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49. Australia Road Trip: Western Australia - Coral Bay to Cervantes
There is life, but not as we know it
There is life after Winnebagos, but not life as we know it. For starters, the Mitsubishi is fast! Whereas Winnie was flat out at 80kmh, the Magna goes 120 if you want. Whoa!
We blast out of Exmouth like a starship hitting warp factor-whatever. As Exmouth shrinks in the rear view mirror, we bite our lips, clench our buttocks, and hold our breath as we break free of its gravitational hold. Of course it is not that we don’t like Exmouth, it has been our oasis in the desert for the past three weeks, just as Port Hedland was before it; it is just that we desperately want to get away; we are so keen now to finish our journey, to go home. By home I mean my uncle’s house in Sydney, not our home in England. Sure, we have felt the normal twinges of homesickness that one experiences when travelling, but what we want now is to be shot of the outback and to draw a line under this particular part of the road trip. This little Mitsubishi is the motor that’s going to deliver us. It has too.
Ningaloo Reef is just a few seconds swim off the beach at Coral Bay.
The past few days at Yardie Creek have allowed us to get used to our new car and our mobile, camping lifestyle. I have mastered the art of strategic and expedient packing and we can now park, unload, set up the campsite and cook a meal in a very snappy length of time. Likewise, we can strike the tent and load the whole shebang in about half hour if we want. Everything has a place and there is no margin for bad packing. Even our boots are used as containers for important objects when we aren’t wearing them.
65 kilometres south of Exmouth we start looking for the skid marks and scratches where Winnie’s rear wheels fell off all those 'light years ago'. The skiddies have gone but the scratches are etched into the asphalt forever, or until they resurface it. At least we have left our mark on the West Coast. We pass ‘Termite Nest’ and I am tempted to pull in and ask the random travellers who are currently parked there a stupid question as was asked of me when we were broken down there; but it is a fleeting urge, I’d rather not stop. Today, our aim is to drive only as far as Coral Bay. It is supposed to be the Number One great place to visit on this part of the west coast. Our mate Sydney Dave from Frog’s Hostel in Port Hedland stayed there, so it comes highly recommended. It is only 180kms south of Exmouth, a journey that would have taken three or more hours in Winnie but only takes us a couple of hours now.
Coral Bay is a busy place, stiff with holiday makers. I can’t believe how many people there are here. The campgrounds and caravan parks are all nearly full and there are hotels and shopping centres and quad bikes and chicks in bikinis and yachts and launches anchored in the bay and kiddies swimming – it is so ‘normal’. What this feels like is that suddenly, with the demise of the Winnebago and the cocky arrival of The Mitsubishi Magna, we have been instantly transported from the wild Outback right into an exotic, middleclass, subtropical holiday experience.
We check in to a campsite and set-up our tent. As we have been living under canvas for over two weeks we have the set-up down to a fine art. The tent itself is brilliant, with a stand-up-in domed sleeping room with double airbed, and a stand-up-in waterproof anteroom, or the ‘lobby’, as I call it. Our table and chairs and the primus stove go out the front and there is a shade flap as well. I am secretly happy that we are actually camping. It is the last evolutionary stage of our trip – from campervan to Winnebago to tent. The campsite is pretty ordinary as far as they go; just a grassy field with vans, trailer tents, caravans and tents sharing the space in long rows fronting wide thoroughfares.
During the day it is warm to hot. We are a five minute walk to the beach where we can hire snorkling equipment for next to nothing for half a day. The Ningaloo Reef is directly offshore and it is a heavenly experience to drift around in the crystal clear, calm waters whilst all manner of sealife carries on around us. This is what we have missed out on being trapped in Hedland and Exmouth for so long. To have been here a month and a half earlier when it was really hot would have been a treat. As it is, the approaching winter is vaguely discernable in the brisk wind that snaps at the ocean’s surface once we swim out past the natural wind break of the sand dunes and shoreline.
Reading for Fish
We spend the whole of the next day lolling about in the tepid water or stretched out on the warm sand. Inspired by the plethora of sealife we see when snorkling, I also devote a good portion of the day standing up to my waist fishing. There is a zone around the bay where angling is prohibited but a half mile down the beach it is allowed. I’m not a patient angler and after two hours of casting three different kinds of bait out into the blue, I get fed up. The fish aren’t biting and it appears to me that perhaps they can read, because on the other side of the “No Fishing” sign there are countless fish – bream, red snapper, whiting and dozens of fat juicy species that I don’t know the names of. They appear to have sussed the security of swimming on the right side of the sign (room for a joke here about fish and schools but I will resist the temptation).
There is a hotel complex overlooking the Bay. It is a two-storied structure of self-catering apartments and lush rooms, with a large restaurant and bar fronted by manicured lawns and fringed with palms. We have a late afternoon drink there and return in the evening to enjoy the rowdy atmosphere and listen to a guitarist with backing tracks sing Aussie rock standards. It’s a good change for us after so many evenings spent in each others company, sitting around in a tent. But one thing becomes apparent at Coral Bay, the nights are getting cold. Back at the camp after the bar, we sit about in the lobby wearing almost every piece of clothing we each possess, plus blankets. We sense that this will signal another change in our circumstances as we are heading south and the further we go in that direction the colder it will get.
Shark Bay World heritage Site
Shark Bay World Heritage Area
The following information is courtesy of Wikipedia, though it matches with what we were told by the guides at Monkey Mia.
Mia is the Aboriginal term for home or shelter, while the Monkey part of the name is allegedly derived from a pearling boat called Monkey that anchored at what is now Monkey Mia in the late 19th century, during the days when pearling was an industry in the region. However, the Geographic Names Committee, hosted by Landgate (The Western Australian Land Information Authority) has stated that the most likely origins of the name are that it was included in a list of Aboriginal names and their meanings supplied by the Geraldton Police Station in approx 1899 - the meaning of the name is given as "Salt or bad water", or after the pet monkeys owned by early Malay pearlers who camped at the location, or as a colloquialism for "sheep", or that it was named for a schooner called Monkey that arrived in 1834.
Shark Bay and Monkey Mia
Back on the road after two nights in Coral Bay and the Magna chews up the kilometres as we tear through the desolate countryside. It’s an automatic too so all I have to do is sit there with one foot on the gas and steer. Another bonus is that Sheila is now prepared to drive too. Before, she wouldn’t go near the driver’s seat of big, cumbersome Winnie. At some point on the road we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, we are finally out of the tropics, after almost four months and I feel a moment of sadness at that milestone.
We stop for lunch at Carnarvon, a centre for fruit and vegetable growing, though it looks odd to see these vast plantations in the middle of the desert-loving acacia and mulga scrub that dominate the landscape. About 400kms south of Coral Bay, in the mid afternoon we take the turn off to Shark Bay. We are still intent on continuing our trip as if we never suffered the major trauma and financial loss that the abandonment of our Winnebago has meant. After all, you don’t just give up on the trip of a lifetime because your car dies, do you?
At the end of the desolate peninsula we pass through the pretty town of Denham and carry on to the famous and curiously named Monkey Mia. This is where you can feed friendly dolphins and see Dugongs, if you are lucky. Shark Bay is big Marine Park like Ningaloo. The sea is a beautiful pale green colour, like cut crystal glass. The beach sand is white and the earth above it is orange, dotted with clumps of khaki-green acacia – it is a fantastic natural colour scheme.
We don’t muck around with the tent. Instead, we check into one of the self-catering lodges that make up the Monkey Mia Complex. It is calm and still; the sunset is, as usual stunning; we are over our trauma; we are once again roadtripping!
The next day, after feeding the tame dolphins that make a daily visit to the shore, we take a sailing cruise out around the bay in the hope of spotting some dugongs (aka manatees or mermaids!) Unfortunately, we don’t see any of these creatures but we do witness the phenomenon of a cormorant raft – a hundred or so cormorants floating about over a school of fish. The fish are “herded and corralled under the birds by dolphins who take their share too. Behind and amongst the cormorants are pelicans who catch the fish that break past the raft of cormorants and the ring of dolphins. It is a business relationship between species that is really quite impressive to observe. The dolphins leap, dive and swim about in careless abandon while the birds create a constant chatter over the sounds of the sea.
Photo-diary of a day at Shark Bay
Good old Stromatolites
At night it gets cold and the blanket of stars seem as bright and oppressive as ever. After two nights in the comfort of the lodge we retrace the 154km road back to the highway, detouring on the way to Hamelin Pool where we have a look the earth’s oldest living things – Stromatolites.
A bit about Stromatolites and Hamelin Pool
The following informations comes from Wikipedia.
Hamelin Pool Marine Reserve covers 1,270 square kilometres. It is one of only a few places in the world where living marine stromatolites can be found. Other locationsinclude an underwater site (6m deep) in the Caribbean, Persian Gulf, and in the Great Salt Lake of Utah. Hamelin Pool contains the most diverse range of stromatolites in the world.
The stromatolites here were discovered in 1956 and were the first living examples of structures built by cyanobacteria. The cyanobacteria living in Hamelin Pool are direct descendants of the oldest form of photosynthetic life on earth. The stromatolites are similar to 3,500 million year old stromatolite fossils found in many places around the world and are an example of the earliest record of life on earth.
Hamelin Pool is hypersaline (double the salinity of normal seawater), providing an ideal environment for the Stromatolites to grow, and inhibiting other marine life which would normally feed on the bacteria. The cyanobacteria are the simplest life forms to use photosynthesis to provide food and oxygen. They provided the early Earth with most of its oxygen atmosphere billions of years before plants appeared. Sand, crushed shell etc. are trapped by the sticky bacteria, to become cemented with calcium carbonate produced by the bacteria, to build up the stromatolite structures. Some structures are pillars up to 1.5m high and have taken thousands of years to grow. In the Marble Bar area of Western Australia there are fossil stromatolites approximately 50m high, 30m diameter and over 3 billion years old.
There are three basic types of Stromatolite, the sub-tidal (always under water) columns and the inter-tidal (exposed to air and sun during low tides) anvil or mushroom shapes depicted in most pictures. Algal mats form in the inter-tidal region and appear as areas of flat black mud flats but are actually living stromatolite.... fascinating stuff (SM)
Shark Bay man-eater
Kalbarri, Cervantes and the Pinnacles
We whiz down the highway for another couple of hundred clicks before turning off on the road to Kalbarri. This coastal township is a picturesque place with some great beaches, though it is surrounded by vast hectares of impenetrable scrub. We set up the tent here in a half empty caravan park above a river that drains into the tidal lagoon behind the beach. The next day, we fullfil one of our must do Aussie experiences, albeit in a lesser way than we would have liked. We go horse riding. It is basically a long trail ride along sandy tracks cut through the endless bush, not so challenging for an experienced horserider like Sheila, but real thigh-aching, high adventure for me. That night we huddle under blankets in the lobby of our tent for as long as we can before the cold drives us into bed.
Kalbarri is on a loop road so we don’t have to retrace our steps to get back to the highway. We stop in the big town of Geralton for a stretch and a flat white, then zoom off again in the direction of Perth. The countryside quietly becomes less wild. There are farms, roadside habitations, and most notably, more traffic, most of it heading north. The beginning of June sees the start of the Nomad exodus from the cooler southern climes to the placid and benign winter warmth of the tropical north. It seems that half the population of Western Australia are trundling north in their 4x4s and their caravans. We are, as usual, going in the wrong direction.
Pinnacles NOT termite mounds
Pointy Rocks = Pinnacles
On a small coast road which branches off the North West Coastal Highway we stop for the night in a near deserted caravan park in the township of Cervantes. We have decided to forego the tent and have hired a very cosy static caravan for the night. In the afternoon, we pay a visit to the nearby Pinnacles National Park, another one of those must see tourist attractions on the west coast. The eroded sandstone stalagmites remind me of the innumerable termite mounds that cover the land in the tropical north but there is an eerie quality to the place too, as the air cools and the shadows lengthen in the late afternoon.
Cough, sputter, Perth here we come
On the way back from the Pinnacles to our caravan in Cervantes, the Mitsubishi coughs and misses a couple of times and feels like it has lost power – I can’t believe that our luck with cars is this diabolical. In the morning we find a mechanic on the town’s industrial estate. He has a look, sucks air through teeth, mumbles something about it needing a diagnostic whatchamacallit and then reassures us enough to head out on the final 180 kilometre leg of our west coast journey – a journey that has taken over two months to complete and has cost us dearly in dollars and even more in sense. But at last we can say - "Perth here we come."