiest and most Instagrammed aboriginal guide. Capes’ mob, as he calls his people, aren’t bound by access restrictions, temporary or otherwise. So with him, visitors get to set off in a double kayak and paddle around Big Lagoon as rays and turtles sweep through the shallow turquoise waters. It costs A$200/£120 for a full day tour.
Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay. Photograph: Alamy
I could go on listing the beaches and the incredible variety of experiences this coast offers. Blindingly white Shell Beach, where the cockle shells lie 10 metres deep for mile after mile; or Shark Bay itself, a scary name for the least intimidating encounter with our finned friends – in this case, a small species actually called nervous sharks, who live up to their name by darting away anxiously at the sight of human legs in the shallow water.
Even the most touristy place, Monkey Mia, where a pod of female dolphins make a daily visit for fish and photo opportunities, is a supremely tranquil place once the daytrippers have gone.
So what is missing from the Coral coast? Well, it certainly has nothing in the way of sophisticated or luxurious places to stay. The Dongara tourist park is a group of simple chalets overlooking the dunes (from A$99/£60 a night). The Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort (from $125/£75) is a notch up, but the accommodation is nothing fancy.
Little Lagoon, Shark Bay. Photograph: Alamy
I wasn’t looking for fancy, but the lodgings around Geraldton and Shark Bay are largely tired, 1990s-style motels that stretch the meaning of the word “resort”. Many travellers solve this by coming in motorhomes.
Urban sophistication ends in Geraldton, which is the last place to get a decent coffee before heading north. Above what could be called the espresso parallel, you’re in the region of fish and chips, raucous bars and “utes”, the ubiquitous rural Aussie all-purpose vehicle. Those who want club lounges and concierge services will find them on the Gold Coast, a mere 53-hour drive away on the opposite side of the country. This place is all about the simple urge to discover.
The trip was provided by the Australiacoralcoast.com and flights by Cathay Pacific, which flies from London to Perth via Hong Kong from about £700 one-way