A Beach Made of Shells at Shark Bay

Days 375-377

After spending two nights in the beautiful Kalbarri area, I continued my drive north. After about three hours, I arrived at Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area. There wasn’t anything around during the two-lane drive. I drove another 40 minutes until I arrived in Denham. Some new Australian friends that I met told me not to worry about spending time there, so I kept driving towards a campsite that I saw on an app. 

I pulled down a dirt road, but there was a small check-in area with signs posted. There was also a giant sign explaining that you must have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to enter. I read through the instructions, and it listed cars that would not be suitable – the Subaru Outback was one of them. My vehicle was all-wheel-drive, but it wouldn’t get me through the sand. Because the sand is so thick and soft in areas, it provided instructions for releasing air from your tires. Once the ground hardens again, you need a pump to put more air back in the tires. 

I didn’t have an air pump and didn’t know how much air to let out of the tires. Taking my car would be too risky to go farther. I decided that while I was in the area, I’d go to Monkey Mia. It’s a place where dolphins come to the shore, and you can walk along the short pier to see a ton of them. 

It was late afternoon, and I would have to pay to check out the area. I had already heard that it wasn’t worth spending much time there because it was a tourist trap and overrated, so I parked and decided to take a quick look. But, I had to hurry before my car got ticketed. I walked past a couple of buildings and walked onto the pier. 

There was just one dolphin swimming around. I have been on boat tours outside of Orange County, California, where I’ve seen hundreds of dolphins jumping and swimming around the boat, so I didn’t need to see more anyway.

Shell Beach

I got back in my car and tried to find out where I’d camp that night. It was finally warmer during the day, in the low 70s °F (22 °C), so I felt more comfortable camping. It started to drizzle, but thankfully it cleared up quickly. 

I drove past Denham and towards a campsite that was on an app, Wikicamps. When I turned off the main road, it was bumpy! The dirt road led me towards the ocean into a bay, but I had to go up and down a hill first. The road was extremely bumpy, making me fear that I’d get stuck. 

I approached the beach, and the road turned to sand. I got out and deflated my tires a bit. There wasn’t a single person around, making it beautiful but also a little scary. I pulled my car over at a spot on the beach, but not on the shells. 

I saw a sign posted that said you need a permit to camp there. I didn’t have time to go back to Denham to pay for a spot, so I called to see if I could pay over the phone. That was a bust because they were closed. I decided to stay and hope I didn’t run into a ranger. 

I walked around and quickly realized the entire beach was made of shells! Tiny white shells filled the area. There were even mounds of them. I dug my hand in and played with the delicate shells. 

The water in the bay was still as glass. Considering the whole peninsula was called Shark Bay, I decided not to get too close to the water. The bay was a half circle with hills on both sides of me. The sun reflected on the water, and I couldn’t believe I was able to camp there! 

I rearranged my car and put my luggage in the front seats. I laid the back seats down and pumped up my twin air mattress. Once my sleeping bag was laid on it, it looked pretty comfortable. This time, I had a regular air mattress instead of that crazy one that rolled me off when I camped in Australia’s center

I set up my table and chair and started making dinner. I cooked chicken, quinoa, cheese, and zucchini. The sunset was incredible as it reflected off the water and disappeared. The silence was eerie, though. 

By the time my food was ready to eat, it was dark outside. The mosquitos started to attack me, and there was one gigantic flying bug that kept dive-bombing me. It freaked me out, and I might have screamed a few times. Thankfully, nobody was around to hear me. 

I climbed into bed because it was getting colder outside, and I needed to avoid the bugs. The mattress was okay at first, but then it slowly lost its air, making my hips and butt hit the hard surface underneath. I couldn’t sleep, and I lost cell service, so I laid there bored. I tried hard not to let my mind wander…thinking of the serial killer that could be watching me out there all alone. 

It got frigid that night, and finally, at 6:00 am (after much tossing and turning), I woke up. The sun wasn’t up yet, so I tried to wait to get outside, but I knew I needed to get driving soon in case a ranger came to check out the campsites. 

At 6:25 am, I climbed out of the car, which was always tricky because there wasn’t a hatch on the back door. Instead, I had to climb out of the side door. I put my headlamp on and found a spot to go pee. I used a flashlight to pack up my stuff. Then the sun started to rise, but it wouldn’t peak above the hill blocking me. However, it created a pink layer just above the ocean, making it look like a dreamland. 

Stromatolites

At 7:20 am, I drove away from my campsite, tired, hungry, and dirty. On the other side of the peninsula was the official “Shell Beach,” so I made a stop. I walked towards the beach, and the area was extremely salty. A sign explained why the reserve was so salty there, partly because of very little freshwater draining into the area. The beach was pretty, but it didn’t compare to my private shell beach campsite. 

The next stop was at the stromatolites – the oldest living life forms at 3.5 billion years old. There was a boardwalk that went out into the ocean’s bay and looped around like a giant circle. The water below was crystal clear, and mounds of the stromatolites were all over the place under the water. 

It’s hard to describe what they are precisely. They look like brown mounds under the water, but that’s because we can’t see the microbes. One sign read, “The ground is alive and growing. It is covered with microbial mats, communities of microscopic life forms. In certain conditions, the communities trap particles and create stone. When this happens, microbial mats become microbialites. Sometimes microbialites form taller layered structures called stromatolites.” 

According to a sign, “They have been around for over three billion years, more than 75% of the Earth’s geologic history. Over the last two billion years, cyanobacteria in microbial mats influenced evolution by breathing oxygen into the atmosphere.”

I walked along the boardwalk and marveled at the oldest living life forms. I had seen a documentary shortly before arriving that talked about the area. There are thousands of stromatolites in the ocean along the coast covering 135 kilometers (84 miles). That part of the coastline is almost exclusively cyanobacteria stromatolites.

Scientists believe the bacteria came to Earth on a meteorite and could be what created life on Earth. Because the bacteria photosynthesize, they made the oxygen on Earth, allowing plants and other organisms to live. Scientists aren’t sure how a single cell microorganism created small colonies, which is what the mounds are. 

Another sign explained, “In this area the sun’s ultraviolet radiation is extreme, Hamelin Pool is almost twice as salty as the sea, and it gets really hot. Also, the area between high and low tides alternated between being exposed to the air and under water.”

I couldn’t believe I had never heard of these before. Maybe I was taught in science class at some point and wasn’t paying attention. It was fascinating to see so many and to see how clear the water was. 

Carnarvon

Once I finished walking around, I drove to a gas station to get coffee and a sausage roll. I continued driving north but was feeling very tired from my restless night of camping. I stopped in Carnarvon at 1:00 pm and searched for places to stay in Coral Bay. Unfortunately, it was a two-week Western Australia school holiday, so every place was booked. 

I booked a motel in Carnarvon. I couldn’t check in yet, so I went to the museum about the space program. I no idea, but Carnarvon was essential for satellites for the space program to work in the U.S. We needed something on the opposite end of the planet. 

There was a sign to explain how Buzz Aldrin came to Carnarvon in 2012 during the museum’s phase one opening. He said, “It’s like 50 years ago that I first heard the name Carnarvon, it was when John Glenn was making his first orbital flight of the Earth. We needed a tracking station down here in the Southern Hemisphere. Fortunately, the wonderful country of Australia obliged. It’s places like Carnarvon that give the last-minute instructions of when to fire the retrorockets so that we can land in the Northern Hemisphere.” 

The museum had lots of space equipment to look at and a simulation inside an old rocket. I climbed in with another person and sat back (lying down really) and listened to an actual launch. Then the small windows showed what astronauts would have seen. 

It was time to check-in to my motel, so I rested while searching for whale shark tours in Exmouth, but everything was fully booked. I found one company that let me reserve a spot, but the next day I was told they were sold out, and I wouldn’t be able to go. I booked a room in Exmouth (a room at a campground) to ensure I had a place to stay the following day. 

I picked up some Thai food for dinner, and when I returned to my motel, ants were everywhere! They had found my plastic box of cookies and swarmed it and the entire counter. I told the woman at the front, and she brought some ant spray but said it’s pretty common to get ants because it was the outback. 

I took advantage of the shared washer and dryer that were available and washed my clothes. The next morning, I ate the continental breakfast, checked-out, and continued driving north. I planned on driving 35 minutes north to a blowhole where water blows out of a rock. After 15 minutes into my drive, it was raining so hard that the road was flooding, and I could barely see. There were warning signs about flooding with sticks to mark how deep the water was. Being in my Subaru Outback, I didn’t want to get washed away. I reluctantly turned around and missed seeing the blowhole. 

Getting to Exmouth

I continued driving towards Coral Bay. The road was flat with nothing around. I was feeling tired and finally found a rest stop, and this one actually had port-a-potties. I slowed down as I drove down the gravel exit and heard some rubbing under my car. I got out, looked around, and noticed that the plastic liner that protects your engine from underneath your vehicle had disconnected and was hanging. One of the tires had grabbed hold of it, and the friction completely disintegrated a section of it. 

Great. My tire was hitting the large plastic piece as it hung below. I knew I had heard a rubbing-like sound coming from the car’s front when I was in Perth. I could only hear it when I was driving slowly, and it seemed like it went away after the car mechanic looked at it in Perth. I think it came loose from all of the outback driving. I didn’t know what to do. There were a few caravans at the rest area, with several set up for camping. I didn’t want to walk over to them, and nobody seemed interested in asking me what was wrong. 

Instead, I drove across the street and down a hill where there was a gas station. It was bustling, probably because it was the only one around for over a hundred kilometers. Two men were behind the counter, with lots of men walking in and out to pay for their gas. There was a woman behind the counter, and I asked if she had scissors. I explained my situation and said that I needed to cut a section off to keep it from rubbing against my tire. 

This wonderful woman came outside with scissors. She got on the ground and cut that plastic. It was challenging, so she got something else to help her cut it. After 15 minutes, the woman was successful. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it wasn’t rubbing, and I could get it looked at in Exmouth. The woman had dirt all over her clothes from lying on the ground and grease all over her hands. What a saint! 

I continued driving and stopped at Coral Bay. It was a beautiful, small beach area where Australians go on holiday. It was crowded, explaining why I couldn’t find a motel or a campsite available. I ordered a panini at an outdoor restaurant and enjoyed the breeze. 

I walked to the beach, and dark storm clouds were brewing in the distance. It was incredible to see them above the ocean, but I knew I better hit the road before being stuck in that storm. 

During the drive to Exmouth, it was raining on and off. The dark blue clouds were beautiful to look at, and at one point, a small rainbow appeared. The rain fell like a cartoon rain cloud, only raining if you were directly underneath the cloud. There were mounds of red rock scattered throughout the desert. 

I arrived at the campground where I booked a room. There were no more vacancies, so I was happy that I booked it the day prior. The woman said that my room was available for two additional nights, so I decided to scoop them up because I needed to get my car checked out and wanted to do some diving there. Exmouth is a small town with 2,400 people, but it’s the largest town for hundreds of miles. 

As I checked-in, the rain poured down outside! I asked the woman about tours where I could swim with the whale sharks – the largest fish on Earth. She said they were sold out for two weeks. I was super disappointed because the sharks are only there for a specific time of year. They also migrate to Thailand, but when I was there in February, the whale sharks weren’t around.  

The woman recommended that I check with the visitor center across the street because they can access all of the twelve tour companies. I ran across the four-lane road in the rain and arrived soaking wet with my shoes squishing as I walked. My small umbrella was no match for that windy rain. I asked the woman at a counter, and she confirmed that there was no space. Usually, I can squeeze in because it’s just me, but I had no luck. 

I walked back to the campground and drove to the building with my room. Thankfully, the rain turned to a drizzle. It was connected to two other rooms in a mobile-home type building. The wooden front porch was nice and had a picnic table. Across from the table were three different rooms. Mine was in the middle. 

The bathrooms were shared with the rest of the campground. It was a three-minute walk to get there. I knew there were shared bathrooms, but I didn’t anticipate that it was with the campsites and had to go outside. I passed more modular rooms and lots of campervans. Just outside of the bathroom were several clotheslines for drying clothes. Unfortunately, there were clothes on the line, now soaked. The rain had turned the dirt into mud, and large puddles were scattered around. 

I was a little disappointed about my small room with a bathroom that I had to walk outside to reach, but it was better than camping. I signed up to go scuba diving since I had just gotten certified in Thailand. I went diving in Vietnam too, but the water wasn’t clear. I wanted to make sure that I got a good night’s sleep because I get nervous about diving. I was still new to it and tried to make sure I got a good night’s sleep to calm my nerves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have predicted what was in store for me. 

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

4 thoughts on “A Beach Made of Shells at Shark Bay

  1. That header photo of Shark Bay is simply spectacular Christy… wow! Yeah, I would’ve been a bit scared being out there alone, too. I loved learning about the stromatolites. Fascinating stuff.

      1. Whose wouldn’t!

        Don’t give yourself a hard time about being anxious, it happens to a lot of us and it’s totally normal… nothing to feel badly about. I think you’re brave for attempting the dive and it sounds like the company wasn’t very professional. They should not have rushed people like that, it’s dangerous.

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