Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Shark Bay & Stirling Range National Park

The stromatolites of Hamelin Pool may not be one of the world's most dramatic natural phenomena, and understanding what you are looking at requires a leap of the imagination. But once that leap is made, to stand on the walkway watching the heavily saline water lapping against these strange mounds is to marvel at the mysteries of nature.

The pool's bulbous rocks are the work of living organisms called cyanobacteria. These microscopic creatures secrete a fine film of mucus that traps sediment. The rocks grow about 0.02 inches each year, and many have been growing for around 3,500 years. Not only that, these cyanobacteria may be Earth's oldest life-forms.

The evidence for this, fossils of almost identical cyanobacteria that date to 3.5 billion years ago, lies some 500 miles to the northeast, at a hot, remote spot known ironically as the North Pole. To stand at Hamelin, therefore, is to stand at the very beginning of Earth's evolution. Here, you can pause and reflect that these tiny organisms predate the dinosaurs by more than three billion years.

Even while evoking our most distant past, Shark Bay's natural wonders can be experienced as an unfolding and evolving world that, for a brief moment, we are allowed to enter. These treasures, from the stromatolites of Hamelin to the dolphins of Monkey Mia, are testimony to the limitless diversity and ingenuity of nature.

Stirling Range National Park, Western Australia

Visitors to Stirling Range National Park are drawn as much for its extraordinary array of wildflowers and other plants as for the rugged beauty of its isolated peaks. More than 1,500 plant species have been recorded within this 285,682-acre park, more than are found in the entire British Isles, and at least 87 of these are endemic to the Stirlings. Of the 10 species of pendulous-flowered mountain bell that inhabit the upper reaches of the park only one is found elsewhere. Also peculiar to the area are a number of species of (mainly red) nemcia peas and some spectacular members of the Proteaceae family, such as the vibrant pink Stirling Range pixie mop.

From afar, it is hard to envisage that this remote and rugged range, which rises forbiddingly in hues of misty grey and blue from the plains of southwestern Australia, could contain such a profusion of life. To local Aboriginal groups, who roamed the vicinity of these peaks for around 40,000 years, they were above all a place to fear, as the supreme evil spirit Noatch was believed to dwell there. The Aborigines called the mountains Koi Kyeunu-ruff, place of ever-moving mist and fog, a name that remains apt today, with the summits frequently assailed by swirling clouds.

Whether you decide to visit the mountains on a tour or under your own steam, it is likely that at some point you'll find yourself on the park's main scenic road, the Stirling Range Drive. Running for 26 miles from Red Gum Pass Road in the west to Chester Pass Road in the east, it traverses the western and central areas of the range. Traveling the Stirling Range Drive not only provides an excellent introduction to its intriguing collection of knolls but also acquaints you with the shrubby, prickly habitat typical of their lower slopes. Furthermore, it allows you to view some brilliantly colored varieties of banksia near the roadside, such as the domed scarlet banksia or the bright yellow slender banksia collected by Aborigines for its bounteous supplies of nectar.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Stirling Range National Park & The Flinders Ranges

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