Cape Range

North West Cape is a peninsula which separates Exmouth Gulf from the Indian Ocean on the north west tip of the continent. Cape Range, to the north of Exmouth, forms the spine of the peninsula that stretches up towards North West Cape in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia. A locality full of contrasts, the traveller passes from high plateau shrub land to deep ocean, eucalypt woodlands to deep rocky gorges, within just a few kilometres. The scenery is quite breathtaking scenery. From the flat coastal plain one can discover the Range's terraces, coastal dunes, white sand beaches and turquoise water and rocky shores. Unsealed roads and tracks make four wheel driving a recommended part of the experience.

Cape Range

Cape Range is the only elevated limestone range on the north-western coast of WA. The impressive weathered limestone range has plateaus of up to 314 metres high. It is rugged and waterless. Temperatures are high from November to April. Even experienced bushwalkers have underestimated the harshness of this country and succumbed to exhaustion. Accordingly, it is recommended that only the physically fit undertake these walks. Vegetation in the park includes mangroves, acadia, cossia, spinifex species, minilya lily, grevillea eucalyptus, and venticordia. Fauna to be found includes rock wallabies, red kangaroo, euros, eighty species of reptiles, and over one hundred species of birds on the cape.

In 1942 the US Navy established a submarine base under the code name "Operation Potshot". Extensive facilities were built adjacent to where Learmonth Airforce Base now stands. Although the submarine tenders only stayed in the area for a very short period, the base continued to operate as a refuelling facility. The famous Operation Jaywick which attacked shipping in Singapore Harbour departed from Exmouth Gulf. The Japanese bombed the location in 1943. A cyclone in 1945 extensively damaged the base and troops were withdrawn.

In 1953 WA Petroleum (WAPET) acquired the use of the remaining defence buildings and commenced an era of oil exploration which was highlighted by a significant oil discovery in Rough Range. The Rough Range No. 1 well was spudded on 5th September 1953 and oil was discovered a couple of months later - on 1th November 1953 from a zone at approx 1100 metres depth. Success in the first well led to a rapid escalation in the drilling programme.

Wapet constructed a road network which is still in use through Charles Knife and Shothole Canyons. On 27th November 1954, Cape Range No.1 test well in Shothole Canyon unexpectedly found a 3500 metre thick sequence of strongly gas-bearing black shales of Jurassic age, previously unknown in this basin. Unfortunately, these contained no porous zones to allow production of the gas. The cap of this test well is visible at the head of Shothole Canyon. Though oil and gas were never produced commercially from the area, the test drills paved the way for the later development of the North West Shelf Gasfields nearby.

Mandu Mandu Gorge

A highlight of any visit to Cape Range is Mandu Mandu Gorge, where deep blue water, cut off from the sea by a sandbar on the coast, lies imprisoned between vertical cliffs giving one the impression of a semi-tropical fjord. Normally a sand bar covers the entrance to Yardie Creek, which can only be crossed by four-wheel drive vehicles. However, after a cyclone or heavy rains, the creek can sometimes open up to the ocean, making crossing impossible until the sand bar silts over again. Short spur roads take you to numerous picnic spots and campsites along the coast and one track leads to the mouth of Mandu Mandu Gorge. Walking up the gorge in the early morning or the evening makes a very pleasant excursion.

It is now generally believed that it is Yardie Creek that appeared on the first maps of the WA coast under the name of Willem's River, the location of the second landfall of Willem Jansz on the coast of Australia in July 1618. A letter of Jansz reporting the discovery seems to describe the peninsula on the coast of Western Australia from Point Cloates to North-West Cape. The deep Exmouth Gulf, which he probably entered in a boat, would no doubt lead him to believe the peninsula to be an island. Soon after the discovery, the name of Willems River appeared on Dutch maps, being first shown on Hessel Gerritsz's map of 1618-1628.

Charles Knife Canyon

Charles Knife Canyon is 23 kilometres south of Exmouth. Almost directly across from Kailis Fisheries, this road is the opposite of Shothole in that the vehicle is driven up to the top of the range with spectacular views of huge gorges and the vast expanse of Exmouth Gulf on the horison. Charles Knife Road is bitumen for the first 5 km, and takes you up onto the top of a ridge between two canyons. In some places the gap between the canyons is only just wide enough for the road and both sides plunge precipitously down tho the canyon floors which can be quite unnerving. There are several lookout points and trails within the canyon. Thomas Carter Lookout offers views of both Marine Park and Exmouth Gulf. To watch the sun rise over the Gulf from the top of Charles Knife Road is an unforgettable experience.

View Larger Map

Shothole Canyon

The 8 km gravel road drive up through this canyon gives a totally different perspective to the scenery in this rugged, isolated but extremly beautiful corner of the country. The road you travel is the same road cut through the valley in the 1950s to the place where oil was first struck in Australia. A 250 metre (one hour) walk takes you from the Shothole Canyon car park to the lip of the canyon, returning along the same route. The trail up the side of the canyon is extremely steep and very narrow in some places, climbing 120 metres along the ridge. This unsealed road, originally named after some shotholes which were used for blasting for seismographic experiments in the 1950s, has given the canyon its name.

Humans at Cape Range

Cape Range harbours an ancient history of Aboriginal habitation, providing a fascinating story of the life and culture of these first inhabitants, as well as a unique human record of environmental and biodiversity changes.

The first European to set foot on Cape Range was Captain L. Jacobzoon of the 'Mauritius' in 1618, but significant subsequent settlement, primarily for pastoralism, didnot occur until the late 19th century. The history of the previous 30,000 years of human habitation is unfolding from painstaking study of artefacts, middens and rock shelters, amongst which is one of the oldest reliably dated archaeological site in northern Western Australia, at Mandu Mandu Creek rock shelter.

The lives of the earliest inhabitants of Cape Range were intimately tied to the climate and coastline of the area. These people made use of caves and rockshelters, leaving deposits stratified over time recording shelter use and the resources which sustained human existence.

These deposits show the crucial role the sea and coastal resources played in the economies of the Aboriginal people of Cape Range. Rock shelters such as Mandu Mandu, which documents human habitation for at least 32,000 years, contains evidence of the collection and use of fish, shellfish and crabs throughout its occupational history. The presence of emu and macropod bones shows that a diversity of terrestrial resources was also used, probably as people traversed the coastal plain from the sea to the foothills.

The present coastline is a little over 1 km from the range, but as glaciation intensified during the last major ice age, the coastline at Cape Range retreated westwards as sea levels fell as much as 150 metres below present. During this period, which peaked approximately 20,000 years ago and brought extreme aridity to the peninsula, the coastline was 10-12 km from the foothills.

It is evident from the contents of rockshelters that the use of the then far hinterland of Cape Range was only occasional and probably seasonal. The offshore reef system at Cape Range provided a resource sufficient to support viable social groups on the coast, and use of the hinterland become increasingly opportunistic. The change in proximity of this resource and increased aridity is reflected at Mandu Mandu, where there is no evidence of use of the rockshelter between 20,000 and 5,000 years ago. It was only reoccupied when the coastline was again adjacent to the foothills of the peninsula. However rockshelters at Pilgonaman and Yardie Creeks record ongoing Aboriginal occupation of the peninsula throughout this period.

The importance of Cape Range in understanding the lives of coastal Aboriginal Australians cannot be overstated. The peninsula is unique in being the nearest point of the Australian continent to the edge of the Continental Shelf. Consequently rockshelters and other sites were always relatively close to the sea and used intermittently by coastal communities even during the glacial maximum. Records of this aspect of human settlement of Australia has elsewhere been drowned with the post-glacial return of the sea over the broad coastal areas that formed the coastal zone during the last glacial age.

The rockshelter deposits of Cape Range are also unique in providing the earliest evidence for human decorative traditions in Australia, through the apparent use and modification of conus and other shells as ornamental beads. These artefacts and other evidence suggest that development of culture in Australian Aboriginal communities has an antiquity rivaling that known from Europe.

In addition to reflecting the climatic and sea level history of the area, the record of human habitation adds to our understanding of other environmental and biodiversity changes which the area has experienced. Amongst these is evidence from midden sites that up to about 5,000 years ago, communities used a readily available supply of mangroves for wood and other resources.

This suggests that mangroves were far more widespread along parts of the western coast of the peninsula than at present. Similarly, the presence of bones of the agile wallaby well outside its modern species range suggests that this species was distributed in the past over a greater range of ecological conditions than modern records indicate, or that climatic and vegetation regimes on the peninsula were such that it could inhabit the area. The area is now spoken for by the Yama

Design by W3Layouts | Content © 2013 Phoenix Group Co. | Sales: phone 1300 753 517, email: