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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.


Anonymous said...

Many highlights here: Hearing "Be Thou My Vision" sung by those at the Royal Wedding while you looked at the Milky Way and thought of loved ones who have gone on before us; chatting with Pat and Kath (on their Senior Gap Year Adventure); your thoughtful "shout out" to your Dad and Grandfather for their "jamming things together" instruction; and snorkeling around Ningaloo Reef and Turquoise Bay. G & P

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