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.
We rolled into surf spot Gnaraloo when the shop was closed (loose hours subject to swell). We picked a campsite number from the board and squeezed ourselves into the last ‘primo’ spot on the waters edge. After a fair number of dark moments setting up for the second time in 24 hours, we took up our standard position for sundowners in aesthetically-pleasing chairs bought especially for this trip.
I had decided the two perfectly comfortable ones we had were unlikely to last the rigours of the next four months and a pair of extra-comfy, space thieving recliners with side table, a cup holder that only a stubby fits in, and no useful pocket, at ridiculous cost, were essential. Unlike the pair our friends have and everyone wants to sit in, these are hands-down going out to the nature strip (grass verge, kiwis) when we get home. The not very upright position requires the seatee to engage ones core and forgo back support, while the recline position reminds me of the dentist chair, without an adequate locking mechanism. This I discovered when our neighbours invited us to share Red Emperor wings they had just filleted and chargrilled to perfection. Mid story, I leaned back to demonstrate how the chairs were only good for star-gazing and ended up head-first in their rubbish bin. W delayed my retrieval until he could get a good photo. The host leapt forward to assist and hydrated the sand with a bottle of wine. The following day the host’s wife said “it was kind of like looking at a preying mantis, all you could see were arms and legs waving around…”.
Gnaraloo is one of those places that stays with you. As the sun sets, W and I always find ourselves talking about how we can import many of you reading this, for a holiday. The loos and showers are pretty grim, but the breaching whales cruising past all day, and snorkelling in the sheltered bay is hard to top.
It’s kids, dogs and man friendly (you can have a raging fire). The guys next to us drove 16 hours non-stop from Margaret River for the four-metre swell which was only three metres, but I heard a three year old tell his little mates it was epic all the same.
Gnaraloo – Three Mile Camp, hot bore water (mmm tasty) showers after 4 pm, heated by fire. Play spot the Humpback whale (in season) all day long, snorkel the shallow reef teaming with schools of fish, find the largest Nemo I have ever seen, along with fantastic soft coral, surf some offshore left and right-handers, and take your tinny to fish. Book ahead to get a primo site, and only stay on the beachfront. It’s windy, which keeps the heat down, and extra radical if you surf. You can buy internet (pretty slow), and the shop has a good range of emergency basics, but you must take your own water, and I’d recommend taking all food supplies, unless you are a two-minute noodle fanatic.
Wildflowers – Between Northampton and Gnaraloo, the flowers continue to wave in the Brand Highway jet wash. Next stop, Warroora Station.
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.
Gnaraloo, 950km north of Perth, and accessible by 4WD only, has the right mix of rugged and remote, cushioned by a fridge of Whittakers’ chocolate bars, hot showers at 4pm, and endless bags of ice for the esky (that’s a chully bun, people).
This is our second trip to 3 Mile Camp at Gnaraloo Station, the last in August last year at the end of our six-week trip from Brisbane to Perth. We loved it so much, W decided he would spend his birthday there, so we booked and paid for the same site before we left, an uncommonly committed act.
Gnaraloo is located on the Ningaloo reef, so delivers incredible snorkelling right off the beach, and tropical fish that seem adorably curious. A Sergeant fish would swim to shore and meet me every time I waded out, so I decided to sit quietly and let it come closer. Sure enough, it boldly surged forward, but its tiny sharp teeth were no match for my weathered shin. From that point on, I swear it sought me out across the reef, navigating via my sonic-borne fear.
Turns out I should be more worried about the 3 metre saltwater crocodile (they are the ones with no sense of humour) that paddled into Pelican Point at Waroora, just up the coast, a couple of days before, and made himself visible 15 metres from shore. After an hour at Gnaraloo Bay, W furnished me with the additional fact that a 4 metre saltie did a little snorkelling himself at home in, why, THIS very lagoon in 2009.
Gnaraloo is popular with impossibly good looking 20 year old surfers who could care less, with minimal possessions, happy to survive on cold beans straight from the tin, cereal, and cold beer. Uniformly tan, bleached hair in a way no salon could create, and gifted with a greater-than-average incidence of striking blue eyes framed in ridiculously long eyelashes, conspiracy theorists could conclude there is a covert breeding program afoot. You could think I want to be with them, but to be honest, my interest stems from wanting to BE them.
The other over-represented crowd are the 40 year old surfers, now driving Range Rovers, towing $40k tricked-up 4WD camper-trailers, a pretty, fit, yet frowning wife, a minimum of two children under 10 and their bikes, a black and white working dog, industrial shade structure, multiple surf boards, kite-surfer, surf ski, canoe, stand up paddle board, and dozens of Corona’s and lemons. From this crowd I only want one thing. That wonder of a camper; all pullout draws, tables, and racks of happiness. And maybe the custom-shaped mesh ground sheet. And maybe their dog. But not the poor dog that got a bit bitey. He got locked in the car while the enraged owner packed up the circus first, herded the family, then drove doggie to the house of Green Dreams and a one-way ticket to the leads-off park in the sky.
3 Mile Camp gives me the overall impression it has been a holiday spot for those in the know, and local families and their descendants, for decades, and what an amazing place to spend childhood holidays. Outsiders are welcome…just don’t book their favourite camp-site!