It’s been a fun packed two weeks, and there almost seems to be too much to cover in one piece (lack of signal and internet, finally rectified by changing telephone providers, has meant that writing opportunities have been few and far between), but I will try.
We’ve loved the western coast of Australia so far. It’s more wild, beautiful and remote than the experience we had on the eastern side. Some of that is because we’re able to stay out in the back of beyond in the van, but mostly it’s because it is truly remote here, the towns are hundreds of miles apart, and national parks fill the landscape.
After our mammoth drive from Darwin, we finally reached Broome, one of the places where we’d decided to stay for a few days, given it’s slightly hipster reputation of being a chilled town, with beautiful beaches. It didn’t disappoint. We experienced the most amazing sunsets there, something that the locals thrive on, pulling up in row after row of 4WD’s right onto the beach, the serene scenes inevitably turning into parties later on into the night. Cable Beach in Broome is known for it’s camel rides, so we thought we’d give it a go with Otis in tow in his sling. Inevitably he was asleep when the ride started (something that seems to happen whenever the planned activity is actually for his benefit), so was somewhat startled when he woke up halfway through with the camel from behind poking it’s toothy face into his sling. He took it in his stride, as he always seems to, not something I might have done in the same waking circumstance!
Broome was also where we made one of our best purchases of this trip - the Wonder Bag. Invented by a woman who grew up in Africa, where she witnessed families wrapping cooking pots in clothing and paper to keep the temperature high for a long, slow cook, she created a similar effect with a material bag. This brilliant little invention means that we can get a curry / stew going with breakfast in the morning, whack it in the bag, and open it up in the evening to enjoy a slow cooked feast. Dinners will never be the same.
We had a long drive planned from Broome to Karijini national park (our one diversion from the coastal highway). We actually thought it would take two stop overs on route, but after one roadside sleepover (still somehow a nice experience with the sunsets here, despite it being a dusty lay-by), we reached Karijini in good time, giving us 3 nights to stay there, an unexpected treat when you’re moving on so frequently.
Karijini is ridiculously stunning. It’s a national park filled with red sandstone gorges, with pools throughout that you reach via varying precarious routes, and can then swim in. We stayed in two different campsites in the park, one run by the council, and therefore pretty basic (but that’s all you need when the views are this stunning), and the other labelled as an ‘Eco-lodge’, and therefore the camping was more expensive, although we’re still talking pretty basic services all round. From these we explored the local gorges, going as far down and round bends as we could with the little man, but often having to turn back just before our final desired location because it was a bit too risky. We did climb down ladders on a cliff side, wade through water, and climb round ridges, but the point at which you’d have to swim with Otis, or slide down rocks on your bum felt a step too far. Despite this the walks were magnificent and totally awe inspiring.
From Karijini we headed to Exmouth, via an overnight stop on the highway again. This part of the country is hot, dusty and filled with red dirt, so it was amazing to stay overnight at the Nanutarra Roadhouse, which had a large patch of grass, meaning Otis could play without looking like a homeless child for once.
We finally reached Exmouth, our destination to swim with Whale Sharks, the experience that we were probably most excited about from our whole trip. We’d arranged to go out on the boat with Otis as well, and were told that Ben and I could alternate swimming with these magnificent creatures. The company we went with (Ocean Eco Adventures) had the perfect set up with the little man in tow. A carpeted boat deck, a large enough katamaran that meant there was shade below and a sun deck above. A trip filled with 20 somethings who can’t bear to be out of the sun for 5 minutes (oh those were the days) meant we had plenty of room on the lower deck for him to crawl about.
But onto the main part of the day, the whale sharks themselves. It’s so hard to explain what swimming with something this big is like. The company uses a microlight spotter plane to find them, and the boat then rushes to that location. They’re restricted to being in the water with them for no more than an hour, and no more than 10 people at a time, and you obviously have to keep your distance (about 4m). They split us into 2 groups, so Ben and I manically scrambled in and out of fins and masks each time to grab Otis while the other excitedly took their turn.
These fish are massive. We swam with one that was somewhere between 7 and 9 metres long (the staff on the boat couldn’t agree). That’s longer than the bus that we’re travelling in (which is pretty bloody long, I can tell you!). But even when you’re in the water, it’s totally surreal, and it’s only when you glimpse someone swimming on the other side of the shark that your brain really grasps quite how large they are. Context is everything.
We had the full hour with the whale sharks, and it was amazing. They are so beautiful and graceful, despite their size, and didn’t seem to mind at all that a group of clumsy people swimming into each other were attempting to keep up with them.
Aside from the whale shark experience, Exmouth is a slightly strange coastal town, as the town itself isn’t really based on the coast, but all off a main road that cuts through the dusty outback. However, it gives you access to the Ningaloo Marine Park, with stunning beach after stunning beach where you could snorkel, or just relax by the water. We stayed for a a few nights here, enough time to see the whale sharks and for Ben to do the iconic Navy Pier dive (which unfortunately was a bit disappointing due to strong currents and poor visibility), and then moved on to Coral Bay, an hour south.
Coral Bay is a beautiful little town, with not much more than a shop, a dive shop, and a couple of camp sites and a hotel. It’s not surprising that this place seems to get booked up a year in advance though, as it’s a very relaxing beach area, with a thin strip of sand, and very shallow water, making it the most family friendly beach I’ve ever been to. And it was a beach filled with young children, but somehow it was relaxing, quite a feat. We’d come here not just to enjoy a bit of beach time, but because you can swim with Manta Ray’s. We went out on a boat again with Otis, this time not quite such a luxurious experience, but it worked well all the same. We were lucky enough to find a very chilled out Manta who let us swim with her at a relaxed pace, ducking down from our snorkelling to take a closer look.
And finally to round off our exploration of different species in the sea, we visited Denham and Monkey Mia, both part of Shark Bay. Our first overnight on route was at Hamelin Pool, home of Stromatolites from 3 billion years ago, and one of the most stunning vista’s we’ve experienced in our trip. Denham was a less stunning town, but provided a good base to visit Monkey Mia early in the morning, to experience the dolphins who come in to feed and generally interact with people and play, and have been doing so for over 40 years. This was one of the times where having a small baby in tow was a definite benefit, as we got picked as one of the few who actually got to feed one of these gentle creatures. It was amazing how they swam round in the shallows by your feet, by no means trained circus animals you might experience in zoo’s, just friendly curious creatures who like to interact. The centre here is really careful about how much food they give the dolphins, and when they do it, to ensure that they still go out to sea and behave as they would normally, otherwise their mortality rate (and that of their calves) increases dramatically.
The following day, I got my turn to dive (in exchange for Ben’s pier dive), and went out to the westernmost tip of Australia, Steep Point, to do two cliff and cave dives there. The marine life in this area is spectacular, with huge shoals of Queensland grouper that can reach a couple of metres, Wobbegong Sharks nestling in the sand by your feet, and a huge turtle even swam past my nose unexpectedly out of a cave I was about to enter. It was a rough day at sea, and the water surged beneath the surface, making you feel like you were being thrown about, but it was a brilliant experience.
And so the last part of our journey in Australia continues, with more national parks to visit on route to our final destination of Perth ahead of going home. We’ve had some of the best weeks of our trip getting to experience marine life in the way that we have, and it only cements the fact that we both want to be close to nature where we can. Who knows where that will end up, but Australia has treated us pretty well, that’s for sure.