Day 84: 21 August – Walking the beaches of Shark Bay

Author: Mr A

Location: Denham

Distance walked: 7km

We spent the morning getting organised for our final push down into Perth. Areas we want to see researched, campsites reviewed on WikiCamps and booked, road conditions checked (been some heavy rain up here), and scheduled our trusty 200 Series in for some TLC at Geraldton Toyota. 

The weather has been pretty chilly and windy, but we dragged ourselves out for a walk this afternoon and so glad we did. Heading down the to the beach, a short walk and we come across a mob (flock?) of five emus strutting around in the scrub. 

Further along the beach we were rewarded with a stunning late afternoon light show, captured exquisitely by Mrs A of course. 

Tomorrow we leave the coast for a few days and head inland again, a whole new adventure!

Day 83: 20 August – Another day, another shark…

Author: Mrs A

Distance driven: 12 km

We decided to stay in Denham another couple of nights, not quite ready to leave this beautiful area. As the campground is fully booked, we had to move to a new unpowered site just up the hill. Once settled we decided to explore the Denham locality a bit further.

Our first stop was just south of Denham, a typically quirky Australian feature – ‘the thong shack‘ (flip flops, not underwear!) right behind yet another stunning beach, and providing a great lookout along the coast beyond the rubber footwear.

From there we headed a short distance south to the Ocean Park Aquarium. This is not your typical aquarium – it is run by marine scientists, and many of the creatures have been rescued and are being cared for until they are released. 

Their speciality is sharks, and they have quite a number in a huge pool fed directly from the ocean, but in addition there are stone fish, eels, turtles, rays and many other fish and sea snakes on site. 

We learned a lot about them and also thanked our lucky stars we didn’t take our pack-rafts paddling in the Little Lagoon estuary – it’s full of poisonous stone fish! Ugh! Can you spot the fish in the picture below? We’re not sure we would. Once disturbed, these ugly beasts throw up a number of poisonous spines. Apparently the pain is excruciating, causing tissue damage and potential amputation, if not, death. Not pleasant.

We enjoyed a delicious and affordable lunch with an incredible view (are we still in WA?!) before returning to camp for the afternoon. Mr A relaxed with a good book while I got started on my presentation for my Chicago visit.

We finished off the evening with a seafood pasta coupled with an Italian Pinot Grigio and a fabulous sunset.

Day 82: 19 August – Dolphins on cue

Author: Mr A

From: Denham

To: Monkey Mia

Distance: 27 km

It was a 6.30am alarm and on the road by 7 to ensure we were in time for the briefing by the rangers who staffed the 'Dolphin experience' at Monkey Mia. 

For over 50 years dolphins have been fed here, initially by the fishermen who shared their catch with them. Dolphins, as we know, aren't daft and started turning up at the same stip of beach every morning licking their lips. Then the tourists started to flood in and the dolphins who came were breeding pups who didn't know how to hunt for their own fish because they had never seen mum do it. So the WA Wildlife folk stepped in during the early 1990s and now regulate the whole thing, with only a few snacks being delivered by the lucky few chosen from the hundred or so of us watching. 

It was a great experience to see these mammals up so close, literally metres away from the beach, rolling over, waving a flipper, and yet know although humanised they are still 'wild', and make a choice as to whether they turn up or not, and when.

We were back in Denham by lunch time and spent a very productive afternoon washing and cleaning…dull but necessary given everything is covered in red dust. That stuff can get inside a vacuum sealed flask…incredible.  

Day 81: 18 August – Spectacular Francois Peron National Park

Author: Mrs A

Location: Francois Peron National Park – Big Lagoon, Cape Peron and Snapper Point

Distance driven: 110 km return

Distance kayaked: 4 km

Distance hiked: 4 km

We left early after a light breakfast heading for Big Lagoon (they’re very creative with the names in these parts. There is also a Little Lagoon) in the Francois Peron National Park. We had been told by the information centre that today was to be both the warmest and least windy day of the next five days, so we decided to take advantage.

By 9.30am we were inflating our pack-rafts and setting off on the beautiful turquoise water for an explore.

It was the perfect way to see the shallow lake, which was unsuitable for motorised vessels. We explored right across to the opening of the lagoon, where it met the sea, and clambered up the iron rich sand dunes, cris-crossed with multiple animal and bird tracks, and no signs of humans at all.

We decided to stop and have lunch here, at the brand new national park kitchen and picnic area with the million dollar view. Not another soul was there!

After lunch we decided to drive up to the tip of the national park. I had read some incredible accounts of the scenery and wildlife up there, and couldn’t wait to visit, however as we drove up the extremely rough roads (corrugations and deep sand) for over an hour, I could tell Mr A was doubting my decision. Thankfully the view at the top was incredible, with spectacular scenery and out of this world colours.

Better still, as we reached Cape Peron and the Snapper Point Lookout the sea life appeared as if on cue – within moments of arriving we spotted several sharks swimming past and a huge manta ray, along with multiple shoals of gleaming fish. We both agreed, we could have spent a whole afternoon just there.

We walked along the headland, reading about the history of the point, with the first European visitors arriving from France back in 1801 and dancing to the maracas to try and convince the local Aboriginal groups they were there in peace. The Aboriginal people of course have been resident on this point for more than 26,000 years, and had never seen anything like it. I can only imagine what planet they thought these strange visitors were from!

Down on the beach we saw hundreds of Little Pied Cormerants, which are regular residents here. The fact there are so many on land in this photo, and not in the water, means there are tiger sharks about. Cormerants, dolphins, manta rays, turtles and the odd pack-rafter are favourite meals for tiger sharks. We remained firmly on land.

We returned to camp exhausted after our busy day, and thankfully had the foresight to defrost a pre-made red curry for dinner. 

Day 79: 16 August – Biking, bubbles and campfires

Author: Mrs A

Distance driven: 452 km

Distance cycled: 14.5 km

We awoke to a perfect blue sky morning and were packed up, hitched up and on the road by 8am. We had a lot of driving ahead of us and we wanted to ensure we made the most of our destination in the afternoon.

Several podcasts kept us company along the way, and by 2.30pm we had arrived. Today we are staying at Hamelin Station on the southernmost tip of Shark Bay.

Hamelin Station Reserve is a 202,000 hectare property, situated on 32 kilometres of coast line and bordering the Shark Bay World Heritage area.  The former sheep station is now owned by Bush Heritage Australia.  The reserve helps to protect Hamelin Pool, one of the only two places in the world where living marine stromatolites are known to occur.

Now, we had no idea what stromatolites were, so on spotting a sign directing us to see them, we jumped on our bikes and headed up to Hamelin Pool. As we rode down onto the beach and boardwalk we spotted Nick and Laura, the couple from Manly/UK who we first met (and last saw) just north of Broome while hunting for dinosaur footprints! On finding they are camped just two spots away from us we made arrangements to catch up for drinks in the evening.

So, stromatolites. These black spongy things are stromatolites, basically towers of living micro organisms, the origins of life on earth. Pretty interesting. We passed several Japanese tourists taking selfies with the rock-like structures – I wondered whether they had any idea what the information boards said or why they were there. Even Mr A and I found them relatively heavy going!

The beach on which we were cycling was made entirely of miniature white shells, a particular type of cockle which grows prolifically in this area. In one area we passed through quarry from the 1800s, where the original settlers in this area had cut bricks from the compacted shells to build their homes.

We returned to Hamelin Station and explored the beautifully landscaped grounds and onsite lake, rich in birdlife.

Before long it was time to pop the cork on our prosecco and raise a toast. On this day 15 years ago Mark and I became Mr and Mrs Anderson, supported by many friends and family at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Laura and Nick came over to join us, bringing some dips and biscuits, and we set about realising just how many people we know in common. Mr A and Laura in particular – Laura previously worked for SAS and Mr A worked closely with a number of her colleagues in his KPMG days.

We finished the evening under the shooting stars around the campfire with several good bottles of red. A fine end to an anniversary date!

Day 67: 4 August – Diving the Navy Pier…with sharks

Author: Mrs A

Dives undertaken: 2 plus 1 in a swimming pool

Water temperature: 21.5 degrees C (brrr)

Wetsuits worn: 2.5

Mr A and I went out separate ways for the day as I had booked a couple of dives on the Royal Australian Navy Pier, considered one of the top 10 dive sites in Australia. I haven’t dived in a few years, so I was picked up shortly after 8am to do a refresher dive in a swimming pool, remembering how to remove and replace my mask, weight belt and BCD and tank underwater, and how to do an equipment and buddy check.

I had a brief 40 minute break in between that and being collected again, where I quickly ate breakfast and collected some extra layers.

11am the bus returned to collect me plus a few others to do the dive proper. In total there were 15 people doing the two dives and we were paired up with a buddy with similar experience. I got paired with a very tall bearded Simon from Denmark, who had learned to dive in Danish waters, no warmer than 2 degrees!

There was a lot of briefing involved in order to prepare us for this dive. It is located on active Naval land so we had to hand fill out a form with our name, address and date of birth, ensuring it accurately matched our photo ID. It took the 15 of us three turns to fill in this form with no errors! We then had to drive to the Naval base for the key to the pier, and line up at the side of the road while a man in a bullet proof vest with a gun checked us off against the form. Once on Navy land, there was a no photography rule until we reached the pier…not that there was really anything to photograph…

As we arrived at the pier we were immediately entertained by three humpback whales swimming past, just 50 metres off shore – just magical, and a sign of things to come. We we-suited up and climbed carefully down two flights of metal steps (not soft underfoot when you are carrying a heavy tank on your back!) to the platform. 

The jump into the water from the platform is about 3 metres, and it looks much further. It’s important to keep a hold of your weight belt and mask to ensure they don’t get lost on the jump down. I took a big stride off the pier and I was in. They then lowered all the cameras down to us via a hook. There were a lot of cameras – almost every diver had one, and I watched with dismay as mine was accidentally unhooked and sank down to the bottom of the ocean! Oh no!

We descended down the line to almost 12 metres below the surface and began our exploration. The sea life was incredible, just like I would imagine swimming in an aquarium. Every surface of the pier’s structure is covered in sponges, corals and fish of every colour and shape imaginable, huge shoals of fish visible everywhere – above, below and beside you as you fly gently through the water.

The sounds are of clicking and crunching shells, as we see fish attacking clams for the sweet meat inside. All this time, however, I was also anxious for my camera, which we hadn’t seen once on the ocean bed. Before long, it was time to ascend for our shore break, and another workout as we carried our heavy tanks up a ladder out of the water, and back up the two flights to the top.

We had a cup of hot soup, connected our breathing devices to a new full oxygen tank, and got ready for dive two. I was handed my camera, to much relief, by another dive guide who had found it and carried it around with her during the first dive. I decided to not put it on the hook this time, and attached it firmly to my wrist and again stepped off the pier. This time I lost both my fins! I watched in dismay as they both sank to the bottom of the ocean. Swimming with no fins is not fun at all! Fortunately a replacement pair were found for me, and again we descended.

This time the dive was even better than the first. We explored much further, seeing groupers, a grey nurse shark, a white tipped reef shark, moray eel, octopus, lion fish, flat worms (sound uninteresting but are stunning)…the list was endless.

A brilliant dive site, mishaps aside, and much fun had by all. We ascended for our final time and packed away our gear. Out came a cry ‘Manta ray!’ And another, and we all rushed to see at least seven huge mantas swimming just below the pier. They were huge beautiful fish, swimming on the surface like giant black rippling birds. Just incredible.

It was impossible to capture the mantas on camera as it was into the sun, but believe me, it was wonderful.

I returned on a high to camp to find Mr A on the phone to the bank trying to organise new cards. This is how his whole day had transpired, after realising he had lost his wallet on yesterday’s boat trip – farewell Medicare card, drivers licence, the lot – probably also at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. A far less enjoyable day for Mr A.

We ended on a positive, however, enjoying a delicious meal out at a local restaurant; Whalers. Crocodile wontons and a smokey grilled kangaroo loin for me, soft shell crab tacos and a reef and beef for Mr A, thank you very much – delicious!

Day 66: 3 August – Whale Sharks!!!

Author: Mr A

From: Exmouth Cape Caravan Park

To: Somewhere out beyond Ningaloo in the big blue

Distance: Quite a few bumpy kms in a boat

Well the day dawned when we would find out if whale sharks would grace us with their majestic presence in the UNESCO World Heritage area of the Ningaloo Coast. We were shipped out by mini bus to transfer to a little ferry and then onto our home for the day – a quite lovely cataraman. 

It was pretty nippy first thing (17 degrees) with a wind chill out on the water from a fresh breeze, and climbing into wet suits was done with some tripidation. We had a very good briefing on the code of conduct for whale shark snorkelling  – basically don’t get in its way – they will tend to dive and we’ll lose them. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this stunningly graceful fish (yes  – not mammal) they are called a ‘whale’ shark becuase of their size, growing up to 18 metres, and commonly seen around 6 to 8 metres here. A local doctor in Exmouth first noticed them hanging around in the 1980s and the book he wrote about his observations of them was the stimulus for the tourist industry that has now grown up around them. The coral here spawns stuff that the krill they feed on likes…and by the way it’s not a bad place to hang out if you’re dining for free. Turquoise waters, the longest fringing reef in the world, and lots of grey nomads to show off to. 

So in the water we went for a ‘Lets make sure you can snorkel’ session, inside the reef. I managed to remember which way up the mask goes, Catherine on the other hand was provided with a leaky snorkel (more like a straw than something you can breathe through!). So after a bit of equipment juggling we were sorted and ready to hit the open ocean. 

We all sat around shivering (except the really overweight people – very politically incorrect I know) and watching humpback whales splashing their tails in the water, until the spotter plane flying circles overhead (I know – pretty cool ay) finally located a grey shadow under the water. Full throttle, we were soon off racing over the waves, stomachs lagging a little behind, then pulled up ready for the “Go, go, go” signal! Mrs A, looking fetching as ever, I must say, in rubber, was slightly ahead of me I think (well I did land on something soft before hitting the water), and we were in hot pursuit.

Now what the whale shark was thinking at this point I can only imagine…’Bloody hell, here they come’ is my best guess. But we had strict instructions to keep at least 3 metres off its flippery bits (anatomical terms here you know). This particular whale shark had obviously had its fill of being gawked at and promptly set off the ‘Dive, dive, dive’ bell after about 10 seconds (potentially encouraged by the annoying bloke holding the Go-Pro in its face – not me!).

Ah well, back we went to the boat. Now came the tricky bit…..getting back on the bit at the back which was rising and falling like the Venezuelan bolívar. Catherine of course sprang up like the sprightly young thing that she is….let’s just say that my exit was….different. 

More hanging around and shivering…then…we’re off again..another…hopefully more obliging beast has been spotted. In we go, and…yes…this whale shark clearly was seeking fame and glory on Facebook. He (determined by a crew member who swam underneath it with a camera) just ambled along just under the surface of the water, cruising at the perfect speed for us to kick like crazy and keep up.

What a stunning sight. They are so beautifully marked with spots, each one sporting a uniquely identifiable cluster of markings. I think he winked at Catherine. All too quickly it was time to get back on the boat. Catherine again springs up likes she’s got a submersible pogo stick. I…well I…I get onto the deck, put it like that. You know you these terrible clips of whales getting beached. Well..something like that. 

More shivering…I had mixed feelings about how good I wanted the spotter’s eyesight to be…but we got the signal “Tallyho!”. In the water I sprinted ahead, feet thrashing (I’m surprised there wasn’t a tsunami alert issued), and get right alongside this chappie. The swim seemed to go on for ages..I spotted Catherine kicking like a mad thing (a very elegant mad thing of course), and then we were together with this magnificent creature. 

A great experience, and delivered very sensitively (I think) to not encroach on the whale shark’s personal space. Another dream convereted to a memory. Just wish our friends Jenny and David could have got lucky when they did it. There are no guarantees when it comes to wild creatures. 

So we’re off for fish and chips to celebrate (is the fish bit wrong?)… It wont be a late one tonight! 

Day 65: 2 August – Exploring Cape Range National Park

Author: Mrs A

Distance hiked: 8 km

Distance cycled: 8.5 km

After a morning of housekeeping (doing the laundry and making use of the free wifi to download some more Netflix) we headed off in the car 20 minutes south of Exmouth (hereby nicknamed Exy – i.e. expensive) and into the Cape Range National Park, driving up into the range itself. The wind had finally dropped, making for a much more pleasant morning.

We’d read about the Badjirrajirra walk online, with people raving about how stunning it is, a circuit leading to a lookout over a ‘mini Grand Canyon’…we had high hopes. I think we have been truly spoiled by the Blue Mountains and the incredible hikes around where we live, as, while I don’t deny it was a pleasant walk, it wouldn’t make my top 100.

High up on the range, it started at a lookout and lead off along the top of the range, through a largely barren, rocky, spinifex filled landscape. There were no flowers, extremely few birds (we saw two in nearly 3 hours!) and the national park authority had offered no information to educate us on the landscape. After about 90 minutes we reached a lovely unofficial lookout where we stopped and enjoyed a cup of tea and an apple, marvelling at the view. It was just as well we stopped there, as the official lookout was closed due to risk of sinkholes.

Given there was no information provided, a quick Google on our return educated us. We learned that here we were looking out onto Shothole Canyon – apparently named in the 1950s after the shot holes left in the canyon walls after explosive charges were let off in the search for oil. Nice!

We returned to Exmouth and decided to finally see the coastline, jumping on our bikes for an explore. Exmouth was on form as we headed down a road that looked like it headed right to a beach – surprise surprise, all the beach access points were shut due to someone burying asbestos in the area!

Instead we continued on and explored a new development, some extremely large houses, most of which enjoy water access and private moorings. It was rather interesting. Mr A later found out that many are owned by people in mining, some local business people made good, and mostly they are for holiday rental.

We returned to camp for hot showers and dinner. Not too bad a day! Off on a boat trip in the morning…lets hope the wind keeps calm and the whale sharks are cooperative!

Day 64: 1 August – Exmouth welcomes us…in that special way that tourist traps do

Author: Mr A

From: Giralia Station

To: Exmouth

Distance: 110 km

If you are not into reading a whinge you might want to skip this post. I shan’t be offended! No pretty pictures today. 

The day started OK, with a quick motor up Exmouth Cape, home of the world famous Ningaloo Reef. We arrived in the flat, drab, town to be greeted by howling winds and dust storms,  not quite what the picture postcard shots had conjured up. 

We checked in, power was out, when it finally came back on at lunch we tried our washing machine again, to find that has remained broken…we had hoped a little respite while we were off power would have restored its inclination to provide service…alas not.

All thoughts of wading into the beautiful lagoon and exploring the coral that sits just off the beach were dashed as the gale force winds continued to scream around us. So it was the next job on the list. We headed over the road to collect some parts sent by Zone to a local caravan repairer. 

Over 4 weeks ago we had sent them an email confirming our arrival date in Exmouth, and another one following this up. Then made a phone call in which we were told “we will fit you in” by a very arrogant woman who gave the impression she was doing us a big favour to let us spend money with her. A week ago we received a mail from her letting us know the parts had arrived from Zone and “When were we arriving?”. Dur. She then said they had a big job on and they couldn’t do the work – but could do it the week after, maybe. I told her that didn’t work for us. She told me I was “so rude” – I ended the call rather confused about what exactly was rude about what had transpired. So we picked up the parts that were left on a pile on the floor by her husband and told to leave the premises

So what lessons did we learn from this experience? A lack of competition that you often find in these isolated tourist spots breeds a very “special” kind of behaviour to customers. There are no caravan repairers for over 3,000 kms if you you are heading north in your van (as we had found out the hard way). South its 834 km until you next find someone who might take your money if they have time and you really grovel. Having mainly lived and worked in places where there is stiff competition for every business, I find it hard to plead with someone who has screwed up our booking, offers no explanation (let alone an apology) and pay them money. The thing is this business is clearly doing really well (nice new premises and workshop), because people have no choice. Incidentally the Chariman of the Council of Exmouth was removed from office for “unethical behaviour” (offering untendered work to tourist based companies).  Again the customer will be unlikely to benefit from this practice. As we found out when Catherine booked two dives on the Navy Pier for her, and a trip for each of us out on a boat when we might see and swim with whale sharks…a thousand dollars thank you very much. 

We tried to put a positive spin on the day and go out for dinner. We had some very ordinary food, two small entrees (a basket of chips and 3 small chunks of lamb in a pumpkin hummus), an entree sized main (3 little fish tacos), two small beers and a glass of wine, left hungry and were removed of nearly $100! 

We compare this to our experience in France, where we visited the top tourist sites, and almost always got fantastic service and value. Why the difference? It wasn’t that these restaurants were particularly busy either. I’m left wondering. I just don’t trust its the transport costs that changes the pricing. When bottles of water can be shipped across the world for next to nothing why does it suddenly triple the price to ship it another few hundred kilometres? Value based pricing. Apparently it’s worth what you can get the customer to pay based on their access to other options? We are making good use of the ‘post restante” service at Australia Post offices. Buy something at the city price and its shipped free. 

Ah just remembered, something fun did happen, an emu came to say hello at our campsite!