You know that scene in the movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where the three drag queens are wheeling their designer luggage down a dirt trail in the middle of nowhere? That was us arriving at Sal Salis, Ningaloo Reef. Mercifully, our guide Mike appeared over the hill in a golf buggy and drove our bags down the long track to the campsite. We, however, opted to stroll, and a good choice too. The walk was perfect foreplay: the heavy breathing of the ocean breaking on the distant reef, the sexy panting of the kangaroos and emus that padded across our path, the teasing salty sea spray off the beach. Then, as we rounded the last dune, it was love at first sight, as flawless sand met wild bush.
Now, I’m no camper, but Mrs Smith is. I think camping is seat 2B on the plane, and had considered eco to be bleako. Until Sal Salis, that is. The rustic romance of our very large, airy tent re-educated me. Polished timber floors, soft rugs, a Depression-era set of cane drawers, an old tree trunk hung with plush bathrobes, and what turned out to be one of the best beds we’d ever slept in... anywhere. Best of all, there was a bathroom, with a lantern-lit mirror, a solar-heated shower and a luxurious, eco-friendly composting loo.
Soon Mrs Smith was decked out in her new cossie, I’d slipped on the budgie-smugglers and we were in the warm lagoon, be-snorkelled and drifting with the tide across corals of every colour as turtles, fish, stingrays and reef sharks whizzed by. Unfortunately, we’d just missed whale shark season – those massive gentle giants only migrate through here between April and July.
The landscape at Sal Salis is a striking convergence of environments, where the rugged ancient limestone ridge of Cape Range, red earth and white desert dunes meet the beach, with a reef that starts just five metres off the shore. It’s the only place in the world where coral meets mainland like this, which means you can just swim out or kayak short distances to experience more diverse marine action than a spa party at the Playboy Mansion.
We escaped to our tent for a quick read and a dribbling nap in the two-person hammock on our veranda, followed by a hot shower and an audience with a kangaroo joey (strangely exciting for a Freudian who enjoyed Skippy as a child). Then it was time for canapés in the ‘glamping’ mothership, which looked like a shearing shed with its side blown off by Cyclone Tracey. This open-air living room is also the home of the camp kitchen, and has plenty of places to hide away for a snooze, browse through the library’s reference books, or challenge the unsuspecting to a hand of cards. That’s the great thing about Sal Salis – it’s all about space, peace, remoteness, you and what you feel like doing. You can be private one minute, social the next; sporty in the morning, comatose in the arvo.
Our chefs kept the canapés and cocktails coming. I had to remind the lobster-scoffi ng Mrs Smith that dinner was still to come as we enjoyed a glass of bubbly, barefoot, watching an Hawaiian shirt sunset over the water. We then walked the exhausting two metres to a table that twinkled with lanterns, coral, shells and wildflowers. There was nothing Outback about the food, with local delicacies turned into dishes that felt more gourmet restaurant than canvas café.
Mrs Smith and I took our nightcaps to the top of the highest sand dune. There, we were befriended by a kangaroo with a bit of sparkling mica sand stuck to his fur. ‘The only grey in the village,’ we mused. Soon, we were joined by a couple of other guests and our guide Mike, who whipped out some astronomy gizmo that humanised the million points of light above us. You simply flashed the glowing red box at any random star (well, it’s worked for Madonna for decades), the machine identified it and printed out everything there was to know about it, both the technical and the mythical. Does Uranus look big in this? Actually, it did.
The camp’s resident butcherbird woke us early the next morning for a sunrise walk through Mandu Mandu Gorge. The name means ‘many rocks’ in the local indigenous language (how do they come up with them?), and they weren’t bloody kidding. But it was well worth it – serene, crammed with petite wildfl owers and native mistletoe (perfect for a bush pash, I’ll miss that guide Carly!), black-footed rock wallabies and, atop the gorge, a rewarding view down over the beach and reef on one side and the desert on the other.
But we didn’t need the mistletoe to fall in love with Sal Salis. Apart from the obvious physical attraction, there was the staff who were just so friendly and genuinely passionate about eco-tourism, the area and its wildlife. Seriously, our guide almost cried when he narrowly missed a kamikaze emu heading for our four-wheel drive on the way back to camp. Me? I was thinking, ‘Could you get a belt AND a wallet out of that? Or do we need to run over two of them?’