December 2009

I was up at 5, as I usually am when I have to drive a long distance. It used to drive the kids nuts when they were younger. I would bundle them all into the car with their jammies and their pillows and drive two hours before they were awake enough to want breakfast. Today we got to Carnavon, about 250 clicks south before we stopped for gas and a coffee. Another 250 clicks got us to Bilabong Roadhouse for more gas, lunch and a ten minute kip before we hit the road again. That left us only 200 clicks after lunch. We got into Geraldton about three.

We saw our first (live) kangaroo today, bouncing across the road in front of us and then along the verge as we drove down the road beside it. It finally found a hole in the fence and bounded away into the outback. We saw an emu along the side of the road as well, looking bemused and unconcerned, and what was either a very skinny dingo or a fox slinking into the scrub. The wind in this part of the world is constant and strong and driving an extra height camper van is more like piloting a boat in a gale than driving; my forearms are weary from fighting the wind for seven hours.

In Geraldton I finally found a jack splitter so we can both listen to Pam’s iPod, and as a bonus we picked up a couple of campchairs at Kashie’s Kash Konverters. Would that make them kampchairs I wonder? They are a nice addition as they allow us to eat outside the van and be a little more sociable with our camping neighbours. Some German would help as well, as many of our fellow travellers are from Germany.
We bought a barbeque chicken along the way, and warmed that up with the leftover potatoes from last night. It looks like it is going to be another early night for the old folks tonight, as it has been an early start and a long day on the road. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and we have a hotel room booked in Perth for the night as a special treat. I am hoping to get this first week’s worth of blogs uploaded when we get to town, along with some pictures. Internet has been patchy at best, with slow service and coin operated machines that will not allow for thumb drives.

We saw pictures of the camp site destroyed by the cyclone just up the coast from where we were staying. There wasn’t much left. We are so grateful for the way the Lord has been watching over us on this trip. We are coming up on three thousand kilometres of travel over some pretty barren roads. If we did have car trouble, it would several hours in the blazing sun before someone else came by on some of the more barren stretches we have been on. He has always been so good to us in this regard, and we count this among His many blessings to us.

With the cruise in the outer reef behind us, we settled for a day of snorkelling from shore. The coral in Coral Bay comes within a few feet of the beach. In fact as we put on our masks and tucked our heads under water we were startled to see huge, almost transparent fish staring back curiously at us. We had not noticed them against the white of the sand.

Further from shore, maybe 20 feet, the coral started and what a variety of it there was. Stuff that looked like giant cabbages, stuff that looked like brain matter, pink and purple coral that looked like amethyst, great heaps of almost circular mounds and long spaghetti strands. And among the coral all manner of fish; tiny little electric blue neon fish, stately angel fish and brightly striped clown fish, fish that looked like they had been painted by an interior designer, with chevron stripes meeting each other on different angles, bright yellow fish with bright pale blue tails, thin yellow fish with dark eye spots on their tails, charcoal black fish with body length fins along their backs. It was wondrous.

Fortunately we had kept our wet suits from yesterday, as the water even close to the shore was too cool for our tropically adjusted skin. Even then we could stand no more than 30 minutes before we would have to get out and warm up in the sun before we could go back. And go back we did, for most of the day. Finally at around 3 we had to stop for lunch and reluctantly returned the wetsuits. We bought some Aussie beef at the local supermarket – the cheapest meat by far – and cooked it up with some potatoes and peppers on the campsite’s grill; a very nice meal at a reasonable price for a change. We had an early night as we are facing the longest drive of our trip tomorrow: 700 clicks to Geraldton.

There is a cyclone playing havoc with the north coast around Broome, and the effects of it could be felt in the waves and the wind at Coral Bay. So far we have managed to avoid any really nasty weather, and we are hoping that the cyclone doesn’t move any further south. We heard news that a trailer camp up the coast had been totally wiped out, but there is nothing to be done and nowhere else to go at this time of day. The cyclone is still 600 clicks further north, so we hope to be gone tomorrow before it gets this far south.

We had kind of a slow start to the day, the long drive yesterday taking its toll on both of us. When we did finally stroll down to the water to check out our snorkelling gear we were in for a nasty surprise. The waters off the coast of Australia, even in the tropics, where Coral Bay is located, are no match for the warmth of the South China Sea, or the Andaman Sea, our usual haunts. We were cold; too cold to snorkel! The locals assured us that it was warm; a balmy 24 Celsius. That’s 75 Fahrenheit by my calculations, and that is cold! We scooted back to the cruise office and inquired about wetsuits. Fortunately they were available to rent at a reasonable price, and thus equipped we caught a quick lunch in the van and headed out to sea.

The boat was glass bottomed, and with only a few of us on board, there was plenty of room for all of us to see the wildlife floating by underneath us, and there was plenty to see. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef off the East Coast, which can take over an hour to reach by fast boat, the Ningaloo Reef starts just a few metres off shore. The coral lives in symbiosis with a plant which needs to photosynthesize to produce the food the coral live on. The coral provides the structure in this mutually beneficial arrangement. As a result the Ningaloo Reef is in shallow coastal water, and thus easy to get to and see. Some coral mounts actually break the surface of the water in low tide.

On our way to the outer reef we saw an abundance of fish and a staggering variety of coral configurations. The highlight of the wildlife was a two meter long tiger shark, looking powerful and completely at ease prowling through the reef for turtles that nest in this area. With three tiger sharks on the hunt – other two just menacing shadows that we failed to float over – turtles were not abundant, and we only saw one loggerhead, too briefly seen for much of a picture.

Safely down current from the sharks we anchored to snorkel. Both the coral and the fish were amazing, and after a slow start to get accustomed to the strong currents on the outer reef, they had to drag me out of the water to get underway again. I keep thinking of Finding Nemo while we explore along the coast in these waters. The animators of that show did a good job of capturing the appearance of the clown fish and the seagulls in this part of the world. Today I saw the prototype for Marvin from that film, austere and self-assured feeding among the coral.

We had to settle for supper from the van again tonight. The local restaurant wanted 26 bucks for fish and chips. I guess when you are 100 clicks from the roadhouse on the main highway which is 500 clicks from anywhere significant, you can charge pretty much whatever you like. We had a baked potato and some beans from a can, and retired early again, our heads still floating from the cruises of the last few days.

We tried again to see the dolphins, but again they didn’t show. We had a nice coffee in the shade and headed back along the highway, this time up to see the Ningaloo Reef. Driving through the Australian Outback is truly a frightening thing. Not because it is so barren – there are plenty of stretches of northern Ontario that are just as barren in their own way – but rather because it is so dry and featureless. If you were to land one kilometre from the highway, just out of sight of it, you could walk in circles for the rest of your life and not find it. The sun is directly overhead, there is no way to tell north from south and there is not a single landmark, not a rock or a tree to orient yourself. It is what I imagine the surface of Mars looks like.

We passed riverbeds that were just a mockery of rain, completely dry with the sand blowing dust up the gulch. We saw road signs for places 100 kilometres away in the desert with nothing but a dirt track through the dirt to get you there. The only wildlife was road kill, that and the ubitquous beer bottles littered the shoulders of the road. We were grateful for the occasional roadhouse that sold gas and bottled water.
Coral Bay, our destination for the day, lies on the coast, powered by three wind turbines – the offshore winds are a feature of the hot land and the cooler water – that provide power for this village of ‘two thousand’ people. Two hundred is closer to the truth, but Australia likes to inflate these things, I think to deal with the isolation they face. The campsite was right on the water, and was clean and well equipped.

One look at the Indian Ocean crashing over the barrier reef offshore was enough to get our blood moving. We have been snorkelling enough to get excited just about the prospect. The reef was an east boat ride away, not ten minutes, and the coral stretched right into the bay itself. We booked a snorkelling cruise for the next day and retired to the van and a movie.

This morning I was up before the alarm and did a few stretches to limber up my back and gently wake Pam. We had time for a leisurely breakfast of tea and toast, but the water here is proving to be a problem, and the first batch of tea and coffee we had to discard. It actually curdled the powdered milk in the coffee mix! If water will be to the 21th century what oil was to the 20th, Australia is going to be among the world’s poorest nations. The bottled water is passable, but the tap water is so saline – either through limestone content or chlorination or both – as to be practically unusable. Even showering in it is quite literally a distasteful experience.

But the big expectation of the day way going to be the dolphins. That is why we are in Monkey Mia. Apparently the dolphins – not trained, but live, ocean-going animals – have been coming in to Shark Bay and cavorting in the waters off Monkey Mia for some 30 years; long enough that the area has now been set aside as a nature preserve. They were due to arrive around 7:30 and we didn’t want to miss them. Unfortunately they didn’t show. Yesterday one of the young calves had beached itself, and the dolphins gave the place a pass today. We were disappointed, but not dismayed.

We booked the second of our two cruises and headed out for dolphin territory out in the bay. This time we saw plenty, along with loggerhead turtles, manta rays and dugongs (or manatees, if you prefer), who like the dolphins and the turtles come to the surface to breath before flashing their flukes and diving for more sea grass on which they feed. Apparently these creatures are both shy and rare, but we saw plenty today.
Once again the catamaran was smooth and steady and worst thing we had to deal with was how to stay out of as much sun as much we could. A canopy and loads of sunscreen were helpful, but the sights were difficult to ignore and we both probably got more sun today than is good for us. A quiet evening and day of driving tomorrow up to Coral Bay should take care of us.

We count ourselves among the more fortunate people on the planet not only to be able to do this, but to do this while we are both working very hard to serve the Lord in this part of the world. He is so gracious in allowing us this privilege, and then allowing us to see the beauty of His creation. The creatures we saw today, each unique, and uniquely adapted to their environment, show and honour His wonderful creation.

Kalbari was lovely, but like most of this coast so deserted it is almost eerie. We had to drive for almost an hour to get back to the main road, which explains the frequency of tourists in that lovely little town. We stopped at the Murchison River Gorge, nearly empty in the dry season and took some pictures. There were mountain goat across the gorge, and a huge termite mound, but aside from that no sign of animal life. We keep seeing signs warning us of kangaroos crossing, but as yet no live jumpers.

The drive up the highway was uneventful. The scrub land here is incredible: just a hair this side of utter barren wasteland, the soil so parched and rocky that only a few fitful bushes, no higher than your knee can survive. We hoped that the next ‘outback’ station had gas. They did, and we paid the $1.53 per litre without complaint. On the way up the road we passed two cyclists with shock. It must have been 45 Celsius on the tarmac and not a cloud in the sky; by bike probably three hours to the next station in that killer heat.

The road into Monkey Mia was just as barren. We took a turn at the first sign of life a tea house run by a garrulous old Aussie with three yellow teeth and a long scraggly grey beard that looked liked it housed some family friends. Lunch was edible, just, and we did pick up enough local information to formulate a plan.
We drove into Denham and picked up a few supplies, then headed across the peninsula to Monkey Mia. We arrived early enough to get a powered site for the night and hustled down to the dock to book an evening cruise on the Shotover, a catamaran with a reputation for seamanship. The cruise was gorgeous; smooth and without incident into an Indian Ocean in the evening air with a romantic sunset to finish the day.
We uploaded some pictures and tried watching a movie on the laptop, but didn’t last too long. The day had been too long and we were too tired. Besides, we had an early appointment.

We took our time waking up on our first full day in Oz. The night had been cold, just as our friends back in KL had warned us. But Wise old folks that we are, we had rented a heater and had plugged it in the night before. A quick flip of the switch and the camper was toasty in no time. Fortunately I had kept my hoodie handy in the night, and I slipped into that and back into the sleeping bag for a few extra zees while the place warmed up.

The campsite was well equipped and we both had lovely warm showers before hitting the road. We took a few minutes to organize where things were going to go in the van and plotted out our breaks and lunch stop for the day. The day’s drive took us along the edge of the Indian Ocean. Jurien Bay was on the ocean so we had already seen it, but we weren’t prepared for the spectacular views that we saw today. We stood on a cliff 100 metres above the pounding surf, the winds just tearing through the limestone out to sea and the view quite literally took our breath away. Earlier we had taken a walk along a much gentler cliff, investigating the many blowholes and watching the tide tug at the seaweed as it receded.

The road itself meandered through the scrubby landscape, much like the Yorkshire Dales. We saw no kangaroos, at least no live ones, although among the road kill along the side of the road there were plenty. Sheep were everywhere, dotting the hills, and the few trees looked as if they were all pushed over – some of them almost flat – by the prevailing south-westerlies which are the dominant climate feature of this part of the world and serve to keep the stated temperature much colder than the thermometer reads
But everywhere we drove today it was the sea that keep luring us on: so blue it was almost electric, flecked with whitecaps from the constant wind. Finally at Kalbarri, our destination for the night, we had to take a quick dip, very quick for it was icy cold. Supper in our camper was another quiet affair: some bread and cheese, washed down with Australian wine. Lunch had been much more lush: grilled fish in a salsa sauce in a restaurant overlooking a gorgeous stretch of the ocean in one of the many –and nearly barren – seaside towns along the coast.

We love to travel this way: at our own pace, able to carry the things that we like to have along to keep us comfortable without actually having to carry them. Being able to stop whenever we like to take pictures or go for a walk. Being able to go to bed in absolute privacy anytime we feel like it and fixing our own breakfast just the way we like it. It is our idea of a holiday.

Australia is nothing like Asia. For a start there is no one here. We have driven 600 kilometres up the major road north out of Perth and we have probably passed fewer than 100 vehicles going in both directions. Kalbarri is the largest town north of Geraldton, and a lovely tourist destination. There are probably less than 100 tourists in town in total, less than 10 at this campsite. Yet the campsites are totally clean and well run, something else that is clearly not Asian. Even the flora is not Asian, scrubby and sparse. But then Australia is not in Asia is it? It is in Oceania, and that makes a difference.

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