Midway up Australia’s rugged western coastline, beyond the rusty ironstone hills of the Burrup Peninsula, Flying Foam Passage leads boaties into an archipelago of reef-fringed islands to snorkel, fish and camp in solitude.
Clustered in a 45km-radius from land and irresistibly close for travellers with a sea kayak or tinny on board, the Dampier Archipelago’s 42 islands, islets and rock outcrops and their shallow protected seas nurture nurseries of stingrays, turtles and reef sharks.
The entire archipelago is an important turtle-nesting site (with the largest hawksbill turtle rookery in the world), and you can spot humpback whales passing by on their annual northern migration from July to September.
Girthed by a marine park that protects one of Australia’s most diverse ecosystems, the Dampier Archipelago is an eminent region of exceptional beauty.
Underwater surveys have so far recorded an amazing 4500 marine species, including 268 species new to science.
Out of the water, the landscape is just as remarkable. In 2014, WA proclaimed Murujuga National Park its 100th national park, finally affording protection to the mainland’s Burrup Peninsula and the largest concentration of ancient, Indigenous rock art the world has ever discovered.
Etched with an estimated 100,000 petroglyphs, these 30,000-year-old rock canvases of the local Jaburara people extend beyond the Burrup Peninsula to the Dampier Archipelago islands too, where fascinating finds are within reach of boaties, just over the spinifex sand dunes.
There are spiritual beings, fish, birds, mammals and what is believed to be the oldest depiction of a human face, along with significant, ancient archaeological sites: shell middens, ceremonial grounds and areas containing stone artifacts, quarries and graves.
You can free camp on around a dozen islands within the archipelago as long as you stay within 100m of the high tide mark and limit your trip to five nights (no permit required).
The islands are completely undeveloped and provide no facilities so you’ll need to take ample supplies of drinking water, food, a fuel or gas stove, a shade shelter or tarp to keep the sun off, and take all rubbish away with you.
To get there, launch your tinny or seakayak from the beach boat ramp at Withnell Bay, accessed from the town of Dampier along a rugged track that is negotiable by conventional vehicles with care.
From Withnell Bay it’s a 10km run across the open waters of Mermaid Sound to explore East or West Lewis Islands, the site of one of the archipelago’s earliest pastoral settlements, or to camp on the remote northern tip of the Malus Island group where whaling and pearling stations operated from 1870 to 1872.
Closer for paddlers, Flying Foam Passage to the north of the Burrup Peninsula affords protection from the wind and swell en route to camps on the calm western edge of Dolphin Island.
Within reach too are the great beach camps on the western sides of Gidley and Angel Islands with protected lagoons for snorkelling and great oyster stacks on Angel’s southern tip, crowded with colourful fish.
During annual violent cyclones in eras past, pearling luggers and merchant ships sought shelter inside this passage, though not always without incident as the tombstones in the nearby Cossack cemetery bear testimony.
Even today, beyond their white, sand beaches, the barren, stony islands offer campers little shelter since they are almost entirely bereft of trees and covered with razor-sharp spinifex and fractured hills of ironstone rubble.
Despite the harsh landscape, the archipelago thrums with life. Gliding silently over coral bombies and sea grass beds off Tozer Island, the shadows of our kayaks spooked green sea turtles into flight, and soon after, we discovered a shallow cove swarming with tiny white-tipped shark fins.
Offshore, we surfed our boats over breakers with pods of bottlenose dolphins and dugongs, and spotted sea snakes swimming beneath our boats in the see-through sea.
Even with marine park protection, the archipelago islands are not off limits to fishing although you’ll need a permit to try your luck against the local Norwest snapper, red and spangled emperor, coral trout, scarlet sea perch and blue bone (purchase online at www.fish.wa.gov.au).
If you have the luxury of timing your trip to the west, don’t miss Dampier’s phenomenal Staircase to the Moon, a shimmering phenomenon that occurs seasonally as the full moon rises over the mudflats at Hearson’s Cove.
Essentials: The Dampier Archipelago lies off the small town of Dampier, about 1570km north of Perth. From nearby Karratha take Dampier Road, turn onto Burrup Peninsula Road and continue north to the Withnell Bay boat ramp.
Free camping is permitted on a handful of offshore islands within 100m of the high tide mark (5-night limit, no pets). There is mobile coverage on some island high points. Visit during winter (June to September) when cool, comfortable temperatures average 13-26˚C.
Plan your trip at www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au.