Down Under – West Coast - Second Instalment
Dedicated to my dearest friend, Adele Evans (Affleck), travel writer and broadcaster, who died suddenly in September last year. Fly, Fly Fly, my friend....
So, for those uninitiated in to the art of road travel in Aus, living out of a campervan for three weeks, the question is, where does one even BEGIN? For me, the answer is a no-brainer – in the centre – my stomach!! Having decided to explore the rest of the West Coast by car/campervan rather than fly/drive, Jelte and I had begun researching what type of vehicle best suited our needs. Looking back, we find we made one major mistake, which shall not be repeated again. Instead of opting for a four-wheel-drive, we went with the ‘safer’ option of a standard van. At the time, we did not realize it, but it was to hugely restrict where we could venture once we were in the great outdoors. I suppose this is a fairly common error. Before arriving in a country like Australia, guide books, blogs and travel advisories instill the fear of the unknown into one. I imagined us being on red dirt track, with not a tree in sight and not a chance of assistance, should the need arise, for another thousand miles or so. One has visions of venomous spiders and snakes and ‘salties’ waiting on the side-lines for the unsuspecting idiot tourist to drop by for a bite. So, maybe, our choice of a boring on-road camper van saved our lives. Who knows? But, back to the all important – food.
|Clouds. Cafe in Denham near Shark Bay|
|Our Combi, looking out over the bay in the little town of Denham|
where manta rays glide the shallows
The big question now was, would this all fit in to our little ‘combi’? We had a soft bag each, a large first-aid kit, and a large bag of assorted shoes – golf, heavy duty walking, sneakers, flip-flops and sturdy beach walkers. The ‘combi’ was a small Suzuki van, outfitted for overnight usage, with a little kitchen unit fitted in the rear. Where the passenger seats would have been, on one side were - an extra battery (for fridge and lights), and a drawer-type fridge (essential for our ‘tinnies’ (Aus slang for cans of beer), milk and other perishables); on the other side was a drawer with a lift-up lid. On top of all this (and taking up all of the rear area) was a large, very comfy, double mattress. We had opted for the ‘deluxe’ add-on of quality linen (towels, sheets, duvet, pillows and covers), and a fun-pack (snorkels, frisbee and other beach games). The camper van company we used is a small-family-run business and consequently, the attention to detail is far superior to anything one can get from the larger corporations. Based in Rockingham, just south of Perth, GoCamper.com was an excellent choice for our needs. They equip their fleet with pretty much that the international visitor to Australia might not have thought of. No need to worry about the dish washing liquid, gas canisters, cutlery, crockery, table and chairs, awning, lights. It’s all there and road-ready. Also, provided: washing line and clothes pegs!! There was no running water in our combi and the ‘cooker’ was a single gas ring cooker. But once one is on the road and familiar with the facilities provided by the multitudinous camp and caravan sites, it becomes clear that these are available and usually included in the cost of your overnight camp fee. It took us a little while to work out how to access our supply of non-potable water containers. Also, sleeping over the functioning fridge and battery can be a cozy experience during the early spring in the South West. But venture further north and it gets a little heated!! A word of warning to anyone over 6 ft. tall. You will have to sleep diagonally. If there are two tall people – oh dear! We met up with another couple that had chosen a 4wd. Their problem was a little different. The rear sleeping space was so limited and narrow that they had to resort to sleeping head-to-toe!! Choices are limited in these combi vehicles. Their advantage, though, is that they are infinitely cheaper to run, especially if one has to keep the AC going.
|Sunset at The Pinnacles|
|A whole lotta nothin' as far as the eye can see|
For us, being on the road, no matter where, is an exhilarating feeling like no other. We think our primitive genes are in constant default mode. After all, were we not nomadic, going way back when? So, with Ipad plugged in to the van console, ‘tinnies’ in the eski/fridge and flip-flops on our feet, we were on our way North to explore the great unknown. The plan was for us to make it as quickly as possible up to Broome (our agreed northern-most point) and then meander back down to Perth. All in, we would be on the road for @24 nights. The Kimberly starts from just north of Broome and here the roads and conditions are challenging, particularly for us ‘rookies’. Also, unless one is seriously prepared for every eventuality and in a 4wd, it’s not worth the risk. So this would be ‘the end of the road’ for us, sadly. We had talked about making it all the way up in to the Northern Territories but time and experience were against us.
|Frilly dragon, hunting for dinner|
|In Broome: Our combi, conveniently parked under a mango tree |
Because we chose to ‘hoof it’ to Broome and were not driving along the coast, we got a glimpse of the Real Australia... a bit like a tourist driving across the state of Florida from Sarasota to West Palm Beach. You see the real McCoy, warts, pimples and all. Three Springs, and now on our way to MeekatherraWe were now entering real ‘outback’ and as a consequence, had to keep a sharp eye on the petrol gauge. Yalgoo was a tiny ‘town’ with a gas station, police station and little else. The gas station was self service and rejected our international credit/debit cards – all of them. What to do next. I opted for knocking on the door of the local constabulary to persuade them to sell us some petrol. We decided to chance it to the next gas station 80 miles away in Mount Magnet, on a quarter . 20 miles on our journey, with the needle gauge speeding its way to the finish line, we decided to play it safe and return to Yalgoo and hope for a solution. No sense in finding ourselves high and dry on the Aussie highway, with nothing for company but lizards, the odd swarm of budgerigars and the baking heat. Probably, within the space of a couple of hours, we had seen four vehicles on the road. We returned to the gas station and caught up with an Aussie couple pulling out after having gassed up. Very kindly they filled us up on their credit card in exchange for cash and we were on our way again. Meekatharra was our next overnight stop and it was all we had been told it would be. The scene in the bar reminded me of quite a few of Bill Bryson’s encounters in ‘A Sunburned Country’. One thing that puzzled us (and all would be revealed soon) was how in heavens name were so many of the out of the way establishments being run by young, engaged Europeans. What were they doing in the back of beyond and how did they get here?
|Road back to Yalgoo for a top up|
|Job hunting at a Road House|
Road-Train stop at a Road-House
By the third day, we were entering national park country (Karrijini) – we’re now in to our third Indian dinner and VERY pleased with our contingency plans. Driving the highways in WA can be mind-numbingly monotonous. Apart from a huge amount of road kill – kangaroos, wallabys, cattle, emus appear the be the most vulnerable – the only other occupants of the roads that keep one vigilant are the ‘road trains’. These juggernauts, hauling up to three trailers are daunting when one first sees them. They displace not just a huge amount of air, but also a lot of unsuspecting wildlife. So, we shared the driving every couple of hours and kept lively conversations and music going. It was wonderful to be on the road again. Port Headland was our first major City on the coast and it’s a fine example of how to rape a beautiful land. The mining companies have a lot to answer for, but nobody appears to want to ask any questions, given the vast amounts of revenue being generated for all involved. Needless to say, none of our tourist dollars got squandered there; for years our policy has been ‘we don’t do ugly’, and UGLY it certainly is. Our overnight stop was our first encounter of what we anticipated WA to represent. A campsite, verdant green at this time of year, surrounded by beautiful trees, overlooking a blue, blue ocean. Wander in to the reception – or at least we try to – and are stopped short by the manager. ‘Stay where you are’. ‘Don’t come any closer’. Staff standing on furniture. A king-brown, one of Australia’s most venomous snakes was being carefully squished into a sack. Now this is more like the Australia we expected to encounter. The beach is beautiful but there’ll be no swimming for us; the tide has brought in wave upon wave of large brown-tea coloured jelly-fish. They are everywhere, covering the shoreline. This is the first time we encounter other campers who, like us are committed to weeks of travel in campers/combis, for the ‘real Aussie’ experience. Next day, after playing ‘dodgems’ with the mounds of beach jello, we continue on to Broome, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn en route. So, now we are officially in the tropics with its attendant variety of exotic birds, mammals and plants - Big lizards with frills, cane toads, salties, flocks of budgerigars, parrots and cockatoos.
|Galahs and cockatoos hanging out at the Road House|
Road houses, as petrol stations are known in this part of the world (perhaps because they serve the needs of road trains?) are staffed principally by European students (an AHA moment), , able to earn a whopping $25 an hour, and little to spend their pay-checks on. A few we spoke to talked about how they were able to fund their studies with this lucrative student-work. French, German, Brit, Italian; you get almost every nationality working these joints, serving up the crappiest junk food you can imagine. A young German served us a simple toasted egg sandwich and got that wrong. How do they feed themselves at home, we wonder.
|Karijini National Park, wathcing Jelte have an early am swim. |
Too slimy for Christine to attempt
Alternatively, great showers at the Tourist Information Office!!
Broome: as advertised by the local tourist office - one of the most beautiful beaches in the world – is an exaggeration. But we did swim in lovely blue, warm water with no stingers or salties to threaten us. We've decided to hang out here for a few more days, do a much needed load of laundry and enjoy the tropics. The campsite we’ve decided on is secluded and boasts mango, neem, and coconut trees everywhere. The mangoes are still green but we pluck a few and make a sharp, mouth-puckering salad. We also teach our Tasmanian neighbours how to make a refreshing mango fool dessert, with their kids o-d’ing on this dish for days until one of them broke out in hives ... go slow on the turpentine, guys!! The large, dragon lizards hung about in the trees above every night and helped themselves to the local birds and fruit. We visited the Chinese and Japanese cemeteries (the demise of the pearl divers of the early 20th century), searched in vain for dinosouar footprints along the cliffs, had a change of diet from ready-prepared Indian dishes, enjoyed the beaches and moved back on down to 80-mile beach and its infestation of jelly-fish. Yep! They were still dropping in in waves, so once again, no swimming for us. But the spectacular sunsets and wonderful outlook of the campsite. made up for this.
|Our camp spot at Giralia Station|
|Station horses, staff, us and wide, wide expanses|
Open air pantree
Port Sampson, Karratha (more evidence of land-rape), and Onslow for a quick stop for a nice fish meal – sadly, there was nothing else to persuade us to linger – and on to our first Station stay at Giralia. We arrived just before sunset and were shown a spot under some casurina trees (these are known as she-oaks in Australia). With the wind blowing through them all night, one is lulled to sleep by this beautiful, gentle whispering. The sky is unbelievably beautiful, with the milky way strutting its stuff and nothing else around, apart from the Station horses ambling around the grounds. It’s at times like this when the sense of peace one feels is truly physical; it’s right there, sitting on your chest, while you lie on your mattress, with the only one you want to share this with, the windows of the combi open to the cool wind and night sounds and the changing skyline. Utter Bliss and more to come......