I spent a blissful day on my own in Coral Bay. After wandering around the extremely small settlement (just a couple of hotels, a backpackers hostel, caravan park, few shops and a handful of permanent dwellings) I headed to the beach. I waded out from the main beach, past some rocks and round a jutting point to find a beautiful deserted beach, aptly named Paradise Beach on my map. I left my backpack in the shade of a rock and went for a swim in the aquamarine sea. It was gorgeous! I pretty much had the place to myself for three hours, then as the tide went out and the beach could be reached without wading, a few more people came round.
We spent the evening in a caravan park in Exmouth, Australia. I had been looking forward to seeing the "other Exmouth"- It was hot and flat and sprawling with red dust and palm trees and not at all like the Exmouth I know in Devon! Imagine my surprise when I went into the bottleshop to get some cider for the evening, made a comment about how it didn't really compare to Exmouth in the UK and the boy working behind the counter there was actually from from Exmouth in Devon! We had two nights at the Exmouth caravan park so we could spend a whole day on the beach / snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef.
On our way out to our days destination of Turquoise Bay, we stopped at a lighthouse lookout to admire the view and watch some humpback whales splashing rolling and blowing out to sea The highlight of the day, and one of the highlights of my entire trip was this day and snorkelling the Ningaloo Reef - it was just incredible. As it is a fringeing reef you can wade out from the beach and see fantastic reef in water just a couple of metres deep. I cannot describe it well enough to do it justice, it was fascinating, I saw fish of all colours and sizes (from a couple of centimetres to about a metre long), soft and hard corals, sea slugs, anemones and a turtle meandering past!! It was just fantastic, so diverse and captivating and all the time the constant snapping and popping of creatures nibbling at the corals. I could have stayed there watching for hours but cold forced me out after about 40 minutes, even though the water is warm by UK standards, it still gets chilly after a while. I could happily have spent a few more days in Exmouth, snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef. I have already decided to do a PADI refresher course, ready to dive in Asia on my next big trip.
Wednesday was the big driving day of the trip. Every day was a driving day, with around 6-7 hours of driving each day but this was the big one with hundreds of kilometres to cover to reach our destination of the ecocamp in Karijini National Park. We set out early and drove and drove and drove. Our driver said "lets take the dirt road, that will be fun" and it kind of was at first. The road was sand / rubble and driving left a cloud of red dust suspended in the air behind us, and in front for us to drive through from a tour bus up ahead of it. A grader was scraping the road and left a ridge of rocks down the middle, with the lane to the left just wide enough for the bus. Everything was going swimmingly, if a little bumpy, until the lane got too narrow for the bus, forcing our driver to swerve over the ridge of rocks into the middle lane. He was going to fast and as we came over the crest of a hill there was a MASSIVE rock right in the middle, which we heard get thrown up and clang bump along the underneath of the vehicle. The dirt road came to an end just then and he pulled over to assess the damage. Everything seemed fine, until we went to pull away and couldn't!
We were losing air pressure and after much scrabbling around in the red dust under the bus, Nathan diagnosed that the rock had put a hole in the air chamber going to one of the back breaks. The bus has entirely air brakes so without air pressure, the breaks cannot be released. We were actually very lucky where we broke down, only 20km from the town of Tom Price and on the road from a large busy mine but there was no phone reception. Luckily the bus was equipped with a satellite phone, so our guide was able to phone back to base to speak with the company mechanic to get some advice on what to do. In theory there was something he could do - to disable the back break and drive with three but it seemed quite a difficult task and after a number of hours under the truck he could not get it done. Meanwhile, we were standing around in the shade of the truck (it was 31C) trying to pass the time. The bus broke down near a huge iron ore mine and loads of miners kept driving past in their trucks and a few stopped to offer help, but the tour guide thought he had the matter in hand. Finally, just as it was getting dark, we did accept help from a truckload of miner mechanics (two aussies a chinaman & a scot!) and they worked under the bus for a while but to no avail, we had to give up and abandon the bus in a layby. Our tour guide called to another tour guide in Karijini National Park, our destination that night, and he came with his bus to rescue us. We finally got to Karijini around 11.30pm, seven hours after schedule.
Our next two days were spent in the stunning Karijini National Park, where we stayed in the EcoRetreat. It's almost glamping - permanent tents (one per person) on wooden bases with stretchers inside, so no putting tents up or down, or sleeping on rocks, it was surprisingly comfortable and a great relief to me, who hates camping, to find that we had both flush toilets and showers at the campsite, thank god!! It was cold at night owing to the elevation of the park but we had been warned and in leggings, tracksuit trousers, four tops, inside two sleeping bags and a swag, I was just about warm enough.
We did a number of walks in Karijini to visit the various gorges. The park itself is rolling plains of yellow white spinifex grass, white trunked and sage-green leaved Snappy Gum trees, red dust and huge Spinifex Termite Mounds dotting the landscape, up to several metres in height, all under bright blue sky. In amongst this are a series of massive, sheer gorges up to 100m deep showing layers and layers of rock that are some of the oldest exposed rock in the world (they were formed when tectonic plates met, forcing rocks up into the sky). The rock here is extremely rich in iron ore, giving a deep rust red colour; other layers were of jade green silica and flaky blue asbestos. We walked several gorge trails that involved wading through water, "bouldering", hopping from rock to rock and climbing like spiderman along the side of narrow gorges, gripping onto the rock with fingers and toes, whilst waterfalls gushed below. Some parts were actually scary! Our guide wasted no time in telling us "if you injure yourself here it's not easy to get you out", it was easy to see how an accident could befall the careless or tired and brass plates attached to rocks at various points told the tales of people that had died here.
I am a complete wuss with cold water but I am proud to say that I swam in freshwater gorge pools both of the two days! The first was Fern Pool, a gorgeous bluey green colour with fruit bats hanging in the trees overhead. They were not warm, but they weren't nearly as cold as the sea gets in the UK and after a hot hike in 31C, were a wonderful refreshment. Other wildlife we saw included lots of spinifex pigeons, a king brown snake, ringed dragon lizards and much more besides.
By the end of our second day in Karijini, the replacement bus had arrived so come Saturday, we were ready to head off bright and early. Unfortunately the aircon had broken in the new bus and although our guide swore the thermostat showing the temperature inside the bus at 39C was wrong, it felt 100% correct! Lonely planet describes the stretch from Karijini to Broome as "609km of willy willies and dust and not much else" and it wasn't far wrong. For those that are not in the know, a willy willy is a dust devil, or a mini tornado. They are formed when the hot surface air rises quickly through a pocket of cooler air above. The air spins, picking up dust and twigs and leaves and anything else lying around with it. We saw many of these, both from a distance and one coming right across the road in front of us. This part of Australia is prone to cyclones and all new-build houses here are made from corrugated steel, which is the most cyclone proof.
Our lunchstop was Port Hedland - not a beautiful town but one where I would have liked to have spent longer. It was HUGE - everything on enormous scale. It is home to some of the largest iron ore processing plants in the world. Four-carriage road trains and railway trains with up to 380 carriages, stretching up to 3.5km long carry the iron ore to this port, where it is scooped out and put onto giant conveyer belts to be taken to the port and loaded onto vast ocean liners to be transported all over the world. I'm a bit of a geek for transport and infastructure and in my eyes, the town was beautiful - rusty red iron ore, red dust, wide blue sky and white salt either side of the road, where the saline groundwater was pumped into reservoirs to evaporate off, leaving salt behind to be harvested. One of the 3.5km trains passed as we were parked up and the rusty iron carriages made a humming booming, reverberating noise that went on and on under the endless blue sky. I could have stayed there for days just watching the workings of this town but sadly we had to move on.
Our stay that night was one I'd rather not relive, on a working cattle station. If I had any choice in the matter I would not have stayed here but in the middle of outback Australia, this was the only place for hundreds of km and a part of the tour I took. There was a pen of calves on this station just being weaned from their mothers. This means they had been forcefully removed whilst still drinking their milk and separated from them in a brutal and unnecessary way at a very young age. I don't know if you have ever heard the cries of a calf wanting its mother when it is hungry and frighened but they are absolutely heartbreaking. The poor calves were bellowing and lamenting all night long, the distress in their voices was almost unbearable and if I thought it would have made a difference to anything, in a heartbeat I would have set them free. I didn't sleep a wink. I only hope that this experience made the rest of my group (non-vegans) think even for just a second about the cruelty of the farming industry; it's not just meat farming, dairy farming is equally as bad and involves such needless suffering for those animals. I defy anybody to listen to that sound and not be moved to try to live their life without exploiting animals for their meat or secretions.
Sunday was the last day of the tour, a day of driving in such heat that the horizon all around disappeared in a shimmer of heat haze and the thermometer inside the non-aircon bus rose to 41.5C. The heat was BAKING outside, it was no surprise to see smoke from several bushfires in the distance and to pass through stretches of land and vegetation blackened by recent fires. After stopping at 80 Mile Beach, we made it into Broome mid-afternoon.