A long way to go

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We checked into  the Cable Beach Resort, and took a mere 30 minutes to streak the white towels with red dust, scatter tiny Pilbara stones from our luggage onto the floor, and appear poolside looking like we had been rehomed from under a bush.

There were two pool areas, one for families, and one other, conveniently located on the edge of our room. The family pool area had funky Ku-De-ta style music and a lively vibe. Walking into our pool area was like walking into a scene from Coocoon. People draped over noodles smiled a little too brightly, bobbing slowly on the spot to an eerie silence. Those not in the pool appeared to be recovering from cosmetic surgery, with an over representation of compression bandages and overly large hats.  A guy we identified as Solar Panel took up position at dawn, and rotated all day on the same lounger to face the sun, briefly moving to a particular chair in the shade to drink a beer every hour. I wanted to give the pool scene triage, and asked the terribly pleasant barman for some music. He seemed to have been swimming in the same pool, or may have been a droid as he looked blankly, before his eyes flickered, registering the request, and advising Management had told him to turn it off.

The noodles resisted W's attempts to breathe life into them.

The noodles resisted W’s attempts to breathe life into them.

At dusk, a queue of cars formed to tear down the beach. Ok, well, W tore down the beach at a disobedient 16kph.  Irikandji (a jellyfish that requires morphine to dull the pain) danced in the shallow tide, camels plodded past, and a 3m croc decided to wait another few days before having a crack at the swimmers and dogs splashing enthusiastically about.

Broome Broome to the beach

Broome Broome to the beach

Fearful I may get attached to swaying palms in pink sunset bars, champagne in glass vessels, chlorinated swimming, mirrors, and air-conditioned rooms, W drove at breakneck speed up the Cape Leveque Peninsula, to Goombaragin, one of the many campsites offered by local leaseholders along the coast.

The road to Goombaragin, Cape Leveque Peninsula

The road to Goombaragin, Cape Leveque Peninsula

Our campsite was one of only two, both on the cliff overlooking the bay, with a charming rocky track down to the beach that I would not recommend to the infirm. Unfortunately, wind made the water pretty murky but we were desperate.  The welts from something in the water receded within 48 hours, and being led back up the path by one of the resident pythons was a bonus.

Goombaragin beach

Goombaragin beach

Traditionally guests gather at a daily fire with the host family and fabulous tips and local history are generously shared. The 17-year old lad of the host family was an inspiration, his enthusiasm for pythons (he had a Stimson in an aquarium), fishing, diving, shells, bare feet, and his overall sunny and open nature will take him far. I would love to know where his future takes him.

Hermit Crab Highway. Overnight all footprints are eradicated by the march of tiny hermit crabs.

Hermit Crab Highway. Overnight, all footprints are eradicated by the march of tiny hermit crabs.

There are a few must do’s on the Peninsula. A visit to the Hatchery at One Arm Point is a must. For a $15 fee to the community, I learnt more about local fish in that 30 minutes than I have with my multiple fish books.  I got spat at by Archer fish and plotted to save a forlorn Barramundi Cod brought in by local kids, as it lay unmoving on the floor of the tank – this species mate for life, and pine away when they are separated.  At low tide you can see Lemon sharks being herded by local dogs at the boat ramp. A visitor filmed it and the video became a phenomenon, but it happens regularly. At high tide, a phenomenal amount of water courses between offshore islands. And of course, there’s Kooljaman.

Beach hut accommodation at Kooljaman

Beach hut accommodation (one of many great options) at Kooljaman

When I saw the azure beach at Kooljaman, a resort at the tip of the peninsula, around 220km north west of Broome, I booked us into the campground immediately. It had nothing to do with the adjacent resort cafe and ice cream fridge.  Tour buses, float planes and helicopters swept in at regular intervals, piloted and driven by clean-cut guys in their early twenties dressed in Steve Irwin khaki’s and R M Williams boots. Most of the tours were a ten-hour marathon that covered both Cape Leveque and the Deeby Horizontal Falls in one day, giving a parade of people that looked remarkably similar to each other every day an outback-meets-the-ocean experience in 20-minute segments.  The Outback Pilot Uniform seemed to catch on as I noted a surfeit of women my age, in flowing layered dresses (as women my age are prone to do) finished off with a pair of R M Williams boots.  I haven’t discounted releasing a Boho-meets-Jillaroo Collection when I return to Perth.

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Kooljaman campground. Beautiful setting, but the gold is always in the kitchen

I find the best sights are usually in the kitchen.  A global fusion breakfast crafted by a young german lad with an evidently iron-clad constitution, wins so far.  Layering white bread, a hefty squeeze of chilli sauce, a smear of berry jam, and plastic cheese presumably for stability, he flew in the face of standard backpacker fare – dry chicken and corn two-minute noodles, and teeny cans of tuna.

There is a meaningful statistical trend for the kind of travellers you find in campgrounds.  The rougher it gets, the country of origin reduces down to three: German, Kiwi, and Australians under 40. You generally don’t see the guy in the t-shirt that reads: ‘This is Australia. We eat meat. We drink beer. And we speak f*kin English.’, anywhere that requires 4WD access.  I reluctantly note another trend, and it is prompting a sense of vigilante-ism within. Each day I wish to be disproven, but alas, where Whizz-bangers (backpackers in forensically overloaded rental vans) have been, a trail of dry noodles and used disposable kitchenware appear on the bench, while cigarette butts, empty tuna cans, and egg shells pile up in the bush.  PROVE ME WRONG people.

Western Beach

Western Beach

While we were at Eastern Beach a group of 30 or so people of all ages gathered to enjoy a picnic under the day-use shade huts, near a shower for cleaning off sand. They had walked over the hill, carrying multiple eski’s (chully buns), and bags of food, chatting excitedly all the way. Children ran about, a ball flew back and forth, the water sparkled, and adults laughed easily, although no-one swam. One said to another, “Go ahead, you can get in there, but I’m not saving you.”  I wanted to tell them I’d take them swimming!

A blonde woman walked up and said to the group, “Aren’t you wonderful?  I’ve never seen so many Indians together.  Where are you from?”

Without skipping a beat, a particularly stylish young guy said, “Broome. You had too many cowboys, you needed some Indians.”

Blond woman: “Broome? What do you do? Are you taxi-drivers? The only Indians I have seen are taxi-drivers.”

Gorgeous lad: “Yes and we work in hospitality.”

We talked to all sorts of interesting people around Cape Leveque, including a guy we discovered had killed his wife on the basis of infidelity, “but it’s ok, he did time”.  We offered to show a lovely German guy the snorkelling spots and a lift over the hill (it’s about a four minute drive) and he said, “Of course you drive, you are Australian.” We covered multiple topics including the international phenomenon of pre-dawn poolside chair claim, and he said the most wanted gift at a Deutsche Bank conference he went to was a towel that read, “We have been here already”. Gold!

Ardi Reflections Tour. Bardi Dancers from Lombadina Community

Ardi Reflections Tour. Bardi Dancers from Lombadina Community

That night a group of musicians on tour played a few numbers at Kooljaman in advance of their Ardi Reflections gig at local community, Lombadina. On the strength of the amazing sound, we went and enjoyed incredibly arresting and impassioned performances from the musicians, story tellers, and Bardi dancers from Lombadina, alongside a lot of other tourists. Sitting there being entertained felt a little colonial to me.  On the one hand, events like these enable communities to share their culture and provide an income stream.  On the other, it somehow made history stark, that there is so much wonderful heritage still to be shared, and that we all have a long way to go.

What you looking at, Williams? Incoming anemone fish at Eastern Beach, an amazing snorkelling spot with coral gardens of wondrous design.

What you looking at, Williams? Incoming anemone fish at Eastern Beach, an amazing snorkelling spot with coral gardens of wondrous design

Cape Leveque vine of unknown species!

Cape Leveque vine of unknown species!

Next: Across the Top End.

HIGHLIGHTS from this and the last post

Broome (2200 km north of Perth) – Eat great tapas at 18 Degrees, $12 cocktails on Friday and Saturday from 3pm-5pm. Have mex-inspired breakfast or a fab almond croissant with Broomes best coffee at funky The Good Cartel café, that also does drive through.

Karijini (1400 km north of Perth) – Do all of the walks, especially the spider walk, swim every day to cool down in Fern Pool, go to Phill Witt’s REMTREK Astro Tour.

Millstream Chichester (150km east of Karratha) – Go there in May/June, get there early, and nab a campsite at Miliyanha on the outer ring, under trees. The old homestead has loads of detail about the families who lived there, and a very charming and shaded Homestead Walk. There are loads of walking tracks, and you can swim in Deep Reach pool.

Kooljaman (220km from Broome) – stay in the beach huts (need a tent) or cabins at Eastern Beach.


Sublime to the ridiculous

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Content warning: If you are close to convincing your better-half that camping is a really great idea, disavow all knowledge of this post.

Hello! I’ve been thwarted in my attempts to post in the last three weeks due to not having enough ‘fibre’ across the top end of Australia. I still don’t fully understand because W hasn’t drawn me a picture, but apparently having coverage and having speed to upload stuff is different. Stabbing my finger repeatedly on the return key doesn’t help either.  W makes a dial whizz around on his iPad and declares the location blog-possible or not.  As we have made it to the East Coast, the dial should whizz above 0.84 megabits and I can get back to where I left off…

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And the Landscape Design Award goes to…nature

Monitor Lizard, critter time (for Kenny)

Monitor Lizard, critter time (for Kenny)

When we packed up at Cape Range, a little surprise awaited me on the underside of the groundsheet; two poor little mice in pancake form, a vision now burned into my retina for the rest of all time. I had managed to forget the stowaway Huntsman spider, the ticks, and the poor man dismantling his two month old Toyota to evict the family of rats that were eating his vehicle from the inside of the seats out. Until then.

Mt Nameless Rd, looks innocuous enough

Mt Nameless Rd, the 4WD alternative to Tom Price. Looks innocuous enough.

We headed in the direction of Tom Price, and at 4pm set up camp on the side of the highway, close enough to deter psychopaths, far enough from the road-train that would inevitably park nearby, and run their refrigeration units all night. Opening the back door of the car to pull out bits of tent, a tiny stowaway mouse freaked out and shot into the depths of our vehicle. A forensic sweep of the Silverado coaxed it out of the car and straight under the imagined sanctity of our tent. By morning, two of them made it out alive to examine their new digs in the local spinifex.

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The last time I was at Tom Price, Stevie, Suz, W and I went to the only restaurant open at 6.30pm – the hotel – where no menu item escaped the scorching love of the deep fryer. Jump aboard the DeLorean and fast forward 5 years, and we found ourselves at Crave coffee cart that not only served a great heart starter, but oh my! smoothies with kale. I caught up with the lovely Matt and Kass, mid-roadtrip to meet photographers for new venture Austockphoto, started by Kass and business partner Clare. Hallelujah for beautiful Australian stock imagery, and hooray for tangibly supporting Australian artists! The Coles was another revelation. Jammed with every kind of produce you could want, we set new records in Paleo contraband (six kinds of kinds of cheese anyone?), and set off for Dales Gorge camp at Karijini National Park.

I waited for the nude swimmer to leave, Circular Pool, Karijini

I waited for the nude swimmer to leave, Circular Pool, Karijini

The numerous campsites at Dales Gorge were spacious and shady, the serenity broken only by the grind of the Parks generator, and the five flirty European 20-somethings next door, travelling in a tardis. I still can’t figure out where they all slept.

Hancock Gorge where you wished you had worn more grippy shoes

Hancock Gorge where you wished you had worn more grippy shoes

Karijini has numerous stunning walks, some a short wander, some a sweaty ridge top walk, and a couple of sweaty-palmed spider climbs, like Hancock Gorge, rewarded by a cool gorge pool. Everyone seemed to have the same idea. It was a race against time. We all wanted to do an Edmund Hillary and knock all of the bastards off, and the same faces showed up at every walk throughout the day. Most striking were the family groups, with home-school books pressed to the back window of their packed vehicles. A typical bunch had five adults with at least seven kids aged two to ten. A beaming three year old boy matched us walk for walk and stayed considerably more cheerful than I did battling heat and mosquitoes.  The older kids raced each other up every rocky ledge and tricky incline with the agility of rock wallabies, while their mother told me they didn’t really bother with the home school stuff, they had adventures instead.

A walking bottle of bug deterrent. Karijini National Park.

A walking bottle of bug deterrent. Karijini National Park.

That night we took in an Astro-tour at the campground, run by Phil Witt, a sound and light spectacular. I thought the Milky Way was a cloudy blob, but no! Densely populated with up to 400 billion stars, I gained a new appreciation for how extra teeny Earth is, and how any number uttered with more than nine zeros recalls the horrors of Pure Maths and Stats at Canterbury University, before converting to white noise in my ears.

Millstream Chichester National Park, homestead walk.

Millstream Chichester National Park, homestead walk.

I had read about Millstream Chichester a few years back, and never got there. Lush with wetlands thanks to an underground aquifer estimated to contain 1700 million cubic metres of water, the surrounding country supports a wide variety of species. It was worth tackling 200km of corrugated 4WD thick with bull-dust.    Arriving at any campsite at dusk usually means you get the sole remaining camp site, next to the rubbish bins, and out in the burning sun. Which is exactly what happened. It was a breathless 39 degrees on the last campsite, as we paused to draw smiley faces in the red veneer of dust on everything outside the vehicle. I said to W that it’s ok, AT LEAST there were showers. Opening door after door to over-ripe bush-loos, I was confronted with the irrefutable fact I need reading glasses.

So dirty right now. Cant believe the layer of dirt on my clothes doesn't show up!

So dirty right now. That is not a tan.

The aquifer, along with the Harding Dam supplies water to ‘industry’ and residents in Dampier, Karratha and other surrounding towns. Unceasingly through the night, the inescapable drone of an industrial water pumping station sliced through the silence, but the brochure reassured me that this is to just to keep the Park wetlands topped up and ensure the survival of dependent species. Hmmm.  Awake since 3am, waiting for first light, we thundered out in a cloud of red dust headed for Point Samson, an idyllic seaside spot for a shower, power, laundry facilities, and the promise of the ‘Best Beach in the world’ at Hearson Cove.

Best Beach In The World they said. Hearson Cove, Dampier Peninsula.

Best Beach In The World. Perhaps on another day? Hearson Cove, Burrup Peninsula.

There are many things to do in the West Pilbara Coast, ideally in the early dry season, and ideally if you have access to a boat. Having failed in our search for snorkelling and swimming, almost being carried off by midges and devoid of waterborne vessel, we headed out to the Burrup Peninsula in search of one of Australia’s most prolific Aboriginal rock art sites, with over 10,000 engravings and etchings, dating back 30,000 years. Their location is somewhat mysterious. Three hours and five failed attempts down nondescript trails later, I can confirm they are 2.2km from the turnoff to Hearson Cove from the Burrup Peninsula Road, down a gravel track.  Despite the noonday sun leaching all colour from both the landscape and my life-force, the rock art looked freshly pressed.

10,000 etchings and drawings dating back 30,000 years Burrup Peninsula

10,000 etchings and drawings dating back 30,000 years, yet so fresh!

Our next stop was Barn Hill Station, champion of corrugated iron architecture and the authentic bush experience (covered in this post).  We went from Barn Hill to far fancier digs at the Cable Beach Resort in Broome, where the rooms are lined in corrugated iron.

NEXT: Broome, Cape Leveque and Derby

Lambstails, Road to Tom Price

Lambstails, Road to Tom Price


A toast to Mrs P.

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Two weeks ago a dear buddy of ours lost his Mum, Maureen. It was unexpected, and came as a great shock. She will be farewelled today in Perth, and we are 2400 km away, so I would like to pay a tribute to a wonderful Mum, who left an indelible impression on Warren and I. Although we called Blaise’s Mum Maureen, I always wanted to call her Mrs P, so today that’s what I’ll do.

We met her at Blaise and Raechels’ wedding. Mrs P was an absolute hoot. I don’t think she intended comedy, but she calmly rolled out outrageous stories of Blaise’s spirited and youthful exploits (often in cahoots with his siblings or friends), with deadpan delivery, as if that went on in every household. Whenever we saw her we encouraged her to tell us more, which she did in the same matter of fact way, to our immense delight.

Mrs P knew how to put an outfit together. Whether we were whizzing along in a boat, or she was support crew at a mountain bike event, Mrs P was stylishly turned out. No shrinking violet, Mrs P was keen to get in amongst the action, a vision of classic style in the dusty heat at the end of the Cape-to-Cape Mountain Bike event, in firm possession of an esky with icy cold champagne and beer for us all. When we were on the boat, Mrs P effortlessly produced fabulous onion tart, and other foodie goodness.

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Mrs P, but we feel lucky to have the time that we did. She was terribly proud of her children, and although we only know Blaise well, I am sure all are testament to the amazing job she did as a Mum.

To Mrs P; Although we cannot be there today, we know you liked a bubbly, so we toast you with a Champagne, and imagine you are having a glass with us. You were an impact player, a jolly good stick, and you will be missed.  x

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When you are those campers

150904-4402-karijiniImagine building an Outback-themed wilderness camp. There would be buildings made of rammed earth and corrugated iron, open air showers like Mash, but with higher walls, and painted tyres with names like Redback to indicate camp spots. At sunset, campers bring chairs and a beer and enjoy Johnny Cash and Paul Kelly covers from a guy in a singlet with a guitar, sound system and good yarns.

"I hear that whistle blowin'...

 

Barnhill Station Camp is ACTUALLY like this, without trying. The unbelievers on Wikicamps say things like “we drove in and drove straight out. WE WILL NEVER RETURN.” Was it too tree-lined? Are the station beef sausages at $3.50/a pack of seven too expensive? Is the croc-free ocean too warm? At the end of a 10 km access road on bulldust, I find clean flushing loos with a live green tree frog on the paper dispenser, hot showers, bore water at your camp site, and a pristine beach, a veritable gift for $25 a night.

More corrugated iron than you can drive a rivet in

More corrugated iron than you can drive a rivet in

Our campsite was on the ridge top overlooking the ocean, next to a site with an unfeasibly grassy front lawn, and a selection of veges and herbs flourishing under a tree. Vacated by a guy who spent a few months there, an annual pilgrimage, the new inhabitant took his duty of care seriously. A gregarious racing identity, our neighbour was a hoot, regaling us with hilarious stories about any topic you care to name. Both he and his wife, early retired, super savvy, knew all the good spots to fish, walk, swim, and the closest shower block within 24 hours of arrival. Despite the dusty drive in, their Winnebago was immaculate. He talked about backpackers and Whizz-bangers (the sound a mini-van camper side door makes – GOLD!), about his friend up the other end with the four drones and an undeniably cool 4WD motorhome complete with winch and simply everything that opens and closes. He generously offered his hose, grassy shade, gas, anything you could need. Aghast, I realised, we had become THOSE campers.

Barnhill Station Camp

Barnhill Station Camp

Looking back, the signs had been there for a while. At Tulki, our need for optimal view, necessitated a camper angle that was arguably the most inefficient use of our site. Our tent ropes splayed out beyond our site in all directions, and we eyeballed everyone on their way to the loo. At the time we labelled this Own the Road. What began as an apologetic wave to passers-by, evolved into This World domination, and foot traffic diminished as campers found alternate routes in. The undeterred few that kept coming started dropping by for a chat. The chatters were always fisher folk, and a new species revealed itself, the FIFO* Fisher Folk. Who knew fly-fishing in the ocean was a thing? Clearly, a gaping hole in my knowledge. It was either a Bony day or a Permit day, the fightier the better, unless the freezer was running low and they needed meat fish more than sport.

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At Osprey, we had taken a similar approach with trailer placement, we were effectively invisible and inaccessible to others, so they had to grab us emerging from the surf, to let us know we had the prime site. Throughout the day, campers wandered by, scratching down our site number. We knew to enjoy our time, as it would probably be booked out for the rest of our lives.

After Osprey we urgently required power and water so made tracks for Tom Price via the dusty and corrugated Mt Nameless Road. With dust in every crevice, we set up for just a night at the campground in a blistering, windless, 35 degrees. We finished the last peg when I noticed our shaded location straddled two sites. Cue apology to immensely friendly camp office, who mercifully allowed us to stay put, preserving the last of our good humour.

Every outback location needs a weather vane

Every outback location needs a weather vane

We managed to keep it together at Karijini, but we clearly needed help at Point Samson. A combination of downward pressure by W on the coffee pot and the swing out nature of the kitchen was too much to bear for the hinges and giving way, rendered us denuded of Means to Conjure Coffee. Inexplicably, the caravan park had a blow-up castle, carwash, and toaster, but no means to cook other than a microwave. To get the trailer kitchen hinges fixed, we formed a contemporary installation out of possessions on the concrete slab, and set off for Karratha, 60 odd Km away. Several hours later, we returned to new neighbours who called out from their pristine caravan annex, “Oh hello, we thought you were having a garage sale.”

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But the kitchen wasn’t the only issue. The only way to know whether our water tank is full, is when it overflows; a shameful waste of desert resources. So W fills the tank, and notes the unceasing cascade of water splashing down on the concrete slab, spreading inexorably toward the aforementioned neighbours. Hours later, in the growing mass of red mud under the trailer, W determined the source and it was off to Karratha again for parts. Fixing it meant draining more litres of precious water out onto the concrete, and then filling the trailer up again. Picture frowning caravan-ers in all directions standing hands on hips watching all of this unfold, and you get the vibe. The only people not taking noticing was the family with four children under four, the naughtiest of whom was Brydon, fond of hitting his sister Charlay, and waking the inconsolable baby with colic, prompting Dad to threaten tying him to the front of the car. “BRYDON. To the bull bars. Is that what you want, mate? One, two….”

Under the watchful eye of camp residents, we set off for Honeymoon Cove, at the end of the campground, for the ‘best shore snorkelling in the Dampier Archipelago’. It was deserted, save for a high pitched whine in the distance. Ten minutes later, bare skin freckled with welling Midgie bites, we trooped back. That night, shambolic pile of possessions hastily hidden in the tent, we took comfort in cooking on our gas burner, by the ambient light of the caravan park. Some hard-core retirees in an off-road trailer offered us their lamp, and enquired after our repairs. They suggested Barnhill as our next coastal destination, in direct opposition to the freshly pressed van-ers who told us “DON’T go to Barnhill, it’s really bad. 80 Mile Beach is much better. Our friends looked at Barnhill and drove straight out.”

Sang Choy Burger

Sang Choy Burger

And so we found ourselves at Barnhill, inadvertently taking up two sites (seriously, again?), enjoying the entertainment without taking our wallet (no-one mentioned passing the hat!), drove to the beach (prohibited unless launching a boat – didn’t read the flyer), and attracting offers of gas and amenities from our jovial neighbour. I hadn’t noticed that we were the ones in a rig worth about 1% of almost everyone else’s. People actually felt sorry for us! To put them at ease we let on that we were booked into the fancy Cable Beach Resort in Broome in a couple of days, but W felt compelled to explain to quizzical looks that we won it as a door prize.  Equilibrium, restored.

*Fly In Fly Out workers, usually employed in the remote mining and affiliated services industry

Authentic bush camp with camp oven

The Real Thing – bush camp, camp oven


It’s a moray

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Walk to Lakeside snorkelling

A massive factor in the enjoyment of a roadtrip is the company you keep, and I have a great travelling partner in crime, the Chef de Mission, all round awesome guy, AND chief cook with Executive Chef countenance when in cooking mode, otherwise known as W.

Noo shoes became Roo shoes

Noo shoes became whiffy Roo shoes

Awwwww

Awwwww

Chef tirelessly drags deceased Roo’s off the road for me (I can’t bear seeing them gradually disintegrate under multiple tyres), sherpas a massive bag when we have a hike to snorkel, keeps fridges stocked, cold, and operational, and produces gastronomic wonders with one key ingredient – flame. Once bereft of inspiration when denied a campfire, Chef has since reimagined the Weber Baby Q as a camp oven/poijke without wood, and as a result, moist Chicken Wrapped in Pig (prosciutto), Goldband Snapper in Butter Caper Reduction, and Steak with Chargrilled Sweet Potato has returned to our table as business as usual.

Cape Range friend

Cape Range friend

Aloha falls silent

Aloha falls silent

Chef has a bad back at the moment (L5/S1 ruptured disc flare up), which every now and again tests his patience for the otherwise delightful. Aloha the dancing hula girl on our dashboard, once madly squeaking and jiggling, only shimmies silently since her solar panel was removed. Until Chef intervened, I didn’t even realise if you grabbed her and yanked upwards, she unclipped from her base (a tip for everyone I have given one to with similarly tested patience).

Turtle at Osprey Camp

personal tour guide at Osprey Camp

I am so lucky to have a snorkelling buddy that loves it as much as I do. We go out at least twice a day, in the morning and late afternoon when the fish are busiest. Snorkelling is an exercise in time. The more frequently you go out, the more you see, and every time is different. Every time we go out we are excited; “it’s a moray!”, “it’s a cuttlefish!”, as if it is the first. We see turtles that take us on tours, reef sharks that circle around, tetchy morays with toothy mouths open, rare Clarkes yellow, black and white anemone fish, schools to swim through, and countless other magical fish in myriad colours.

Photo credit: Chef de Mission

I always wanted to be a mermaid. Turquoise Bay,  Photo credit: Chef de Mission

Chef is an excellent tracker. He can spot the tiniest movement in bush or water, which means he finds all sorts of things, but his specialty is octopus. My gift is remembering colour and pattern. Chef will point at something and all I’ll see is brown coral and and rock. I’ll say, “did it have a yellow margin on the fin?” to a blank look. Luckily, Chef has turned out to be a far better underwater photographer than me. I took the Sony version of a Go-Pro out, and after following a turtle for 10 minutes, produced a movie of the turtle’s head, my head, and the surface. We happened across a shark we hadn’t seen before under a ledge. I couldn’t duck dive long enough to get a good look but thought it looked pale yellow. Chef couldn’t tell me any more than it was grey, but got a close shot. Back at camp the fish book told us we had performed multiple fly-bys of a 2.5 metre Sicklefin Lemonshark, a short-tempered individual known to act out.

Holding court at the hotplate

Holding court at the hotplate

Chef likes to chat to fellow travellers when at work in the camp kitchen. He managed to gather up a lovely Catalan guy one morning, and swept him along snorkelling with us for a couple of days. The Catalan had travelled to Alice Springs with a ‘big real Aussie man’, but elected to shorten his trip without reimbursement, after his travel mate got on the phone once they were in range, and made a call that involved debts and breaking legs. On the second day with us, the Catalan had met a keen diver from Hong Kong at the Cape Range info centre, so the four of us set off for Lakeside on a blustery afternoon.

The boys at lakeside

The boys at lakeside

A flood in March 2014 washed away our treasured camp-site at Lakeside, along with a few tents, a camper trailer, and almost one campground host. Tons of soil was washed into the pristine reef. The reef was in excellent health, but conditions not dissimilar to a washing machine developed a thirst. We sat on the sole remaining picnic table in our old spot for sunset, with a chilly bin/eski Chef had prepared earlier with cheese, snacks, and a wide variety of beverages.

Dawn from the front yard at Osprey Camp

Dawn from the front yard at Osprey Camp

Since the flood, Parks have expanded the campgrounds in flood-proof areas, and closed others permanently. We heard Osprey now boasted around 40 sites, and we tsk tsk-ed. Shame on us! Using funds from Royalties For Regions, the new and expanded camps are better than OK, they are paradise for $10 a head. The airy and stylish ‘eco-loo’ has beautiful Jarrah doors and a swift, fresh, breeze charging through. It is a fitting place to end our time in the world heritage listed Cape Range National Park, Ningaloo Marine Park, and the world’s largest fringing reef. Tomorrow we swap salt water for fresh, red dust for white sand, and further north, Chef will be on croc watch. When the moon hits your eye…it’s amore.

Osprey dawn

when the moon hits your eye…Osprey Dawn

Another dawn at Osprey camp

Another dawn at Osprey camp

Carpets of Mulla Mulla at Cape Range. Who knew?!

Carpets of Mulla Mulla at Cape Range. Who knew?!

Mulla Mulla at Cape Range

Mulla Mulla at Cape Range


Never leave your wingman

Sunrise at Tulki camp

Sunrise at Tulki camp

I have cured my Exmouth Banoffee fixation. Nothing like a year away from a restaurant and the idealised memory of a dessert, to ramp expectations to other Everest proportions. For 7 years we have driven straight to Whalers from Woodend or Perth, ordered takeaway Banoffees, then proceeded with less important matters like finding somewhere to sleep.

Practically inhaling soft shell crab tacos and a great gumbo in indecent haste at Whalers latest incarnation, the reason I had come arrived.  Disassembled chocolate biscuit crust fought for air under runny toffee keeping the kitchen’s last few slices of banana hostage. As if embarrassed, the historically firm piped Kahlua cream ran over the lot like a blanket, as if to say “keep moving, nothing to see here.” It was never traditional, but I will never forget. RIP.

Retro styling, now closed navy base swimming pool

Retro styling, now closed navy base swimming pool

Exmouth is a great little spot with three shops you can buy beach gear from (#eternalsearchfortheperfectbikini), a massive fishing and camping shop, great coffee, and fabulous fish and chips. It is the kind of place I would choose to work if I needed country practise time in my imagined life as a Doctor. It grew around a once sizeable UN-Australian naval communications base, established in the late 60’s until 1992 when it passed to the Royal Australian Navy. The buildings remain, with faded signwriting hinting at bar and bowling alley good times, and the 200 American cars flown over to help the US families feel at home, cruising the wide streets. In 2002, all naval personnel departed, but multiple communication towers remain. An awesome retro swimming pool is fenced off presumably to LA skateboarders, and wildflowers gradually takeover  the paths.

Bright spots

Taking over – Sturt Desert Peas make their move

W told me we would park the camper trailer and stay somewhere a bit flasher for my birthday, but first, a snorkel. Pulling up to the South Mandu snorkelling spot, a wee golf cart grabbed our bags and disappeared into the dunes.

Sal Salis whale watching spot

Sal Salis whale watching spot

Sal Salis is a self-sufficient safari-tent eco-resort located within the National Park. Virtually invisible to the rest of the Park, its continued existence relies on being invisible, and adherence to closely monitored strict environmental requirements. This means the delicate flora and dune eco-systems around Sal Salis actually enjoy a far greater protection from those random visitors that stomp around the fragile dunes in the rest of the park. It attracts all sorts of people, but I would wager a heavy international patronage by current or retired IT professionals, or engineers working in the Emirates. The young teenagers that get to tag along seem to be extremely bright, immensely down-to-earth, and in the same sentence as saying “Pancakes for breakfast!!!” tell me they will go to either Oxford or Cambridge, as if it is the same thing.

Making the most of our precious 42 hours at the resort, we decided to jump in the resort kayaks and explore the reef. Still traumatised by a self-inflicted wobble into the Artic jellyfish rich waters of Norway’s Grimstad harbour, I had not chanced a kayak since. Before long, we were slicing through the water like Olympians, and en route to a spot called Blue Lagoon. W wanted to get out and snorkel so I offered to hold his kayak. Sitting in a Zen-like state I glanced over my shoulders to discover my immediate proximity to the reef edge. As waves crashed over the kayaks I realised I had hold of two paddles and a kayak, no free hands to navigate, and a one-way ticket to the outer reef. Mindful of preventing a cheese grater experience for both kayaks and myself I yelled to W to swim over and get his boat. Fighting the tidal flow, W struggled to make ground and my Zen made way for shrieking. As W reached me, I ditched the excess goods, and paddled like a steamboat on the Mississippi for shore. Meanwhile, W fought to swim out of the current, before he could mount his craft. Around 500m away I checked my wingman. Short on oxygen, W’s kayak technique improved significantly that day.

The carnival has arrived

The carnival has arrived

Luxury tent time over, we repaired to Tulki, a campsite 5 km away, and took up position in the only available spot. It was sun-downer time, where the camp residents gather for drinks and discuss with mirth our camp establishment. Faced with the options of looking at other campers or the drop toilet, we went for a hybrid solution where we looked at the sunset flanked by the toilet and one campsite. We had a rock-star size tour bus next to us, but the paint job spoke less of all-nighters and more of ‘10 year old insults Pro-Hart’. The chirrup of settling birdcall fought valiantly against hits from the 50’s to the 70’s, booming out into the night from a massive video screen on the side of the bus. The occupants with radio call-sign ‘Dogs Balls’ had a jolly time, oblivious to my curmudgeon-y cursing until shut-down at 9pm when George Thorogood had his last Bourbon, Scotch, and Beer.

Let's walk to the Pier!

Let’s walk to the Pier!

The Navy Pier is allegedly one of the ten best shore dives in the world. Another world-class thing! The cyclone in March 2015 caused mayhem in the town and damaged the Pier preventing diving until further notice. Unfortunately access to the Pier is only through restricted naval property or via boat, but W heard from a local we could walk to it from Bundegi Beach and it was well worth a snorkel. We arrived at the beach at 3pm in a cloudless 31 degrees. We were told it was about a 30-minute walk, which translated to about 15 minutes knee-and-Achilles-busting W pace. Sweet. We suited up and bounced down the path to the beach. In the far distance I saw a shimmering oasis in the form of a pier. And so the trudge commenced. Collapsing into the shade of the pier, I felt somewhat uncertain about the swirling tide and the volume of liquid pouring into it from a pipe running along the pier. Having almost perished in the pursuit of this place, I got in, freaked out at a giant wall of fish (Bait-ball! Bait-ball!), the three white tip reef sharks on the bottom, cashed in my Wingman membership, and made like Thorpey for the shore.

Yardie friend

Yardie friend

Back at camp, we had used the last of our power, and it was time to head to Yardie Homestead, ‘Home of Serious Fisherman’, for a powered campsite, laundry (hallelujah) and showers. The lad refuelling the giant commercial fishing boat with two immense outboards, sporting a cap featuring plush style two dimensional man-parts on the front, alerted me to a new species of the Fisher realm.


Sea to shining sea

Tall Mulla Mulla, Warroora Station

Tall Mulla Mulla, Warroora Station

Warroora Station is another link in the daisy chain of enviable properties chasing the Ningaloo reef from south to north. Around 50km south of Coral Bay, like Gnaraloo, it is best attacked with a 4WD. There are multiple camp areas along the white sand coast, so you are unlikely to awake to what at first appears to be the mating sound of a kakapo, but in truth is just the rhythmic snore of your neighbouring camper. Like all places that take some committmentto get to, it attracts an interesting array of individuals.

Warroora Station road to Elles Beach

Warroora Station road to Elles Beach

The wind had whipped up when we came to set up camp, and with my brain still pin-balling around my cranium from the drive in, I deemed the tent annex a bridge too far to tackle. My usual rule is no annex for less than three days – it falls in the category of good humour challenge and I usually need three days to forget the fresh hell of grappling with 10 sq. metres of canvas whipped into a spinnaker, and a husband with White Line Fever basketball eyes.

Elles Beach, Warroora Station, WA

Elles Beach, Warroora Station, WA

Allegedly the best snorkelling in the world

We headed to the beach to inspect the ‘best snorkelling in the world’. Pristine white sand and jewel toned water beckoned, but the hazard sign warning of extremely dangerous currents, a raging rip, and the 50 cm white caps suggested we try another day. Moving to another beach just 400 metres along, a super-fit mega-tan retiree in speedos emerged from the sea bearing a handful of knotted fishing line, sinkers, and hooks. A keen fisherman, he liked to clean up the edge of the reef on days the fishing wasn’t up to much. It was his second year back at Warroora since his wife died and he said this year was easier than the last. They had travelled everywhere together, so there was a big gap in his day, but hauling the tinny in and out by himself kept him on his toes. It was then I realised we had entered the Realm of the Fisher Folk, and suddenly I saw them everywhere.

Warroora costs only $10 per night and $50 per week to camp. It requires 100% self-sufficiency (water, firewood, chemical loo, food etc.). This suits the Tinny genus of the Fisher Folk. Incredibly resourceful, weathered, and footloose, these retirees have only grandchildren scattered about Australia to navigate to periodically and import for Vital Life Experience, but otherwise are the canniest at finding the lowest cost and wildest camp spots. Their vehicles and camping configuration are equipped to travel on 4WD roads. They fish in outfits borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia about to head into a sandstorm. They love watching us set up camp in slow motion, and the addition of the annex is like double billing at the movies. They know exactly when you drove in, how many days you have been there and what your daily movements are. Sadly they have enough freezer space for their bountiful catches, despite W’s disappointment that I have not yet wrestled a kilo or two of snapper or coral trout out of them. Favoured vehicles are utes with custom kitchen and storage setups on the tray, and a rack for the tinny on the roof. I’ve never seen a tinny put on a roof yet, and cannot fathom how they get there. My twig cycling arms cannot even lift our trailer lid, so it is a matter of awe to me.

In these locations you will come across a closely related genus – the Grisly Fisher Folk, found in the centre of a circling of the Fisher Folk wagons, standing around a 24 hour fire, and surrounded by rotating solar panels and super-powered generators. Identifiable by hides tanned the colour of nicotine, plaid plumage, and gnarled paws; they are the ones throwing back the fish bigger than 1 metre (as per the fishing limits).

Coral Bay sandwich

Coral Bay sandwich

Wishing we had the same capacity for long term stays off the grid; we were only at Warroora because we couldn’t get a spot in the high-density craziness of Coral Bay, thank goodness. We have never quite appreciated the fabulous Coral Bay people talk about, and we were not to discover it this time. I had a few to-dos listed there but we were too early for the shark nursery at Maud Bay (September/October), the wind and cold ruled out snorkelling and taking a tinny out, but the Manta Rays were swimming around just waiting for me to pretend I was one of them, and I was going on that tour come hell or high water. Boarding the boat in a howling gale did little to temper the excitement of our small but enthusiastic bunch of adventure seekers. With only 12 on board we were able to spread ourselves out. As we spilled off the transom at the back of the boat onto our first reef, in a decent chop and the boat swinging around in circles from the wind, I felt a little sympathy for the first timers on board, hyperventilating and clutching at their masks, noodles waving wildly like promotional blow up stick people, and snorkel guides corralling like crazy and soundlessly yelling at everyone to “STaaayyy… TOgettthhherrr……..”.

Back on board, body temperatures plummeted. Hot drinks inhaled, a tray of chelsea buns (coffee scrolls) reduced to crumbs in seagull time, and colour swiftly returned to cheeks as the spotter plane called in our first Manta. Suiting up, the Germans gave no thought to the life-affirming experience of their maiden ocean snorkel, and we all leapt in again. As we followed three Mantas, in a semi circle from tip to tip, a beautiful four metre female trailed hopefully by a smaller all black male, reminded me of Torvill and Dean doing Bolero (Google that if you are under 40). Returning to the boat, everyone had turned blue but the experience rendered hypothermia a mere side effect of being so lucky to take a glide with magical creatures.

Mantas done, it was time to head to Cape Range National Park. More white sand, perfect blue water, and one of my all time favourite places. A perfect place to spend a birthday.

The Low Down

Mulla Mulla on the road in

Sweeping vistas of Mulla Mulla on the station road

Warroora Station is outback coast wonder with postcard sunsets. There are beaches safe for kids, and beaches wild and full of fish. Sweeping vistas of Mulla Mulla and other wildflowers distract from your brain rattling around from the corrugations on the drive in. Some camps are accessible by 2WD. Check the website before you go to make sure you have everything you need. Chemical toilets can be hired from the Homestead, and a small array of goods and firewood are for sale. You can have an open fire. Man-folk rating of 4. You can have a fire but wood is expensive. If you can take your own stash of fence-posts, all the better to flame that cryovac-ed, grass-fed, 70-day aged steak with.

Manta Tours – Mantas are harmless, no need to fear deathly barbs. We went with Coral Bay Eco-Tour, run by a great crew. If you are new to snorkelling, they look after you. Mantas hang out in Coral Bay all year, but the busy season is July to October. Pay the extra $5 for a full length wetsuit.

Wildflowers, Warroora Station

So much diversity! Wildflowers, Warroora Station