Friday, 5 October 2018

Wanamalu Trail (Francois Peron National Park)

A short but beautiful walk in Francois Peron National Park, the Wanamalu Trail links Skipjack Point to Cape Peron. Heading through the dunes, the trail offers spectacular views of the vibrant orange and red desert sands meeting the light blue waters of Shark Bay, with the opportunity to spot wildlife along the way. An enjoyable walk, this will be a worthwhile highlight for visitors to the Shark Bay World Heritage Area

Distance: 3.6 km (return)
Gradient: Gentle walking over its entire length
Quality of Path: Generally clear and well maintained trail, with some rough ascents/descents in sections. Soft sand throughout the entire trail
Quality of Signage: Clear trailhead at the start of the walk, with markers and informative signs all along the walk
Experience Required: No Bushwalking Experience Required
Time: 1-1.5 Hours
Steps: No Steps, but not wheelchair friendly
Best Time to Visit: Autumn-Spring on cooler days, and preferably early in the morning. 
Entry Fee: Yes. National Park fees apply
Getting There: From Denham or Monkey Mia, take Monkey Mia Rd and turn onto Peron Rd, and follow the 4WD track all the way to Skipjack Point or Cape Peron where trailheads are located. Note that this track is 4WD only and should not be attempted in low clearance vehicles. A list of suitable vehicles is listed on the park

After our adventures at Ningaloo exploring the gorges and canyons of Cape Range National Park and snorkeling the Ningaloo Reef, Alissa and I began our journey back to Perth. But before returning home, Alissa and I would leave the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area to visit our seventh World Heritage Area for the year - Shark Bay. I had last been in these parts back in 1997, and with Alissa having never been up this way, it made sense to make this a stop on our way south.

While less obviously spectacular than Ningaloo, Shark Bay is actually even more qualified than Ningaloo to be a World Heritage Area as it qualifies for all four of the natural criteria for World Heritage listing. One of the reasons this area got its status in 1991 is that it is home to one of the best colonies of Stromatolites in the world. Living cities made by colonies of cyanobacteria, Stromatolites are some of the oldest lifeforms on the planet and were responsible for pumping oxygen into the atmosphere of an early Earth. The water of Shark Bay create ideal conditions for Stromatolites to grow, as well as supporting the largest and most biodiverse seagrass meadows in the world.

Another great feature of Shark Bay WHA is the famous Shell Beach. There are a lot of Shell Beaches in the world, but Shark Bay's Shell Beach is literally made of tiny shells instead of sand. Years of heavy visitation has started to crush and compact some of the shells in places, but walking a little bit further south reveals more untouched areas. This beach is often considered one of Austalia's best, and while I can probably think of at least a dozemn I would consider far better, it is definitely one of the country's more unique.

While a chance to see the famous dolphins of Monkey Mia were the main reason Alissa wanted to visit Shark Bay, my major goal for the trip was to get out to Francois Peron National Park. When I was last here, my parents didn't have a car that could access the four wheel drive only trail into the park and the photos of orangey-red dunes against the ocean made it a bit of unfinished business for my younger self.

The problem we had is that the brochures make it quite clear that you need a high clearance vehicle to actually make it into the park, and while the T32 X-Trail is the highest clearance model in the series, it is what I would describe as 'medium clearance'. Still, with a trail located deep within the park, I was determined to see if we could make it all the way to Skipjack Point. For most of the distance, the sandy track was easy enough for the X-Trail to pass through, however there was a section of extremely soft sand that caused us to get bogged three times. We nearly gave up after the third time, however after pushing through with recovery tracks on our last attempt, we were able to clear the soft sand and make it all the way to to the start of the Wanamalu Trail at Skipjack Point. Having owned a Jeep Wrangler for many years, I had a bit of experience for how to drive to these kind of conditions, however if you've not had the experience I would err on the side of caution and not push through. Even if you do push through, recovery tracks are absolutely essential - we met a number of people with real high clearance four wheel drives get bogged here!

The Wanamalu Trail starts at either Skipjack Point or Cape Peron, and with Cape Peron being the northernmost tip of the Peron Peninsula, it made narrative sense for us to start at Skipjack Point.

Before heading to Cape Peron, a side trail leads to a lookout point via a series of boardwalks.

From this point, Alissa and I had our first spectacular views of the orange soils of the dunes contrasted against the cool blue azure of the bay itself. The sight of the the arid desert of the Australian Outback touching the ocean is what makes Francois Peron such a special place, and it was even more beautiful seeing it in real life.

The boardwalk leads to two lookout points, with the lookout to the left being the superior of the two.

This left lookout point provides a spectacular view of Cape Peron, with a series of orange and rust red cliffs encircling a bay of shallow, blue water. This was a truly magical and alien scene that was worth the challenge of pushing through the sandy tracks.

After enjoying the lookout point, Alissa and I returned back to the main trail began our journey to Cape Peron. The Wanamalu Trail is well signed throughout its length, with directional markers at regular intervals.

The walking is relatively easy going, with little in the way of elevation gain. The only challenge to the walk is that it is entirely through the soft sands, while makes for slower going than the equivalent distance on harder surfaces.

While initially passing inland through the dunes, the trail head towards the coast with views back to Skipjack Point. 

From there, the trail follows the top of the coastal ridge as it heads towards Cape Peron. The views along this stretch are outstanding as you can see the clear distinctions between the rusty, orange soil of the dunes, the cream-coloured sand of the bead and the azure of the water in the bay. 

The trail along the ridge is clear but not overly manicured, and gives the area a bit of a wild feel like you're just walking through the dunes. Work has been done however to limit the environmental impact, with other side trails being closed for rehabilitation. 

As we continued down the beach, Alissa and I saw a large number of birds waiting by the water's edge. 

The birds were pied cormorants resting on the shore. There are a number of reason for cormorants to line up in this fashion; it could be they have come in from the shore due to sharks in the water, it could be to rest after hunting for fish or because they are waiting to scab off some dolphins as they drive fish towards the shore. We would later see a few dolphins swimming close to the shore, however while we waited in anticipation for a lucky David Attenborough documentary moment, the dolphins gave up and disappointingly fizzled out instead of going to a frenzy. 

Reaching the tip of Cape Peron, the 'desert meets the ocean' scenery that Francois Peron is famous for reaches its zenith, with a large expanse of desert sand overlooking the shallow waters of Shark Bay. The extreme contrast of the blue and orange might appear almost cartoon-like, but having actually been there I can say that the vibrancy is very accurate. 

At the end of the large expanse of desert sand, the track turns left towards the Cape Peron car park. The trail officially ends at the car park with its second trailhead, however there's a section of low cliffs made of deep red soil that are worth checking out. 

Unlike the soft sands of the dunes, the soils here had a more solid consistency that was not dissimilar to a termite mound. Beneath this was more solid rock that was also in a deep, rusty red colour. 

After enjoying the coastline, Alissa and I made our way back up to Cape Peron's day use area. 

Making our way up from the low cliffs, Alissa and I stopped to enjoy a lovely display of coastal wildflowers. Coming after a season of outstanding rains, the wildflower display from Cape Range all the way back down through the Turquoise Coast area south of Geraldton was spectacular. 

From Cape Peron, Alissa and I made our way back along the trail to Skipjack Point for a total of 3.6 kilometres return. 

While shorter than I would prefer, I felt like the Wanamalu Trail featured some pretty spectacular scenery; the sharp contrast of deep blues and vibrant reds and oranges makes for an incredible sight that was worth the somewhat difficult drive deep into the park. In fact, while Shell Beach and the Stromatolites are some of the more popular and heavily visit parts of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, I would have to say that Francois Peron was easily the most beautiful highlight of Shark Bay and is well worth seeing.


On the way out of the park, we managed to get through the soft sand pretty easily, however when pushing through the sand at a junction we gave another four wheel drive a bit of a fright as they were not expecting us. This was definitely our fault for taking the corner a bit fast, and it is something I would tell others to avoid; don't risk an accident to avoid getting bogged! On the plus side, no harm was done and we spotted an emu and its chick as we reached the tyre inflation point at the end of the 4WD track in Francois Peron. 

While Francois Peron was my main reason for visiting Shark Bay, Alissa's was to see the Monkey Mia dolphins. The friendly dolphins of Shark Bay were very popular and drew a massive crowd, however the dolphins swim so close to the crowd that we all got a good look at them. 

In the past, the dolphins of Shark Bay were so overly reliant on humans feeding them that their young became unable to hunt, however the dolphin feeding is now well controlled and regulated with only a few members of the audience randomly selected to feed the dolphins.

After the dolphins, Alissa and I headed south to Geraldton. Only a few kilometres out from Monkey Mia, we had to stop to change a tyre. This is one of the downsides of living an adventurous life - there is always something that goes wrong on these kinds of longer road trips, but for a change it wasn't a cracked windscreen!


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