From the North pole to the South pole to Walpole

It was a wet last night in the forest, but we stayed dry in our trusty tent. I keep telling myself to suck up the cold, it’s not going to last. We’ll be back in the Top End all too soon as far as the weather goes. We were fuelling up somewhere along the west coast and Lex was chatting to a young bloke doing the same. The young bloke asked what was Lex towing? Lex replied, nothing, we’re just a Prado, a tent and an Esky. The young fella looked amazed, and said, “Wow, old school, man! Way to go!” Old school may be a little more uncomfortable when it’s 6C and raining, but it has it’s advantages. Well, some. Just don’t ask me when it’s wet and windy!   And on to – wonderful Walpole!

If I’d had a science teacher like Gary Muir at school, I would have become a biologist, or a botanist or a marine scientist. When we arrived at Walpole, after leaving the Shannon forest area, we had the great good luck to hear about WOW Eco Cruises.  I’ve never met anyone who could make science sound like the most fascinating, vital and important occupation on earth. And he has none of those titles himself. As far as I know he has no tertiary qualifications, but he held 40 people  – including several prominent environmental scientists – absolutely spellbound and entertained for over 2 1/2 hours.

Such a combination of knowledge, information and humour. A really funny man, who spoke non-stop in a torrent of words, acting out examples – eg using a couple of snorkels, a fuel line and a funnel -and then a fire extinguisher – to demonstrate the evolution of the marsupial reproductive system. (It’s not the pouch – it’s the bladder that is the real difference!)  Gary Muir is a 7th generation Australian whose family took up land in the area over 100 years ago, and had strong links with the local Murrim people. The Muirs learned about the country from them, and looked after it, becoming responsible for the conserving of some huge areas of land today.

Gary wasn’t just an expert on biology – he interweaved stories about dieback and tectonic plates and continental shift and plant diversity with the Drefyus Affair and 18th century French politics and the Dutch East India Company and all with the most amazing connections with Walpole, this tiny little place at the bottom of the world. Wish I had a video of his presentation. Needed to take notes but was too busy laughing or being stunned in equal portions. His offsider is a young marine biologist from Belgium who was researching in Lombok when he holidayed in Walpole and stayed. He’ll probably never leave.

Cruising across the inlet to an island, we learned about the scourge of dieback and the damage it’s causing. It’s a scurrilous organism, a kind of mould called Phytopthora  that ‘swims’ through the soil to attack vulnerable species. We were visiting a pristine environment and went through a very thorough disinfecting of our boots before going aboard the boat, a three step process which Muir invented himself and is now used all over Australia.

We hiked across the island from the inlet to the outside ocean and collected bits of plastic  along the tide line for a research project monitoring plastic pollution. As well as broken pieces we collected tiny white plastic beads that fell off a ship near Africa about 2 years ago, on their way to plastics manufacturers. Exactly the right size to be eaten by just about everything in the ocean – or above it. When are we going to wake up …

It’s a pristine beach at the bottom of the world, as far away from a plastics factory as you could think, but plastic ends up here too.  Our time at Walpole was fantastic, mainly for the access it gave us to so many other areas, which I’ll post about next time. Gary Muir just captivated us so much he deserved a post all to himself! It’s these kinds of meetings and learning about a place that make travelling so rewarding.

Into the Forests

Another thing WA does really well is public libraries. So many seem to have had recent upgrades, and are very user friendly. with great study/writing areas, desks and handy power points. And like all libraries, wonderful friendly staff!  When it was too wet to do much else, I spent a couple of afternoons in the Margaret River Library, doing some writing.  The other thing most little WA towns seem to have, are Community Resource Centres, which give people without computers assistance and access to the internet, among other things. Just by the by.

A winemaker gave us a good tip for a road trip (the least he could do after convincing us to buy his wine) and we set off for the deep southwest along an alternate route to the main highways. Several alternate routes – we found some lovely walking trails as well.

The roads were edged with different yellow wattles, and a kind of yellow flowering pea bush, which looks like wattle from a distance. And behind the wattles…

…are the trees. This is where we really began to understand what all the fuss is about. Margaret River region had beautiful forest areas, but we weren’t prepared for what was awaiting us further south. Lex thinks I’ve totally lost it because I keep taking photos of trees through the windscreen, but every time you round a corner, there’s another amazing frame! Blame my 40 odd years living in the Top End, where a 15 metre tree is eye-catching. (and as I keep telling Lex, there is always “command>delete”)

This was a trail through an old timber getting camp, allowed to regenerate many years ago.  It was a good education about just how long it takes for the giants to grow.  The wildlife was interesting. This was Banksia Pseudoechidna, we believe…

It fooled us for a moment. Just a moment.

Gloucester National Park, via Manjimup and Pemberton, was a terrific introduction to trees, real ones. My neck is kinked from looking upwards. The Gloucester Tree is 53 metres tall, and like all the “climbing trees” was a fire-spotting lookout from the 1930s. The forest service people were contemplating building observation towers for fire spotters, when someone had the bright idea of actually using a tall tree, instead of chopping some down to build a tower…

I particularly like the WA attitude to risk. In most other states, we’re nannied into safety, all for our own good. In WA, they’re not so precious:

Their attitude is, this is freaking dangerous, but go ahead. We’re concerned for your safety but it’s your responsibility. I like it. It allows natural selection to take place.

The tallest (known) of the trees is the Bicentennial tree, where the viewing platform sits above 60 metres – the height of the Sydney Opera House (but no advertising on this tree). The others are very close – the Gloucester’s platform at 53m, and the Diamond Tree at about 50m. They’re all Karri trees, and thought to be over 400 years old. Karris are known to grow to over 80 metres but none exist now – that they know of. It’s a big forest.

We pitched our tent deep in the forest in the Warren National Park, right beside the river. No one around, just us and the trees. We spent about 4 hours driving and stopping along a ring road through the forest, which is a wonderful experience because it’s all one way. Makes for very relaxed driving when you’re not looking out for someone racing around the corner at you. Packed up a very wet tent in the morning (but it kept us dry all night) and headed across to the Shannon and the Great Forest Drive, about 70 km through more magnificent trees. Finally learned the difference between Karri, Marri and Jarrah, and how to tell them apart.

Part of the road through Shannon forest (above). Again, long sections of it were one way – brilliant!

Even deep in the forest there are lots of wildflowers. I was very restrained and took more photos of trees than flowers for a change. And then some other inhabitants:

I think this one is a western rosella, but not sure of the correct names for the others. Should’ve packed the Simpson and Day…

 

 

 

City to Surf, kind of…

Time for a brief road report. We have to mention just how good the roads are in WA. They really get it right. Ever since we crossed the border at Kununurra, the roads have been in great condition, with plenty of room to cope with the vast numbers of caravans and Winnebagos etc let alone the roadtrains. As for the public transport in Perth – I approached the ticket vending machine with trepidation, still scarred from wrestling with them in Melbourne, and was stunned when I had my ticket, senior’s discount and all, in about 5 seconds. And it cost a whole $2 to travel from north of the city to Fremantle! The trains are wonderful – clean and spacious with huge picture windows, often running down the centre of the highways in their own lanes. Buses are just as efficient and cheap, and come by with the same regularity. Very impressive!

Busselton was an easy 2 hour run south. It’s famous for its old wooden jetty, 1,874 metres long, with a little train trundling down the middle which used to carry cargo out to the ships. At the far end, it has life-sized paintings of whales on the timber deck. Gives you a totally different perspective of a whale’s size when you’re looking at one beneath your feet!

Remember Arum lilies? Most people had some in their gardens when I was a kid. I ran afoul of them when I tried to eat one as a 3 year old, and was rushed to the doctor’s. It was considered bad luck to bring them inside a house, and they’re associated with funerals (doh! says my 3 yr old self). The funeral they’re associated with now seems to be a large part of WA’s beautiful forests. This photo was in the Tuart forest reserve at Ludlow, on the way south. I was stunned to see how rampant they are, right down to Cape Naturaliste and beyond. Whole paddocks are infested with them, but the real problem is how they’ve infiltrated so much natural bush, making it impossible to kill them by spraying. They grow so thickly, they must be displacing a lot of native species.

Cape Naturaliste is the northern end of that little bulge at the bottom of WA. It’s a prime whale spotting place, and just beautiful…

And there are wildflowers!

Bunker Bay just around the corner to the east reminded us of the Bay of Fires in Tasmania, with the orange lichen growing on the rocks.

We based ourselves in a great little campground in Margaret River, just a walk from the cafes and pubs, and set out every day in a different direction. There’s so much to see within a very small area down here – so different from travelling up north. We went to a couple of wineries –  the favourite was Brown Hill. Great wine and a very good salesman – much too good. Thanks for the tip, Susan Farley! Lunch at the nearby Berry Farm was excellent and full of birds. (but I can’t work out how to get the photos from my phone to the laptop)

It was pretty awful weather for the famous Margaret River surf, but a group of apprentice Mick Fannings were out there braving the cold at the river mouth. No sharks needing to be punched, fortunately.

Welcome to Margaret River… and you still want to go in the water?

It was pretty wet almost the whole time we were there. You come up with enterprising solutions in order to keep the wine unwatered.

A couple of umbrellas put to better use! Kept the wine dry, anyway, even if we were slightly damp.

The southern end of this little bulge at the bottom of WA is Cape Leeuwin, and the pretty hamlet of Augusta. In 1822, the Dutch ship Leeuwin rounded this cape for the first time, and five years later, another Dutch ship named the area “T Landt van de Leeuwin”. In 1801, Matthew Flinders, circumnavigating in the Investigator, named it Cape Leeuwin. It’s the meeting point of two great oceans – the Indian, and the Southern Ocean – and the most south-westerly point of WA. It’s one of the tallest, if not the tallest lighthouse in the country. Judging by the rocks visible from the shore, it’s much needed by sailors.

Two oceans meet here

This rare green rock parrot is one of about only 800 left, and breeding at the Cape. And now it’s down to 399 pairs, because one parrot flew into the window pane of the cafe just before we arrived.

That’s it for now – the cafe owner is looking worried about how much wifi I seem to be using, I think! Stay well everyone XX

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pinnacles to Perth, and a respite from tents

For some reason I always thought the Pinnacles were in the Kimberleys, only accessible by helicopter or by yacht. Instead, they’re a short drive from Cervantes (such a romantic name!) just 2 hours north of Perth. They’re still just as intriguing. And they go for miles and miles. No one really knows how they came to be formed, but there is some conjecture that they’re the supporters of the losing side of a prehistoric AFL Grand Final. The team colours have long since worn away so no one knows which team they were barracking for, although some people swear they can see some black and white. Consequences of losing were harsher in those times.

One might wish that people could still be turned into stone, when you come across idiots like this. There are signs everywhere asking people not to climb on the rocks, but it seems the latest visitor fad is not for selfies but to be photographed leaping off things. Seeing it everywhere, like an old Toyota ad gone viral. I think I’m turning into a grumpy old lady.

Down to Perth next (where people are leaping into the air all over the place) and a great week with my cousin Gail’s daughter Deb and son-in-law Warren at City Beach, where we gallivanted around the city by day and enjoyed red wine and great conversation every night. So much restored were we that we decided to carry on with our tent, and forget any upgrades. Perth has grown into a beautiful city since I was last here, about 38 years ago.

And the old and the new seem to get along pretty well. And King’s Park!  More wildflowers. They’ve figured out how to bring the wild into the city and show it off to everyone who can’t get out to the flower trails. It’s a beautiful park in its own right – and not only wildflowers but an amazing transplanted huge banyan (no photo sorry) My cousin Sue met us there, having driven a busload of flower stalkers in from Pingelly, way east of Perth in the wheat belt. Did I mention I have a few cousins over here?

Above is how Perth looks from King’s Park. Would be spectacular on a sunny day!  We also spent a few days at my cousin Maggie’s apartment in South Perth, which meant we could walk to the ferry and boat over to the city from the opposite direction. Fremantle was another discovery – I hadn’t been here before. Love the artwork in the streets:

Above is the street view from the old jail – odd! One major reason for visiting Perth was to see my Aunty Pat, who is the last surviving member of my mother’s eleven brothers and sisters. Aunty Pat is 98, almost deaf and blind, but we still managed to have an engaging conversation for nearly an hour. Traces of the dynamo she’s always been are still there. I remember Aunty Pat as this tiny whirlwind shaking up the household on her visits, with her high heels and red lipstick, and a great laugh. So glad I was able to spend some time with her. She’s a special person.

Another person I was able to see in Perth was Rachel Oxenburgh. Rachel and her then husband Richard produced the movie “To Fight the Wild” about Rod Ansell’s survival on the Fitzmaurice River in 1977. We spent 6 weeks on the river in 1978 filming, living in tents and watching out for crocodiles. We’ve kept in touch by phone, but I haven’t seen Rachel since 1980, so this was wonderful. Her daughter Mindy met us there as well, so a double catch up!

Before we left Perth we also caught up with two more of my cousins (did I mention I have some cousins here?) Andrew and Mike and their wives Marilyn and Jenny, at a great restaurant overlooking the Swan River. A fantastic meal and great company, and next day we’re back on the road, and headed south.

 

 

 

Of flowers and philosophical meanderings

I never realised I was a flower nut. I like flowers. I think they brighten up the place, especially when they come wrapped in tissue paper with a bottle of champagne to match.  But I had no idea they could keep me enthralled for an entire day, heedless of rain, cold, snakes and ticks while we trekked through thick scrub, and turned ourselves into sieves and pincushions among some of the prickliest plants in the country. My cousin Gail Pennington has a house set amongst 10 acres of coastal heath above Jurien Bay. We called by on our way south, and next morning piled into several 4X4s with her Herbarium group to look for an endangered plant at Mt Leseuer National Park.

At first it didn’t look too promising. A lot of bush, mostly a dull green, not enhanced by the lowering clouds that threatened to give us a good dousing. But once we were out of the cars, Park ranger and botanist, Niall Sheehy, showed us what we were looking for. It was tiny and insignificant, and hasn’t been seen for a long time. We didn’t find it, but it wasn’t for want of trying. Niall identified hundreds of plants for us, and explained why they were shaped the way they were, which colours attracted which kind of insect, and how they fitted into the complex ecosystem they grew in.

Looks are deceiving. We now see this kind of landscape in an entirely different way. Instead of boring, grey-green scrub, now we see what’s IN it, and it’s a treasure house of amazing and beautiful flowers and plants. It was wonderful to have the David Attenborough of the plant world along to explain to us what we were looking at. And often illustrated with a Roman history scene to bring the Latin names to life.

Here’s a few examples of the local inhabitants:

The sheer number and variety of exotic-looking flowering plants was astonishing. Each one has evolved its own significant shape and detail to attract a certain insect for pollination, or to survive in a particular location. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it. How many eons it took to happen, and why? And why are we humans attracted to flowers? Why do we see them as beautiful? I guess you could ask that about almost anything. Needs a couple of armchairs, a warm fire and some red wine to explore it properly! We were just very glad that we were able to visit Gail – who I hadn’t seen for 20+ years – and be introduced to this beautiful part of the country.

The weather is still cold but the sun has returned, so far. The Pinnacles are next. And on that pinnacle I will leave you till the next wifi location!

The land of extremes

The name Turquoise Coast summons up delightful images of white sand beaches, unbelievably blue water and endless sunshine, but it doesn’t work when it’s cold wet and windy. The further south we drove, the murkier the sky became, all the way down to a freezing Geraldton. We immediately ditched the notion of the tent and booked into an inexpensive B&B. One of the perks of the computer age – instead of searching through a phone book, or hoofing around a strange town enquiring at receptions desks, we did a quick web search, paid on line, and received a text with a code to the key locker. It was an elegant old house, lovingly restored. The owner arrived later and we discovered that it was the childhood home of Randolph Stow, a famous West Australian writer. And to complete the charm, we found that we’d been given the Randolph Stow bedroom. Perfect. Hopefully some writer dust will rub off…

Next morning we braved the rain to look for tents, and rapidly decided that a heavy canvas job was not going to work, not without a couple of healthy 20 year olds along to do the heavy lifting. We were feeling a bit despondent at this point, like, what were we thinking…

We have a bit of a track record at picking the wrong time to go travelling. The last long trip we planned took us to Victoria, intending to spend three weeks in a camper trailer around the state. We thought that September/October would be perfect – warming up, no school holidays, not too much traffic. It turned out to be the coldest wettest spring in decades, so we cancelled the camper, and found a warm fireplace.  This year we thought, ah – leave Darwin as the Build Up begins, and travel slowly down the west coast so that as we move south, the weather will be warming up. Sounded logical. Except that this year WA has had its coldest wettest winter/spring on record.  And Darwin is having the BEST and longest dry season in years…

We should’ve gone east to western Qld and NSW – we would’ve broken the drought.

Feeling cold and miserable, we rang up our dear friend Helen Thistlethwaite, an ex-Darwinite, and hot-footed it inland to the pretty little hamlet of Carnamah, about 200km southeast, in the middle of canola, wheat and the wildflower trails. Since leaving Katherine we’d been travelling through remote country – all red earth, big rocks, scattered bush and scrub. Then we crested another hill, and found the green stuff. Just like this:

The green – wheat – was soon followed by scenes of gold and white – canola and lupin.

Along the way, we were seeing increasing amounts of wildflowers. At first just along the sides of the road, but occasionally we could see further into the bush. It was a taste of things to come…

Taking photos from the car is a challenge and it didn’t always work. But I really liked this messed up one – wildflower Impressionist, maybe?

Western Australia is very proud of its wildflowers, and with every justification. People come here from all over the world to see the flowers, and after the very wet winter, conditions were perfect. This is a familiar WA shot – huge expanses of pink and white :

and then white ones…

and every colour under the sun!

No wonder WA is famous for its honey – there are bees everywhere! We can’t complain about the weather any longer – the result of all that rain and cold is these stunning landscapes. And thank you Helen for introducing us to them. What an amazing place this is!

WA – the land of extremes – extreme distance, extreme isolation, and extreme beauty.

 

 

Carnarvon to Denham

We left Carnarvon, all tricked out with a shiny new windscreen, and hoofed it for the little hamlet of Denham on the eastern side of Shark Bay. It’s a great drive, passing through some very different areas. One part was more like the Painted Desert in the north of Sth Australia than a coastal WA scene. We spent some time up on the lookout – and devastated to find that even here, the thrice-damned noxious weed Rosy Dock is thriving.

Denham was a welcome sight. This part of WA is not called The Turquoise Coast for nothing!

I think we were the ONLY tent in the whole place. The caravanners seemed to find us amusing. But that was okay. It was windy, but not wet.  We had a good look around the area, and next day went to Monkey Mia, the famous dolphin destination. I was afraid it would be very commercial and crass but it wasn’t, probably because it’s run by the Parks people and staffed by volunteers.  There had already been two feedings and it was unlikely any dolphins would come along now. (They only feed one or two of the dolphins a single fish so their natural hunting instincts are not changed.) However some unfed dolphins came by and entertained us for an hour or two. Everyone stands in the water, and the volunteers have a bucket with a fish in it. The dolphins cruise back and forth eyeing the onlookers, trying to time their appointment with the fish for the moment the pelicans are distracted. The pelicans are so greedy and aggressive! Makes for some interesting experiences when they shove their way through the people along the shore.

I was interested to see Denham, mainly because it’s the furthest west town in Australia. It was named after a British commander who surveyed the area in the 1800s. Steep Point is the actual westernmost point on the mainland, but the road was closed so we couldn’t go there. Denham is also the surname of my great grandfather, but I don’t think the British naval captain was a close relative…

Above: We were surprised to find that, like Carnarvon, sheep used to be a major industry, with the fleece shipped out by State ships from Hamelin Bay until road transport put them out of business. We wondered how anyone managed to raise sheep in that region – not much grass, lots of red sand and scrub. This shearing shed was used into the 1950s.

More Turquoise coast…

We stopped at a few spots on our way out of Denham. Continuing Australia’s fascination with names that state the bleedin’ obvious (such as Shark Bay, Sandy Cove, Deep Creek, Steep Point…) was Shell Beach. Which is entirely composed of deep drifts of white cockle shells. The little shells eventually compact into a kind of limestone called Coquina. Blocks were quarried out of here years ago for building materials.

Next was Hamelin Pool, a less obvious name, and not a rat or a piper in sight. At least they didn’t call it Salty Pool.  It’s one of allegedly only four sites of modern stromatolites in the world, ie they’re still growing, albeit rather slowly. The water at Hamelin is hypersaline, twice as salty as sea water. Amazing how life finds a foothold in every niche on the planet, despite man’s best efforts to destroy it.

Above: the board walk enables people to see the stromatolites without trampling all over them – they’re like rocks but would be damaged by too many shoes. We’ve been really impressed by the West Australian approach to parks and people. The parks are well organised for enjoyment and exploration without too much interference by rules and regulations, but enough to safeguard the precious environments.

Off to Geraldton next, to find a more rain-proof tent. Does it exist? Will we have to go home waving a white flag? Will we develop an ability to withstand the cold, unseasonal southern spring??

 

Space, history and a fortunate delay – Carnarvon

Just as we finished packing up our tent ahead of strong winds and rain at Coral Bay, we noticed a huge crack across the car windscreen. We’d had the tent fly attached to the roof rack to give us some shade while we were camped, so hadn’t driven it anywhere. Or looked at it, obviously! A stone chip near the bonnet must have been affected by the big temperature ranges for the three days and nights, and inched its way halfway across the glass.  This meant a two night stopover in the next town, Carnarvon, while the windscreen came up from Geraldton. We wimped out with the rain and the wind and checked into a motel.

Of such delays are opportunities made…

Carnarvon perches on the coast at the mouth of the Gascoyne, a wide brown river – brown, because there’s no water in it. With an average rainfall of about 8 inches, I guess it doesn’t flow all that often. The population of around 4500 supports mining (mainly salt), fishing, agriculture and tourism. It grows 80% – 80%!! – of WA’s fruit and vegetables which is hard to believe when you’ve driven across thousands of kms of dusty dry Pilbara to get here. (Their bananas are wonderful)    Carnarvon was also the home of the Tracking Station and OTC Satellite Earth Station. It was an important part of the manned space missions in the 60s and 70s, and very involved in the first manned moon landing. Proof that parts of Australia are truly the end of the earth, the space base was the last communications contact for spacecraft departing Earth’s orbit. On the flip side, it was the first to hear from them when they came back. It was dismantled some years ago, and replaced by the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum, full of memorabilia,  scientific information, and antique computer gear you wouldn’t think would print you a shopping list, let alone help man walk on the moon. It’s very interesting, and really should not be missed!

and just in case anyone thought we were cool, elegant travellers…

…we can do kitsch as well as anyone.

Space and scientific frontiers aside, Carnarvon has a lot of history. It used to boast the longest jetty anywhere, stretching out across the mangrove mud flats, loading wool onto ships until road transport finished the shipping industry. Below is a wool wagon, which brought bales to the narrow gauge trains that trundled out on the mile long jetty to where the ships waited in deep water.

I was taken with this particular sculpture in the main street:

and then the next one! I took this one home.

See you in Denham next. Shark Bay and Monkey Mia await…

 

 

From the surreal to the sublime

When I was a kid, our Mum hung a map of Australia in the toilet, hoping that we’d get some extra benefit while we were in there. Onslow was a place I remember because it just seemed so impossibly far away from anywhere (and also because my cousin Sue was sent there for her first teaching post, I think). Well, now I’ve been to Onslow.

Onslow is – interesting. It has you wondering why a town this tiny and so far from everywhere can exist at all. It produces salt, more recently, and it’s become the onshore point for gas from offshore, but other than that, it’s a favourite spot for a lot of grey nomads who return every year for the peace and quiet. No surf here! However, it has the world’s most vicious and prevalent SANDFLIES, and coming from someone who lived on the Mary River floodplains for a few years, that’s quite an accolade. I won’t inflict any photos on you. (but the lumps are huge and itchy) The photo below is of a little old house for sale in the main street. The contrast with the shiny modern car in its driveway caught my eye.From Onslow, we headed for EXMOUTH. We set our camp up below the Lighthouse at the tip of Cape Vlamingh, and the first thing we saw looking out to sea, were whales breaching in the distance. Instant exhilaration! At Exmouth you can watch the sun rise and set over water. We exited the sleeping bags early to watch the dawn over Exmouth Gulf.

Later, whale watching, aided by – surprise surprise – great coffee! It was the last thing we expected when we pulled up near the dunes to stare out to sea, but it was very much appreciated. An innovative way to see the country by this young barista!

The next photo was our first view of Exmouth Gulf, after hours of dry scrubby dusty red country. The colours out here are just extraordinary…

And another plant – this time I absolutely know it’s NOT a weed. This is the green bird flower, Crotalaria cunninghamii. It looks for all the world like a tiny green hummingbird.

And now to the Sublime —  Coral Bay was the next stop. It’s so small it only sports a general store, a pub, a newsagent/PO, and two campgrounds (and a flash resort lodge, but who goes to them). We walked onto the beach and fell in love. White sands, clear blue water, and whales splashing around in the distance. We booked a tour to swim with the Manta rays for the next day, the whale sharks having already departed for the Antarctic, or wherever they go when they’re not slumming it with tourists up here.

Swimming with calm, gentle Manta Rays was wonderful. No photos to show (I’m not that proficient) but after some great reef snorkelling, looking at fish and coral, and then swimming with the Mantas, we saw a whale breach only about 200 metres from the boat, suddenly flinging his whole body into the air, and smashing down in an explosion of white and blue mayhem. Oh my… that has to be the most awesome sight you can imagine. This behemoth from another world suddenly leaping out of his into yours… The above photos are not as good as the real thing – and I can’t upload the videos – but it might give some idea. The whales came over to our boat and swam around us for about 15 minutes, rolling, spouting, fin slapping, all as close as 4 metres from the boat, staring at us with their big whale eyes. We sailed home in a kind of quiet, happy daze.  Bliss!

Then the next day we packed up our tent in a great hurry and booked into a cabin. We hadn’t seen a cloud in the sky until then, and discovered that our comfortable, light, easy-to-erect tropical tent was just not suited to the rain and the strong winds that rocketed in. What were we thinking…  Watch this space for the next moves…  Off to Carnarvon.

 

 

 

Karijini National Park

Port Hedland was the next stop after 80 Mile Beach. It’s a strikingly industrial town to a visitor. About the first thing you notice are huge glittering crystal mountains, with a conveyor belt cascading more onto the top – the salt works. There are square miles of salt pans around here, clearly too salty for mosquitoes because we didn’t notice any. As well as producing industrial salt, Port Hedland is an industrial port, so there are cranes and heavy machinery everywhere as you drive into the centre of town. South Hedland is where most people live and where the shopping centre is located.

The drive out to Karijini from Port Hedland is daunting. There are more heavy mining trucks on the road than anything else, all pulling a body and three trailers. But they’re well-mannered and indicate to tell you when it’s safe to pass. At Karijini, we were thoughtfully given a tent site where we had a chance of hammering our pegs into the hard ground – volunteers staff the campsites and organise the camping. They’re retirees who bring out their own caravans and stay a month, helping run the park campsites. A great idea! It’s bush camping – no water so no showers, just very efficient long drop toilets.

What is it about a hole in the ground that attracts human beings? Maybe it’s the danger element. These gorges are amazing – they are much deeper than I’d expected, and as a bloke said to us in PH – “you wouldn’t want to be stumbling around in the dark in this country, these gorges just suddenly open up in front of you”. And they do! You drive to the gorge, and walk over to a little fence, and there it is, hundreds of feet to the bottom, straight down. Absolutely breathtaking, and beautiful. Paths follow along beside most of them, not fenced at all. Natural selection can do its work unhindered. It worked for me. Discovered a fear of heights combined with crumbly vertical goat tracks…and stayed topside mostly, I’m ashamed to say!

It was lovely camping in the bush for a change – the sites are set in amongst the scrub and trees, and well apart, unlike caravan parks. So many wild flowers – although I think (like the rosy dock I was admiring in Central Aust on the last trip) that the flowers I was photographing are a weed too, because they’re everywhere along the roads. Stayed here three nights.  (and those purple flowers I was admiring WERE weeds…)

Tom Price was a place I heard a lot about growing up. I think the mining boom was hitting its stride then. And I’m sure it was called Mount Tom Price. Perhaps the mountain was made of iron ore, so now it’s just plain Tom Price. It’s a pretty little town to reach after travelling through a lot of hard red country. Green and tidy. We avoided the crowds lining up for the Rio Tinto tour, and headed for Onslow via the shorter gravel road. Not another vehicle the whole way, and through some majestic country.

Next stop – the jumping, jiving metropolis of – Onslow!