Exmouth is a town in Western Australia, midway between Perth and Broome, with a resident population of 2,806 in 2021. The main reasons to visit are to dive Ningaloo Reef, and to see Cape Range National Park.
Exmouth is pronounced "EX-MOUTH" without shortening the vowel sound. Its Aboriginal people were the Yinikutira (or Jinigudira), and the first European visitors were Dutch mariners in 1618. In the late 19th century the area was visited by pearlers and whalers, but there was no settlement until World War II. In 1942 Japan captured the Dutch East Indies (nowadays Indonesia) and could launch attacks against Australia, perhaps even invade, so air and sea bases were needed in this region. The Allied commanders thought the location was unpromising but would "give it a potshot" and this name stuck. Operation Potshot established US and Australian bases, with over 1000 US troops, an airfield, radar and air defences, and a submarine refuelling station. The troops were withdrawn in 1943 as the Japanese threat faded, but the air strip was kept on to become RAAF Learmonth. A civilian town only appeared in the 1960s to support the Naval Communications Station, which remains active.
The bay is shallow, and there aren't the valuable ores that have turned the Pilbara ports into dusty busy places, so Exmouth has a sleepy small town feel even in the mid-Nov to mid-March tourist season. It is surrounded by endless beaches, national parks, and arid beauty. You can always find a beach and a reef to have nearly to yourself.
Exmouth is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, at latitude 22° south. That means the midday sun is directly overhead (as near as) 20 days before and 20 days after midsummer, and pretty close to overhead from November through January. The climate is usually dry from June through January, and the landscape is arid.
Most rain falls from February to May: not much in annual total, but it can come down in a deluge, when even the main highway may flood. Do not attempt to cross moving water (the depth indicators at the creeks show how deep it can get), and stay off dirt roads in the wet.
- 1 Learmonth Airport (LEA IATA) (40 km south of Exmouth off highway to Minilya). This has one or two Qantas flights from Perth daily, taking just under two hours. The airport terminal is bright and modern, and has a licensed cafe open for departing flights, and a small souvenir shop. Mobile phone reception at the airport is poor. See Get Around for car hire, which must be pre-booked, as they're bringing the car from town. A minibus transfer to town, which must likewise be pre-booked, costs $40 adult and $25 child. See Coral Bay page for transfers to that resort 110 km away. The civil airport shares its facilities with RAAF Learmonth, which has a separate entrance further south along the main highway.
- Exmouth Aerodrome (EXM IATA), ☏ . An airstrip for private aviation 10 km south of town. It's a sealed runway and there are landing lights, but it may be awash in wet weather, and there's no fence to keep out animals. Phone ahead before flying in, and talk on CTAF 118.3. There's no fuel available.
Integrity Coaches run three times a week between Perth and Exmouth, where the bus stop is by the Visitor Information Centre. They leave Perth Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays around 8AM, reaching Exmouth around 3PM next day. They'll drop-off and pick-up at Coral Bay town and Learmonth Airport if pre-booked. The Tuesday-to-Wednesday bus continues north to Broome and on the other two days it continues to Port Hedland. The southbound buses leave Exmouth Tu F Su around 1:30PM, reaching Perth by 8AM next day.
You need wheels. The town is spread out, uncomfortable to trek under a summer sun, and the sights along the coast and Cape Range National Park are many km out.
- North has most of Exmouth's sights. Follow the main highway Murat Road.
- 1 Point Murat 14 km north is the headland near the tip of North West Cape. The Navy Pier, 110 m long, is still used by navy vessels, so access is only allowed on regulated dive trips (see below) - no snorkelling or clambering on the structure. Bundegi Beach just south can be reached by public road and has a boat jetty. Beyond the beach turn-off, Murat Road is closed to all except authorised vehicles. The Point and coast highway are named for Admiral Joachim Murat (1767-1815), a Napoleonic cavalry marshal who knew diddly-squat about the sea, and who was executed by firing squad for changing sides unsuccessfully.
- Howard E Holt Naval Communication Station is the military base by the Point, so it's off-limits, but you'll see its "Tower Zero" from afar. This is 387 m / 1270 ft tall, set within a hexagon of 364 m towers, and its job is radio comms with faraway ships and submarines at very low frequency, 19.8 kHz. For a standard monopole aerial to work at that wavelength it would need to be almost 4 km tall, so the trick is to amplify it with an array of subsidiary masts. In civilian transmitters these are low-set and look like the ribs of an umbrella, but to talk to submerged subs demands very high power. So this leads to the "trideco" design, where the other masts are almost as tall, and to a radio wave they look like a hexagonal antenna 2 km across. There's no credible evidence of side effects on wildlife, aircraft comms or anything tangible, but the station does spawn dingbat memes. One favourite is that it controls the weather - ever since it was commissioned in 1968, Australia has been a hot dry country, right? It's named for Howard Holt who was the prime minister from 1966 to 1967, when he disappeared while swimming in Victoria . . . spooky huh?
- 2 SS Mildura is a wreck visible at low tide 80 m off the tip of the cape. It was a steam-powered cattle ship, driven onto the rocks in a cyclone of 1907. Much of its metal was salvaged for scrap, and in World War II it was used as a bombing target. The turn-off to the cape is helpfully called Mildura Wreck Road.
- 3 South Muiron Island is glimpsed 15 km off the cape, with Peak Island behind it. These islands along the reef are all uninhabited nature reserves.
- 4 Vlamingh Head Lighthouse was completed in 1912 and de-activated in 1969 when a light was fitted to one of the naval radio towers. It's a popular place to watch the sun set over the ocean (which you can't do in Exmouth, where the sun sets behind the hills) - and indeed the sun rise, as it's one of the few places on the continent with an ocean view both ways. On top of the hill is the remains of a radar dish installed for Operation Potshot in 1942, and destroyed by a cyclone in 1945. The bay is a popular diving spot.
- Jurabi Turtle Centre by the lighthouse facilitates seasonal viewing of broody turtles hauling ashore, in ways that won't impact on their egg-laying.
- 5 Cape Range National Park is entered 20 km south of the lighthouse, see separate page for park fees, sights and regulations. The road continues south through the park (tarmacked and suitable for standard cars) for another 30 km to end at Yardie Creek.
- 6 Shothole Canyon is within Cape Range National Park, but accessed from the main road 17 km south of Exmouth not by the Yardie Creek Road. It's a 12 km dirt road along the canyon floor, 4WD recommended. (The park suggest you can get in by 2WD in fine weather, but they're ominously silent about the getting out again.) The shotholes were for explosive charges in the 1950s, to seismically map the bedrock. Fortunately they didn't find any oil; unfortunately some charges remain unexploded.
- 7 Charles Knife Canyon is a similar dirt road into the Park, 4WD recommended, which branches off the main highway 5 km further south. It winds up the canyon floor until it almost meets Shothole Canyon at its head. Charles Knife and Jack King built it for oil prospectors, who had no better luck here than before. From the Thomas Carter Lookout, you can take the Badjirrajirra loop trail, 6 km and allow 3 hours.
- 8 Krait Memorial near Learmonth jetty commemorates Operation Jaywick, a commando raid against Japanese-occupied Singapore in 1943. Krait had been the Japanese fishing boat Kofuku Maru, seized by the US at the outbreak of war and used to rescue survivors of shipwrecks along the Sumatra coast. It was handed over to Australia and sailed from Learmonth into Singapore harbour, where the commandos transferred to canoes and attached limpet mines to shipping: six ships were sunk. Krait snuck away undetected and the Japanese assumed it was local sabotage, and tortured or killed anyone remotely suspected. The vessel is on display in Darling Harbour, Sydney.
- The Solar Observatory by the jetty monitors solar events and space weather, important for global telecoms. No tours.
- 9 Fig Tree Cave is up another dirt road, high clearance 4WD only. You shimmy 8 m down a rope ladder into a decorated cave. It's just outside the park, the dirt road crosses private farm land, and since 2020 the landowners have closed public access.
- Potshot Memorial is on the main highway approaching Learmonth Airport.
- Ningaloo Aquarium is at 2 Truscott Cres opposite the RAC caravan park, adult $19, child or conc $14. It's open daily 9AM-4:30AM, except Nov-Mar when Sa Su it closes at 1PM. They also organise boat trips.
- Town beach is the long sandy strip by Mantarays.
- Golf: Exmouth Golf Club is the park east of the main highway, reached by Willersdorf Rd towards the coast.
- See Cape Range National Park for sights further west.
- Ningaloo Reef is 260 km long and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around Exmouth and the Northwest Cape it comes to within a few hundred meters of the coast, creating tranquil lagoons with beautiful corals. Several dive operators and resorts offer trips, for instance to Lighthouse Bay and to Point Murat Navy Pier. Longer trips visit the Muiron Islands 13 km off Point Murat, a breeding ground for sea turtles.
- Dive shops in town are Exmouth Diving and Dive Ningaloo - this latter is the only operator taking trips to Navy Pier. They also offer whale-watching and other boat trips, but not dive training so you need to be already certified.
- Snorkelling is possible at multiple spots, but the best (such as Turquoise Beach) are within Cape Range National Park a 50 km drive round the cape.
- Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are most often seen in the bay April to June. Boat operators use spotter planes to identify those you might snorkel with - they need to be shallow, moving slowly and not skittish. Then the skipper lines up the boat and you jump in and snorkel alongside the whale, no touching. It's like trying to keep pace with a large road truck illuminated by a glitter-ball, it soon leaves you behind, then the boat recovers everyone and tries for another encounter. (Scuba is not permitted, and pointless as you'd move so slowly.) Boat operators include Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours, Whale Shark Dive and Ningaloo Blue.
- Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) throng the bay in autumn and spring. You can join a tour or approach in your own boat with care. These beasts swim too fast for snorkelling but display surface behaviours such as breaching.
- Supermarkets: Ningaloo IGA and Exmouth IGA are cheek-by-jowl on Ross St / Maidstone Cres. Both have a good range, and are open daily 7AM- 7PM.
- ATMs are in both IGA supermarkets.
- Fresh Fish Shack on Pellew St is a fish wholesaler, open M-F 9AM-5PM, Sa 9AM-12:30PM.
- Eating out in Exmouth costs twice as much as in Perth, through high transport and labour costs, and limited competition.
- Exhale, 1 Thew St, ☏ . W-Su 7:30AM-11AM. Pleasant cafe for breakfast.
- Ningaloo Bakehouse by the supermarkets is open for breakfast daily 6AM-10:30PM. The bakery store remains open M-Sa to 5PM and Su to 3PM.
- Bluelips is a fish & chips and burger takeaway on Thew St next to the supermarkets, open W-Su 5:30PM-8PM. Many customers are underwhelmed.
- The BBqfather, 1112 Murat Rd, ☏ . M-Sa 5:30PM-9PM. Mainstream Italian and BBQ, serves wine and beer. Scores well on quality.
- Froth Craft Brewery, 5 Kennedy St, ☏ . Daily noon-11PM. It's as much a family-friendly restaurant as a brewhouse, good atmosphere.
- Whalers, 2 Murat Rd (by Escape Resort), ☏ . Daily 7AM-10:30PM. Reliable place for steak and seafood.
- Cadillacs bar and grill has Country & Western live music. It's opposite the RAC caravan park but was closed in 2021.
- Whalebone Brewing is a family-friendly place serving pizza and craft beers. It's south end of town at 27 Patterson Way, open daily 4PM-10PM.
- See Eat and Sleep for other places serving drink, especially Froth Craft Brewery and Potshot.
- Accommodation for the eclipse is expected to open for booking in April 2022 and sell out fast. Camping is prohibited outside campgrounds.
- 1 Potshot, 561 Murat Rd, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Good value motel with lively pub and restaurant. They also have six-bed dorms, see below. Double room $250, Dorm $37 ppn.
- Exmouth YHA is the hostel within Potshot.
- Osprey Holliday Village are self-catering apartments across the road from Potshot, with Exmouth Villas a block south.
- 2 Ningaloo Lodge, 1 Lefroy St (south end of Maidstone Cres), ☏ , email@example.com. Pleasant motel with pool and laundry, close to TIC and Italian restaurant Double room $165.
- 3 Ningaloo Caravan and Holiday Resort, 1112 Murat Rd, ☏ . Clean well-run resort with chalets, 250 caravan hook-ups and 40 camping pitches. Their dorm is closed, and pets are only allowed in caravans and camping areas.
- 4 RAC Exmouth Cape Holiday Park, 3 Truscott Cres, ☏ . Clean friendly park with rooms and pitches. Double room $150, hook-up $45, pitch $40.
- 5 Exmouth Escape Resort, Murat Rd (corner of Welch St), ☏ . Resort with self-catering apartments. Double $350.
- 6 Mantarays Ningaloo Beach Resort (formerly Novotel), Madaffari Drive, ☏ . Beach resort hotel with great reviews for comfort, service and food. Double $400.
As of Jan 2022, Exmouth town has 4G from Telstra, which extends north to the navy transmitter and lighthouse, then gives out along the road to the park entrance. A basic mobile signal extends south to the Burkett Rd junction but with a lot of dead areas around the airport. As of August 2022 there's also good 4G signal from Optus, at least in town. There's no signal from Vodafone. 5G has not reached this area.
- North the road winds round the cape to Cape Range National Park. It's a dead-end so you have to return to Exmouth.
- South is the only through-road out of town. Stay on it to reach the airport, the turn-off for Coral Bay after 130 km, then after another 80 km it joins the Northwest Coastal Highway just south of Minilya Roadhouse. Further south lie Carnarvon, Geraldton and a choice of onward routes to Perth.
- Northeast for Onslow, Karratha, Port Hedland and Broome, start southward and turn left around the 80 km mark onto Burkett Road, which cuts east across Bullara and Giralia Stations to the NW Coastal Highway. This saves 200 km on going around via Minilya.