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Ecotourism and Responsible Travel

Discover Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef

Visitors Tread Lightly and Learn about a Delicate Ecosystem

My introduction to Ningaloo Reef was at a fundraising gig organized by the Wilderness Society in Fremantle, a historic port with a trendy, hippy culture just south of Perth, Australia. Tim Winton, the Booker-shortlisted author, fronted a campaign against the development of a resort-style Marina at Coral Bay, which would have threatened the eco-system of the reef. Unlike the Gold Coast and parts of Queensland, the vast and scarcely populated area of Western Australia remains unscarred by mass tourism.

Keen to experience the reef for myself, I escaped the busy backpacker and hotel scene in Exmouth, a popular base from which to explore the reef system, in favor of the peace, space, and abundant wildlife at the Ningaloo Reef Retreat. Billed as a wilderness camp, the retreat is an eco-resort in the heart of the Cape Range National Park.

The package for a day or overnight visitor includes transport on the Ningaloo Reef bus, which leaves Exmouth at 9 a.m. each day, returning at 4 p.m. Faithful to the principle of touching the earth lightly, no vehicles are permitted to enter the camp. On arrival, luggage and that day’s fresh water and food supplies are transported from the bus to the communal kitchen and dining area by wheelbarrow.

The number of guests is normally limited to 12, and the emphasis is on learning about and interacting with the ecology of the reef system. With so much of the world’s coral damaged or endangered, camp staff see themselves as custodians of the reef and, over a welcoming drink, remind visitors how to take care of this precious resource.

The knowledgeable and friendly camp guides lead daily kayaking trips to the Blue Lagoon and snorkeling with the turtles just off the beach. Some of the most dazzling and colorful fish imaginable swim just meters from the shore. With names such as fusiliers, sargent majors, black damsels, convict surgeon fish and spangled emperors, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in an underwater version of a nineteenth century British military post.

As familiar with the reef as if he had an underwater street map, Dave the camp manager, pointed out black and purple giant clams, the orange tentacles of the Christmas Tree worm, and the red egg sack of the Nudibranch. A short drift across the vast, slow-growing Porities coral, some of it hundreds of years old, brought us to an anemone, fending off predators with its stinging tentacles, a lion fish puffing out its frilly, venomous spines, and a menacing-looking sting ray.

Pleasantly tired, well exercised, and healthily hungry by early evening, I appreciated a basket of cheese and biscuits to accompany my glass of wine and views of the setting sun. As darkness fell it was time to head up to the kitchen and join in the preparations for dinner. Guests can choose from a selection of menus. Dinner was a very relaxed affair by kerosene lantern and candlelight. Singles, couples, and friends of all ages swapped traveling tales, and conversation ranged from Aboriginal languages to Chinese art.

After breakfast the next morning we swam out with Naomi, another guide, to the turtle pools and were lucky enough to swim with one of them; our own swimming clumsy in comparison to its graceful passage through the water.

Walking back to my tent after dinner, it took me a few minutes to realize that the eerie scratching noise in the sand was coming from the many crabs (aptly named ghost crabs) scuttling about. Enjoying the luxury of a queensize bed, I read my novel by the solar-powered light until sleep drowned out the noise of the ocean.

On my last morning I wandered north along the beach. My only companions were kangaroos and wallabies drinking at a freshwater creek, a wedge-tailed eagle flying overhead, and a reef heron strutting along the shore. The kangaroos stared at me indignantly. Clearly I was trespassing on their territory and disturbing their morning drink.

For More Info

Resort prices vary depending upon the degree of comfort and activities you choose. For more information visit www.salsalis.com.au.

For General information on Western Australia go to www.westernaustralia.com.

Skywest Airlines (www.skywest.com.au) flies from Perth to Learmonth (a 45-minute drive from Exmouth). The Greyhound bus (www.greyhound.com.au) goes from Perth to Exmouth (with a stop in Learmonth) and costs from AUS $150 one way. The journey takes just over seven hours.

The resort is open year round. Recommended times to visit are April to June (winter) and October to January (summer). February and March tend to be particularly hot.