“Doors on or off?” the pilot asks. Oh, so it’s that kind of day.
“Off!” I reply without hesitation.
As he removes the front door from our four-seater chopper, I wonder if this is why it’s called a heli-tour – because we’re taking only half the helicopter.
The Robinson 44 will be whisking us away to snorkel (or heli-snorkel, if you’re bragging) among the oldest life forms on this planet, found in Hamelin Pool, Western Australia.
Hamelin Pool, a protected reserve of World Heritage-listed Shark Bay, is home to the most extensive examples of living marine stromatolites – incredibly rare reefs with microbes similar to organisms that existed 3.5 billion years ago.
These mind-bogglingly ancient formations can be observed from afar on a boardwalk, but Coral Coast Helicopter Services takes it to the next level on an aerial adventure that brings you face-to-fossil.
The six-hour tour is so seldom booked that our pilot has never been there. Despite flying over this captivating coastline every day, he must also be impressed by the scenery because he asks my friend if she can film a few seconds of proof on his phone.
Departing from Carnarvon Airport, the daytrip starts with a scenic flight over the magic spot where the desert reaches out into the Indian Ocean. As we track south over shallow bays and the Gascoyne Flats, we are amazed to see swathes of natural art under the glassy water.
The smooth canvas of mud flats, usually a rusty shade of orange, is bright green and marbly after recent heavy rain. Mangrove forests grow along the edges and the riverbed is painted with bizarre tree-shaped patterns. On a brown background, creamy curved contours look like giant, sandy toes spreading out to the shore. Whatever the colour of the day, it contrasts beautifully with the red dirt, golden sand and turquoise sea.
Some of the curliest swirls come from the Wooramel Seagrass Bank, the world’s largest seagrass grove, swaying across 1000 square kilometres. The 12 species found in this underwater meadow provide food and shelter to fish, crustaceans and endangered dugongs.
Passing over this vast and vacant land, we witness the scope of massive cattle stations with tongue-tapping names such as Callagiddy and Edaggee, before descending near L’Haridon Bight. This final minute of swooping across the sparkling pool is an exhilarating peak of the flight.
The helicopter lowers to land on the beach, barely blowing any sand. As I place my feet on the ground, a light crunching reveals it is made of millions of cockle shells, as white and tiny as confetti.
This secluded patch is exclusively roped off for Coral Coast Helicopter Services, so we waste no time. With nature’s aquarium to ourselves, we pull on our wetsuits and wade in. Holy icebergs, it’s cold!
The stromatolites are right in front of us, below knee height, requiring no swimming to view them. But a better inspection is served when we immerse beneath the gentle waves, wearing masks and snorkels, while carefully floating around these strange structures.
Arranged in modular pods, they look like big rocks crossed with misshapen potatoes. Close up, each one has a different shape, size and surface. Some are bare and stony, others seem furry, covered in grass and tiny flowers. Schools of silver fish dart around them, while the water’s ripples are reflected in rainbow ribbons on the ocean floor. It’s a vista to blow your goggles off.
Hamelin Pool is perfect for the survival of stromatolites because it’s almost twice as salty as normal seawater; the sandbar across the entrance of the bay, and the barrier formed by seagrass, prevent the open ocean from diluting it. Testing this hyper salinity, we flip onto our backs to float effortlessly in paradise.
Eventually, ‘brain freeze’ brings the snorkelling to an end, as we paddle back for a picnic lunch on our towels and a slow defrost.
On the return flight, we take a different route, tracking north against the eastern side of Peron Peninsula. Our sky-high trio is silent, mesmerised by the ochre cliffs that almost look ready to calve into the sea, as the sun starts its sojourn to the blue horizon.
Take me there
Fly: Virgin one-way fares to Perth are currently on sale departing Launceston from $179; Sydney from $229; Melbourne from $235; and Canberra from $279. Rex Airlines flies from Perth to Carnarvon.
Drive: Hamelin Pool is approximately halfway between Geraldton and Carnarvon, WA. Car access is via Shark Bay Road, 27 kilometres from the North West Coastal Highway.
Tour: Coral Coast Helicopter Services’ Stromatolite Adventure is priced from $550 per person, including snorkelling gear. Children aged 3-13 who can share a seat receive a 50 per cent.
Stay: Hospitality Carnarvon has rooms for about $170 per night. carnarvon.wa.hospitalityinns.com.au
Explore more: coralcoasthelicopters.com.au