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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
With the nose of the Prado pointed skyward thanks to the several tonne payload, we roared off northeast. It is wildflower season in the Golden Outback, and I am intent on photographing vast vistas.
We arrived late afternoon at the Western Flora Caravan Park on the Brand Highway, to the trill of multiple birds. We set up with uncommonly minimal fuss and sat down suitably pleased with ourselves, to the first of many sunsets. The immaculate facilities appealed to my city-fresh OCD, while W’s eyes lit up at the communal fireplace. Our fellow campers were farmers I estimate in their 70’s (he was in Ballarat during WWII) with a ‘slider’ set-up which is essentially a ute fitted out with all manner of fantastic slide out things on the back, with the bed on top. A hip operation made the climb to bed impossible for a spell but didn’t mean the end of their travels.
At the campfire W tested the flammability of his runners, while I discovered a gaping hole in my proud kiwi knowledge of the difference between fine and superfine merino, Italian fabrics, and Chinese wool mills.
Generally, West Australian wildflowers present themselves from July to December, climate dependent. Recent heavy rainfall filled the land with life-giving moisture, which would mean an amazing display in a couple of weeks. After we left.
Undeterred, we headed north toward Mullewa, a town with its fair share of boarded-up shops, and nary a dog moseying down the main drag, yet you get the feeling the locals have given it a red hot go at creating points of interest. Signposted buildings from a religious past, historical walks, a Men’s’ Shed, and 4 planned ‘drives’ that take you in various directions were enough to have me thinking the annual wildflower and agricultural show on the last weekend of August would be rocking.
Along the way, wildflowers carpeted the roadside. Individually tiny, it would be easy to roar past at 100 and not even see them. Stopping the Prado bullet with its destination-orientated driver has given W ample practise in u-turning a trailer and discarding the golden rule of No Stopping Unless Fuel Tank Is Running On Vapour. No Exceptions.
Unable to maintain possession of W’s 20 year old Scottish mega-fleece any longer, it was time to head to the coast and break out the sunscreen. We headed north with a plan to camp at Coronation Beach. Arriving at dusk to a ‘camp full’ sign we pressed on, thinking Northampton could be an option. Some mates had stayed there for a few hours one night until the looting of vehicles outside their motel called for a 2 am mobilisation. A slow drive past the campground became a race north. Out of the sunset loomed Northbrook, a farm-stay/camp on a farm, with its own security in the form of a pair of Plovers and three tiny chicks. A Baltic windy night reminded us that random bits of tent flap require securing, and saw us packing up pre-dawn excited by the prospect of a UHT milk roadhouse coffee, and the Pickles Point fresh seafood shop at Carnarvon. Barista coffee and a massive bacon, eggs, and mushrooms at the Red Car Café, boosted cranky spirits, and a couple of hours later we found ourselves back at my favourite 3 Mile camp at Gnaraloo (pronounced Narloo), a fantastic camp and surf spot on the Ningaloo reef.
Western Flora Caravan Park – At 300 km from Perth it is a good quiet weekend spot, uncrowded, dog friendly, and with enough room to chuck a ball around with the kids. Great base for Coalseam Conservation Park, exploring the region, perfect for those excited by bush-bashing in search of rare and tiny orchids, and only 70 km from fish and chips at Dongara, a town keen on Australian flags. Immaculate facilities get 5 stars.
All things Western Australian wildflower – grab the wildflower guide from Tourism West Australia, http://www.australiasgoldenoutback.com/outback-australia-drive-routes/Outback_wildflower_trails, http://www.wildflowercountry.com.au
As my thinking is drowned out by the fans kicking in on the Mac and the interminable whir of 15 terabytes of storage, I am forced to face the fact that I have literally thousands of photos taking up space, that never see the light of day. They transition briefly through my image management software before I resign them to the Anthony Marantino (Sex and the City) “hates it!!” pile.
I freely admit to a perfectionistic streak, but rather than a charming character trait I have decided it is constraining to ones ability to share and something I must challenge. So, prepare yourself for more frequent posts. Sometimes without stories, sometimes something perhaps your three year old could do better, but the photos will always be something that grabbed me on the day. So, first cab off the rank is a shot of a fantastic lightning storm we had front row seats to, at Easter at Cape Range. It was better than the best fireworks I have ever seen. I love how the clouds are all leaning to the left. Could I love Cape Range any more?
I am quietly finning along, snorkelling for the third time that day at Lakeside, on the Ningaloo Reef in the magical Cape Range National Park. If this rings a bell, it is because I harp on about the place incessantly, there is so much life out in the water. Along with Turquoise Bay, it is a favourite with day-trippers. Borne by tour buses, they amble to the spot with the snorkel marker, march directly out for around 30 metres, flop about for 20 minutes, then retire to shore to smoke, look bored with precision, and burn a new layer of ‘it sucks to be my family back in Europe’ into their undernourished frames.
It was at Lakeside that I had an epiphany in 2008. With nothing but the rasp of parrotfish beak-on-coral in my ears, my brain found a space to discover I actually wanted to be a photographer. (And a marine biologist – but that ship had sailed). Snorkelling or diving is the only time I truly switch off. Underwater, where air is generally absent, is ironically when I feel most able to breathe. The eternally blue space, without walls or fences, represents endless possibility for me.
So, I am quietly swimming in and around the rocky outcrops, following a fish that completely changes its colour and pattern as I get close or back off, a peeved turtle, 4m ray, and pausing to watch a plague of parrotfish engulf a patch of coral, the tiny territorial resident fish dashing out and back nervously. Just when it could not get any better, a huge school of mackerel and other silvery fish with wide eyes swept past and then started circling me, gaining pace as they went round. I decided to join their circling, and as I went round and round was thinking “Choice! They think Im their bro! I’m a mermaid!”. Amazed they cared not a whit as I whipped by the other fish and matched their crazy changes in direction, I was at once silver and fishy. Then it occurred to me. They are commonly known as bait-fish. And a school of darting bait-fish are probably being chased. Not that those three reef sharks and their homies, Trevor Trevally, and Barry Barra, liked the cut of my gib, but it’s safe to say I found myself ashore with no recollection of the breathless flail between realisation and landfall.
When we returned to our camp, we shared a beverage with our lovely Swiss neighbour, J, a fellow water-baby with designs on the outer reef. He had travelled for some months around WA in his wagon, sleeping in the back, and reliant on a dwindling collection of camping ephemera. As days rolled by he realised he only used one plate, cup, knife, fork and spoon. Subsisting happily on long-life wraps, honey, nutella, and canned goods, his camp stove, multiple devices of convenience and esky (chilly bin) found new homes with the Belgians that packed every other camp site.
J wanted buddies to go and explore the outer reef. He had gone out on his own but was worried he may be…ahem…taken, and no-one would know. Fortified with a zesty cider from Harcourt in Victoria, I found myself consulting tide and moon charts and committing both W and I to an outer reef expedition with the excitement I always have when an adventure of any kind is afoot, and drive I have to never miss out.
The following day, in the last 30 minutes of an incoming tide was the only opportunity in the next 7 days, when the tide would be high enough to swim over the reef edge. J knew the way and so three small figures swam out to the reef, quickly invisible to those on shore. The thing about a reef is that waves from the outside hit the edge, rise up and then smash down. Along with a titan tidal-pull, I found myself swimming two strokes forward, getting drilled by excitable waves, then dragged back 4 strokes, enjoying a nasal flush along the way. I don’t think it is a spoiler alert to say we made it, and the silence on the other side was astounding. The water clarity, unmatched. A long shelf of volcanic rock and an amazing variety of coral sat around 15 metres below us and ran out about 40 metres before dropping off into Predator World. As we followed the edge of the reef, we swam over enormous cracks in the reefs surface, so deep you could only see fish in the first few metres framed by blackness. Think awe meets terror. Leaving a sacrificial layer of dermis on the way back over the reef edge, we plotted to do it the next day, knowing full well the ideal conditions to go over the reef, had past.
Again at dusk, three figures headed out, this time for an elusive gap in the reef that we could sneak through. It was a much longer swim and after about a kilometre, I found myself musing on the relative benefits of such activities. There are bitey things out there, but I figure the risk versus reward profile points in the right direction. I never take the ocean for granted, and I accept the side of scaredy-cat that comes with the incredible beauty I get to breathe in.
The welling surf and sinking sun loomed large in my overactive mind. Stuff incredible beauty inhalation, I waved the boys on and with a feeling like there wasn’t enough air in the sky, swam to shore with an urgency that just skirted fish-in-distress. It is great to be alive.
I’ve never been that person that shows up to an airport with just carry-on for a 10 day trip and emerges every day of that trip in fresh and fit-for-purpose outfits, from trail to resort. I am the person with my bathroom scales at the front door, chucking things out to make the weight limit, as my driver revs the engine in the driveway. I then get to my destination with NOTHING to wear.
You can imagine camping and roadtrips send me into a whole new level of luggage anxiety. I can report, however, on this last trip up north, I almost cracked the code. This is what I know.
Puffy Vest – In the West and NT over summer is roasting hot. See posts about Karratha, and any destination north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Every trip, my trusty down puffy vest pleads to come along. I relent, given its ability to reduce to the size of a medium sized potato, and imperceptible weight. Barring the months June to August, it stays stuffed in a corner of my bag, and only on winter nights does it get to bathe in the dancing light of the campfire. Vests are an excellent layering item. Pop on top of a short or long sleeve tee, and you have instant Sporty Person Does Semi-Formal. Heck, I even feel sportier wearing it. Mind the errant campfire embers. With a fffssspt and whiff of industrial plastics, you have little burn holes in your new favourite wardrobe item. Think North Face or Eddie Bauer, leave Burberry and Gucci at home for Saturday brunch in the zesty chill of an outdoor table in Melbourne.
Its a fine line between practical and as a dear friend of mine would say, “No, darling”. If there is any red dust in your future, it will be drawn to your outfit like a lemon wedge to Corona. Do not even bother bending at the waist and extending arms to full stretch during basecamp construction. I can attest this attempt to escape contact with road-weary surfaces is a futile endeavour. Rather, look at every item with a view to a dusty outcome. It can be tempting to wander into one of those outdoor stores staffed by wiry rock-climbers, and deck yourself out in ‘performance fabrics’ that dry in an hour. This path leads you to a land of zips, velcro, and an storm of static electricity. Grab the aforementioned down puffy vest in black, and run for your life. A couple of years ago I was in Broome, and, desperate for hardy earth-coloured clothing, happened across a store that had the largest collection of active travel/outdoor clothing I had ever seen. I dashed from rack to rack and caught in the frenzy, carried out 3 pairs of cargo style shorts and 2 quick-dry shirts. Rounded out with my otherwise cool cowboy sun-hat, I felt positively stylin’. Then I got home and realised this would be a look that struggles to transfer to my metro existence. They sit on death row, awaiting their trip to the Salvos.
Tops – Think neutrals, earth tones, landed gentry on safari, and explorers, and the opportunity for a pop of vibrancy around your head. Proceed with haste to Target. Snap up great little tank tops and cargo style cap sleeve tees featuring metal buttons and tabs for about $7 on sale in varying colours. I have a Bonds khaki singlet with built-in bra from Coles that refuses to die. It pilled from Day One, but shows no dirt, works with plaid shorts (a miracle pattern where dirt is concerned), can be walked in for hours, yet perks up with some statement earrings for a rare counter meal at that beacon of food that is unholy – The Roadhouse. Take two white tees or singlets. They will turn grey from the campground washing machines, and brown from dust, but snooker them away in a sealed pocket and bring them out when you think you can take no more. Defying sense with a fresh white tee is an unparalleled gift to a dusty spirit.
Bottoms – Shorts need to be comfortable but hip slouchy loose is a no-no and cargo pants are no good for cargo. If you are walking for hours you will never put things in the multiple pockets of a pair of cargo shorts. Loose shorts need yanking up all the time. Err on the well fitted side, with a hint of stretch, in dark colours or zany plaid or checks.
Footwear – Thongs/flipflops/jandels are indispensible for avoiding contact with shower surfaces, a break from the close confines of walking shoes, and perfect for stumbling about in the night. Birkenstocks are a hidden gem for long periods of walking, when you dont need serious grip. Coming in a myraid of colours and finishes like patent and metallics, they swing from day trail to dinner. They dont love a dip in the ocean, but otherwise up for all sorts of abuse. When walking through long grass or bush trails, closed shoes are advisable. Choose camo patterns with a pop of pink or something that hides dirt because those new Nike Airs in lime and amethyst will be ruined day 3.
Accessories – Hats are vital yet can be hot. I love my Akubra, but it is only bearable in winter. Panamas are a perfect blend of practical shade, safari style and the genuine article is hardy enough to bounce back from being stuffed in the back seat pocket. Take a watch that loves having sunscreen, sweat, and dust washed off – bright colours and rubber are good. Take cheerful earrings – I have a pair of jointed hula dancers that scream outback adventure.
I’ve saved the biggest tip for last. If you ignore everything up to here, ignore this last tip at your peril. Buy a fly net thing that sits on top of your hat. They can be bought for about $5 and their bang for buck is unmatched. I can put up with many things, but flies in facial openings send me over the edge. I swear this tiny investment saves marriages. As the sun sets, your beekeeper-meets-mourning accroutrement will attract envy.