After three days of grey and rain in Perth, we departed on the tour up the West Coast in clear skies and sunshine; poor Perth, I don't feel the rain did it justice, I think my view was biased by the weather and I am going to give this city another chance when I return there before flying back out: fingers crossed it is better weather then! I had been worried about making this trip in the Australia "winter" but it was only really Perth that was crappy and grey - from the moment we departed on Friday morning it has been bright sunshine and increasing temperatures. I have been in short shorts and a vest top everyday and yesterday it was 29C. Temperatures in the national parks in summer can reach 50C, which is just nasty to hike in so I'm actually glad I came now, I expect it to get quite a bit hotter as I go further north, too.
The tour started well, the guide Nathan is heaps friendly, helpful and just the right balance of telling us what is going on and giving us timeframes without herding us around like children. We are ten people in a bus made to seat about 22 so that's a whole double seat each. I'm so glad about this it makes a huge difference when driving the distances involved in the West Coast of Australia! Our group is really diverse, much different to the typical 18-30 backpacker groups you so often get on the east coast. We are 7 females 3 males and I am the FIFTH YOUNGEST!!! I'm actually in the younger 50%, which I wasn't expecting at all.
We are majority Brits in the group (as always) but also a couple of Italians, a Canadian and an Aussie. The Australian is a cattle farmer, who has never met a vegan in his life before (I don't think) has some very fixed and ignorant views about the necessity of meat in a diet and seems to like winding me up by making stupid remarks like "you just need a big steak". I think it is well intended but it's frickin annoying! I react by giving him a few home truths about how vegan diets can be a lot healthier than omnivore ones, about the damage animal proteins can cause and the suffering of animals but he's a bit block headed and doesn't want to learn; each to their own I say but fgs leave me alone with my beliefs and keep yours to yourself yo!
An hour or so out of Perth and already the landscape was countryside: stretching scrubland with dune-topped hills and sparkling sea in the distance. We drove for a few hours with a brief toilet stop at the tiny town of Lancelin then on to Jurien Bay formally to go "sandboarding". We parked in the carpark and followed a sandy path between the dunes to my first sight of a beach on this trip to Oz. What a beach, it was beautiful: white sands, pounding surf, dunes & clear blue sky. I chose not to sandboard as I have done this before in NZ and instead I wanted to savour my surroundings: I walked and breathed and gazed and I have to admit to a few tears of joy in my eyes at being in such a paradise again. "I dipped my toes in the Indian Ocean and smiled and smiled".
Lots more driving this day, through Geraldtown to Horrocks, where we spent the night in a beachhouse and I had a gorgeous run along the deserted seafront after dark with the wind blowing in my hair.
Day two we had a 5am start - no hardship to me but some of the others struggled. The early start was due to needing to get a lot in today. As we cruised away from the beachhouse where we spent the night, we saw Kangaroos grazing by the side of the road, which bounded away startled as we drove past. Stopped at the Zuytdorp cliffs to watch the surf pounding in to the shore - the site of many shipwrecks in the past and easy to see how and why.
Kalbarri National Park was the next stop and a couple of walks to view steep gorges walled by red sandstone rock: "Z bend gorge" and "Murchison Gorge" then the lunch stop at "Nature's Window" (the picture accompanying this post). I am on a very tight budget this trip but decided to shell out $30 to do abseiling, as I have never done it before. The site was a steep wall of rock maybe 25m high. Not the highest in the world but I can tell you what you are stood backwards on the edge of the "cliff" with your back to the drop, trying to lean backwards and backwards to get horizontal to the drop, it might as well be 100m! It was such an awesome experience I'm so glad I did it. Before it was my turn to go I was sweating and shaking and thinking "I can't do it" and that moment on the edge of the cliff was the worst part, but with the guide standing at the top talking to me, I leaned backwards and backwards out until I was over the drop. She said "don't look down" but I did it it was a vital part of the experience to see that drop beneath me. The way the cliff face was, I went down horizontal with flat feet for the first few metres then switched to tiptoes and at this point was encouraged to kick out from the cliff to go for a bit of a swing, which was great until I spun around on the rope and ended up heading back in with my ass to the clif! Altogether a great use of $30 and another thing to tick off on my list of things to do before I die.
The driving is exhausting, the distances between places on the West Coast are so vast, it is much more like the outback down the red centre than the East Coast - often 2.5h of driving down straight roads with endless red sand and scrubland either side then after 2.5h you reach a hamlet or roadhouse that comprises of no more than a few buildings yet is marked on the large scale map of the entire state. It is very flat and very dry and interesting for me as a tourist to observe through the windows of the bus but I guess maybe a bit samey for a local. There is so much rubbish beside the roads, I had not expected this - mostly glass and plastic bottles and cans, which our guide said had accumulated over years and years. I guess the problem is that the roads are too remote from anywhere for anybody to take responsibility to clean them up, but the government ought to do it! Totally considered appealing to the Aus government for another working holiday visa if I spend a year litter picking by the highways of WA. Another black mark on WA's environmental contribution slate was the lack of recycling facilities anywhere. Even in Perth I did not see a single recycling point and my hostel certainly had no recycling facilities. This is so strange for a westernized culture, to be so backward in that respect. I can sort of understand it in the very remote places - if driving to a place to collect the recycling and transport it back to Perth to be processed might use more power than you save by recycling it, that's fair enough but I would have thought in a big city like Perth it should be an option.
At the end of the second day we went to watch the sunset at "Shell Beach" - one of only two beaches in the world that are made entirely out of shells. The shells are of the Fragrum cockle, one of only a few species that can live in the high salinity of the water here. The beach was maybe 500m of crushed white shells, the water was pink in the setting sun and it was like being on the moon. Overnight in Denham - the most western town on Western Australia.
Sunday morning we were at Monkey Mia by 7.30am to see the famous dolphins coming into the shallow water. I wasn't sure what to expect from this, I like to see animals in the wild and I don't like so much to see them captive or in artificial situations. The dolphins at MM come into the shallow waters by the beach every day and are fed fish by volunteers. It is very carefully regulated - they feed them only a few fish, around 10% of their daily diet (to make sure they also fish for themselves) they also feed them at intervals that make sure they have time in between to go into deep water and allow their young to suckle and so that they hunt for themselves. We lined up along the beach whilst the dolphins came in and whilst I had no desire to be picked to feed a fish to a dolphin, it was pretty cool to see them up close. An older female was the closest by the most entertaining were the juvenile males frolicking a little way out, splashing and rough and tumbling with each other. I then did a "nature walk" by myself, which was 30minutes of tramping through soft sand - a very good workout! Driving along the highway, the bus suddenly screeched to a halt and pulled off the road and the guide legged it into the bush. We all thought "wtf" but he emerged with an amazing creature on his hand: a Thorny Devil, an awesome lizard covered in horns and spines with the ability to suck up water from its surroundings via its body and channel that water to its mouth.
After lunch we visited Hamelin Pool to see the awesome stromatolites: "layered bio-chemical accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sedimentary grains by biofilms (microbial mats) of microorganisms, especially cyanobacteria." Hamelin pool has a colony of these ancient things and it was pretty cool to see them. They look like rocks in the water but apparently they are spongey to the touch.
So much driving today, maybe 6 or 7 hours in total. I really hate sitting still for that long and when we stopped I did a bit of yoga on a grass verge to stretch out my muscles. I think the other people in the group think I'm odd - I eat different food to everybody else (the guide has been awesome and bought me lentil burgers and soy sausages and cans of beans and things), I run or skip or do yoga in the breaks from driving rather than chilling out and chatting like they all do. I don't eat with them in the evening (they eat at 8pm, which is way too late for me) and I haven't joined in the drinking of alcohol, because again 8pm is too late really for me to have a drink. I'm on holiday, I ought to let go and break some of my habits! But it is difficult...
Today is day 4 and I am spending the day in the village/town of Coral Bay. The others have all gone on a boat tour out to the Ningaloo Reef to swim with Mantarays but it cost $160 and I can't really afford to spend that on a day. I plan to spend my day walking, sunbathing, reading my book on the beach and swimming in the sea. Tomorrow I will snorkel on the Ningaloo reef, so I will get the chance to see it then. The Ningaloo is a fringeing reef, so you don't really need to go on a boat to see it - you can just swim straight out from the bay and it's right there. Before my next big trip in three years time I plan to do a PADI refresher course so that I can get my dive licence back and do some proper diving in Asia.
Internet is so patchy! Today is the first time since Thursday I have managed to get online. There is no wifi at all and the places we have been staying have not had computers or internet. It's very odd but no doubt kind of good for me or something. This evening we go to Exmouth and spend two nights there, then after that it's off inland to the Karijini National Park to bushcamp for three nights and do some awesome hikes. I'm very excited.