A Long Way Down

Sunday, October 14, 2007

We left Broome just after nine by the time we’d made some stops. Our group, this ‘we’ I spoke of, seems pretty good and adventurous, but I guess that’s what you’d expect from a bunch of people who answered a poster on the hostel wall. Greg, the organizer of this southbound adventure to Perth, worked with a company called All-Terrain Safaris doing trips across the Kimberly. Normally, as the wet season sets in, the vans get shipped back to Perth by train for service and storage, but he wanted to meander down the west coast. He struck a deal with the tour company’s owner that he would fill the bus to pay for gas and extra stress on the vehicle, and he could take anyone willing on the adventure. An open itinerary, estimating about two weeks to Perth, stopping whenever and wherever the mood struck us, veering off the beaten tourist path anywhere possible, and with some experienced guides and surfers. Estimated retail price: about $2000. Actual cost: $450 plus any food, park, and accommodation costs (which totaled about $200). If it seems to good to be true, you understand my hesitation to give my money all up front.

But it was true, and I was on a bus that morning, and after a few stops, it was off to… the middle of nowhere. One of Greg’s friends, Johno, had flown up from Perth and took some photos out the window of the plane – a little ‘advanced scouting’ if you will. So we took an overgrown track and cut across fields in the middle of nowhere to wind up in the most spectacular and isolated place. There was a massive expanse of pristine white beach, with no sign aside from a washed up buoy that any man had ever set foot here. We stood on red cliffs with moon pools below, looking on it in awe. A little further up was a tidal river that in low tide looked like a brown Whitehaven beach. Hermit crabs were scurrying everywhere and we set up camp. Greg caught a mudcrab, we watched the sunset, had dinner (including mudcrab), sat around a huge fire telling jokes, and our first day ended with fifteen of us asleep on the beach… only 14 would be there when I awoke in the morning.

That’s because Johno was already up and around, of course. People weren’t disappearing. At least not yet… we left (all 15 of us) with apparently no idea how to find the road or civilization again. At several points in the journey we weren’t on any track at all, just driving across the open savannah in a direction we hoped was southeast. We hit a path, drove past some cattle stations (we had to be careful as we were quite possibly trespassing at this point), decided to head to the beach and drive up it to 80 mile beach, hopefully arriving at a caravan park before running out of fuel. It would be a close call to be sure. We found a road that looked big enough to take us to the highway, then, after a stop for fuel, 80 Mile Beach! I was feeling lazy and we couldn’t really swim because of catfish, rays, and jellyfish, so I actually went for a very short jog. As extensive as the beach was, there were people fishing along what seemed the entire stretch. One of the more experienced ones had caught something so we watched him wrestle a big ray. Mike, Greg, and I kicked the soccer ball around, Nathalie and Greg played an improvised version of Connect 4 with red and white shells, and we drove to the middle of nowhere with a gift of some fish from our fisher friend. On through some really cool terrain, then we got camp set up in the middle of nowhere once more, then Johon and I made some sauce for the rich fish (featuring French onion soup mix, thanks Johon!), and the day was won.

Our first stop the next morning was Marble Bar, the hottest town in Australia. It once went 120 days without the temperature dropping below 40 – day or night. At 9AM, it was 36 degrees in the shade… bear in mind it’s early spring. There are a couple of pools that are pretty dry and dirty but regardless, more of the group went for a swim in Marble Bar pool. Then, after a bit of a chat about the old gold mine with a local, off to Karijini National Park, where we’d spend a couple nights. I played my new harmonica with Karin and figured out O When the Saints and then I learned some body slapping from her and a beer game from Julian. Leave it to the Germans.

We did some great hikes through Karijini’s many gorges the next morning, Oct 4 and our fourth day already. We walked up and down Fortescu Falls, swam in Circular Pool and the almost perfect Fern Pool. We did even more hiking in Karijini on the 5th, making our way down Hancock Gorge which is probably the reason Karijini is as famous as it is. Hancock was a great hike right down a waterfall into Kermit’s Pool. Some of the climbing was pretty treacherous, maybe 3 cms of ledge and a 20m-30m drop, but it was worth the vertigo. Julian and I explored further down to a place called The Chute, which is a nice visual description of the place. It was like canyoning in Switzerland all over again! But soon we had to leave and make our way to Exmouth. Yesterday, the game was anyone who used the words “beer”, “mine”, and “sorry” had to do 5 pushups, situps, or jumping jacks (I probably did about 50). Today, it was writing numbers on the wheel and when we stopped, the number on the ground had to pick a dare from the hat.

The trip to Exmouth was not a short one, and we stopped in Tom Price for a taste of ‘civilization’ and supplies for dinner. It turned out we didn’t need it after all, as we hit an emu on the road which gave us all a jolt. Johno (who else) ran out and carved it up for dinner while a few of us did some repairs. So dinner tonight was free from nature, roasted in the fire and pretty good considering it was roadkill. Check that one off the list, another first. Those keeping score will be happy to know that I had my first shower since Broome that night, too.

Our sixth day came too early, probably because of the party late the night before, and I had my second shower to wake up. So fresh! I’d wanted to stop in Exmouth, which we made it to by midday, and do a SCUBA dive, but there were only five of us interested, and Greg figured we’d have just as good a dive out of Coral Bay. Plus, we were already running behind schedule, almost halfway done and far from halfway down, so fair enough, but I was kind of choked since this was one of the main things on my list. We drove through a canyon en route to Exmouth that reminded me a lot of Drumheller back home, up to the tip of the peninsula, and down along the beach until we found a great site for camp. We set up shop and I BBQ’d some steaks, which were pretty good if I may say. Better still, though, were the chocolate bananas cooked in tin foil on the coals. You leave the skin on, slit the banana, shove chocolate in there, and voila… tastiness!

We spent the next morning in this little cove just outside the Ningaloo National Park – or so we thought. I went for an early snorkel and the surge was wild. The reef itself wasn’t so great as the beach were on is used to launch boats it seems, but it was nice to get up on a beach and snorkel. I took my harmonica and went for a walk up the beach, playing for about 30 mins or so and I felt very carefree doing that. I’m getting attached to it, I guess. When I got back to camp around noon, they were packing things up instead of getting started on lunch. We apparently slept somewhere that was no only in the park (though just barely) but also not a campsite (double oops). So we were off towards Coral Bay as quickly as we could. On the way, though, we found an absolutely STUNNING beach, probably my favourite beach in Australia after Whitehaven. Naturally, we stopped. There was a long sand spit that formed an island, overlooking a bay and some of the most turquoise waters I’ve ever seen. From the sand spit, Ningaloo Reef was not only close, but walkable, and pretty unspoiled. I ran (well, hobbled – I’d sliced my toe on a rock that morning) down the spit with my camera and attempted to capture it. Then I waded into the water with camera in tow and saw a big rock that seemed to be moving towards me – sure enough, it was the biggest stingray I’ve ever seen. It almost could’ve passed for an albino manta. Another suspicious rock caught my eye, and sure enough – turtle! It bolted when I stopped to take a photo, but I got a Bigfoot-style blurry one. And this was just walking in the sand!

We were so delighted by Windermandy beach, as I later learned it was called, that we stayed the night. The reef was likewise delightful, some amazing blue coral. The shallow water really made the colour stand out, too. Meanwhile, back on land, Johon caught a shovel-nosed shark and another fish, though we had tacos for dinner. That was after Greg got our bus stuck in the sand and we spent 30 mins getting out. So, it was a fun-filled day, and the halfway point of our trip was passed. October 8th, we finally made it to Coral Bay, not before getting stuck again on the beach track en route. Finally, a hostel, a bed, and sadly, Johon was in our room. No escape from the snoring menace. I booked a dive for the next day, and then walked down to the beach to snorkel the closer part of the reef. It was a great swim. I left my stuff at the rocks, walked up the beach and into the water, and came back with the current over the next hour and a half. So peaceful and a great reef for being so close to land. We had dinner and enjoyed the hostel bar’s happy hour and Jenga set before calling it a night.

Yup, October 9th and still going. I told you it was a long way down. I went diving this morning with Ken, Greg, and Ayumi (AKA Yummy) on the Ningaloo Reef. We saw some beautiful stuff though poor Greg couldn’t equalize and had to stick to snorkeling. A green turtle, nudi branch, sailfin catfish, giant moray eel, grey/black reef sharks, and a loggerhead turtle to boot. After diving, I got some much needed laundry done and filled out postcards I’d bought ages ago to send home. There’s a bay where the sharks breed nearby, so I crossed some hills to the beach and walked along. Due to my unorthodox approach (just me and the snakes!) I had the walk to myself, the value of which cannot be understated when traveling in a group and particularly with an iPod loaded with music I haven’t had a chance to sing along to in almost two months. So I walked to the shark nursery alone on the beach enough to listen to most of Crane Wife and Gossip Diet on the way. There were plenty of sharks in the water coming quite close to shore. I waded in to about knee height to get a good shot as they’re not generally dangerous but three sharks coming right towards me made me take a nervous step back which definitely scared them off and they never came close again no matter how still I stayed.

I walked back more conventionally along the beach and went for dinner with the Japanese contingent. The girl at the counter was very friendly and she gave us two family-sized pizzas and a seafood basket to share for $14. We met the rest of the group there and went back to the hostel where schenanigans including Twister, some pool throw-ins, and some friendly Germans ensued. Still, we did manage to leave by 9AM the next morning for the big trip down to Monkey Mia. For the first time since leaving Broome 10 days ago, I had 20 mins of cell phone reception passing through Carnavon and we stopped for a thermal bath at Peron Stationm, but otherwise the drive was uneventful. Oh, and since the peninsula is part of Project Eden, an effort to remove all non-native animals and restore decimated populations, we passed the fence that keeps the dogs, foxes, cats, etc out. Where it crosses the road is a sensor that plays a recording of angry dogs barking to scare them away. Supposedly it actually works.

Monkey Mia the next morning greeted us early as we staked out a place on the beach to meet the bottle-nosed dolphins that regularly come by. It was pretty cool to get so close to them. Cooler still, Greg got us a good rate on a boat trip out to sea for some dugong, dolphin, and hopefully whale action. We went out on a catamaran and our lot sat in the boom net off the stern which was really fun. We did spot some dugongs and dolphins also, well worth the $30. Back at the campground, the neighbour’s kids played some footy, soccer, and gymnastics with me and then we headed off down the peninsula. We stopped at an ocean park with a tiger shark, turtles, highly deadly sea snakes (which we petted, and no, they still had their venom). It was nice and interactive. We also stopped at the stromatelites, the oldest living thing in the world and what they think first produced the oxygen that made life as we know it possible on earth. They’re basically rocks that breathe, but I did get in trouble for walking on some in spite of a whole beach full of them for miles. Oops. We camped, as is tradition, in the middle of nowhere again, and man are the nights ever getting cold! I should’ve stayed in Broome. We played a pass-the-apple game and Greg passed around an emu egg made of pudding, we saw moons in spoons, and after a few cans (that’s right) of wine, sleepy time.

Our first and second glamorous stops in the frigid morning of October 12 were an abandoned lead quarry and then smelter. Then, off to Kalbarri National Park for a couple walks in the gorges, a walk to Nature’s Window, and lunch. The flies here are ridiculous. The park is amply supplied to provide no fewer than 100 buzzing, landing, and crawling on every visitor. And apparently, one of our guides has seen them 10 times worse in summer. No thanks. We went, after some great walking, to the town of Kalbarri where they weren’t as bad and swam in the cold river, then sat on the beach where I’m writing this now. Or at least, I was. I traded Perfume (an excellent read, by the way) and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (also very good) for two Michael Crichton novels. Incidentally, I read Air Babylon which was fast and surprisingly entertaining, in a single bus trip. When we got to camp, we found some more entertainment in piling up the swags and taking photos doing stunts, flips, and gymnastics. Another reason to love swags. We went for some fresh seafood for dinner and it was fantastic! $10 got us grilled Perch, fried Emperor, prawns, calamari, rice, salad, and fries, and it was all great. It was completely BYO, so families would come with their eskies, maybe sit around the fire, and eat fresh fish. Like a beer garden for fish. They also had a piano and it didn’t take much alcohol or convincing for me to give it a play.

If Kalbarri impressed me the day before – and it did – I liked it all the better the following day, October 13, and our last full day on tour. Just south is a beautiful, no, gorgeous trail that runs along dramatic cliffs plunging into the roaring turquoise Indian Ocean for 12km or so. As well, a few terrific surf beaches with what are said to be some of the best waves in the world. I don’t doubt it. Talk about a playground! We stopped at one beach tucked between the cliffs, though Nathalie and I spent the entire time playing on the rocks taking funny photos of each other. We made the Pinnacles that night just in time for the sun to go down, and had a late dinner in Hangover Bay, where we polished off our remaining alcohol. And soon, we were in Perth, and I was jumping off the bus to my hostel, one of the only ones to have booked ahead – and lucky for me, most of the rest of the group wound up in a hostel ridden with bedbugs. Accomodation is scarce here. So ends my last real road trip in Australia, but the adventures are far from over, as you are soon to see.

Road to Karijini Photos
Karijini National Park Photos
Coral Coast Photos
Kalbarri and Pinnacles Photos

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