Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Dolphins, Dugongs and other such things

When last I dragged my lazy arse in front of a keyboard, the story was last September and my adventures out of Denham. It ended as I hopped over the Peron peninsula for a night in Monkey Mia. Note that that's pronounced "my-a" not "mee-a" - the latter seems more reasonable, but the locals laugh at you unfailingly if you use it.

Anyways, Monkey Mia has become something of a "must do" on the WA backpacker scene, as the local dolphins swim right close into shore (ie in as far as thigh-depth) on a daily basis to gawp at the tourists and get fed some fish. The tourists, unsurprisingly, gawp back, a well as taking umpteen dozen photos of the cheeky cetaceans. It's about as close as you can get to a dolphin without actually being out there swimming with one. I would experience this the following morning, prior to my departure from the resort (for that's all Monkey Mia itself is, a resort - hence why I had spent much of my time in Denham, the actual township of the area), but my focus the day of my arrival was elsewhere: on a catamaran.

Yes, I was going to indulge my love of sailing, and head out to see one of the other varieties of critter for which Shark Bay is famous: the Dugong. Also known as the "sea-cow" and related to the Caribbean's Manatee, the Dugong is a large, herbivorous sea mammal which feeds on sea grass. Due to its dependence on one food source and slow breeding pattern, it's now getting ever more endangered, and this was my first chance to ever see one. I was going out on the Shotover, an ex-ocean-racing catamaran (yes, I am obsessed with racing boats) which was spending its retirement in WA, helping the biologists there study the ecology of these creatures (and making some money on the side from taking tourists out to see them).

And it was a beautiful day - clear blue skies, golden sunshine, turquoise waters, and a whole heap of sightings of dugongs, aided by the polarising sunglasses the crew lent us. I took quite a few pictures although, without a polarising lens for the camera, most of them turned out looking just like brown blobs on the surface of the water - I know what they are, though! On top of this wildlife-spotting trip, I also did a sunset sailing trip on the same boat, which was more about the performance of the boat and less about spotting anything. Oh, and of course it gave me the chance to indulge my passion for ridiculous quantities of sunset photos.

After all of that sea-borne excitement, and the antics of the rest of my time in Shark Bay, I made myself some pasta, had a couple of beers at the bar and then called it an early night. I had to be up bright and early the next day to get down and see the dolphins come in, as well as checking out of my dorm and meeting up with the Easyrider when it arrived. Yes, having stood in the water while dolphins swam a foot or so away from me, and then marvelled once again at just how big a pelican's beak is, it was time to load back onto the Yellow Bus and head off up the coast.

This would be where the loss of my notes again comes back to haunt me, as I can scarcely remember anyone from that bus trip, or even the driver. The trip itself was largely uneventful, being composed of the usual long, mildly dull stretches along Aussie highways with nothing much to look at. My MP3 player got a fair workout again, as I was perched up chatting with the driver, and the trip only started getting memorable once we passed Carnarvon and popped into a bottle-shop. Alcohol on public transport vehicles (including tour vehicles) is strictly prohibited in Australia, but one of the factors in WA is the sheer distance - if you know the nearest police point is at least 4 hours' drive away, it can tend to embolden you. So we had a few cold beers on the final drive down towards our night's stop at Coral Bay, where we stopped down by the beach on arrival to settle in for the sunset over the Indian Ocean.

Once that was out of the way, we got ourselves booked into our accommodation, the Ningaloo Club backpackers. This is actually quite a nice setup, and much larger than would seem to be necessary for a village the size of Coral Bay (honestly, it's tiny - it's scarcely even a one-horse town on its own, unless that horse was a Shetland Pony). The secret there is that Coral Bay has turned into another of those "must do" places for backpackers on the West Coast, due to its snorkelling and diving opportunities, and other options such as quad-biking, plus the fact that even in winter it's usually pretty warm, so many backpackers start topping up their tan there...

In any case, I was hopping off the bus again there for a few days, so that seems a logical point to stop the narrative again. Until next time, fare thee well...

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Sharks, Hot Tubs and the World's Smallest International Airport... (possibly)

Right, here we go again. Time to get on with my travels in Shark Bay. Not that I did all that much the first couple of days. Had to do laundry (the joys of having only enough clothes for a week and a half make that something you actually have to plan for, making sure you're somewhere with washing facilities handy when the clothes run out). Go food shopping. Get to know new hostel-mates.

Oh yes, the latter carried on the Scandi-heavy theme from the bus I arrived on, as there were 3 Danes (2 girls whose names I can't recall, and a guy called Martin) and 2 more Norwegian girls in my room (who introduced themselves as Hayley and Chrissy, but were actually called Helle and Kristina), plus an assortment of Germans and the usual smattering of British and Irish. Oh, and this would be one of the few occasions where I actually met and got to know somewhat the owners of the hostel. Partly because they actually interacted with the guests a bit, but also because at least one of them was borderline certifiable. But a bloody good laugh. You see, the hosteliers were an English couple, John and Kirstie. And John was a full-on Brummie, and mad Villa fan. And rather a good laugh.

I discovered this at the end of my first full day in Denham, as it was the final night in the hostel of one of the girls who had been staying and doing cleaning and the like in exchange for board, so John was out the back with the hostel guests, knocking back a few bevvies (and there were one or two other substances on the loose too) and chatting away. There was more of the roo on the BBQ as well, if I remember (he'd come into possession of a whole damned kangaroo, so was working his way through it!), and everybody was in a pretty mellow mood, so John offered to do a trip up to the Hot Tub.

Now, we'd heard about this from Kylie, and I think it'd gotten mentioned the previous night, but we were all into our pool competition then and didn't go. This time, I decided: ah, what the hell? So we all piled into the hostel minibus and John's 4WD, swung by the bottle shop on the way out of town (for those of us who needed to stock up on grog), and headed out of town, north into Francois Peron National Park. Bit of a strange name for an Aussie NP you might think, but he was apparently a 19th Century naturalist (that's a biologist before any of you with sick minds misinterpret it) who travelled on one of the French ships that was surveying part of Australia, and made prodigious notes about the animals and the like which he found up on this peninsula in Shark Bay. At any rate, the land was used as a farm for a long time, until the government bought it up as part of this Eden plan for creating a native animal conservation area (see previous post). As a result, there's actually a homestead up there. And also, bizarrely, an outdoor, hot-spring-fed hot tub.

All very surreal - you're out in the bush, down dirt tracks, there's little or no lighting, then suddenly there's this old homestead and, in a fenced-off area around the side, a big hot-tub. After a certain amount of stumbling around and people getting down to their cossies, we all piled into the tub. There must have been about 12 or 15 of us, which made life a little congested in there - though this eased periodically when someone had to pop out for a while to cool down - yes, the water was that hot, if you were in there for more than about 15 minutes solid it got seriously uncomfortable. And we were warned in no uncertain terms that it was not a good idea to put one's head under the water - the joys of hot mineral springs.

All in all, quite a fun evening - a lot of the usual kind of conversations you tend to have when having a few beers on the road, but with the added bonus of being out in the open air, able to see the stars (including the odd shooting star, which was really cool) and sitting in a hot tub. Felt bloody cold when actually getting out of the hot tub, though. So we all piled as quickly as possible back to the vehicles, and headed back into town to the hostel. So anyways, an interesting second night in Denham.

The second day there (also the second day of September 2005, now that I check back as to when all this was happening - 9 months ago, sheesh) accounted for the laundry, the newspaper, a certain amount of (very unusual for me) sunbathing and, in the evening, going down one of the local pubs to watch an AFL game on the TV featuring my beloved Adelaide Crows. Yes, one of the slightly unexpected leftovers from my first visit to Oz, back in 1995, is my devotion to Australian Rules Football and the Pride of South Australia (as their cheesey club song loudly proclaims). In expectation of a few of the smart-alecs out there, yes, there are rules involved, and no, it isn't just a big game of aerial ping-pong played by big men in little boys' shorts (which I have heard suggested as a reason why Aussie Rules is quite popular with the girls...).

I think it was the last game of the regular season, prior to the Finals series. Most Australian sports seem to work on this basis, where you play all your league games just to work out who gets to the finals, and what position they have in them. As a devoted fan of football in its more common form, I just don't get how you can finish top of the league and not be champions, but it's accepted as the normal state of affairs over here. The team that wins the league is known as the "Minor Premier". Not that I'm remotely swayed in this by the fact that the Crows were Minor Premiers last year, but didn't make it to the Grand Final to have the chance to be Premiers (ie Champions). Oh no. They also don't go in for relegation, which I should probably be happy about given that my adopted team in the A-League (the Australian football league, rather than the Australian Football League), the Melbourne Victory, finished last but one. And that one was actually from New Zealand.

Erm, anyways, let's stop that before I go off into a bit of a sports rant. My 3rd day in Denham, I had booked to do something a little different. I was going flightseeing over Shark Bay. A bit expensive, I know, but I figured when on Earth am I going to be back somewhere like that, and it would certainly give me a different perspective. And it had one added bonus - the flight was also the mail run over from the Peron peninsula, on which Denham is situated, to the peninsula situated to its west, home to a giant salt-gatering operation based out of the wonderfully-named settlement of Useless Loop.

So, I got a nice little light aircraft ride, along with an American couple, saw the stunning turquoise waters of the area (Shark Bay is mostly pretty shallow, with a lot of sand or shell at the bottom and areas of sea plants, which makes for very pretty colours), took in the sea-cliffs over on Useless Loop's peninsula (which include the most westerly point in mainland Australia - so I've now flown over both the most westerly and the most easterly, albeit the latter was in a hang-glider a few years back) and made a landing at Useless Loop to do a drop-off of mail and the like. At which point, I had to giggle somewhat at the sign on the wooden shack by the side of the runway, which someone had labelled as "Useless Loop International Airport" (and yes, of course there's a picture of me standing under it, which will probably make it on here when I catch up with adding in more photos for places).

Having got back from said flight in the morning, I'd been planning on another quiet day, but got roped into going along with a whole bunch of the others from the hostel whom John had offered a free day trip up the peninsula. Now, I have to admit, I am uncertain to this day whether he actually has a permit to take a bunch of people on an informal tour into that part of the park - let's just say I didn't inquire too closely. I was also slightly worried that John's first reaction on hearing that the other vehicle going up there had left before us was "shit! my beer's in that bloody car!". We then proceeded at fairly rapid speed after said other vehicle, eventually catching up with it on one of the sand tracks in the park.

Seeing a couple of looks of consternation from the back of the vehicle when he jumped back in the car and opened a can of drink (it was actually some pre-mixed vodka and lemonade thing rather than beer), John promptly asked me if I felt like driving. Let me think... Yes! Partly that would be discomfort at being driven by anyone who's been drinking, but largely also by the fact that I'd never actually driven a large 4WD before, let alone had the chance to do so off normal roads (where the damned things actually make sense). So I got a crash-course (NO, not literally) in four-wheel-driving, which was pretty cool. Our destination up the peninsula was near an old pearling platform offshore. John was making noises about maybe taking the boat we'd brought and going out there in the evening, if we'd caught some fish. Yes, we had also brought a net, which we were going to try and use to catch some fish. Or, more specifically, a shark.

Seeing as how we were going for a wander around in Shark Bay, you probably won't be surprised to learn that there's quite a lot of sharks. However, those familiar with my general dislike bordering on phobia of sharks (okay, I used to hide behind the sofa as a little kid whenever they appeared on TV...) would probably be surprised to learn that I willingly went walking (okay, wading) through water that I knew there would be sharks in. However, these were only little reef sharks, not actually prone to attacking people. I don't mind them. They're actually quite graceful, as they zoom through the water, sometimes within a couple of feet of your legs. The thought of any of the big, toothy monsters still gives me the shivers. At any rate, due to a combination of factors (mostly involving the long boom net we were dragging through the water being a bit shite) we didn't catch anything. So we ended up just making a fire out of some driftwood and scrubwood on the beach, and sitting around having a few drinks. And before you ask, no, I wasn't going to be driving back, so I was fine to have a few tinnies.

In fact, we were driven back by a German lass, one of those rare individuals you meet who is so single-minded about something it can be a bit scary. It can also be rather scary being driven back, in the dark, down sand tracks, in a 4WD by such an individual, supervised by someone who'd had a few beers. And, indeed, it was. But hey, we made it, so that gets to just be added as one more for the list of "what exactly was I thinking?" that I'm accumulating on my travels. The party carried on back at the hostel, and ended up swinging back out to the hot tub again, where at one point we had the bizarre experience of sitting in very hot water having rather chilly goon (cheap cask wine) squirted into our mouths in sequence around a circle. Well, it helps pass the time, y'know?

And that night was the end of my time in Denham, but not quite the end of my time in Shark Bay. The next morning I checked out of the hostel, loaded up into the minibus, and got dropped off over the other side of the peninsula, at the place most people think of and mention when they travel to Shark Bay: Monkey Mia. And that's where I'll pick up next time.

Until then, adieu.


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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Y'know, they just look like rocks to me...

G'day again. Yes, it's time for a little more bloggage. So, back to Kalbarri, where I'm about to meet my new bus.

No, not literally the bus. I haven't taken to greeting motor vehicles. It just gets to the point, once you've travelled with backpacker companies for a while, that you realise that "a bus" is actually an acceptable collective form, at times, for backpackers. A gaggle of geese, a school of fish, a pride of lions, a bus of backpackers. So, the next Easyrider hit town, and I noticed two things. Firstly, there was a very high Scandinavian content. Secondly, the driver was female.

Now, this latter shouldn't be all that surprising, what with equal opportunities and that, but it's sadly true that it's not too often that you get female drivers. Where companies have separate drivers and guides (e.g. Shamrocker in Ireland) they seem a little more frequent, but otherwise they're in a distinct minority. Might be to do with the demands of the lifestyle (away from home for quite a while, dealing with rowdy and arsey backpackers), I don't know. At any rate, it means you do notice it when there's a lass in charge up front. And this new driver, in true Australian style, was called Kylie.

No, I'm not making it up, that really was her name - it's actually not that uncommon over here. It also appeared to be her driver-name, which is slightly unusual, but I guess if you're the only female driver there's no need to have some kind of distinguishing moniker in the way that might be needed if you were, say, a Dave or a John. (We actually found out later that she'd nearly been assigned another driver-name, but I'll get to that in a bit...)

Anyways, back to the rest of the bus. As I said, high Scandinavian content (2 Swedish lads, 2 Norwegian lasses and a Dane, out of about 15 on the bus), and also a girl called Jane, whose accent it took me a little while to place, until I suddenly realised that I was hearing the dulcet tones of Belfast - you'd think it would be impossible to forget what a Northern Irish accent sounds like, but it would appear I came close. At any rate, apart from getting to know the people I would be spending many hours on a bus with the next day, my ulterior motive for making myself known was to wangle my way into the trip to Finlay's again, for more fish. Yes, I know, I'd only had it 3 days earlier, but it was SO GOOD, and the rest of the dining options in Kalbarri weren't exactly blowing my mind (to the point where I'd cooked for myself the last couple of nights).

This lot were actually slightly more outgoing and lively than my previous group (okay, they were more up for having a few beers!), so we ended up sitting around the little campfire in Finlay's courtyard (it was actually a touch chilly that evening), finishing off our respective alcohol supplies. All good fun. Still, it was a relatively early night for us all, as we had a fairly early departure the next morning. Seeing as how we were going up to Kalbarri National Park...

Yes, I had several hours experience of deja vu, going back round by the Z-bend, the Loop and Nature's Window, however this time it was enlivened by people doing abseiling down near the Z-Bend. Whilst travelling with Scoobs, he hd mentioned the possibility to the bus, but not really done much of a hard-sell. Kylie, or 'Kyles' as she was often referred to, was obviously a very different beast, having basically persuaded everybody who came in on her bus to do it! This left only me, Kev and Jeanette (back on the bus at the same time) and a German girl whose name I can't recall for the life of me not wandering off cliffs. I have to admit that I would have been tempted, but I wasn't sure what doing a 20-metre or so descent would be like when my only previous experience was the 71-metre lunacy I did at Knysna in South Africa. So I went for a wander down by the river below the descent site, and chatted with the German lass, who'd been working on a horse-farm for a bit - one of those times when I think, maybe my whole travelling experience is just a bit too tame. I don't do enough things that are really different. Until I think of the prospect of getting up at 5:30am and going to shovel horse-shit. And then I decide I'm quite happy doing things the way I do...

So, after people had lowered themselves off cliffs to various accompaniments (some squealers, some deathly silent, some whooping with joy, etc), the most memorable provided by two VERY Scouse girls, it was back on the bus and heading off up north. And this was just one of those classic examples of Australian outback driving. Scenery that makes you go "wow" for all of about 10 minutes as you first drive through it, but which has got kind of monotonous when repeated for about 3 hours, as you head along a road with no marked turn-offs until you reach the road-house which is pretty much the only settlement for many, many kilometres around. There's a certain wild beauty to the countryside, but you do struggle at times to stay awake, and road-house food is of the "if in doubt, deep fry it" tradition, which is good for hangovers but very bad for the figure.

Time on the road was thus passed in the usual ways - chatting with fellow passengers and/or the driver, card-games (Shithead being a partiularly popular one amongst backpackers), reading, listening to music, sleeping, writing up travel journals. The one dramatic interruption was when Kylie slammed on the brakes and we screeched to a halt. She then quickly reversed a couple of hundred yards down the highway. Some of us started wondering aloud what had gone wrong with the bus. But no, there was no problem with the bus. Kylie had just stopped because she saw a lizard.

This is another one of those things I just can't get. I mean, HOW, when driving along at 100km/h or so, does a person spot a lizard that's maybe 10cm long on the side of the road? Admittedly, the species in question, known as the Thorny Devil, is quite an attractive little beast (Kylie brought it onto the bus for us to look at), but I'd have thought its coloration also made it somewhat difficult to spot in the dust at the side of the road! And that's even before you get onto questions of "keep your eyes on the road"...

By mid-afternoon, we had covered most of the requisite distance for the day, and arrived at Shark Bay (another fun name for those of you with the most popular phobias about Australian fauna...). And here we made a couple of stops, firstly at the Hamelin Pool. This is an interationally renowned site. Never heard of it? You're obviously not into cyanobacteria, then.

Specifically, Hamelin Pool is one of the world's best sites for Stromatolites. The really eager amongst you can go off and Google the term to your hearts' content, but in a nutshell they're one of the world's oldest known lifeforms. They're very slightly similar to coral, in that the individual organisms are tiny but the effect of having them around is to produce visible elements somewhat akin to rocks. In fact, they look a lot like rocks. Really. Bit disturbing to be told that your ancestor was once something that looks like a rock. Okay, so it was billions of years ago, but still. It looks like a bloody rock! Made life very exciting for the marine biologist we had aboard, though! (apparently these stromatolites were one of the key reasons for the trip...)

After taking the necessary pictures of our rock-like distant relatives (apologies if that assertion upsets any Creationists out there!), we headed down to the beach. So far, so normal for Australia, you'd guess. Except that this beach was different. It was apparently around 110km long, and composed of shells to a depth of around 10m. That's a LOT of shells. And the ones that have been compacted together for longer turn into a fairly solid brick-like material that's actually sometimes quarried and used locally as a building material (I believe there was a restaurant in Denham made purely from the stuff, and quite picturesque it was). Anyways, there are absolutely no prizes for guessing what this place was called. That's right. Shell Beach.

Having wandered around, looked at the shells, decided not to go in the water after seeing a dead jellyfish washed up at the shoreline, and taken the obligatory group photos (which now frustrates me, as I can't remember who most of them are!), it was back on the bus, and onwards around the Bay, through the fence that crosses the narrow neck of Peron peninsula. Looking it up on the web, it appears this may be called the Eden Gate. We just called it the Dog Fence. You see, the fence cuts right across the narrow neck of the peninsula, and is designed to keep "feral" (introduced) species out of the area. The idea is to turn the peninsula into a reserve for native animals, safe from the unfortunate effects of sheep, goats, foxes, cats, etc. Well, they've got rid of most of them, but are still having problems with the cats. So, one part of the solution is that, as you pass through the cattle-grid onto the peninsula, loudspeakers play quite loud recordings of dogs barking. We thought Kyles was taking the piss about this, but you can actually hear it quite clearly if you have your head out the window as you drive through. I don't know whether this really does scare the cats that much, but the parks people seem happy with it.

I'll go on a fair bit more about the Shark Bay area in the next posting, as this one's getting a bit long, but suffice to say we arrived in Denham, the main town of the area, where Kylie proceeded to drive us around for the grand tour. This took about 5 minutes. We also found out that her colleagues attempted to rename her as "Bowser" at one point, as she apparently accidentally drove into the fuel bowser at Denham's petrol station on one of her earlier runs! Obviously, this is the kind of thing it's good to learn after you've just spent a day being driven around by a person...

Our home for the night was the Shark Bay YHA. Here, courtesy of the friendly owner, we scored some free BBQ'd kangaroo (yes, I am being serious), then grabbed our alcoholic beverages of choice and settled down for a game of killer pool. I think I explained the rules in an earlier post, and can't actually be bothered now, but let's just say this game had a couple of differences. Firstly, the state of the felt on the pool table meant that this had about as much in common with your average game of pool as a mini-golf course does with a professional 18-hole golf links. Various rips and folds created all manner of interesting obstacles. And secondly, I won. For the first time in my life, I won a game of killer pool. Actually, you could probably count the number of games of pool I've ever won (not including doubles where my partner has "carried" me) on both hands. So I was quite a happy bunny when I went to bed, looking forward to a few days in Shark Bay.

Yep, I was jumping off the bus again, for more mischief and mishaps, but that will wait for next time. (I'm not getting any better at writing these cliff-hangers, am I? I blame it on exposure to too many crap trailers aimed at getting anybody interested in watching Neighbours or Home & Away over here...)

Anyways, until I get the urge to write again, farewell!


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