Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The beauty that sprouts from the ground

(30 October – 2 November)

The wildflowers of Kalbarri NP are one of the features of the region, a perpetual kaleidoscope of colours throughout the year, so whenever you visit, there are always some plants in bloom – and we weren’t disappointed. Spotting the blooms are easy as there is the ‘dry’ green background and in contrast, any other colour shines like a beacon – I’ve uploaded some examples throughout this blog entry.

The stark dryness of the park should not be underestimated as the walk to Nature’s Window attested – the day’s temperature was around the mid-30s, but out in the park it was reaching the mid to upper 40s. The walk to Nature’s Window was not particularly long however the heat sure makes itself felt as we guzzled the water like it was going out of style.

The National Park also extends south along the coast where there are some great surf spots as well as rugged cliffs and stacks similar to those found along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. The vegetation is very different to that of the NP to the north and inland due to soil and proximity to the sea – due to winds and salt spray. We were however, fortunate to spot the odd wallaby or roo here, whereas we only saw crows in the north.

The tribe had another experience of feeding the local natives, this time it was pelicans – where the feeding has been a daily ritual for the past 40-odd years – ‘Mr Percival’ was the greedy one forever hassling the lady with the bucket of fish as four other feathered comrades and a gaggle of seagulls waited patiently. Of course, the trick with these greedy creatures is to give them some food after everyone else has some of the feed.

Kalbarri is also renowned for Flynn’s Fish BBQ Restaurant – set in a former fisheries shed, with seating rambling outdoors and under pergolas, the venue is one of those ‘must visit’ places, with bric-a-brac and semi-antique-like collectables scattered about decorating the walls, pillars, display cabinets, and toilets. The menu is based upon what Mr Flynn buys that day. The featured fish for our dinner was red emperor – a robust and firm fish that is well suited to the BBQ hotplate. Also, there is the opportunity for you to sing for your supper, however, none of the tribe was inclined to sing despite them practising ABBA and the national anthem on the drive to the restaurant. Also, no other diner offered to exercise their lungs.

Pushing on down the coast, we viewed the Pink Lake (aka Hutt Lagoon) which is an iridescent pink due to high levels of beta carotene in the water. Quite a bizarre sight in itself, although I don’t recommend drinking the water to boost your daily intake of beta-carotene.

We paused in Geraldton for groceries, post and a spot of lunch, and then carried on with our drive as we aimed to reach the Pinnacles for sunset. Setting in at the caravan park in Cervantes, we quickly set-up before heading to the Pinnacles – another one of those odd geological formations where countless limestone ‘fingers’ sprout from the sandy desert over the landscape.

The tribe loved playing around the ‘fingers’ as it provided the perfect place to play hide-and-seek, as well as chasings. It truly is a magical place though eerie in the respect that it is a very alien looking landscape. The funny thing is, whenever you see images of it whether in books, magazines or on TV, the impression is that it is out in the desert, a million miles from civilisation – yet the reality is that it is barely 200km from Perth, a mere day trip away.

Mesmerising sites on the drive from Cervantes to Perth include the occasional brilliant white sand dunes on the ‘wrong’ side of the road – that is on the eastern side away from the beach – dunes which would not look out of place if you were on camel-back in the Sahara. Also along the way were the occasional grass tree forests – unusual for our east coast eyes as these were forests of only grass trees, whereas on the east coast, grass trees generally exist amongst plenty other vegetation, usually amongst eucalypts.

Thar she blows!

(24-30 October)

After one windy night in Carnarvon we’re heading back north, but this time off-road past the Blow Holes for a couple of nights at Red Bluff on Quobba Station. Talk about a wild and windy coastline – the Blow Holes provided great excitement for the tribe as they waited and screamed in delight at the blast of water sprayed by the Blow Holes, occasionally copping a spray themselves. And the wind was, well, on the gusty side as we could barely hear each other shout as our words sailed off into the wild blue yonder.

There is a homestead located at Red Bluff managing the northern end of Quobba Station, a sheep farm breeding sheep for meat in dusty desert-like conditions. The camp site is well spread out along the beach front, with humpies and the oh so chic safari tents set back on higher ground to capture the view. And what a place!

We are given a site with use of a humpy which also served as bit of a windbreak, though the wind pretty much got you wherever you were, buffeting the camper at night making for a disturbed sleep as we wondered whether we would be tent surfing over the bay.

The view from our site was of the beach and surf – with the occasional visits from kangaroos and ospreys. Possibly one of the best places we have stayed simply for its sense of being in the wilderness – like and unlike the Platypus Bushcamp in Eungella NP near Mackay. And while the bush showers at Platypus were one of the best things we’ve come across, the totally eco-friendly toilet at Red Bluff had an uninterrupted view of the beach and the surf – talk about being on the throne!

On our second day, we took the sandy track up to Gnaraloo Bay, passing through Gnaraloo Station, another farm eking out an existence in the desert conditions, however, like Quobba and Red Bluff, supplementing their ways with eco-friendly camping and cabin facilities.

Gnaraloo Bay, whose waters are brilliant turquoise, is located at the southern tip of Ningaloo Reef and offered us our last opportunity for a snorkel on the reef. On arrival, we were welcomed by hundreds of curlews (?) As for the snorkelling, the closest of the coral bombies are located merely 20 metres from the shoreline, and though the water was a little silty from the winds blowing the fine dusty sand, there was nevertheless plenty of fish life to enjoy. What’s more, we had the whole bay and beach to ourselves – talk about paradise – not unlike being shipwrecked on a deserted island.

On our return to Carnarvon after the two nights at Red Bluff, we made a bee-line for the fruit and veg plantations to grab some fresh, locally grown produce. The best fruit and veg we had in a long time too! We couldn’t say the same about the ‘famed’ pizza from the Old Post Office Café, apparently voted top 5 by Lonely Planet. Definitely the best in town, but nowhere near our top 5 – would even say it wasn’t as good as anything from the Pizza Express chain in England! (oh yes!)

Having talked a lot to the tribe about the dolphins at Monkey Mia, we were finally at the infamous location. But not before a quick visit to Shell Beach, which was, guess what, made up of shells and only shells (cardiid cockles) up to 10m deep – absolutely no sand whatsoever – and one of only two such places in the world – it was a strange place – and damn windy again! Nearby, there were shell quarries used to erect buildings previously made of carved out blocks of the compacted shells.

The tribe were excited at the prospect of seeing dolphins up close and personal in knee-deep water, so there we were joining over 100 humans on the beach at breakfast, some not as kindly as others as some refused to let (shorter) children in front of them. Soraya lost interest as she couldn’t sneak through the steadfast legs and played in the sand to pass the time, soon to be joined by Zak and Kaydin, though once the informative talk was finished, we were able to get the tribe up front.

The dolphins of which there were two to begin with, were joined later by another five (who cleverly timed their arrival for the end of the talk by the guide), are only given a small portion of their daily fish intake so that they are not dependent on the handouts. This means only a few people actually are given an opportunity to feed a dolphin – which proved to be lucky for Saffiya but disappointing for the trio who missed out.

And how to sum up the dolphin experience – too much hype, but yes you do see them up close and personal. However, reports from others suggest you can be lucky in other parts of the Shark Bay and down the coast and have dolphins swim close-by too. But those don’t rely on humans turning up promptly every morning at 7.40am.

One feature not advertised is the presence of emus in the campsite at Monkey Mia – and they don’t mind a bit beachcombing either.

We experienced another of those windy nights at Monkey Mia, again with the inkling that we’d be blown into Shark Bay, as the canvas billowed in and out with the passing of each gust, the trailer shaking by the buffeting, making for a sleepless night.

On the Friday, our last day at Monkey Mia, we celebrated Malika’s birthday, with some yummy cakes at the bakery in nearby Denham – M had an apple turnover, Kaydin’s new favourite is a jam and cream donut which Saffiya also had, Soraya tried the blueberry cheesecake but preferred my hedgehog (due to the chocolate obviously), Zak had a bacon and cheese roll, and liked bits of everyone else’s cakes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

On the road again

(17-23 October)

Like déjà vu, we leave Broome again and until we passed our accident location 96km from town, we were a little apprehensive about the drive. After passing that point, dark skid marks still evident, we let out our sigh of relief. Yes, we are truly well on our way now.

We have re-kitted ourselves in a replacement car and camper trailer – this time a Hyundai Terracan, a robust diesel 4WD tugger, though a little more squashed than previously, and with an off-road camper trailer of the canvas tent variety. We spent a final frustrating hour or so packing our gear in the trailer and on the car’s roof, still leaving a few things behind, BUT we were on our way!

Our first destination/port of call was Eighty Mile Beach, located about 300km from Broome along what must be one of most dullest roads ever travelled – flat, with nothing of interest to divert your attention apart from endless tracts of Spinifex and mulga as far as the eye could see – more of this was to be our pleasure until we reached Port Hedland.

The Eighty Mile Beach caravan park itself is set 15km off the highway down a dirt road, but located behind the beach dunes. We pitch the camper for the night, our first in the new set-up, juggling what to unpack and what to lay out ready for bunking-in. We catch a glimpse of the sunset over the beach as we dine and then settle in for the night.

The next morning, we take a last look at this long beach – the beach that goes on as far as the eye can see in both directions. Our plan for the day is to drive and get beyond Port Hedland as the notion of hanging around a mining port strangely doesn’t hold much appeal. Apart from the mound of salt about 100metres high, there is not much of interest for us here so we stay long enough to fuel up and fill any remaining space in the car with necessary groceries.

We were looking forward to some free-camping and had ear-marked a couple of roadside rest areas as potential camp sites for the night. Having missed one, we find another and labour over an ‘ideal’ location. As we start to set-up camp, I try bashing a tent peg into the ground which proved to be as tough as the iron ore in the hills around here, so without any dynamite to tenderise the rocky ground, we pack and head off again, into the fast receding sun, gunning for another 100km to reach Roebourne, the next town and hopefully a caravan park.

Roebourne – well we make it as darkness sets in and we get a plot in the caravan park, which we discover in the morning to be well populated by mine workers as there is a local (rental) housing shortage. Oddly enough, we stay two nights, recovering from the previous day’s long drive (some 500km) and to take in some of the local sights – namely Port Samson and Cossack. The former is merely a holiday/retiree hamlet overlooking a small beach and bay – tranquil enough and bursting full of life, not.

Cossack is quite another story for it is also devoid of life but more so as it is no more than a ghost town. A handful of beautifully restored stone buildings make for what was once a bustling pearling town with shops, boarding houses and Japanese brothels – yet abandoned since the 1950s. Interesting to visit if you ever venture this way.

Continuing the journey south, we refuel and stock up in Karratha, another mining town that holds little interest for the tribe. We by-pass Dampier, its sister town and head towards Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef.

We stay at the Vlamingh Lighthouse Caravan Park just on the fringes of the Cape Range National Park – originally wanting to camp in the NP, we arrive again as sun dips beyond the horizon, so opt for the comforts of a caravan park. Needless to say, given its location, it was perfect for us to venture into Cape Range and visit the beautiful Ningaloo Reef.

The place that took our fancy for two days was Turquoise Bay – one of those rare places that not only lives up to its name, but is also a great place to snorkel over the reef – a great new experience for the tribe! They loved it – seeing the array of colourful reef fish blew them away – the excitement on their faces was beyond the joy any toy could bring them. Their favourite was the tiny electric blue fish.

The temptation would have been to stay longer so we could spend more days at Turquoise Bay, however we had to move on so off to Carnarvon we drive, where we were greeted (since leaving the Qld coast) by our first sightings of many fruit and veg plantations – like an oasis for our eyes after the dry shrubs, Spinifex and mulga we had experienced for the past 1000+kms.

Living in Broome-time

(10 September – 16 October)

In the meantime, we spent the first two nights at a lovely resort, with plasma screen TVs in each of the three rooms of our apartment, as well as the very large spa bath in the huge master ensuite. The luxury was the perfect antidote to massage the pains of our incident.

Since then, we have stayed in a cabin at a holiday park, the tribe enjoying the large free-form pool and meeting other kids staying in the park. We have resorted to getting about town by bus and now are familiar to all the bus drivers – Robyn, being the tribe’s favourite.

The boys even had their first haircut experience at the barbers, both sitting ever so patiently while their follicles were trimmed to create a pair of very handsome young men – “would you like some product in your hair?” The boys look back in bewilderment. . “huh?”, not quite the metro-sexual yet; the girls watching on with curiosity.

We have become members of the Broome library, the tribe joining in with their weekly craft activities, which became a near daily ritual due to their excellent school holidays program. This also provided the impetus to borrow books and DVDs every few days which presents useful distractions.

Both Town Beach and Cable Beach have continued to be draw cards, although one trip to Cable Beach resulted in only playing in the sand as the water had been affected by cyno-bacteria for a few days (the water takes on an oil-slick hue and the warning mentioned possible skin irritation though some people were swimming in the murky miasma).

In order to ensure we could continue our trip, we needed to replace both the car and camper-trailer. The car replacement seemed to be an easy choice given there are enough car yards around. Having chosen a car – a Hyundai Terracan – it has taken at least 10 days (and counting) to have a couple of minor repairs done before final purchase.

Broome-time means given the remoteness, spare parts aren’t that easy to track and getting them delivered takes some time too. We were told it would be ready last Wednesday, but now it looks like next Wednesday . . . who knows?

We contemplated getting a box-trailer and tenting our way to Perth before buying a replacement camper-trailer due to no camper/caravan dealer in the region, and very few opportunities of second-hand ones in the classifieds. There was even the suggestion of ordering one from Perth and shipping it up!

Broome-time means biding your time in finding a camper-trailer.

In the end, we found one via the classifieds – this time, it’s a canvas tent style camper-trailer – the whole thing being less than half the weight of our dearly departed Jayco Eagle. Anyway, it’s a roof over our heads with bed and kitchen – just got to sort out some electricals so we can have lights, recharge batteries and phones as well as run a fridge.

So it looks like we will be back on the road in the not too distant future . . . dare we hold our breath!

The tidal range up here continues to marvel – we had the ‘staircase to the moon’ phenomenon (a low tide and nocturnal rising moon) and the opportunity to see the dinosaur footprints which needed a low tide of a maximum of 1.46m to see all three sets of prints. The other tidal-related ‘must-see’ is the Catalina (flying boat) wrecks which require tides less than 0.86m.

The plane wrecks are located about 1.5 km across the Roebuck Bay mudflats from Town Beach, taking just under an hour’s squelching walk to reach. The walk traverses sand banks, mudflats and fields of seagrass, populated by little and big mud crabs, mudskippers, hermit crabs and starfish.

An eeriness befalls you as you view the wrecks – the knowledge that over 100 people were killed in the air-raid by 10 Japanese aircraft in 1942. The silence at the site is shattered by the constant ‘chattering’ of the sea-life now encrusted on the bits of fuselage and engine casings – barnacles and other shells. Or so you wish as you block out the chattering of fellow viewers: “is this a Catalina?”, “were people killed?”, “I could do with a coffee, how about you?”.

A must do when you’re here is a picnic dinner (or takeaway) to watch the sunset from Cable Beach – even better if you tailgate your dinner and drive onto the northern expanses past the camel rides – mind you, you won’t be the only one doing this as many locals as well as travellers will be joining you to enjoy nature’s daily light show.