is an ideal spot for swimming and
Exmouth (including North West Cape)
Old US naval town surrounded by wild and
interesting coastal scenery
Located on the eastern coast of the North West
Cape 1270 km north of Perth and 13 m above sea
level, Exmouth was, historically, a naval town
serving the US Naval Communication Station,
Harold E. Holt, and the Learmonth RAAF Base. The
US Navy left in the early 1990s and while part
of the old naval base is still used by the
Australian Navy (another part has become
accommodation for backpackers) today the town is
driven primarily by tourism with deep sea
fishing, the beautiful Ningaloo Reef and the
complex coastal wildlife (whale sharks are
prevalent in the area) attracting visitors to
this hauntingly beautiful region.
Like so much of the Western Australian
coastline the area around Exmouth was known to
Dutch sailors from the early seventeenth
century. The first Europeans to sight North West
Cape were Haevik Claeszoon von Hillegom and
Pieter Dirkszoon who sailed through the area in
the Zeewolf on 24 June 1618. A month later
Willem Jansz and Captain Jacobsz came ashore
from their ship Mauritius. In the ship's log for
31 July 1618 it is recorded 'On the 31st of July
we discovered an island and went ashore, found
human footsteps, on the west side the land
extended NNE and SSW; it was the length of
fifteen mijlen; northern extremity is in
twenty-two degrees S.' What they had landed on
was not an island but North West Cape.
There is evidence that most of the famous
Dutch sailors including Dirk Hartog, Willem
Vlamingh (the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, named in
his honour, is located 19 km north of Exmouth.
Built in 1912 it has been replaced by radio
signalling, however half day tours can be booked
at the Exmouth Tourist Bureau), Abel Tasman and
the doughty Francisco Pelsaert all passed
through the area.
Pelsaert, whose ship the Batavia was wrecked
on the Houtman Abrolhos on 4 June 1629, rowed
from the present site of Geraldton to Batavia.
He stopped near Point Cloates to take on water.
In 1801 the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin,
sailed up the coast and named Cape Murat after
Perhaps the most important early visitor was
Phillip Parker King who was forced into the gulf
on 11 February 1818 and explored the region for
the next eight days. It was King who named the
gulf Exmouth, after Viscount Exmouth RN, and it
was King who reported that the whole area was
desert and therefore unsuitable for settlement.
So persuasive was King's assessment of the
region that it wasn't until 1899 that the first
settler, Thomas Carter, took up land on the
lonely, dry peninsula.
However between 1818 and 1899 the peninsula
had been regularly visited by the pearl fishers
who scoured the coast in search of good pearl
beds. A cyclone entered the gulf in 1876
decimating the pearling fleet and killing 69
The modern settlement of Exmouth can be dated
from May 1963 when the Australian and United
States governments agreed to establish the $66
million Harold E. Holt US Naval Communication
Station at North West Cape. This single event
created the town.
The area's strategic importance had been
recognised during World War II when Exmouth Gulf
became an important submarine base for
Australian and US submarines. The base,
nicknamed 'Potshot' by the Americans, operated
between 1942-45. In 1945 most of the facilities
were destroyed by a cyclone. It was during the
war that the Learmonth airstrip, named after
Wing Commander Charles C. Learmonth, was opened.
Ningaloo Reef from Cape Range National
The establishment of Exmouth was the
culmination of Federal Government plans which
had begun in 1962, and which, by 1963 had
already seen the Western Australian Town
Planning Department choose three sites on the
northerly tip of the peninsula (Vlamingh Head
and areas to the north and south of the present
town) where it was planned to use 121 hectares
to build a town which could house 702 people.
From its earliest days it was always a
military town. The town was gazetted in 1963 and
its first two Civil Commissioners were Colonel
K. Murdoch and Air Commodore T. Walters. In 1964
there were only four permanent houses in the
town. Most of the population lived in the
Burtenshaw Caravan Park. The town and the Naval
Communication Station were both opened on 16
September 1967. The population of the town
peaked at around 4300 in the late 1960s. Today
there are less than 3000 people in the town of
whom about 25 per cent are American service
personnel and their families.
The Exmouth Tourist Bureau used to hand out a
single sheet headed 'Two Nations - Two Goals.
Freedom and Peace. Naval Communication Station
Harold E. Holt'. Written in dull military prose
it declared: 'The Australian Government has a
prime responsibility to provide the nation with
security from armed attack and from the
constraints on independent national decisions
imposed by the threat of armed attack'. A couple
of paragraphs later it observes 'Australia has
no defined enemy at the moment.'
It is worth registering that critics of the
base argue that in the event of a nuclear war it
would be a prime target as its thirteen huge
radio masts monitor the movements of US warships
in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
Things to see:
off the Cape Range plateau
Cape Range National Park
Undoubtedly the premier attraction in the area
is the Cape Range National Park (which includes
a substantial amount of the Ningaloo Marine Park
- see Coral Bay). The park, which was
established in 1965 and extended in 1974, has
been designed in such a way to provide a
cross-section of the peninsula from the
dissected and desert-line plateau (the rainfall
on the peninsula is so unreliable that there
have been years when less than 100 mm has
fallen) to the coastal plains, the mangrove
swamps, the lagoon between the shoreline and the
Ningaloo Reef, and the sea life which lies
beyond the reef.
In the excellent 28-page CALM booklet Range
to Reef the variety of activities in the park is
described: 'Hike through eucalypt woodlands or
climb down deep rocky gorges and enjoy
breathtaking scenery. Walk over a flat spinifex
plain and a succession of ancient fossil reefs,
climb coastal dunes down to sandy beaches...dive
into an emerald lagoon and swim over the coral
An appropriate starting point in the Cape
Range National Park is the Milyering Visitor
Centre. The centre is a model of modern design
with solar heating, rammed earth walls to reduce
temperature variations, a composting toilet
which is used to fertilise the gardens, and
extensive natural light. It has audio visual
displays, books on the region and advice about
hiking in the park.
There are two main roads into the park.
Shothole Canyon Road, 16 km south of Exmouth, is
a convenient entry point. This unsealed road,
originally named after some shotholes which were
used for blasting for seismographic experiments
back in the 1950s, leads into the park's gorges.
It is worth noting that the area is dangerous.
The walls are sheer, the rocks are loose, and in
summer the temperatures become dangerously high.
Shothole Canyon Road is connected to Charles
Knife Road (which runs along a nearby ridge) by
a 5 km walking trail.
Further to the south, near the Learmonth RAAF
Base is the Solar Observatory. Although not open
for inspection the white parabolic discs can be
seen from the road. The station monitors solar
activity and is part of a worldwide network of
similar stations. The fact that the area boasts
an excess of 3500 hours of sunshine each year
was an important consideration when the base was
Ningaloo Marine Park
The Marine Park offers visitors a rare
opportunity to inspect the reef and its fauna at
close quarters. It stretches south along 260 km
of coastline from Bundegi Beach, near Exmouth.
At points the reef is no more than 100 metres
from the shore and its waters are home to such
spectacular creatures as the huge whale shark,
the humpback whale, green turtles, dolphins and
The Marine Park was declared in 1987 in an
attempt to protect Western Australia's largest
coral reef and to control public access to it.
It is a unique area because the reef is so close
to the dry landmass and because it is here that
the Australian continent is closest to the
continental shelf. The reef boasts 170 hard
corals, 11 soft corals and 475 species of fish.
In its own way it is as good as the Great
Barrier Reef and it is much more accessible.
Both the Peoples Caravan Park and Bayview
Holiday Village have glass bottom boat tours
Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station
and VLF (Very Low Frequency) Antenna Field
To the north of the town are both the Harold E.
Holt Naval Communication Station (6 km) and the
VLF (Very Low Frequency) Antenna Field (11 km)
both of which are restricted areas although
tours of the Communication Station can be
arranged through the Exmouth Tourist Bureau. The
bureau has brochures on the base and the
excellent and very detailed regional guide Coral
Coast Tourist Information has a very detailed
description of the base's workings. The huge
towers, which are higher than the Eiffel Tower,
are probably Australia's most vulnerable point
in the unlikely event of nuclear war.
from Ningaloo Safari Tours steers on
Yardie Creek Gorge
Vlamingh Lighthouse and Cape Range
The road to the north of the town continues
around the coast to Vlamingh Lighthouse and from
there becomes a 4WD track down through the Cape
Range National Park.
One of the highlights of the trip is the
Vlamingh Lighthouse which is now open to the
public for tours every day. It was relit for the
first time in 34 years on 14 July, 2001
utilizing the original kerosene and
counterweight system. It is the only originally
fired and driven light in the country. There are
various displays being completed for
installation in the building that will give
visitors a taste of life on the Cape in past
years. The tours can be booked directly through
the lighthouse ph 0407 970 647 or 0419 190 357
or the Exmouth Tourist Bureau.
Another highlight is Yardie Creek which is
caught by the sand dunes before it reaches the
sea. The effect is of a strange fjord with
vertical cliffs dropping into the creek waters.
Cyclone Vance, one of the worst to hit the
Western Australian coastline, ripped through the
town on 22 March 1999 causing extensive damage.
With typical country town resilience the
townsfolk rebuilt the town in the space of a
couple of months.