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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Continent (islands) 4 to continent (islands) #5

We had one more stop in Sydney before leaving our fourth continent. This was a treat because none other than VK Powell, my fellow author and our friend from North Carolina, was in town. VK and T. also share a former profession, so we always have lots to talk about. It makes a change from just me talking all the time!

We also enjoyed meeting VK’s best Aussie mate, Lyn. The weather in Sydney was wintry, i.e. rough seas and rain, so when some dry weather broke through Lyn decided we must be getting cabin fever. She drove T. and me around La Perouse, on the edge of Botany Bay, and a beach called Maroubra.

Lyn was also kind enough to arrange for all of us to go to Vivid Sydney at the Taronga Zoo. Vivid is a festival of illuminations all over downtown buildings, and we were lucky not to get soaked, as the rain was pelting down ferociously while we were waiting for the ferry. T. put her rain pants on and from then on, the rain magically stopped.
Sydney Harbour Bridge in the rain!
At Taronga Zoo, Vivid takes the form of illuminated sculptures of animals. The actual zoo animals were off duty, but we enjoyed a cable car ride and a great many vivid creatures, including many native to Australia.

Tasmanian devils
The evening ended on a high note, with fish and chips by the platypus!
Yet some of the enjoyment of staying in one place for a while was the pleasure of cooking our own food. Of course, we do that camping as well, but T. was unable to roast a Sunday dinner in a camper van! Then there was my salmon, and something called “curry soup” that we’d never heard of before, but was so lovely when our friends made it that we’re now loaded up with packets. One more thing to declare at U.S. customs!

VK spoiled us, but we also had family to catch up with in Sydney. Liza was away traveling but we did get in another Thai dinner with Jim. He had lots of good suggestions for our next destinations—Hawaii and his home state, California! We also went out to Richmond one day to meet up with T’s cousin, Emma.
She showed us around the farm where she works, training horses for polo and pretty much everything else that needs doing. Then we had a pub lunch. Emma may have lived in Australia for a number of years, but to me, it felt like going back to Derby for a family party.

That was a fine day, but as I mentioned, there was lots of rain in Sydney. It didn’t matter because there were also lots of movies on TV. I certainly hadn’t seen that many films in the past year—even the airlines we’ve flown lately don’t include entertainment. Among the highlights was Trumbo, a timely depiction of the Hollywood blacklist and what it did to writer Dalton Trumbo. It was good to be reminded that freedom of speech really starts to matter when it’s speech you don’t agree with.

Our “mates” also took us out on the town, including to Tea with the Dames during the Sydney Film Festival. This movie is just the Dames (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins) sitting around having tea and talking about their overlapping acting careers. As witty as these four women are, and given that each has been made a dame of the British Empire for services to drama, this was a highlight too.

As was lunch in Spice Alley, the Sydney version of an Asian food court. There was even a tuk-tuk out front!

When I couldn’t bear to sit indoors any longer, I walked all the way down Elizabeth Street to the central business district (CBD). I love walking an unfamiliar street and discovering a slice of that particular city’s life. I passed a Maori Anglican Church and the office of a women’s peace and justice association, missions and museums, an old hotel pub and a place that sold Singapore chili crab. And I didn’t spend a cent.

Not that it’s possible to spend a cent in Australia—they round everything up to the nearest five now.

Although we’ve both been to Sydney a number of times, there are places neither of us had ever visited. We took advantage of another sunny day to take the ferry to Manly. It wasn’t quite swimming weather (though there were brave souls out there in wetsuits), but the beach was lovely to walk on, and of course there’s always coffee—and ice cream! A touch of rain on the horizon was enough to provide us with a stunning rainbow on our ride back across the harbor.

The final day trip we took was to the Blue Mountains. Everyone should do this, as it is effortless—you just catch a train from Sydney in the normal way, using your local transit card, but it’s a real long-distance train and takes you to Katoomba in about two hours. From there, you can get the hop-on, hop-off bus that goes from Katoomba to Leura and many stops in between. The bus and driver were first rate, but we didn’t really get our money’s worth from the bus, as we just walked from hike to hike. The stops turned out to be a lot closer to each other than we’d realized. Still, it was a nice day for hiking—not too warm. And we were glad to have a ride back to Leura train station at the end of the day.
Katoomba Cascades

Three Sisters
Places like Katoomba and Echo Point are built up and have all kinds of facilities, yet a short walk brings you to lookouts over vast forested areas like the Jamison Valley.

There are Aboriginal carvings in the Blue Mountains that are thought to be thousands of years old. We didn't see those, but the features that perhaps inspired some of that ancient art impressed us equally.
Looking down on the tops of the trees
So what will I take from Australia? In some ways, it is a very familiar culture to a North American, which is why the differences can be instructive. We had a look in a gun shop the other day and that reminded me that there is a middle ground between the free-for-all gun culture of the U.S.A., and no guns at all. Recently, there was a terrible shooting within a family in Western Australia; the last mass shooting in Australia was in 1996. As I mentioned in my Tasmania post, Australians saw that their country had a problem, and dealt with it.

We’re off to the U.S. next. We will miss our friends and many family members who so generously hosted us in Oceania, and made it possible for us to stay so long. Australia is the home of my favorite guidebooks, the Lonely Planet series, and in preparation for the U.S.A. I’ve been amusing myself with their take on my native land. In addition to guns, here are some aspects of U.S. culture Lonely Planet feels international visitors should know about:

*Tipping is not optional.
*Never walk away from a police officer (see guns).
*There’s never been a better time to be gay in America. But don’t be “out” in rural or conservative areas.
*Remain calm when answering intimidating border officials (they have guns too).
*Smoking, another dangerous thing that causes death, is barely tolerated anywhere in America, even outdoors.
*But Americans are friendly, so make an effort to meet them.

That’s about how I remember it, too. Bring on the birthplace of President Obama (and no, it wasn’t Kenya! Unless you mean Barack Obama, Sr.)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Coming to America: bold hints for painless border crossing

Once in an online discussion someone told me that British citizenship was a privilege, not a right. I thought that was an interesting perspective. It is certainly true that some countries are more privileged than others. I, for example, was born in the U.S., which is not a reflection of my merit in any way. But it is a privileged citizenship to have.
Nonetheless as Wikitravel attests: “The United States is not the easiest country to try to enter, even for US citizens.” Many countries do not ask their returning citizens any questions at all; but I (and, anecdotally, other Americans) have been asked all sorts. For this reason, I know that many citizens, never mind non-citizens, find it stressful to enter the U.S., to the point that they avoid it. (See The Economist on the world’s worst airports.)

The Discreet Traveler wants everyone to travel as freely as they want and can afford to. So I’m offering my anecdotal experience, in the hopes that others can relax and be prepared for their travels to the U.S.

Here are three things that make traveling to the U.S. different from other countries:
  1. Immigration and customs functions are combined. The same officer may ask about your immigration status (in my case, look at my U.S. passport) but also what you are carrying with you, how much it cost, etc. Related to this is the fact that every traveler to the U.S., including citizens, must fill out the blue “customs form.” 
  2. There is no secure zone in U.S. airports for transferring from an international flight, as there is in most international airports. This means that everyone who lands in America must clear U.S. customs and immigration, even if they are only transferring from, say, Europe to South America.
  3. The U.S. has no exit immigration controls at airports, and at land borders they may or may not take a departing non-citizen’s record properly. This means that the onus is on the airline, and ultimately the traveler—you—to document when you left the U.S.
  • Hints for non-citizens: When you depart the U.S. by air, save your boarding pass. The next time you travel to the U.S., if there is any question that you left on time, you can offer this as evidence (along with any dated stamp in your passport).
  • If you depart the U.S. by land, make sure the official removes the stub of the I-94 (white or green) form from your passport. If they don’t, you could be refused entry the next time if it’s still in your passport. This happens so commonly that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a specific web page instructing you what to do to solve the problem. Follow these steps at before your next trip to the U.S.
Now, you wouldn’t need this blog post if traveling to the U.S. were totally straightforward. In the past, I have found that criticism of things American can be taken as hatred of the U.S. (yes, this word has been used). That is nonsense. I think America is a great country, which is why I want people to travel there and for their experience to be a happy one. Many of the aspects I personally disagree with are probably due to the fact that most Americans don’t travel, so the issues of returning citizens or those of us living abroad are unknown to them.

For example, the U.S. claims broad powers at the border, and even 100 miles inland from the border. That explains those checkpoints you find, say, in Arizona, nowhere near Mexico. My personal belief is that these are completely at odds with the American value of free people moving around without having to show their papers to cops; but my beliefs about borders are not relevant here. Certain things are politically achievable, but whether I stand up for those things at the border depends on whether making my point, or actually traveling, is more important. Take the blue form:

When the first same-sex marriages became legal in Canada, a gay couple identified themselves at U.S. customs and immigration as a family. At the time, the blue form required family members to have the same last name. The U.S. refused to recognize the men as a couple; they’d made their point and left. Years later, the terms of the blue form were quietly changed and now a same-sex couple can, and indeed we are expected to, present ourselves together at U.S. customs and immigration. (Flight crew will still insist on the old criteria; we just ignore them and fill out one form.)

I admire the activism of those first couples, without which we would not have come this far. In the past, the only country’s borders where my non-U.S. partner and I would be separated was the U.S. I would go through the citizens’ line with no idea how long she would take to get in. If there had been a problem I wouldn’t have been there, nor could I have known about it, because you can’t turn your mobile phone on at customs and immigration. It was nerve-wracking, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to mention our relationship to the U.S., because its homophobic laws had made me leave in the first place.

All of this is to say that I understand, and have experienced, the anxiety of someone who is different and especially queer families at the border. Which is why I take the Boy Scout approach: Work to change rules that you disagree with, and obey them in the meantime. But I respect individuals who can afford to take risks, such as U.S. citizens who will not answer questions about why they are coming to the U.S., or where they are going to stay, or what they do abroad. 

Hints for U.S. citizens: 
• If you are a citizen you have the right to enter the U.S. Officials have to let you in; it just depends how prepared you are to be inconvenienced and delayed.

• Once your citizenship is established—that is, unless they think your passport is fake or you are not the person identified in it—then any further questions should only have to do with customs, not immigration. Just because a citizen doesn’t think it’s any of the U.S.’s business doesn’t mean it might not have to do with customs. For instance: Which countries have you traveled to? This could be related to whether you are more likely to be smuggling drugs, cigars, or endangered species. Of course, you are probably not smuggling anything and if you are actually accused of a crime, you have the right to a lawyer, whether you are at the border or not.

Hints for all travelers: 
If you think something about your name, appearance, etc. may raise a flag with the officials, try to breathe through that. Nervousness or hostility in themselves can raise a flag. It took me a lot of years to realize that just being tired from a long flight was okay, and all I had to do was answer questions in the way most likely to get me through most quickly. Honestly, without volunteering information not asked for.

• Perhaps because of the “I’m asking for a friend” cliche, officers all over the world seem suspicious of anyone having a “friend.” You may really be visiting a friend but be prepared to explain who he is and why you are staying with him. I’ve been asked a lot more questions, no matter which country, when a friend was involved, including questions I could legitimately not have known the answer to (“Her boyfriend was there? What does he do?”) If in fact this friendship is a romantic relationship, either be upfront about this, or have a solid reason to spend time in the country legally, that has nothing to do with him or her.

I did this years ago when I went to the U.K. for months at a time. Studying in England, for example, was a legitimate enterprise that I had no trouble explaining to a U.K. official, especially as he was questioning me in the middle of my course, which I was returning to after Christmas break. At the time, I could hardly keep a straight face when he asked me why someone would study at Oxford (there are universities in America). Now, I realize that he was probing for another reason, and I’m glad I wasn’t living with my partner at the time, because if he’d asked I could have answered truthfully. I don’t know what would have happened had the official asked me point blank if I was in a relationship with a British person. At the time, U.K. immigration law didn’t recognize same-sex relationships any more than the U.S. 

Where I am a citizen I shouldn’t even be asked these questions, but I want to get through. I can enter the U.S. whenever I want to, for no reason, and stay forever, and it doesn’t matter where. But there is no point in saying this at a land crossing while holding up an entire busload of passengers. It is not officials’ business that I’m going to my grandfather’s funeral, but it is their job to suspect everyone. It’s better to think like they do and understand why they are asking the questions. Being questioned (or, in the non-citizen’s case, fingerprinted) “like a criminal” is and always will be offensive to me, but I also recognize that it is a far more common outrage against some people who, for instance, have a different skin color from mine—and not just at borders. 

Which brings me to 
Hints for non-U.S. citizens, who (with some exceptions like Canadians) are fingerprinted at the border, and suspected of illegal immigration. It is up to the traveler to convince the official that this is not your intention. What evidence you will need and whether you will be asked to show it depend on the official you get and her impression of you on that day. So give yourself time and be prepared. Your calmness and awareness of the rules will help.

  • If, as we frequently do, you are flying in on a one-way ticket, show up at the airport early. That way, if the airline asks you to prove onward travel from the country you're flying to, you have time. Worst case scenario, you can go online and book a refundable (within 24 hours) ticket out of the country. It might seem wrong to book an onward ticket that you will cancel as soon as you get there, but it’s not the ticket that officials are interested in. It is evidence that you have the intention and the means to leave the country. Nothing proves the means to buy a ticket like buying a ticket.
  • Have evidence of your plans in the country, or at least some ideas (if you don't have a firm itinerary).
  • Have evidence of your finances (again, to prove you have the means to leave) and of ties to your home country: your home, family, business, if you’re going back to a job. And importantly, either print these, or save them as documents or screen shots on your computer or phone. That way, you won't be scrambling for WiFi at the airport, as we have had to do.
Successfully crossing a border is not an exact science. It is an art, and improves with practice. 

So do go to America. Because Americans are friendly! On a recent program about Prince Harry and his bride, Meghan Markle, the narrator said, “She just walks up to people and says, ‘Hi, I’m Meghan.’”

Of course she does, I said. She’s American.

Flags at Phnom Penh riverfront, Cambodia

Friday, June 8, 2018

People we haven't met yet: South to Perth

When I was very small, the story goes, we saw a man with his thumb out on the side of the road. I asked what he was doing and my mom said he wanted a ride. I asked why we didn’t give him one.

She said, “Well, we don’t know him, honey” and I said that I did.

I don’t know if thumbing a ride is still a thing in North America, but it’s common enough in Australia. Nevertheless I was surprised, as we began our road trip back to Perth from Exmouth when we saw someone on the side of the road and T. asked, “Shall we give him a ride?”

It wasn't a question. She was already backing up. And as soon as we got there I could see that our hitchhiker was, in fact, a young woman.
You could see the resemblance more clearly if she weren't wearing a cap--or if I were.
She reminded us of me, if I were fifteen years younger and French. I wonder if I reminded her of her. Delphine had been living at home in Brittany until a few years ago, when she decided being an ambulance driver wasn’t exciting enough. So she started walking, and sometimes hitchhiking, around Australia 22 months ago. 

I thought we were traveling light, but D. knocked “minimal” into a cocked hat. She was carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking stove, all in a backpack that weighed less than mine. I asked if she ever felt unsafe but she said no, never. She added that although it is considered safer for a girl and guy to hitchhike together, compared with a girl hitching alone, she thought having a guy along would make it “too easy.”

She rode with us all that first day back to Carnarvon, and I was glad, because it had been by far the dullest part of our road trip north. Nothing to stop for at all. There are a few picnic areas and we shared our sandwiches with D. at one—a rickety table and desperate toilet. Also trash cans. Western Australians cannot use a shortage of trash cans as an excuse for not throwing trash in them.
This was underneath our picnic table!
Finally, we got back to Carnarvon. We needed some groceries so said au revoir to our passenger in the parking lot. It felt a bit abrupt—I was sure she had more stories—but we were going back to the Coral Coast Caravan Park, with its lavish ablutions, and she was pitching her “swag” someplace free. I don’t know if there’s an etiquette for picking up hitchhikers but I felt vaguely concerned about her, even though she’d been fine for nearly two years before we met.

As we were pulling out of Carnarvon the next morning, we were still talking about D., wondering if she’d stay in Carnarvon an extra night or move on to Shark Bay. Not entirely surprisingly, T. spotted her again on the side of the highway. She had walked back out of the town centre and was as pleased to see us as we were to see her: “I know you!” Which only goes to show that, as T. says, a stranger is just somebody we haven't met yet. And I needn’t have worried about D.; while we were having beans on toast for supper at our campsite, she'd treated herself to fish and chips! 

We knew she wanted to go to Shark Bay so she rode with us as far as the bleak Overlander Roadhouse, the turnoff where we’d stopped on the way north. There we shared another lunch and said bon voyage. That’s where she consented to have her picture taken with this curly-haired, glasses-wearing stranger who was not a stranger after all.

The Discreet Traveler cannot recommend hitchhiking anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t do it, nor would I advise the girls in my life (or boys, for that matter) to do it. But part of becoming an adult is recognizing that there are things I personally would never do, which doesn’t necessarily make them bad choices for everyone. In fact, I admired D. In all the months she’d been hitching, she said Australians had picked her up tons of times, but only twice did fellow travelers stop. Us and a German woman. T. thought that was disgraceful. I said it had been impressed upon me that picking up hitchhikers was dangerous and D. replied, not unreasonably, that she was the one taking the risk.

I am sharing her story because there is something so pure and Zen-like about the way she is traveling. No Facebook, no Instagram, not even a journal. She has a phone and takes a few pictures, but a camera was just extra weight. She’s just experiencing, and yet she’s doing it the right way. She talked in detail about her visa options, here and in the next countries she’ll be visiting. She took the time and got proper work permits. She’s pretty much traveling by foot and thumb everywhere (although she did “cheat” with one flight). I thought I was brave at 27, emigrating to a new country; but I wasn’t in a tent or on my own. 

D. is an extreme embodiment of what we’re always learning: The world is not full of monsters. The news is. I don’t mean by this, as some do, to malign the media or suggest the news is “fake.” Rather, it’s the man-bites-dog truth of journalism: The news, by definition, reports what is exceptional. If goodness and kindness were exceptional, they would be news. When D. fell off a motorbike somewhere in Vietnam (don’t ask when), people just came out of the woodwork to help; she didn’t know where they came from but they were there before she could get off the ground.

So look out for Delphine on the road. Though she's perfectly able to look after herself.

We were glad to have company that day too, because it was the longest drive of our trip. After our lunch stop T. and I took turns driving all the way back to Geraldton. The Sunset Beach Caravan Park didn’t afford the sunset we had seen on our way up, but at least we were finally by the ocean again.

I couldn’t get over how people in these campgrounds just start friendly conversations, in a kind of communal living. If our neighbors hadn’t come over at Shark Bay, we might have stayed in Coral Bay instead of at the Ningaloo Lighthouse. If our neighbors hadn’t come over in Carnarvon we might not have seen Coral Bay at all. I was checking out of the campground at Geraldton when I heard one camper ask his partner, in German, if she wanted a copy of the such-and-such Times. “I don’t want any Times,” she said in English. “I am on vacation.”

Compared with Highway 1 further north, “Indian Ocean Drive” now seemed quite scenic. We’d missed Lesueur National Park on our trip north because there are no signs for it anywhere from the main highway. You have to detour as far as Cockleshell Gully Road, which is unpaved, and only then are there signs for the national park. T. drove some miles before she reached the (paved) scenic drive. A little bird swooped and bounced before us much of the way, “like a bird in a Disney movie,” taking advantage of our slow speed on the dirt road.
We decided to hike up to the flat top of Mt. Lesueur.
As with some Dutch place names (Vlamingh), French names in this part of WA reflect the origins of some early sailor-explorers. In springtime this park is supposed to be exceptional for its wildflowers.

It wasn’t springtime, but the view over to the ocean was pretty good. And we saw a wedge-tailed eagle drifting overhead, although I didn’t have the lens to capture it.

Our last night of camping was at our old haunt in Cervantes, with one last Indian Ocean sunset. Even T. remarked on the moon, suddenly full through the trees.

We’d gotten more than our money’s worth out of the national parks pass, but there was still one more we’d missed just north of Perth: Yanchep. On our last morning before returning the camper van, we stopped there to check out its Koala Boardwalk.
The first koalas came to Yanchep from Perth Zoo in 1938. They are native to eastern Australia and I was sure I’d seen one up a tree somewhere in Queensland, but as we were driving by, I couldn’t prove it to myself or anyone else. While the Yanchep koalas can’t be classed as wild, a sanctuary is better than the zoo, or one of those tourist photo ops. And we were glad to see this threatened species in a safe natural environment.

And so to Perth, where we had a couple of days downtown to check out the city. Although Perth doesn’t seem very big, or to have a great many tall buildings, it felt very urban after two weeks on a camping trip. A historical marker revealed that we were staying in the neighbourhood of Edith Dircksey Cowan, the first woman to serve in Australia’s parliament.

We were just down the street from Kings Park, so decided to check out this green hill that is the heart of Perth. Indeed, it’s more than that. The combination of botanic garden and natural bushland on Mount Eliza is, to the local Noongar people, the home of the creator of the Swan River, and a hunting ground for thousands of years. It was from a lookout here that the Noongar first glimpsed the Europeans who were coming to join them. Much, much too late, Australia is finally recognizing the contributions made by its original people, the traditional custodians of the land.

There are a lot of memorials in and around Kings Park. One of the most recent is this one, to the memory of Western Australians killed in Bali in 2002. The Indonesian island of Bali is a popular tourist destination for Australians (it’s cheaper to fly there from Perth than to Sydney or Melbourne), and of the hundreds killed and injured in that terrorist attack, the majority were foreign visitors.

It was sunny that day, so we also took time to check out Elizabeth Quay and walk around town a bit. The modern skyline contrasted with lovely old buildings including His Majesty’s Theatre, the only Edwardian theatre still standing in Australia.

The best part of our travels—or the part we miss most when we’re away—is the people. Before leaving Perth on a rainy last day, we had a chance to meet someone else whom, it turned out, we already knew. Neither T. nor I had ever met Teresa, who is the sister of T’s aunt by marriage and emigrated to Australia nearly five decades ago. But by the end of the afternoon (and a bottle of wine), we both knew and loved her. I kept trying to thank Teresa for lunch but she only said, “Just thank God.”

As T. says: "We're all on the same journey."

Monday, June 4, 2018

The year of the dolphin: Shark Bay to the Coral Coast

We have established a pattern now whenever we pick up a camper van. For the first twenty-four hours, T. pronounces everything about it “sh*t” or says “I @#$! hate this van.” By the next day, we have become used to all its many quirks. We find spaces to stuff our backpacks and whatever there is room to unpack, and have made peace with our respective angles of lying on the bed. At least for two weeks.

From Perth to Geraldton, National Highway 1 is called the Brand Highway. North of Geraldton it becomes the North West Coastal Highway. One can clearly see on the map that the highway does not touch the coast at any point, but even I was not prepared for such a scrubby bunch of desert. Luckily, as I mentioned in my last post, we turned off for the town of Denham, our base for exploring Shark Bay.

We had an early morning start at the Monkey Mia Marine Reserve, so we settled in to our campsite under the moon and stars. It was then that we remembered that that evening—morning U.K. time—was the date of the royal wedding. I became aware of this because there were English voices coming from the next “caravan,” followed by the sounds of a television. Let me tell you it was surreal to be sitting outdoors in Western Australia, hearing the choir of St. George’s Chapel sing a motet. Then there was a moment when everyone present must have sung together: the Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” I could not see the television but I could see the Milky Way, and hearing this old familiar hymn reminded me of many who have gone on before us. I guess I just felt closer to the heavens there.

As it turned out, our neighbors were the sort of people who would not have minded had we knocked on their door and asked to watch the royal wedding with them. But before we found that out, we had to get to Monkey Mia (pronounced “Maya”). We both saw the sunrise and managed not to add to the dead ’roo count. It was here during the 1960s that some fishermen started sharing their catch with the bottlenose dolphins, and people have been coming ever since.

Fishers have always shared their fish with dolphins, and it is not necessarily unsustainable. But as the roads from Perth improved and more tourists began piling in, the “fed” fish became such a part of the dolphins’ diet that it affected the raising of their calves and their survival rate. Eventually, Western Australia regulated this so that now, only specific individual females are fed a limited “snack.” These individuals, including Puck and her daughter Piccolo, have always come to the beach, so for them it is natural.

On the second round there were fewer visitors present, but as many dolphins. Puck, 42, was lucky enough to be fed a fish by T. Although I tend to think the luck was on the humans’ side.
Dolphins pretty much steal the show wherever we see them—perhaps it’s because they are mammals too. But the wildlife of Shark Bay wasn’t done showing off for us. We were fortunate to see a turtle just swimming by the jetty.
There is more than one species of turtle in the sea here, but they are all in danger, so this was a treat. And not to be outdone, more pelicans showed up too.

It was after we got back and were sitting in the shade of our gum tree that Pat came over and started chatting. Pat and Kath, it turns out, were our neighbors of the television, and have British and Australian citizenship. He could talk the clothes off the line, and did, as the laundry was drying by the time we learned their life story! If you want to follow it, Kath has a Facebook blog called Senior Gap Year Adventure. We really enjoyed our evening on their “porch,” swapping tales of being on the road for months.

In between chats, we walked down to the waterfront in Denham, where the Shark Bay Fishing Fiesta was going on. It was a lot colder than it felt standing ankle deep in the sea, as we had at Monkey Mia. There had been a million boat trailers parked down there on Saturday night, but most of those people must have still been out on the water, because only a handful of locals were at the Fiesta when we got there. First “the boys” and then a woman brought their catch to be weighed.
I examined, but did not buy, a “rashie” from Useless Loop Angling Club (Useless Loop is the 4WD track that leads off to the westernmost point of Australia). Drunken members of the Bowling Club did their best to serve hamburgers. And one of the kids T. calls “feral,” a boy much too old for this sensibility, came running by shouting “I have to poop!”

“Well enjoy yourself,” T. said.

“Thank you.” Sweetness mingled with bathroom humor. Just what I’d expect from a three-year-old.

We had a great time in Shark Bay, but it was time to return to the desolation of the North West Coastal [sic] Highway. Hundreds of kilometers and one roadhouse later, we saw a rough track marked “Scenic Lookout.” In desperation, we took it. The lookout itself wasn’t scenic, but we found a second lookout a little way along which, for reasons unclear to us, has become a bizarre kind of shrine. All kinds of objects have been placed there in memory of people (though maybe Fifi was a dog), and despite the wind, it has not been merciful enough to blow them away.
Smurfette was my personal fave.
On this section of the drive to Carnarvon, you had better get on the right road. Once you do you will never see another sign—of life!—except km markers: “C 120.” Heaven help you if you don’t know what town, or station, the letter stands for.

But we made it, and for a change, Carnarvon is awash with green fields of fruit and vegetables. It is also on the banks of the (mostly but not entirely dry) Gascoyne River. We had a walk down the Fascine, the riverfront, and encountered a touching memorial to the H.M.A.S. Sydney.

In November 1941 the Sydney was involved in a fight with the German ship Kormoran. Both ships were sunk, but the Sydney’s was lost with all 645 on board. Their names, from the captain’s to the scullery staff, are on a monument in Carnarvon.

Both wrecks were recovered in 2008, and a second monument remembers those of the Kormoran who also died. This gave me pause. It is hard to imagine a cause as repellent as Nazi Germany’s, but as a wise woman reminded me recently, these men were also someone’s sons. Some lingering battlefield respect must have existed for the Germans to be remembered on the Carnarvon foreshore. 

The Senior Gap Year Adventurers had given us recommendations for Exmouth including not to stay in Exmouth itself, but at Vlamingh Head where the lighthouse is. At the Coral Coast campground we got further advice from our neighbors Greg and Sue. (I love how people just bring their camp chairs and drinks and plop down to talk to you—like the old front porches.) They were among many migratory snowbirds on their way north to Broome, and they suggested that although we wouldn’t be camping at Coral Bay (another suggestion from Pat and Kath), there was no reason we couldn’t take the turnoff and stop there for lunch. 

So we did, after passing the Tropic of Capricorn again and starting to see the termite mounds of northern Australia. Unlike in the center, no one seems to put T-shirts on the mounds out here, though I did see one with a smiley face painted on. Anyway Coral Bay was the oasis off the otherwise desolate Minilya-Exmouth Road.
We didn’t stay in Coral Bay because it’s this one beach with everybody on it, and although we could have found an unpowered campsite somewhere, we wanted to maximize our time around Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range National Park. Staying at the Ningaloo Lighthouse campground was inspired. Between the lighthouse and the beach, it was an idyllic place to spend four nights.

The camper van continued to surprise, and not in a good way. We got up in the morning to find a trail of water along the floor, which turned out to be from the refrigerator defrosting itself. We had been latching it shut properly but the rubber seal had given way. Luckily, the interior table (only big enough for one person in the third seat anyway) had also broken, so we used the snapped-off table to wedge the fridge shut for the remainder of the trip. I am Jack Knowles’s daughter and Frank Knowles’s granddaughter; if there’s one thing I can handle, it’s jamming things together to hold for another week!

Speaking of Frank Knowles, the place we went to the next day was called Lakeside. Not the small town in Ohio, but it turned out to be the highlight of my entire road trip. We drove into the National Park (once again thankful for having bought the pass) and rented masks, fins, and snorkels, then took an unsealed road down to Lakeside. You walk about 500 m down the beach and then just swim out to Ningaloo Reef. This—the warm water, the accessible reef—was what had drawn us to Western Australia. 
I don’t have an underwater camera so I can’t show you the coral and fish, but they were amazing. The water was so salty I had no trouble staying buoyant, and fins made swimming effortless. I love snorkeling. Sports like diving or proper climbing, where you have to depend on equipment, never appealed to me, but with a snorkel I am always near the surface. I’ve never been able to just go when I wanted to, not with an organized group, and snorkel until I was tired. 

Best of all is that they just let people do this! There are no lifeguards or warnings. You just keep your eye on the buoys. If it weren’t such a long trip to get here, the Ningaloo Reef would be busier and less unspoiled. As it is, we swam with a turtle, which was even cooler than seeing one off the jetty at Monkey Mia.
Here's one we photographed earlier.
Then a couple of other snorkelers told us they had seen two reef sharks. These, we were assured, are not an aggressive or harmful kind of shark. I was glad they told us, though, because when I was finally ready to swim back in, I saw a couple of little creatures with that unmistakable shark shape. I watched them, but didn’t pursue, and was glad to have seen these patrollers of the reef.

As in Kalbarri, the inland part of the national park is a completely different landscape from the coast. Yardie Creek is the only creek in Cape Range that has water all year round. We hiked the Yardie Creek Gorge Trail that afternoon.
We could see back to Ningaloo Reef from there. Thanks to another hiker telling us to look for them, we also saw two of the park’s treasured creatures: rock wallabies.

It was a perfect sunny day to enjoy both national parks. 

And it was an A+ day for wildlife: on the way back, T. spotted another “enchilada” making its way to safety away from the road.
Our second full day at Ningaloo was as beautiful as the first. We spent it at Turquoise Bay, snorkeling until we were tired again, then just enjoying the beach. 

Ningaloo Reef, which fringes this whole part of the coast, is mostly hard corals, without the bright colors of the soft corals found on outer reefs. But their variety of shapes—brain, staghorn, etc.—is second to none. Again, we saw an amazing number of brightly colored fish. No turtle or sharks, but on the other hand our rented masks and snorkels seemed a better fit that day so we didn’t have to keep coming up to clear them. Perhaps it was practice makes perfect.

In the same way that there eventually came a day in New Zealand when I didn’t need my rain jacket, there came a day on this camping trip when I did. On the third day the heavens opened and our plans quickly changed from yet more snorkeling to getting our laundry off the line, where it had soaked overnight. That took us into Exmouth where we found a laundromat and gas station. Luckily the Lighthouse Caravan Park has a bistro, so on the stroke of noon, we were in there with other campers enjoying a beer (oh, and dry clothes of course). We never did see the sunset from the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse but we eventually walked up to it, when the rain had abated. Evidently the lighthouse keeper once lived in a house that is now part of the caravan park. Overlooking our temporary home, we learned a bit more about the history of the area.
World War II-era sandbags, Vlamingh Head
It turns out that Exmouth didn't exist until the U.S. Navy built a base there during World War II, to refuel its submarines. Like Darwin, Broome, in the north of WA, was subject to bombings by the Japanese Empire. Exmouth as a town only began about fifty years ago.

I also learned that we owe the Ningaloo Reef of today to a fiercely fought, but successful, environmental campaign of the early 2000s. There were plans to build a massive marina resort on what is a nesting ground of the loggerhead turtle, one of the endangered species that finds refuge in Ningaloo’s waters. There have also been more recent proposals to explore for liquefied natural gas on the perimeter of the reef. Thanks to protesters, these plans were rejected. Today human beings, along with whale sharks, humpback whales, manta rays, dugongs and of course turtles, can continue to enjoy one of the only reef systems on earth that remains a healthy ecosystem.

By the fourth morning it was time to move on. We headed out of Exmouth with one last turnoff towards Cape Range National Park. This was the lookout road along Charles Knife Gorge. It provided spectacular views of land and water and, to T’s delight, became first an unsealed, then a rougher and rougher road. We turned back only when water on the road appeared to be too deep to negotiate safely in a 2WD.
We have seen many beautiful places on our travels, but those accessible through Cape Range National Park have got to be near the top. I am grateful to people and their representatives who have known how far to go with development, and have saved these wild places for future generations.